Director Zoe Dobson’s U.K. horror short The Cunning Man is an eerie folk horror outing. Though animal cadavers are part of the story, which may potentially disturb some viewers, they are ultimaely used for a positive reason and toward charming effect.
Afran Harries (Simon Armstrong) collects dead animals in the Welsh countryside. A knackerman (Ali Cook, who also wrote the screenplay) — a person who works in the centuries-old profession of removing animal caracsses from farms and highways and renders or sells them for various purposes — covets the animals that Afran has obtained. He schemes with an inspector (Ian Kelly) to haul away Afran’s carcasses, even charging the elderly man to do so. But Afran has plans for these creatures — plans that involve an arcane ritual.
The Cunning Man is inspired by the life of John Harries (1785–1839), a physician in Wales who was believed to have healed people and animals using both modern medicine and folk-magic healing. In Dobson’s press kit Director’s Statement, she says, “The book displayed in the opening credits is John Harries’ real book of spells (courtesy of the National Library of Wales). The occult symbol and ritual featured in the film were also taken directly from his book.”
Readers can see that the short deals with esoteric arts, but I’m going to leave it at that so as to preserve as much of the film’s elements of surprise as possible. The Cunning Man doesn’t deal in stark terror or gory set pieces; rather, it weaves a spell using mystery and intrigue.
Armstrong is outstanding as Harries, though his performance is of few words. His facial expressions tell many stories, and he owns the screen here. Cook and Kelly are terrific supporting players, adding both villainous mischief and a bit of comic relief to the proceedings.
Dave Miller’s cinematography is splendid, wonderfully capturing the alluring Welsh countryside and putting the heartbreaking condition of dead animals front and center, as well. There’s a set piece in which what looks like a mere pile of carcasses becomes a slow reveal of something far more cryptic that highlights both Miller’s work and Dobson’s excellent directorial approach.
Folk horror enthusiasts will find plenty to love in The Cunning Man, and fright-fare fans in general should be well pleased with this unique offering, too. For more information about the short film, visit the following links:
The Cunning Man screened at Morbido Film Festival, which ran in Mexico City from October 30–November 3.
(4 / 5)