Monday 20 July 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #5: Reviews of You Are Going to Be a Star (UK 2020), Alien Outbreak (UK 2020), I Scream on the Beach (UK 2020), Return of the Tooth Fairy (UK 2020), The Curse of Blood and Straw (UK 2020) and The Fable of Isabella (UK 2020)

You Are Going to Be a Star (UK 2020: Created by Jackson Batchelor, Sam Mason Bell) Trash Arts kick off volume 5 of NWotBHF with their lockdown filmed oddball comedy horror featurette.

A series of contestants audition for an on line talent show, 'You Are Going To Be a Star.' The host, a kind of freakout Max Headroom character called The Agent (Ryan Carter) complete with dodgy syrup and some trippy background visuals, promises prizes (including a mystery one) for the competition winner.

A motley group of contestants chance their arm for a sniff of the winnings, all played by various alumni of the Portsmouth/Southampton arts scene. There's Dave Dangerous whose talent is knives (Spencer Craig, Gore Theatre), Tony Newton, a comedy clown beat poet (er, Tony Newton, Virus of the Dead), Laverne Loraine, cat telepath (Molly Brown, This Mourning), Kristine from the south who knows everything ( Karina Kinga Kiss, The Cursed Soul), Vanessa the competitive whistler (Aoife Mae Pembro, State of Mind), Rusty the metalhead (Russell Churcher, The Unwanted), Ian Grayson, expert reader (Mason Bell, Millennial Killer), Stacey from London who is a terrible dancer (Lauren Buchanan, Possession), Declan Kieth, official baby name consultant (Jack White), Steve Butterson, movie buff (Shawn C Phillips, The Candy Witch), Kirsty Ball, one man Abba tribute act (James E Taylor, Day of the Stranger), Nicoli the sexy dancer (Andy Dixon, Ophelia), Dr Crunch the biscuit obsessed rapper (Jackson Batchelor, The Truth Will Out) and finally nervous Nigel, who doesn't seem to have any kind of talent at all (Simon Berry, Millennial Killer). Contestants are asked to look at a cat video and decide how many cats are in it, do their audition turn, do it again backwards, make a sandwich, and then eat it (not so great for Laverne who's used cat food in hers). The turns reminded me of the type of act that Graham Lister would offer up in Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's Big Night Out TV show (ie a bit rubbish).

The Agent decides that they should all win and awards them all a mystery prize: death. Perhaps this is a critique of me me me reality TV culture, or just a surreal exercise in what can be achieved in a lockdown situation. Either way it's fitfully funny and occasionally very creative. And I really want to hear Rusty's song turned into a proper production. Nuts.

You can watch You Are Going to Be a Star on YouTube.

Alien Outbreak (UK 2020: Dir Neil Rowe) Police Sergeant Zoe Norris (Katherine Drake), a Canadian who has transferred to the UK with her fiance, finds herself posted to a sleepy village, where not much happens. Well, normally not much happens, but as the movie opens Zoe is tackling a violent loner, Freddie (Ian Rowe) who has been picked up wandering the streets. Annoyed that she let the vagrant get the better of her, Zoe is then asked to check out the suicide of a local man. When she arrives she finds his distraught widow, who feels that her husband's death was out of character. Shortly after the old woman cries "It's my goddamn fault!" and shoots herself in the head.

Zoe, understandably distraught (although Drake's face remains fairly impassive throughout the movie, no matter what's thrown at her), is asked by her colleague Patrick (Ritchie Crane) to drive over to the local tavern, where there's been a disturbance. En route she finds a corpse in the road and investigating a local farmhouse finds another addled person who says "It's trying to get in the house." She meets the first of the alien machines, a kind of steampunk version of the critters from Starship Troopers, which descend from a larger ship. Eventually rejoining Patrick at the pub, they work out that the mass suicides are being triggered by the visiting aliens invading people's minds, and Zoe, Patrick and a gaggle of pub bound locals must work out how to defeat the alien menace before their minds are overthrown.

