Little Steven has had a rough life so far. His parents are constantly fighting and he has just witnessed his father hold a shotgun to his mother’s head. While Steven’s parents work out their problems, they drop Steven off to stay with his paternal grandparents. It is the Autumn of 1973 and Charles Manson is back in the headlines as he is up for his first parole hearing. The media has picked up the story and Steven becomes interested in the case amidst the constant radio and TV speculation about whether or not Charlie will make parole.
While the Manson case continues to create a media frenzy, a band of hippies have also moved into the area. While they haven’t really done anything wrong that anyone can describe, they are looked upon with suspicion. Recently they had to be run off from camping in the big cornfield that surrounds Steven’s grandparents’ ancient and isolated farmhouse. Steven’s grandmother, Gladys, keeps warning him to stay away from the cornfield; she fills his imagination with the possibility of getting lost in the huge field and dying from exposure or maybe being abducted by the hippies. As she puts it, "You’ll end up all dead and black and stinking and rotten."
So it comes as no surprise when strange things begin to occur at the old farmstead. Steven hears voices and breathing just outside his window and sees shadows of human forms against the blinds. But when Grandpa takes his shotgun to investigate, no one is around. Soon enough, the three are attacked by something mysterious that causes the house to quake and the windows to shatter. Is it the hippies influenced by the Manson stories that have come to kill the family? It could be all in Steven’s admittedly vivid–and possibly disturbed–imagination? Or is it something even more sinister, possibly supernatural, that haunts the corn fields around the house?
Co-directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni have created a visually arresting piece of cinema. Filmed during the late summer/early fall, the film has a slightly washed-out look, similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that suits the picture perfectly. The film is filled with muted colors like the yellow of drying cornstalks and the dirty whites and browns of old farms. This color palette is occasionally interrupted with vibrant colors such as when Steven locates an old fairground across the cornfield. He enters the funhouse which is filled with lurid blues, greens, and reds. The cinematography is also superb, with Daniel Watchulonis’ camera alternately swooping across beautiful scenery and prowling through the cornstalks that comprise the great fields that surround and isolate the farmhouse. The camera is constantly moving, creating a sense of paranoia in the audience as it follows Steven like a malevolent force while he plays and explores the farm. The quietly creepy music only heightens this sense of paranoia. Likewise, the set and costume design is authentic early 70’s. Steven wears SuperKid pajamas and plays with a plastic Godzilla toy. He also loves Ultraman, that cheesy, live-action Japanese superhero of the period.
The viewer feels a great deal of sympathy towards Steven as every single adult in his life is warped in some way. The entire film is populated with ugly, mean-spirited, foul-mouthed adults who ignore the boy because they are so self-centered. Tara Reid is listed as one of the stars of the film though in reality she is relegated to only a supporting role as Steven’s hard-drinking, man-hopping, spoiled mother. Reid only appears in the beginning and towards the end of the film. Steven’s father is short-tempered and mean himself, while his mother drops Steven off at her in-law’s house because she’s afraid her father will molest Steven as he did her. The real star of the show is Cloris Leachman who does her best Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers; she is rude, crude, and vulgar, but she does love Steven and tries to protect him in her own pathetic way. The rest of the adults are no better. There’s a weirdo that works at the dairy farm where the family goes to pick up their milk; he looks for all the world very much like Charles Manson did when he was arrested for the Tate-LoBianca murders. And Grandma Gladys has two sisters, one of whom is alcoholic while the other has some physical and possibly mental disabilities.
The film itself is a very slow buildup and concentrates mostly on atmosphere than action to deliver its scares. More of a mystery than anything else, I suspect many viewers that are drawn to the film for its elements of horror will be disappointed. There is very little action until the final section, the filmmakers instead opting to build the tension very slowly and carefully with the subtle use of camera and sound technique. Indeed, a quick check of the Internet showed that viewers were equally divided, alternately praising the film for its unique take on horror or labeling it as dull. While it isn’t as fast-paced as most modern viewers might like, I did enjoy the film for its aesthetics.
The Fields has just been released by Breaking Glass Pictures and is available at most major retailers. For more information, go to www.breakingglasspictures.com.