Returning to his family home for the funeral of a friend, university student Sam finds life on the isolated Farthing Island as unsettling and unwelcoming as ever. The expectations of family, church and duty loom large in the introspective lives of villagers who rarely venture far from the island’s shores. But, as Sam discovers, far worse things than a domineering father and a dislike of outsiders, lurk beneath the veneer of this suffocating “normality”.
Not to be confused with the recent children’s canine caper Dogged (2017), the new self-styled “British folk horror” Dogged (meaning a person “having or showing tenacity”) is the debut full-length feature from director and co-writer Richard Rowntree. The film has its origins in a short story by Christina Rowntree, which was first developed into a four-minute film. That short won a joint-fifth place in the BBC 3 horror director talent show The Fear in 2015. This treatment was then crafted into a two-hour film script, and the production budget was raised through a successful crowdfunding campaign. There’s really no doubting the resolve and determination of this team of filmmakers.
Director Rowntree describes the finished film as “a cross between Little Red Riding Hood, The Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man.” That’s a pretty bold claim, and it’s a daunting set of benchmarks that Dogged’s creators are inviting viewers to judge their first cinematic outing against. The film does draw inspiration, in different ways, from each of those stories. It presents a picture of a community complicit in hiding terrible secrets, where insularity and intolerance is the norm, where non-conformists are ostracised, and where a clandestine cabal holds power by killing those that threaten its rule. Amidst an uneven cast, Toby Wynn-Davies stands out in a well-judged performance as the increasingly malevolent village pastor, who becomes a key figure in the conspiracy.
Technically speaking, Dogged is serviceable rather than hugely stylish. There are some evocative cinematic flourishes, and film and sound recording are on a par with other lo-fi British indie-flicks. But when it comes to the framing of the story, and to delivering an off-kilter sense of perspective and atmosphere, Dogged could do so much more to conjure up a sense of Farthing Island as a “place apart”. Anonymous characters running through woodlands wearing animal masks has become too familiar a horror trope, and of itself no longer delivers the necessary idea of “otherness”. As Sam’s efforts to uncover the truth continue, there’s also an “ordinariness” to the way that many sequences are filmed. Tonally, these scenes are more reminiscent of Midsomer Murders than of Donnie Darko. Tension would also be ratcheted up by some tighter editing (there’s a lot of footage of people walking towards, away from and past the camera), and by some tougher trimming of the running time: particularly in the first couple of acts.
By contrast, there’s too much exposition and too many plot strands battling for attention as the much darker endgame unfolds. Some viewers will doubtless poke fun at the “cult ceremony” that brings the main protagonists together in the film’s finale. It’s a pivotal scene in which more sympathetic and subtle lighting might have obscured some of the obvious limitations of budget. But Dogged’s shortcomings aside, it’s great to see a group of new filmmakers excited by the potential of the “folk horror” tradition, and attracted by the lure of exploring the disturbing pseudo-religious moral turpitude that can fester in islands and hinterlands, far from a country’s metropolitan centres (in the minds of movie scriptwriters at least). Dogged may be a less than triumphant addition to that particular just-beneath-the-surface sub-genre, but this is clearly a writer-director team to watch.
DOGGED / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RICHARD ROWNTREE / SCREENPLAY: RICHARD ROWNTREE, MATTHEW DAVIES / STARRING: SAM SAUNDERS, TOBY WYNN-DAVIES, JO SOUTHWELL / RELEASE DATE: TBC