Thursday 9 April 2020

A Proper Director - The Films of Charlie Steeds

Charlie Steeds - you missed a bit.
The democratisation of the film making process - conferring the ability to make movies from the privileged few to, well anyone with a couple of hundred quid, a decent computer and some time on their hands - has revolutionised filmmaking in a way not seen since a group of chancers patented movie making equipment and started churning out silent films nearly 130 years ago.

But of course, as in all things technically achievable, just because you can make films doesn't always mean you should. The 'pages' of this website are testament to that, and the 'Dark Eyes of London' soubriquet in part refers to those wee hours in which I have sat through sometimes atrocious examples of independent filmmaking without art or purpose.

But every so often there shines a diamond in the (light) rough, and this week's bit of movie mining presents, for your consideration, one Charlie Steeds.

Steeds is the director of six released features and a large number of short films, with a further two full length movies in post-production and one announced - and, astoundingly, all in the last six years. I've been privileged enough to see many of these and what struck me, even though Steeds is a director still learning his craft (and working with growing budgets), is the consistency of vision and attention to detail in his films. Shooting on locations as diverse as Finland and France, with his band of regulars (on both sides of the camera), the young filmmaker is a force to be reckoned with.

So join me in a survey of Steeds’ films, with comments from the man himself taken from a recent interview I did with him.

Charlie Steeds graduated from film school at the age of 21 with a desire to make movies. Besotted with the works of Stephen King, and with a voracious appetite for horror movies, it's perhaps no surprise at the direction his filmmaking would take him.

Charlie recalls: “I remember what got me hooked on horror on the small screen: many Stephen King mini-series like Rose Red, Salem’s Lot, Storm of the Century, It… these are what fuelled my love of horror. King’s stories are always vast, with such depth to them, and a mini-series allows them to develop over a longer runtime. Great horror should have great drama, so that’s why I love King and love the mini-series format. I’d love to make one, something between 180 to 210 minutes, that’s ideal. I think this is why my first two horror films (Escape From Cannibal Farm and The House of Violent Desire) were so long - both over 115 minutes in their 1st cuts - and not ideal for direct-to-DVD horror.”

I asked him about his film school years. “I went to Met Film School in Ealing Studios. It was a very fun two years and I had a blast as a student, although the classes were frustrating in many ways. They did their best to prevent me from shooting films outside of class…don’t go to film school! The teachers were awful, deluded. These days you can buy DVDs with great commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes, everything you need to know is there, everything! Go buy a camera and try it out, that’s cheaper than film school.”

God Will Fall (2014)

While 2014's 37 minute short God Will Fall is popularly recognised as Charlie's first proper film, it was actually his eighteenth. His original company, the amusingly named 'The Devil's Testicle Film Productions', was put together while at college, under which banner he made a range of shorts with titles like The Murmaid, Death Law, Scarlet Inferno, InVitro and Extransensory Perception.

God Will Fall was shot at Ealing Studios, whilst at film school,” Charlie explains. “It’s a revenge story about a woman who’s kidnapped by a satanic cult, but she becomes possessed by the devil during a ritual, escapes, and returns to take down the entire cult. I ran out of budget by the time I got to the satanic ritual scenes, so that let the rest of the film down. This is where I started Dark Temple Motion Pictures though, trying to establish my particular brand of horror: I got a grip on my own writing style with the script, but ultimately it fell short during production, like all of my short films. They were practise only, for my features.”

Erotic Green (2015)

This was followed a year later by the 27-minute Erotic Green, described as a 'psycho-sexual love story' with more than a whiff of early David Cronenberg about it. A guy ends up at a sleazy invitation only strip club after his girlfriend refuses to have sex with him, only to discover the dancer he's seen onstage giving birth to a strange green egg like thing from her stomach, which has the power to increase sexual attraction. The guy takes the thing home and puts in the fridge, only for it to be discovered by his girlfriend, with disastrous results.

Along with 2016's Deadman Apocalypse, these were Steeds' only sci fi ventures to date. I asked him if it was a genre he was keen to return to?

