(Ben Wheatley, 2013)
Seemingly aiming for a very modern mash-up of Jodorowsky, the Wyrd Albion horror movies of the '70s (Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, most obviously), Tarkovsky's Stalker, The Wicker Man, The Trip, Winstanley and Peter Watkins' Culloden, Wheatley's fourth feature is a technically masterful psychedelic odyssey.
Set, as so few films are, during the English Civil War, it focuses on a battle-weary group of men crossing the fields of the West Country who come under the influence of Michael Smiley's sinister, commanding necromancer O'Neill (in the first real hallucinatory moment, the men literally drag him into the film on the end of a thick rope). Starving, the men eat the many mushrooms growing around the field Smiley is searching for buried gold, and as he works to psychologically manipulate and destroy the meek scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the psychedelics really kick in and the men appear to drift inexorably into insanity.
Gloriously shot on a small budget in crisp monochrome by Laurie Rose, the film is almost entirely set in that field, and as such there is just a whiff of tv production about it. All the fog and smoke drifting across the screen cannot disguise the limited scope of action here, nor can it really distract from the absence of any real substance.
Wheatley, whose filmography grows more interesting with each film, shoots and cuts the whole thing with inventive, punkish energy, and the score, with its pagan, tribal drumming, is compelling. Some of the men's desperate, increasingly fevered exchanges are interesting, and the performances by the entire cast - particularly Smiley - are impressive. The central freak-out, when the black and white imagery intensifies and strobe effects cut the film up into a nightmarish assault on the senses, is a fantastic passage of pure cinema.
But it all amounts to very little. It plays like it was made by somebody who wanted to make a cool little cultish oddity, and knew exactly how to deliver that, but had absolutely nothing to say.
Which is fine, and the film is enjoyable on a purely sensory level. But I can't help but feel that it is also something of a missed opportunity.