Tuesday 27 October 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #10: Reviews of The Haunting of Margam Castle (UK 2020), Devil in the Woods (UK 2020), Witches of Amityville (UK 2020), House of Shadows (UK 2020), Harvest of the Dead: Halloween Night (UK 2020) and Awakening the Nun (UK 2020)

The Haunting of Margam Castle (UK 2020: Dir Andrew Jones) Jones is back! His third release this year (a fourth, A Killer Next Door, has yet to surface on these shores), after The Cabin Murders and The Jonestown Haunting; this guy certainly does churn them out.

A US team, headed by doctors Annie Holzer (Amy Quick) and Daniel Barron (Ashton Spear) are carrying out expensive studies in ESP and parapsychology within a New York academic facility. But their funding is about to be curtailed by Dean Michaels (Garrick Hagon) unless they start generating a bit of publicity for the college; and he has the perfect solution. He wants the team to travel to Wales for a day (!) to investigate Margam Castle, which has a history of hauntings, and capture a ghost on camera, whether or not they have to fake the footage.

Now it's worth mentioning at this stage that Margam Castle is a real place in Wales. It's open to the public, mainly in the form of overnight ghost hunts, so bizarrely Jones's film is like a kind of extended publicity brochure for the pile. He even includes the ghost who's said to haunt the place within his screenplay, hence the 'Based on a true story' strap accompanying the film.

So the team travel from New York to Wales, stopping off en route at a 'friendly' Welsh pub for an extended chat with the landlady (Caroline Munro, the first of many british horror actresses from back in the day who put in an appearance here) for a culturally confusing conversation about what exactly goes into a welsh rarebit. The air cools a little when the group announce where they're headed; another Brit horror lady, Judy Matheson, is also on hand to ominously warn: "they're waiting for you. They've always been waiting."

When they arrive they meet the owner Hugh Morgan (Derren Nesbitt, pretty sprightly at 85, and last seen being brilliant as a drag artist in 2018's Tucked) who is accompanied by Edith Withers (Jane Hands of the Ripper Merrow), a medium, who rabbits on about the Pendle Witches and Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. Morgan gives an account of the history of the house (which actually is the history of Margam Castle), and its ghosts; a woman and her daughter, who died in a domestic tragedy, and Robert Scott, a gamekeeper with a filthy temper, who dies in an altercation with a trespasser.

For most of the movie, things move very slowly; something Jones is a dab hand at, which you'll know if you've seen any of his other films. But the last third, where the psychic phenomena kicks off, is quite un Jones like: it's actually quite exciting and spooky. I won't say any more but The Shining was clearly an influence on story development.

Despite the usual pacing problems (something that affects most of his films) and English actors doing US accents with varying degrees of skill, I did like the atmosphere in this one, helped enormously by the location, which is skilfully lit and photographed, and a bigger than usual budget. There's a lot of stories within stories which enriches the plot, and while the last third is rather bonkers it's great fun ("Psychological warfare!" exclaims Withers at one point). No points though for brandishing a copy of the Necronomicon, which, rather than the fabled 'Book of the Dead' mentioned in HP Lovecraft's writing, is actually a volume of HP's stories given that title on the cover. Oops!

Devil in the Woods (UK 2020: Dir Terence Elliott) - Four young students, Tess (Francesca Howe), her friend Julian (Dan Wale), and their other friends Jen (Amy Joy) and Chris (Alex Sleigh), have come together to make a final year film for their media studies course. None of them really know what they're doing, although Tess and Julian are serious about the project; Chris on the other hand is a hopeless stoner and his friend Jen is easily led.

Tess has been working on a screenplay for her sister Alison (Dani Thompson) so clearly has some skills in the script department; no surprise then that when the roles are allocated, she's the scriptwriter, Jen's the director, Chris is the producer and Julian is the editor because he's good with computers.

