In the bedroom of Sam (Sam Saunders), Dogged‘s university student who investigates the bizarre occurrences in his hometown, hang posters of Return of the Jedi and the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. On his nightstand sits a copy of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep’ and The Wicker Man on DVD (whether it’s the 102 minute version is unclear).
It’s the room of a teenager, though it’s safe to assume that these homegrown props act as director and co-writer Richard Rowntree’s own bit of fandom. That is, until you get further into Dogged – a film that places its definition alongside its title (‘having or showing tenacity’) – and realise that it liberally takes small doses from each while wearing a harness befitting a horror film.
Except like Dogged‘s dogmatic followers, who parade around in makeshift animal heads, wearing a harness doesn’t make you an animal, and it certainly doesn’t make Dogged an effective horror film.
After returning to his tidal island home (filmed entirely on Osea Island off Essex) for the funeral of a young girl named Megan (Abigail Rylance-Sneddon), Sam is confronted with the strange behaviour of its locals, all of who seem to believe that Megan’s death off the seaside cliffs was merely an accident. Looking to get back to the mainland where he feels he has a life, Sam unknowingly begins unravelling the peculiar happenings on the island that’s more threatening than it appears.
Dogged is a horror film shrouded in mystery and tethered to tension, which rises as slowly as the ocean tides that eventually trap Sam’s parents overnight during one of its climactic scenes. Announcing each day like a doomsday clock in which events befall the small island town, the film counts down to some sort of finale in a stylistic freeze frame that would be jarringly eerie if it weren’t for feeling tonally alienating.
Richard Rowntree, who has worked in the art department on such blockbusters as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, sheds big budget ambitions in favour of folk-horror such as Kill List, while very clearly riding the smoke trails left by Lord Summerisle (the late Christopher Lee) in Robin Hardy’s 1973’s pagan cult horror masterpiece, The Wicker Man. Nothing perpetrated by the town’s people makes much sense, which for most films adds to the mysterious goings-on that span the seemingly small island, yet its inhabitants never quite keep their cards close to their chest.
Sam’s father Alan (Philip Ridout) erupts in anger after disregarding and almost running over a young beatnik woman named Sparrow (Nadia Lamin). A couple, on their way to the funeral procession, timidly crosses paths with a vagrant (Tony Parkin) pushing a wooden cart. The island’s only priest, Father Jones (Toby Wynn-Davis), casts countless dubious glances at Sam, who we learn has gotten his daughter Rachel (Aiysha Jebali) pregnant. Her own brother Daniel (Nick Stopien) incestuously pines after her, while Megan’s father, John (Gregory Smith), keeps having visions, though of what is unclear.
The central mystery of Megan’s death is often sidelined by masked men who prance around the woods, while the nefarious priest consumes every bit of scenery with prophetic rambling on occult-like class wars. Where the islanders in The Wicker Man needed a virgin sacrifice to bring good bidding for their crops, those in Dogged seek to sacrifice for simpler terms: pure blood. It explains the wary glances and unease that festers in old pubs and around seemingly quaint corners, though it hardly works within the experimentalism of Rowntree’s film.
There is a lot to unpack within the island of Dogged, and with a run-time of nearly 2 hours, there are plenty of opportunities to do so, though they’re countlessly wasted. Tension is slowly drawn out through lengthy shots that take their time, while screeching violins amplify the mundane mystery that underscores the horror of the unknown. Except slow-burn tension isn’t simply created by showing moments in real-time as Dogged does often with its stunted characters, and horror is hardly plucked out of thin air from quick-cuts accompanied by warring violins.
Rowntree and his crew, clearly having grown up on horror and around filmmaking, tirelessly create a discomfort around the wooded island, though nothing feels inscrutable given its cast of characters. There’s an immense appreciation for horror through its dedication at replicating what made pagan horror such a hit in the 70s and 80s, though it doesn’t quite understand it or the mechanics behind what makes the genre move. It’s Dogged‘s biggest downfall, and one that comes early on between the supposedly peculiar discourses of its characters, never really allowing for a moment of believability or room for its tension to breathe. In the end, Dogged deflates its own engagement with its mystery angle, drowning before it even gets a chance to float above the island’s infallible tides.