Monday 29 April 2019

Supermarket Sweep #7: Reviews of The Exorcism of Karen Walker (UK 2018), St Agatha (USA 2018), West of Hell (USA 2018), Curse of the Witch's Doll (UK 2018), The Haunting of Borley Rectory (UK 2019) and Unholy (UK 2015)

The Exorcism of Karen Walker (UK 2019: Dir Steve Lawson) Steve Lawson has previously been a reliable budget genre director, bringing us movies like Survival Instinct, The Haunting of Annie Dyer and Hellriser. This time round he's a gun for hire director for a story devised by Jonathan Sothcott and financed by Sothcott's Hereford Films; their first production. This means that Sothcott's missus Janine Nerissa Sothcott is in it which, for anyone who's seen her acting in other shorts and features, is not a good idea.

Originally called 'Aura,' this is one of those movies that tries desperately to convince the audience that it's set in the US, by including an American car in an otherwise obviously English setting, then having its cast try (and mostly fail) to adopt American accents. Mitch and Diane - who is pregnant - move into a house previously occupied by Mitch's dark arts dabbling uncle, much to the disgust of his fundamental Christian mum. Mitch's sister Karen has been incarcerated in a mental health facility for many years, since an incident at the house when she was found tied to a chair in the basement with her uncle present. Mitch springs his sister from the facility and brings her home to the house that caused the trauma. He engages the services of a psychic, Ada (Rula Lenska, the best thing here) and attempts an exorcism to rid Karen of the entity that has taken his sister away.

The budget for The Exorcism of Anna Walker is definitely higher than Steve Lawson is used to, but the rather cliched premise makes me long for his earlier, less ambitious (but more successful) films. There is a lot of talking in the movie, but the final exorcism sequence builds some tension, and Denise Moreno is quite creepy as the disturbed, possessed Karen. The real star here is Lenska, who has to carry the narrative of the film and makes it a classier production as a result, despite her awful American accent. Sothcott and Lawson have combined forces again on the as yet unreleased Pentagram, starring Nicholas (Hazell) Ball; there's enough potential here to make that movie worth investigating, but only just.

St Agatha (USA 2018: Dir Darren Lynn Bousman) Now this just isn't cricket. Regular readers of the Supermarket Sweep strand will know that of necessity expectations are set very low. So what this extremely tense, moving and gruelling bit of catholixploitation is doing in the pile beats me.

Nuns are of course big at the moment - I could do a whole Supermarket Sweep item on the current crop of deadly - or just plain dead - nun films (see posts passim) but St Agatha draws more on the real life horrors of Peter Mullan's 2002 The Magdalene Sisters for its frights, and to some extent last year's brilliant The Devil's Doorway, directed by Aislinn Clarke.

It's 1957, and plucky Mary finds herself pregnant by her well meaning but rather feckless boyfriend, and keen to escape from her drunken violent father. She admits herself to a convent run by the Sisters of Divinty, a group of nuns that will care for Mary up to and after her baby is born. On first appearance the nuns come across as firm but fair, but it's only when Mary has fully moved in that she witnesses the scale of the cruelties meted out to the other girls (one poor wretch is forced to remain at the dinner table even though she has just been sick, and is required by the nuns to eat her own vomit so as not to waste food). Mary's own mental subjugation is a slow process of chipping away at her resolve, culminating in her accepting a renaming to Agatha (the patron saint who suffered rape, imprisonment and torture for her faith).

The Mother Superior of this outfit (Carolyn Hennesy, suitably deranged) is the brains behind the pain, and it turns out she's been excommunicated but still keeps up the pretense of running a convent even though the Vatican have pulled the funding. So she acquires money courtesy of donors, who end up getting their pick of the new babies. It's all rather sordid.

As you'd expect from the director of movies like Saw II, III and IV, the torture is both mental and physical; you're never far from a wince inducing moment featuring vices applied to legs in stirrups, a bear trap in the woods, salt water applied to a wound, and Mary stumbling on an already broken leg. But Mary and her fellow inmates convince in their torment, and the final come uppance had this reviewer rooting for a lengthy demise for all the women of the cloth involved in the girls' persecution. Intense and excoriating, if a little overlong, this is a must see.

