Dirs. Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni
Set during the early Seventies, at a time when society was reeling from the Manson Family murders and the brutal end of the Summer of Love, The Fields is a thoughtful, atmospheric and quietly powerful film. At its core is a rumination on the end of innocence - the young protagonist’s rites of passage unravels during a time when social unrest and the backlash of the Manson murders shook society to its foundations. Hippies were demonised and their ideologies lambasted and tarnished. Due to the setting and circumstances, the hippies in the film are actually portrayed in quite a sinister way. Their behaviour doesn’t sit right, their motives are ambiguous. This is the only horror film I can think of that actually presents the Love Generation in such disquieting light. The Fields explores how society changed in the wake of the Manson family killings. Paranoia was rife. People became all too aware of the fact that human monsters moved amongst them. Telling the story from a child’s perspective allows the filmmakers to address such notions and ideas from a middle ground. They also show how society can influence children and shape who they become - for better or worse - through its attitudes and prejudices.
Horror in this film really stems from broken homes, dark (though realistic) family secrets, changes in society and a young child’s active imagination, sparked to morbid effect when he hears of the bloody Charles Manson massacre on the radio. The boy’s father (Faust Checho) is a Vietnam vet and suffers from PTSD. His mother (Tara Reid) is an alcoholic. They send him to stay with his paternal grandparents when he witnesses an argument that ends when his father holds a gun to his mother’s head.
“You should be more afraid of the living than the dead.”
As the audience is invited to see the world through the eyes of a child, there are moments of fearful fancy and childhood terrors such as the darkness beneath the bed or the slightly ajar closet door which are deftly executed to induce quiet chills. The titular fields surrounding the house take on a sinister quality as Steven (Joshua Ormand) explores them against his grandparents wishes. Stealthy point of view camera shots stalk through the imposing rows of corn and the emphasis on sound to create an eerie atmosphere is key throughout these moments. Autumnal scenery underpins the idea of change in society at the time, and the sense of loss and grief people felt.
The grandparents house highlights their simple lives as farming folk; it is cosy and lived-in, but during the night it takes on a creepy atmosphere, fuelled by Steven’s imagination. The grandmother is something of a horror fan and she’s often glimpsed watching old horror films on TV, including Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead. At one point she is chastised by her husband for letting Steven watch them with her. The films she watches are now considered to have socio-political commentaries that considered the unrest and turmoil in society at the time. These films also seem to inspire Steven’s imagination, as shortly after he sees Carnival of Souls, he wanders around a deserted funfair that seems to be situated somewhere beyond the cornfields. Again, because we see things from his point of view, we can’t be sure if the terrors he encounters there are real or the product of his imagination.
Naturalistic conversations and the banter of the family flesh out already believable characters. Domesticity mingles with real life horror - highlighted in the scene where Steven and his grandmother are discussing what to have for dinner as they also chat about how her brother died - delving into those moments when children first begin to realise that death is part of life. Weighty issues such as race are tackled with the introduction of the grandmother’s sister’s partner. This throws light on the attitudes of ordinary folk at the time, and as they’re presented to us from Steven’s colour-blind perspective, they remain objective. An almost Lynchian scene unfolds when Steven and his grandparents visit his disabled great aunt, complete with flashing light bulbs and the sight of the grandfather taking his teeth out at the dinner table. Of course these moments are all benign, but the way they’re shot - from Steven’s naïve and inquisitive vantage point - renders them weird and unsettling. Things become increasingly nightmarish when Steven wonders into the dark and cluttered basement and meets his great aunt’s grown children playing in the dark. They obviously have learning difficulties and while they’re presented in a slightly off kilter way (again, as Steven sees them), the film does manage to highlight the plight of such individuals and how society treated them in the late Sixties, early Seventies - hidden away from the world as matter a fact as you like.
The performances are all uniformly strong, particularly those of Bev Appleton and Cloris Leachman as the grandparents. Even Tara Reid impresses as the frustrated Bonnie who uses alcohol to cope with her unhappy home-life.
The Fields is subtle, unassuming and thought provoking. While its pace may not be to everyone’s taste, it nonetheless slow-burns its way to a satisfying climax which, at the very last moment, threatens to undo the film’s lyrical approach to the horror of growing up, by introducing an ambiguous, possibly supernatural angle. Aside from this, The Fields is perfect for those who like their horror with heart.