Saturday, 17 April 2021

For the Sake of Vicious (Canada 2020: Dir Gabriel Carrer, Reese Eveneshen)

When nurse Romina (an excellent visceral performance from Lora Burke) returns home, with nothing on her mind but preparing to celebrate Halloween with her young son, she doesn't bank on finding a just breathing body in the living room. Said body is, she works out, her landlord Alan (Colin Paradine); also in the house is the guy who laid him out, Chris (Nick Smyth). He wants Alan kept alive so he can extract a confession from him about raping Chris's daughter; and Romina's connection to this is that she was the nurse on duty when his daughter was brought into hospital.

From its early scenes, with Alan tied up in a chair, Chris trying to force the truth (or his version of the truth) out of him and Romina stuck in the middle, things slowly escalate when Alan manages to phone for help. He's clearly a shady landlord, whatever else he may or may not have done, for the assistance summoned is very much of the hired thug variety (all wearing fright masks, because it's Halloween) and also includes a biker gang called, appropriately enough, 'The Skull Splitters.'

But, and somewhat confusingly, the assembled assistants he summons have their own beef with Alan, and pretty soon the whole house is turned into a makshift battleground, with kitchen and bathroom equipment (including shower curtain and cistern lid) being utilised for weapons, in a free for all fight to the death.

From its faux Grindhouse title onwards, For the Sake of Vicious seems little more than a well directed exercise in choreographed and increasingly over the top violence, soundtracked by a very Carpenter/Howarth-esque synth score by Carrer under the 'Foxgrndr' monicker. Narratively there's little else going on other than the description above (apart from a couple of flashback scenes), which really only serves to get a bunch of people into one (domestic) location for an extended pitched battle. There's more than a streak of dark humour to this, of course; the deployment of any and every household item, from kitchenware to flat screen TV to the aforementioned WC components (there are guns available but they're not always the weapon of choice) acquires a kind of slapstick intensity, and there's a bizarre moment of kitchen carnage camaraderie when Romina, using a half bottle of vodka to disinfect one of her wounds, takes a swig and then offers it to Alan.

For the Sake of Vicious is definitely a movie to see with a crowd; it's the kind of Festival pleaser that doesn't ask that much of its audience but ramps up the pace satisfyingly and delivers enough gruesome set pieces - and an up for it final girl (or woman in this case) - to tick all the right boxes.

For the Sake of Vicious will be released on DVD and digital platforms from 19 April.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Portal aka Doors (USA 2021: Dir Saman Kesh, Jeff Desom and Dugan O'Neal)

The genesis of this film came from a 2019 movie called Portals, created by Chris White, which told the story of the arrival of alien entities on earth via four separate but interconnected stories, all by different directors. That movie adopted a fairly straightforward sci fi approach and, apparently, wasn't a great success.

So White started again, with the same basic format and a different set of directors, and two years later came up with Doors, a version of the same story, but with a rather different approach. For its UK release Doors has been retitled Portal (singular not plural this time). OK, so now we're all caught up.

In the three stories comprising the movie the first, 'Day 01 Lockdown', deals, as its title would suggest, with the arrival of strange alien monoliths all over the world. The 'lockdown' of the title also focuses on a group of schoolkids in detention, who are literally locked in when their supervising teacher goes to check what's happening and doesn't return. One of the kids, the trans student Ash (Kathy Khanh), starts to receive messages from a shimmering portal that has appeared in the corridor outside their classroom (a subtle but ingenious effect achieved by close up photography of magnet agitated iron filings). The kids tune into a radio broadcast that fleshes out what's going on; the portals -  or 'doors'  - have appeared worldwide and are gradually absorbing the planet's citizens.

The second story, 'Knockers,' is set 15 days after the alien arrival; the term refers to groups of people who volunteer to step through the doors to investigate what's on the other side. Three intrepid scientists, Becky (Lina Esco), Vince (Josh Peck) and Pat (director O'Neal), are preparing to venture into a portal that sits over a house; once in, they have twelve minutes to explore and leave, otherwise they risk developing permanent 'door psychosis'. But their visit demonstrates that not only is the alien being sentient, it has the power to control memory too.

The final story is 'Lamaj'. Set 101 days into alien occupation, Jamal (Kyp Malone), a man living alone in the forest, has found a door and has conducted successful experiments to communicate with it via a rickety electronic setup. He invites his friend Kathy (Kristina Lear) over to share the experience but she brings her hapless friend Leo (Bira Vanara), who tips off the authorities, with tragic consequences.

Apart from the framing theme, each of the stories are very different in tone, but share a more languid, blissed out feel than the previous movie (I can't help thinking that Denis Villenneuve's 2016 alien encounter movie Arrival may have been an influence). The segments are interspersed with shots of abandoned cities, and a talk radio DJ, Martin Midnight (David Hemphill), fills in the blanks narratively.

Apart from a rather brash end segment, which I could have done without (and the rather odd interstitials whose function seems to be the translation of the alien voices for the audience), I really liked this somewhat abstract approach to the alien invasion theme, and the three stories show, subtly, the development of earth's occupation. Granted there probably wasn't a lot of budget on the table, but here the truism that 'necessity is the mother of invention' is very much in evidence. Pretty good.

