Friday, 23 October 2020

Report from the 2020 Mayhem Festival (Skeleton Edition)

Guest reviewer Satu Sarkas-Bosman gave us the lowdown on Nottingham's Mayhem Film Festival back in 2018, and I'm pleased to include her roundup of the slimmed down 2020 Festival, which was founded in 2005 by film makers Steven Sheil and Chris Cooke, and has evolved into a marvellous mixture of horror, science fiction and cult cinema.

What a strange year this has been so far, our usual horror gatherings and festivals are all on hold or reach us online, therefore it was a pleasant surprise that Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil decided to go ahead with a much pared down version of the usual four day feast. Three feature films and one short film showcase over 4 evenings; it was sold out, suitably distanced and even our facemasks did not dampen the atmosphere.

The first Festival offering was Boys from County Hell directed by Chris Baugh (The Captors, Bad Day for the Cut) and his tale of an ancient Irish vampire. This horror comedy introduces us Eugene (Jack Rowan) and his father (Nigel O'Neill) and their fractious relationship. Eugene, together with his friends Claire (Louisa Harland) and William (Fra Fee), portray brilliantly the utter boredom of being stuck in a small village.

Eugene's father's freeway construction project causes plenty of bad feeling in the village, especially since it will destroy the cairn where the legendary Abhartach, a vampire like creature, allegedly sleeps.

Tragedy ensues resulting in blood being spilled and the creature waking from its slumber. There is plenty of bloody kills, humour and a particularly satisfying looking creature. Refreshingly there is no stake through the heart, crosses or any of the usual armoury when battling bloodsucking creatures.

The cast is excellent, the story moves on in a satisfying pace and gives you a fun way to spend an October evening.

Unfortunately I missed Psycho Goreman the latest offering from Steven Kostanski, former Astron-6 member and the director of The Void and Manborg. I heard, from a reliable source, that if you are a fan of his work this will not disappoint you.

The third evening gave us Mayhem's 'Shorts Showcase' which is always close to my heart. Troll (Dan Lord) and Heat (Thessa Meijer) gave us truly short and delightful bites. Behind the Door (Andres Borghi) is a familiar story of the consequences of a desire to speak to the dead. As for the rest:

Dead End (Jack Shillingford) gives you a shiny Landrover, foggy atmosphere and a werewolf: enough said.

Peter the Penguin (Andrew Rutter) appealed to my sense of the surreal, especially if you like penguins...

Changeling (Faye Jackson) dealt with motherhood, transformation with an intriguing atmosphere but part of the soundtrack was so high-pitched that you wished for it to be all over.

There Will Be Monsters (Carlota Pereda) was a clear statement of what should happen to those who attempt to take advantage of a very drunk woman.

Ferine (Andrea Corsini) unfortunately was my least favourite of the night, a very predictable take on a feral existence.

No one is Coming (Matthew and Nathaniel Barber) had that 80's feel to it, a lone woman (or is she..?) in a remote cottage.

Muse (Azhur Saleem) was a very well put together mix of sci-fi and decay: I would gladly have the paintings featured on my own wall. What indeed happened to those visiting the artist's home?

Abracitos (Tony Morales) had a feel of a Spanish ghost story; a phone call in the middle of the night shakes the world of the two sisters.

Farce (Robin Jensen) had a lot say about greed, decadence, large penises and true love. Sami man is determined to save his reindeer herd and have the woman his heart desires.

Live Forever (Gustav Egerstedt) was a musical number where the victims of horror films can tell you in a song the reason for their demise. This is great if you ever want a sing-a-long at a horror festival.

And finally...

This was the absolute highlight for me, The Oak Room (Cody Calahan) is adapted from Peter Genoway's stage play and beautifully written. The atmosphere from the outset draws you in.

There is a snow storm outside and when Steve (RJ Mitte) walks in to the bar, Paul the bartender (Peter Outerbridge) is not happy to see him. There are two distinct storylines here, happening in two separate bars and the finale links these tales together. I am not going to reveal the story here at all since all of it is interlinking and significant in its own way. 

This film is driven by a dialogue, the kind of storytelling you can expect when someone can really spin a yarn. It is evocative, engrossing and yet the characters feel very human. The acting is excellent; Peter Outerbridge, RJ Mitte, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell and Martin Roach all provide strong performances. 

The soundtrack is extremely effective and parts of it reminded me of the powerful tunes of Sicario. This film also made me think of Pontypool; it has the same feeling of a dark tones, suspense and uncertainty of the outcome.

Monday, 19 October 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM #9: Reviews of Ravenstein (UK 2020), A Werewolf in England (UK 2020), Saint Maud (UK 2019), Markham (UK 2020), A Dark Path (UK 2020) and Rose: A Love Story (UK 2020)

Ravenstein (UK 2020: Dir Eveshka Ghost) One look at Ghost's 'how to make films on a budget' videos confirms a director who knows the limitations of low cost movies and how to work within constraints. Ravenstein, made for less than £400, is certainly not without its problems, but it's also a very impressive scare movie.

Two friends, David (James McClusky) and image obsessed Marky (Nik Kaneti-Dimmer), trespass onto a yard containing an abandoned glazing factory. While investigating the ruins of the facility and thinking that they're on their own, they come across mead swilling Jack (Chris Wilson), a homeless guy who sees the ruined factory as home, and who, for reasons we'll find out later, is unable to leave.

Marky goes off exploring on his own and encounters, first a flurry of dark feathers and then a life sized terrifying bird man: the 'Ravenstein' of the title (the feather thing is a nifty side effect of the creature's ability to move very quickly). An incoherent Marky struggles to communicate the source of his fear to David.

Meanwhile two stoners, Andy (Thomas Walters) and Charlie (Seth Easterbrook) stumble across the same abandoned factory, and after a lot of drunken farting about, get slain by Ravenstein. Soon David, Marky and David's dad Ray (Martyn Eade) who comes looking for his son, end up cornered by the birdman. But where has Jack gone?

Don't look for oodles of plot in Ravenstein, and what there is - about the birdman slowly killing off the factory employees, and a powerplay between Ray, who used to own the factory (and right hand man Jack; yes, the same homeless Jack) - is a tad confusing. It's also way overlong and many scenes outstay their welcome (often a problem with one writer/producer/director gigs). But oh goodness there's also so much to love about it.  

First off, the whole movie is shot at night. Now the odd night scene can be a challenge to a low budget director without the means to really carry the footage off, but Ravenstein is spectacularly lit and framed, making the junkyard setting way more spooky that it would have been in daylight. Second, the birdman is genuinely freaky, looking like a lifesize satanic version of that thing whose arse was regularly penetrated by Rod Hull, and with some genuinely eerie sounds emanating from it. And on the subject of sounds, particular mention should be made of Chris Wilson's diverse and hugely atmospheric soundtrack. From symphonic grumbles through stabs of shock synths and then cacophonous metal pieces signifying the arrival of Ravenstein; it's no wonder that the whole thing will shortly be available on the Rusalka Records website. So yes, this is a very good film. Shorter and tighter edits would have made it a great one, but it's a movie Ghost should be proud of.

A Werewolf in England (UK 2020: Dir Charlie Steeds) The prolific Charlie Steeds is back with his third feature this year, after the creepy An English Haunting and the rabble rousing Death Ranch. This time the director turns his attentions to a period horror piece, evoking memories of classic Hammer films, but also injecting an element of comedy hitherto missing from Steeds’ output (and doesn’t that title reference another rather famous lycanthropic shocks and yocks movie?).

