Tag Archives: Jonathan Russell

Scary Sea Shanty

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

by Hope Madden

Inspired by the British folklore they’ve explored in two features, Hex and The Droving, director George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell turn away from fiction, delivering spectral dread in truer tales.

Their second documentary in less than a year, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea swims dark waters alongside ghost ships and sea monsters.

Popov’s voiceover establishes a Twilight Zone quality: Truth and lies do not relate in such a simple equation when the line between fact and fiction is enshrouded in mist and shadow. Beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective on everything we think we know. I call this place the Sideworld.

Earlier this year, Popov and Russell led us into this mist and shadow with the first installment of their doc series, Haunted Forests of England. Their second effort opens with more of their characteristically haunting cinematography.

The film breaks into four chapters: Ghost Ships, Sea Monsters, Spectral Sailors and Mermaids. Each chapter consists of a number of tails, always highlighting one in particular with some primary or secondary source material to mine.

Though the Flying Dutchman has its fame, the majority of the stories spilled on these shores are little known legends with historical documents for basis. The Wildman of Orford and other tales offer fascinating historical curiosities, while outright ghost stories delight in their sad, scary way.

Popov’s voiceover remains somber throughout, avoiding the campfire fright style of storytelling and instead rendering his tales with reverence. In fact, Popov and Russell’s sympathetic point of view continually asks whether the monsters in these tales are not actually the humans.

Brisk, informative, creepy fun, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea uncovers welcome treasures of haunted folklore.

Wicked Woods

Sideworld: The Haunted Forests of England

by Hope Madden

Jonathan Russell and George Popov have been exploring England’s haunted history for a number of years now. For their first feature collaboration, 2017’s Hex, the co-writers/co-directors took us into the woods for a spell.

In 2020 the pair co-wrote – this time with Popov flying solo behind the camera – a modern exploration of folk horror with The Droving. Once again, the two unveiled a spooky history where primitive behavior meets supernatural forces deep in England’s woods.

The filmmakers’ latest suggests a serious preoccupation at this point. Their documentary Sideworld: The Haunted Forests of England walks us through some of the spectral history that likely influenced their earlier dramatic efforts.

Where Kier-La Janisse’s recent doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched dove into dramatic recreations of folk horror, Popov and Russell dig into the myths that inspired the fiction.

Russell writes, Popov directs and lends vocal talents to the fairly brief excursion into local folklore surrounding three different forests: Epping Forest, Cannock Chase and Wistman’s Wood. Their stories tell of pig beasts and howling dogs, weeping children and witches, tragic lovers and highwaymen.

They don’t stop with musty legend, though. Links to contemporary crime help to bridge the modern with the ancient in a way that sheds light into how tales of hauntings originate.

Though Popov narrates most of the film, he’s joined on occasion by Suzie Frances Garton and William Poulter. The film would have benefitted from more vocal variety, particularly since the filmmakers avoid any kind of talking-head footage. A little commentary from folklorists or experts would also have helped the film deliver a bit more relevance.

You can’t fault the spell Sideworld casts. Richard Suckling, who did such a beautiful job as DP for The Droving, again develops an atmosphere of beauty and dread. His cinematography mesmerizes from the opening moment. Paired with Matthew Laming’s haunting, whispering whistle of a score, the forests of Popov’s exploration easily convince of spectral menace.

Casting a Spell

Hex

by Hope Madden

We’re afraid of the woods. We likely always have been—the Brothers Grimm may have collected wooded tales of witches, elves and wolves both big and bad during the 1800s, but those stories had been passed down for generations.

Those who told the old fairy tales saw the forest as a mysterious place of wonder, temptation, confusion and danger.

Writing/directing team George Popov and Jonathan Russell follow that same bumpy trail into the woods with their first feature, Hex.

Made on little more than a thousand dollars, Hex proves the duo to be a competent set of craftsmen and effective storytellers.

Two soldiers separated from their companies in the 17th century during England’s Civil War chase each other into a deep forest. The rebel Thomas (William Young) is young, soft and open to the dark poetry and doom of witchcraft. He’s not long in the woods before he sees his true enemy is not the countryman behind him with his sword drawn.

Richard (Daniel Oldroyd) fights for King and Country, strident and single-minded, logic keeps him from believing until he has little choice.

Hex draws quick comparisons to Ben Wheatley’s 2013 experiment A Field in England, but where that film felt fanciful and indulgent (though entertaining), Hex feels a bit more like a stage play taken to the woods.

The film is slow-moving, sometimes frustratingly so. Though Popov and Russell’s technical skills are solid, their instincts for pacing and tension-building are less honed. The slight plot relies immensely on an atmosphere of supernatural dread for its success, but it’s here that the filmmakers have some trouble.

The flaw is hardly insurmountable. Even with sometimes obvious budget restrictions, the film looks good. Popov and Russell let light from a campfire spark the imagination, edging frames with shadowy dangers.

Hex sounds great, too, working the nerves with the effective noise of blades unsheathed or the diabolical tinker of a nearby brook, all enriched with Nino Russell’s appropriately bewitching score.

There is more happening here than you realize, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that you only recognize the film’s purpose when they are ready for you to do so. The result is a satisfying tale with more power than just magic.