Starve Acre: English folk traditions take root in this disturbing horror set in 1970s Yorkshire

A grieving family turn to folk remedies and rituals to cope with their loss in Daniel Kokotajlo’s supremely creepy adaptation of Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel.

Starve Acre (2023)

Starve Acre opens with a quote – an obscure four-line folk poem about a demonic figure named Jack and a dandelion, which will cast a shadow over what follows. This citation might be a way of establishing from the outset the literary origins of the film, adapted by writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo (Apostasy, 2017) from Andrew Michael Hurley’s 2019 novel of the same name. But within the film itself, the quote is expressly ascribed to one Neil Willoughby, who will turn out to be the late father of academic archaeologist Richard (Matt Smith).

Despite his own traumatic childhood at Starve Acre under Neil’s abusive thumb, Richard moves back to his family’s remote rural estate with his wife Juliette (Morfydd Clark), hoping its fresh air will suit their young asthmatic son Owen (Arthur Shaw), named Ewan in the novel. As Owen starts to act out disturbingly on what he claims are the whisperings and whistlings of ‘Jack Grey’, a sudden tragedy will expose this family to a deep well of despair that cannot remain repressed and will soon intersect with local folklore.

Where Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) tracked the unravelling of its protagonist’s mental state via cutaways to a rabbit gradually putrefying and decomposing, Starve Acre does the opposite, marking the reintegration of a broken family not only by a slow, seasonal shift from the dead of winter to life-bringing spring, but also by the miraculous, uncanny reformation of disinterred bones into a living, breathing, undeniably sinister hare. But as Juliette resorts to folk remedies for her sorrow, and the less communicative Richard withdraws into obsessive excavation work around the property, their guilt and recrimination will gradually birth something mysterious and malevolent that requires sacrifice to fill the Willoughbys’s void.

While, like Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (2021), Starve Acre uses genre to explore the psychology of loss, it also comes deeply embedded in English folk traditions, even if they have, like that quote from the beginning, been partly or even wholly invented. So what happens at the Willoughby farm might be regarded as a descent into a madness whose very shared nature signifies the couple’s enduring, unhinged commitment to each other. Or it might be their dazed participation in an ancient endemic ritual of renewal that has waited generations to spread fresh shoots, nourished by grief. Either way, this 1970s-set folk horror, unnervingly scored by Matthew Herbert, unearths something primeval and toxic at the very roots of a once, and perhaps again, happy family.  

► Starve Acre was in the Official Competition at the 2023 London Film Festival