Sunday 28 June 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #3: Reviews of Millennial Killer (UK 2019), Don't Let Them In (UK 2020), Patients of a Saint aka Inmate Zero (UK 2019), The Candy Witch (UK 2020), Sniper Corpse (UK 2019) and Next Door (UK 2020)

Millennial Killer (UK 2020: Dir Sam Mason-Bell) As if the estate agency business didn't already have a reputational problem, here's prolific director/producer/writer Mason-Bell's latest, a sordid tale of psychopathy in the real estate trade.

To be fair to the profession, the estate agent in Millennial Killer isn't the real thing; he's a serial murderer who may - and this isn't made clear - have disposed of a sales agent and donned his clothes (certainly the jacket he wears is made for a larger person). This would explain how he's able to obtain the keys for an empty Portsmouth flat and a mobile, and arrange viewings for his victims, before dumping them in the master bedroom where, depending on his whims, he either kills them outright, keeps them alive or hacks off their limbs.

And, ladies and gentlemen, that's pretty much all the plot. The killer's shtick, as the title suggests, is that he preys on millennials, who he perceives as entitled and dismissive of the older generation; his 'trigger' is learning about an old woman recently beaten up by three youths just for kicks, although he confesses that he read the story in a newspaper, rather than witnessing the event personally. So have his murderous tendencies been set off because of a piece of hyperbolic journalism? The director's choice of lining the flat-viewing victims up by jokey titles ('The Chatty One,' 'The Pretty Boy') suggests a dark humour to the piece, but this is by no means played for laughs.

As the killer Simon Berry is appropriately sleazy. I may be wrong here but the film appears largely improvised dialogue wise, which makes for some terribly awkward scenes. In another film this would be a distraction, but here it fits with the dowdiness of the production. Berry is unshaven, rheumy eyed and clearly bonkers. The flat in question is one of those new places devoid of character, the only personalised touches being a curtain rail and a horrible and inappropriate chandelier which the killer tells his victims he installed himself (somehow I'm guessing not). The improv approach is adopted by all the characters, so everything feels stilted; one couple have an excited discussion about going to view the flat that seems to last forever.

Factor in the crude but strangely effective gore - Mason-Bell as a Hampshire Herschell Gordon Lewis - some drab Portsmouth surroundings and a low key score by Alex O'Neil, and you have yourself one unappealing, strange and downbeat movie, which I'm ashamed to say I liked a lot. Let's hear it for south coast exploitation!

Don't Let Them In (UK 2020: Dir Mike Dunkin) 'You're Next Meets The Purge' proclaims the poster. And that's pretty much on the money in this well executed but - sorry - slightly dull movie.

Child Protection officers Jenna (Michelle Luther) and wise cracking Karl (Aidan O'Neill) are finishing off another harrowing week. Driving home, Jenna lets on that she has one last visit to complete: a check up on David Pierce (Scott Suter), who has been released from prison after a long stretch for the murder of a little girl he carried out when young. Jenna has not heard from him for a while and is concerned. And perhaps we should be concerned that she's concerned.

The ride takes them deep into the country to a remote village, which seems deserted. Local police woman, Officer Ridgeway (Amanda Hunt), seems suspicious of their motives: David is obviously disliked in the community. When they find the bearded nervous ex con, holed up in his late father's abandoned pub, he's keen for them to leave as soon possible, fearing that people are out to get him. He's also armed with a rifle, which gives Jenna and Karl the jitters, but the weapon comes in handy when David's fears are realised and the building comes under attack, preceded by the arrival of the body (but not the head) of Officer Ridgeway. Let battle commence!

Don't Let Them In is a frustrating watch. It's well photographed and acted, and the country scenes provide a real sense of rural isolation. But it's all so terribly familiar, and the addition of supernatural and satanic elements feels shoehorned into a plot that may have been safer being more oblique. O'Neill's Karl is a guy whose foot rarely lets up on the levity accelerator, and while that might have been understandable bearing in mind the work he does, the gallows humour continues when the trio are under threat, which really jars; if the comic elements were in the movie to relieve the tension, then they didn't work. There are some good attack scenes though, and the individual elements of the movie are fine and look far more impressive than the £35,000 budget; it's just that the whole thing together is strangely unsatisfying, but this is Dunkin's first feature, and he's certainly a director to watch.