Charlie explains: “I’m very interested in science fiction, was always tempted to do something in the genre but it’s so far always been horror that gets the greenlight. I’d love to do something in space! Erotic Green is the short film I’m most proud of: it holds together, and it's randomly gained 300,000 plus views on YouTube in the past year or so.”

Deadman Apocalypse aka Labyrinthia (2016)

Steeds' first full feature, which he also produced and edited, was 2016's Deadman Apocalypse. Like many of his movies, distribution nightmares mean that it's not easy - or cheap - to get hold of it on DVD in the UK. Charlie sums up the plot thus: "In the distant future, Jack Deadman and his military team are the final hope to save our dying earth from its hellish apocalypse. The mission is to enter the underground world of Labyrinthia and retrieve the water stolen by the savage inhabitants below. Ten years later, the mission has failed, and Jack Deadman exists in isolation, trapped and buried deep within Labyrinthia: a lone wolf anti-hero, changed by failure and guilt. But when the opportunity to escape arises once again, Jack will begin a quest for vengeance and redemption in one last attempt to escape from Labyrinthia.'

Having now seen this feature, thanks to the director, in its original cut, it’s quite extraordinary considering it cost £1500. It’s a deliberate attempt to recall 1980s straight to VHS sci fi movies and while it isn’t a film that has endeared itself to many people, it’s notable as the one that assembles most of the core cast and crew that Steeds would use on future projects, namely composer Sam Benjafield, cinematographer Michael Lloyd, and cast members Katie Davies-Speak, David Lenik and the inimitable Barrington de la Roche, of which more later. It features one of Steeds’ now trademark stunning credits sequences, and if nothing else is a good example of how mister De la Roche – here playing a Mad Max style underworld overlord called Emperor Rameses, was arguably much more effective in supporting roles.

Deadman Apocalypse - that was its USA title – it’s known as Labyrinthia elsewhere - was my first feature,” says Charlie. “I didn’t know if I could make a feature, but I tried, with very limited resources, and managed a 60-minute film. It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in an underground world of labyrinthine wooden tunnels. I made the tunnel set out of wooden pallets and shot it in a cow shed, which was really everything I had available to me at the time.”  Within this claustrophobic setup Steeds films not one, but two go kart chases, which considering that the length of the corridors couldn’t have exceeded twenty feet, was quite some undertaking.

Steeds continues: “In a DIY filmmaking sort of way, I’m pleased with the 60-minute bonkers film we made, for the shockingly low (no) budget. The distributors had me shoot an extra 20 minutes of course, which I did in one weekend with no money, and it ruins the film. But it is still my most profitable and most successful movie, so the cash-in with Mad Max (Mad Max Fury Road was released a year earlier. Ed) and the misleading advertising and re-titling has some benefits.”

Escape From Cannibal Farm (2017)

“Don’t venture near old Hansen farm,
Where blazing fire brought them harm,
For those who travel past this place
Beware the boy with the melted face.”

So reads the opening warning in the director, producer and writer’s second feature. It’s a home counties slasher flick with a very heavy nod to a certain Tobe Hooper movie from 1974 (the Hansen reference, the property where the events take place, is even named after the actor who played Leatherface).

The boy with the melted face is a young guy who, back in the day, was accidentally set on fire and badly burned in a bullying prank which got out of hand; his mum killed herself in remorse at being an inattentive parent, and dad Hunt (De la Roche) swore revenge. Years later a bickering family go on a camping weekend; Kathy Harver (Rowena Bentley, later to provide a tour de force performance in 2018’s Winterskin) and her partner, the borderline psychotic Wesley Wallace (Toby Wynn-Davies) are joined by Wesley’s step children, daughter Jessica (Davies-Speak), her boyfriend Kurtis (Joe Street) as well as Jessica’s younger brothers Toby (Lenik) and Sam (Dylan Curtis). Nobody seems to get along, tensions which are exacerbated when the tent in which Kathy and Wesley are sleeping catches fire, with mum receiving bad burns. Forced to walk to the nearest property for help after their car won’t start, they come across a farm – the Hansen farm. Bad move: Hunt and his scarred son, plus various weird accomplices, now turned feral, still live on the premises, together with the skeleton of mum – very Psycho. Turns out that Wesley is more dangerous than first thought, and the family are an offering to the Hansen household, who are cannibals on top of everything else. The Harvers must do battle with Hunt and his freaks in a fight to the death.

