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Non-Review Review: Without Name

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Without Name is a stunningly confident theatrical debut from director Lorcan Finnegan.

In theory, Without Name belongs that long-standing environmental horror genre, the fear that nature exists in opposition to mankind and that human beings are ultimately a hostile species not welcome in their surroundings. There are all manner of variations in that classic horror set-up, but it bubbles through any number of classic horror films, from The Shining to Jaws to The Birds. There is a recurring fear that the world is not a welcoming place for mankind, and that the wilderness might one day rebel against mankind’s desire to tame it.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Without Name takes that familiar premise and puts a uniquely Irish spin on it, distinguishing its own set of anxieties from those felt by the European Settlers in the United States or even those disconnected from their pagan roots in the United Kingdom. Without Name draws heavily upon the Western European pagan spirituality that informs films like The Wicker Man or A Field in England, but weds it to unique Irish anxieties about property and ownership that reflect both long-standing uncertainties and modern fears.

The result is a delightfully weird little environmental horror that feels very much of its time and place, a credit to its first-time director.

Sleep well...

Sleep well…

The best horror films tap into primal fears and base anxieties. Ownership is one of those key uncertainties, especially for western audiences. This is most obvious in the success of economic home-ownership horrors that populated American multiplexes in the seventies and eighties, most notably films like The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist. Indeed, it is telling that The Conjuring revived the genre around the time of the financial crisis, driven in large part by mortgage uncertainty. Owning property is terrifying, especially the fear that it could be lost.

By virtue of its history, Ireland has a unique set of property-related anxieties. Most obviously, the long and bitter struggle towards independence means that ownership of land is a hot-button issue for many Irish people. More than that, a large part of that movement towards independence was tied up in organisations like the Land League, fighting for fair rights for tenant farmers. Owning land is very important for Irish people, particularly when compared to other European nations like France or Germany. There are historical reasons.

Survey says...

Survey says…

Indeed, it is perhaps telling that Without Name subconsciously and repeatedly alludes to this history of Irish nationalist identity. The lead character, Eric, is played by British actor Alan McKenna without any effort to disguise his accent; the audience is clearly intended to read the protagonist as British. Indeed, his Britishness is part of the texture of the film, affirming his status as “outsider” wading into alien territory. Eric is ultimately a foreigner involved in an awkward land grab in rural Ireland, an image with a lot of historical power.

It is also worth noting that this subtext bleeds over into the title. Drinking at the local pub, Eric is surprised to discover that the gully he is surveying has no name. Well… almost. He discovers that it has an Irish name. “Gan Ainm.” The name of the local gully translates as “no name; literally, without name”, which makes the film’s title a very little Anglicisation of something that is distinctly and deeply Irish. Without Name never dwells too heavily on the idea, but it is there.

All good in the woods...

All good in the woods…

These historical anxieties are filtered through a more modern lens. The opening sequence of the film very effectively follows Eric as he drives from the heart of Dublin out into rural Ireland. As the grey urban surroundings give way to greenery and shrubbery, the talking heads on the radio discuss the potential to build a new Ireland for the people, “not just the developers.” Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Eric is working for developers engaged in a scheme of questionable legality and morality.

Characters repeatedly express concern about the morality of Eric’s survey, his attempts to map out this mysterious ethereal landscape for the benefit of these shady and ambiguous forces represented by a suspender-wearing businessman on Skype. When Eric expresses his concerns about how the authorities will react to the survey, the businessman assures him, “The EPA protects the environment. But it also protects those who want to exploit the environment.” There is a very pointed very contemporary relevance to the horror in Without Name.

Naked ambition...

Naked ambition…

Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense. In some respects, Without Name is a logical extension of the themes suggested in Lorcan Finnegan’s Foxes. That was another ethereal environment horror set against the backdrop of development in contemporary Ireland, the horror story of a couple living isolated in a rural housing development and finding nature intruding into that most civilised of spaces. It is a very classic and conventional environmental horror theme, but it is filtered through a modern lens. It is great horror.

At its core, Without Name is a classic pagan horror about nature taking a brutal revenge upon those arrogant enough to think that they might tame it. Eric is repeated haunted by an image from early in the film, a green shrub breaking through the harsh concrete of a city-centre carpark. Even at the concrete heart of the grey cityscape, nature still bursts through. It finds a way, nibbling and eroding and mankind’s sense of certainty. Finnegan evokes sixties counterculture, through the hippie character Gus or Kirlian photography.

Can't see the wood for the trees...

Can’t see the wood for the trees…

(Indeed, Finnegan boasts his paranormal bona fides by populating the script with little touches that could easily have been lifted from anthology horror shows like The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. In fact, that classic nineties horror series even discussed Kirlian photography in Leonard Betts. Scenes of surveying interrupted by monsters in the woods recall Detour. The recurring suggestion of intelligent and intruding trees evoke Schizogeny. There are a lot of classic horror tropes here, executed with considerable fear.)

However, the heart of Without Name is that same pagan anxiety that is common to a lot of British and Irish environmental horror, the notion that landscape is populated by older and primal forces that mankind has come to dismiss or ignore. “I don’t believe in the concept of private property,” Gus confesses to Eric at one point in the film. “That’s because you don’t own any,” Eric smugly responds, taking a swig of his drink. “Nobody does,” Gus counters “They only think that they do.” That is the real fear of Without Name.

(Indeed, Without Name plays like a uniquely Irish take on a classic British horror genre. Finnegan’s work evokes that of Ben Wheatley, and his recurring fascination with the relationship between the island of Great Britain and its inhabitants. It also feels very much rooted in the aesthetic of the “British invasion” that drove a lot of the early horror comics at the brand Vertigo, from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing to Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. There is the sense of the land as a place with a history and culture beyond what men know.)

Finnegan’s direction is confident and assured, skilfully creating a mounting sense of dread and unease. A lot of Finnegan’s directorial style is very old-fashioned, relying heavily on atmosphere and practical effects over jump scares and computer-generated imagery. It is a very effective choice, particularly given the wonderfully eerie location work. In those woods, Finnegan understands how easily he can disorientate the audience through a simple zoom or focus-shift, making it seem like the world is moving around his characters.

Without Name is a horror that leans more on mounting uncertainty than on shocking visuals. A lot of the film’s elegance lies in its relative simplicity. For example, one of the movie’s most uncomfortable sequences involves nothing more than silhouettes cast against a wall, shapes moving in the shadows. It is an effect that was likely very cost-effective, even if it required a lot of choreography and set-up. Similarly, the ground seems to groan whenever characters place something in it, adding to the sense of the world as a living and breathing organism.

Finnegan clearly understands the mechanics of the genre in which he is working. If there is a problem with Without Name, the movie could probably be tightened. Without Name is powered by a sense of ever-mounting dread, a slow-ratchet tension that builds across the runtime. However, the film could stand to lose (or at least shorten) some of the build-up, as it seems like the audience is very far ahead of Eric in figuring out that something has gone horribly wrong. (Then again, this is hardly a unique criticism; many horror films face this issue.)

Without Name is a well-constructed horror film from a director with a lot of promise.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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