On face value Alien Outbreak is good old fashioned tea time sci fi, which is knowing enough to employ those reliable set staples, the good old British boozer and an abandoned MoD building (as is the mind control element of the story). The aliens looks stunning, both grungy and super sleek, and their alien masters, who/which come in a range of humanoid sizes, are equally sinister. But beyond the admirable SFX and some good setups, there's not much going on here, apart from lots of running about and worried faces. Alien Outbreak shoots its extra terrestrial load a little early, and after the toys are brought out there isn't really anywhere left to go. It's a shame as the film looks fabulous in a grungy, 1970s TV way, but there's a lack of depth which ultimately lets it down.

I Scream on the Beach (UK 2020: Dir Alexander Churchyard, Michael Holiday) One look at the poster for this film tells you everything you need to know about I Scream on the Beach's wholesale fetishisation of the 1980s. And who can blame the directors? There's such a rich pop cultural seam to mine, it's no wonder that a lot of filmmakers are going down this stylistic route; but Churchyard and Holiday's picture stands out as a micro budget time capsule marvel.

Set on the Essex coast during the 1980s in the fictional town of Mellow Beach ("Catch 'em, kill 'em, eat 'em", states the town sign) in the days leading up to Halloween, Emily (Hannah Paterson, Churchyard's missus) and her friend Claudine (Rosie Kingston) are bored young people in a dead end town, who while away their days working in a grotty pub (run by genre regular Dani Thompson who plays manager and struggling actor Paula) and dealing with over amorous but equally bored blokes, namely Claudine's on/off boyfriend Bants (Ross Howard), Jeremy (Jamie Evans) and luckless Dave (Reis Daniel), who has a thing for Emily but is too shy to act on it. Emily is the daughter of a single mother, and depending on whose story one believes, Emily's dad Tim was either a feckless fool who dumped his daughter on the beach and scarpered, or a top secret scientist involved in strange human experiments who was killed for what he knew, a murder carried out by someone in a gas mask and witnessed by his daughter.

Emily becomes bothered by a guy in the pub who won't stop looking at her; his presence seems to trigger vivid dreams about the death of her father. And following one of those dreams (which also involves a cameo from Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman as a guiding spirit - and why not?) she wakes up to find a box of papers and photographs at the end of her bed, which had previously belonged to dad. One of the photos features dad and two other men, both scientists, one of whom is the same guy she's seen in the pub. And when local fisherman Keith is killed, she decides to visit the allotment where the old guy has a hut. She's chased away but reaches the gradual conclusion that her version of her dad's disappearance was the correct one, and that the killer with the gas mask may be back. Meanwhile at the local nick, committed policewoman Kincaid (Leigh Trifari) is trying to make headway with the murder investigation, not helped by her shifty boss Chief Inspector Bradley (Martin W. Payne).

The kernel of I Scream on the Beach may be a fairly straightforward thriller story with red herrings galore and added zombies, but what makes it really special is the elements that wrap around it; the most striking aspect, which hits you from the first frame, is the look of the thing. Presented as a 'Dodgy Dan Home Video' production, complete with spot on trailers (but for real Brit indie films), the whole movie plays like a murky VHS tape, tracking marks and all. This gets more meta when one of the films under discussion by the boys, marked out for a Halloween watch-a-thon, is a so called banned movie (this is the 1980s we're talking about) called 'The Decorator' which in fact turns out to be Churchyard and Holiday's next planned project!

The movie is stuffed with the detritus of that decade: old fivers; smoking in pubs; old phone books; a total lack of mobile phones, replaced by working, and probably piss stained phone boxes (remember them?); and a slavish obsession with cassettes and portable music centres. It's also chock full of movie references, including the gas mask killer from My Bloody Valentine, numerous nods to The Evil Dead (including some nice stop frame animation and some effective practical splatter FX), giallo movies, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it homage to Cannibal Holocaust, and some Critters style glove puppet action. The boys' discussion of video titles brings a smile to the face, from those who remember such chats back in the day, and faux titles like 'Frat Party Blender Massacre' are spot on. OK it does occasionally stray into 'Garth Marenghi' territory - the whole thing is voice synced in post which allows for some hilarious bit part performances - and the payoff is just daft. But this is a resourceful, staggeringly inventive film, which is already on course for one of my favourites of the year. And I'd buy the soundtrack in a beat!

