When the term “ambitious” is brought up during a review of an independent, low-budget film, the submodifier “too” usually precedes it. Every once in a while, though, a filmmaker comes along that has the talent and ability to make an ambitious project, as well as a successful one, and director Douglas Schulze does just that with Dark Fields.
The farming community of Perseverance is stricken with a terrible curse that plagues the city with droughts. In order to appease the curse, the community is forced to sacrifice three children every generation. The town gathers, and the names of the unlucky few are drawn from a hat. If the curse is not fulfilled the citizens of Perseverance start getting sick and will eventually die a slow, agonizing death. The curse requires those sacrificed to be children, making the decision to satisfy it even tougher.
Dark Fields follows three different generations: the late 1800s, the 1950s, and present day. This shows the curse in three separate lights (giving the viewer three different families to follow) and Schulze manages to distinguish between the three generations surprisingly well for a low-budget film. The first story feels like a western, which makes sense given its period (the late 1800s), and follows a single father’s (David Carradine – Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Kung Fu) struggle to keep his crops and two children alive. The second tale features genre legend Dee Wallace Stone (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo, The Howling) as Jean Applebe, a mother of three young girls. Applebe’s husband has dug up the curse, and it is up to him to sacrifice his girls in order to save the village. The present day narrative follows Cari (Sasha Higgins), a college student that starts getting sick like all the rest. Cari is stuck with the difficult decision of following what her father (Richard Lynch – Scarecrow, Invasion U.S.A., The Sword and the Sorcerer) tells her and sacrificing her younger brother, or doing what she can to stop the curse.
The story is intriguing and unpredictable enough to keep the viewer interested for the full runtime of the movie, but the construction of the plot finds some hiccups as the movie progresses. There are a few unexplained elements that only appear late in the film, and feel out of place from the world that is created through the first two-thirds of the film. Exactly what the citizens become when a sacrifice isn’t made is unclear as well: are they vampires, or something else? There is even one moment in the film where the sick citizens look almost like zombies, which I think is more coincidence than a directorial choice. These muddy issues, as well as other unfilled plot holes, hinder Dark Fields, just as they would for any film, low-budget or not.
Even with these negatives, Dark Fields is an independent film worth seeing for a couple of reasons, the biggest being the high quality performances by David Carradine, Dee Wallace Stone, and Richard Lynch. These three actors live up to their expectations as veterans, and stand far and above as the best in the film. There are also a lot of child actors in the movie that manage some excellent work for their age. The protagonist, Sasha Higgins, looks amateurish next to the big screen legends, and is one of the weak links of the acting talent. Ellen Sandweiss (of The Evil Dead fame) is also deserving of a mention for her memorable work with her small role in the film.
The other reason to watch Dark Fields is because of the job done by cinematographer Lon Stratton. Stratton and Schulze use a ton of different filming techniques to tell the story, and these help keep the audience engaged. The duo uses a lot of unique shots without going overboard, and almost every moment in the film seems necessary to tell the story, which is the mark of talented filmmakers.
Dark Fields is an interesting mix of B-movie plot, and big-budget acting and film-making. This results in a movie that deserves its direct-to-video release, but is still worth seeing. Douglas Schulze shows an incredible amount of talent with Dark Fields, and reminds viewers that quality should be expected, even from low-budget, independent films.
Dark Fields uses a lot of computer effects to add to the background of the settings, and show the sickness of the citizens. When in the wrong hands, CGI work can go terribly awry, but this is an example of it being used competently. The director uses film grains to set the mood of the three different eras, but these don’t overshadow the excellent quality of this standard definition, DVD release. During the modern-day tale – where a blue color is used to set the atmosphere – some of the scenes lose details, and look washed out. This appears to be a mix of the limitations of standard definition, and the director using too much of a blue filter while filming (or in post-production, whichever the case may be). This does not cripple the film by any stretch, and the rest of the movie holds up nicely. The DVD lists a 16×9 widescreen presentation with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The Dolby Digital audio presentation, which is never tested with any explosions or the like, is perfectly adequate. For the hearing impaired, there is an English SDH subtitle option.
Dark Fields Trailer (1:22): This is a great example of a trailer that gives too much information away. Would not recommend watching this before seeing the feature film.
Behind the Scenes Featurette (16:29): This behind the scenes look doesn’t include any cast interviews, but has the director, Douglas Schulze, doing voice over work at the start (this stops after about 5 minutes, though, and never returns). Most of the special feature is just someone filming the cast and crew in between takes with a handheld camera. Schulze mentions that David Carradine was big on rehearsal, and liked to rehearse the scenes several times before shooting, but other than that, there is little substance to this featurette.
“Drowning” Deleted Scene (1:52): This is a disturbing deleted scene that shows a mother drowning her young son. Dark Fields works without the scene, but it could have just as easily been included.
Animated Storyboard (6:03): The final audio is played over a couple of storyboarded scenes. The pictures are expertly drawn, and look like something one might find in a comic book or graphic novel, but this will only appeal to those with an affinity for the art of storyboarding.
Audio Commentary with Director Doug Schulze: Schulze immediately clarifies what my research showed: the original title (and preferred title, as Schulze describes it) was The Rain, with the second option being The Rain Chronicles. He explains that the distributor decided on Dark Fields, but doesn’t go into why. Turns out that the idea for this film originated ten years ago, but it was too ambitious for the then-young crew to attempt. Now, with a larger crew and bigger budget, Schulze decided to attempt Dark Fields. There is some interesting information to be found, like the points above, but this audio commentary track is pretty static throughout, (which could be expected with only one commentator). Schulze talks a lot about what his goals were, what he hopes the audience will take from each shot, and about his experiences with the veteran actors in the cast. The information may put some viewers to sleep, and should only be listened to by those that truly enjoyed the film.
Dark Fields is definitely an ambitious project: take three separate stories, taking place in three distinct time periods, and weave them together to tell the tale of Perseverance, all on a small budget. Douglas Schulze finds success thanks to his raw talent, and the work of the veteran actors he hired for the project. The DVD release is pretty weak on the special features, though, and the film has its fair share of problems with the plot that force me to recommend a rent-before-buy mantra with Dark Fields. A film like this begs to be on the Netflix Instant Queue or Comcast OnDemand services, and if it ever becomes available there, any fans of independent, stylistic horror films that do not rely on gore to tell the story, should absolutely give Dark Fields a chance.
Dead Wait Productions LLC and Entertainment One present Dark Fields. Directed by: Douglas Schulze. Starring: David Carradine, Richard Lynch, Dee Wallace Stone, Ellen Sandweiss, and Sasha Higgins. Written by: Douglas Schulze and Kurt Eli Mayry. Running time: 111 minutes. Rating: R. Released on DVD: March 22, 2011.
Tags: David Carradine, horror