Archie Whittock (Reece Connolly) is being transported for trial, almost certainly likely to hang following his murder of a man: except Whittock maintains that the person he killed was a werewolf. Whittock is handcuffed to his protector, Parish Councillor Horace Raycraft (Tim Cartwright), and the pair are travelling by coach. They’re forced to stay overnight at a coaching inn, appropriately named ‘The Three Claws’ and run by blowsy Martha Hogwood (Emma Spurgin Hussey). The area, Grittleton Marsh, is steeped in local legend, including being home to wolves.

But the inn they’ve happened on has its own secrets; not only do the Innkeepers have their own sideline in chopping up bodies, but it looks like the stories about lycanthropy are true, and worse, these two facts are connected. So Whittock is vindicated, but as the werewolves gather to attack the inn, will he last long enough to protest his innocence?

Steeds’ skills here – of creating something out of not much at all – are in abundance. Most of the movie takes place in a two room set (the inn is a real location in Cornwall but I’m guessing the owners feared for the soft furnishings) but so inventive is the camerawork and the interplay between the quirky cast that you barely get time to acknowledge and limitations of the interiors.

And let’s hear it for the werewolves, courtesy of the US SFX company Midnight Studios! There may not be enough money for a full on transformation scene, but with nary a CGI moment visible, A Werewolf in England’s ketchup and grue is authentically grisly; although I’m not entirely sure about the ingredients that went into the wolfman diarrhoea which features in a scene worthy of Peter Jackson’s early movies.

You can tell that Steeds is having fun here: the The Evil Dead visual references fall over each other, and the cast look like they’re enjoying themselves too: Barrington de la Roche, a fixture of all of Steeds’ movies, in particular turns in a super ripe performance as one of The Three Claws’ shadier staff. The director once again shows his versatility at turning out quality product which doesn’t break the bank but looks a million dollars. I do not know how he does it, but I’m damn glad he does.

Saint Maud (UK 2019: Dir Rose Glass)
Maud (an astonishing performance from Morfydd Clark), a carer for the sick, has been appointed by her agency to provide palliative care to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer, who lives in a large but rundown house on the edge of a coastal town.

Maud is recently religiously converted and her passion to help is divinely inspired: the conversion was triggered by an earlier incident, briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the film, when she was responsible for a serious medical error with fatal consequences. Her religious conviction and seriousness of intent amuses Kohl, a figure who was once famous but is now ill, lonely and craving better company than the crowd of sycophants who regularly flock to her home to share her drugs and booze. In return Maud increasingly sees Amanda as a project for salvation. She  refuses to be publicly shocked at her client's substance use or lesbian lifestyle: but her attempts to assert control, ostensibly to protect her charge, backfire when she tries to dissuade Kohl's companion and lover Carol (Lily Frazer) from visiting, resulting in Carol ratting on her; now out of favour, a further incident leads to Amanda dispensing with her services. Maud freefalls, briefly lapsing into promiscuous behaviour, before regathering herself into something stronger and more lethal, inspired in part by the images from a book on William Blake given to her by Kohl, but equally to answer her inner calling.

Glass's extraordinary film is made even more so by virtue of it being her debut feature: there's an assuredness of tone, look and feel that recalls early Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Peter Strickland. Taut, economical and beautifully controlled, Saint Maud contains an almost constant threat of violence on the part of the title character, undercut with a painful vulnerability. 

We can never know exactly what Maud's motivations are, and Glass gives us precious little to play with here. While it's obvious that she's fundamentally damaged, and arguably channels this into a created religious fervour (we learn that after the incident referred to earlier she changed her name from the more prosaic Kate to 'Maud'), her moments of self harm might be dressed up as something more devotionally profound; but they could also be cries for help. 

Glass wisely holds back on the more upfront horror, adding to the tension of the piece; when strange things - well stranger than the rest of the film - happen they are more shocking as a result of the restraint. Much of the power of Saint Maud is down to Clark, who has already established an unusual acting CV of which Tilda Swinton would be proud. She's in every scene of this film, and her otherworldliness - which can never be accused of feyness or pretension - hits all the right notes. Ehle too is so good as the dying ex-dancer, amused and bored with life and finding true fascination in Maud's company. This is an exceptional film, and Rose Glass is clearly a director to watch.

Markham (UK 2020: Dir Matthew Cooper)
 This is the second time today I've seen a film which re-uses uses the old 1990s VHS classification public warning footage, the first being South African weird fest Fried Barry. And while both movies are mind fucks, Cooper's film, supposedly 'A tale told in four tides', is a beast entirely its own.

Cooper mentioned to me that "Markham was... improvised in a manner which was very labour intensive and then the plot was built in the edit over 18 months (we'd then go back and shoot other scenes to connect the narrative up)." That sounds like an insane way to shoot a film, and the results are understandably bewildering.

From what I can understand of the plot, filmmaker Rob (Ashe Russell) is putting together a unique feature within the horror genre; while all of the action will have been worked out beforehand, using a cast of actors, the protagonist will be an unsuspecting member of the public, and their reactions to the events around them will be the substance of the movie. Rob sends his unnamed accomplice (played by Cooper) location scouting, to the same are scoped out by two previous filmmakers who have mysteriously disappeared. One of this pair, Matt (Gareth Parry) had written a Lovecraft influenced script involving a race of sea dwelling beings related to the infamous Cthulhu (Lovecraft's infamous interstellar beings). While scoping out the locations, Rob's assistant is approached by Tony (Tony Coughlan) who tells him about the missing men and the humanoid fish creatures that emerge from the sea onto the land. Later at his digs, the assistant finds film equipment left by the previous pair, and settles down for a night's sleep.

What he doesn't know is that Rob has decided that his assistant is to be the first test of the previously described setup. It appears that Tony is an actor and the meeting has been pre-arranged. Rob has also ensured that the tea bags are laced with LSD, and when that takes effect, co-ordinates various sound effects and all round orchestrated eeriness to provoke a reaction. Unfortunately this goes wrong; the assistant, now crazed, leaves the room and heads off to the coast, where he lays his hands on the village monolith. This action, 2001: A Space Odyssey style, alerts a race of interstellar beings on Star Spawn base: the Sekurig Cthulhu Watch Station. This then seems to cause a number of the creatures to rise out of the water.

Writes Cooper "It was a mad thing to try, as was shooting portions of the film on Super 8mm - we often waited three months or more for the footage to come back from the process people. It was a very real learning experience."

Markham is an extraordinarily bold mess; it has about thirty different ideas all fighting for prominence, and no one concept ever claims primacy. It's amusing, baffling, often incomprehensible, and inventive as hell, with masks, animation and some effective CGI. You can keep your multiplex blockbusters or your costume dramas, this is inventive, nuts guerilla filmmaking, which fractures its own narrative on several occasions and challenges the concepts of cinematic storytelling. There's a great doomy score by Mariella Nelson Renaud which works well with the often sumptuous photography of northern coastal locations; again Cooper adds that "we shot in places which are dangerous and are well known for fatal rock falls," which is no more or less bonkers as an idea than the rest of the film. Brilliant. 

A Dark Path (UK 2020: Dir Nicholas Winter)
 Uptight Abi (Makenna Guyler) is in Eastern Europe with her rather more carefree sister Lilly (Mari Beasley) at a hen night for friend jess (Annabelle Mackinnon-Austin). But she's not having a lot of fun, being the designated driver and everything, and having to deal with a hungover Lilly the morning after. They have to make an evening return flight, whiling away the time on the long road back and bickering, as sisters do. But as evening falls they're still a long way from the airport, and worry that they might miss the flight; a flat tyre on a lonely country road, with no mobile phone signal, about sums up the whole excursion for Abi. But it gets worse; the hire car spare tyre is flat, so they decide to walk to find help. 

