When it comes to legendary horror figures, few characters come close to the horrific nature of Scotland's Sawney Bean. The long-lasting campfire story informs us that Sawney Bean was the patriarch of a cannibal family that killed over 1,000 people near the end of the 15th century. You can keep your Bloody Marys and your Jersey Devils; when it comes to long-standing local terrors, Sawney Bean is the Leatherface of urban legends. The story goes that Sawney Bean and an equally vicious wife took to the caves, built up a feral family, and murdered hundreds of unlucky travelers for food.
Sounds like a perfect pitch for a horror flick, yes? As someone who discovered this creepy legend several years back, I've always wondered why there wasn't a "definitive" Sawney Bean horror movie. True, Wes Craven probably used the legend as partial inspiration for the original Hills Have Eyes (1977), and Jack Ketchum's novels Off Season and Offspring almost certainly did, but as far as I can tell, Rick Wood Jr.'s Sawney: Flesh of Man is the closest we've gotten to a "faithful" account. The film opens with a bit of text that explains the legend, but if you're hoping, as I was, for a "period piece" horror story about the "true" mythology behind Sawney Bean, you'll have to wait for the prequel. Sawney: Flesh of Man takes place in modern day, which makes it feel similar to any number of recent slasher flicks, but it also has one foot planted firmly in a grim, gruesome reality that elevates the film well beyond many of its ilk.
Sawney: Flesh of Man, for example, is shot remarkably well. Whether we're deep within a dreary cave splattered with blood and body parts or outside among some of Scotland's most harshly beautiful mountains, Ranald Wood's lighting and cinematography prevents Sawney from ever looking rushed, cheap, or amateurish. (Side note: this outrageously aggressive horror flick is a family affair: Richard Wood co-wrote with his son Rick, the director/editor, and his brother Ranald was the DP. This is how indie films get made, people!) Plot-wise we have a fairly standard framework: a bunch of young women have gone missing from a small Scottish village with a very unpleasant past; a detective and a reporter butt heads but work together ... but the body parts just keep piling up.
Meanwhile, deep within a hidden cave we have the descendants of Sawney Bean -- a family that will seem a bit familiar to anyone who has seen the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies -- and they're an outrageous bunch indeed. The daddy is a firm believer in enthusiastic cannibalism, he has a pair of mutated sons who seem to know a bit of parkour, and there's a feral dwarf and a mysterious-yet-plainly massive "mama" that resides behind closed doors. Basically it's a good thing that Sawney Bean is pure fiction, because the Woods go a little crazy with all the slicing and dicing and flesh-chomping lunacy.
To its credit, aside from a few moments of overt weirdness (seriously, why do the mutant twins flip around so much?), the Woods do a bang-up job of creating an air of doom, gloom, and visual grunge whenever the film stays underground, and once the two plot threads come together (the reporter is the hero, the detective is the sidekick), Sawney: Flesh of Man also delivers some solid moments of sustained tension, splattery shock value, and a few plot contortions you might not see coming. The filmmakers are not above killing off a few key characters early, just to keep us off-balance, and that always adds a nice little dash of unpredictability to a potentially rote slasher flick framework.
Backed by a few solid performances, a tone that balances between over-the-top gruesome and tongue-in-cheek playful, and an unexpectedly intense score by Jody Jenkins, Sawney: Flesh of Man may have a few "first-timer" rough spots, but on the whole it's an admirably confident collection of carnage from the fine folks of Scotland. One assumes that if the flick finds any sort of an audience, Sawney Part 2 will focus more on the old-school legend of 500 years ago, and given what I know about horror fans, we can probably expect that Part 2 within a couple of years.