Signature Entertainment releases Portal on Digital Platforms and DVD from 19th April.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Supermarket Sweep #21: Reviews of Abigail Haunting (USA 2020), The Last House (USA 2019), Skin Collector (USA 2012), Crone Wood (Ireland 2016), The Odds (USA 2018) and You're Not Alone (USA 2020)

So as the 'Sweep' moves into its 21st edition, there are still plenty of rich pickings available on the supermarket shelves if your tastes run to the dark and dangerous, although one chain in particular seems to be flying the flag for horror these days (I can't name it for reasons of commercial competition, but let's just describe it as an anagram of  'daAs.' Anyway, here are six more offerings from the company who also bring you baked beans and tea bags:

Abigail Haunting (USA 2020: Dir Kelly Schwarze) Young Katie (Chelsea Jurkiewicz) rolls out of Reno with a fitstful of cash courtesy of a robbery and a murder rap thanks to the bullet she's just fired into the body of her abusive ex-boyfriend.

Seeking to hide out, she hot foots it to her foster mum's trailer house on the edge of what looks like the Nevada desert. But Marge (Brenda Daly) has gone downhill since Katie last saw her, and sits in a chair all day watching TV. Stashing both the gun and loot safely away, Katie quickly reconnects with former boyfriend, now single dad Brian (Austin Callazo) and his son Gavin (Zander Garcia). 

Brian looks like he's happy to pick up where things left off, but Katie is understandably rather jumpy. She's jumpier still when strange things start happening around the trailer, including someone mussing with her stuff and, more worryingly, Marge getting attacked, strangled by an unseen pair of hands. Marge's kindly neighbour Walter (Michael Monteiro) offers Katie a warning: "nothing good ever came out of this place," he counsels, and when Katie finds a skull in the garage, and witnesses the ghost of a tortured woman, she begins to see his point.

Abigail Haunting has a slight Stir of Echoes (1999) feel, with blue collar communities encountering the supernatural. Bit Schwarze's movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be down at heel urban drama or fright fest, and therefore fails to fully deliver on either side. It certainly has a lot of dowdy atmosphere, and Jurkiewicz is effective as the troubled Katie, but the final reel rush to explain everything away, and the explanation itself, feels overfamiliar and drab. The movie is best when it's subtle and unsettling, which it achieves excellently in its early stages. 

The Last House aka Cry for the Bad Man USA 2019: Dir Sam Farmer) More small town entertainment, with Camille Keaton (who had recently cameoed the same year in one of the many sequels to the 1978 original, I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu) starring as Marsha Kane. 

Seems everyone wants the widow Kane to take some money and leave the family home following her husband's death; even the local police are in with old man MacMohan, whose sons are exerting pressure for Marsha to move out, including pinning a contract to the front porch with a knife. But the lady's not for moving, much to the chagrin of her daughter Helen (Karen Konzen). "This is my house," she says, giving her daughter a quick one across the chops, and her intransigence gives an indication of what's to come: well that and the endless shots of Ms Keaton tooling up for the night ahead.

There really isn't very much to this beyond the setup described. Marsha hunkers down with an arsenal at her disposal, and the bad guys steal into the house to get what they think is theirs. One guy gets his entire hand blown off, shouts a bit then continues like nothing's happened. There's some tension in the stand off (well sit down off actually) between Marsha and the brothers, and it's tightly shot, effectively covering up for the lack of budget. At a slim one hour and fourteen minutes it knows exactly how to stay its welcome, but unless you're a Camille Keaton completist I can't really recommend this.

Skin Collector aka Shiver (USA 2012: Dir Julian Richards) Quite why this 2012 movie is being passed off as a new release I'm not sure, but Julian Richards' films are generally worth seeing (I really liked his last feature, 2018's Reborn), even if his output can be rather uneven.

A killer is stalking Portland, Oregon, who calls himself 'the Griffin' and whose MO includes taking parts of women's bodies and having sex with them post mortem. Detectives Delgado and Burdine (Casper van Dien and Rae Dawn Chong respectively) are tasked with catching him. Quite slowly as it happens.

Into the story steps Wendy Allen (Danielle Harris, who we last saw looking rather out of place in last year's Redwood Massacre: Annihilation). Wendy's having trouble asking her boss for a raise, but that's about to be the least of her problems, as 'the Griffin' is about to make her his next victim. Plucky Wendy stabs him in the leg and makes her escape, but the killer develops a fascination with the one that got away and begins his creepy stalking, and entrapping, of his new quarry, leading to a succession of scenes where's she's caught, escapes and gets caught again.

Skin Collector is, sadly, truly abyssmal. At nearly ten years old, I'm hopeful that mysoginistic rubbish like this would not get green lit these days. It doesn't help that the killer is a man of manners who appreciates women (he just has a funny way of showing it), which is supposed to make him extra creepy but instead just becomes cartoonish; a redemptive ending doesn't cancel out the poor taste of including a serial shooting scene in an enclosed space either. Apart from the subject matter, there's just no style, tension or characterisation to fall back on (the killer driving past the school where he was once bullied and having flashbacks is the nearest we come to gaining any insight into his psychosis - yes it's that bad). It's just empty, unpalatable nonsense.

Crone Wood (Ireland 2016: Dir Mark Sheridan) First time feature director Sheridan is a brave chap to make their debut a 'found footage' movie. Was that still a thing even four years ago? Well that's what we have here, anyways. Danny (Ed Murphy) and Hailey (Elva Trill) are out on a first date and getting on like a house on fire. They don't want it to end, and the fun never stops as the couple use Danny's video camera to film each other. 