Still from Escape From Cannibal Farm
The movie is a definite step up from Labyrinthia. The dysfunctional Harvers are convincingly at each other’s throats, and the occupants of the Hansen household are enigmatic and authentically odd. This is the film where Steeds really hones his scriptwriting talents. There’s some almost Shakespearean ripeness going on here amidst the grunge and the gore. It’s also great to see Lenik’s character, who starts off as annoyingly entitled, developing his killer instincts. And he seemed like such a nice boy. There’s perhaps a little too much in the way of plot mechanics, and it’s never a good idea to introduce new characters quite late in a film, but this is very atmospheric stuff.

Escape From Cannibal Farm is set up like a typical backwoods slasher,” explains Steeds, “but this time taking place in the British countryside, and takes a turn into melodrama between a dysfunctional family. In fact, there’s very little cannibalism, which I slightly regret, but the aim was to blend heavy drama with slasher horror, and I think there’s an interesting balance of both in the film. People both liked and despised The Texas Chain Saw Massacre style I was imitating: the gritty backwoods slasher look. I wanted to see what that style would look like in my own countryside: our trailer was later mistaken for the new Leatherface movie and went viral, with over 5 million views in a couple of days! Technically it’s a hundred times better than Labyrinthia, but actually not much higher in budget, and now I could focus on the genre I truly wanted to direct. In the UK our distributor was eager to pick up the film rights and has now done nothing with it for over two years; they won’t release it. For everyone involved in the making of the film it’s a huge shame, they screwed us over. In the USA we’ve done great though, and in many other countries too you can buy the DVD. On Amazon UK you can pick up the European version, which plays fine here, so it is available. I also kept the rights to self-distribute here and I’m working on a collector’s edition, loaded with exclusive special features (there’s over four hours of behind the scenes footage I need to edit) whenever I get time between shooting films. The film has its flaws no doubt, but we were extremely ambitious with this and we pulled of something far better than it should be."

The Barge People (2018)

The first of three (!) films Steeds made in 2018, The Barge People opens with a note perfect eighties synth line by Sam Benjafield underscoring the 'on point' title font. And as the movie unfolds, that opening is thematically developed in this fantastic homage to 1980s monster movies. At this point there's a confidence and authority emanating from a director who clearly knows what he's doing and has assembled a cast around him that is both reliable and capable.

Kat (Davies-Speak) and Mark (Mark McKirdy) have rented a barge for a relaxing trip along the Kennet and Avon canal in the south west of England, an area which has seen more than its fair share of missing people in recent times. Along for the ride are Kat's sister Sophie (Natalie Martins) and her City boy bloke Ben (Matt Swales). Ben's the kind of guy who wears a yellow jumper over a blue shirt on his days off and proves chocolate teapot-like in his capacity to help out on board.

But Kat and Mark are determined to make the best of it: what they don't know is that there's something alive in the hedgerow lining the canal; an elderly man (De la Roche) and his dog fail to notice a partly buried skull while out on a walk, which is ominous. Ben finally takes the helm of the boat and promptly bumps a passing craft occupied by rough and ready to rumble Ricky (Kane Surry) and his girlfriend Jade (Mackenna Guyler). And before you can say Eden Lake things hot up between the two parties. However, there’s a bigger threat to both – some wild looking beasts, reminiscent of those creatures from 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep, who rise from the canal to wreak torture porn style havoc on the landlubbers.

The movie was for once written by someone apart from Steeds, Christopher Lombard, which in some ways makes it feel like a different movie to the rest of Steeds’ output. It’s extremely effective for the budget and the casting is spot on, particularly Swales as Ben, a man you instantly want to slap. Steeds, who comes from Bristol like some of rest of the cast, is having a bit of a side swipe at local types; at one point Kat is asked where she’s from, and when she responds with ‘Bristol’ the other says that she’s never heard of it.

