Wednesday 10 June 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #2: Reviews of Hungry Joe (UK 2020), The Haunting of Molly Bannister (UK 2020), Trigger Points (UK 2020), Scarecrow's Revenge (UK 2020), Death Follows (UK 2020) and The Telling (UK 2020)

Hungry Joe (UK 2020: Dir Samuel Dawe, Paul Holbrook)  While I generally tend not to review shorts on this site, I'm happy to make an exception for this remarkable and terrifying 20 minute film.

Laura (Laura Bayston) gives birth to a boy that she and her partner Craig (Joe Sims) name Joe. But Joe isn't like other babies; he eats constantly and voraciously, much to the concern of Laura. This is obviously the source of much friction between the couple as Craig disappears from the scene, leaving Laura to manage her strange baby and convey her concerns to the health service, who are either dismissive or form the opinion that Joe's condition is the result of poor parenting: "he has a healthy appetite, and your priority should be to indulge it," she is directed by her GP, while failing to register her distress.

Growing up - Joe is shown as baby, infant and finally teenager - the boy shows no signs of stopping his constant ingestion of any food, while Laura becomes more emaciated, and at one point throws up on her dinner as a reaction to watching Joe eat. And you don't want to know what happens after she leaves the room. Also despite constant bathing, her son smells terrible all the time, leading the authorities to suggest neglect. With the relationship between mother and son destroyed, and Joe's increasingly grotesque appetite, things can only go one way.

James Oldham's photography both complements and enforces the film's tone: it's flat and unforgiving, and some of the imagery is harsh and almost impossibly darkly comic (one shot, of Laura nursing her own gnawed and oozing nipple, cuts to her mother stabbing a slice of bread into an egg yolk, and another has Joe, as a young man, noisily hoovering up the buffet at a funeral wake).

Hungry Joe is one of the most extraordinary short films I've ever seen. In its shots of food banks, a lone mother dealing with uncaring public organisations and its overall sense of defeat, it could be mistaken for a Ken Loach film. But despite the extreme nature of events, Laura's increasingly drawn face speaks volumes about motherhood, her perceptions of inadequacy, and the often twisted bond between parent and child.

The Haunting of Molly Bannister aka Bannister DollHouse (UK 2020: Dir M J Dixon) Another of British horror's prolific directors, Dixon has created a low budget cinematic universe with characters cropping up in successive movies. Take Molly Bannister (Tiana Rogers), the focus of his eighth feature. Ms Bannister originally appeared in his 2016 movie Slasher House 2, although without story context. She was also in the short film, Molly, in 2018 together with the rest of the Bannister clan, which proved to be a dry run for this film. Whew!

So this is, if you like, a Molly Bannister 'origin' story (she also pops up in Slasher House 3, currently being filmed, which is I suppose a slight spoiler). Anyway it's Christmas 2014 in the Bannister household, comprising mum Mary (Susan Lee Barton), dad Kenneth (Grant Kempster), older daughter Dotty (Emmeline Hartley), sister Sherry (Chloe Badham) and of course Molly. As everyone is opening their presents, Molly unwraps an old ceramic doll, although nobody knows who gave it to her. Molly becomes very attached to the thing, which she names 'Molly.' But before long it takes on a life of its own and stabs Sherry to death. Kenneth discovers the body and is standing over it, still holding the bloody blade, when the police enter.

Flash forward six months, and although Kenneth wasn't tried for the murder, he's left the family home, mainly because of sticking to his story about a murderous doll. The rest of the family are coming to terms with Sherri's death: Molly still has 'mini Molly,' and despite attempts to get rid of it, the doll keeps finding its way back to real Molly's room. As a result Molly is becoming more and more odd in her behaviour. Kenneth and Dotty both know the truth about the evil toy, which is gradually taking over its human guardian. Finally Dotty and dad sneak into Molly's room and douse the doll with holy water. And that's when all hell breaks loose.

When I write 'hell' I should add that subsequent events are realised within a micro budget environment - don't go expecting any last reel FX maelstrom here. But in its own sweet way The Haunting of Molly Bannister is a rather old fashioned 'moppet from hell' film, and Rogers has to be the youngest actress to be a recurrent character in a horror film. Dixon does some great things with little money: flashbacks; an impressive dream sequence; and some creepy sequences with the doll all raised this above the average. He also does well to create a claustrophobic atmosphere of suburban panic, and is aided by a capable cast, with standout performances from Barton, Hartley and of course young Tiana Rogers. Impressive stuff.