Abi's uptightness in the face of a party stems from an experience at Uni where she and a friend were attacked; when locked in she freaked, escaped and hadn't talked about it since: there's a sense that this story might be preparing us for something. Lilly goes for a wee and gets lost, and Abi finds another English girl in the woods. She's Hanna (Thomasin Lockwood) and she has a serious injury to her leg, but is unable to articulate how she sustained it. Abi and Hanna find shelter in a woodlands hut, but their place of safety is interrupted by the arrival of a something...they must fight to stay alive.

In the grand tradition of creature feature B movies, A Dark Path is 80% conversation, 10% beginning and end credits and 10% monster action. Winter builds the characters of Abi and Lilly well but to little effect as the peril element of the movie is so brief. There's some great night-time photography going on - the films looks far better than it plays - and the director opts for a less straightforward ending than the viewer is expecting, but A Dark Path is a very slight film with some real pacing issues. Winter's previous movie, Bone Breaker, had its problems but was better than this. His latest released work, House of Shadows, will be reviewed in NWotBFF #10 coming soon. 

Rose: A Love Story (UK 2020: Dir Jennifer Sheridan) Sheridan's debut feature is arguably a horror film that doesn't want to be called a horror film, leaving its ultimate story reveal almost until its closing moments. 

Rose (Sophie Rundle) and her husband Sam (Matt Stokoe, the film's writer) live, as it were, off the grid. Rose is ill; the specifics are withheld but what appears at first to be a self sufficient lifestyle (Like a Survivors version of Tom and Barbara Good) is in fact a need to remains secluded. She's writing a book, suggesting another reason for their remote life, while Sam sets traps and hunts dinner.

The film charts their day to day existence; as such by its nature the movie is a slow burner, charting the cycles of day to day living; the snowy Welsh landscape provides a diverting backdrop to the carefully shot but patience testing scenes of rural domestic life. Hints are offered regarding Rose's condition (which genre fans will pick up) - she eats odd looking, bloody food, which turns out to be mashed up leeches, of which there are a number of jars around the cottage - and it's clear that Sam's temper is barely in check.

When a young girl, Amber (Olive Gray), gets caught in one of Sam's traps, the two hander becomes three. Amber's arrival, which threatens exposure, changes the dynamic, and Rose's secret stands to be exposed.

Rose: A Love Story is a bold, almost Tarkovsky like attempt to integrate nature and surroundings into a story about human dilemmas. Stunningly shot, and with subtle but powerful performances from real life husband and wife Rundle and Stokoe, the final reel reveal almost felt unnecessary; this is a film that deals with abstractions and nuances, and I personally didn't need anything spelled out. I was reminded of Dominic Brunt's 2013 movie Before Dawn (also about physical breakdown and featuring a husband a wife team on screen) but Sheridan's movie is more careful, narratively occluded, and possibly too polite.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (USA 1979/2018: Dir David Amito, Michael Laicini)

Well I'm still here. The mystery surrounding Antrum - 'The Deadliest Film Ever Made' according to the strapline - is an all too rare example of a movie surrounded by hype these days. The comparison with the fuss surrounding The Blair Witch Project (in concept if not execution), the last big release with similar pre-release mystery attached, is apt because that movie is 21 years old now.

Taken at face value 'Antrum', the movie within the movie here, is even older. Supposedly filmed back in 1979, the documentary segments that bookend the thing give an account of the troubled history of 'the film that kills': the death of film programmers after they watched it following its submission to film festivals in 1983; the first screening in Budapest in 1988, resulting in a fire that emanated from the auditorium, killing all of the 56 people in the audience; and the only other showing, in San Francisco in 1993, resulting in a riot triggered by the audience eating acid spiked popcorn; and the tracking down of the sole copy of the film at an auction, which seems to have been doctored with added subliminal sounds and images. 

"You don't jump out of your seat with scares," assesses one talking head after having watched a segment of the movie: "it just gets under your skin." And that's a pretty fair assessment of the film, which starts with that good old publicity stunt, the on screen disclaimer: Mr Castle would have been proud.

Oralee (Nicole Tompkins), her mother Amber (Kristel Elling) and her younger brother Nathan (Rowan Smyth) have just witnessed their dog Maxine being put down. On the way back in the car, Nathan asks whether the dog has gone to heaven? "No," mum replies, "Maxine isn't in heaven because she was bad." This information leads to Oralee and Nathan hiking out into the woods to an area where, according to Oralee - who seems to know a lot about this stuff - "the devil landed when he was cast out of heaven, and at that very spot, we'll find an entrance to hell; the antrum."

When the pair hit upon the location, they begin to dig, and as they get deeper, the screen flashes up with the levels that they've achieved; the intention being to re-connect with hell bound Maxine. It's not clear whether Oralee really believes any of this or whether the whole thing is for Nathan's benefit, although she has a book with her - a grimoire - which she seems to treasure, containing a lot of details about the realms of hell. But what they do eventually find is satanic, but ultimately far more prosaic than they were expecting.

'Antrum' the movie within the movie runs for some 78 minutes, after which a brief end section attempts to understand the nature of the manipulation of the print and offer an explanation for the backmasking, audio disturbances and additional images - sigil - printed onto the 35mm copy. 

The story of 'Antrum' is pretty thin, and it's really only the subliminal sequences that make it of interest. It feels authentically like a 1970s movie - the colour palette looks convincing, and the overall feel of the piece is very much of its time; it even convinces that it's a US movie when it was actually filmed in Canada. And there are some odd little tics in the movie - like the inclusion of a puppet squirrel - that suggest some fun is being had here.

Less convincing is the po faced narration - too mannered and stilted to be convincing - and the cod satanic explanations, which, when offered up with re-runs of certain sequences in the film, just expose the hokey and rather clumsy concept behind it all.

I admire Amito and Laicini for what they tried to do, and I'm a sucker for a gimmick as much as the next film fan, but there was something about Antrum that, and this seems to be stating the obvious, slightly fell apart when deconstructed. Cool squirrel though.

Danse Macabre will release Antrum in UK Cinemas on 23rd October and on DVD & Digital from 26th October, 'over forty years after its original release' (states the publicity).

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Films from Grimmfest 2020 Part 2: Reviews of The Unhealer (USA 2020), An Ideal Host (Australia 2020), I Am Ren (Poland 2019), Rent-A-Pal (USA 2020), Monstrous (USA 2020), Urubú (Spain 2019) and Fried Barry (South Africa 2020)

So here's the last seven of my coverage of the majority of the features at Grimmfest. Part 1 is here:

The Unhealer (USA 2020: Dir Martin Guigui) While some movies fetishise the style of the 1980s, Argentinian director Martin Guigui continues to his rather eclectic career CV with this strange throwback movie whose story is straight from an 80s video rental.

Lance Henriksen is Pflueger, a faith healer doing the rounds of the mid west, looking like Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future (1985). He's stolen some magic from an Indian burial site, which gives its possessor special powers, much to the annoyance of first Nation chief Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond). Meanwhile young Kelly (Elijah Nelson) is the kind of kid that gets kicked around at school, in part because he has a tendency to eat the packaging of food rather than the food itself. Mum Bernice (Natasha Henstridge) is understandably concerned. She's seen Pflueger in action and invites him to their house to treat Kelly. But what happens instead is that the power transfers from the healer to the boy. And as a result Kelly works out that he's become immortal, with the ability to recover from any injury; any harm done to him is immediately felt by the harmer. Time to show those bullies who's who, and also reacquaint himself with class cutie Dominique (Kayla Carlson). But the bullies get their revenge, and set about messing with the trailer home Kelly shares with mum. The prank backfires however, causing the home to explode (with Bernice inside); and when Kelly finds out what they've done, he gets really mad.

