Tuesday 8 September 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #8: Reviews of Death of a Vlogger (UK 2019), The Jonestown Haunting (UK 2020), The August Club (UK 2020), The Unfamiliar (UK 2019), Why? (UK 2012) and Lucid (UK 2018)

Death of a Vlogger (UK 2019: Dir Graham Hughes) This inventive microbudget feature, combining elements of found footage - the story is recounted retrospectively - and documentary styles, focuses on Graham (Hughes, who also wrote the piece), maker of comedy videos, into whose life the supernatural enters.

But returning home after problematic laser eye treatment, with an instruction not to remove the bandages over his eyes and with his friend Erin (Annabel Logan) assisting, Graham, whose whole life is predicated around the ability to make himself accessible to the public, sets up the equipment and starts filming. Some paranormal activity is captured on film - a mug which moves on its own, a door self-closing and the sound of whispers - which the vlogger can't fully witness because of his temporary blindness. But the footage, when played back, is sufficiently startling to attract the attention of internet psychic investigator Steve (Paddy Kondracki), a guy whose million plus followers and mission to monetise his online presence makes Graham's footage the cash cow he's looking for; a plan endorsed by Erin. Steve suggests a seance which, in the grand tradition of such films only makes things worse, resulting in the material apparition of a briefly glimpsed lank haired girl dressed in white.

Cleverly the film avoids the Paranormal Activity route of depicting endless CCTV scenes of wind rustling paper and doors slowly opening - Graham's flat is way too small to spend much cinematic time there - in favour of focusing on the mechanics and psychology of social media; the discovery via leaked video that Graham, with Erin's tacit assistance, has been faking the whole thing, and has made plans with Steve to get rich. But, and following a tried and tested narrative route that while the hoax has been unmasked - courtesy of debunking journalist Alice Harper (Joma West) - there might be something spooky going on after all, Graham learns of the history of his flat, and the young girl who lived alone there, who may indeed be the girl in white; and the haunting continues.

Hughes's third feature, following on from his 2014 movie A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide, shows a similar blend of character based comedy and dark drama. This film opens with Graham telling a story about second world war pilots, who parachuted out of crashing planes onto the roofs of houses, and who would sometimes jump off, either to death or severe injury, because they had survived a 1000 foot drop and reasoned that an extra twenty feet wouldn't hurt them. It's a story which says a lot about what our mind can make us believe if the conditions are right, and underlines the theme of the presciently titled Death of a Vlogger. The film operates in the knowledge that a haunting culture - particularly J-horror - already exists on film; Graham identifies that the haunting follows a classic Japanese single lonely girl archetype and at one point exclaims "why is it always a sheet?" Previous horror movies about the YouTube generation have pitched the characters as people who've had it coming to them, but Death of a Vlogger is more nuanced than that, even while it acknowledges that people access and exploit social media for a range of reasons. A clever film which knows how to work around its limitations.

The Jonestown Haunting (UK 2020: Dir Andrew Jones) Jones has, over the course of his 27 (!) directing credits, been slowly learning his craft. Still filming on a micro budget, and scarcely leaving Wales for his location, his films have been steadily increasing in quality.

There are no classic ghosts in The Jonestown Haunting; the haunting in this case is the human mind, belonging to one Sarah Logan (Jones regular Tiffani Ceri). Logan is a survivor of the 'People's Temple' run by Jim Jones in the 1970s. Logan actually escaped prior to the infamous mass suicide of the cult in Guyana, but ten years after her last encounter with Jones she still bears deep emotional scars, and is still undergoing counselling because of it. She tells her therapist Doctor Adelman (Doug Cooper) that only a return to Guyana will help her exorcise her demons.

When she arrives, she finds the buildings erected by Jones and his followers to be largely intact. We experience, through a series of flashbacks, Sarah's integration into the temple courtesy of her friend March (Harriet Rees) and her first meetings with Jones himself (a terrific performance by American actor William Meredith). Perhaps less convincingly, cannisters of poison and syringes lie scattered in the grass around the site.

As Sarah continues her mental exorcism, we're given recreations of scenes from the Jones story: the move to Guyana following increased press attention on Jones regarding his US activities; an episode where Jones tells his closest friends that he's laced their drink with cyanide as a test of their loyalty (he hadn't); the arrival of a Congressman and his wife to observe the Guyana setup, leading to an ambush as the politician and several Temple escapees are shot (and it is at this point that Sarah makes her escape). While walking around the camp, Sarah meets Gaia (Shirley Cook Brooks), a hippy who, in a bargain basement Ken Russell moment, persuades the traumatised Logan to ingest a hallucinogenic that (literally) opens her third eye. Gaia's ministrations are the healing assistance she desperately needs, but then the movie has its Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood moment, allowing for a bit of historical revision.

