Thursday 4 June 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #1: Reviews of Bone Breaker (UK 2020), Wolfwood (UK 2020), Clown Doll (UK 2020), The Droving (UK 2020), Skullz (UK 2020) and The Cabin Murders (UK 2020)

In an earlier post I mentioned that I had agreed to take the baton from writer MJ Simpson, who over the past 20 years has chronicled pretty much every UK horror film ever made, from big productions to £20 iphone mini epics. Simpson hung up his 'British Horror Revival' spurs at the end of 2019 in favour of other projects, and so for at least the next ten years I'm accepting the challenge. Various reviews on my site have now been tagged with the 'New Wave of the British Horror Film' label to denote their inclusion in the growing list, but this is the first (of oh so many) posts dedicated to round ups of new Brit movies.

Bone Breaker (UK 2020: Dir Nicholas Winter) Here's a pared down, brutal 75 minutes of your life, directed by someone whose previous directing credits have included three movies with the word 'Hooligan' in the title - I'd say that was a record.

Rachel (Sophie Jones) is a clean living, slightly all over the place girl who lives in a squeaky clean flat and has just got engaged to her equally squeaky clean boyfriend Stephen (James G. Nunn); she's all self help homilies and sloppy work goals, so when she does an online audition to assist a couple of YouTubers with exercise videos, she's delighted when they accept and arrange for her to meet them the following morning at a woodland location.

The social media stars are in reality quietly at each other's throats: Emily (Rachel Wright) has built up the business and has over 2 million followers, while younger partner Ruby (Lucy Aarden) feels it's only so long before Emily's supporters will see her as old and out of touch. Into this rather unhappy arrangement steps Rachel, but being Rachel she's late and has to catch her potential employers up. Her way is guided by landowning Grace (Jade Colucci) who provides all three girls with tracking devices in case they get lost. But hang on: doesn't Grace sound a little like the woman in the prologue who arranged for two soldiers to fight each other to the death and promptly killed the winner?

In case you're thinking that this is another of those films that wishes instant - or even prolonged - death to social media millennials everywhere, you'd be wrong: "I just don't like people," concludes the mallet swinging killer, as it descends to shatter another pair of legs. The film is firmly in torture p*rn territory, and while not overly gory, it's relentlessly violent.

Apart from some juicily over the top performances, apart from some opening schenes shot in Rachel and Steven's flat,most of the film was set outdoors in the Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire woods in winter. The weather was clearly atrocious, although not enough is made of the snow and sleet which slowly drenches the cast; a shame, as Winter could have used the inclemency to make the film even more bleak than it was. Bone Breaker has a slight premise and is executed (arf) with brutal simplicity. There's not much going on but it's a nasty ride, all the same.

Wolfwood (UK 2020: Dir Harry Boast) Boast is a director who appears in his own films. He's also a director keeping the spirit of 'found footage' - a sub genre now in its third decade - alive and well in this odd little microbudget effort.

Dom (Boast), his girlfriend Tasha (Mandy Rose) and cameraman chum Sam (James Bryant) are visiting Dom's childhood friend Ferall (Rhiann Williams). Ferall is, as we find out later, on the spectrum, hence her rather muted response to the arrival of the group, one of whom is documenting everything on camera.

Some years previously Ferall's father went missing, presumed dead. Ostensibly the reason was that he was running away from her mother's mental health issues, but she believes differently: and she's on a mission to go back to a place in the woods where he was last seen.

The group decide to follow, much to the annoyance of Tasha, who isn't clear exactly what the taciturn Ferall means to her boyfriend. The group camp out in the woods, having lost the location of their car. But the realisation that the current date - 13th May 2016 - is precisely 11 years since Ferall's father went missing, comes with an increasing sense of unease. Something is about to happen in the forest of Wolfwood which will endanger all their lives.

Boast's film is both frustrating and interesting in equal measures. It utilises rather tired alien abduction themes, and borrows some of its story from Predator (1987), but its execution is well done; it's one of the few 'FF' movies that didn't eventually bore me. Partly that's down to the economic 73 minute running time, and also the sheer awkwardness of what's happening. The director avoids the narrative route of using the opening scenes of his film to establish characters. Apart from the knowledge that Dom and Tasha are an item, it's completely unclear who these people are, or why they should follow a clearly unwell woman into rain sodden woods. This makes the movie disjointed, but not in a bad way; it actually becomes quite disconcerting, and any explanation as to what's going on is reserved for Wolfwood's final scenes.