Hailey makes the rather rash suggestion that they should go camping - in November - prompting a trip to a shop for useful things like, you know, a tent. Hailey, clearly full of good ideas,  thinks that travelling to out of the way Crone Wood, a place associated with a coven of witches, would be a good idea. The place has since been renamed but for locals it's still a spooky area. Danny's all for sticking to the paths, but Hailey wants to go rogue. She's from round these parts apparently so knows what she's doing. 

On the first night their bickering and occasional lovemaking is interrupted by a creepy looking guy with a mask. Giving chase, they lose him, but also mislay their tent. Seeking help at a nearby house, occupied by a group of women, they're welcomed in until help arrives. But strangely Hailey seems to know them. 

Crone Wood is a movie of two halves; the first being the standard lost in the woods story, with Danny and Hailey taking it in turns to assume the lead, but both getting nowhere. The second half moves into folk horror territory and it's here that the FF format starts to strain at the edges. There's a point beyond which the utilisation of a stand alone camera - apart from filming events for the audience - seems totally pointless. It's a different kind of fourth wall which, once broken, ruins the illusion.

Sheridan's movie is ambitious for the resources on hand but doesn't really break new ground, and at nearly an hour and half is simply too drawn out to sustain any tension. Not awful then, but a little unnecessary, and it's been done better before by more skilled directors.

The Odds (USA 2018: Dir Bob Giordano) A 2018 movie only now getting a UK DVD release, the premise of The Odds is pretty simple: at twenty undisclosed locations around the world, a game is being played simultaneously, involving six rounds of personal endurance. The winner will be the last person standing who doesn't either quit or die; the prize money of one million dollars is the lure, and various unseen people bet on the outcome.

The unnamed 'Player' in the room (Abbi Butler) has literally nowhere else to go. Her daughter has been taken away from her, apparently for being an unfit mother, and she wants the prize money to make things right between the two of them. The only other person in the sealed room is the 'Game Master' (James J. Fuertes) whose role is to mentor the Player and administer the punishments required in each round (from putting one foot in a box full of rats to nailing screws to the other one); he's done this fourteen times before and has, we assume, never been successful at producing a winner. 

The first test is for the Player to hold her hand over a lighted candle until three players drop out. The rounds progress in degress of cruelty but the woman remains resolute. A kind of weird master/servant relationship develops between the two of them; the Player has to administer some of the tortures to herself, and the Games Master acts as a kind of trainer/suitor. But gradually the Player realises that things may not be as they seem; and then it's time for Russian Roulette.

Anyone expecting classic over the top tort*re p*orn from my description will be disappointed; I was, but not for that reason, as it's a sub genre that does nothing for me. The Odds has some wider pronouncements to make about the relationship between men and women and human endurance, with the two main characters signifying an eternal struggle. And while the developing caustic relationship between the Player and the Games Master is well done for much of the film, the problem is that the movie runs out of steam with an extra half an hour to go and becomes, literally, a battle of the sexes.

Butler's turn as the slightly older, care worn but defiant heroine of the piece recalls Betty Gilpin's bravura performance in 2020's The Hunt, but where that film was rather sly and subversive about its politics, this movie remains po faced throughout, and therefore very one dimensional. To paraphrase slightly, The Odds was not in my favour.

You're Not Alone (USA 2020: Dir Eduardo Rodriguez) 
When Emma (Katia Winter) is bequeathed her former martial home following the death of estranged husband Patrick, she also gets custody of daughter Isla (Leya Catlett), who's previously been living with her grandmother. Emma has clearly seen some tough times and has a suicide attempt under her belt (grandma calls her an 'unfit mother' and she was asked not to attend Patrick's funeral) but she has support from gothy sister Ashley (Emmy James) and old flame local guy Mark (Zach Avery). But strange things begin to happen in the house: Isla sees someone in the house's upstairs window; a photo of Patrick flies off the wall; and Emma's online therapy session gets cutoff mid way through.

Emma installs CCTV for protection, and attempts to re-bond with her daughter despite her continuing fragile mental health. But when people start disappearing, starting with Ashley and nosy neighbour Mrs Willis (Lane Bradbury), she becomes convinced that there is something in the house.

Filmed in 2016 under the title of 'Unwanted' (ahem) but shelved for the next four years, watching You're Not Alone it's not difficult to see why. To be honest it's no worse than a hundred other 'woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown' movies where the explanation for events is more prosaic than supernatural, but my goodness rarely have I seen a film that wants to have its cake and eat it so much in the audience hoodwinking stakes. First we're given to believe that the incidents in the house are of a ghostly nature (some of them happen without any possible human agency; what else are we expected to believe?) then it looks like one of the distinctly human characters is in the frame, then they get despatched, the real killer being someone we've barely seen! Bodies go undiscovered, almost forgotten about, and Emma's last reel final girl performance is stretched to incredulity by the amount of times she is stabbed, but still manages to get on her feet. "Nightmarish" states the quote on the cover art; yes, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Sensation (UK 2021: Dir Martin Grof) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021

Remember Spooks? That BBC TV series which was so low budgeted that it necessitated actors sitting around in glamorous looking locations (mainly offices and boardrooms) talking emphatically about things the programme makers couldn't actually afford to show? Well stylistically and narratively Grof's second feature pulls off the same trick, while mining a whole host of cinematic influences too.