Return of the Tooth Fairy aka Tooth Fairy 2 (UK 2020: Dir Louisa Warren) Warren's sequel to last year's Tooth Fairy is set fifteen years after the events of the first film. Hang on! The original movie featured a prologue set in 1983, with the remainder of the events taking place thirty years later ie 2013. So that would set the sequel in...2028! Comfortingly not much seems to have changed in England's near future. We haven't nuked ourselves to ash or been decimated by a pandemic.

What we have is Corey, who as a little boy in Tooth Fairy was one of the few survivors of the supernatural creature's last reign of terror. Now grown up (played by Jake Watkins) and having been through university, Corey's not a stable fellow, after being irrevocably changed by the events of his childhood, following which his mother was committed to an institution and his father left the country. His uni mate Edgar (Gus Fithen) encourages him to come along to their graduation year reunion, being held in what I assume is a house rented for the purpose. Edgar has an American accent, as do most of his Uni pals (explained away by the fact that their intake had an unusually high proportion of Yanks), but Corey is reluctant to join them, feeling like he'll be an outsider. The sweetener is that Jess (Katie McKenna), a classmate for whom he clearly still carries a torch, will be there.

Unfortunately, as he finds out on arrival, so is Paul (AJ Blackwell), the only other Brit in the gang's friendship circle. Paul lived in the same village as Corey when the original attacks were carried out, and he grew up surrounded by a family who were deeply suspicious of the fact that Corey and his parents managed to survive the killings, to the point where they believed he might actually have been involved in them. Jess's presence calms Corey somewhat, despite some very weird freakout moments which show how close the lad is to losing it: he knows that Paul doesn't like him, just not the reason. It makes for an awkward reunion, made worse when Paul, in cahoots with pal Ray (Simon Manley), decides to prank Corey by staging a faux seance to summon the Tooth Fairy, and roping in his cousin Danielle (Amy Blackthorne) to dress up as the TF to spook him. But reading from his book of incantations, Paul summons the real TF (except I'm not sure he does - in the film's prologue the creature has already been summoned by a little girl, with the demon going on to slaughter the entire family).

So as Paul and the friends gradually realise that it's the real TF doing the offing (and fittingly first to go - in the first of a number of death by molar extraction scenes, executed, as in the first film, very effectively - is fake TF Danielle), they fight to stay alive as the creature moves among them, very slowly, wielding its pliers of doom.

This is essentially a three hander - four if you count the TF - between Corey, Jess and Paul, and they are hands down the best actors in the film; their classmates - who also include Hazel (Venetia Cook), and Jo (Chelsea Greenwood) - are little more than victims to be of the scary Fairy. There's a nice bit of extension of the Fairy story towards the end, some good uses of the TF's ability to appear in the guise of others; oh and there's a dead silly final shot which, in true Warren style, leaves an opening for more of the same. Warren is constantly improving as a filmmaker, and one should not forget the meagre resources with which she's working; Return of the Tooth Fairy is very watchable and, in the first half at least, at times genuinely suspenseful.

The Curse of Blood and Straw (UK 2020: Dir Twit Twoo Films) Deconstruction of narrative is always a dicey thing to manage on film. Nic Roeg was great at it. Andrei Tarkovsky knew what he was doing. The makers behind the borderline incomprehensible The Curse of Blood and Straw? Not so much.

The quartet responsible for this are Ewan Rigg, Mark Fox, Ian W. Moody and Tom Stavely, who between them play all the parts. The basic premise is that, in 1986, a group of Americans have come to the UK to bulldoze most of a sleepy village called Crowspass (actually a village near Chelmsford, Essex) and turn it into a super theme park called 'Speedway Boulevard.' However, Crowspass has a history of supernatural activity, as disclosed in the opening scenes, featuring a local journalist, John Jonson, and PC Teddy Jones, who are scouting the local fields for evidence of ghostly activity. Johnson is attacked by a scarecrow figure, and when they escape to the local pub, The Handyman's Arms (in reality it's a shed) they find a dead body and the scarecrow's mask. Oh there's also a zombie walking around called Andy Crane. The body has been despatched by the shades wearing, long haired John Hurt, who spends his nights getting wasted with his mates, drinking beer and skinning up (a scene where the shed gradually fills up with dope smoke is pretty funny). And as the demolition ball starts to break up the village, will its magic soul be able to stop the march of progress?

