The Fields (2011)

APRIL 22, 2012

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I thought for sure I'd have the screening of The Fields to myself, because surely anyone else that shows up to watch some unknown horror film at 1pm on a Sunday (when it's coming out on Blu-ray two days later) is my soul mate, or a homeless person who snuck in to get out of the sudden heat in LA. But alas, just as the movie began, two normal looking folks walked in a few seconds apart: a guy about my age or so, and a lady that looked a bit older. Didn't get as good of a look at her because she walked out after about 20 minutes. Maybe she was homeless.

Anyway, this movie's theatrical release is more fascinating than anything on-screen. Granted it's as limited a release as I've ever seen (seemingly only on this one screen, and only once a day), but even that is more than Inside or Trick R Treat ever really got, and there is nothing about this movie that demands to be seen on a 50 foot screen, so what gives? Did the excess star power of Cloris Leachman AND Tara Reid prove too much for the distributor to ignore when deciding whether to book theaters or simply wait the few more days until it hit DVD? The mind boggles.

Now, it's not that bad of a flick, really - it's just a very unfocused and frustrating one. At its best it reminded me of The Reflecting Skin, as it was also a strange, horror-lite period piece and involved a young boy with a big imagination who may or may not be in danger from a monster. In that film it was a vampire, as well as a group of hoodlums that had taken an interest in him - here it's... well, Charles Manson. See, early on he hears about Manson's downgraded sentence (from the death penalty to life with the chance of parole), and is convinced that Manson will get out of prison and come kill him (pretty big ego on the kid, really - they don't even live in California!). It doesn't help that he keeps seeing hippie girls around town that resemble Manson Girls, and also there's a guy named Eugene who speaks in Manson-esque babble (something about squealing pigs). In other words, he's subconsciously making sense out of these weirdos he can't understand by assuming they are involved with Manson, which is a perfectly decent backdrop for a coming of age/horror thriller hybrid.

Except Harrison Smith's script can't focus on that, and tosses in a whole bunch of other nonsense that never pays off. A deserted fun park, a trio of weird (inbred?) cousins, some shady secret about his father's upbringing, a "Hotel" that we keep hearing about, a missing girl... it's like they crammed an entire season of a mid 90s Twin Peaks ripoff into one 100 minute movie. I kept waiting for these elements to be explained, or at least tie into the narrative in some way, but they never do, save for a radio voiceover in the film's final scene that tells us that one character from the film (now deceased) is believed to be the one who killed the missing girl. Well, thanks for clearing that up, but no one cared about the missing girl! She was never mentioned directly, she didn't appear to have any connection to the characters - her entire "back-story" is limited to a "Missing" poster on the general store door, which no one pays any attention to and is on-screen for all of five seconds. If you looked down at your phone for a second, this epilogue would be entirely meaningless. There's a difference between paying close attention and simply being underdeveloped, and this movie is the latter.

And that's a problem, because 99% of the audience for this film is going to see it at home, where cell phones and iPads and what not will distract away from the not-very exciting events on screen. It's a very slow and largely uneventful film, the sort of thing that doesn't seem to demand your complete attention - I expect a lot of "What the hell?" type threads on its IMDb over the next couple weeks, because even I, paying complete attention, feel like I missed a few things. Like, what was with the tub full of ripped George Washington faces? Why was the kid's beloved Godzilla toy in pieces at one point? Any why was Grandma so racist???

Speaking of Grandma, Cloris Leachman is by far the best thing about the movie (except her out of nowhere racism). Foul mouthed and addicted to public domain horror movies, she gives the movie some much needed spark, and even though she swears she avoids being an obnoxious and tired distraction like Betty White. There's a wonderful bit where her harried husband comes home with the birdcage he thought she asked him to get, and in instant both characters won me over - I cared more about them than the kid or his parents (Reid is his mom). Speaking of the horror movies, I like how they mirrored the movie's events - she watches Carnival of Souls and then the next day the kid finds himself in a creepy amusement park; after Night of the Living Dead their farmhouse is besieged by unknown entities. But like most other things in the film, there's no payoff - it's not even clear that the kid is watching them, so if it's supposed to be his overactive imagination behind these things, where did he get the ideas? He wasn't even watching! Reflecting Skin had similar problems, but there was a hypnotic, almost Terrence Malick style approach that drew you in - this film doesn't have that going for it. Every time it starts to come to life it unravels again; it takes effort to get through it, but offers no reward.

Ultimately you can sum up this movie's problems with just a single scene. Our hero (obnoxiously called "Boo-boo" by his grandfather, though his name is Steven which has no phonetic relation to Boo-boo) is tossing sticks into the cornfield out of boredom, and tosses a final one in before heading off frame to do something else. The camera holds for a beat or two, and then a stick comes flying back. All they had to do is cut here and leave us unnerved, but instead, Steven comes back, inspects the stick, looks at the cornfield... essentially killing whatever creepiness we might have felt. And then, of course, we never know who threw it back, so they ruin what could have been a cool little moment by drawing too much attention to it, and then never follow up on it. That's pretty much The Fields in a nutshell.

What say you?

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