Tuesday 7 July 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #4: Reviews of After Dark aka Vampire Virus (UK 2020), Morris (UK 2020), Virtual Death Match (UK 2020), We Wait in the Woods (UK 2020), The Truth Will Out (UK 2020) and Dead Again (UK 2020)

After Dark aka Vampire Virus (UK 2020: Dir Charlie Steeds) One of two horror movies coming out in 2020 (hopefully) from the prolific and ever watchable Steeds, this one feels like an indulgence of the director's VHS guzzling past.

Set in contemporary USA (OK it isn't, but Steeds tries harder than most to convince us we're Stateside, with a cast offering good US accents and clever integration of American stock footage and UK locations) we meet Jennifer (Natalie Martins), who is having Sex and the City style chats with her girlfriends in a bar. Jen, who shares a flat with her gay friend Jack (Peter Lofsgard) is guy-less, and her friends want to fix that, so they move on to a club. But instead of hooking up with a man, Jen meets the beautiful and enigmatic Izabella (Jéssica Alonso) to whom she is instantly attracted. She sustains a cut to her hand, and Izabella, who is a nurse, offers to take her somewhere quiet to dress the wound ("I don't do public restrooms" she explains). 

Some time later Jen wakes up on her own in a back alley: the cut on her hand has vanished but she has sustained a nasty wound on her body, and only a vague memory of the previous night. Strange things are happening to her. After she returns home and showers she can't see her reflection in the bathroom mirror. And she seems to have acquired additional strength too. Elsewhere in the city, police are investigating a series of murders where, inexplicably, the bodies have been drained of 50% of their blood via a single wound on the abdomen. Jen gradually concludes that she's been bitten by a vampire, and the biter was none other than Izabella.

Vampire Virus (a title foisted on the film by the distribution company apparently) is a rather different film from Steeds. It's less plot driven than some his other movies, but where it really shines is its mis-en-scene. As I was watching I wrote in my notebook 'a gay neon wet dream.' Actually that suggests a level of explicitness that the movie doesn't have, but it's incredibly stylised, with a superb neon drenched colour scheme (although it's all cleverly achieved by conventional lighting - there's no actual neon) very much in debt to, well the 1980s for a start, and more recently the movies of Nicolas Winding Refn (Steeds was cinematographer on this and he's done a really good job). The soundtrack is a mix of specially written pieces from Matt Akers and a host of synthwave artists such as 'Betamaxx', 'Jordan F' and my favourite artist 'Streetcleaner' - the music complements the visuals perfectly.  

Of course if this were pure retro cinema it might come across as slightly arch, but beneath the camp Steeds draws on some interesting themes. One of the investigating police team is Freddie (Derek Nelson), who is gay but can't come out at work for fear of reprisals (he's seeing Jack in secret); and the connection between the spread of the vampire contagion and its breeding ground in the clubs is a thinly disguised nod to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. It's classy, stylish and sinuous fun; I cannot believe how Steeds achieves films of this quality on such meagre budgets.

Morris (UK 2020: Dir Jason M J Brown) Back in the 1980s, a group of children are latched on to by loner boy Morris (Daniel Crowe), who just wants to hang out with them. But like every close knit circle, breaking in is hard and Morris becomes the object of ridicule, which can only end badly; and one day, while fooling around on the railway tracks (PIFs being largely useless here obviously) Morris is hit by a train and killed. The group scarper and agree to say nothing about the incident.

Fast forward to 2019, and the friends are now in their early thirties. They've stayed reasonably close, their lives fatally entwined because of their secret. But as the film opens we watch one of them, a bruised and bloodied Courtney (Natalie Biggs), being chased into a car breakers yard by an unseen figure; the horns of the cars mysteriously begin to sound in unison, and Courtney has to dodge a falling vehicle (a very neat effect) forcing her to climb onto a bridge to escape her attacker. "We didn't mean to leave you," she says, terrified, before falling to her death.

'You left me for dead - tonight you die' is written on a note posted to Courtney earlier that day. Courtney checks with the rest of the group whether they've received anything similar; they haven't, although some have been having nightmares. They comprise Sarah (Kate Richmond-Ward), her boyfriend Marcus (Adam Probets) who is ready to believe in a supernatural explanation, and Nathan (Darren Randall), who has problems of his own; his son was one of a number of schoolkids who have disappeared without trace, together with the school bus in which they were travelling. Nathan is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, which is compounded when Marcus produces a photo of the back of said bus, which features the shadowy, ghostly figure of Morris. Courtney goes to see the only one of their group who refuses to talk about the past, Chris (James Barnes), but he doesn't want to know: later Chris is killed by Morris while investigating noises in his loft.

Courtney is hosting an 80s themed party that evening to celebrate her leaving the village for a new job; of course she never makes it. At the party the DJ plays a tune that he says is a request from a 'Morris' and sure enough, the kohl eyed spirit of the maligned boy turns up at the party with a knife, aiming to kill Courtney but mistakenly stabbing Emily (Lisa Poisman), Nathan's girlfriend and group 'outsider.' Courtney escapes the party and the rest, as they say, is history. The friends must now band together to protect themselves from Morris's murderous spirit. But that's far from the end of the story.

