Monday 6 April 2020

Surprise (UK 2018: Dir Dave Green and Dan McGee)

Anthology - or portmanteau - films have a habit of disappointing, and these days, with a plethora of short films being made, some filmmakers believe that stringing together a few loosely related existing shorts with a perfunctory linking story is enough to pass off the finished results as a complete movie.

Surprise does that rare thing: it fuses the wraparound narrative with the individual tales within in so that the two elements work together perfectly, and also manages to combine a reasonably scary film with a metaphysical rumination on the art of storytelling and the nature of identity.

An unnamed author (Joerg Stadler, Hannibal Rising), one of the greatest horror writers of our time, is struggling with his latest work. "I have a new story to tell the world," he says, "but even my ghosts cast shadows." He is visited by a figure called The Teacher (Elliot Reivers, first glimpsed in Lindsay Shonteff's 1990 spy spoof Number One Gun), a character who may be a product of the author's own imagination, but who has returned to lay claim to the characters that the writer creates.

The bulk of the movie is an enactment of the author's words, sitting uncompleted on his typewriter. We're taken to a Halloween writer's workshop in a local social club: 'Write Night' offers the chance for new authors to pitch their stories and offers a prize for the best one. In time honoured portmanteau film fashion, a group of disparate writers find themselves at the same table: nervy Patrick (Patrick J. Maxwell), optimistic Debbey (Debbey Clitheroe) and caustic Laura (Laura Ellen Wilson) all share with the others the stories they've prepared. The fact that the characters have the same names as the actors playing them is only part of this film's meta-ness; the three appear in various guises in each of the stories within the film too. The group is complete when they're joined by The Teacher, who it transpires invited them all to the evening, and has intervened on their story and in turn the author's.

Patrick tells the first story, 'Mr Chuckles' (or Chapter I as the film would have it). A little girl's party in a pub is brought to an early end by shirty landlady Gemma (Wilson); in retaliation the little girl curses her, and the pub owner is subsequently visited by a devilish clown (Maxwell). In Chapter II, Debbey's tale - 'Sweethearts' - an adulterous police inspector (Maxwell) discovers that the bodies of two dead girls are both former 'conquests' and that their killer might be someone well known to him. And in the last chapter, Laura's story, 'The Last Rites of Byron Vanderbilt,' a model, Irina (Wilson) gets supernatural revenge on a misogynistic client after being psychically enabled by Thana (Clitheroe).

Patrick J. Maxwell as 'Mr Chuckles'
Stylistically there's more than a whiff of Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories about the look of Surprise. It's an England of wet roads, deserted pubs and autumnal gloom. Directors Green and McGee get the balance of enigma and storytelling dead right. Watching the movie you're never quite sure what's happening, but the direction is so confident that you're happy to just go with what's unravelling. And there's lots of great touches here too, like the comic strip style animation to remind us that these are written stories first and foremost, the spare but classy score and the eloquent script, which mixes high concepts and witty put downs, mainly from the acerbic Laura. Every one of the small cast is excellent, but special praise should go to Laura Ellen Wilson and Patrick J. Maxwell in terms of the diversity of roles they are called on to perform.

It's also possibly the first portmanteau film I've ever watched where I immediately wanted to see it again! Intrigued, I decided to ask one of the co-directors, Dan McGee, a few questions about the film.

DEoL: So what was the inspiration for the film?
DM: Each chapter of the anthology was based on a a different era of horror cinema, from contemporary jump-scare horror, to the works of Dario Argento and David Lynch. Individually there are particular moments inspired by films we love, the opening segment inspired by The Seventh Seal for instance. Overall however, what I feel works more with Surprise is the main narrative, which is often never the case in anthology horror films. Throughout, we drew inspiration from any films of the genre we love.

DEoL: Was it always the plan to have the actors occupying multiple roles?
DM: Yes, one of the main selling points was re-using the actors. We wanted the actors in the main narrative to feature in each-other's storyline, being depicted in that fictitious tale depending on how the storyteller sees them, the events of one chapter affecting the next. Whether this comes across to the audience remains to be seen, but it was certainly easy to get the main actors involved, partly as their showreel can be filled with scenes solely from Surprise.

DEoL: The character of 'The Teacher' is recognisable as the 'collector of souls' archetype seen
A body is found in the 'Sweethearts' segment of  Surprise
in many portmanteau films, but he's also linked to the unnamed author. Can you tell me a little about that relationship?

DM: We worked with Joerg Stadler (from Saving Private Ryan), playing 'The Fourth Writer', who is set up as an aged, reclusive horror writer attempting to escape the ghosts of his past. One of those ghosts happens to be 'The Teacher', an antagonist from an unnamed horror series of books, manifested in the real world. As the writer attempts to deviate from his past work, 'The Teacher' arrives into his life to alter the course of his newest novel, turning it into a much darker tale. That story is the main narrative of Surprise, hence why the antagonist is re-introduced later in the film, writing himself into the story. To put it bluntly, it's an allegory of writers block, or at least that's what we intended. You can maybe see it as a Frankenstein tale of a creation coming back for his creator.

DEoL: How long was the shoot and how much prep did the actors get? I ask this as the performances are so assured.
: Surprise was filmed over 15 months, partly funded from our own pocket. With it being essentially a series of short films, it really wasn't an issue for us. The opening was filmed over one day in Whitby, with an average of three days given to each of the additional segments, including the main narrative. We were so impressed with the actors, given the fact that rehearsal was only given for the social club scenes, due to the heavy amount of dialogue. They brought so much to the characters. Also I think it helps that I've done quite a bit of acting these past 5 years, so I feel like we can put the actors at ease and really get the best out of them, whilst keeping them relaxed. It was a very informal set. The final day was our actress Laura Ellen Wilson's birthday, so drinks were flowing (more than usual, anyway).

DEoL: So what's been happening with the film since it was completed? Has it played at festivals and if so what's been the reception?
DM: Yes, we showcased it at a couple smaller festivals around the UK: however it recently played Starburst International Film Festival which was huge for us, and a large turnout as well. It was the first time we both could sit back and feel proud of our love-letter to horror since the cast and crew screening back in December 2018.

DEoL: Any distribution plans to give it a wider audience?
DM: I am just happy for it to be out there, as the next film is often better than the previous. We don't intend to make a feature without securing additional funding, so for Surprise we're trying to just get it out there, with the hope of returning to essentially pull an Evil Dead 2 and remake the film with a budget, and make it part of a trilogy which, in our head, is already written. I'm very proud of it, and considering the budget, we tried to be as ambitious as possible.

DEoL: And finally what projects are you working on at the moment?
DM: Currently doing a lot of writing, with the intent of doing a few acting showreel pieces later in the year (if the world continues to spin, anyway). Working on a feature that deals with isolation, this being a perfect time to keep motivated.

DEoL: Thanks so much and good luck with everything!

You can watch watch Surprise here for free. Enjoy!

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