Think that only the big movie companies are entitled to develop lucrative 'universe' concepts to rake in the moolah? Think again - arguably Hellriser has the distinction of being the second film in the cheapest franchise ever, with the promise of more to come courtesy of its ghostly pre-end credit lament. You have to admire the sheer pluck of director, writer, producer and caterer Steve Lawson in bringing back the lead character from his last movie The Haunting of Annie Dyer for his latest romp.
But let's go back a bit. In 2014 Lawson made a film called Nocturnal Activity. An interesting title, with nods to both soft porn and of course the Paranormal Activity films, it was his third feature, following on from the equally micro budget martial arts thriller Insiders (2002) and the distinctly Robocop sounding The Silencer (2007). Nocturnal Activity was the story of Annie, a woman who becomes possessed after moving into a new flat, her nightly visitations monitored by a psychic researcher; Dyer ends up held by the police on a murder charge. Released for the American market in 2015, Nocturnal Activity didn't fare very well. Keen to recoup some money Lawson recut and repackaged the movie as The Haunting of Annie Dyer and it got a straight to DVD release in the UK in 2016, leaving in the American accented ADR voices of lead actresses Raven Lee (of which more later) and Evie Nightingale, as originally intended for the US market.
On a budget of about £1,200 Lawson, who gives himself a number of pseudonyms in the credits to suggest a bigger technical cast, does pretty much everything in this film, except act. With the exception of a girl on girl dream sequence it is clear that no two actors share the same space when interacting with each other - a filming technique Lawson prefers for editing purposes. Most of it's filmed in a very cramped flat, and such effects as exist are fairly shonky post production CGI. And yet strangely it works. Another critic has suggested that Lawson is a Fred Olen Ray for these shores, but while there's truth in that there's also something rather George Kuchar-like in the campy acting, domestic settings and the overall loucheness of the production. A lot of that comparison is down to the character of Annie, played by former model Raven Lee; she's kind of fascinating. With her real voice overdubbed by someone who sounds half American, half Serbo Croat, her natural plus sized figure (a nice two fingers up to the parade of pneumatic clones who normally populate movies like this) and her insane eyebrows, she's a voluptuous enigma.
Following this film Lawson made Killer/Saurus (a cut price Jurassic Park but with a proper non CGI puppet T. Rex like what they used to have) and the excellent Survival Instinct, which I was lucky to see on one of its rare big screen outings at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
But for his latest movie Annie's back in Hellriser, a slightly more ambitious film than The Haunting of Annie Dyer. Also returning from the first film is the character of hard bitten Detective Locke, played effectively by Steve Dolton, a Lawson regular and a bonus for any low budget film, his performance rising above Hellriser's economic constraints. Locke is introduced to a new partner, career pursuing Detective Keyes (Keyes, Locke, geddit?) played by Charlie Bond. Keyes is IT savvy whereas Locke is a dinosaur - they make a watchable pair. Locke is investigating a potential serial killer (seven bodies and counting), the trail leading to an abandoned asylum recently acquired by Dr Unnseine, who has been conducting some rather distasteful medical research. His latest patient is one Annie Dyer, incarcerated following events in the first film, Dyer it seems is the key to Unnseine's real purpose, to unlock the gates of hell. Locke works out that all roads lead to Dyer, but he still refuses to believe, much as he did in the first film, that there's any demonic explanation for what's happening. But yes readers, he's about to be proved wrong.
Hellriser probably didn't cost that much more than Annie Dyer, but it's a lot more ambitious - admittedly this is a relative term. The lighting concept is pretty good (especially the final scenes) and the classic 80s B movie elements (shower scene, dismembered limbs, gag script etc) are all to the fore. Dolton is reliable as ever, there's a laconic performance from Nathan Head as a morgue technician, and Raven Lee is, shall we say, a rather game girl (Lawson must be quite a persuasive director, which is probably a rather loaded comment to make in these post Weinstein times - I'm sure he's a lovely man).
As opposed to Andrew Jones, the other UK film maker whose output eclipses Lawson's but whose pieces tend to be more thoughtful and slow moving, Lawson's films are fun, unpretentious and worth catching. Hellriser is no classic but it's been made with passion, and if you listen to the director's commentary on the DVD, why it just make you feel that it's worth trying to make a movie of your own. And if you do, send it to me why don'cha?