Something spooky is going on in the countryside in folk horror Starve Acre
In 1970s Yorkshire archaeology professor Richard (Matt Smith – Doctor Who) and his wife Juliet (Morfydd Clark – Saint Maud) have relocated from Leeds to Richard’s childhood home (the creepily named Starve Acre) in the countryside with their young son Owen. Though the house had been the site of great trauma for Richard as he grew up there with a cruel and apparently mentally ill father, they hope it will be good for Owen who suffers from poor health.
When Owen starts to behave strangely the couple find that someone has told him about the same occult obsession that took over Richard’s father’s life, namely the legend of the ‘dandelion man,’ a malevolent old-world spirit who seeks to be released from a tree that hides a portal to the underworld. The story has it that the tree was cut down to keep him locked away, but first Richard’s father and now Owen seem intent on not letting sleeping devils lie.
After tragedy strikes the family Richard too becomes obsessed with delving into the occult history of his family’s farm, firstly reading through his father’s crazed diaries and then digging up large plots across the farm, searching for the felled oak tree. Meanwhile a grief-stricken Juliet remains housebound, haunted by visions that she is unable to snap out of even when her well meaning sister Harrie (Erin Richards – Gotham) turns up to help.
Starve Acre is the second feature from British writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo, his second after distinctive debut Apostasy and an adaption of the novel of the same name by Andrew Michael Hurley.
With British horror having had a fascination with our pagan history since the early days of film, Kokotajlo recreates the beige tinged world of some of the genre’s 1970s greats. While plot wise it has similarities to Don’t Look Now, cinematographer Adam Scarth faithfully captures the moody graininess of The Wicker Man and An American Werewolf in London. Starve Acre just the latest in a long line of films to convince us it’s not safe to visit the countryside.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly a story about grief, there’s also enough independent third-party witnesses to the family’s horrors to have you second guessing what you’re seeing, and truly believe that there’s something spooky going on. Much of the horror is built through a pervading atmosphere of wrongness and isolation, but there are a couple of decent actual scares to get your blood pumping.
Even more scary is the use of a very creepy puppet (something I’ve found unnerving since being absolutely repulsed by ET as a kid.) A central plot point revolves around Richard and Juliet taking a hare into their home from the farm, and while it may have been more convincing for Kokotajlo to use a real animal or CGI to create these scenes, it’s made that much more disturbing by the use of the dead eyed stuffed animal. Nature just isn’t this scary.
Starve Acre is powered by brilliant central performances from Smith and Clark, particularly Clark who after Saint Maud is establishing herself in these creepy roles. Where Smith gets to do a lot more raging and breaking down, Clark’s ability to add haunted nuance to a scene as simple as literally watching paint dry is a testament to her skill with the unspoken.
Whilst some will complain there aren’t enough scares (not me – a certified horror wimp) and others that the plot is too familiar (there is a grim familiarity to everything that happens) Starve Acre is a satisfyingly creepy, gothic tale of loss, obsession and the occult. A very decent sophomore effort from director Daniel Kokotaljo.
Starve Acre had it’s world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. It’s release date has yet to be announced.