Brown is an ambitious low budget film maker whose previous feature, 2018's Dark Vale, contained many of the themes that are Morris's positives. Both are very 'English' films in their use of location, and particular scenes shot in and around damp woods and streams (Nathan's discovery of the bus in which his son and the rest of the class have been killed, wedged into a tunnel, is one of the film's highlight scenes) maintain a real sense of eeriness. Morris is also really successful at interweaving the past and the present; the fact that the 'friends' are united by their past rather than a desire to stay together is echoed in the gradual breakdown of their association as the film progresses. And the figure of Morris, while economically rendered, is quite creepy, his arrival often announced by sounds of electricity, tying his spirit back to the tracks on which he died.

You have to go with the whole thing not to find the plot reveal a bit silly, and unfortunately some of the acting is less than stellar, although I understand that Brown was forced to do some post production add ons, so this is forgiven. I could really have done with more build up to the haunting though; it's a great story and I would have liked it to unfold a little more incrementally. But Morris scores in the right places. It's creepy (and there were a couple of jump moments which took even me by surprise) and atmospheric, helped by a subtle electronic score from Steve Smith which burbles and blips in all the right places.

Virtual Death Match (UK 2020: Dir Louisa Warren) The prolific Warren - a trait she shares with many independent UK film makers - seems to split the subject matter for her films between horror, fighting sagas and sci fi. Virtual Death Match is to some extent a mash up of all three genres; it's also arguably her best film yet.

In the near future - 2030 to be precise - a group of people apply for, and are successful in being chosen for a Virtual Reality competition called The Dojo for a prize of $1 million (yes the film is set in the UK but most of the cast talk with US accents - it's a thing). The story focuses on Jill (Sarah T. Cohen, ClownDoll, Cupid) who wants to win the cash to support her husband who's seriously ill in hospital (although there's a sting in that tale), but the others in the group are all hungry for the prize. There's competitive Ian (Richard Myers) who thinks it's in the bag, Sophie (Kate Milner Evans, ClownDoll, The Candy Witch), older than the rest of the contestants, fey Faye (Tiffany-Ellen Robinson, Curse of the Scarecrow, The Final Scream), intense Giovanni (Will Dodd) and hard nosed Tamzin (Lorena Andrea). The game is set up with four levels; the contestants don VR headsets and then join the action. In the first they have to battle killer scarecrows (what is it with Warren and scarecrows?), the second level contains battling nuns, and the third a chainsaw wielding clown (Warren herself) and a knife happy mime artist. Each of the contestants receives three 'lives' and those that make it through all three rounds, get to square up to a mystery villain - and there can only be one winner.

Part of what makes VDM watchable is the sense of fun had by the cast, although it looks like the shoot wasn't blessed with good weather. The inclusion of scarecrows and nuns as assailants - both stock 'monsters' for UK indie horror - suggests that Warren isn't taking this very seriously; she seems to be having a great time as a colourful killer clown. Her films can be fairly laid back affairs in terms of pacing, but this is pretty much non stop action with the contestants having to assist each other for most of the movie - until it's everyone for themselves. Eventually of course the remaining characters are forced to confess their darkest secrets (in a round where they are forced to hold guns to their heads and kill themselves if they fail to tell the truth) so nobody emerges covered in glory. James R. Wilson's lush score makes us forget we're watching a group of actors running around English fields and farms. There's a cynical side to this film in that the game is being watched by small bunch of champagne guzzling elite, and there's the almost inevitable 'if you die in VR do you die in real life?' question. But although this has all been done before VDM is still great fun and a testament to what can be done with a few quid and an up for it cast.

We Wait in the Woods (UK 2020: Dir Joe Duncombe) Less than a feature, more than a short, Duncombe's film ends with a dedication 'In memory of lost friends' and a message to 'Find someone to talk to.' The central character in the film, around who the story revolves, has already died when the movie starts; while the cause of death isn't mentioned, it's pretty clear from these end messages what has happened.

A group of friends of the dead man - Jay - gather together to camp in the woods where they used to party, and give him a send off. They weren't invited to the funeral, presumably seen as bad influences; a further clue to how he might have died. There's Ant (Jamie Evans) and his girlfriend Lisa (Marian Elizabeth), Mark (Ian Anderson) and his 'muse' Izzy (Pandora Ind), and Charlie (Henry Morris), who seems to be named after his favourite drug, and his uptight girlfriend Hayley (Céline Beran, a Texan, sporting a genuine American accent, rather rare in indie Brit horrors).

Events start slowly. An old man who Charlie meets in the field warns him "I wouldn't stay over night if I was you" and Ant starts to get a bit spooked, but otherwise the group smoke, drink, snort and pill themselves silly while reminiscing about their lost friend, and on the morning after all they have to worry about is their collective comedown heads. But on the second day things get weird. Mark finds himself trapped in his tent, with the camping gas canisters mysteriously punctured. Izzy wanders off and is attacked by an unseen force, and as night draws on, it's clear that something wants them dead.

