The Fields

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.

Later on, when the family are tormented by persons unseen in the cornfields who hurl stones through the windows, events become unbearably tense. Are these just harmless pranks, or is something more sinister afoot? Does Steven really see ghosts? Is this a haunting? Due to his imagination and the film’s presentation of what he sees, the audience are often left to ponder if certain things are real or imagined, including the discovery of the body of a young woman in the field, and an immensely creepy moment involving a clown and the darkened space beneath Steven’s bed… Other sinister moments come when the audience apply their contemporary outlook to various situations such as Steven’s encounter with a dodgy farmhand in the milking shed.

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.


Marie Robinson said…
Never heard of this one, but Tara Reid is pretty much my favorite actress so I'll have to check it out ;) Awesome article, James!
James Gracey said…
She has a small but significant role in this, and she's really rather good. I've only ever really seen her in teen comedies and Urban Legend, which, you know, is ACES. ;)
deadlydolls said…
Hm. I had read some less stellar reviews of this one, but now I'm back to being curious. The Fields: Queued.
James Gracey said…
It's maybe a little on the quiet side for a lot of horror buffs, but I really dug it. Just keep an open mind and see where it takes you. Hope you enjoy it! :)
thingmaker said…
Thanks for this review. I might never have noticed this one.
James Gracey said…
It's a little treasure of a film - hope you get a chance to see it sometime. :)
Themosthappy said…
This movie was excellent. I made sure to watch it after reading this review. I kept whizzing past it and all my mind could focus on was Tara Reid. I was sure it was a younger kiddies T & A fest. Not at all. Having been a kid his age in 1973, and being sent back to the farm summer after miserable summer, I know just how unsettling those corn rows are. Now ignore the naysayers on the "user reviews" and watch this film.
deadlydolls said…
Finally got around to watching it, and I totally agree. I imagine a lot of the negative comments I heard were from dashed expectations, as this is kind of sold as a straighter horror movie. It's a shame, but I guess the unique tone is a hard sell.

Reread your review after watching, and it's supreme. So glad I kept this on my radar!
James Gracey said…
I'm so glad you gave it a whirl, Emily - and that you dug it. It seems to have really divided audience opinion - I guess people were expecting more supernatural shenanigans in the corn rows, but I liked how it played out so quietly and ambiguously. The DVD cover and trailer certainly sell it as a straight out horror fest, but I appreciated the emphasis on characters and plot. It has a real air of nostalgia about it.

Themosthappy - I too had my reservations about Tara Reid, but her performance was fine in this.
I envy your summers amongst the creepy corn rows!
: said…
I've heard good things about this one. I've had it in my Netflix Queue for a while -- definitely gonna have to get around to watching it soon, after reading your review. Good stuff!

James Gracey said…
I have a lot of love for The Fields. I think the way it's marketed may lead to some people being disappointed by it, but if it's tentative, subtle and thoughtful horror you're after, it's definitely for you. Enjoy.

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