The Barge People was one of the hot tickets at last year’s FrightFest and I asked Charlie about the reception.

“There was a great crowd at FrightFest! A small crowd in a small screen, but that meant the people who were there were the ones who really jumped in quick to get their tickets; we sold out, but they wanted to see this film. So the response was wonderful, the crowd really got it."

I recognised the influences in the film, such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and C.H.U.D  (1984), and asked him about this.

“Most of my films are inspired stylistically by 70s horror movies I love (usually Italian; Fulci, Bava, Argento), so even though the story takes place in modern day - although I try to give all my films a timeless look - it has a very retro vibe to it. The Hills Have Eyes was the biggest influence on the script, followed closely by Eden Lake. A film that inspired me in the look and feel was Long Weekend, along with better known classics like The Fog and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

The House of Violent Desire (2018) (although filmed in 2017)

Steeds is justifiably proud of his magnum opus, a two-hour movie, slowly paced and elegantly filmed, a film which is both patience testing and clearly very personal. It’s the first to utilise a grand location, a thirteenth century French chateau whose sumptuous interiors are lovingly explored by Michael Lloyd’s cinematography, giving the movie a distinct Euro horror feel.

“I think it probably still is my favourite,” says Charlie of the movie, “because this is a film made totally for me, for my tastes. Vivid giallo-inspired lighting, an incredible location, an overly complicated plot filled with themes of lust and sexuality and violence. I totally indulged in the gothic and the melodrama and the blood, the dialogue… I was just having a blast with this one, for better or worse. And we had a fantastic shoot, it was so much fun, very relaxed, so much time free to experiment with performances and shots.”

On the surface Steeds’ movie feels fairly straightforward. An old dark house mystery set in the 1940s, a stranger arrives at the sprawling Black Rock Manor. He is welcomed by the head of the house, Eliza Whipley (Bentley again) whose husband ‘is a sick man with a deranged mind,’ a man who has also gone missing. The stranger is given board in and free range of the house but warned that the door to the attic is out of bounds and locked. He is introduced to the rest of the Whipley family, daughters Agatha (Davies-Speak), Evelyn (Yasmin Ryan) and son Adriel (Daniel McKee) as well as the housemaid, Cordetta (Esme Sears). But, as Steeds reveals in the blurb accompanying the film, ‘perhaps the 'stranger' is more connected to this family and to the dark unknown history of the house than they suspect, and as the visitor begins to cultivate sexual tensions and paranoia within the house, the devilishly erotic history of the Whipley family threatens to lure them deep into its lustful, violent madness once again.’

Still from The House of Violent Desire
There is a strong theme of the decay beneath the respectability of the traditional upper-class family in the film, which also runs through An English Haunting (2019). I liked the reviewer on IMDB who looked on the movie as an extended version of an episode of Dark Shadows (although the writer seemed to think that was a bad thing). I asked Charlie, without wishing to get too political, whether it was a view of the world he held more generally, or was it just in the interests of storytelling?

“A theme that runs through all of my scripts, I don’t quite know why, is the older generation betraying or failing the younger generation,” he explained. “Horrible parents - all my films seem to have them, with dark secrets or evil plots underway. In horror, you look for the worst in characters, and the older they are the more nasty delights there are to uncover. Younger characters are simpler, they can only have so many secrets to them."

The ritual scenes in the film were performed by Barrington De la Roche’s ‘Dark Theatre’ company. I ask Charlie about de la Roche, a singular chap, who crops up in all his films.

“He auditioned for God Will Fall (where he played a satanic cult leader) and we’ve been close friends ever since. It really doesn’t feel like my film unless Barrington’s been on set, he’s part of my brand, we’ve been on this journey since film school and he’s been through the experience of every film with me.”

Winterskin (2018)

The Hateful Eight mixed with Misery probably best sums up Charlie Steed’s latest film. The first thing that hits you is that, despite the paucity of finance, Winterskin looks like a big budget movie.

