‘A Field in England’: A horror tale with absurdist ambition: 3 stars

Updated: 2014-02-06T19:54:26Z

Not rated | Time: 1:30

So many horror films, so very few with real ambition.

“A Field in England” is a period piece set during the English civil war, and its horrors are not of the torture-porn, splatter, slasher-with-a-knife variety. This is existential fear served up on an absurdest platter, the terrors suggested by “Waiting for Godot,” “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” or “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

No nubile teens hacked up in an abandoned summer camp, no Michael Myers or Jason or Buzzsaw. Just soldiers, fleeing a pitched battle, in search of an ale house.

“We’re not running away,” one assures the others. “We’re going for beer.”

They are men born around the time Shakespeare died, so they speak his English. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is a quivering alchemist, aide to a “gentleman” who has sent him on a mission in the middle of this battle between Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundheads.”

“I am not your enemy, sir,” he pleads to a menacing soldier who has also run from the fight. “I am a coward, sir.”

Others, common men whose combat experience is directed at robbing the dead, hacking off fingers for rings, fall in with the highfalutin expert in “divination” and alchemy – a cooper (barrel maker), a tradesman who makes buttons. The battle won’t miss them, they figure.

“Would not be the first time I’ve left a wave of indifference behind me,” the cooper (Richard Glover) shrugs.

But as they trudge through hedgerows and the sounds of battle fade behind them, this trek to a bar becomes mysterious. The violent Cutler (Ryan Pope) is too easy with a threat; the others lose the thread of seeking that ale house, stopping to cook, eat and ponder what punishment God has in mind for them and just where the devil is on this bloody day. Are they ghosts in Purgatory, metaphors in a civil war parable?

And then they come across a strange, heavy rope, stretched out across a field, tied to a strange, carved post. That’s when they meet O’Neil (Michael Smiley), monstrous, murderous and someone the alchemist knows all too well.

“It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman!”

Director Ben Wheatley, who did the minimalist trailer-travelers-as-serial-killers film “Sightseers,” shot this in black and white and spared every expense doing so. There’s barely a hint of effects, just a handful of characters, grimy 1640s costumes, the odd explosion, firearms and the occasional hallucination. Scenes drop into slow-motion or are edited into a blur, characters strike freeze-frame poses, engage in off-camera torture and bring the battle (with firearms and pikes) to this remote field.

The performances are sharp and distinct, the action a fascinating puzzle. And I could listen to Amy Jump’s script all day. It’s a romp through Cromwellian England, from its medical diagnoses — “disease of the private parts brought on by too much venereal sport” — to fortune seeking.

So what if “A Field in England” delivers only a few shocks and no real frights? It turns this weary genre inside out and should shame legions of American and Asian horror auteurs into rethinking their settings, characters and dialogue. It doesn’t all have to look, sound and splatter the same.

(At the Alamo Drafthouse.)

| Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune

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