Beneath the Trees (2019)
Mark Anthony Ayling reviews Beneath the Trees by Marco De Luca, which is now available to stream through the Sky Store and Amazon Prime...
Beneath the Trees is an independent horror film from director Marco De Luca, which was initially released in February 2019 and played on the festival circuit throughout 2019 and 2020. It won acclaim in a number of areas, including the Independent Horror Movie Awards, where it was nominated for Best Director and Best Cinematography, and the Amsterdam Film Festival, where it won Best Thriller in May 2019.
One-part culture clash movie to two parts surrealist, psychological folk horror, the film starts out as a slow burn fish-out-of-water mystery about an American student struggling to immerse herself in the natural world of a foreign country on a weekend break. However, it quickly mutates into a terrifying pagan fantasy, replete with frightful foliage, slaughtered wildlife, sacrificial corpses, and incestuous incidents.
In terms of plotting, screenwriter Irene Harris adopts a wilfully lean approach, allowing the characters to develop without the cumbersome burden of unnecessary backstory. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. There is hardly any exposition or explanation, ensuring the film retains its enigmatic aura throughout in terms of both the events that occur, and the characters involved in their occurrence.
Wealthy American student Emily, a girl with daddy issues and a slightly nervous disposition, agrees to spend a weekend camping in the English countryside with broody boyfriend Jay, despite an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the great outdoors. The couple is joined on their adventure by Julia, Jay’s oddly alluring cousin, a passive-aggressive country girl who clashes with Jay’s monied paramour from the moment they first meet.
The trio strike out for rural England on a protracted road trip that becomes more and more uncomfortable with each passing mile. For the duration of the claustrophobic journey, Emily hides her percolating unease beneath a superior veneer of It-girl asides and playful sulking. However, in time-honoured terror fashion, she slowly comes to realise that all is not as it seems with her companions, whose archaic, folkloric obsessions and shared conspiratorial glances hint at an alternative motive for luring Emily into the wilderness.
Naturally enough, once the threesome arrives at their destination, and following a series of ominous occurrences involving arboreal demons, a low flying portentous crow and a conveniently broken-down car, the weirdness escalates exponentially.
Stuck in the woods with an untrustworthy lover, his pagan cousin, no Wi-Fi, and an unnerving selection of creepy sound effects including creaking trees, animal noises, and the buzzing of insects, Emily rapidly becomes untethered. Having been tempted from the comforting safety of her cushioned urban habitat, she finds herself incarcerated in a nightmarish woodland realm, which immediately begins to exert its malevolent influence on her fragile psyche.
For the most part, Beneath the Trees derives its horror from Emily’s perception of her perilous circumstances. As her resilience crumbles in the wake of a series of unnerving occurrences, so does the structure of the film. The film’s final act comprises a panic-stricken whirligig of fleeing, hallucinatory uncertainty and paranoia during which it is never entirely evident whether Emily is the victim of a cruel prank gone wrong, an ancient evil lurking in the woods, or her own fevered imagination, magnified by the hostility of her elemental surroundings.
The film touches on themes of Modernism versus Traditionalism, Urbanism versus Ruralism and Man versus Nature, as you would expect from any self-respecting folk horror. However, it doesn’t linger on these themes or resorts to proselytising in order to elaborate on them. Instead, the film lasers in on Emily’s traumatic psychological unravelling as the Green Man closes in on her and her mental state starts to deteriorate.
Beneath the Trees is infused with dread, augmented in no small part by the disorientation and psychological uncertainty experienced by its female lead. Eschewing easy answers and comfortable resolutions in favour of ambiguity, the film leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Some viewers might find this approach frustrating. However, it ensures the film’s mysterious qualities remain intact and that Emily’s harrowing experience is not cheapened by a tidy conclusion devoid of emotional honesty.
Despite adhering to the sort of parochial stereotypes that often prevail in films that feature menacing rural folk in thrall to pagan ritualism, Jessica Chamberlain and Louis Levi are credibly unsettling as the film’s cultish cousins. Whilst it’s obvious from the get-go that they’re up to no good – a fault of the script perhaps which makes no attempt to hide their perniciousness from the viewer – the pair make for an intensely deviant tag-team, with Chamberlain in particular impressive as ultra-weirdo Julia.
Meanwhile, a sympathetic, inscrutable performance from Sarah Bradnum as the insecure, validation-seeking cosmopolitan Emily ensures the audience remains sympathetic. This is key to the film’s success since, without a likeable lead steering the ship, the film’s climactic final act might easily have fallen apart. Thankfully, this is not the case here. By the time Emily finds herself limping and stumbling around the woods caked in blood on a circuitous treadmill being terrorised by all and sundry, the viewer is fully invested in her plight and willing her on to survive, despite suspecting the filmmakers might have other plans in store for her.
A number of uncanny visual effects are utilised in the film, some of which subtract from its appeal rather than adding to it. However, Valentina Massimi’s smart editing, especially in the latter portion of the narrative, creative sound design from Serin Kucuk, and canny use of dissonant musical components from James Wilkie, help to sustain the dread-filled atmosphere.
Where the film is most impressive, however, is its cinematography. Cristian Mantio does an exemplary job photographing the film, ensuring the antiseptic plushness of Emily’s personality-free apartment, the oppressive interiors of the car journey, and the antediluvian tactility and otherworldliness of the English countryside are vividly realised throughout.
Ultimately, whilst Beneath the Trees might not quite achieve the lofty heights of The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) or even The Blood on Satan’s Claw (UK, Piers Haggard, 1971), it is, for the most part, a competently assembled chiller, shot through with uncertainty and psychological distress. Folk horror fans and fans of psychological horror generally will find plenty to enjoy in the film, which makes a virtue of budgetary constraints and limited resources to craft a perfectly enjoyable scare flick about a traumatising walk in the woods gone horribly awry.
You can watch a trailer for Beneath the Trees below.