Tuesday 18 August 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #7: Reviews of Tribal Get Out Alive (UK 2020), Ghosts of War (UK 2020), Killerhertz (UK 2020), The Complex: Lockdown (UK 2020), Killer Tattooist aka Skinned (UK 2020) and Coven of Evil (UK 2020)

Tribal Get Out Alive (UK 2020: Dir Matt Routledge) While I admit that the title of Routledge's debut feature sounds like a jungle based game show, and the poster suggests it's bare knuckle fighting all the way, the reality is, well a little bit of both, but also a very strong movie in its own right; inventive, wittily scripted and with believable characters that elevate it above a simple punchbag flick.

Caitlyn (action movie regular Zara Phythian) and Brad (Ross O'Hennessy, also often cast in fists and fury roles) are two ex soldiers who have opted for the easy life and are now employed as bailiffs, although being the film's leads they have an uncompromising way of dealing with their clients.

Carpeted for taking out a ring of drug dealers - it was supposed to be a simple eviction - without involving the police, Caitlyn and Brad are assigned to something hopefully less risky: clearing a site of squatters. The site, Kenning Farm, has transferred within the family from old man Kenning, who happily accommodated various waifs and strays who needed a roof over their head, to his son Richard (Thomas Dodd) who wants the site cleared. When they arrive at the farm they're greeted by a small but vocal group refusing to leave and chanting slogans like "pizza and hugs, not police thugs!" Brad and Caitlyn are joined by three security newbies, Tony (Connor Kinsley), Lawrence (Scott Knighton) and Jen (Charlene Aldridge), and collectively their job is to work their way through the farm buildings, securing the site and ridding it of any remaining squatters, while police clear the protesters.

But as always there's more going on than first appears. Richard is clearly searching for something left behind by his father, who he's described as a bit of a git, and as the team explore the farm they find a maze of underground tunnels (in reality the Williamson Tunnels beneath the City of Liverpool) and an abandoned lab. It turns out that the homeless people have been encouraged to hang out at the farm for a reason: Kenning pere has been experimenting on them with a green tinged serum (very Re-animator), designed to make them better, stronger people, but instead turning them into bloodthirsty cannibals (who either named themselves or are named 'The Tribe'): before long the team are up against the subterranean dwellers in a fight to the death.

OK there's not much to this movie and after the plot mcguffin is discarded it's just a series of fight scenes. But they're well staged, and Phythian and O'Hennessy give us some great chop socky action sequences. Tribal Get Out Alive isn't high on gore (although a knife through arm scene was pretty effective) but it's undemanding and occasionally tense. Better than it probably has the right to be then.

Ghosts of War (UK 2020: Dir Eric Bress) It's been sixteen years since Bress impressed with his 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect, but he's back with this head-scratchy-it-ain't-what-you-think-it-is war/horror film.

It's 1944, and a posse of US Airborne soldiers are making their way across Nazi occupied France, headed for a mansion/castle previously occupied by the Germans, where they've been ordered to relieve one battalion and wait until they too can be replaced. On their way they encounter and blow up a German tank, and their casual approach to despatching any survivors of the blast makes it clear that war has made them brutal and remorseless. The group are led by the rather green around the gills Chris (Brenton Thwaites) and include war torn Tappert (Kyle Gallner), psychotic Butchie (Alan Ritchson) and all round egghead Eugene (Skylar Austin).

On arrival at their point of destination, they are both amused and slightly alarmed to find that the departing soldiers can't get out of the gaff quick enough; one even leaves his backpack behind. On first inspection the place appears palatial, and they can't understand why the previous battalion had resorted to sleeping on the floor rather than using the beds: on the first night they find out. A series of strange noises alarms the men, convincing them that the house must already be occupied. But a search of all the rooms reveals nothing, although everyone separately sees visions out of the corner of their eyes; when they compare notes, it seems that the soldiers have been seeing members of a family - the house's original occupants - who were killed by the Nazis as part of their takeover of the house. And it seems as if that family now want revenge from beyond the grave.

There's a massive final reel twist to this film which I can't possibly reveal (and which critics seem to have been pretty good at keeping shtum about) which explains the temporal glitches encountered by the soldiers (including the old no-matter-where-we-go-we-end-up-back-here routine and one or two references to things that happened after 1944). But if Bress thinks that his rug pulling denouement makes the whole movie satisfying, I'm here to offer a contrary opinion. Certainly he fills it with lots of set pieces to keep things moving, and the cast are convincing enough in their roles (a wise choice to recruit Americans rather than Brits struggling with Yank accents); the house setting is also rather stunning (apparently the Vrana Royal Palace in Bulgaria) allowing the camera lots of room to move. And yet despite its busyness and stylish production, it still felt like a small film wearing big film clothes, and I remained unconvinced for much of the production.

