Lawrie Brewster and Sarah Daly's Lord of Tears (also known as The Owlman) was one of the most impressive indie horror titles of 2013: a beautifully shot, marvelously spooky and atmospheric hybrid of Lovecraftian nightmares and gothic Scottish gloom. It was an attention-grabbing debut which announced the director/writer duo as a major force to watch out for in the horror genre. Now their follow-up feature, The Unkindness of Ravens, has arrived on blu-ray and DVD, and it not only fulfills the promise of that debut, but exceeds it. Everything that is great about Lord of Tears is equally strong here – director Brewster's spellbinding cinematography and atmosphere, and writer Daly's surreal, nightmare-like storytelling sensibility – but it also manages to address most of its predecessor's flaws. Lord of Tears, for all its strong points, did have a few first-major-feature weaknesses, particularly some awkward or excessive choices in its editing and pacing. Brewster clearly learned from the experience, and guides The Unkindness of Ravens with a sure hand and a strong sense of pacing and momentum. The film pulls the viewer into its oppressive darkness with an ever-mounting, fatalistic dread, and while it may not have quite the level of terrifying images that Lord of Tears provided, it brings an unexpected psychological punch that will stick with you.
What is so unexpected about The Unkindness of Ravens is that, while it functions perfectly well as a horror film, at a deeper level it is much more of a psychological drama – and a very surreal one at that. The film follows an Afghanistan vet struggling with severe PTSD, who travels to an empty cottage in the wilderness to work on his mental health through contemplation and art. But the isolation has exactly the opposite effect when his inner demons start manifesting as physical ones: bird-faced executioners reminiscent of Medieval plague doctors, who have come to take him to the hell he thought he escaped when he returned home from war. The film places us in the tormented mind of our protagonist, Andrew (Jamie Scott Gordon of Lord of Tears), and takes us on a journey that is psychologically-subjective in the extreme. What we witness may be his slipping further into mental illness, with his guilt and fear and suicidal tendencies manifesting as hallucinations to torment him, or maybe he actually is being haunted by spirits that prey on the wounded. Since we see everything through his perspective, which is unreliable at best, we have no way of knowing for sure, and that is exactly the point. Whether real or imagined, the titular ravens represent the horror and suffering that came back with him from Afghanistan, and his fight to stay out of their clutches represents his inner battle to stay sane and stay alive. He came to the cabin to face and make peace with his traumas, and in a metaphorical sense, that is exactly what he's doing; it just requires a journey through hell that is (maybe) literal rather than figurative.
|Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss gazes back into you.|
The film works very well on both of its levels: as a surreal horror fever-dream, and as an emotionally-evocative and unexpectedly deep portrait of a wounded soldier struggling with mental illness. That it works so well as the first, however, depends entirely on the second. More so than Lord of Tears, The Unkindness of Ravens doesn't care to bother much with jump-scares and things of that nature; it instead aims to be unnerving on a deeper level, which depends on horror that is as psychological as it is visceral. The film spends quite a bit of time getting us into Andrew's mental state, often through powerfully intense flashbacks to the horrors he lived through in the Middle East. These flashbacks are key to allowing us to understand and feel his pain. They are also arguably the most impressive parts of the film, from a technical standpoint: that a low-budget indie shot in Scotland can so harrowingly recreate an Afghanistan battlefield is quite a feat. Much credit for the impact of this also must go to Jamie Scott Gordon, who has the extremely challenging task of carrying most of the film as a one-actor show, with all the other bit players strictly existing on the periphery of his very intimate psychological journey. He is excellent, both in moments of quiet struggles and moments of fury. I really hope that his strong work here gets him larger recognition beyond the indie horror community; he clearly has strong dramatic chops, and this movie is for him what Moon was for Sam Rockwell.
|May the World Tree in the American|
Gods series be this spectacularly creepy.
The film's horror imagery is also very impressive, and uses the Scottish wilderness location to very strong and moody effect. While Lord of Tears evoked Slender-Man-ish imagery filtered through classic Old Dark Haunted House vibes, The Unkindness of Ravens uses mist-filled landscapes, dead trees, and overgrown shells of buildings to create its atmosphere of old-world horrors brought forward from both Pagan times and the Middle Ages. As with Brewter's previous film, the cinematography is stunning: he has an eye for locations and shot compositions that are absolutely beautiful in their haunting and sinister way. He also has a patient ability to locate really eerie images in nature which give the landscape the feeling of a dream; his filmmaking is totally attuned with the darkest and most mystical-seeming aspects of the Scottish wilderness. Then there are his monsters, the humanoid birds of prey. Taking heavy design cues from those creepiest figures of Medieval history, the beak-masked plague doctors, they are very effective and menacing villains. Not quite the stuff of nightmares that Lord of Tears' Owlman is, but very spooky all the same. On that subject, it is very interesting that both of Brewster and Daly's horror films are based around creepy humanoid bird imagery; it's an odd niche to keep exploring, but they're clearly onto something, because it works just as well the second time around.
If there is a flaw to the film, though, it is that the horror imagery of the raven-people ends up feeling a bit overexposed and excessive by the end. Ultimately we see too much of them too clearly, and their scenes become a tad repetitive after a point. The third act is very compelling in its own right, and pulls out all the stops with some genuinely shocking results, but in the end I felt that it could have used a bit more of Lord of Tears' subtlety, wherein the Owlman was usually only shown in brief flashes just long enough to haunt your dreams. It is a tradeoff, though, because Lord of Tears had its own detrimental self-indulgences in the editing and pacing departments, and those flaws are largely corrected this time around. Brewster clearly learned a few things about the pacing of scenes from revisiting Lord of Tears, and despite its flirtation with visual excesses, he paces the story and suspense of this follow-up film in a significantly tighter and more disciplined way. The Unkindness of Ravens moves with a fierce momentum that never lets up, and outside of the complaint of seeing a bit too much of the raven-people and their torturing ways, I never felt that a scene ran too long or overstayed its welcome. While I did have that one complaint about this film, I nonetheless have great respect for it, as an extremely strong work by a filmmaker who is really coming into his own as an auteur.
|Really makes you want to vacation in|
Scotland, doesn't it?
- Christopher S. Jordan
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