In the last decade, folk horror has certainly enjoyed a renaissance. Films like 'Black Death', 'Kill List', 'A Field in England', 'The Witch', 'Hagazussa', 'Apostle' and 'Midsommar' have all drawn from the traditions of this sub-genre, which originated in the late 1960s. It's a period of filmmaking that writer/director Thomas Clay taps into for his latest film, 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd'.
It's 1657. The English Civil War has been over for six years. England is under the rule of dictator Oliver Cromwell, a religious puritan who banned Christmas, dancing, drinking, the theatre, and many other activities. Ex-soldier John Lye (Charles Dance, 'Godzilla II: King of the Monsters', 'Happy New Year, Colin Burstead'), his much younger wife Fanny (Maxine Peake, 'Peterloo', 'The Theory of Everything') and young son Arthur (Zak Adams) live a solitary existence on a remote farmstead in Shropshire. John is a severe Puritanical type, and Fanny seems to have resigned herself to loving him for the sake of their child.
One day, while the family attends Sunday church, two naked and exhausted strangers named Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox, 'Black '47', 'King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword') and Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds, 'Emma.') sneak on to their property, steal some clothes and fall asleep in the barn. Thomas claims that he and his "wife" were robbed by thieves. Initially furious, John takes pity on them when he finds out that the young man also served on Cromwell's army.
While the operative word "folk" implies stories that stem from folklore, "horror" may stem from occult, witchcraft or a clash between ancient and modern belief systems. In Clay's film, the Lyes soon discover that Thomas has some freaky-deaky ideas about free love and sexuality, which puts him on a collision course with the perma-frowning patriarchal Christian of the household.
So ensues a series of diabolical power games, sex sessions, manipulations, drug trips (involving magic mushrooms ala. Ben Wheatley's 'A Field in England'), and killings. For the most part, 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd' is a home invasion psychological thriller, as the two men argue over their opposing ideologies.
Thomas tells the Lyes, now captive: "Here are your treasures. Only open up your insides to earthly possibility... a land where sin and transgression are no more." It's hippy nonsense to John, but Fanny slowly becomes aware of the freedom and independence she has never known. As tensions escalate and her body becomes the site of a power struggle between John and Thomas, she has some big decisions to make.
Fanny slowly becomes aware of the freedom and independence she has never known. As tensions escalate and her body becomes the site of a power struggle between John and Thomas, she has some big decisions to make.
It isn't until the final 25 minutes that the film shifts gear into full-blown horror. When the High Sheriff (a terrific Peter McDonald, 'England Is Mine') and his hunchbacked Sheriff's Deputy (Perry Fitzpatrick), two characters straight out of Michael Reeves' 'Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General', arrive at the farm to enforce Cromwell's strict rules, grotesque violence ensues.
Written, directed, edited, and scored by Thomas Clay, 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd' is a marvel of historical accuracy. The set, costume and props were made by reconstruction enthusiasts using historical tools and techniques. Giorgos Arvanitis' cinematography captures a world of mud and mist as his camera roams around the farm. It's grim, cold and dirty with a narrow outlook into the wider world. There is no sunshine or warmth for Fanny, just labour and duty. Even John is shocked by the chaos of post-civil war England when, late in the film, he ventures onto the highway.
At times, the narration (delivered by Reynolds) doesn't click and the score (using 17th-century instruments), while beautiful, overwhelms the action. Like Robert Eggers' 'The Witch' and 'The Lighthouse', Clay's dialogue is carefully crafted to match the period and therefore requires concentration to understand. However, Peake is exceptional in the title role, exuding a brooding mixture of quiet rage and despair. Dance, meanwhile, adds layers to his part as the uber-grump, managing to elicit sympathy, despite his character's unyielding brutality.
Thomas Clay's feminist folktale asks us to question whether it is strength of character, not adherence to an arbitrary set of rules, that makes a person "good". 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd' isn't a happy film, but Fanny's liberation and her rejection of tyrannical rule ensures that it is an empowering one.