West of Hell (USA 2018: Dir Michael Steves) As a film critic it's probably not very wise to confess that I'm pretty antipathetic towards the Western. I could count on the fingers of three fingers the number of Westerns that I've liked. Criminal ain't it? I needn't have worried; although West of Hell dresses itself up as a Wild West tale, beyond a few hats, bonnets and firearms, it's really a story about a deal with the devil, set on a train in the 19th century, which reminded me more of the 1964 Amicus portmanteau movie Dr Terror's House of Horrors than anything else.

A disparate group of individuals find themselves sharing a carriage on an overnight train to Atlanta; they include Jericho Whitfield (Tony Todd, doing his lizard eyed growling shtick), out for revenge over the death of his enslaved family at the hands of a white man; specifically the father of fellow traveller Annie Hargraves (Jennifer Laporte) who is herself being chaperoned to safe passage by mercenary Roland Bursley (Michael Eklund). There's a $1000 bounty on Whitfeld's head, and before you know it there's cross and double cross as the various occupants of the train try to outsmart each other. But then it all gets a bit weird; as the assembled characters find out more about each other, it turns out that the whole train is headed for hell, and a final reckoning, delivered in a number of Saw like tasks which sort out the eternally damned from the saved.

Nearly all the reviews of West of Hell (that I've seen anyway) do exactly what I've done - give you an account of the movie up until the point where I have no idea in the name of all that's holy what's going on. I think it's about how the damned can't escape their fate (hence the Dr Terror's... mention). A sprightly Lance Henricksen turns up in a blonde 'do as the Devil; if the production could have afforded an autocue I swear he was reading off of it. The cheapness of the thing restricts most of the movie to one sparsely decorated railway carriage and hell to, well, darkness and a few torches. There's some darkly lit gore and one or two of the performances are worth catching, particularly Todd who gets quite a meaty part here - sadly a rarity in a CV as long as his. West of Hell might be trying to do something different, but it's an overambitious failure.

Curse of the Witch's Doll (UK 2018: Dir Lawrence Fowler) Fowler's feature debut - as writer, producer and director - is very much from the low budget stable of filmmakers like Andrew Jones and Steve Lawson (he even borrows Lawson's go to scream queen Helen Crevel for his female lead) but sadly bites off more than he can chew.

During the second world war Adeline Gray (Crevel) and her daughter Chloe (Layla Watts) are moved out to a country mansion after their Kent home is bombed: Gray's husband is missing in action. The house is owned by Arthur Harper (Philip Ridout) who appears benevolent. But when Chloe discovers an ugly doll in the house, Adeline starts to doubt how safe she and her daughter are, and when Chloe goes missing, she is convinced that her life is in danger. But how much of what she believes is actually real?

Curse of the Witch's Doll does a brave thing, plot wise; about halfway through the film it offers a plot twist that most directors would have saved for the final reveal. The decision is an interesting one; up until this point, the viewer is wondering just how much more footage can be tolerated of an anxious young woman walking the rooms of a large house looking perplexed. But the movie's second half, which turns the story on its head, is really no more interesting than the first, and at just over an hour and a half long the whole thing could have done with more judicious editing. There is quite a clever story here (the legacy of a a 17th century witch, who curses a doll to wreak revenge through the centuries, being suppressed by a megalomaniac doctor) but both the budget and the directorial vision get in the way of it being told effectively.

Helen Crevel, usually quite reliable in stuff like this, seems a little out of her depth here, and if both she and Philip Ridout offer wooden performances for a specific purpose, it doesn't get over the fact that we have to watch them do this. There's both a 1660s prologue and a final scene set 75 years after the events in the movie which feel like Fowler is just trying to cram in too much content. And to top it all the movie boasts one of those string synth soundtracks which threaten to cloak everything in mournful symphonic washes. Too ambitious, too long, and too inconsequential. The animatronic doll's quite good value though.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory (UK 2019: Dir Steven M. Smith) The subject of the ghosts of Borley Rectory in Essex, and its accompanying church, have fuelled the imagination of writers and filmmakers alike for close on a century now (I remember as a kid devouring the various stories about the history of the place, even though most of the events that inspired the accounts had taken place well over 30 years before I was born). I sometimes wonder whether the Brits see Borley as their own Amityville (albeit a rather Miss Marple version) and want to exploit the legend as much as the US do their own famous haunted house. Anyhow after a quiet period Borley has been back in the news, perhaps prompted by Neil Spring's disappointing 2013 novel 'The Ghost Hunters' (the Borley story was also successfully debunked in Roger Clarke's 2012 book 'A Natural History of Ghosts'). Filmmakers have also risen to the challenge of the Borley story revival. So we've had Andrew Jones' 2015 movie A Haunting at the Rectory and Ashley Thorpe's dreamlike animated account of the story, Borley Rectory. The latest is Steven M. Smith's The Haunting of Borley Rectory (original shooting title just Borley).