Lowly postman (and violin virtuoso, but we'll get to that later) Andrew Cooper (Eugene Simon) knows little about his past, and decides to share his DNA to check whether he has other relatives and/or siblings. The test results work their way into the hands of a secretive organisation headed up by the colourful and more than slightly eccentric Dr Marinus (Alastair G. Cumming) who, telling the young lad that there is something special about him, introduces Andrew to a country house research facility where he can learn more about himself. At the facility he meets other young people who are similarly gifted in different ways. Andrew's room comes complete with a violin and he confesses that he has learned to play to a high standard by copying videos; he also faces off henchman Ernesto (Alex Reid, surely a Dave Prowse for nos jours) who he manages to beat off: I mean up. So Andrew's clearly a young chap of some gifts.

The group are in the care of the rather robotic Nadia (Emily Wyatt) and May (Jennifer Martin), the former who was adopted by the Russians following the death of her parents. Marinus's grandfather was in league with the Nazis and the Doctor has continued his relative's research into the enhancement of sensory receptors among conjoined twins, which heighten sensitivity in each of the subjects being studied within the facility. But the more Andrew finds out the less he (and the audience) understand; no-one there can be trusted, and he starts to doubt everything he sees and hears.

There are so many plotlines that fizzle out in Sensation that even after multiple viewings (I didn't but I'm making a point here) you'd be hard pressed to make head from tail about what's going on here. I suspect that some hard decisions had to be made editing the thing in post; the movie includes a final reel, surprisingly gloomy plot flip that piles on the WTFery, which may just have been a compromise to wrap the whole thing up but just makes everything we've seen before look a bit daft.

On the plus side the film makes great use of its London locations including the newly modernised financial district (although if the plushness of Andrew's north London gaff is to believed, the Post Office must have improved its salary package in recent years), recalling Geoffrey Sax's 2006 teen-friendly London romp Stormbreaker, if a lot less exciting.

Somewhere in the midst of this rather silly and portentous movie there's a three part TV series for the YA crowd struggling to get out; at least the plot would get a chance to breathe in that format. But Sensation is just a handsome looking mess, with variable acting by people who could probably have done better given more rounded characters. Disappointing.

Sensation will be available on Digital Download from 16th April

Friday, 9 April 2021

A nostalgia for an age yet to come - RIP the Civic Centre, London Borough of Hounslow (1976 - 2021)

Taking a break from the films for a moment for a bit of personal history.

How nostalgic is it possible to get about a building, albeit a (relatively) modern one? The Civic Centre of the London Borough of Hounslow, designed by the Council's Borough Architect George Trevett, was built in 1975, opened in March 1976, and existed for just over 44 years. That's not a great innings for a project which, at the time, officially cost £4.9 million (although I heard rumours of a much higher figure, something approaching double that). Contrast this with the former Town Hall, which was built in the 1880s and demolished around a hundred years later, ironically to make way for a hideous and largely unwanted shopping centre.

Its construction aimed to be the final piece in a jigsaw that united three distinct Council areas into one London borough via a 1965 Act of Parliament. The Act recognised the need to centralise decision making and eliminate waste created by 'local' local government. Unfortunately 10 years is a long time in politics, and the opening of the Civic Centre coincided with central Government beginning its policy of reducing the public funding of local authorities; the building became a potential white elephant almost as soon as the staff had moved in.

I started work there on 6 November 1978, aged 17, and despite the often mundane nature of the business going on inside, the building never failed to amaze me (the pictures accompanying this post don't really do it justice). Its orange and brown mid century modern stylings (much of the original interior design had been imported; the rumour ran that the company who provided the materials went bust, so the borough was forced from the outset to make building repairs from other sources, leading to the cohesion of the original look being quickly lost) captured my teenage imagination in a unique way: I felt that I was working on the set of a Gerry Anderson TV series. 

If you're around my age (very late fifties) you'll recall the familiar lament of my generation that we thought we'd be living in an episode of The Jetsons by now, all aerial living and labour saving devices. Well the Civic Centre didn't exactly fulfil the dream, but it did recall the already-out-of-date-but-still-strangely-futuristic look created by Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer for the interiors of Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that had left a lasting impression on me when I saw it in the ABC Hounslow aged 8.

The Civic Centre was my first permanent place of work; the open plan nature meant that I was suddenly thrust into occupying an office with over a hundred people. The building was designed as four interconnected pavillions on two floors, each serviced by a rest area - complete with resident tea lady - and with a restaurant, games room, bank and (this was to be my downfall) bar on the premises. I cannot describe what it was like to, effectively, move straight from the classroom - no University for me - to this adult environment. 

It was my first time watching adults argue in front of me (something my parents never did), occasionally throw punches, and of course get drunk; sometimes at their desk. I fell in love there, did a lot of stupid things (walking into the Borough Valuer's office after a lunchtime drinking session and commenting to him that the building plan on his desk looked "a bit crap if you ask me" being one of them), and, eventually, became ground down with the relentless tediousness of office life.