Trigger Points (UK 2020: Dir James McDonagh) Six years in the making and a true labour of love for
producer/director/writer/pretty much everything else McDonagh, this is an idiosyncratic and at times extremely confusing plea for humanity to wake up and smell the cappuccino.

In an opening scene of suburbia a man, his wife and their daughter Jessica are living in a time of viral crisis. There is a curfew in place and unrest on the streets, bankruptcy and unemployment are rife, and the government decide that all children under the age of 6 are to be evacuated into secure facilities.

Forty years in the future Jessica (Denise Meller), now a middle aged woman, is living deep underground. Her life is a fixed routine of work, food and sleep, and she receives instructions from a seemingly benevolent control voice; her given title is Operative 68. Her job, like all of the evacuated kids, is to send avatars to the surface to locate an antidote to the virus, working for someone called 'the client.' But Jessica, who lives in isolation, becomes curious about the world outside of her cubicle and work station. She starts to have nightmares. Her controllers become exasperated with her restlessness, and feel she is working sub optimally. But when she ventures wider than the extent of her confinement, she is shocked to see another person: a young girl.

Her employers give her the opportunity of working outside in the virus ridden air to control the avatars directly. Dressed in a hazmat suit the machine to which she is assigned turns out to be the same girl she saw in the complex. Rather than establish control over it, the machine wanders off and leads Jessica to a house, where she realises that her whole existence has been a series of falsehoods.

McDonagh's point here is to encourage the viewer not to take it lying down, whatever 'it' is, and to think for themselves. The strapline on the poster reads '(fear + faith) ideology = control' and the best way of viewing this film is as some sort of controlled experiment for the watcher. The problem is that the cast is made up of non actors and the pace is so incredibly slow and ponderous that it becomes an endurance test just to get through it - not helped by the fact that Jessica only speaks a few words throughout the whole movie. Add in portentous narration talking about the hazards of artificial intelligence and the eradication of death itself and you've got yourself one confusing mess. As the voice asks, "do we want this?" Um, no, not really. Nice soundtrack though, and the director's heart is clearly in the right place.

Scarecrow's Revenge (UK 2020: Dir  Louisa Warren) Warren's third 'Scarecrow' movie takes us back in time, the Summer of 810 AD to be precise, and the time of the Vikings. In a prologue the stuffed killer has taken out a landowner and his daughter, so we know of its murderous intent, but for a while that story is parked in favour of the usual sackcloth drama of a community in crisis.

All round bad 'un Hendrick (Peter Cosgrove, from 2018's The House of Violent Desire and 2019's The Curse of Halloween Jack) abducts some maidens from the village, including feisty Lisbeth (Kelly Juvilee, 2019's ClownDoll); a mistake as a) she escapes and b) she's the daughter of Malcolm (Mike Kelson, 2019's Tooth Fairy) who's mates with the head of the village Dolph (Carey Thring, from 2015's Emma Dark vehicle Seize the Night). As a result Hendrick is taken out into the fields and strapped to the scarecrow as punishment. But Hendrick does a deal with the local witch (Kate Milner Evans, 2019's ClownDoll and Pet Graveyard), who before her witch status was Dolph's wife, but went to the dark side as a result of seeking revenge for the death of their first born. The witch, in return for Hendrick's soul, transfers his body into that of the scarecrow, prompting a spree of murder and mayhem. And the only person that can stop him seems to be Dolph's daughter Greta (Sarah T Cohen, 2019's ClownDoll and 2020's Cupid) who has a few mystical tricks of her own.

While I was pleased to see Warren's beloved Scarecrow character released from the somewhat limited farm environment of her two previous movies Bride of Scarecrow and Curse of the Scarecrow (both 2018), where the budgetary limitations of the first two films were more disguised, here sadly the action looks like a village Viking war re-enactment group. To be honest - and I must ask her about this one day - I think that Warren is aware of these restrictions and wanted to make a fun romp which combined a bit of sword and sorcery with some horror business. And no-one's complaining about that, but at over 90 minutes the film did stretch the patience a bit. Milner Evans's over the top performance as the witch is quite something to see, with her free dance moves and on occasion psychedelic face, and Cosgrove's gurning Hendrick is quite lively. The rest of the cast are serviceable but a little bland, and there's a lot of strident dialogue such as "We're Vikings, not savages" to remind us we're in the 9th century, despite the modern haircuts and other contemporary trappings on display.

Death Follows (UK 2020: Dir Tony Manders) According to imdb, at around the age of 60 Mr Manders had an epiphany while on a train to York, gave up his job in the Civil Service and threw himself into films on both sides of the camera. Prior to this, his directorial debut, he had acted in 60 movies, which is, I think you'll agree, pretty impressive. That he chose, for his first feature, a police procedural based on the wild streets of Swindon and Wootton Bassett, focusing on the tracking of an identity changing psychopath, is perhaps even more noteworthy.