After a tense pre credits sequence, where a family in a cabin in the USA are menaced by a strange ‘something,’ followed by some lovely faux 1970s TV movie titles, we’re greeted with a wintry landscape and a father and son, out hunting deer. Sustaining a serious shotgun injury the son, Billy Kavanagh (Lenik), finds refuge in a wood cabin occupied by Old Agnes, who just happens to have been the shooter (a terrific central performance from Bentley).

Agnes tends to Billy’s wounds and gradually nurses him back to health. But (of course) old Agnes has a dark secret and is not the benevolent soul she makes herself out to be, and the stories of a strange figure seen in the woods, The Red Man, contribute to young Billy’s anxiety, already heightened by his being a virtual prisoner in the old lady’s cabin.

While Winterskin is rather talky – Agnes gets a lot of script to herself - Bentley never lets her character (or her American accent) drop: this is a movie worth catching for the final fifteen minutes, a triumph of well-choreographed action and nail-biting suspense. It also has a lot of dark humour as well – witness the scene where Billy tucks into some stew, the contents of which answers the question about what Agnes did with the corpse of her dead dog. Seamlessly merging the wintry exterior shots filmed in Finland and the interiors (in less than snowy Guildford) Steed is assisted by Michael Lloyd’s trademark evocative cinematography, and a gaggle of authentically hairy scruffs making up the Tarantino-esque deepwoods brethren.

Steeds has mentioned in other interviews the hardships of making the film, mainly because of the extreme cold, but what really struck me watching this was Rowena Bentley as Agnes. I asked Charlie how he got such a great performance out of her in such difficult shooting conditions?

Steeds picks up the story. “We shot almost entirely at night, which was unplanned, and it was freezing cold, it was miserable. 26 days trapped in this cabin, mainly 2 actors…it sounded easy on paper but in reality it was hard work. It’s such a dialogue heavy film, we just kept going until I was happy with the performance, seeing how far I could push it. After long hours in the cold you go into a state of hysteria, and I think that’s where Agnes came from.

Bentley auditioned for Escape From Cannibal Farm: she’d trained at Drama School with another actor, David (Lenik), who was already cast in the film and helping me cast the other actors. Rowena’s bloody brilliant and utterly hilarious to have on set, that’s how she’s ended up with three huge roles in my films. I think The House of Violent Desire is her best work, with her eight minute monologue scene; she can really deliver.

An English Haunting  (2019) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH HORROR FILM 2020 

Steeds’ most recently released offering is a rather different beast to the energetic Winterskin: it’s a slow burn, elegant English ghost story with a rather dark heart.

Blake (Lenik) arrives at a crumbling English stately home with his mother Margot (Tessa Wood). They’ve come to live with Margot’s grandfather Aubrey (De la Roche), whose house it is, having fallen on hard times – this is their only option for accommodation.

But their grandfather is bedridden and seemingly in a coma, hooked up to an oxygen supply. His last carer fled suddenly and, courtesy of the housekeeper, the strange Marian Clark (Emma Spurgin Hussey), we learn that in return for providing a roof over their head Martha is expected to provide care. This revelation brings out the true nature of Aubrey’s daughter: she is a mean, pinched woman, who, once she accesses the property’s wine cellar, also demonstrates her alcoholic tendencies. “I thought you weren’t going to do that here,” says Blake, hinting at a history of life on the booze.

Blake meanwhile, feeling increasingly isolated, has been having visions of a young woman in the garden, and Aubrey shows signs of agitation. Blake also glimpses a shadowy figure in the house and has an increasing feeling that there may be four, not three people, occupying the mansion. And as we reflect on the film’s title, we ask who is doing the haunting, and who is actually haunted?

An English Haunting serves another purpose as a title – it signposts exactly what we’re about to see. The film’s events feel like the narrative of a well-loved spook novel, best enjoyed by an open fire with a glass of something to keep the chill at bay. The movie’s pace is deliberately slow and leaves time for the ‘onion skin’ of the story – the truth about Aubrey, the strange figure outside and the equally unusual one within – to gradually present itself. Michael Lloyd’s graceful, static camerawork – for much of the time anyway – adds to the stillness of the film.