Smith's film is set in 1944, a few years after the Rectory had largely burnt to the ground, but when visions of the spectre of a nun were still being witnessed. Zach Clifford is Robert, an American soldier assigned to the UK and stationed in a cottage on the edge of the Rectory ruins, listening for German coded transmissions; he's shell shocked after sustaining an injury while on the front line, and in a bad way. Forming a friendship with Laura, a girl from the village, he learns from her the history of the site. His own visions of the nun seem to be part of an increasingly disassociative state. Eventually, at his wits end, Robert calls back Harry Price, the famous ghost hunter who chronicled the Borley hauntings, to help him. He also meets Marianne Foyster, who previously lived in the Rectory, to whom he becomes close.

I honestly have no idea what Smith was attempting with The Haunting of Borley. It's ruminative at best, turgid if I'm being unkind, and limps on for 90 minutes with little point to it. I was perhaps expecting a different take on the Borley story, but the director manipulates the facts to suit his own ends (Marianne for example was married, but had an affair with the stable boy, and supposedly concocted the haunting to cover up her own 'bumps in the night'). If you know about the Borley story, or indeed if you don't, you'll be equally baffled. A very poor film, which aims for a bucolic dream state but ends up a confusing and uninteresting mess.

Unholy: The Thornton Heath Poltergeist (UK 2015: Dir Anthony M. Winson) Micro budget horror films have a tendency to base themselves wholly or partly on their more respectably financed counterparts to encourage DVD sales, and on paper Unholy is no different; its mid 1970s setting and supernatural themes recall When the Lights Went Out (2012), The Conjuring 2 (2016) and indeed the 2015 TV series which documented the inspiration for the latter movie, The Enfield Haunting.

Unholy reaches back further than Enfield's activities and uses the infamous (in paranormal circles anyway) early 1970s Thornton Heath poltergeist for its story. Unlike the Enfield Poltergeist, neither the parties involved nor the actual address have ever been disclosed in relation to the events in Thorton Heath (a south London suburb), which took place over a period of about nine years during the decade that taste forgot.

Director Anthony M. Winson seems to have capitalised on these vagaries and moved the whole thing up to Nottingham - certainly the location in Unholy looks nothing like London and most of the cast have suspiciously Nottingham/Derby accents.

Newlyweds Margaret and Peter Eastwood (Kellie Goudie and Simon Crudginton, both excellent) move into a modern (and very 1970s looking) home, with great plans for the future. Peter is away on business a lot, and much of the first part of the film shows Margaret going about her daily housekeeping duties. But from an early point Mrs Eastwood feels that something isn't right in the house; she feels watched, doors close by themselves and she hears things that don't chime with her being alone in the property. Neighbour Christine and her daughter clearly know something of the history of the house but keep mum; events soon escalate and before long Peter and Margaret and visiting friends have all experienced unaccountable activity. Things become so bad that they rope in a local medium and psychic - the inevitable seance is organised, which flushes out the demonic presence inhabiting the house - and then the real problems start.

There are several things that elevate Unholy above the run of the mill DTV fodder that I usually cover in the Supermarket Sweep strand. The first is the look of the thing. Winson has gone to great pains to get the feel of the mid 1970s bang on (and I should know: reader I lived through them); the clothes, the layout of the house, and indeed the flat feel of the photography (a skill also achieved in last year's brilliant 60s set film The Devil's Doorway) conjures up a real sense of (albeit relatively recent) history. Kellie Goudie in particular is excellent as Margaret, who convinces as a rather plain, everyday woman who simply wants to keep her house respectable and becomes increasingly violated by knowing she is no longer safe there. For most of Unholy little happens, but Winson does a first rate job of slowly ratcheting up the terror.

The director also does some amazing things with his camera. A very plain semi is turned into a veritable house of horrors with little more than creepy camerawork, a bit of sleight of hand and some subtle CGI shadows. And for those expecting an ending that involves the characters increasing the volume of their screams in place of last act tension, Winson pulls it out of the bag with a final sequence involving some deft modelwork and, to paraphrase the classification warning given to some movies, more than mild peril. Unholy is an excellent film which I would urge you to see.

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