What flailed about in it’s infancy as a short film project quickly matured into a feature-length spawn for first time writer/director Paul Stanley-Ward’s Small Town Folk. His story is one we’re familiar with – minimal funds, a skeleton crew of eager friends, and shot mainly on weekends and holidays – the film blossomed into a labor of love for all involved. Someone, somewhere had a horseshoe lodged firmly up their butt, as this small British production garnered significant attention at the Cannes Film Festival and attracted the acting talents of none other than Willow’s Warwick Davis; who appears in a short cameo as a…well, a midget.
The film itself suffers an unfortunate ailment which seems to affect independent, low-budget horror films the world over – one could even consider it a minor pandemic, I suppose. Put simply; it is not really sure if it wants to scare you or make you laugh. Sure there are numerous flaws with production and sound due to monetary restrictions (which I assume will be cleaned up if it gets a proper DVD distributor), and one can certainly overlook these pitfalls, but all-in-all the film feels decidedly hollow on several front, in either case.
The movie introduces us to John and Susan, a couple who get lost driving through the English countryside. They stop for directions and Warwick Davis tells them not to go to a place called Grockleton or down an obscure road known as ‘The Road of Light.’ This means, of course, that they will. The duo end up staying in a scary Grockleton hotel overseen by a greasy landlord, where they are treated nastily and, when they try to escape, rednecks try and kill them. Voila! Instant horror film recipe. Just add ill-advised independent enthusiasm.
Using a myriad of CGI greenscreens, miniatures and miniDV tomfoolery, director Stanley-Ward concocts perhaps the film’s strongest asset – a warped and fairy tale-esque world which echoes the cartoony visions of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. At first, I was taken aback a teensy bit, but after a while (and with stoic patience) the green-screen backgrounds and teetering camera angles are relatively endearing and dream-like. The rednecks (for lack of better term) inhabit a land stuck somewhere in the past, where steam engines, blacksmithing and simple pleasures abound. This all adds up to a fairly strange and whimsical trip, like John and Susan just wandered into Wonderland…or Oz. Oh, and the rednecks don’t like outsiders, who they refer to as Grockles, as they will upset the delicate balance of their traditional way of life. Err…or something along those lines. There isn’t much in the department of explanation, which in retrospect might actually be for the better after all is said and done.
Those seeking blood-letting or some snappy low-budget gore should stray elsewhere, however, as the film contains little-to-none of the crimson stuff. Come to think of it, there aren’t even any really scary parts either. Thus I return to my original point – the bad guys (they are all male, by the way, so one wonders how they maintain their freaky little community) are almost all played for comedy, especially when they are engaged in action or fight sequences. So, trying to create any tension or suspense is pretty well out with the bathwater. Thus, when the main thrust of the movie is an escape from the clutches of evil and the evil isn’t very menacing, urgency is completely nullified. This would have been A-OK with this reviewer if, say, the film were funny. But, alas, it stutters in that department as well and we are left with a few amusing characters and long stretches between half-hearted chuckles.
Small Town Folk is a decent watch for those who can easily dismiss the infinitum of ultra-low-budget idiosyncrasies, but don’t go looking for anything earth-shattering. The film is rife with eyeball-rolling clichés; the bumbling sidekicks, the lost twenty-somethings routine, the bloodthirsty redneck community and the lead female even loses her glasses in the big chase scene, only to have them stepped on and broken. However, for the most part it is an oddly intriguing watch, despite all road signs pointing otherwise. It’s a weird and warped ride through a blatantly CGI-laden landscape and flawed in many ways, but nonetheless a quaffable effort from a fledgling DIY director.