The Unhealer is a strange mix of PG style wish fulfilment movie, with added gore (it's actually rated 18 and with good reason). The joint morals of 'be careful what you wish for' and 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' thread through the film, and the old native burial site plot device is brought out of retirement. That's not to say that this isn't hugely enjoyable, because it is; hey who doesn't like watching movies where the little guy gets all buff and beats on the class gits? The Unhealer is aided by some great turns, particularly Henriksen, albeit he isn't in it for long, and Henstridge as Kelly's worried mum; Elijah Nelson is also convincing as the weakling turned superboy Kelly. This is an enjoyable old school movie which plays like one of those shiny mid career Wes Craven movies like Deadly Friend (1986). Recommended.

An Ideal Host (Australia 2020: Dir Robert Woods) Squeaky clean couple Liz (Nadia Collins) and Jackson (Evan Williams) have just moved into their new home in a remote part of Australia and are about to hold a dinner party for a group of friends, with the whole evening timed to the last second. Among the group who arrive is Daisy (Naomi Brockwell), who has a history of upsetting such gatherings with a loose mouth and a penchant for booze. 

Predictably as the wine is opened Daisy acts true to form, and Liz's plans for the perfect evening are ruined. But when Daisy steps outside for some fresh air with Brett (St John Cowcher), who lives on a neighbouring farm, Brett comes on to her; she also sees something weird coming out of his mouth. Back at the house Daisy's story is seen as mere attention seeking, but the reality is far stranger than most of the guests were expecting.

This micro budget horror comedy gets its thematic inspiration from films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter's 1982 re-boot of The Thing and Jack Sholder's Hidden (1987). It may take a while to get going, but the last third is both gore soaked and inventive. The movie also benefits from a very smart script and in the case of Liz, a character who makes the highly enjoyable transition from domestic goddess to indefatigable heroine (and back again), at one point cauterising a wound using the blow torch normally deployed for browning creme brulees. 

I Am Ren aka Panacea aka Jestem Ren (Poland 2019: Dir Piotr Ryczko) Renata (Marta Król) is wife to Jan (Marcin Sztabinski) and mother to son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki). She also believes that she's an android purchased for the family; not named Renanta but Ren, an acronym for Regenerative Emotive Neuro-being, and she has a barcode on the bottom of her foot to prove it. When we first meet her, Renata has undergone an unspecified traumatic event which may have involved being violent to Kamil, although her version of events was that she had suffered from a critical systems failure. Is this true, or is Renata just a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

Jan persuades the household to stay with a family psychologist. When there Renata meets a woman called Ela (Marieta Zukowska), who introduces herself as a supervisor, but who also has a barcode on her foot and confesses that she too is an android. Or is she just another patient, and has obtained her information by eavesdropping on Renanta's counselling sessions? Ela also thinks the bruises on Kamil's body, attributed to Renata, were actually caused by Jan. Renata also comes to believe that the clinic they're attending is some kind of de-programming centre for faulty androids. Is she there to get better, or to be dismantled?

Ren's story is consistent, but often contradicted by events: in one scene she tells teenage Kamil that she's only been with him for three years, but he shows her footage of the two of them together when he was a baby. As the movie progresses the narrative doesn't become any less occluded, but the viewer is increasingly left to choose in which version of the truth they are prepared to invest.

"My only task is to provide them happiness. And security...I am here on special terms." This is Ren's assessment of her worth, and Ryczko's strange film, full of unreliable narrators, can be seen as a visual essay on poor mental health, a dissection of a woman's identity in relation to mother and wife roles (the director dedicates the film to his own, presumably deceased, mother), or a disturbing and downbeat sci fi movie. It's visually cool, almost like a fictional lab experiment. But Król's performance as Renata makes the film; it may be hard to care for her, but it's impossible not to feel sympathetic.

Rent-A-Pal (USA 2020: Dir Jon Stevenson) Set in 1984, David (Brian Landis Perkins) lives in the basement of his mother Lucille's house in Denver. She has dementia and he is her sole carer, a position made tricky because of her historic violence towards him which, now, because of her age, manifests itself in stream of angry put downs. David is 40 years old and very lonely. He subscribes to a rather mercenary VHS based dating service called 'Video    Rendezvous' and, when he's not looking after mum, spends his time viewing tapes of dating hopefuls. While recording an updated video at the VR office he picks up a videotape called 'Rent A Pal.' The tape features a character called Andy (Will Wheaton), an unemployed guy from Davenport, who acts as a video companion to the person watching. Andy asks questions, allows for the viewer's response, and a relationship of sorts is formed. David is initially sceptical but gradually Andy's 'winning' personality leads to him considering his on tape chum as a true friend.

Meanwhile at the VR office, a match has been found for David: Lisa (Amy Rutledge) is a carer herself and likes that he is a carer too. They arrange to meet and seem to get on. But David's grip on reality is beginning to loosen as his 'friendship' with Andy deepens, achieved by constant playing of the 'Rent a Pal' video. "You are entitled to the things you want" Andy urges. and David comes to believe his teachings.

As an anxiety trigger, Rent-A-Pal is one hour and fifty minutes of sweaty palms, shallow breaths and borderline dissociation; and that could equally describe David or the viewer. This is a very uncomfortable watch, shot through with mordant humour and waves of sadness, whether it's the plight of Lucille (a terrific performance from Kathleen Brady), unable to distinguish between David or his late father Frank, or David's near chance at true love with Lisa. It is perhaps inevitable where the film will end up - the whole thing feels like an exercise in ratcheting up tension - but it's to the credit of the actors that nothing is overplayed. The star of the show is Perkins, who plays David not as a pathetic weakling but as a man trapped by duty, whose only requirement is to love and be loved. But Rent-A-Pal demonstrates how difficult that can be.

Monstrous (USA 2020: Dir Bruce Wemple) The Adirondacks are, apparently, alive with the sounds of...well, bigfoot. The area has been the source of local legends since 1970s, particularly focused around the village of Whitehall, NY (a real place which has its own statue of a bigfoot in the centre of town). In Lansing, Michigan, Sylvia (Anna Shields, who wrote the film) is with her friend Jamie (Grant Shumacher), a guy who does the whole 'X Files' thing (he even has an 'I Want to Believe' poster on the wall) and has been doing his homework on disappearances in the Adirondacks, an area where their friend Dana also went missing. Jamie's convinced there's a sasquatch behind the disappearances, and arranges to follow Dana's trail, hooking up with Alex (Rachel Finninger) the girl who Dana gave a lift to and who has a house near Whitehall. Jamie bails on the morning of departure so Sylvia decides to do it alone. Turns out Alex is a girl. Turns out they're both not into boys, and when they arrive at Alex's house, turns out they're into each other.

But Alex is secretive; she carries a hunting knife, and there's a weird humming sound coming from inside her home. Looks like Alex knows more than she's letting on, but things get more difficult when Jamie follows them, and finds out that his first hunch about the reasons behind the disappearances was dead on.

The poster for Monstrous advertises itself as a monster movie, but it's clear that there's more than one type of monster in this flick. And it's to be congratulated for attempting to do something different with the standard 'bigfoot' movie, which to be honest is pretty limited as a concept to start with.