Little is explained in We Wait in the Woods, including the 'we' of the title. Is it Jay, seeking retribution from beyond the grave, or something darker and older? At 45 minutes in length there's little to get hold of context wise, beyond a broad understanding of the functionality (or otherwise) of the three couples. The movie is entirely filmed on location, and the woodland setting is one of the best things about the film. I suppose we should be pleased that for once we have a film that doesn't drown its audience in explanations for the strange goings on, but I found it just a bit too inconclusive. It's got a good atmosphere though, and a pleasantly downbeat feel.

The Truth Will Out (UK 2020: Dir Jessica Hunt, Sam Mason-Bell) The busy people at Trash Arts bring us another low budget Portsmouth set feature, a downbeat piece about the occult and the perils of reality television.

Thomas (Kevin Cordell) is the host of a TV show called 'Hard Streets UK.' In front of the camera he's polite and gracious with the people he interviews, but when they're turned off he's a curmudgeon who treats his team - Darren (Jackson Batchelor) and Stanley (Mason-Bell) - like dirt, and is a bit of a perv to boot. We join the team as they make their way through the rainy streets of the town, en route to a house containing three local gypsies, with whom they are to spend three days filming, and who are also reputed to be witches.

The household comprises a mother, Diana (Suki Jones), who is from the 'old country' and her daughters Kate (played by Hunt) and 19 year old Phoebe (Kayla Charlton). "Remember, no wandering hands this time!" Thomas is warned by his crew, an instruction not heeded by the star who, on the first night, invites young, innocent Phoebe into his room and masturbates in front of her, while recording the whole thing: it's a deeply disturbing scene, made worse by its length, but it takes the movie from something reasonably lighthearted into much darker territory. As the weekend progresses the team try to understand the nature of the religion - or belief, as the women prefer - held by the gypsies and the extent of their powers. Thomas's nocturnal activities don't go unnoticed by Darren and Stanley whose own agenda is to expose his inclinations and get him taken off the show. But Kate and Phoebe have their own reasons for inviting the crew into their home, the people behind 'Hard Streets UK' are about to find out what witchcraft really means.

The Truth Will Out is a simple film, unflashy in its execution but rather troubling. A lot of this is down to the performance of Cordell as Thomas, equally odious as a moaning, cynical TV 'professional' as he is sexual predator. And having a character like him living under the same (small) roof as a group of innocent women - supposedly - makes for a very sleazy setup. And his descent to (temporary) madness under the force of the witches' powers is also extremely unsettling. This is complemented by Rusty Apper's minimal electronic score, and some surprisingly effective photography, given the limited setup. A nice and nasty surprise from an inventive production company, and well worth catching when it eventually appears on VoD.

Dead Again (UK 2020: Dir Steven M. Smith) I've not been a huge fan of Smith's previous features, but I'm pleased to write that his latest comedy horror, although still a bit ragged round the edges, hits the spot.

New recruit PC Bruce Brody (Elliot Cable) arrives for his first day of work at the police station in the sleepy village of Little Pitchford. There he meets been-around-the-block Sergeant Sean Cooper (Tony Fadil), who Brody will be replacing - it's Cooper's last day. After an uneasy start - Cooper's 70s references to Jaws and 'Starsky and Hutch' fall on deaf ears with the newcomer as he was born in the 1990s - Brody gets shown round the village where, according to Sean, "nothing happens here; it's like a morgue in a recession."

In another part of the village two young people, Katie (Sonera Angel) and Dan (Chris Monk), out in the woods, come across a flesh eating zombie and seek refuge by breaking in to an abandoned manor house (actually the fire-wrecked Poltimore House in Devon, also used in Scare Attraction). They are busted by local farmer Bob (Mark Wingett) and house owner Ellen (Kit Pascoe) who catch them in the act. Brody and Cooper are summoned to deal with the housebreakers but the whole group find themselves surrounded by a zombie horde, which are actually (I think) reanimated corpses triggered by an alien invasion. The group must fight their way out of the house, with all the odds stacked against them.

Smith - who took on multiple technical roles for this film - cheekily integrates carefully edited Corona Virus speech footage from Macron, Johnson and Trump at the beginning of the movie to add some global context to the invasion, which may be in poor taste but it's cleverly done. He's also done a good job with the action scenes; and sparing use of CGI coupled with excellent make up effects (step forward Isabella Larter and her team) and some nifty camerawork (Smith again) make the attack scenes pretty tense. The cast are a lot more suited to their roles than some of Smith's previous movies, and Wingett - who's turning out to be a Nic Cage of the UK home counties - returns from one of Smith's other 2020 horrors, Doll House, to give a decidedly over the top performance. But the star of the show is Fadil as Sean 'Starsky' Cooper, who gets some great lines and is very convincing as a village copper who exists in a state of constant ennui. The rather confusing alien invasion plot line seems like an excuse to shoehorn in some admittedly impressive CGI of a mother ship, but it doesn't matter, as this is amiable stuff, clocking in at about 65 mins if the front and end credits are excluded.


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