The economic use of effects also works in its favour. At one point there's a suggestion of a huge alien craft, rendered via some lights and noise, which is remarkably effective; similarly sparing are the glimpses of the craft's occupants. This all works in the movie's favour. Sadly the cast are largely unremarkable, although Williams as Ferall remains suitably enigmatic. But this is a much better than expected little film which has some great ideas and is at time genuinely unsettling.

Clown Doll aka Joker Clown aka Meet Oliver (UK 2019: Dir Scott Jeffrey) Jeffrey's second feature this year, following the release of the rather good Don't Speak, is another film that's rather better than its cover and premise might suggest. Like DS it has UK people speaking with American accents, but although we never find out why they pitched up in the home counties, it is only one family, and everyone else (mercifully) gets to use their own voice.

The Americans are Lane (Sarah T Cohen), her brother John (John Scott-Clark) and mum Dee (Kate Millner Evans). Lane is acting as a surrogate for John and his partner, the ultra prissy Lisa (Kelly Juvilee) and is heavily pregnant. This might not be such a wise idea, as we learn later that Lane's mental health is a rather fragile thing, not perhaps built to handle the psychological upheaval of giving your baby away to your brother and sister-in-law. They compensate by over-doting on her and renting Lane a swish flat in a converted church for her final trimester.

One day while out antiquing with mum, Lane finds a rather hideous 4 foot high doll which the shop owner can't wait to get rid of. In a tense prologue, we've seen a couple desperate to get rid of the same toy and come a cropper at its hands. Looks like Lane is going to have the same problems. And indeed the murderous doll hides in plain sight, despatching (and stashing away) the bodies of Lane's best friend Jamie (Carmina Cordelia) and then various members of her family. When the police arrive to investigate, it's the same story with each 'misper': Lane was the last one to see them, and the suspicion seems to fall on her. Meanwhile Lane has started getting phone calls from someone identifying themselves as Oliver. Initially he sounds nice and she's rather flattered, but as the calls continue it's fairly apparent that something is rather amiss, and all roads lead back to the doll - or should we call it Oliver?

There are some really interesting touches to Jeffrey's film that lifts it above the usual 'killer clown' hokum. The psychological impact on Lane - convincingly played by Cohen - is quite plausible, and there's an almost Hitchcockian element to the persecution she suffers (I really liked the riff on the film's 'he's-phoning-from-the-extension' moment, which has the audience questioning Lane's sanity, even when we know who's responsible for the carnage. Some of the murder set pieces are also surprisingly effective and there's a great build up of tension towards the end: a rather bleak conclusion seals the deal on this one for me: 2 out of 2 for Scott Jeffrey.

The Droving (UK 2020: Dir George Popov) Popov's debut feature, 2017's Hex, made great use of countryside scenery and a small cast in its atmospheric genre mashup of A Field in England and The Witch. Popov repeats the formula with The Droving: a handful of characters, some impressive Cumbrian scenery and a story which fuses elements of The Wicker Man and Dead Man's Shoes.

This movie's Sergeant Howie is soldier Martin (Daniel Oldroyd, who was in Hex) who travels to Penrith in Cumbria, serendipitously at the time of the annual Droving festival, to find out what happened to his sister Megan (Amy Tyger) who disappeared at the previous year's gathering.

But Martin is no passive Christian interrogator. He has the inner anger of Richard in Shane Meadows' 2004 film, honed by a career extracting confessions from prisoners in the Middle East.

After meeting Megan's friend Tess (genre regular Suzie Frances Garton, who has cropped up in a few of Andrew Jones's features and was also in Hex), from whom he learns that his sister was a keen hiker, he runs into a group of young troublemakers, collectively called 'The Clan,' who have arrived in town to take part in the festival; they in turn point him towards a recluse (Jonathan Lawrence Risdon) who lives deep in the woods. The further Martin delves into the heart of the countryside, the more he learns, and the more his anger is sharpened. The truth about Megan's disappearance taps into local myth, but is also steeped in reality.

As with Hex, the location's the thing here, but while Popov's first feature was set in the past - specifically the Civil War - The Droving situates itself in contemporary Penrith during preparations for the famous Droving festival. With the High Street chain shops providing a prosaic backdrop to the fiery procession at the film's climax, all the while Martin is pushed, like Howie, inexorably into the rural heart of the area, as he discovers more about the myths surrounding the place.

In a less talented director's hands, the film's obvious influences could have overwhelmed any originality on offer. But The Droving scores highly in its interweaving of myth and reality and in particular the character of Martin, coming to terms both with the scars left by his military career and the truth about Megan's disappearance, and veering between quiet determination and bouts of unrestrained violence. Atmospheric, tense and yet strangely lyrical, The Droving is very impressive.

