BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Based on Andrew Michael Hurley’s book, there is something phantasmal within writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo’s Starve Acre. A nudging and barging from other entities goes on while you watch. A piece of Hereditary or a scene from The Witch will float into view. I have tasted folk horror blended to smooth, comedic perfection by Hot Fuzz, but this is more like a stew full of body parts. Instead of hands and limbs, whole horror films are part of the recipe. Does this mean there is an absolute jamboree of things to enjoy, making it a good addition to the great tradition of folk horror, or does Kokotajlo fail to build a story?
Juliette (Morfydd Clark), husband Richard (Matt Smith), and son Owen (Arthur Shaw) live on a blasted heath. They have returned from the city to Richard’s ancestral home, the titular homestead, which they feel will be a good environment for their son’s asthma. From the first scene, there is a sense of unease about things. We open on the young couple lying in the grass at a fete. They discuss getting a babysitter so they can go for a walk, but there is something off about the conversation. Their voices sound thick, sleep-like.
Then they follow screams only to discover that Owen has poked a donkey’s eye out with a stick. The child says, “Jack Grey” whispered into his ear, making him do this and other disturbing acts. This unsettling tee-off leads us nicely into the plot proper. As Juliet and Richard seek help for their son, the shadowy history of the land, notably chronicled in a book by Richard’s late father, starts to intrude on their lives.
“As Juliet and Richard seek help for their son, the shadowy history of the land…starts to intrude on their lives.”
It’s easy to look at the English countryside, where every divot has a legend, and wonder how deep folk can go to mine its horrors. It doesn’t have the raw entertainment power of Marvel and DC, but it’s a genre with weight and something to say about the things the soul circles. The folk horror playbook is used wonderfully and expanded upon richly and consistently throughout Starve Acre. However, tonally, sometimes the ideas slam together like poorly pulled boxcars. One moment, you are watching Hellraiser, and the next, The Ninth Gate. On rare occasions, the twists in tone draw incredulous laughter rather than suspense. But, most of the time, the film is mesmerizing.
Kokotajlo’s script is big on creepy mystery and delivers. The book is celebrated for the quality of its prose about the English countryside, and the film honors this with its expressive cinematography. The trick of daylight horror is pulled off exceptionally well. The countryside around Juliette and Richard is an oppressive force. The farm is hemmed in by rolling hills, with a constant cover of thick, low clouds. I don’t recall a single sunbeam. This causes the characters to be seemingly crushed between the sky and the land.
The soundtrack is moody and varied, and the actors are excellent throughout, especially the glorious Clark. A million miles from Galadriel in Rings of Power, Clark is gripping. Smith is great, though he’s good in seemingly everything. Here, he plays quite a different part than usual. He layers a rock-solid northern accent onto a quiet man descending into obsession.
The best thing about Starve Acre is that it adds substantially to folk horror in terms of bizarro action and hints at delicious Lovecraftian mythos sunk in the soil and twisting like roots. I’ll happily admit to not entirely understanding everything. I enjoyed its surreal tinge and how thick it gets with the atmosphere. However, I came away disappointed with the wavering tone, wondering if this might have been a big-time crowd-pleaser if it were more lurid. Still, as it stands, this is a fantastically enigmatic horror film done beautifully well.
Starve Acre screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.
"…a fantastically enigmatic horror film done beautifully well."