In 1969, America was glued to their televisions as news of Charles Manson and his murderous family hit the airwaves: Manson’s maniacal followers had slaughtered the very pregnant Sharon Tate (actress and wife of famed director Roman Polanski) amongst others in her own home. Following this crime, never was the generational gap between flower children and baby boomers more insurmountable. Americans just didn’t know what to do with this. How could this happen? In America? This kind of thing simply didn’t happen here.
And ever since then, Charles Manson has been a pop-culture phenomenon. Idolized by shock rockers Rob Zombie and the name-stealing Marilyn Manson, the man’s face can be found on t-shirts, posters, bongs, and other paraphernalia sported by awesome, mall-dwelling teens. Even Manson’s music (Charles, not Marilyn) received a very underground release. (He was a musician, did you know that? And a shitty one, at that.)
More than forty years later we have The Fields, a very unique and brooding film from directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni. A combination of Zodiac, The Strangers, and steeped in America’s shock and mourning over the Sharon Tate murders, The Fields is very much a different beast from your usual serial killer movie fare. Because this is not a serial killer movie. Yes, Charles Manson and his family play a large part in the events of this film, but this isn’t a blood-and-guts affair. It’s very much an examination of small-town life in 1973, and the effect that news of Manson’s possibly imminent parole has on its citizens.
Steven, a young, curly-haired kid, is shipped off to the isolated farm owned by his grandparents (Tom McCarthy and Cloris Leachman) after a very ugly domestic dispute goes down between his parents (Faust Checho and Tara Reid). The parents need to sort out their issues, and both agree Steven should not be around to witness it. The Fields is told through his eyes, and his fear of Charles Manson being released from prison begins to take hold of him. Very strange and suspicious characters are scattered throughout the film, including Eugene, a farm hand with not too much going on upstairs. His first appearance is very unsettling, and with Manson-like floating arms and lilting voice, your immediate first thought is that young Steven’s fears have come true – that Manson has been paroled after all, and has come for him.
But this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s much smarter than that. It’s very much about the duplication of evil in our world. It suggests that evil is cyclical, and that it’s born at home, in basements right beneath our feet. It is Steven’s fear of Charles Manson that drives the film, and because he is your narrator, you immediately question the things he is seeing – like the demented carnival he discovers after crossing through his grandparents’ cornfield, or the body of the young girl in this same field so very close to their front door…
Cloris Leachman plays an absolutely wonderful part, embracing her role as Gladys and infusing it with equal parts Bad Santa and Barbara Bush. She brings a lot of heart to the film, and people less familiar with her dramatic side (I’m one of them) will find themselves very surprised. While tabloid/human mess Tara Reid delivers a typical Tara Reid performance, her screen time is limited, so her so-so performance is lost in a sea of great ones and does not up-end the film (though her awful wig threatens to).
The film was produced by Tommy Lee Wallace, known to most horror fans as the director of Stephen King's IT miniseries, as well as having worked side-by-side with John Carpenter on some of his earlier films, most notably Halloween and The Fog.
As for the events of the film experienced through Steven’s eyes, you might find yourself asking: What’s real? What’s not? Unlike other films of its ilk, The Fields does answer those questions. And because of this, the audience might find their reaction to the film divided. Some like to have things spelled out for them (even if they don’t like the chosen path) while others like to use their own imaginations to determine what they have just witnessed. This may be The Fields’ only shortcoming, depending on what camp in which you tend to find yourself. Then again, this isn’t so much a shortcoming on behalf of the film as it is of the audience and their inability to allow themselves to go where the movie takes them. It’s certainly not for everyone; it has an established pace and it takes its time telling you just enough to wonder what the hell you’re being told in the first place. Despite this, it’s never a frustrating view, and for me was a pleasant surprise.
Fans looking for something grislier should look elsewhere, but those looking for a meditative slow burn should seriously consider a trip to The Fields.