Because I grew up watching horror anthology television programs like “Tales from the Crypt” and “Tales from the Darkside,” my hopes may have been set a bit high for The Field Guide to Evil. Add to that my fondness for the darker aspects of world folklore, and I naively hoped it might land near the top of my favorite films of the year so far. While it certainly is better than those old TV shows, The Field Guide to Evil falls short of the mark in both the horror and folklore categories. In short, it’s not very scary, and the mythology isn’t much more than an afterthought.
The eight international stories presented range from simply mediocre to downright bad. The better of the bunch, “The Kindler and the Virgin” (from Poland’s Agnieszka Smoczyńska, director of 2017’s modern mermaid fable, The Lure) and Greece’s “What Ever Happened to Panagas the Pagan?” might be far from perfect, but at least they offer arresting visuals and genuine atmosphere while still feeling grounded in real, honest oral tradition. “Beware the Melonheads,” (U.S.) which falls on the other side of the spectrum, isn’t much more than a glorified Goosebumps episode, complete with bad effects and worse writing.
Somewhere in the middle are “Palace of Horrors” (India) and “Cobbler’s Lot” (Hungary). Each is reminiscent of literature and cinema from the 1920s and ’30s, which, at the very least, forces them to stand out by contrast alone. The former is a direct descendant of some of the more fun aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s formulaic stories, while the latter boasts a morality tale that F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang could have turned into a masterpiece.
The rest are either forgettable or attempted rehashes of 2016’s The Witch or last year’s wonderful November. Die-hard horror fans (or remaining devotees of those old late-night horror anthologies) will no doubt have fun with The Field Guide to Evil, but its unevenness and reliance on cheap scares are tired and expected. And while I’m not as forgiving a viewer as I was when I was 12, I do have a sneaking suspicion that had some of these shorts been fleshed out into full-fledged features under better circumstances, I could find myself getting fully behind them. But, such is not the case. Oh well.
Starts March 29 at Grail Moviehouse