But this is rather scrappily put together, particularly towards the end of the movie. The narrative is disjointed (and there's a prologue which kind of gives the game away) and to be honest apart from a few practical effects there's little to recommend it. Sorry.

Urubú (Spain 2019: Dir Alejandro Ibáñez) Ibáñez is the son of Narciso Ibañez Serrador, the Spanish film director responsible for, among other movies, the chilling Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), which posited that very question when two English tourists confront a gang of murderous children on an island.

Ibáñez Jr frames his 'reimagining' of dad's work with end credits that list the frightening statistics on children born into poverty and war, and infant mortality rates in developing countries; as a documentary maker it is perhaps unsurprising that he was inspired by his father's film and sought to contextualise his remake in this way.

Tomás (Carlos Arrutia), a nature photographer, is about to embark on a two week trip to the Rio Negro area of the Amazon with his wife Eva (Clarice Alves) and their young daughter Andrea (Jullie D'Arrigo). His aim is to photograph the rare Albino Urubú bird. It's clear from the opening scenes that Tomás is neglectful of both wife and daughter; his only concerns seem to be his camera equipment and the quest for the perfect photograph, so much so that Andrea spends all her time plugged into her tablet, and Eva, starved of attention, becomes attracted to Captain Nauta, in charge of the boat that will take them to their jungle accommodation. 

When they reach their destination the isolation of their location starts to get to Eva, and Laura begins to be more truculent and difficult. It's a region which has seen a number of fisherman mysteriously go missing, and locals are superstitious (one even gives Andrea a necklace for good luck). Tensions between Tomás and Eva escalate when Andrea goes missing. Distraught, they head out into unknown terrain in search of her, but while they thought they were almost alone, they are surprised to come across a small village, seemingly mostly occupied by children.

Ibáñez's documentary background is very much in evidence through lush jungle photography and some stunning wildlife footage (don't worry, there's no animal cruelty). Narratively the movie is as meandering as the Amazon itself, and most of the film is more or less a three hander of Tomás, Eva and Andrea. The soundtrack, by Arturo Díez Boscovich, does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, occasionally coming across like outtakes from a James Bond score. It's very difficult to make children appear murderous and scary. Dad may have managed it but there's little menace in Urubú. Nevertheless the sentiment behind it is sound, and the movie had a great sense of place about it. 

Fried Barry (South Africa 2020: Dir Ryan Kruger)
 Barry's not having a great day. His wife Suz (Chanelle de Jager) hates him for not providing, his son seemingly doesn't recognise him, and his debtors are giving him trouble. He's also a heroin addict, and on his way back from a bender with a fellow junkie he's abducted by aliens who carry out various, er, intrusive experiments on him. 

When he's released back to terra firma, Barry seems odd; this is because he's now being controlled by an alien, who's keen to see how they do things on earth. It probably wasn't the alien's best idea to form their experience of the third rock from the sun by hitting the sleazy back streets of a South African township: on his first night the alien, via Barry, experiences drugs, discos and sex with a prostitute (Bianka Hartenstein) that results in a 60 second pregnancy, producing a baby who very soon grows up to be a replica of Barry and who insists on mum's breast milk.

One positive side effect of the alien occupation is that Barry becomes more loving to his family. But the good times aren't bound to last: when Barry experiences violent withdrawal symptoms, a trip to hospital kicks off an episodic journey through the streets and hospitals of Cape Town as the alien within gradually melts down.

Or something. Fried Barry feels a bit like a Paul Verhoeven re-boot of Bad Boy Bubby with a bit of Enter the Void, crossed with The Man Who Fell to Earth and elements of The Greasy Strangler. A short film extended to feature length, its humour is fairly blunt and it quickly outstays its welcome: many scenes go on way too long, and the shaggy dog nature of the narrative makes it pretty uninvolving. It's also a really 'male' movie: women are either harridans or submissive sex objects, homosexuality is treated as reprehensible and poor mental health is played for laughs. I'm sure it's all very ironic and doubtless I need to lighten up, but I just felt I wasn't the target audience for this one.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Films from Grimmfest 2020 Part 1: Reviews of Anonymous Animals (France 2020), Stray (Russia 2019) , Alone (USA 2020), The Special (USA 2020), Unearth (USA 2020), They Reach (USA 2020), Ropes (Spain 2019) and H P Lovecraft's The Deep Ones (USA 2020)

Over the course of two epic posts, I'll be bringing you 15 films from this year's Grimmfest film festival, all the way from sunny Manchester. Except of course like most fests Grimmfest have gone online this year, giving us landlocked southern types a taste of how they do things up north. So here's the first eight: 

Anonymous Animals (France 2020: Dir Baptiste Rouvere) At its heart Rouvere's extraordinary debut feature uses the 'Planet of the Apes' movies as its jumping off point, reverse evolving humans and animals so that people are the hunted and farmed, and animals are in control.

In a forest in rural France a man, shirtless and with his back covered in welts, is chained to a tree, before a passing van collects him, to be taken back to a holding area in the middle of an otherwise abandoned farm. Elsewhere a group of people are rounded up while in the wild, and taken back to another part of the same farm where they are held in cattle pens. In each case the 'farmers' are human in form but with the heads of stags, dogs and bulls.

The lone man is fed like an animal, clearly being trained up for some forthcoming event (the reveal of that event is the awful climax of the film). The others wait in their pens, docile and frightened; one attempts escape which does not end well. 

There is of course no happy end to this movie, mercifully short at just over an hour. Scenes are short and abruptly cut, and the contrast between the cruelty meted out to the humans and the film's beautiful and mournful French countryside setting, as well as its dialogue free approach (the 'manimals' grunt but the humans remain silent throughout) further unseats the viewer; Damien Maurel's soundtrack, a mixture of drones and sympathetic strings, is also superbly eerie. Anonymous Animals's point is made pretty bluntly and relentlessly (like if PETA were to make a feature film) and although modestly budgeted it's one of the most uncomfortable movies I've seen this year.

Stray aka Tvar (Russia 2019: Dir Olga Gorodetskaya) Gorodetskaya's debut feature nods in the direction of 'moppet from hell' movies like 'The Omen' (1976) and the previous year's 'Demon Witch Child' but this tale of grief and loss has a bigger emotional heft than both. 

Polina (Elena Lyadova) and her husband Igor (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) are a broken couple; their eight year old son Vanya went missing, presumed dead, and Igor blames himself. Traumatised by the loss in their lives, made worse by the apparent lack of a body, the pair make the rather hasty decision of attempting to adopt a child at the local orphanage. Once there Polina finds the selection process too upsetting; but wandering in the grounds she spies an almost feral kid, whose keeper has just shot himself. Polina has taught traumatised children in the past and Igor is a doctor, so between them they have the coping skills. Their initial request to adopt is refused, but later they see the child walking alone along a road and take him home; they’re aware that they are breaking the law, but the need to care is too strong for them to resist.

But despite his feral ways - eating meat raw from the fridge, growling at his protectors - Polina develops affection for him, and through her grief comes to believe that this is in fact her returned child; she even names him Vanya, after her little boy, and they seem to be about the same ages. Igor is less impressed and feels that the replacement Vanya is actually trying to copy their son to fit in (which is odd as the two boys have never met).

But when Polina discovers she's pregnant (something she was sure would never happen again), her interest in Vanya wanes; in return Vanya becomes jealous; and that jealousy turns his mind to murder and revenge.