Now don't get me wrong; Jones's movie never once thoroughly convinces that his country locations are anywhere else apart from deepest Wales, and the world really doesn't need another take on the Jim Jones saga (mind you that didn't stop Ti West doing the same thing with his thinly disguised Jones pic The Sacrament back in 2013). But whereas in his earlier US set movies, where there was no real attempt to persuade the viewer that they'd crossed the pond (including casting actors who were hopeless at adopting US accents and filming in rural Welsh village halls) with this and his previous movie The Utah Cabin Murders the director has worked hard to establish a mood, a credible cast and a script of greater depth. At little over an hour Jones knows not to let his content outstay its welcome, but we get a lot in that time; it's a competently made movie and I'm really pleased to see Jones developing as a director.

The August Club (UK 2020: Dir Daniel Richardson) Here's a 42 minute short, the first of a number of planned episodes of a web series which, because they've not yet been made, must stand as a piece of work in its own right. As far as I can work out The August Club was made as an end of MA assessment piece at the University of Sunderland, and successful crowdfunding allowed it to be finished. All this happened in 2017 so it's been languishing for a few years, until finally released on YouTube in 2020.

The story is pretty simple but nevertheless entertaining. Two young boys, Noah (James Grainger) and Jack (Lucas Byrne) are classmates who don't like each other much; so you just know they're going to be buddies by the end of the thing. They run into bully boy Kyle (Ben Roberts) in the park with his sidekicks Stoogey (Jack Johnston) and more reasonable Sarah (Victoria Monaghan). After a bit of fronting up between Jack and Kyle, the latter offers the two boys a dare: creep into the old house in the forest and liberate a cross affixed to a chain covered coffin lying there. This they do but in removing it they release a vampire, Count Varias (David Lavery) from his imprisonment. It's up to Jack and Noah to deal with the Count, armed only with the purloined crucifix.

Older readers may well remember the hit kids' TV series 'Byker Grove' about a Tyneside youth club (which launched the careers of Declan Donnelly and Ant McPartlin) and speculating how unrealistic it was that kids of that age didn't swear. Well all those years afterwards Richardson rights that wrong; the Geordie characters in this are some of the pottiest mouthed I've experienced in child actors. This does lead me to question the planned audience demographic as, without the effing and jeffing, this would good Sunday TV viewing. Also, the accent will never sell to US audiences without extensive subtitles.

But with that out of the way, there's actually a lot to like about The August Club. It's well cast with Grainger and Byrne a likeable pair. The script is quite smart too and there's some great comic edits that really capture the cheekiness of the boys. Lavery is suitably scary as the vampire and the photography and lighting make the most of the vamp's creepiness; and there's a fine score combing 80s synths with more contemporary orchestration. Richardson is certainly someone to watch; this is a competent and often very funny horror comedy, and I'd like to see more from him. Fooking more, in fact.

The Unfamiliar (UK 2019: Dir Henk Pretorious) In comparison with most of the movies covered in the NWotBFF strand, Pretorious's latest movie is a big production. Just look at that credit list at the end of the film! And it also had the involvement of the British Film Institute. But as we all know a big budget doesn't necessarily guarantee a good film; sadly such is the case with The Unfamiliar.

Izzy Cormack (Jemima West) is a medic forced into combat while on a posting in Afghanistan. Hating to have to leave her new baby Lilly (Beatrice Woolrych) behind, along with her writer husband Ethan (Christopher Dane) and two stepchildren from his first marriage, Emma (Rebecca Hansen) and Tommy (Harry MacMillan-Hunt), she is relieved to be back in the bosom of the family after her spell away. But her experience has left her with scars both physical and emotional. She feels cutoff from Ethan and the kids, and there's something just not quite right. Tommy shows Izzy the results of Ethan's recent book research -  something about the myths and customs of Hawaii - which include a purloined tiki doll and a bunch of crude etchings of strange creatures. It's pretty clear that Izzy is suffering from PTSD, but in her version of events she thinks the house is haunted, rigging up CCTV to monitor the things that go bump in the night (except they're all in her head).

Ethan decides it would be a good idea for the family to take a holiday, and what better place for them to decamp to than...Hawaii! Their arrival on the islands kick starts a series of supernatural events which prove that Izzy was not going bonkers back at home; something is threatening the whole household and she has to muster all of her military training to protect them.

First off, The Unfamiliar looks very good. There's some gorgeous photography (including some beautifully realised underwater shots) and while it's obvious that there was no actual second unit filming in Hawaii, Pretorious creates a pretty convincing island paradise without leaving Blighty in the second part of the film. The main problem with the movie is its incomprehensible storyline, which admittedly throws in some great ideas but muddles them in a story of evil spirits, bodily transference and Hawaiian demonology. West does well as the tortured war doctor and is convincing in her plight, but apart from her and MacMillan-Hunt as wide eyed moppet Tommy the rest of the cast remain singularly unconvincing (and the introduction of a Hawaiian shaman is just embarrassing). And baby Lilly seems to go missing for most of the picture, only returning in the final act: this would be weird as an isolated plot issue, but in The Unfamiliar it's just one of a whole number of WTF moments. Disappointing.