Skullz (UK 2020: Dir Deanna Dewey) Bit of a change of pace here. Skullz is a kids' movie, but its subject matter makes it suitable for inclusion in DEoL and under the 'NWotBHF' banner.

Scott Collins (Reid Hillwood) is a schoolboy prone to getting into trouble. On a class trip to a museum, he drifts away from his year group and, skulking around the basement, comes across a strange transparent skull; once touched it forms an instant psychic connection with him, and delivers a vision where he sees his grandmother collapsing on her motorbike and delivering a warning.

On reaching home he hears that gran has died following a heart attack - he was given a premonition of her death. Scott's mum and dad are in severe financial hardship and facing eviction, so a note through the door, offering them caretaking and nursing employment in a large family house in the New Forest, seems like an offer too good to miss, even if it is a strange one.

At the New Forest house the Collins family, mum, dad, Scott and his little sister Trish (Niamh Blandford) are introduced to Trelwaney (Henry Douthwaite), his wife (Amy Loughton) and their elderly confused 'mother' (Julia Savill) to whom they are to assist with care. But when Trelwaney shakes hands with Scott it's clear that a bond exists between them, and the skull at the museum, which Trelawney knows about and wants to liberate, holds the key to all their futures.

On an estimated budget of £100,000 Dewey and her writing partner James DeMarco have put together a story which is half a modern Children's Film Foundation movie and half a 1970s kids Sunday teatime TV mystery. It's refreshing to see a film fashioned for younger kids which remains resolutely UnAmericanised; of course the real test will be if kids take to it, although its limited release in the UK may hamper that. But Skullz is full of the kind of things I used to love as a kid: mysticism lite; comedy criminals (Tim Faraday as on the make Trevor and Judy Norman, very sprightly at 70, as the interfering Mrs Banner, are both great value); kids finding things out; and there's even a health and safety conscious car chase. Skullz is great fun and everyone involved should feel very proud of themselves.

The Cabin Murders aka The Utah Cabin Murders (UK 2020: Dir Andrew Jones) The prolific Welsh director now has 25 directing credits under his belt with a further two in production - not bad for a 36 year old. Having watched most of his movies, there's a real sense of Jones improving as a director, and learning from past issues.

The Cabin Murders is based on real life events back in 1990 in Oakley, Utah, and has a direct link to one of Jones's previous movies, Cabin 28 (2017). That film also concerned a real life event, the slaughter of a family back in 1981 in California, and the link between the two is the same investigating officer, Deputy Brad Wilkes (Jason Homewood). All names have been changed to protect the innocent, we are assured.

Wilkes, whose nagging regrets about the outcome of the 1981 investigation still haunt him, is working in the Oakley area when he becomes aware of two crimes, which may be related: the murder of a woman and subsequent theft of her car; and a holdup at a local shop where money, masks and outer clothing were stolen.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the area a family have come to stay in a lodge for Christmas, the family made up of dad Richard (Erick Hayden), mum Patricia (Anna Ruben), her mother Delyth (Lucy Aley-Parker), and Richard and Patricia's late teenage daughters Linnea (Teffany Ceri) and Tina (Jennifer Sims).

While Richard and Tina drive to town for some shopping, the rest of the family are disturbed when two masked and armed men force their way into the lodge. Ostensibly asking for cash, it's pretty clear that they have murder on their mind; proud Delyth is first to die and on dad and daughter's return the whole family is terrorised.

Like other UK indie horror directors, in the past Jones has been guilty of having his cast speak with American accents while in recognisably UK locations, something that constantly irks me. But this time he has disguised his location well. We're still in Wales (it's the same lodge - thanks Luxury Lodges - as the one used in Cabin 28) but this time there's a paucity of local colour to ruin the effect, into which is spliced some footage of an authentic US town. It might even be Oakley, Utah. And Jones' casting of actors who can hold north American accents, together with an authentic US actor (Hayden) means that belief is suspended.

Derek Nelson and particularly Lee McQueen are nastily effective as the killers Edward Deli and Von Taylor, but Jones still needs to work on pacing. He often fails to build sufficient tension, letting scenes run too long, and there's an end coda which just falls flat. As I've mentioned before, his films nearly always look good but are let down by poor content and a lack of style. But I'm pleased to report that this, along with 2019's The Curse of Halloween Jack, shows a director growing in confidence.

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