Director: Josh Trett
Writers: Josh Trett & Mark Finbow
Cast: Rebecca Grant, Mark Finbow, Chloe Morrison
Country of origin: UK
Running time: 13 mins
One of the strangest legacies of the Black Death, and not one often discussed, was its impact on European art. Around a third of the continent had been wiped out by the plague, while previously thriving metropolises like Venice likely lost as many as 60% of their populations. Naturally, such a traumatic chapter in history was reflected upon frescos and canvases, with representations of death permeating huge swathes of the art created after the Black Death receded – but more intriguingly, aspects of joy and hope were front and centre.
Human beings are nothing if not resilient, and this is the underlying theme of Norfolk-based filmmaker Josh Trett’s brief treatise on mortality and motherhood, The Black Shuck. To those who did not grow up cowering behind a couch for fear that Old Shuck might visit – as I did – seeing East Anglia’s legendary demon dog is an omen of death. Undeniably, the story lends itself most obviously to the horror genre, and even inspired the titular apparition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, but this view of the ghostly black dog often overlooks something deeper on the matter of death itself.
While we think of death as an external intruder, a sinister force which occasionally creeps into our lives to snatch away something we love, in reality it is part of our everyday reality. By imagining the force of death to take the shape of a dog, however large or sinister we have since imagined it to be, our ancestors portrayed death as one of the most normal aspects of modern human life – an animal which lives by our side as a servant and even a protector. Similarly, while now we often reflect on death as an end point, it can also be the start of an era of renewal, or of new growth.
It is always difficult to discuss a film with a run-time of less than 15 minutes, without instantly spoiling it, so I will try to keep this brief. In an age of cheap jump scares and hackneyed plot wrangling to deliver fleeting thrills by any means necessary, it must have been tempting to drag the legend of Shuck into the new Millennium as a lucrative yet ultimately vapid horror film. To his credit, director Josh Trett has amiably resisted this, and instead delivered a vision of Black Shuck as a mechanism for a bereaved mother to take control of her grief, and move on to a new chapter of her life.
While the film does well to avoid the trappings of a pedestrian horror in the age of Paranormal Activity, Insidious or the tragically endless Conjuring franchise, it does lack a suitably ominous atmosphere, however. While the end product of this film is well-thought out enough, while the intentions of the force of Black Shuck remain ambiguous, there is little room in a film less than a quarter of an hour long to really ratchet up the tension, in the way that other supernatural shorts can. Using virtually any of the BBC’s many adaptations of the works of M.R. James, it is clear that you do not need a whacking great budget, or even a feature length run time to do this, you just need enough clear thinking space to let the audience’s imagination breathe.
Unfortunately in the case of The Black Shuck, we are delivered through the action at such a pace that there is little room for wondering what the dog might want, or even whether it exists. We are afforded even less space to consider what it might be physically capable of, and as a result what could be a multi-layered and intense portrait of fear, grief and acceptance is instead a little one-note, with no real sense of trepidation to underwrite the supernatural motif. This is ultimately what made The Babadook such an impressive feat, and such a hard act to follow.
The film’s cinematography is at times both a triumph and a source of frustration meanwhile. Gorgeous shots of stain glass windows illustrate the idea that death is and always has been a part of our lives, and suggests to us that just as generations of our precursors did, we will find a way to live with that. At the same time, the beautiful green hues of the eerie Norfolk countryside are smattered with distracting red screen flares. Meanwhile, the editing of the film occasionally creeps into the ‘frenetic’ camp, lending an air of confusion to the chronology of the plot which again detracts from any kind of atmosphere that could have been crafted.
Elsewhere, though, Trett’s film does show a deft touch that, were it evenly distributed throughout a slightly longer film, would see this creep into A-grade territory. Dialogue is admirably minimal here, something which again, and rather than trawling through excruciating expository discourse, the director largely opts to show instead of tell. Considering this film has been released in a time when the mental gymnastics involved in creating a horror film’s McGuffin has scraped new barrels, as with Truth of Dare and The Bye Bye Man, this alone should be celebrated, while directors willing to grant audiences a scrap of intelligence should be afforded more opportunities to tell stories like this.
At the end of the day, it is easy to lambast up-and-coming filmmakers for a lack of sheen when it comes to their output. It would similarly easy to write of The Black Shuck as ‘not scary’, and move on. But filmmakers willing to risk something, and not simply churn out work via a sloppy Hollywood template deserve better than the critical equivalent of “TLDR”. Josh Trett tried something with The Black Shuck, and while the film does not fully pull it off, it does deliver a thoughtful look at the natural force of death, and a pleasing screen incarnation of a precious piece of Norfolk folklore that might otherwise die out. That alone is a triumph.
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