Film Review: Dagr

  • Reviews

British and Irish folk-horror is a well tapped vein in modern filmmaking. A deliciously dark sub-genre spearheaded by the unreasonably talented Ben Wheatley’s trio of pagan-tinged terrors in Kill List, A Field in England and In the Earth, it is a genre of film that has exploded in recent years. From Gareth Evan’s Apostle to Kate Dolan’s sublime You Are Not My Mother, talented filmmakers have been digging deep in the dirt to unearth and awaken ancient nightmares from their silt covered sleep.

Two women wearing sunglasses, and one of them also with a feather mask on, take a selfie. Still from Dagr.

And now, with a confident swagger down a well-trodden (if slightly overgrown) path, comes Matthew Butler-Hart’s found-footage horror Dagr; a horror film that understands its found-footage heritage and carves a story out of the YouTube generation’s proclivity for risk, attention and occasional stupidity.

Fame seeking YouTubers, Thea and Louise, are the hosts of “They Deserve This”, a prank show where they cause havoc among the rich and privileged among us (whilst, of course, getting those viewing and engagement numbers up). Posing as the catering team for a commercial shoot in the beautiful Welsh countryside, the fun-loving pair venture into the isolated woodlands to rob the production of their designer costumes and expensive equipment (which will be sold and the money donated to local foodbanks).

A woman holds a camera while talking to someone out of frame. Still from Dagr.

But when they arrive and find the mansion deserted, Thea and Louise uncover the footage left behind by the crew and realise they have stumbled into an occult nightmare…

Dagr is a film that knows its history and is a lot of fun. Opening with a Paranormal Activity / Blair Witch style po-faced title card advising us that what we are about to see is part of an ongoing homicide investigation, the film enjoys playing with narrative conceit that makes so many found-footage films a hit (or a miss, depending upon your preference).

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Central to the movie’s success are the twin performances of Ellie Duckles (Thea) and Riz Moritz (Louise) who play our hapless YouTubers. Funny, natural and gifted with great chemistry, Moritz and Duckles manage to nicely segue from being the kind of irritating online personalities that my kids seem to be obsessed with to being likeable, well-rounded pals who find common ground discussing shit boyfriends, rural boredom and, erm, the memory faculties of the average crow.

A woman wearing a father mask with sharp animal teeth. Still from Dagr.

Director Matthew Butler-Hart is a student of the game and understands the history of the found-footage film (with Thea even giving her best Heather Donahue / Blair Witch Project homage early in the film) and knows how to subvert expectations as well as play into them. The idea of characters in a found-footage film finding some disturbing footage themselves is taken to an amusing extreme at points, but adds an unusual narrative wrinkle into what could otherwise have been a fairly linear story.

Taking place mostly in the bright Welsh sunshine, Dagr does a remarkable job of building tension with the appearance of a murderous hooded figure who seems to flicker in and out of the very footage we are seeing. Unnerving, occultist-chanting emerge over crackling car radios and old-timey television sets burst into life to deliver desperate, pained exposition to give some context to the supernatural terrors.

A woman with blood on her face blocks a door with a chair. Still from Dagr.

Dagr would have benefitted with threading clues to its supernatural entity’s origins across the film rather than relying on a late second act exposition dump, and as such some of those early scares don’t quite land and instead feel a little too sanitised.

And sanitised is a word that sums up much of the film’s early missteps. The abandoned resting place where the girls stop feels much too modern and much too well maintained; in US horror, such a stop would be a thing of dust-covered spider-webbed menace with abandoned cars and creepy locals. Here, you almost feel that there is a Little Chef just over Thea and Louise’s shoulders. And the country manor where much of the mayhem unfolds looks as though it is a well-kept, beautiful place to live and not a creeping pit of occult terror.

A person levitating with feathers and blood covering the walls surrounding them. Still from Dagr.

But these are largely minor quibbles. Dagr is a confident, self-aware and precise slice of folk-horror wrapped in a found-footage bow. Featuring two fantastic central performances that crackle with energy and vim, you will find yourself rooting for our final girls to find their way out of the woods and back to the cosy bosom of YouTube notoriety.

Dagr has limited cinema screenings in the UK before its digital release on 8 April. Visit their website for more information

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