I really liked this rather convoluted and atmospheric film: it offered up way more than the standard evil child setup I was expecting, although its glacial pace won't be for everyone. I won't give the game away but the explanation behind the child's behaviour is both tragic and intriguing. As 'Vanya' Sevastian Bugaev turns in a performance of incredible ferocity for one so young, his nightmarish outrages only marred by a couple of scenes of ropey CGI. Lyadova and Vdovichenkov are also superb as parents consumed by grief who have lost the art of consoling each other, and the Russian winter, which provides the backdrop to the events, is impressively chilly, reflecting the strange twists and turns of the narrative.

Alone (USA 2020: Dir John Hyams)
Whoa, nelly! Hyams's precise, unwavering exercise in haute tension thrills is the story of Jessica (Jules Willcox), a woman recovering from the shock of her husband's suicide, still deeply in grief, and who decides to get the jump on her parents' offer of assistance with moving, packing all her stuff into a rented trailer. She's heading north, final destination unknown, although her long trip takes her from the city to the beautiful Oregon forests. Clearly raw and vulnerable, she's in no state to deal with a bit of white line fever action, one of those intentionally slowpoke drivers who only speed up when you try and overtake them. What she isn't expecting, the following morning, is that the driver of that car would track her down to the motel she stayed in overnight and try and apologise for his behaviour. Later on she runs into him again when he asks for roadside assistance for his supposedly broken down car. She wisely swerves the option to offer help, which results in him catching up with her again that night in a trucking lot; she drives away, runs her vehicle into a ditch, after which he finds her again, breaks into her car, assaults and sedates her.

What follows, when she wakes up alone in a room, realises his (initial) sexual intentions and finally effects an escape, is a sustained chase movie utilising the anonymity and isolation of the dense Oregon forest to enhance the seemingly impossible task of outrunning her pursuer.

A remake of the 2011 Swedish film Försvunnen aka Gone, with a script provided by Mattias Olsson, one of the directors of the original movie, Alone breaks its narrative into five 'acts': The Road, The River, The Rain, The Night and The Clearing, but the division of scenes is for our benefit only: Jessica's ordeal is relentless.

Jessica's unnamed attacker (Marc Menchaca) defies the normal backwoods killer stereotype; he looks pretty harmless, but his ability to get under her skin shows the level of his accomplishment, clearly realised through practice: "Do you think this is the first time someone has asked that?" he questions when Jessica pleads for release. He's a family man too: a fact that will eventually lead to his undoing.

For the most part this is a formulaic thriller which ticks all the genre boxes: mobile phones that offer faint hope; Jessica sustaining 'first blood' (a branch embedded in her foot) thus giving her an immediate disadvantage; a passing hunter, who we know will either be an accomplice or an early victim, appears too early in the movie to be her salvation. But Jessica's backstory makes her interesting, and as the film progresses we see not so much a 'final girl' figure but a woman reconciling her emotional grief laden ennui with the need to stay alive.

Alone is tightly shot and edited, and the tension is at times agonising, assisted by a very organic sounding score by Nima Fakhara. I'm not sure whether in 2020 I wanted to see a vulnerable woman being stalked for 90 plus minutes but there's no denying the quality of the film, and Hyams's ability to make the Oregon countryside look both beautiful and hostile is to be applauded.

The Special (USA 2020: Dir B. Harrison Smith)
Smith's rather clever movie takes a fairly preosterous central conceit and makes a very watchable movie around it.

Jerry (Davy Raphaely) is persuaded by his friend and work colleague Mike (Dave Sheridan) into going to a brothel as revenge for Jerry's wife Lisa (Sarah French) cheating on him. Mike has clearly used the place before and makes Jerry put a bag over his head to keep the location secret. A sign outside the joint reads 'psychic': the place is run by Madame Zhora (Susan Moses). Mike suggests that Jerry should ask for 'the special' and Jerry is surprised that when he's alone in the room 'the special' turns out to be a large box with a glory hole and a written instruction 'stick it in here' (we've already seen the box lovingly constructed by unknown hands in the credits sequence). Jerry obliges and the experience causes such ecstasy that he immediately wants more, despite Mike telling him that "once is enough." 

Jerry's guilt in finding out a) that Lisa was not unfaithful, she was organising a surprise present with a local salesman and b) that she's pregnant does not stop him wanting more of 'the special.' His desire for experience leads to murder and increasing deception as he gives himself over to pleasure at any cost.

The Special feels like early Henenlotter (specifically 1988's Brain Damage and to some extent his 2008 sleaze fest Bad Biology) and it's good to see a return to 1980s style body horror and practical effects. Raphaely gives a great and very physical performance as the increasingly unhinged Jerry. You can probably work out the ending, but it's fun (and more than a little wince inducing) getting there; Smith should be congratulated for pulling off (ahem) a film as potentially silly as this but doing it totally straight faced. Excellent work!

Unearth (USA 2020: Dir John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies)
 Films depicting blue collar communities in the USA cannot help but be refracted through the joint prisms of US politics and its attendant economic policies. The two families at the centre of Unearth both own farms which have seen better days (the movie was filmed in north-western Pennsylvania, giving it a great sense of place). George Lomack (Marc Blucas) has parcelled some of his for sale and also diversified into the auto repair business, his economic situation worsened by a recent divorce; one of his daughters, Kim (Brooke Sorenson) has had a baby while still a student, and the extra mouth to feed is an additional burden, while Kim's elder sister Heather (Rachel McKeon) dreams of leaving, and her self harming shows her levels of anguish. George has a tendency to drink and also to ramp up the costs of his auto services, which unsurprisingly loses him customers.

Across the way the Dolan family don't have it any easier, having recently sold off their dairy business. Presided over by Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau getting a rare opportunity to sink her teeth into a dramatic role) whose husband recently passed, and who lives with son Tom (P.J.Marshall), wife Aubrey (Monica Wyche) and Tom's sister Christina (Allison McAttee) who has designs on arts school, and is also having a fling with George.

It's a white working class community with options closed off, so when a company called Patriot Exploration turn up on their doorsteps with an offer of money in return for fracking rights, the Lomacks seem to have found the answer to their problems.

One year later, and the fracking process has destroyed what little dignity the families had, rendering their homesteads filthy and with incessant drilling shredding their nerves. George has apparently sobered up and has a job in a cafe, but there's no apparent increase in wealth. To add insult to injury the company have been less than honest about how much money will be seen by the family and the fracking has triggered an unspecified environmental disturbance. It seems a breaking point has been reached.

The eco horror of the piece, which waits patiently until almost the last reel, therefore feels less like an attack and more like the delivery of some kind of divine judgment. Be warned, there are some shocking moments here, made more so by the fact that the characters have been so well - if subtly - rendered: their fate feels doubly tragic. Unearth is by no means a perfect film; it feels like two movies grafted onto one at times. But it's an angry piece; and if it fails to offer any easy answers, it's politically powerful as well.
They Reach (USA 2020: Dir Sylas Dall)
The inspiration of Stranger Things, which fetishised a period of time - the 1980s - before most of its target audience were born, is all over Dall's debut feature. But the director, born in 1986, has decided to set his film even further back. 

It's 1979 (although a brief prologue covers events ten years earlier) and the Daniels family are recovering from the shock of the death of their teenage son. While mum and dad are separately traumatised, daughter Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) is left to cope on her own, her only friends being social outcasts overweight Sam (Morgan Chandler) who - of course - has a crush on Jess, and food obsessed Cheddar (Eden Campbell). When Jess visits a local junk shop, she comes away with a load of rubbish which she hopes will aid her school science project. Among the stuff is an old reel to reel tape recorder, which we've already seen in the 1969 prologue where it was involved in the exorcism of a young boy. Fiddling around with the machine, Jess cuts her hand, and her blood drips on to the recorder. This sets off a train of events including a resurrected demon, a series of deaths and the need for a sacrificial victim.