Who knows? I remained as confused at the end of the film as I was in the middle and at the beginning. At 59 minutes long The Curse of Blood and Straw more than once tests the patience (the imdb entry suggests that the film has taken about three years to complete), and the horror elements are rather peripheral to most of the 'action' making this a borderline choice for inclusion in the NWotBHF project. But, as with most movies, there's always something to savour. In this case it's the blatant stealing of soundtrack material, whether atmospheric music (from Phantasm, Suspiria et al) to recognisable rock 'classics,' all thoughtfully listed in the film's closing credits with nary a thought to rights clearance. Some of the film is shot at twilight with no lighting, making it impossible to see what's happening, and the lack of a script throws up some fairly funny improvised comments, delivered while at least one member of the cast in some of the scenes threatens to corpse or collapse in giggles. Basically an hour of blokes mucking about, and should you wish you can catch the whole thing on YouTube. But, and I'm not advocating drug use here, something herbal may help with the ride.

The Fable of Isabella (UK 2020: Dir Sarah MacGregor) In Whitby scriptwriter Guy Renfield (Jonathan Hansler) has squirrelled himself away in his mother's beach house to overcome his writer's block and complete the first draft of his movie script. But his commissioning publisher Jerry (David Wayman) is becoming concerned at his ability to deliver, so he flies in research assistant and Renfield fan Svajone MacDonald (Kris Darrell) all the way over from the US to assist with its completion.

Renfield's script subject matter concerns a 14 year old girl from the 17th century, the Isabella of the title, accused of witchcraft following a string of murders in the locality, which included members of her own family, and subsequently hanged. Fortuitously MacDonald seems to have some knowledge of the case which will, she hopes, aid her ability to assist.

In a separate but increasingly linked story, a group of filmmakers, headed by the not quite on the level Elaine Hirsch (Felicia Bowen) leads her team, comprising assistant Clara (Laura Field) and tech chaps Taz (Abel Tyler) and G (Gary MacDonald), deeper and deeper into the woods. Their aim? To document the wanderings of Isabella the 'witch' from her arrival in the locality to her eventual death. This section of the movie is rendered mostly in black and white, and the 'recovered' nature of the footage suggests that this expedition may not turn out well.

Exactly how well is revealed as the decision of Renfield and MacDonald; in a clever bit of plotting it's disclosed that Hirsch and her team are actually the characters in the script made flesh. The pair's constant re-editing of material affects what we see within the FF material. And as the writer and his assistant work through the night to complete the script, the fate of the investigative team becomes subject to the whim of supernatural forces; maybe Isabella herself, exerting power from beyond the grave?

The Fable of Isabella weaves history (the title character is based on Yorkshire’s best-known witch, Isabella Billington, who was sentenced to death for crucifying her mother on the 5th January, 1649), myth and legend into one beguiling and, at times confusing meditation on storytelling and the legacy of belief. Like The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it - which was an influence - the film reaches into history and folklore and re-presents it, for the characters in Renfield's script at least, as a credible contemporary threat (indeed some footage of the annual Whitby goth festival clearly demonstrates that for many folklore and myth are still an important part of their lives). Much remains unexplained in the film - possibly the outcome of having to edit down the original three hour cut to 90 minutes - and narratively it's sometimes hard to follow. But I didn't mind being confused; life is, after all, a messy business, and MacGregor is dealing with some big themes here.

The Fable of Isabella makes great use of some stunning coastal scenery, and utilises a soundtrack that often isn't music as much as found aural folkloric elements. The cast is small but well chosen; in particular Kris Darrell and Jonathan Hansler make a very good odd-couple, and their depiction of the creative process is very believable. A little ragged round the edges then, but an ambitious, thoughtful film; the proposed spin off TV series promises to be very interesting.

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