“The Fields”

This movie has a great deal to commend it, including Cloris Leachman and a mercifully small and relatively un-screw-uppable role for Tara Reid (who, in a daring and groundbreaking performance, plays a hard-drinking, unfaithful wife). It is well-shot and well-edited (with the notable exception of a few hackneyed slow-motion bits), and does a fairly effective job of creating a sense of dread and general ickiness without dousing the set in buckets of blood.

It is not, however, something I can recommend outright. Watch The Fields as a reference for the horror film/psychological thriller you plan to shoot. It’s like an example film included with a retail copy of Final Cut Pro (they do that, right?): technically sound, even impressive in a few parts, but ultimately nothing to get excited about.

In a nutshell, a boy named Steven has a borderline-abusive father who threatens his drunken wife (the aforementioned Tara Reid) with a shotgun, so’s as his son ain’t gotta grow up wit’ no drunken mammy. Or something. So Steven is sent packing to his grandparents’ house (played by Leachman and Bev Appleton, who give the two best performances in the film). SOMETHING WEIRD (capitalized for dramatic effect) starts happening in connection with the grandsires’ cornfield, to which young Steven is repeatedly drawn. There’s implied domestic abuse (it’s never quite spelled out how far it all goes), off-camera dog-killings (and one out-of-frame chicken-beheading), and, hilariously enough, murderous hippies. The film is set immediately after Charles Manson’s arrest, and the news of his trial is an important framing device in more ways than one–in fact, there’s at least one hint that there may be a direct connection between the weird folks out to terrorize the innocent farm-people and Mr. Manson. The movie’s tagline says it’s based on real events (as always, a handful or two of salt is to be consumed along with that tidbit), so I suppose that if I wanted to I could dig up the supposed connection.

The thing is, I don’t want to do any additional work. I don’t want to keep waiting for something engaging to happen. The movie is a meditation on weird family dynamics, and is loaded with slightly right-of-center political commentary that only serves to emphasize how non-threatening the supposed threats really are (at least until the second act). It’s not boring, exactly (unless you’re expecting Texas Chainsaw Massacre levels of violence), but it is very, very slow–and as a person who generally appreciates a slowly-developing plot, the fact that I hold the pacing against the film says a great deal. The dogs disappear (oops, spoilers), some windows get broken, somebody sneaks into the kid’s room; it’s surely scary in the sense that I wouldn’t want to experience it, but it isn’t as terrifying as the filmmakers seem to think. In fact, as a piece of cinema, it’s not frightening at all.

It wasn’t billed as horror, of course, so maybe I’m being too harsh. But without fear, there’s just not a lot else going on here. It is, effectively, a highly watered-down The StrangersIf you liked that film, you probably will find The Fields especially frustrating for all the missed narrative cues and bad pacing.

The kid who plays the lead does a decent job (if utterly deadpan unresponsiveness is actually the way children react to stuff–I have no idea), and Leachman and Appleton steal the show with their  zany, foul-mouthed but gosh-darnit-good-natured antics (Leachman curses like a sailor played by George Carlin, possessed by the ghost of Betty White). It is useful, as I have suggested, as an example of how to orchestrate certain familiar but important mechanisms in the horror medium (creepy atmosphere, effective if tired use of lens filters, hints of terrible violence with nary a drop o’ the red to be seen). It also makes a case for the use of big stars in (theoretically) scary movies, and illustrates convincingly that Tara Reid’s presence alone is not sufficient to condemn the souls of everyone in the immediate vicinity to suffer the Agonies of Gul’Daaaakht (she really has to concentrate for that to work).

That said, it’s still not really entertaining, aside from a few chuckles. So why bother? 78/100.

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