But if the future of the Civic Centre had started looking bleak in the mid 1970s, by the early 2000s (long after I left in 1992) the writing was on the wall. Trevett's dream was a part empty shell; successive years (decades) of Government cutbacks had created a revolution in the way that local government, formerly a rather wasteful institution, now provided complex services pretty efficiently with around half its original staff. The building in which they worked was now much less important than forty years previously; a positive thing, but also one which left the Civic Centre woefully underoccupied, expensive to run, and arguably an embarassment rather than a flagship. 

The postscript to this is that the remaining Council staff moved out to smaller, more eco-friendly premises nearby and as of January this year, the demolition teams had moved in to pull down the Civic Centre and, in its place, build luxury flats.  I'm not going to pass judgment on whether those places will be given to those in housing need or sold to make profits for developers, although a look around at the rest of London indicates the latter.

Whatever happens, the physical erasure of a place where I spent 14 years working will always be a sad thing, but luckily my memory can help me out here. All I have to do is close my eyes and, like the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's 'The Shining,' the building comes alive all over again. 

Rest in peace you weird and wonderful monolith.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #15: Reviews of Scopophobia (UK 2020), Zoom (UK 2020), Bite Night (UK 2020), Russian Submarine (UK 2020), Eve (UK 2019) and Dune Drifter (UK 2020)

Scopophobia (UK 2020: Dir Ben Smith) Scopophobia is, apparently, defined as an excessive fear of being stared at. Clocking in at getting on for two hours, this viewer spent an awful lot of time staring at the screen waiting for something to happen. For Scopophobia is nothing if not a langorous watch.

A group of school age filmmakers are preparing to make a feature film, working title 'Among the Woods', in a nearby forest area. One of their number, Nick, goes missing; meanwhile one of the others, Inaam (Inaam Barwani) receives a mysterious package containing warning notes. As filming progresses, a mysterious knife wielding figure is seen in the woods, wearing a mask. Inaam begins to lose track of time, and some of the cast/crew (it's a small production) end up waking up in the open air. They realise that the film's script itself might be cursed, and causing the events affecting them; but the truth is even stranger than that.

Scopophobia as a project has ambitions way beyond the skills of those behind and in front of the camera, and its arse numbing length does it no favours. But underneath the zero budget look of the thing, and the variable acting skills on display, it's clear that some work has gone into the story, and there are elements within the film - the time shift scenes, the coded messages received, and the meta film-within-a film moments etc - that are genuinely intriuging. Unfortunately there's a lack of clarity in the storytelling, particularly towards the end, when the film attempts to draw its loose ends together: shorter and punchier would definitely have been better. Smith is clearly still learning his art, and there's just enough here to suggest that some attention should be paid to his next feature.

You can watch Scopophobia here.

Zoom aka Catering (UK 2020: Dir Matthew Landford)
This 36 minute short starts with a Zoom conversation between three friends, Miles (Alex Brook), Roddy (Samuel Grant) and Sigmund (Harvey Smith). They're bored and have used up all their usual diversions like role play and card games. Randomly searching they come across a Twitter account belonging to 'joel8946'. They decide to access his account and, before long, they're thrown into a nightmare, where their new host warns them that they shouldn't have joined and rejoins the call even after being kicked out.

First to be threatened is Roddy's little brother, who Roddy thinks is safe downstairs. But is he? Next the omnipresent host forces his callers to admit a series of misdemeanours, the very least of which is Sigmund's confession that he once ate Roddy's goldfish. Failure to disclose their secrets will result in them being removed.

While Zoom undoubtedly borrows from Rob Savage's game changing Host (the "how did you get onto the call?" question and the subsonic rumbling announcing the presence of the sinister Joel), Brook, Grant and Smith are very convincing as three wisecracking friends whose camaraderie very swiftly breaks down in the face of a mysterious threat. Landford has made a number of short films which will be covered in this strand, and can be watched on YouTube. Recommended.

You can watch Zoom here

Bite Night (UK 2020: Dir Maria Lee Metheringham) There are a lot of indepedent horror films made these days whose creators talk about trying to capture a 1980s vibe. Very often (and often poorly) this is realised by a brooding synth score and a broadly colourful lighting design. Metheringham's follow up to 2018's Pumpkins doesn't aim for such a feel in its design but Bite Night conjours up memories of numerous daft 'kids-mixing-with succubii' movies of that decade in its execution.

At a nightclub a three woman band play to an enthusiastic audience; they are Zuzanna (Metheringham), Katarina (Martha Niklas) and Valice (Rachel Brownstein). Tonight, courtesy of a number of tickets randomly inserted into balloons, six lucky fans will be given the chance to accompany the girls back to their house for an exclusive after party.

The six, who include preppy Ebeneizer (George Walker) and feisty Tash (Marcella Edgecombe-Craig), get ferried by limo to the cottage, aka the 'House of Valice', where they're invited to freshen up in their allocated rooms. There's an increasingly predatory sense that the girls have something in mind for their guests apart from wall to wall partying; Valice takes a shine to Tash and seduces her, while punky Axel (Ryan Jay-James) finds one of Katarina's dresses and puts it on. Later, everyone meets in the dining room, and the girls announce their culinary inclinations by serving up a severed head and dipping a stick of celery into the blood. But just as the three girls turn all vampy/cannibal-y, there's another more terrifying figure who starts to take over the guests. Who will survive?