Killerhertz (UK 2020: Dir Colin Bishop) Kyle (James Calloway) is a young American electronics genius, under pressure from his corporate dad to come up with an impressive idea. Kyle has relocated to England because the IT resources are preferable to the US. He's accompanied by his girlfriend Casey (Hayley Osborne) who's been having a bit of a tough time since her mother died six months previously. She also suffers from PTSD in the shape of hydrophobia; a fear of water occasioned by her hearing of her mother's death while surfing at the beach.

Kyle and Hayley rent a room in the flat owned by City boy Ed (Luke Hefferman) and an uneasy living relationship commences, with Hayley peripherally attracted to the young high flyer, and Kyle resenting the landlord's success. Kyle hasn't actually got much time for anything except trying to develop his concept of utilising radio frequencies to send high voltage power via WiFi; no, me neither, and the rest of the company to whom he pitches his idea feel similarly lukewarm about the idea. But while watching a programme about EVP late one night, and getting hold of Casey's phone, which includes photos and footage of her mother, Kyle arrives at the perfect application for the technology; he will create a portal to the other side, and bring back Casey's mum as proof.

The test is a success, although Kyle hasn't reckoned on Casey's distress at seeing her dead mother trapped in the confines of a device screen, seemingly in pain."It's just a bit freakopalooza for my dial" she says. Her concerns bring Ed to the rescue; he and Kyle fight, causing Casey's BF to fall on his own equipment; he dies after being electrocuted. Ed scarpers, fearful that although innocent any police investigation might harm his prospects for promotion, so it's left for Casey to face the music. Under police custody, it looks like an open and shut case, but there's a twist: Kyle is now the ghost in the machine (possibly even the National Grid), an omnipotent entity out for revenge.

Bishop's first feature since 2007's Death & Rejection sees the 47 year old director presenting a movie that's like a story out of that brilliant 60s US TV series The Outer Limits, but its effectively languid analogue score by Lars Hakansson also suggests movies like 1981's Evilspeak and the 1993 flick Ghost in the Machine. There are a lot of ideas in the movie which don't all come off, as the result of both budget limitations and running time; but Bishop mostly does an excellent job of keeping the pace up, as the action moves from Reading to London. There is, however, a lot of yakking which on occasion makes the movie sag, even if the director is to be congratulated for doing a lot with scarce resources, and even throwing in some photographic effects which were new to this reviewer. Not bad at all, and great title too, borrowed from Bishop's 1992 short of the same name (this guy's been around a while!) which was also scored by Hakansson who doubled up in the cast in that movie as a killer.

The Complex: Lockdown (UK 2020: Dir Paul Raschid) Dr Amy Tennant (Canadian Michelle Mylett), former war doctor in south east Asia, is now Head of Biotechnology for a massive pharma/research company, the K-Corp, headed up by Nathalie Kensington (Kate Dickie). Tennant is about to unveil plans for the development of nanotechnology which can be used to carry out medical procedures internally within the human body, removing the need for bulky and expensive equipment; it's application has big implications for treating wounded soldiers.

However on a London Underground train an Asian girl falls sick and vomits blood. She is Clare Mahek (Kim Adis), one of K-Corp's interns, and she has ingested a supply of the trial nanotech for reasons that, following one complicated reveal after another, unveil plots and counterplots. Amy is teamed up with her previous field co-worker (and former romantic partner), the wisecracking Rees Wakefield (Al Weaver) and together they are assigned to convey Mahek deep underground at K-Corp's headquarters, in a secure facility, where their orders are to protect the nanotech irrespective of the fate of the intern. With the three of them sealed up together, it becomes clear that others want the technology and mount a concerted attack on the facility. Tennant and Wakefield must try to escape while protecting their charge, while Kensington and her team view the scenario from the comfort of the office.

This is the film version of Raschid's video game of the same name released earlier this year. It's one of those interactive games where the player controls the action at key points by deciding from a range of options. Unfortunately this means a) that the story is regularly punctuated by moments where a decision is required and b) that Raschid has made the decisions already for the viewer, which takes away from the fun involved in playing it.

Having mentioned that, the movie flows well as a continuous story, and there are enough twists and turns along the way to keep things interesting. But because it's primarily a game the drama is limited, despite a credible cast (with the exception Okorie Chukwu as facility architect Parker Caplani, called in to advise on the structure of the place, who is quite terrible). It's basically a game of who you can trust, which changes fairly rapidly as the movie progresses. It's borderline whether it should even be included in the NWotBHF project at all - the nanotech and its effects are a pretty thin premise for the main event, which game wise is the strategic decision making of the player. But it looks smart and Dan Teicher's musical score provides some excitement. I'm not a gamer, but if viewing The Complex: Lockdown makes you want to rush out an investigate all the other story options available, then I suppose Raschid has done his work.

