Tom Mattera and Dave Mazzoni's independent horror film The Fields, not to be confused with sodden Irish drama The Field nor to be confused with The Texas Killing Fields (formerly The Fields), is apparently "based on a true story" as experienced by screenwriter Harrison Smith. This might be one issue with the film--rather than letting go and turning it into a more cohesive thriller; for a good part of its running time it's more of a creepy but ambling coming of age story. But for a low-budget film both the look and the sound are quite nice--soundscapes are an overlooked, important aspect of effective thriller-horror--adding to the American gothic feel. It also does fairly well to capture the feel and atmosphere of the early 70s, which is not easy to do when working on a budget.
October 1973: Cherubic curly haired lad Steven goes to live on his grandparents farm while his parents work out their problems. I'm always a little worried about films, horror, or otherwise, centered around a cute younger kid, but the little actor (Joshua Ormond, who has a lil' Danny Partridge-ish look), is at least sweet and earnest. Steven keeps a Godzilla toy nearby to protect him from both the monsters outside and the scary clown bank inside his room. Tara Reid plays the mother-getting-her-act-together, looks a little Marisa Tomei-ish here but isn't in Tomei's league as an actress. But she's also not in much of the film, which is instead buoyed along considerably by the presence of veteran actress Cloris Leachman, by far the strongest actor here. Leachman adds to the black comedy (including her blunt warning to the boy about staying out of the corn); not quite as hilariously loopy as she is these days on "Raising Hope" but she seems poised to make a living playing kooky grandmas.
The script is erratic, though there are some good lines mixed in ("You should be more afraid of the living than the dead"--not exactly reassuring to a kid worrying about Manson coming over.) There are a few scenes that feel low-key and improvised and the narrative has a bit of a ramshackle flow--like its young protagonist, it has a tendency to wander, which makes it both a bit charming and also frustrating. Neighboring farms and the handicapped aunt who lives nearby: all these places seem populated by the cast of Freaks and the Manson Family players. Farmer "Eugene" is Jeremy Davies-ish by way of, well, a certain certain infamous serial killing cultist frequently referred to in this film and who was just up for parole again, making this somewhat relevant.
Of course creepy cornfields naturally call to mind the Children of the Corn films, but The Fields doesn't really share much with that slasher series, nor is there all that much time spent in the actual cornfield (though it does offer a symbolically scary, if ludicrous, moment in the cornfield near the end).
How much is the boy's imagination and how much is real. It's part of the danger of structuring a narrative from a younger child's POV in that we the audience can end up just as puzzled as he is.
Clearly, for better and possibly for worse, The Fields comes from the heart. The film is in short, best at recreating the atmosphere--using sounds, lighting, characters who are slightly off--from the boy's point of view, how things that are darkly odd can become downright scarringly freaky to a sensitive child. While it's meant to be more a thriller than out-and-out horror, both the feel of it and the marketing make one have certain horror expectations that may be unmet--and the "thrill" and "scare" aspects are harder to grasp on to. It does offer up some genuinely scary moments later on and there's at least enough here to want to see what these makers do next. Maybe something not based on real events?
B-movie horror actor Tommy Lee Wallace is one of the film's executive producers.