I use the word 'scrappy' quite a lot to describe a form of filmmaking which is rough round the edges, well intentioned but slimly budgeted; and Bite Night ticks all three of these boxes. The movie feels like it might at any point get a lot more raunchy than it does, but the cast are all good value and, considering that not much happens, things move at a fair clip. Of particular note are the songs performed by the girls (sung by the three actresses) written by 'Great Northern Hotel' and the film's incidental score by Leigh 'Scratch' Fenlon and Jerry de Borg, and some enthusiastic performances by Edgecombe-Craig and Brownstein, who have fun with the frequently camp dialogue. Bite Night's story is 'to be continued...' according to the end credits. Well ok then.

Russian Submarine (UK 2020: Dir Tommi Sorsa) This 50 minute featurette, shot in Bournemouth, opens with a Biblical quote. There isn't a reason for this and it's no more illuminating than the rest of the film.

What I think is happening is that, in a 2009 prologue, a group of young men (and one woman) hold a drinking party in a house (the name of which - the game not the house - is 'Russian Submarine', hence the title) and all die of alcohol poisoning.

Moving to the present day, a young couple rent the house, only to be haunted by the ghost of the last member standing from the original group. To deal with the unwanted supernatural visitation they bring in a team of ghostbusters, complete with resident psychic, who quickly realise that to engage with the spirits at a meaningful level they too have to play the 'Russian Submarine' game. Oh and as well as the ghost there's also an evil jester/clown character called Cletus, a figure whose spiritual ancestry may date from the medieval period of history.

I would recommend that Russian Submarine is best watched with the viewer imbibing the same amout of alcohol as the cast; you won't understand it any better but it may feel like it's over quicker. This is a film that chooses to include outtake scenes both during the movie and after it. The cast all inexplicably have American accents (and to be fair some of these are well rendered) which sits rather oddly in the setting of a Bournemouth semi. Scenes are repeated endlessly and if there's a point to this it was totally lost on me. Look I'm sure this was a lot of fun to make - many of the cast look like they're on the verge of 'corpsing' most of the time - but it sure isn't to sit through, unless you're an 'in-on-the-joke' student presumably.

You can watch Russian Submarine here

Eve (UK 2019: Dir Rory Kindersley) This glossy, psychological thriller aims for Nicolas Winding Refn or maybe Daren Aronofsky in its intensity, but sadly falls short through a combination of unlikeable characters and opaque plotting.

Alex Beyer (American Christine Marzano sporting a pretty good Brit accent) is an actor no longer getting the parts she wants, after being out of the business for over a year (her mental health is clearly not great). Turned down for the role of 'Eve' in a film version of a play in which she was the lead, her day gets worse when, returning to her swish London mews house with photographer boyfriend Liam (Andrew Lee Potts) which he's let out in their absence, she discovers that someone has daubed blood all over the walls. The police suspect it might be a jealous fan (the pair don't exactly fall over themselves to find out).

Alex continues to obsess both about the loss of the role and the identity of the home defacer (CCTV footage shows a woman standing outside their front door; a possible suspect?). Meanwhile her agent despairs at what to do with her, and gets the opportunity to drop her from the books when Alex assaults the actor who got the 'Eve' part when they bump into each other at an audition.Alex's downward spiral continues apace, to the point where she's not only a danger to herself, but maybe to others as well.

Eve is one of those movies where everybody is horrible, so it's difficult to care less about any of the characters; probably the most sympathetic is Liam, but even he may be having an affair with a client. I'm getting a bit sick of 'crazy lady' scenarios, where the instability of the lead means that the audience can't trust whether what they're seeing is fantasy or reality. Kindersley's movie looks good, but it's empty as hell and ultimately inconsequential; all dressed up with nowhere to go, in fact.

Dune Drifter (UK 2020: Dir Marc Price) Price has come a a long way since his £45 budgeted 2003 feature debut, the intimate zombie in the suburbs movie Colin. But maybe not thematically, as his latest, a low budget sci fi drama, quickly focuses its story on a lone survivor of battle who has to face hazardous alien elements.

Adler (Phoebe Sparrow) is the gunner in a small two person spaceship, part of the Dune squadron, who enter an intergalactic fracas with a race called the Drekks on instructions to do little more than make up the numbers. But the opposition have the upper hand: ill-equipped for battle, one by one the squadron craft are picked off, with Adler and her ship's pilot Yaren (Daisy Aitkens) crash landing on an alien planet. Left on her own after Yaren dies from injuries sustained during the crash, and with the remainder of her fleet having abandoned her, assuming that she has perished, Adler's outlook, and indeed her life support duration, seem critical. But worse is to come; there's another crashed ship on the planet containing some armed Drekks, who stand between her and any hope of returning to earth.

Filmed in the inhospitable volcanic wastes of Iceland, Dune Drifter certainly manages to be bleak. Its stripped down story, with no character detail or extraneous plot information, gives us half an hour of not particularly convincing space battle, then dumps its human survivor in the middle of nowhere and throws things at her. There's some wry humour at work here - some gaseous attacking rocks seem to have strolled in from an episode of Star Trek and one of Adler's many adversities is a stray lock of hair in her eyes (which, being inside a pressurised helmet, she can do nothing about). This is a brave hour and a half and Dune Drifter remains watchable largely for Sparrow's convincing performance as the soldier who just wants to get home. It doesn't hold a candle to bigger budgeted space sagas (and will doubtless be criticised as a result of that unfair comparsion) but Dune Drifter is a watchable and at times tense sci fi flick.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 # 1: Reviews of Bats: The Awakening (UK 2021), The Heiress (UK 2021), Righteous Villains (UK 2020) and The Banishing (UK 2020)

Bats: The Awakening (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews) Jeffrey's first film for 2021 (I'm sure there will be more, he directed three last year and produced six more) with his stablemate Matthews (aka Becca Hirani) under their Proportion Productions banner.

