Directors – Tom Mattera & David Mazzoni, Screenplay – Harrison Smith, Producers – Faust Checho, George Englund, Jr., Tom Mattera, David Mazzoni & Harrison Smith, Photography – Daniel Watchulonis, Music – John Avarese. Production Company – Mr Big LLC/Mazwa Productions/Expressway Productions
Joshua Ormond (Steven), Bev Appleton (Hiney), Tom McCarthy (Grandpa Ray), Tara Reid (Bonnie), Faust Checho (Barry), Cloris Leachman (Gladys), Louis Morabito (Eugene/Ringmaster), Brian Anthony Wilson (Charlie), Karen Ludwig (Tootie), Suzanne Inman (Aunt Grace)
It is 1973. After his father pulls a gun on his mother, young Steven is sent away to stay with his paternal grandparents on their farm in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. As he plays, Steven is warned by his grandparents to stay away from the cornfields. He ignores this and wanders in, thinking that he sees a dead body. Obsessed with the Manson Family killings, he finds something sinister about a group of hippies who are passing through town. At the same time, unseen figures start attacking the farmhouse at night.
I was intrigued by The Fields as it was the second film from the Philadelphia-based duo Tom Mattera and Dave Mazzoni. I was quite impressed with Mattera and Mazzoni’s first film The 4th Dimension (2006), an interestingly surreal and cryptic film that takes place inside the headspace of a mentally ill man. This gained some festival play, allowing them to make The Fields with a much better budget. This shows in the cinematography and in their being able to afford two name stars – Tara Reid who plays the mother and Cloris Leachman (who gets top-billing even though she only has a single scene). Tommy Lee Wallace, a John Carpenter associate and the director of films like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and Fright Night Part 2 (1989), has even signed on as a producer and makes a small cameo as one of the customers in the bar.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Fields. It starts out announcing that it is based on a true story (although you are never sure at the end what the real incident was due to the fact that details are so vague. Nor does the film’s website offer any more details than that). The film itself emerges as some kind of wistful Coming of Age tale – think something like Children of the Corn (1984), albeit a more ambiguous Children of the Corn where you can’t be sure what is lurking in the cornfields, by way of Days of Heaven (1978). When The Fields does eventually approach horror, you are reminded of The Evictors (1979) and its story of a family in remote farmhouse facing a mysterious assault from never-seen attackers.
Though you get the impression that The Fields falls into the horror and true crime genres, much of Mattera and Mazzoni’s approach confounds what you expect from a genre vehicle. Fully the first half of the film is a Coming of Age tale about a kid with a troubled childhood and there is little in this that could be said to be horror at all. These sections are in fact what Mattera and Mazzoni do best. They have taken a leaf from Terrence Malick’s book and the film is all impressionistic brush strokes and quiet observations about the childhood of Joshua Ormond. They demonstrate a fantastic feel for the wryness of characters and the naturalism of their dialogue. There is a great performance from Bev Appleton as the grandmother who gives us a character who is rich in quirk and detail. (One suspects that all of the praise going to Cloris Leachman for her single scene was where people were confusing her with Bev Appleton). Similarly, Joshua Ormond has been perfectly cast, wandering through the film with a fresh-faced innocence.
The disappointment of The Fields in terms of being a genre vehicle is that it seems to build to something that never particularly arrives. Certainly, there is that spooky moment when a bored Joshua Ormond throws a stick into the cornfield and then a few moments later it is thrown back at him, while the latter scenes with the assault on the farmhouse build up a moderate tension. There is a bunch of hurried exposition at the end about the flower children and their being in a cult, although it is not clear if they are the ones behind the attacks. The film also leaves us with the hint that there is something supernatural in the cornfield – as evidenced by the predictable final shot – although never gives any clues as to what. This is a film I would have much preferred if it had stayed at the level of what it started – a nicely directed, observational Coming of Age tale about a troubled childhood. The horror elements with the killings, the cult, whatever it is in the cornfield only lurk around the periphery and prove frustratingly elusive.