Why? (UK 2012: Dir Richard James, Darren Protheroe) Hang on, what's a 2012 movie doing in the NWotBFF 2020 roundup? The second production of Protheroe's Wales based Underworld Film production company (the first was Blagger, also from 2012, which seems to have gone missing), Why? (apparently the title is an acronym for 'Welsh Horror Yarn') was supposedly made for £10.

Four students (two sets of couples) are off on a camping trip in deepest Wales. Rhodri (Ian Davies) and Nicole (Amy Staples) are the more sensible of the pairs, with Danny (Alexander Edwards) and his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Jane Waters) are a bit more wayward. But they're a fairly unappealing foursome, with Nicole and Sasha engaged in increasing amounts of bickering; things aren't helped by Danny coming on to Nicole, an incident witnessed by Sasha.

During the first night, while out gathering wood for a fire, the girls come across a woman wandering in the woods, Shelley (Charlotte Hitchman) who invites herself to join the group, who aren't happy at being made five, and ask her to leave. But all is not as it seems: one of the quartet is seeking revenge over their death of their brother, and the students have been deliberately led to their doom at the mercy of a family of backwoods cannibals intent on creating mayhem and obtaining dinner.

There are so many problems with this film, it's difficult to know where to start. The plot description I've offered above is literally all I can make out; there are other characters in the film but their roles remain confusing. That's when you can see them: we're used to horror films taking place in the dark but we're also used to them being lit in such a way that you can see more than the cast's outlines. And two thirds of the movie is shot this way. The cast are all 'non actors' and while this may have been a bold step for a director with limited resources, in a film which clocks in at just under 90 minutes the collective performances are excruciating.

However, the biggest problem I had with this is the treatment of the female cast members. Staples and Waters are cast as fairly unresourceful girls who are only on the trip because they're following their boyfriends. With no attempt to build their roles beyond incessant whining and insult trading, we then have to watch them being emotionally (and occasionally physically) tortured by the backwoods gang, in particular the head sicko called, er Sicko (Kasper Lewis) who subjects Sasha to what feels like half an hour of sexist abuse after he ties her to a tree, to a soundtrack of borrowed Vangelis tracks. I realise that the film was made nearly ten years ago, when torture porn was king, but all this stuff now seems incredibly unpleasant and, because the plot is pretty much incomprehensible, unnecessary and completely gratuitous. The whole thing left a very unpleasant taste in my mouth; one of the cast members died after filming took place and the filmmakers chose to remove his name from the movie's imdb listing. That's probably the best tribute they could have given him. Truly awful.

Lucid (UK 2018: Dir Adam Morse)  Zel (Laurie Calvert) is an awkward loner whose mum Georgina (Sadie Frost) doesn't know what to do with him. His isolated job as a car park attendant at a swanky club is made worse by an antipathetic boss Theo (Christian Solimeno), and the one bright area of his life, a girl called Jasmine (Felicity Gilbert) who lives in the same block of flats as him, is destined to remain a distant attraction because he can't pluck up the courage to talk to her.

But salvation is at hand: another neighbour, failed psychologist Elliott (Billy Zane) catches him gazing at Jasmine from afar and introduces him to the concept of lucid dreams (the type of dream where you know you're dreaming and can thus control what happens in it). Elliott teaches Zel how to use lucid dreams to practise scenarios to help him in real life: in this case how to talk to Jasmine. For the experiment to work Zel must ditch the sleeping pills he relies on, and keep a dream diary to record his night thoughts. And while Jasmine may or may not be the girl of his dreams, club worker Kat (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is also interested in him; which is difficult as she's Elliott's daughter and Theo's on-off girlfriend.

But the course of true love never runs smooth, especially in a rather dour British sci fi movie, and before you can say Inception (and I did...a lot) the audience isn't sure what's real and what's a dream...and neither is Zel. It could be that Zel is able to talk to Jasmine in real life (and coat off his boss) or these may be extended dream sequences. And frankly I wasn't too bothered either way. Lucid looks good and is played trickily to keep the audience on its toes. But its central conceit is rather abstract and, well, undramatic; the poster sells it as some kind of action romp, but believe me it isn't. There's no sense of urgency or potential doom in the movie and while arguably that's not where the director (a man who sadly lost his sight back in 2009) is taking us, it's difficult to see the point he's making. I didn't dislike Lucid, I just found it a little trifling, which is a pity.

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