Three Americans (ok Brits with US accents, two blokes and a girl) break into an English country cottage; a decade previously the area was subject to nuclear contamination and mass evacuation. They've come to party, which involves them taking turns in bedding the clearly virginal girl ("it wasn't as bad as I thought," she says). In the grand tradition of characters in horror films being punished for sexual transgressions, two are killed by a strange man bat who lives in the attic; the other guy is bitten to death by more conventional versions of our leathery-winged friends.

Three weeks later Jamie King (Megan Purvis) is grieving the death of her fiancee Matty (Mat Sibal; fun fact, he was elevated to DoP after the first one walked off the shoot half way through). She's both afraid to move on with her life, and also wants to treasure his memory. Her mum Lisa (Amanda-Jade Tyler) and sister Amelia (Georgia Conlan) are concerned for her welfare, as is Jamie's grandmother Georgie (Kate Sandison), who needs to go back to her 'ranch' in Nosferatu Village (I kid you not), the same house in which the kids in the prologue broke in. But no sooner have they returned, to an area where the radiation warning signs still stand, than the strange man bat stalks the family, maiming and infecting Georgie and closing in on the rest of the family.

Shot in six days on a very small budget, Jeffrey and Matthews' film really is a game of two halves; the first is a rather soapy bit of exposition as the relationship between the characters is a little shakily explained; but the second half, where the family come under siege, is actually pretty tense. The fact that shooting wrapped the day before the first lockdown, meaning that all editing had to be done without reshoots, means that the story is at times a little confusing. 

But there's a lot to like about Bats: the Awakening. The man bat creation is, for the most part, a rather scary creation (although the less you see the more effective it is). There are some great practical effects here, sparingly used (a head peeling, the result of the creature's cry, is very effective). Also Greg Birkumshaw's score is very good, although I'm not sure it's as 80s sounding as the directors would have liked (Jeffrey and Matthews had mentioned that they were trying for an 80s vibe in the movie, but I couldn't really see it) - it's murkier, more like 70s BBC Radiophonic Workshop with hints of classic Italian horror scores, but offsets the darker moments very well indeed.

Bats: the Awakening will be released by ITN Distribution later in 2021

The Heiress (UK 2021: Dir Chris Bell) Claire and Anna Tate (Candis Nergaard and Jayne Wisener) are sisters who enjoy a close bond: when we first meet them they’re at a wake following the funeral of their grandmother, Abigail. It is immediately apparent that Anna is the stronger of the two; Claire, who is epileptic and heavily medicated, reads a poem to the guests and is then forced to rest. She has a troubling vision of a burning building.

The sisters’ parents are keen to clear Abigail’s house as soon as possible. When Claire and Anna visit, Anna finds an old book on witchcraft, which contains a story about a woman who does a deal with a witch to be rid of her terrible husband, with the soul of her daughter being forfeit in return, and the promise delivered via a fire which consumes both the husband and the woman’s two sons. Following the funeral Claire’s health deteriorates, and she has fleeting glimpses of an old woman and a child. Anna’s decision to cheer her sister up, by double dating on an evening out with Anna’s boyfriend Dan (David Wayman) and Dan’s boorish mate Brad (director Chris Bell) is an unwise one, and comes to an abrupt end back home when Brad also has a vision of a young boy wearing a mask.

Claire becomes convinced that the story she read might be true and that a curse has been visited on the family; pretty much everybody else, Anna and her sister’s doctor included, believe that the problems entirely exist in Claire’s mind. The only person who believes Claire is local priest, Father O’Shea (David Schaal), who has knowledge of Abigail’s dark history.

Chris Bell’s latest feature couldn’t be more different to his last, 2015’s Hooligans at War: North and South, the only thing in common being the Essex and Kent locations. Bell here offers a much more subtle piece concentrating principally on the tortured Claire (a superb performance from Negaard). The only ‘war’ here is between science and faith; for most of the film, the viewer is in doubt as to whether Claire’s visions are a product of her own illness or the manifestation of something external and deadly.

The Heiress is, for most of its running time, a character piece looking at the impact of grief and its effects both on those directly affected and the people who live with those facing loss. As such it’s a subtle film and all the better for it. The slow, creeping dread of the family’s growing realisation that Claire’s torment is supernatural rather than medical takes place among the prosaic locations of suburban sitting rooms and hospital wards, which makes The Heiress all the more scary. 

The Heiress is released on VOD from 15 March 2021

Righteous Villains (UK 2020: Dir Savvas D. Michael) 'The Anti Woke Backlash' proclaims the trailer for Michael's latest guns 'n' er more guns outing, which he wrote, directed and released via his 'Saints and Savages' distribution company (previously 'Macho Movies Ltd'). Michael's shtick is British gangster features, shot on the mean streets of London, and to some extent Righteous Villains is no different to his previous flicks (2016's Smoking GunsRed Devil from 2019 and his companion piece to this one, Original Gangster, also made in 2020) although here the effing, jeffing and gunplay are mixed with some satanic elements.

