The history of prehistory on film goes back to the earliest days of cinema, with D.W. Griffith directing Man’s Genesis in 1912. The plot of that 17-minute saga turns on a societal shift whereby Weakhands (Robert Harron), a clever but slight hero, fashions the first club and is able to defeat the bully Bruteforce (Wilfred Lucas), signalling a shift away from strength towards intelligence as the dominant characteristic of humanity.
Other significant events in the early history of mankind feature in One Million B.C. (1940) and its remake One Million Years B.C. (1966) – which both chronicle battles between the brutal Rock tribe and the more ingenious, pacifist Shell People but throw in crowdpleasing but ridiculously anachronistic dinosaurs for matinee action – and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s serious anthropological speculation Quest for Fire (1981), which follows a band of proto-humans on a journey that’s also a technical advance. These literally primal stories float about in the mists of Andrew Cumming’s feature debut The Origin, which constantly sets itself up as not just about a key moment in history but about the way storytelling represents such turning points. Man’s Genesis is framed by an old caveman telling his grandchildren how they came to be civilised. Here, storytelling is also spin. What is in essence a small act of genocide is justified around the campfire by reframing a territorial conflict between disparate branches of humanity as a struggle between true men and monsters.
The Origin begins with a small band gathered around a fire which stands as a lone beacon in a world of deep night. Heron (Luna Mwezi), young son of leader Adem (Chuku Modu), demands stories. Characters are always trying to define their roles in an extended family saga, aware that those with no plot purpose will be written out. Competing versions of their situation on a new shore are put forward by the dominant narrators. This is either a heroic pioneer narrative or a horror story about venturing into a cursed land.
Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a ‘stray’, is attached as a back-up child-bearer should Adem’s mate Ave (Iola Evans) miscarry (again) or die in childbirth. When Beyah begins to menstruate, Ave tells her that her place is more secure since she now has a use. Later, after Adem has been horribly mutilated while attempting to retrieve Heron from unseen creatures, Beyah steps in to put him out of his misery with a stone dagger when his brother Geirr (Kit Young) can’t bring himself to take responsibility. It’s also Beyah who suggests the act that makes us wonder who the real monsters are in these woods – that the survivors should eat Adem to get through the night. Nevertheless, when Odal (Arno Luering) – characterising himself as ‘Wisdom’ – lists the individual qualities that make each member vital to survival, he tags the stray as the most suitable sacrifice to appease the demon.
Shot in stunningly bleak Scots landscapes, The Origin plays like a savage quest saga, with overtones of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) or even Beowulf (2007). It’s deliberately filmed as a horror movie, with jump scares and slow-build chills, literally wallowing in bloody earth at one point. The progress of the narrative is from the shore through the woods and up into mountain caves – all locales of myths in the making – and in the climax, the survivors of the tribe venture into a cave to confront demons, as in such gruesome fringe horror items as Sergio Martino’s Prisoner of the Cannibal God (1978) or S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015). In these films, survivals of primitive forms of man persist in out-of-the-way places; unwary compromised travellers venture into their world and are rent bloodily to pieces. The demonising of ‘caveman behaviour’ or of extinct hominids – there are horror films called The Neanderthal Man (1975) and Trog (1970) – is deeply ingrained in our culture, as if the odious Odal had won his propaganda war.
Cumming and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg slip in a counter-argument. Oakley-Green’s spunky, resourceful, determined Beyah is a tribal heroine in the making, like the Native American protagonist of the Predator prequel Prey (2022), but even this ‘final girl’ might qualify as oppressor rather than saviour. When the mask comes off the ‘monster’, the story is reframed as an inept invasion – murderous and deadly, repaying even attempts at kindness with expert violence. We’re left to contemplate what exactly this has been the origin of.