Folk or “period” horror, for me, is a mixed bag. Sometimes I can handle a slow moving movie that is lit only by candles, featuring women in bonnets who are surrounded by potentially mysterious or menacing goings on that they can’t understand because they are people of god and not science - other times I have to turn off for fear of falling asleep or repeatedly screaming “GET ON WITH IT” at the screen. Who knows why I am afflicted by this malady or how many leaches I need to place on my bible while I spasm wildly, possessed by a demon, but it is the case, it’s who I am.
Luckily Gwen was a film which seemed to hit me in just the right spot. All the typical elements of a British, rural, 19th century, folk horror are present: mud, disease, religion, bonnets, blood-letting, rainy landscapes, tyrannical men, mad women and something, potentially supernatural, lurking in the mist. First time feature Director, William McGregor, who tells this disturbing story, much in the vein of a classic fairy-tale, from the view point of a young girl, has an ace up in his sleeve in the casting of Eleanor Worthington-Cox, her grasp of the role and her emotional performance is absolutely breathtaking.
The film also benefits from the glorious cinematography of Adam Etherington who, himself, benefits from the incredible and evocative scenery of Snowdonia, North Wales.
The fairly sparse and, seemingly, simple story sees a mother, inflicted with a strange illness, attempting to raise her two daughters, maintain her dwindling farm and fend off the advances of ruthless and violent men from the quarry who wish to buy her land so it may be mined. Has her god forsaken her, is something more sinister at play, is this just the work of evil, power hungry men or has their luck simply run out? The answer, which the film doesn’t provide, could be yes, no and all of the above.
The film definitely touches on some allegorical themes of healthcare for profit and invading, pervasive capitalist expansion, with some subtler nods towards environmental issues. It also examines the resilience of children, the destructive and unsympathetic influence of the church and the role of the father in the family (or, in this case, the lack thereof) while also just having some nice, disturbing and gruesome human horror in it.
It feels very authentic and doesn’t have any pretension to it, which I liked a lot. It’s atmospheric, moving, menacing and even surprisingly gruesome in places. Some will no doubt find it a little light on plot and point but what it lacks in really deep substance it more than makes up for in photography, performances and atmosphere. It’s a film that lingers in the air around you like damp on your shoulders after running in from a storm.
As a calling card for Director William McGregor, I expect to see wonderful things from him in the future. If he’s paired up with a strong writer who can flesh out his themes then he’ll really be on to something.
Gwen is released in the U.S. in theaters, on VOD and Digital HD on August 16th, 2019