Killer Tattooist aka Skinned (UK 2020: Dir Terry Lee Coker) There can't be too many serial killer movies where the murderer bases their operations in an abandoned nightclub on top of an Essex shopping centre (the Mercury centre in Romford, location spotters). But such is the case with the central character of Coker's latest movie; meet Nathan (Lewis Kirk), half Patrick Bateman, half Ed Gein, a smoothie who by day moonlights in a tattoo parlour (which he pretends to own) and by evening preys on women who have visited the shop to get inked up, and who he has subsequently hit on, murdered and flayed for their 'skin illustrations' - as Ray Bradbury once put it - after which he dines out on selective parts of their bodies.

Nathan also has a sideline in selling mystery black boxes, via the dark web, to discerning punters who like a bit of danger in their life. One of his clients, Jack (Joel Rothwell, who also contributes some AOR songs to the soundtrack which Nathan likes to listen to on an old school portable radio while he goes about his work), films the unboxing of these things for his Vlog, and is constantly horrified that the contents usually include mangled dolls heads and, latterly, bits of Nathan's victims' skin stitched together. Oh and occasionally parts of bodies, such as a human heart with a USB inserted in it, containing snuff footage.

Into all this weirdness steps Eva (Noeleen Komisky) a cop who specialises in deep cover operations. She's assigned to approach Nathan as a person of interest in connection with the abduction of nine women. Posing as a Russian - we've previously seen her as a crack fiend, so she's obviously good at this - Eva makes an appointment at Nathan's tattoo parlour customer and comes onto him. He responds and the pair eventually become lovers. Nathan doesn't kill and eat her, suggesting some rare feelings of intimacy on his part. She even undergoes a little scarification (another of his sidelines) in the name of the role. But when Nathan rootles through her bag and finds out Eva's real identity, it all starts to go wrong.

Coker's directorial CV has to date been a rather singular one: a couple of gangster movies and no less than three films with 'Auschwitz' in the title. So Killer Tattooist is somewhat of a departure for him. It's a valiant attempt at a Brit cat and mouse serial killer film, but it's neither grisly enough (despite the butcher's shop quantities of chopped meat on display) nor tense enough to sustain interest. Kirk plays Nathan in a consistently restrained performance throughout, reasonably chilling in small doses but rather monochromatic over the course of a movie; even Stanley his pet crocodile (oh did I not mention that he has a pet croc to whom he feeds bits of his victims?) shows more latent ferocity. Killer Tattooist also feels oddly paced; Nathan's method of trap and kill is pretty much loaded upfront, so after a short time the movie has nowhere to go: the entrapment by Eva takes up too much of the film, and a final moment, which left turns into something more Satanic, can't save it.

Coven of Evil (UK 2020: Dir Matthew J. Lawrence) Rookie journalist Joe Lambert (John Thacker) writes his first piece for the national press, a somewhat sensational exposé of witchcraft and covens. Coven leader Evie (Samantha Moorhouse) tracks him down and calls him out about the article's inaccuracies. She invites him to spend some time with her fellow Wiccans, to understand more about their beliefs, on their remote farm.

When they arrive the rest of the coven, particularly Evie's husband Zander (a ferocious Craig R Mellor) is suspicious of the journalist. He's invited to participate in one of their rituals as coven member Talia (Lauren Ellen Wilson) is without an opposite number; like a square dance with robes. Kissi (Tracy Grabbitas), another group member, gives Joe a crafty drag on a joint, and before you know it, lightweight Joe is out of his gourd and having his way with Talia in front of the rest of them.

Somewhat embarrassed the morning after, Joe feels that he should leave, but the second sighting of a mysterious young girl in distress, Alice (Laura Peterson) makes his investigative hackles rise, and he decides to stay. Joe befriends and falls for Alice, who is Evie's sister and has been kept out of the coven's way, supposedly because she's been sick. Sadistic Zander regularly beats Alice with a belt for reasons which are initially unclear; it's important for him to keep her in line. But as the time of a solar eclipse approaches, a clearly crucial moment for the Wiccans, it becomes apparent that the coven may be less innocent than first thought, and that Alice and Joe may be in mortal danger.

Lawrence's second feature since his 2012 movie Tied in Blood is very much a film of two halves content wise: the first a kind of Wicca in the country social drama, and the second a ramped up chase and escape romp. Both halves have their darker side. In the first Zander's mistreatment of Alice (both actors very convincing in their roles) is hard to take; the second half, in which the real story unravels, is more straightforwardly nasty. And ok while some of the supporting cast don't convince, the movie is better for taking its time in establishing the characters. There are some impressive-on-a-small-budget folk horror moments, and Steve Kilpatrick's score is both varied and powerful, harking back to Jerry Goldsmith's work on 1976's The Omen in the more devilish moments. As always with these things some trims would have been good (100 minutes seems just a little too long when your resources are limited), but there's a pre-end credit scene which (and maybe it shouldn't have) put a smile on my face. Not nearly as bad as some critics have made out.

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