…but is it Folk Horror? “The Droving” (2020)

Is The Droving Folk Horror?

I was asking myself this more and more the longer this (admittedly short¹) film went on. It certainly uses some familiar tropes: an outsider comes to a “remote” location; there are people wearing animal masks, and there are rumours of magic & ritual. Some moderate spoilers follow.

Martin (a superb, increasingly intense performance from Daniel Oldroyd), fresh out of the army, comes to a Lake District market town (Penrith, but never explicitly named as such) from where his sister disappeared a year ago following the town’s annual “Droving” festival. His investigations lead him into deeper and deeper stretches of Lakeland territory, and at each turn he uncovers darker layers of secrets².

droving2

Adam Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain shouldn’t necessarily be the first and last word in what constitutes a work of folk horror, but it’s a pretty spot-on framework for identifying or situating a book or film in that sub-genre. How does The Droving score in each of the Chain’s four links?

Landscape. The opening shots of Cumbria are gorgeous, but landscape itself plays only a minor role in the film’s concerns. There is a fell-walker’s group, and a ruined castle, but these are almost necessary ingredients in a rural film. One of the key scenes involves Martin hiking to a bothy deep in the hills above Buttermere, and the location is symbolically distant and deep within the Lakes but there’s little sense that the land itself is a key constituent of the movie’s concerns.

Isolation. Penrith is right next to the M6. Okay, so that’s a bit facetious. Martin has travelled from Manchester (via his work as an army interrogator (read: torturer) in the Middle East) but although his search takes him on individual jaunts into the countryside, his sister has evidently lived in the town happily for some time. No Rubicon has been crossed on the way here.

Skewed belief system. Martin hears of rumours: that a mythical figure called The Merchant is capable of raising the dead, and needs potential supplicants to bring him souls (via murder) first. It’s an esoteric belief not evidently shared among the community (in fact we don’t see a ‘community’ as such outwith the actual festival parade) and the actual “Droving” festival seems almost incidental.

Summoning/happening. The appearance of The Merchant is one of the most low-key “summonings” in any folk horror film I’ve seen. That’s not meant as a criticism: it’s a change of key that throws the viewer (and Martin) off-balance.

It’s only the last 5 minutes – in which there is a genuine supernatural turn – that could conceivably fall into the category of folk horror. There is no horror up to that point: violence, yes, and in that respect you might want to call it a ‘Folk Thriller’. I know The Wicker Man also has no horror until the very end, but there’s no doubt that film fulfils all the criteria you could imagine that would define it as Folk Horror. In The Droving, by contrast, the folk horror elements feel skin deep: it borrows from the tradition but without adding much to it. In fact, it wears Folk Horror like a mask.

This is not to detract from the film’s strengths. I really enjoyed it. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are convincing and it has a sparse, haunting soundtrack. There are a few clunky lines of dialogue and it could almost do with a few twists or subplots – the story doesn’t so much spiral as just unspool – but this is a highly watchable, tense indie thriller. But I’m not convinced that it’s Folk Horror.

 

¹ The Droving‘s brevity – 80 minutes – was a palate-cleanser in itself after watching Ari Aster’s over-hyped but undeniably gorgeous Midsommar earlier in the week.

² Reminiscent of Shane Meadows’s Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), in which the ever-excellent Paddy Considine returns from the army and goes on a slow-burning tour of revenge as he pieces together what happened to his vulnerable brother.

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