Patients of a Saint aka Inmate Zero (UK 2019: Dir Russell Owen) Patients of a Saint (and I SO prefer the US alternative title to the punning UK one) is Owen's second feature, a grim but classy watch, if a little over extended.

Set a few years in the future (where capital punishment has been reinstated) in St Leonards, a maximum security prison just off the coast of Ireland and named after the island on which it sits, ex Special Forces agent Stone (Jess Chanliau, terrific) is being offered a choice: the chair or participation in a drug trial, a potion formulated to cure cancer and Alzheimer's. Stone chooses to fry, preferring to face the music for the murder of a Senator she once bodyguarded rather than wind up a vegetable.

Of course it's quickly apparent that Stone is probably not guilty of the crime for which she faces execution, but that someone wants her out of the way, hence forcing her to share a cell with a psycho who lands her in the hospital wing after a fight, a position orchestrated by nasty prison guard Woodhouse (Raymond Bethley). And while waiting for medical attention she witnesses the results of the drug trial on a human - after death, they become a crazed monster, hungry for flesh and able to infect immediately with their bite. Luckily kindly prison guard Lennon (Brian McGovern) is on hand to rescue Stone. Seeking refuge, they band together with other women prisoners in Warden Crowe's (Jane Garioni) office. Crowe is the architect behind the drug, fully aware of the risks involved in taking it and the disposable nature of the people chosen to be experimented on. The group must find a way to break out of the prison without the mounting numbers of infected getting to them first.

Part women in prison movie, part zombie flick, Patients of a Saint would be a lot less interesting if it didn't have credible casting, an impressive location (partly filmed in Shepton Mallet Prison, previously the oldest working such establishment in the UK, which closed in 2013 and is now a tourist attraction), lush score and impressive cinematography. Even allowing for the reasonable budget of around £3 million, the movie feels a lot more expensive than that. There's some big set piece scenes and Owen is confident about switching between action and the personal drama of the escaping prisoners. Chanliau is excellent as Stone, her buzz haircut and androgynous looks perfect for her hard nosed character, but whose eyes reflect sadness and compassion. There are some great supports, particularly the permanently hacked off head of the medical ward, Doctor Bragg (Kate Bell) and the truly nasty pairing of Woodhouse and Stone's cell mate, the psychotic Conway (Lydia Hourihan).

I could have done with the movie being a little tighter (it's 105 minutes long and sags occasionally) but this is a film which could so easily have caused eyerolls because of its lack of originality, but succeeds because its elements work brilliantly together.

The Candy Witch (UK 2019: Dir Rebecca Matthews) The successive releasing of titles by the company Proportion Productions is fast turning them into one of horror's most successful cottage industries, a UK Blumhouse if you like. The founders, Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews, are recurrent names on the credit list of many British indie horrors, along with stablemates Louisa Warren and Scott Chambers. And the movies often share the same actors; it's good to see women - and older women at that - getting strong parts in their films.

The Candy Witch is the latest release from the company: as producer, Matthews has nine further films completed or in post production, and Jeffrey a massive twelve - he also wrote the script for this one! I mention all this because with such a busy production schedule you might expect quality to suffer, but Proportion's movies have been getting stronger all the time.

Reece (Jon Callaway, Cupid) and his American partner Kat (Abi Casson Thompson, also Cupid) are The Conjuring style ghost hunters, with a big social media following. They are asked to visit a house in Surrey which is being haunted by a spirit named 'The Candy Witch' (Kate Lush, ClownDoll, Pet Graveyard) who is always seen with a candy cane about her withered person. When they arrive they find that the family living in the house are American, but this is never referenced in the story, nor is there any recognition of US kinship between them and Kat. My first assumption was that they were simply staying at the house, but the dad of the family, Willie (Charlie Steeds regular Richard D. Myers, also in Scarecrow's Revenge) says that the house has been in the family for generations; so I'm confused.

Anyhow mum Ruth (Heather Jackson) wants rid of the spectre and hopes that Reece and Kat can do their stuff. Of course stuff means lots of exploring and talking to people, including local woman Trish (Kate Milner Evans, ClownDoll and Scarecrow's Revenge) who fills in some of the blanks. In reality the ghost was Jennifer Harper, nanny to the family but kicked out of the house because of abuse meted out to Ruth and Willie's children, Tom (Will Stanton, Silent Place) and Leah (Hannah Ponting, Cupid and Silent Place). How Jennifer came to meet her end, and the secrets held by the family, form the dramatic core of the movie.

