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SXSW Review: Field Guide To Evil

By their very nature, horror anthologies are cinematic salmagundis, prepared through assembling an array of uniquely flavored ingredients with varying levels of consistency. At their best, these anthologies consciously do little to restrict filmmakers, establishing a broad sandbox in which they can play, build, and mold, then stepping back to let them do exactly that. 

The past few years have seen the indie horror sphere get largely on board with this concept, introducing anthologies like V/H/SThe ABCs of DeathSouthbound, and XX that alternately rise and fall on the strengths and weaknesses of their individual shorts. These shorts in these collections have run the gamut from terrifying to unsettling to generally ineffective; their only shared attribute is that they each represent a distinct cinematic voice, each with its own peculiarities and principles surrounding fear.

Enter Field Guide to Evil, the latest anthology experiment from ABCs of Death producers Ant Timpson and Tim League, which adds a thrilling, spine-tingling wrinkle to its format. Unlike the ABC series, which focused on spreading the love to 26 filmmakers each afforded a few minutes to spin out their story, Field Guide pulls off the curious trick of narrowing its focus while selegimultaneously broadening it. Just eight filmmakers were tapped to contribute shorts to Field Guide, each representing their country of origin by reinterpreting a little-known folk tale specific to their homeland. 

It’s a devilishly clever setup, presenting fear as a truly global idea, albeit one with specific cultural origins and manifestations: some religious, others familial, others still linked to the unexplainable. What scares us, the anthology posits, will always be informed by our national origins, our countries’ collective cultural memories, the tall tales that our ancestors passed down to us as cautiously as family heirlooms. 

Penning the entries in this first Field Guide are Austria’s Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy), Hungary-based director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Poland’s Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), Germany’s Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen), Turkey’s Can Evrenol (Baskin), North America’s Calvin Reeder (The Rambler), India’s Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), and Greece’s Yannis Veslemes (Norway).

As those even tangentially familiar with folklore from any of those countries might infer, Field Guide is often characterized by spooky mysticism more than jump-scare terror; its tales are – taken together – odd and endearing, each committed to exploring and celebrating a cultural artifact more than using it for maximum scares. 

Franz and Fiala’s elegant opening segment, “The Sinful Women of Höllfall,” is lushly shot and quietly thought-provoking, the story of two women in a pious, forest community whose lust for one another constitutes a cardinal sin in the eyes of the other women – one that could bring an ancient force known as the Trud down on their heads. 

There’s a purity to the directors’ envisioning of the characters’ forbidden dynamic that makes the eventual arrival of said evil all the more chilling; layered yet organic performances from Marlene Hauser and Luzia Oppermann (both young stars in the making) further sell the proceedings, which ratchet tension up to unbearable levels only to cap off with a wonderful sting in the tail. Easily one of the best shorts in recent horror memory, it’s also a standout in this terror trove.

Other shorts in Field Guide take the tone of the collection in some interesting, outside-the-box directions, a product of their directors’ diverse backgrounds. It feels myopic to too harshly critique the ones that don’t enchant in the same manner as Franz and Fiala’s; these filmmakers are each going for something different and newfangled in their sections, something personally meaningful and creatively unsullied. That makes the experience of watching Field Guide feel much like the film’s interspersed transition scenes, an ancient tome levitating through the air, its pages flying as it flips open to different chapters; that is to say, watching this collection feels like perusing a shadowy encyclopedia of global folklore.

Gebbe’s segment, focused on a mouse demon that scurries between possessing a brother and sister in their secluded mountainside dwelling, conjures a terrific sense of place and excels in creeping unease, especially when a gun is loaded, glowering ominously in the background of shots, certain to go off at some point. 

Elsewhere, Evrenol’s segment evokes It Follows and Under the Shadow in about equal measure as it focuses on a very young mother tasked with caring for her newborn baby and a dying elder as she realizes giving birth has brought Al Karisi, the childhood djinn, to her doorstep. It offers up one of the anthology’s more disturbing, grimly entertaining endings, as well as its best use of a demonic goat as a plot device (of which there are multiple – who knew those horned devils were terrifying in every language?). 

