The Devil's Footprints
An interview with Dean Puckett
Graham Williamson speaks with filmmaker, photographer and lecturer, Dean Puckett about his work, particularly the five folk horror shorts including the recently completed, The Devil’s Footprints…
“There’s something very evocative about places like Dartmoor – they almost make you believe strange things could happen there.”
That’s the view of Dean Puckett, who has just completed his fifth folk horror short, The Devil’s Footprints. Presented as the video diary of a couple found dead in the Devonshire national park in 2004, it opens with a sight guaranteed to gladden the hearts of Horrified readers…
“The Reader’s Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain!” he grins. “If I ever hit a wall or get writers’ block, the normal thing people would do would be go for a run or go for a walk, try and take my mind off it. I would open up the Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain book and read a story. And it would unlodge something, or give me a new way of thinking.”
The quest for new ways of thinking is common to a lot of Dean’s shorts, from the ever-hopeful crop circle believers of 2016’s Circles, through the religious sects of The Sermon and Satan’s Bite (both 2018) through to the legend trippers played by Dean and his partner Liv in The Devil’s Footprints. As the title indicates, the pair are searching for the route that the Devil supposedly took across Dean’s native county of Devon in 1855. Given the opening caption recording their death, it spoils nothing to say they find more than they expected.
“The Devil’s Footprints was one I’ve always been drawn to”, says Dean. “You can sense there was almost a feverish response from people around these footprints. And I guess a lot of my work is either directly folk horror or dealing with the horror of how people react to certain situations, where you get too fixated or obsessed with things, like a shared delusion or delirium that can escalate into something that’s ecstatic or dangerous or strange.”
The Devil’s Footprints is a canonical piece of found-footage horror, with the theme of urbanites fatally underestimating the wilderness familiar from Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999). Dean is fond of the latter, but his actual inspiration was not a film but a quote: “John Carpenter’s mantra of ‘tension costs nothing’ is something that I tried to follow.”
This is part of what makes Puckett’s shorts so invigorating: for all their horror-fan reference points, there’s usually a lot of inspiration drawn from outside the screen. 2022’s Seagull came from his time as a mental health support worker: “I actually went to AA meetings as a support worker on many occasions”, he explains. “Those characters that skulk around in those faded seaside towns, I looked at them and thought in many ways, they’re feeding off the scraps of the towns. And it’s heartbreaking to see those.”
Seagull begins like a social realist film and ends in a fashion that could be called euphoric, although Dean doesn’t see it that way: “There’s a cyclical nature to it, as there is with a lot of addiction. I wanted to end with him having this high moment in a club, dancing to music almost in an ecstatic way, so you could almost loop the film. It cuts and then you cut again to the pier and him walking to another AA meeting, and you go around and around…”
Puckett himself is less prone to repetition. “What’s important to me is to have – one way or another – a strong aesthetic. Every single one of the films we’ve talked about is shot on a different format.” Circles and The Devil’s Footprints are the only shorts he’s made on digital video, although he is in development for a digitally-shot feature. Seagull is on 16mm, while Satan’s Bite takes some of its retro exploitation flavour from its Super 8mm stock.
Then there’s The Sermon, Dean’s most widely-seen film, whose lush 35mm photography comes from a very unexpected source. “I shit you not – somehow [cinematographer] Ian Forbes got hold of the ends of the 35mm reels of one of the Mission: Impossible films!” Making a film on Tom Cruise’s leftovers required methods Dean describes as “very planned-out, very precise, super high-pressure”. Fortunately he’s keen on storyboarding, although not always neatly: “They look a bit like the diaries of Charles Manson. I’m guessing your readers might like that!” Judge for yourself – a selection accompany this article.
Fortunately for folk horror fans, Dean’s preferred way of unwinding from a stressful shoot is to make another film. Satan’s Bite was made for the Straight 8 challenge, where directors produce a short on Super 8 with no post-production or sync sound. Puckett’s regular soundtrack composers Bizarre Rituals produced a soundscape which was synced to the film only when it was first shown to 200 people at the Cannes Film Festival. “I just said, ‘Build tension, build weirdness, here’s a spike where there’s a woman fucking a beast in the forest, and here’s another bit which is meant to be disturbing and strange…'”
Somehow it works: Satan’s Bite is a retro horror short which spurns the reverential tastefulness of a lot of retro media in favour of an authentically gonzo exploitation tang. The Devil’s Footprints, similarly, was a response to the slow process of developing Magpie, a feature loosely based on The Sermon. “I just wanted to make something that I had 100% pure control over, with not one note or bit of feedback from an exec working at a film company in London… Although it was made for £400, if you gave me ten grand I can honestly say I would make the exact same film. I would just have better catering.”
The Devil’s Footprints‘s skilled pastiche of documentary footage is no surprise considering Dean’s background in environmental documentaries. “My film Grasp the Nettle is about my experiences of living in an intentional community on the edge of London. The first act of the documentary is full of naive enthusiasm – everyone wants to live in a low-impact way, and they’re all young and enthusiastic and they want to change the world. Then the reality of the film and the reality of the experience – because I ended up moving in there – is that paranoia did set in, people did turn on one another.”
You can see echoes of these experiences in all his subsequent films, from the clash of subcultures in Circles to the religious purges of The Sermon and Satan’s Bite, the marginal lives of Seagull through to the fatal overconfidence of the two tourists in The Devil’s Footprints. That this is all shot through with a deep affection for British horror history is no paradox: as Dean puts it, “We draw you into that feeling and hit you with modern concerns – which, by the way, are also timeless concerns.”
The Sermon, Satan’s Bite, and several other films by Dean are available to watch here.