Dall's film is almost entirely centred on the trio of young people; any adults present are mainly two dimensional authority figures, with the exception of stern librarian by day and white witch by night Marybeth Moonstar (a superb turn from Steffanie Foster Gustafson) who aids the trio in understanding what they're dealing with. The problem is that I'm not really the target audience for this kind of thing, where the thrill is less about the story - it's pretty paper thin - than identifying with the geeky friends. Although as a teen movie the F-bombs are let off with surprising frequency and the gore is occasionally a little on the heavy side.

But where the movie scores is its look: Dall chucks everything into the mix to get that 70s vibe. Chopper-style bikes, gas guzzling autos, Polaroid cameras; they're all present and correct, and the time stands still town of Enumclaw, Washington is used as a location. Even the soundtrack is pastiche; instead of using original sounds from the period (for which rights would probably have been cost prohibitive) the director has used faux retro 70s bands like 'Smokey Brights', 'Hobosexual' and 'Prom Queen.' Don't get me wrong, it works, but I could have done with more horror and less attention to detail. 

Ropes aka Prey (Spain 2019: Dir José Luis Montesinos) It's been a festival of debut features this year; and here's another one. Elena (Paula del Rio) is a young woman, disabled following a car accident in which her sister Vera, a promising gymnast, died, with Elena at the wheel. As a result she is in a world of emotional pain, even going so far as to try to end her own life. Her suicide attempt was prevented by her father Miguel (Miguel Angel Jenner) whom Elena despises, citing his drunkenness and failure to prevent the death of her mother.

Miguel, not a well man himself, has brought quadriplegic Elena home to live with him, and is in the process of modifying the house for her needs. He's also acquired a dog, Athos, to assist her. But when Miguel collapses and dies of a heart attack in the grounds, with Athos outside too, Elena is left trapped within. But it gets worse: before you can say 'Cujo' the dog turns rabid as the result of a bite from an infected bat, and tries to break into the house. Without the use of hands or feet, wheelchair bound Elena must summon what resources she can to ward off the frothy hound, while all the time battling with the guilt over her sister's death.

There is no doubt that Ropes (the title refers both to the aids that her father has attached to the house's drawer handles, and the emotional ties that hold Elena down) is a well mounted feature. Obviously low budget, and with a small cast dominated by an impressive turn from del Rio as Elena and, in some scenes, her sister Vera, it manages to do quite a lot within its fairly basic setup. Sadly its soap opera elements gradually drown out the tension established by the initial beast vs human setup, to the point where the second half of the movie largely concentrates on Elena dealing with her own demons. Ropes is just a little too neatly obvious in its placing of elements within the story that will be returned to later on, and the mechanical feel of the narrative robs the movie of the atmosphere it initially establishes. What a shame.

H P Lovecraft's The Deep Ones (USA 2020: Dir Chad Ferrin) Ferrin's movie - and note the inclusion of the author in the title, just so you know - finds a middle aged couple, Alex (Gina La Piana) and Finnish Petri (Johann Urb) travelling to the California coast for a week in a beachside Airbnb; the couple are getting over Alex's recent miscarriage, and are here to get re-connected again. Apartment owners Russel (Robert Miano) and pregnant Ingrid (Silvia Spross) welcome the pair and explain about the Solar Beach community that grow their own food and make their own wine. When they're left on their own Alex and Petri do a little re-connecting, but their lovemaking is spied on courtesy of a hidden camera. 

The following day, with Alex feeling unwell, Russel and Ingrid invite Petri onto their boat, and after plying him with marijuana and hypnotising him, Alex participates in a weird ritual that involves sucking on a tentacle that appears from Ingrid's lady parts. After this a more docile Petri becomes 'one of them': a rift gradually opens up between Alex and her husband, and the arrival of Alex's sarcastic friend Deb (Jackie Debatin) only serves to highlight the weirdness of the community, who they encounter at a party. But the Solar Beach residents answer to a higher fishy power, and Alex begins to fear for her life.

In Lovecraft lore, the 'Deep Ones' are an ocean-dwelling race, with an affinity for mating with humans. Sounds familiar? Well readers may have seen the 1980 movie Humanoids from the Deep, which covered pretty much the same ground, although without the Lovecraft context. And honestly, despite the credit of Hengi Hawk as the 'R'Lyehian Dialogue Coach' - which does at least show commitment to the cause - throwing in random references to Dagon and Cthulhu don't really make this one a major contribution to the writer's cinematic canon.

The Deep Ones scores higher in its quirky cast of characters. Russel has an oily, slightly creepy quality (like a more over the top Terence Stamp) and visiting doctor, the trans Dr Gene Rayburn (Timothy Muskatell) has an overbearing bedside manner which is the opposite of comforting. I liked Alex's friend Deb too, although her withering assessment of the community ensures that she's bound to be an early showers character. "I've been to Burning Man twice, but these people go way beyond.." she concludes.

Ultimately, The Deep Ones sets itself up well but then doesn't really know where to go with it. The threat from the community is pretty much announced in the first twenty minutes, and with a small budget there was never going to be a final reel set piece. It's a watchable enough film, but not much more. 

Monday, 5 October 2020

Incoming! Heads up for new Brit horror feature The Invoked directed by David Cave

At DEoL we're always keen to promote exciting new projects. Newcastle-on-Tyne based David Cave, who describes himself on his website as a writer, filmmaker and poet, is putting together his first feature The Invoked, following on from a series of well received short films, including the recent Girl and a Scar, which picked up a slew of awards when it did the rounds of festivals.

I asked David about The Invoked, and this is what he had to say:

DEoL: I think I'm right that this is your first feature. What influenced your decision to make your next film a full length one?

DC: Yes, you’re correct, this will be my first feature film project. In terms of what influenced me to make the move from shorts to features, well, I think it’s the next obvious step for me as a filmmaker. I’ve been making shorts for twenty years or so, my first short (as writer/director) being 1999’s Redemption, an experimental drama made in my final year of university and my last short, Girl and a Scar, shot in 2013 but not released until 2017. So with these films book-ending another nine shorts in between I think it’s fair to say that turning towards developing a feature was the necessary evolutionary path to tread on a personal level.

Yet, The Invoked was not the first long form project that I contemplated as my debut feature. Initially Girl and a Scar was written as a feature screenplay and developed (initially by myself and local writer Max Gillespie) by Thomas Craig (producer on The Invoked). The feature version of Girl and a Scar was somewhat problematic as a first feature because it was a full blown experimental/fantasy film, which would have required a large budget to produce, budgeted approximately at £10m, and certainly not attractive to potential investors as the debut film of a director with no track record in features. So, Tom and I spoke about other ideas I had and The Invoked appeared to fit the bill nicely as a micro-budget feature with few locations and only a handful of central characters.

DEoL: What's the inspiration for The Invoked?

