By Scott Dorward
The Field Guide to Evil (USA, 2018)
I was in two minds about including The Field Guide to Evil this month. All I knew was that it was an anthology of creepy folk tales, which did at least sound like my kind of thing. Also, I didn’t have any other portmanteau films on my list, so I decided to give it a try. It wasn’t until I saw the credits that I realised that Can Evrenol (Baskin) and Peter Strickland (In Fabric) had contributed segments. Now, I’m wondering how this film managed to fly under my radar. I suspect witchcraft.
The Field Guide to Evil is made up of eight short segments, each telling a dark folkloric tale from a different country.
The Sinful Women of Hollfall (Austria)
Kathi, a young woman in medieval Austria, is filled with lustful thoughts. When she gives into temptation with another young woman, her family and community turn against her. Kathi is visited at night by the Trud, an evil spirit that torments sinners. But has the Trud underestimated Kathi?
When The Field Guide to Evil opened with a scene of a young Austrian woman getting way too excited while milking a goat, I wondered if I’d accidentally put on Hagazussa again. Happily, this story is much pacier and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Its portrayal of sexual guilt and social pressure is timeless, blending perfectly with its uncanny elements. I wish I’d enjoyed Franz & Fiala’s Ich seh, Ich seh (AKA Goodnight Mummy) as much as this.
Haunted by Al Karisi, the Childbirth Djinn (Turkey)
Songul is a young, apparently single, mother-to-be, tending to a sickly relative. After her baby is born, she finds herself tormented by an evil spirit that manifests through the goat she keeps for milk. Of course, it drives her to madness.
This is a nasty little story from Can Evrenol about postpartum psychosis as a demonic manifestation. The storytelling is almost entirely visual, leading us deep into Songul’s delusional world. Or maybe there really is a djinn. Either way, this is a bloody, brutal segment that will leave you feeling worse about, well, everything.
The Kindler And The Virgin (Poland)
The kindler of the title encounters a strange woman in the woods. She promises him great knowledge if he consumes three human hearts. Cue graverobbing, cannibalism, and other such nocturnal pursuits.
Out of all the tales in The Field Guide to Evil, this is the one that could have benefitted from more time. The conclusion, when it comes, is so abrupt that I had to go back and watch it again to see what I’d missed. I’m sure there are depths to the resolution that are escaping me. A shame, as I was gripped until that point.
Beware the Melonheads (USA)
A young family go on holiday to a woodland cabin in the Appalachians. As the parents bicker, their young son makes a secretive new friend. Is this friend imaginary or is he really a mutant cannibal child with a melon-like head? Hint: it’s the latter.
This segment is the closest thing to a simple horror story The Field Guide to Evil offers. Sadly, in the midst of far more imaginative pieces, it suffers in comparison. It’s fine for what it is but lacks either the visual flair or creativity of its companions. The final scene manages to introduce some weirdness, but too late to really save the whole piece.
Pangas The Pagan (Greece)
A goblin rises from the underworld to visit a small Greek community in the 1980s. He arrives during a festival and forced to participate in terrible ways.
“Pangas the Pagan” stands out just for its sense of fun. While, like all the other stories, it has a sting in the tail, it feels looser and more playful than the other segments. What it lacks in narrative meat, it largely makes up for in style. While most of the effects are cheap make-up and coloured lighting, it largely works, creating an otherworldly feel.
The Palace Of Horrors (India)
An English agent for a circus travels to India in search of recruits for the freak show. Hearing about a king who keeps unusual people locked up in the cellars of his palace, he sets out to find the truth behind the legend. This ends as well about as you might expect.
This segment tries to be creepy but falls short. The locations are evocative and there are some decent makeup effects, but it is all so obvious as to barely warrant attention. A shame, as the premise could have allowed for something remarkable. Sadly, this isn’t it.
A Nocturnal Breath (Germany)
We return to remote woodlands, this time in Germany. A young man seeks to free his sister from a possessing spirit known as a Drude. This entity takes the form of a field mouse that crawls out of the sister, leaving her catatonic as it carries out mischief. As the spirit turns on their farm animals, the siblings are driven to desperate action.
This classic piece of folk horror is simple, effective, and surprisingly nasty. The hints of the brother’s incestuous desire for his sister only make it creepier. One of the better segments.
The Cobblers’ Lot (Hungary)
Peter Strickland’s dark little fairy tale is the highlight of the A Field Guide to Evil. It’s easy to see why the producers decided to end the film with it. It is a tale of two brothers, both cobblers (actually, more like cordwainers, but this is a nitpick), who both fall in love with the same princess. Their desperate attempts to win her heart lead to betrayal, death, and horrors from beyond the grave.
While it is in colour and has sound effects, “The Cobblers’ Lot” feels like a German expressionist film from the 1920s. The florid title cards and actors’ stylised movements make it timeless — a perfect vehicle for telling a folk story. Every frame is beautiful. Simply perfect.
Unusually for a portmanteau film, there is no framing story. We just see a book of folk tales flipping open to pages which tell us the context of the story we are about to see. The film doesn’t suffer at all for this and it gives us more time for the individual stories. With eight segments and a runtime of almost two hours, I’m glad that they didn’t overstuff this thing.
While the stories are international, The Field Guide to Evil has a very European focus. I would very much like to see a sequel with some more Asian content, as well as stories from Africa and Latin America. The world is filled with wonderful and terrifying folktales.
A Field Guide to Evil was brought to life by a highly successful crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, run by the producers of The ABCs of Death films. Considering that it is crowdfunded and had a comparatively low budget, this is a damn good-looking film.
Any anthology film is going to be a mixed bag, especially when there are multiple writers and directors. Not every story is going to land. Still, A Field Guide to Evil succeeds more than it fails. For me, at least, the most successful segments were those that aspired to be folk tales rather than horror stories. “Beware the Melonheads” and “The Palace of Horrors” both suffer in this respect but are still entertaining enough. “Al Karisi” straddles the gap and largely pulls it off. Of all the entries, however, only “The Cobblers’ Lot” stands out as truly exceptional. But, for a film like this, that is enough to make it worth watching. And the nice thing about an anthology is that the segments which don’t quite work are over quickly enough.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!