After a slightly shaky start The Candy Witch settles into a fact find-y and occasionally scary movie. Matthews doesn't stint on the kills: death by cookie cutter and eye gouge by candy cane, anyone (and yes, like the inexplicable US accents, the presence of a delicacy that has never transferred to this side of 'the pond' in the movie feels a little weird)? The cast do their stuff very well, Lush being not only rather terrifying but also very resourceful in the death department. I liked the dramatic denouement, and also the possibility that Kat and Reece could return for another movie, although nothing is showing up on the listing sites as yet. Give it another couple of weeks.

Sniper Corpse (UK 2019: Dir Keith R. Robinson) You know when you watch a film and you can almost feel the hard graft that's gone into it? Sniper Corpse is just such a movie. Three years in the making, via snatched evenings and weekends, Robinson's film is surprising not only for what he's done with the scant resources available, but also its emotional impact.

Eleri Jones is Diane Keeley, whose husband Pete, a soldier, has gone missing, believed dead, on duty in Riga, his body snatched from a morgue. Meanwhile back at the Keeley's Sidcup home Diane's in a bad way, but her desperate enquiries to locate Pete's body finally bear fruit with a tipoff to visit a facility in the Kent woods.

When she arrives she's confronted with the sight of what looks to be the resurrected corpse of a soldier, animated and armed with a rifle, shooting at other similarly zombified soldiers. Using a handy identification device she works out that the walking corpse is the body of Michael Reese, another missing presumed dead statistic (Jordan Murphy, but voiced by Howy Bratherton). Diane attempts to communicate with the corpse, who retains some bits of its former memory, and follows it back to a laboratory where she learns, via Dr Craybrick (Tony Eccles) that the corpses are soldiers reanimated to act as combat machines. As a civilian, Diane's knowledge places her in great danger, and facility head honcho Braddock (Kit Smith) wants her dead using his super assassin 'Red Eye' (Max Staines). Can Diane escape and will Diane ever find her husband?

While there are some problems with Sniper Corpse - pacing is a bit languid and there are some repetitive elements - the overwhelming feeling I got was of pathos. The reanimated Reese is a tragic figure - conjuring up comparisons of Peter Weller re-discovering his identity in Robocop (1987) or the Bub character in Day of the Dead (1985) - and the makeup effects by David Foxley are extraordinary given the budget. Robinson is careful not to do too much, and keeps the plot simple but effective. I loved the use of home computer visuals to simulate military surveillance screens, and (I think) some rather subtle model work broke up the limitations of the setup. Sniper Corpse shows the director doing a lot with a little: I really liked it.

Next Door (UK 2020: Dir Matt Shaw) Here's a fast moving, often hilarious portmanteau film, which plays like a warped version of one of those 'A House Through Time' shows.

Based on stories from the director's own book series 'F*cked Up Shorts,' Next Door comprises ten short films, all revolving around the same house and its many occupants - there's a sort of linking 'interval' strand as well, filmed like a silent movie, with an ongoing and very funny interchange between the estate agent responsible for re-letting the property, and a neighbour who has clearly been keeping up with the comings and goings at the house, often energetically mimed.

Some of these segments are brief and don't quite get their feet under the table, while others are more satisfying. Characters and situations from one story find their way into others, so after a while the disjointed nature of the movie finds a little cohesion. As with all portmanteau films, the beauty of them is such that if you don't like the current segment, there'll be another one along in a minute, but Next Door fires far more than misfires, and they're pretty much all pleasantly twisted and dark. In one story, a father's sweet daughter turns out to be a serial killer; it's left to dad to slowly figure out that all of the deaths in the family weren't coincidences after all. What makes this even funnier is that it gives context to the previous story, 'Baby,' where the same girl despatches her boyfriend via poisoned milk because he's a chauvinistic prick. I also liked 'Handy' in which a couple's sex life takes a bad turn when, dressed as a maid, the girl mistakenly uses her bleach covered gloves for a handjob; and a couple of linked stories featuring a psychotic prostitute who finds a unique way of disposing of her johns' bodies.

Shaw is an inventive director and storyteller, who rises above the micro budget of his film to give us a movie that is clever, surprising, and at times very dark. Somebody give this guy some decent cash for his next project. But well done!

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