A few of the segments feel a little truncated, unable to follow through on their premises by virtue of existing as only 10 to 15-minute segments; “The Palace of Horrors,” by the deeply talented Ashim Ahluwalia, suffers most from this, using still photography and a gorgeous black-and-white aesthetic to spin a tale of explorers navigating an Indian palace long lost to civilization. That it ends as abruptly as it does, after a night of terrifying sights and sounds, is a bit of a letdown. Of course, this is only the case because what’s done in the short is so enthralling as to make our time spent in its creepy corner of the globe feel disappointingly curtailed. 

“Beware the Melonheads,” Reeder’s segment, is campy in the extreme, pulling from the same-named American myth of cannibalistic humanoids with bulbous heads to create a cabin-in-the-woods riff that’s gruesome fun while it lasts, but also too short. Ditto for Smoczynska’s folktale, “The Kindler and the Virgin,” in which a man eats three hearts at the behest of a demonic woman promising him great power; it features some of the spookiest, most gorgeous visuals of the anthology (this will surprise few who saw “Ida”) but is undermined by its brevity.

Enough praise can’t be heaped on Veslemes’ “Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan?,” a thoroughly Greek affair in which a goblin emerges from the underworld for a night of Christmas revelry, only to be violently persecuted by a group of revelers. At their best, these stories exploit and interpet cultural anxieties both historical and present; employing a gorgeous mixture of iridescent visuals and enjoyable practical effects, Veslemes has crafted a poetic musing on the tragic consequences of xenophobia and inflated national pride, two issues as pertinent to the Greek state today as they have been throughout time.

Best of all, though, may be Strickland’s rollicking pantomime “Cobbler’s Lot,” which would feel like buried treasure from a lost age of cinema were it not for its deliciously skewed sense of dark humor. In it, two shoemakers – both brothers – war for the heart of a beautiful princess, with bloody and bleakly hilarious results; the short is visually sumptuous within the structure of a silent film while maintaining the playful fetishism of Strickland’s past work. It’s less horror than black comedy, but the balance between chills and laughs is one Field Guide strikes repeatedly. 

As a whole, Field Guide is an unabashedly fun time at the movies with more on its mind than most horror anthologies. Its ambitions extend beyond frightening the viewer to encompass an important form of cinematic education for viewers more often inundated with horror from a limited Western perspective. Every civilization has its boogeymen, creepy externalizations of cultural anxieties that take on increasingly fleshed-out life as they travel down through generations. What “The Sinful Women of Höllfall” has to say about sexual repression and patriarchal control is absolutely fascinating especially against the backdrop of Austrian history, as are the comments on the evils (and eventual repudations) of colonization and the exoticization of Indian culture therein that “The Palace of Horrors” explores. It’s more explicit, but “Al Karisi” is also fiery in its interpretation of how elements of Turkish culture demand nothing less than total sacrifice from its women – and then cruelly reminds them that still will never be enough. As noted, Veslemes’ segment may be the installment most alive to contemporary cultural issues in its directors’ homeland, but “Cobbler’s Lot” is also devious in a socially conscious way, dismantling outdated models of courtship and seduction, then playing them for maximum absurdity.

Leaving the theater, I knew I’d want to see Field Guide to Evil again, to analyze these shorts for all the little cinematic touches and thematic undertones the directors package into introducing folklore from their respective countries of origin. In terms of scares, only a few shorts really deliver something that’ll sit in your stomach, but the game this anthology is playing feels more substantial, more important, than making you shiver in your seat. A love letter to horror, and a well-timed reminder that what scares us knows no physical or linguistic borders, it will hopefully mark the beginning of a spooky, satisfying, significant collection. Timpson and League have illuminated a thrilling genre possiblity: the chance to curate haunting histories the world over without contorting them into Hollywood formula, robbing any of their cultural specificity, or – put more simply – denying them their original beauty.

7/10

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