Am Dram actress Amy Trent (a very game turn from Vicki Price) gets the chance to step up when the actor playing the role for which she has been understudying calls in sick. Amy is a huge success, but coyly resists the urge to socialise with the other actors post performance.

But she's caught the attention of two 'fans' who hang around at the stage door for a glimpse of their idol. One of the pair, Tom Harris (Colin Jones) thinks it would be a good idea for he and his friend Dan (John Fisher) to get jobs in the theatre company so they can be nearer to Amy.

Meanwhile Amy, flush with success, has been arriving home after performances to find a red rose sticking out of her letterbox. Initially she is flattered, but subsequently comes to feel the intrusion of the act.  However after she discovers a photo sent to her phone, obviously taken in her home, with a rose sitting on her spread out underwear, at her GP sister Jill's (Helen Ackrill) insistence she calls in the police. But there's worse to come. A visit, supposedly from the gas company, ends up with a camera surreptitiously installed in her home, with footage of her naked sleeping body again sent to her phone.

Wanting a break from the madness, she meets a nice guy called David, who invites her out on a date, but bails halfway through when she starts talking disparagingly about Tom and Dan, the weirdos from the drama group, who he purports to know. David later phones to apologise, and asks her out again. When she accepts, she ends up in a trap, sprung by David, which ends up with her covered in pond water and photographed. The photos make it into the local paper and go viral on the internet. But when the police try and track David down, it's as if he never existed.

This cat and mouse game between the identity shifting stalker and his rather gullible victim, with its directorial sleights of hand and red herrings, is the stuff of 1970s giallo movies. Plot wise plausibility is stretched, and the indignities undergone by the character of Amy, who also has a few nude scenes that are pretty gratuitous, are in rather poor taste (it's an interesting point that most UK indie horror/thriller directors don't require their cast to get naked, which compounded the surprise here), even if Manders does include bloopers in the end credits to show that the actors seemed to be having a good time.

On the plus side Death Follows cleverly puts together the pieces of the jigsaw in a satisfying and enjoyable way, even if you've guessed from the outset what's going on. And the prosaic Swindon locations contrast well with the nastiness on screen, making it feel like a micro budget home counties Brian De Palma movie. That this is both Price and the killer's film debuts is rather remarkable considering what they throw into their parts. I may have found the film slightly distasteful, but there's no denying the directors' ambition.

The Telling (UK 2020: Dir Stewart Hamilton) The spectre of M R James, or at least one of his ghostly creations, stalks this short Scottish movie, directed by Stewart Hamilton who, in addition to making weird little films, also scored Charlie Steeds' 2018 flick Winterskin.

Sam Young (Clare Ross) returns to her home town on the Scottish Borders (it was filmed in Lauderdale) for a teaching position interview. Asking for directions she pops in to the local library and is surprised to see her old school friend Peter (Andy J. Noble). Having convinced herself that everyone she had gone to school with would have left the area, she is surprised to hear that Peter still lives in the house once owned by his parents, although they have since passed away.

Sam is keen to meet again and have a proper catch up, but Peter is reticent either to convene in town or for her to come over to his place. But later on Sam decides to call anyway. Reluctantly Peter lets her in, his mood defrosting somewhat as she has come armed with beer. But as the evening progresses, and their friendship rekindles, Sam asks Peter if he remembers the stories about a little boy that went missing in the town when they were kids. Peter falls silent, and confirms that the little boy was him.

There's a true Jamesean sense of dread suffusing Hamilton's movie, and those old MR characters, the foolhardy stranger who ignores warnings, and the haunted person who knows too much, are present and correct in Sam and Peter. Ross and Noble are perfect as the estranged school friends, the latter particularly striking in his outmoded 80s threads, a man who wouldn't (or couldn't) leave his home town. A first rate chiller with a heavy nod to 1970s genre TV shows in pace and feel.


  1. Hello I am a UK based film maker and I have just found your blog, ace stuff! I worked on Death Follows and also have a debut feature film to share with you. What is the best way to send it to you? You can email me through my website (above). Thanks. Oliver Rogers

    1. Oliver, please forgive the extreme delay in responding to your message; I don't always get notifications, it seems. I reviewed DEATH FOLLOWS back in June, which I liked, with some reservations. By all means send me a link to your film, if it fits in with the DEoL brief. You can send it to Thanks Oliver and glad you like the blog!