Jeremiah (Jamie Crew, in a performance of vowel - and consonant - mangling intensity) is a scam artisit, diddling little old ladies out of their belongings. At the place where he fences his booty, he's given a tipoff to meet a mystical guy in a car breakers yard. At the rendezvous he also encounters kick-ass Jolie (Lois Brabin-Platt), former prostitute, later happy publican's wife, now driven crazy following the shooting of her husband Mickey (a cameo from Gray Dourdan, yes, Warrick off of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and loss of her unborn child.

Jeremiah and Jolie are offered a cool £1 million if they will journey to a distant island and retrieve a child, captured by a group called the New World Order, headed by a reincarnation of Satan in the body of a child molester, whose numbers include members of the Royal family. There's also some nonsense about a bunch of guardian angels called 'The Essence' from whom Jolie may be descended. Oh and did I mention that Steven Berkoff puts in an appearance, biting off large chunks of the scenery as he goes?

To get to the island they must be transported by a ferryman who can only take them if they're wearing masks (geddit?). Once there they must deal with the New World Order, whose court holds sway, doling out punishments to people for crimes of sexism and telling racist jokes; they also have to face the devil incarnate.

This inept film at least has a promising opening twenty minutes as Jolie and Jeremiah's stories intersect (poor old Crew gets some bewilderingly complicated lines with which the actor's mouth can barely keep up), but once on the island any semblance of tension (and logic) gets lost amid a mess of confused exposition, random nakedness and shouting. 

Full disclosure; this is the first of Michael's films that I've seen, and I wouldn't have reviewed this were it not for the 'Fantastic' elements. It's pretty hard to know who the audience for this would be apart from pissed blokes who like to see guns waved around and people saying "fuck" a lot. Oh and look out everybody: Michael has signed up Nicolas Cage and everyone's favourite liberal Jon Voight to star in his next outing, Heroes & Villains. Where does he come up with these titles?

Righteous Villains releases on Digital Download from 19 April 2021

The Banishing (UK 2021: Dir Chris Smith) This is the first time  Smith has returned to the fright genre since the enjoyable outward bound horror comedy Severance back in 2006. The Banishing is a more sober, and indeed sombre prospect altogether.

Set in a period in England just before the outbreak of WWII, and where the spectre of national socialism is rising in Europe, three years after a bizarre murder/suicide involving the previous occupants at Borley Rectory, Reverend Stanley Hall and his wife Beatrice, new incumbents arrive, in the shape of  former missionary Linus (John Heffernan), his new wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and their daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce). Marianne is the archetypal 'fallen woman' who Linus has married, making her respectable; Adelaide's parentage is questionable, particularly as Linus seems more at home with his prayer books than in bed with his wife.

The Rectory is far too large for the family and their small retinue of servants; most of it is closed off, a fact which Marianne feels is slightly obscene in that other parts of the country are in deprivation. Wandering around the house, Adelaide finds an eyeless doll which she names Veronica and accommodates in a dolls house style facsimile of the Rectory, complete with three small brown robed figures.

In town Linus meets an odd character by the name of Harry Price (a ripe turn from Sean Harris) who warns the new vicar of the history of the Rectory and its latent power; supposedly built on the site of a monastery whose monks had some rather particular worshipping practices. In turn a higher priest, Malachi (John Lynch) warns Linus of Price's mental instability, but the audience knows that Malachi was involved in the aftermatch of Stanley and Beatrice's deaths. Gradually all three members of the family start to lose their wits, as the marital tensions between Linus and Marianne escalate. Was Price right about the house all along?

If the names 'Harry Price' and 'Marianne' ring a bell, it's because they were both pivotal in the history of Borley Rectory, a real (now demolished) house which was, reputedly, 'the most haunted house in England.' It's a story that has recently captured the imaginations of several independent filmmakers, and with various degrees of success, from prolific Welsh director Andrew Jones' 2015 outing A Haunting at the Rectory, to Ashley Thorpe's dreamy Borley Rectory (2017) and the underwhelming The Haunting of Borley Rectory by Steven M. Smith in 2019. Chris Smith's take on the story is the most sumptuous of all of them, and there's clearly some budget behind his latest feature. Cast wise he's been able to secure some real talent, from Harris' over the top, twitchy performance as Price to Heffernan's vulnerable Linus and Jessica Brown Findlay's indefatigable Marianne. 

Smith isn't beyond some genre hallmark scares; mirrors that don't behave themselves; eerie dolls; and an atmospheric soundscape which effectively evokes the isolation and age of the Rectory. He also deploys at least one scene which, if not exactly frightening, is at least very alarming. The supernatural activity in The Banshing is kept to a minimum; this is mainly a study of vulnerable people under the influence of an evil haunted house with the power to manipulate thought (and recalling both Hill House from 1963's The Haunting and The Overlook Hotel from Kubrick's 1980 The Shining). There may not be much new here, but the director certainly achieves a lot from a fairly simple premise, even if the last scene came across as far less portentous than he had maybe desired.

The Banishing will be released on digital platforms from 26 March 2021 and will stream on Shudder beginning 15 April.