Director: David Gregory
Writers: James Morgan & David Gregory
Cast: Nick Bartlett & Daniel Rainford
Running time: 4 mins
Growing up in East Anglia puts you in close proximity to a long history of the wyrd. While in modern English that has drifted to a wider sense of the supernatural, the unnerving, the weird, the Anglo-Saxon wyrd is more related to destiny or personal fate. Perhaps this shift is because in the end, there are few things we find stranger and more terrifying than our one undisputed destiny: death.
Black Shuck remains East Anglia’s most enduring legend for this reason. He meets at that intersection where our ancestors have struggled to comprehend the fear of oblivion, and outsourced it symbolically to a gigantic black hound.
Depending on who told the tale, and which traditions they followed, this hound could be a servant of the devil, the protective spirit of a dog buried under sacred ground, or a pagan bringer of death. He could be as large as a pony, or the size of a cat, with two piercing red eyes or just one the size of a dinner-plate. Shuck might pursue a weary traveller through a deserted country road, or be seen at a distance cantering across marshes and beaches along the eastern coast. But whatever the context, the event brings death.
The thing I find most interesting about that, though, is that in contrast to many other spirits and entities in folklore, this fate is usually disconnected from Shuck’s behaviour. There are a few stories where Old Shuck plays a direct role in someone’s demise (including an incident in Blythburgh and Bungay which we spoke about on Tube Rats), but usually his appearance is simply a reminder of mortality – and you or someone you know will pass away in the next year.
The cause of that death could be the deterioration of health, an accident, or the ironic result of something you tried to do to dodge the inevitable – but in the end it’s always something rooted in our world, rather than the supernatural. In this sense, Shuck is a part of us; a set of iconographies dreamt up to represent the one aspect of our own lives we cannot truly know, and which we subsequently fear and demonise.
The first film I ever reviewed for Indy Film Library was Josh Trett’s The Black Shuck, a film which used East Anglia’s famous dog to examine loss and the grieving process – and recognising that the black dog which seemed so horrifying is an unavoidable part of our lives. Without making peace with this representative of The End, we can foster a self-destructive brand of resentment that simply hastens the process, and cuts us off from anything worth living for in the first place.
Providing a welcome walk down memory lane by serving up a second dose of Shuck-fuelled horror, David Gregory’s music video for Long Distance Calling’s Black Shuck plays with these same themes – but shows the dangers that lay in wait when we do not address them. The action follows the foolhardy quest of a grieving father to track down Shuck – who he blames for the death of his first-born son.
During this impossible mission to essentially kill death, the father is making the life of his surviving son a misery. As they stumble through a dark and misty forest, the son tries to explain Samuel had died of exposure, having fled into the woods one night to escape their abusive home. In response, the father immediately responds with the unbelievably cruel assertion “it should have been you!” And as the pair forge ahead into the impenetrable fog – one with a loaded rifle pointed straight ahead – it becomes clear that if a black dog does appear, it will likely only serve as an omen of the horrors to come.
It seems a matter of taste whether you think any of this fits the music – and that is important for a music video. Long Distance Call’s wordless, jangling guitar riff is a distinctly modern sound which has been paired with a decidedly old-school approach to the film. You might argue that the story needs to be more noticeably modern in that case, and could still work on that basis – but I would say it’s worth a little dissonance if it means Gregory’s gorgeous visuals remain intact. Indeed, the story works infinitely better in its current form.
The cinematography was apparently inspired by Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. That film used black-and-white visuals and vintage lenses to place its two antagonists seemingly beyond the realms of reality, in a timeless purgatory – and the camera-work of Black Shuck pulls off something similar, which is important since it is essentially a silent movie. A lot of the characterisation needs to come from visual storytelling in that case, and overall, the film pulls it off here. Having a more rustic and antiquated visual style also helps paper over some of the cracks that would have been more obvious in ultra-HD and technicolour. This footage might have appeared amateurish or cheap, because it leverages that aimless staple of budget filmmaking – wandering about in the woods to save on set-design – but it still comes across as a lot of effort having been made. The wafts of artificial fog also provide a much more pervasive visual blanket as a result, which help to disguise some minimalistic special effects when Shuck finally makes his appearance.
At the end of the piece, after a turn of events you may well have already seen coming, the famous dog looms over the father – but not to attack. He simply delivers a reminder that as convenient as it might be to blame some supernatural force for things going wrong, responsibility for them often lays closer to home – while trying to conquer natural forces as old as time itself will only ever lead to a squandering of the little flicker of life we have, bookended by the void.
“For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men” booms Old Shuck, in the only audible line of dialogue (though one which makes very little sense without subtitles). A succinct and almost mocking stab at the vanity of human beings believing they can rise above nature to deny their own ending – and one which nails the wyrd heart of East Anglia’s immortal legend.
Black Shuck is a well-shot film with a story that understands the legend, playing on its sinister themes, without caving in to make it the jump-scares and gore that contemporary horror has a habit of leaning a little too heavily on. Amid the shocks and horrors which I am still indulging in this October, it has been a subtle palate-cleanser – and will make a great addition to our Halloween Horror Showcase this year.