One of Steeds’ greatest strengths has always been his scripts, often a weak point with low budget filmmaking. Not so here: the characters are drawn simply but effectively, with some fine performances. Tessa Wood does well as alcoholic Margot, her life reduced to a series of disappointments and frustrations. Steeds regular Barrington de la Roche is great here as creepy Aubrey, whose back story recalls the dreadful Mr Abney from M R James’s story ‘Lost Hearts.’
But it’s David Lenik as Blake Cunningham, who carries the film, an innocent man, struggling with a terrible relationship with his mother, who becomes fixated on uncovering the secrets of the house, even though it may cost him his life. 

I asked Steeds about his choice of casting younger and older actors together, a feature of all of his films.

“Lots of young indie filmmakers seem to avoid older actors, but that’s where you’ll find the most interesting characters for your movie,” said Charlie. “I’m interested in the different ways actors look and sound, so I’m always seeking very cinematic faces and voices (take Barrington De La Roche for example!). I like a cast of all ages, otherwise your characters and story become limited.

An English Haunting is really the type of ghost story I love. I watched and read a lot, to figure out what really scares me, and I settled on a certain atmosphere that I wanted to create with the film, without ever aiming to reveal too much of the supernatural. I think the film could’ve been a lot scarier, but the horror really comes from what the characters are experiencing, and I followed the characters to those places - haunted by their own regrets and issues. Maybe it's not as scary as a possessed doll leaping out at you, but hopefully it makes for a more lasting impact. I made a choice to try a more subtle, quieter film, which sometimes a story calls for, but ultimately its action that I’m interested in; big gory action and high-adrenaline carnage! As the budgets are increasing I’m able to include more action. Ideally my films would all be relentless action horror, but my mood does move between wanting slower more atmospheric films and bolder more fun movies.

And on that subject, as you would expect of a director as prolific as Steeds, he’s keen to talk about future projects, The Vicarage, After Dark (since re-titled Vampire Virus by those oh so subtle distributors) and Death Ranch.

The Vicarage is a script I wrote before shooting The Barge People, and I’d love to make it if I ever got the budget. It takes a relentless The Texas Chain Saw Massacre style but blends it with British Gothic. It’s my most outrageous and violent script, but it’s a long way off, I have 20 better ideas I’m going to do first.

After Dark is a very sexy and colourful modern-day vampire film and it’s totally different from my other work. I hate setting things in modern day, but it was a request from the investors. But that did allow for some great nightclub scenes and a slick modern style. The film is complete and out later this year.

Death Ranch is a script I’d been wanting to make for a long time: it’s a dream project, and I thought it was a long way off. Then the opportunity to shoot in Tennessee presented itself. Everything suddenly came together and the shoot went so smoothly, it was as if the film wanted to be made (usually it is a battle)! It’s set in the 1970s and it’s a gory blaxploitation revenge movie in which three African-American siblings go up against the KKK. I think we can all get enjoyment out of seeing the KKK get totally obliterated, and it’s by far my most violent film; limbs flying off, eyeballs ripped out, axes to the groin… it's currently in post-production and I hope to play festivals with it this summer (this interview was carried out before the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Ed).

We cannot, and I mean this most sincerely, wait.

Thanks Charlie and his team, and best of luck with everything!

Erotic Green is available on YouTube here.
Deadman Apocalypse is available on DVD from Breaking Glass films
Escape From Cannibal Farm is available as Cannibal Farm on DVD from High Octane Pictures
Winterskin is available on R1 DVD
The Barge People will be available on Blu Ray and DVD in Germany from July.
An English Haunting will be available on DVD from High Fliers Films from 27 April.

A trailer for Vampire Virus is available here.
The website for Barrington De la Roche's 'Dark Theatre' company is here.

Some parts of this piece have been published previously on


  1. I thought 'An English Haunting' was the closest thing I have seen of an M.R. James story on film - a not particularly sympathetic character goes sticking his nose where he not to and pays the price. I enjoyed his last film, 'A Werewolf In England' though I could have done without the toilet humor scene.

  2. Thanks for your comments; agree re the James connection. DEATH RANCH is also worth catching; Steeds goes grindhouse!