With great success comes great expectation, and I doubt that Daniel Kokotajlo’s Starve Acre will quite live up to the favorable notices of his first feature, the BAFTA-nominated Apostasy. The story, which has been adapted from a novel by Andrew Michael Hurley, concerns Richard (Matt Smith) and Juliette Willoughby (Morfydd Clark), who have recently moved from the city to the comparatively desolate Yorkshire Dales. At the village fair, their son Owen, who has complained of hearing the voice and whistles of a sprite named Jack Grey, blinds a horse with a sharp stick and is duly sent to a psychiatric hospital. Shortly after his consultation, which includes a nightmarish brain scan, he dies suddenly at the family home, paralyzing Richard and Juliette and further enlivening the spirit that so tormented him.
It is here the film takes its boldest, most bewildering turn. After Owen’s death, Richard commits himself to excavating a nearby field in which the roots of an old and much-condemned dule tree are said to lie. This tireless search, which goes largely unnoticed by the grief-stricken Juliette, eventually turns up the bones of a hare. Over the next few days Richard watches as the animal starts to restore itself, growing first cartilage, then tissue, then tufts of fur and, finally, a beating heart. Thereafter follows a succession of comically intense scenes, the first of which involves the couple locating the animal and then fearfully luring it with bait, all of which is played and scored as though one misplaced carrot might suddenly liberate the souls of the underworld; and the last of which sees Juliette suckling the animal while her husband, now convinced of the creature’s divinity, looks faithfully on.
The main problem with the film, apart from its general silliness, is that it does not know which of its revelations to pursue. In one moment we are asked to devote our attention to Juliette’s psychosis, and in the next to malevolent spirits, or crazy mystics, or yet another occultist––Neil Willoughby, Richard’s father, who once offered up the young boy as a means of summoning Jack Grey, only to find out the deity is rather fussy about his oblations (Grey only accepts sons who were loved by their fathers). But the arithmetic of horror is not as simple as “twice the threat equals twice the horror.” Indeed it is often the case that the opposite is true: that a multiplicity of threats dilutes and disarranges its constituent parts, since more time is spent explaining each of them and their interrelations than is spent terrifying the audience.
Worst of all, there is no room for symbolism in such an approach; and folk horror without symbols is, at best, merely horror, at worst a farrago of dull eccentrics and magic animals. The hare, for example, has a long history in English folklore: it was one of two tabooed beasts in ancient Britain (the other was the pig); was used by Boudica as an augury when she fought the Romans; and is mentioned alongside the Devil in an old witch formula: “I shall go into a hare/With sorrow and sighing and mickle care/And I shall go in the Devil’s name/Aye, till I come home again!” In Starve Acre, the hare has no obvious magical or connotational significance and could quite easily be replaced by any other small creature without imperiling the story. And if the point is that the hare’s significance is created in the minds of Richard and Juliette, as Hurley has suggested in several interviews, then it does not come across: one can perhaps narrow it down to either a reincarnation of their son or an earthly form of Jack Grey, but no further.
Despite the hare-brained plot, there are still things to enjoy here. Matt Smith and Morfydd Clark are capable performers who make a convincing couple. Smith especially, in speech and manner, communicates both a love of country life and a feeling of not having fully settled into it, both of which accord well with his skepticism––not to say contempt––of all things supernatural. Clark, on the other hand, plays Juliette with a much greater sense of ease and contentedness––of having established herself in the Dales––that stands in disturbing counterpoint to her later frenzy, neatly connecting the film’s continually changing emotional and physical geographies. Excellent, too, is Matthew Herbert’s oppressive score, Zoe McCaffrey and Joanne Tudda’s considered makeup, and Adam Scarth’s metamorphic cinematography, which can turn soil into blood or a swarm of night birds into a glittering stream. Still, not even the most masterly work can entertain for very long when it is put to preposterous use.
Starve Acre premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.