Continuing our festival previews with a look at Sean Hogan’s relentlessly creepy slice of Folk Horror.
Sean Hogan’s career as a feature film director has not been all that it might have been in different times and different circumstances, given that he is a much more impressive filmmaker than many of his more feted British contemporaries. Part of this has been down to unfortunate distribution problems that have seen his work sitting in limbo as video labels went under, taking their catalogue with them; but part of it seems to be that Hogan’s work is a bugger to categorise and often overlooked in favour of fancier rival movies. His previous feature, the unnerving modern-day folk horror The Devil’s Business, seemed to be overlooked by the thematically similar but vastly inferior Kill List – perhaps because Hogan’s film was less flashy and more philosophical, consisting for the most part of a two-header between the lead characters as they tell each other stories. Not, on the face of it, the most entertaining of ideas but one that was handled with aplomb and which resembled a new version of the minimalist, creepy television creep shows of the 1970s – everything from the Ghost Stories for Christmas to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts – where less quite often added up to more.
Hogan’s latest film, To Fire You Come at Last, seems a continuation of that style, here dressed up in period clothing, perhaps as a nod to the demands of folk horror as it becomes a genre with very specific rules attached like anchors to those working in it. Actually, I’m being unfair – Hogan is not simply engaging in period set-dressing here. The entire story depends on occurring in a specific time and place and would not work as a contemporary piece. As such, it feels like a sincere and legitimate narrative choice, not something that we can always say about such things.
Like The Devil’s Business, this new film is a work of impressive minimalism. Here, the film is peopled by just four men – at least, four mortal men – as they reluctantly transport the coffin of Squire Marlow’s deceased son to the local graveyard. There is a degree of reluctance amongst most of the men, as they tell tales of demonic and ghostly figures – the very stuff of folklore like Hell Hounds and ‘Old Scratch’ walking the road at night – and with a no-show from one coffin-bearer, the Squire himself is forced to help carry the box. Things have been left late and the unhappy band find themselves walking through desolate woodlands in the middle of the night, a situation that raises tensions as stories of each man’s connection to the deceased – and his involvement in the events that perhaps led to his death – are revealed during the journey.
And that, more or less, is it. There is, naturally, a twist in the tale and moments of actual terror as a ghostly figure appears to torment the men and take final revenge on the most guilty party – but for the most part, this is a simple tale of four men, wandering through the dark, throwing each other under the bus when it comes to guilt or dark secrets from the past while all the while gripped by a terror of the unknown. How much of this ‘unknown’ might be the supernatural figures that they fear lurk in the darkness and how much of it is their own fate due to their past actions and hypocrisy is something that the film leaves for you to decide for yourself.
Hogan shoots the film – mostly – in crisp black and white, a sudden lurch into vivid colour being brief and carefully chosen for maximum impact. I think that viewers are always justified in questioning whether a modern-day monochrome movie is a valid artistic statement or a contrived moment of pomposity – especially in the world of Folk Horror – but there seems little doubt that this movie needs to be shot this way. It gains much and loses nothing, especially as it allows the final bursts of colour to stand out all the more and have a more powerful effect. There are moments of striking visual beauty and intensity here that colour would struggle to match, and the march through the pitch-black woods almost demands to be filmed this way. It adds to the overall bleakness of the film and its setting, a time a place where colour has been drained away and where the inky depths of the woods allow a man to vanish from sight within a few steps – one of the most powerfully creepy moments of the whole film.
There are moments that don’t work – the dialogue feels excessively florid at times, perhaps too much so for one or two of the actors to comfortably spout. It’s the sort of thing that would work well in a written story but becomes a tad overwrought when spoken, and at times threatens to unbalance things. James Swanton, playing village drunkard Ransley, is something of an acquired taste, even though you get the feeling that within the story itself, he is playing a role, his obsequious grovelling being used to mask a greater knowledge and to slip in sarcastic and pointed comments throughout. While the film as a whole is a restrained piece of building terror, some of the dialogue is chewed in an overly theatrical manner. That said, this too is in the great tradition of British TV ghost stories where the cast was largely made up of theatrical types, some of whom never quite came to terms with the fact that film does not require you to bellow everything. And as a piece based mostly around conversation and verbal provocation, we can perhaps be more forgiving of this film using such a style, which I’m guessing was a deliberate choice. Certainly, as the story progresses and the conflict between the characters increases, it becomes more effectively unsettling.
To Fire You Come at Last is 43 minutes long, which is an interesting length. As I noted when reviewing Sleepwalker recently, it’s an awkward midway point between what we generally see as a short and a feature, and in days past this might have been the death of the film. These days, that’s not so much the case, though it perhaps causes festivals scheduling headaches (or, alternatively, allows room for extensive Q&As). We should be glad that Hogan didn’t pad the story out unnecessarily – as he certainly could’ve done – to reach the minimum requirements of ‘feature-length’. In a world where movies stretch needlessly into three hours, there is something to admire in people pushing back and telling stories only in the time needed to do so. Unless you are the sort of weirdo who counts the worth of a film by the minute, this should be as satisfying as any feature. Perhaps more so, in fact. Like I said, less is often more.
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