The Unkindness of Ravens (2016) is the second horror feature from the remarkable Scottish duo, director Lawrie Brewster and writer Sarah Daly. As with their feature debut, Lord of Tears (AKA The Owlman), unleashed on the unsuspecting public back in 2013, The Unkindness of Ravens is a definitely proud Scottish horror movie with the bulk of the action taking place in the Scottish highlands and a highly complex and detailed background mythology derived largely from local Norse and Celtic legends.
Jamie Scott-Gordon is Andrew Alburn, a British Army veteran living rough on Edinburgh’s streets. Andrew is still traumatised by events witnessed while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan and his trauma manifests itself in flashbacks that feature ravens and crows. Just the sight of these birds is enough to push him close to the borders of insanity. To help Andrew overcome these problems Angela (Amanda Gilliland), his counsellor, arranges for him to attend an isolated artist’s retreat in the Highlands where he can concentrate on his poetry and photography.
Naturally things don’t run smoothly and Andrew soon finds his PTSD demons triggered when a broken doll found in a shed causes a flashback to finding a dead Afghan child, while the incessant cawing of the ravens takes him back to when he endured seeing the birds feasting on his dead and injured colleagues. But that is only the start of Andrew’s problems; he then starts to see a dark and twisted version of himself who warns him of the arrival of the Raven Warriors, demons who torture and then devour the souls of lost soldiers.
Sure enough, arrive they do. Andrew finds himself drawn into their dark world, one that is occupied by the tortured shades of his fallen comrades where he has to brattle against the Raven Warriors to preserve his sanity and perhaps even his mortal soul.
This is an incredibly powerful and at times uncomfortable piece of filmmaking. Jamie Scott-Gordon’s performance as Andrew is truly remarkable and will carry you through an emotional meat grinder as the former soldier fights back against his PTSD demons. The flashbacks to the Afghan desert (shot at Scotland’s Tentsmuir Beach, believe it or not) are both gruesome and disturbing, while the soldiers’ scenes in the Raven Warriors’s dimension are really quite harrowing. Something between 17th Century plague doctor and Samurai, the Raven Warriors’ costume design is every bit as iconic as that of the Owlman from Lord of Tears. While Brewster and Daly’s horror debut was clearly influenced by Hammer and British haunted house classics like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), Ravens owes more to folk horror shockers like The Wicker Man (1973) and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), with perhaps a hint of the iconography of the Forbidden Zone from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the violent emotional intensity of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).
As with Lord of Tears Michael Brewster’s cinematography of the Scottish Highlands is both atmospheric and achingly beautiful, while Sarah Daly’s sound design and the musical score by Andy McDonald and Yousef Khalil reinforce the moody aura of Celtic mystery derived from Brewster and Daly’s meticulously detailed background mythology.
It’s rare for a genre movie to highlight a social issue, but The Unkindness of Ravens bravely takes on and illustrates some of the issues faced by British servicemen traumatised by the horrors they have witnessed on active duty. Innovative, disturbing and very, very scary The Unkindness of Ravens is far from your usual horror movie and so much more powerful for that. Brewster and Daly are carving out a truly unique niche for themselves in the UK filmmaking community, one that promises to bear the most original and delicious fruit in the future.
The Unkindness of Ravens is available as a really beautiful three disc gatefold package (Blu-ray, DVD and soundtrack CD from Hex Media). Extras include: A series of Poetic Shorts; Behind the Scenes documentary; Cast and Crew Interviews; Commentary; Trailers,; Deleted Scenes; Pranks; Mythology.
Just in case anyone is wondering: ‘an unkindness of ravens’ is a collective term for a grouping of the birds, similar to a murder of crows.