DC: Akin to many other film fanatics I’ve always been a lover of 1960's/70's British horror movies produced by the likes of Tigon, Amicus and Hammer, to name but a few of the companies who thrived commercially in the output of horror genre filmmaking in the UK during that period. What a wonderful time it must have been to be involved in the industry back then too! Growing up during this boom of weird and wonderful visual artistry obviously affected me hugely so it was inevitable that when I decided to study and move into making movies myself, my inspirations as a filmmaker would be born from memories and nightmares of experiencing these low budget gems all those years ago. I particularly remember being affected in equal measures by Norman J. Warren’s 1976 movie Satan’s Slave and Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). These two films stuck in my mind for years after watching them for the first time and even after revisiting them in the 80’s I found that they had lost none of their cinematic appeal in terms of mood and dark storytelling despite being made on modest budgets for the time.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, when I was developing the first draft of The Invoked, my central concern was to firstly show my appreciation to the movies that I grew up with and inspired me to move into the arts industry in the first place and secondly, not only reference my love for this period in low budget British horror production, but update it by implementing contemporary characters with contemporary issues brought about by the possible dangers of the naïve use of current day technologies. Essentially within The Invoked my aim is to attempt to create a mood motivated (specifically) by those movies mentioned above but set within today’s technology addicted youth society. Of course much of this is dependent on what budget we can raise to shoot the feature. The idea of shooting the short teaser (included at the bottom of this post. Ed) was both to allow ourselves to experiment with some of the visual elements of the screenplay and also to give prospective investors a little feel of the dark mood of what the feature will encompass, given a healthy budget allowing us to do this, and of course show the commercial viability within the current independent horror market. 

David Cave (right) with one of his inspirations,
the great Norman J. Warren
DEoL: On your website you've described yourself as "an independent artist, tackling sensitive subject matters in a reflective and creative way." To what extent will that be fulfilled in The Invoked, or does this represent a new departure for you?

DC: Not at all, much of my past work has its origins deeply embedded within the human condition, specifically narratives brought about by or leading on from the (often misguided) internal workings of both the unconscious and conscious mind. The Invoked is no different in that sense because it explores the actions of a small group of characters who (because of possessing damaged or addictive personalities) either have been left to cope with abhorrent scenarios through no central fault of their own, have touched elements of madness due to the disintegration of their personal mental wellbeing or lost control of moments within their lives that would go on to shape their futures in a negative way. I always try to base my stories on or around the examination of humanity gone wrong in some small sense. Often, in my case as an artist, this tends to lend itself to a more experimental form of expression (as in much of my short film work) but with The Invoked I’ve tried my hardest to rein this in somewhat. Having said that, there’s still many relevant modern issues and moral ambiguities explored within the story but I would like to think that in developing the idea, we’ve given both sides of the argument a creatively just and fair representation.

DEoL: Although the phrase 'folk horror' is rather overused these days, is that term in any way applicable to The Invoked?

DC: Yes, without a doubt. The Invoked has many narrative and stylistic nuances applicable to that of folk horror, all of which were deliberate choices. The second and third acts of the story take place, almost exclusively, in, around or beneath the home of one of our central protagonists and can be recognised, in itself, as a major character within story development of the mise-en-scene. This building has been the site of the second coming of a cult group who call themselves The Children of Resurgence, their mark being the symbol you see within the teaser. This group, as is so often the case in real life examples, indoctrinate their followers with ideals and goals filled to the brim with good intentions, frequently associated to the renewal of life and the wellbeing of mother earth, but as the narrative unfolds and narcissistic power exerts itself, actions and experiences become somewhat unhealthy rejections of family, normality and morality, eventually resulting in inevitable death and decay but with a few unexpected surprises thrown in at the end! 

Teaser still for The Invoked

DEoL: Can you tell us where you've got to in terms of planning, casting, script etc?

DC: So, at the minute we’re in the process of raising investment interest in the project. We have already attached Lynn Lowry (of Score, I Drink Your Blood, The Crazies and Shivers fame) to the project. Lynn has been cast in the role of Olivia, the mother of the young protagonist’s love interest, Livvy, the character that essentially gets the dark narrative ball rolling. Some of the other supporting roles have also been cast on a preliminary basis, again dependent on budget. We have various budgets in mind given that (ideally) we are aiming to shoot the feature next year. It goes without saying that the ideal scenario is to raise the preferred budget, enabling us to afford to do everything I want to do within the current draft of the screenplay. If that’s not possible we have a minimum budget in mind which we believe we are able to complete the film to a high standard with, albeit with some changes in the ending which is where a large chunk of the budget would go in terms of production design, practical FX and post production costs.

We are also looking into the possibility of having a co-producer on board in order to both fine tune the current draft of the script and help us raise the finance we need to produce the film. As most filmmakers will tell you, you have to be prepared to be flexible with independent projects. Sometimes, just in order to get the idea off the ground you have to learn to compromise in certain departments and that’s fine. As a first feature I do believe that The Invoked has a lot of promise and I’m a great believer in collaboration. With the right people on board and with an achievable shooting schedule I feel that it is the right time for this project to happen. We’ve been lucky to have worked some amazing talent and crew on the teaser so we just have to hope that our luck holds out in order to reach both our financial and artistic goals for the feature also.

DEoL: And when do you think we can see the finished thing?

(Answered by producer Thomas Craig)

If things stay on track we would hope that The Invoked would be ready for release in 2022.

DEoL: Anything else you feel would be useful to tell us about the project?

DC: Cast and crew enquiries to contact through our official Facebook page at;

Potential investors should contact producer Thomas Craig at;

DEoL: Thanks very much David (and Thomas) and good luck with the film!

The prepared investor teaser trailer for the film is here.

Friday, 2 October 2020

The Dare (Bulgaria/UK/USA 2019: Dir Giles Alderson)

Jay (Bart Edwards) is spending some rare home time away from his demanding job with his kids and his wife. But late that evening a mysterious figure breaks into their house and before he knows it Jay has woken up in a dirty room, handcuffed to the wall. Also with him are three others who have also been mysteriously abducted: partygoing Kat (Alexandra Evans), security guard and failed cop Adam (Richard Short) and a very badly beaten and cut guy with his mouth stitched together who the others call 'Paul' (Daniel Schutzman).

Jay, although warned against it by the others, tries his best to escape, but his reward comes in the shape of a hugely muscular man, wearing a mask that looks like stitched together human skin, who metes out cruel punishment on the others: Paul is cut further and Kat has a tube inserted into her mouth, followed by a live cockroach. Any attempt to kick up a fuss results in pain and torture for the four.

What is all this about? A side story tells of a young boy, Dominic (Mitchell Norman, excellent) who because of a prank played on him by a group of youths, ends up trapped in the house of a pig butcher, Credence (Richard Brake), who brings up the boy as his own and subjects him to the most ferocious mental and physical cruelty. Over the course of the movie we learn of the connection between Dominic and the four trapped adults.

The Dare is the feature directing debut of Brit Giles Alderson, better known for bit part acting in UK TV shows and films. The movie returns us to the murky world of 'tort*re porn,' a genre that, for me, outstayed its welcome some years ago. The film is relentless in its depiction of violence and threat: at one point an eyeball is cut and a worm placed into the slit; people are hosed down with blood and force fed raw meat; and the torturer of Jay and the others is a silent, remorseless sadist. It's terrifyingly well done (if you manage not to turn away at least once you'll be doing better than I), but like the genre it apes, it's all about the violence, and is perilously thin on characterisation; the movie also rarely strays outside of the confines of the farm, except for a few shots of creepy woodland, which adds to the claustrophobia.

Occasionally the relentless grimness is leavened by equally mordant humour, such as a brief attempt at escape by Jay which lands him right back where he started, and the odd line which raises a wry smile: refusing the offer of meat, Jay mentions that he's a vegan: "By vegan, you mean fucked" replies Adam.

The Dare isn't a bad film by any means. I struggled to see the point though, and more than anything it felt like an exercise in mood and a chance to shoehorn in some very nasty effects. I wouldn't write Alderson off though - the movie is competent and well put together - but some more involving subject matter next time wouldn't go amiss.

The Dare is on digital download from 5th October and on DVD from 12th October from Lionsgate UK.