Elsewhere in the town of Dunwich (yep!) the police are dealing with the disappearance of a young man, Duncan (Glenn White). Duncan's dad Russell, a nasty bit of work who's just been released from prison for assaulting a police officer, has been up to his old tricks again, and after taking out another copper he runs off into the woods - yep, the same woods in which our four are planning to shoot their film. But Russell has even darker plans; he's laid his hands on some black magic texts and is keen to summon up a demon or two. But guess what? He needs a sacrifice. As Tess, Julian, Jen and Chris soldier on making their movie (which Chris wants to turn from a drama into a found footage horror), the forces of evil are summoned. Who will survive?

Devil in the Woods was shot overlapped with Elliott's other film this year, Harvest of the Dead: Halloween Night, reviewed below. Both used some of the same cast and crew and were filmed in the New Forest (the Hampshire area seems to be a hotbed of local Brit horror filmmaking, rather like the Kidderminster House of Horror). This is, be warned, a very rough round the edges production, which is blessed with an extraordinary orchestral score from Andriy Sovetov which is lush, impressive, really loud (at times it drowns out the dialogue) and really pretty inappropriate for a low budget movie based around a living room, and office and a patch of woodland.

But did I like it? Well yes, actually. The cast are, I'm guessing, not professional, and a lot of the 70 minute movie is spent watching the four students trying to get it together. But once they reach the woods, and the horror kicks in, this is pretty impressive stuff, surprisingly nasty and gory and with a downbeat ending I wasn't expecting. As you'll know the NWoTFF reviews are here to celebrate the low/no budget world of independent British horror film making, and there is, as I've mentioned before, just no point holding Devil in the Woods up against a bigger budgeted film - or even The Haunting of Margam Castle, come to that. But from little acorns do mighty oaks grow, and so I say well done Mr Elliott, cast and crew (what there is of them) and let's see some more.

Witches of Amityville (UK 2020: Dir Rebecca Matthews) Another prolific director in the field is Ms Matthews, this being her third feature in 2020 after The Candy Witch and Bad Nun: Deadly Vows which is reviewed below.

In a prologue, set at at some imprecise point in history, three witches are strung up and hanged. Cut to the present day, and two burglars target a house where three women live alone - but they've bitten off more than they can chew. The three women are witches (the same witches we saw in the prologue); Lucy (Donna Spengler), Sam (Kira Reed Lorsch) and Elena (Brittan Taylor). They use their powers on the burglars, wiping their memories by the power of suggestion to avoid being discovered. "Can I keep him?" one of them asks playfully.

Meanwhile young Jessica (Sarah T. Cohen) has been offered a place at the local academy, studying drama and the arts, which is nearby to the witches' house. She meets the head of the school, the indomitable Dominique Markham (Amanda-Jade Tyler) who asks Jessica to sign a rather ancient looking contract in order to be enrolled: "Sign, and belong to something," Miss Markham urges. One of the other students spies on Jessica in the shower and confirms to the Head that she has a tattoo of three horns on her back. Later that night Jessica is snatched from her bed and brought in front of the coven, headed up by Dominique, who we just knew was bad. Things don't look so good for Jessica, but she's rescued by the three witches we met earlier; it seems that they are white witches whose powers are used for good or defence, whereas Dominique represents the dark side, and her plan involves getting hold of Jessica, who is also a witch with incredible powers, as a means of bargaining with a demon called Botis (Toby Wynn-Davis). 

Matthews is known for making rather chaste horror movies, and this is definitely PG friendly; no swearing, little violence and definitely no nudity (something which other filmmakers would definitely have introduced bearing in mind the setup, and the fact that one of the witches (Reed Lorsch) has a porn past). But the fact that all three of them are American women of a certain age gives their characters much more gravitas than English actors trying on fake US accents. Their presence does, however, show up the prosaic nature of the film's locations; having lots of talk from seasoned actors while sitting in the living room of a suburban English semi does rather cool the mood, no matter how many candles the set dresser lights (and it's a lot); more gothic would have been better. 

Matthews' film is a bit of The Craft, a bit of the remade Suspiria (one scene is a direct steal) and a little American Horror Story: Coven. It's ambitious, competent and moves at a reasonable pace, but I'm still not convinced that Matthews knows what to do with her actors. The presence of professionals Spengler, Reed Lorsch and Taylor slightly transcend this problem, but Cohen is left to do a lot of standing around and the movie still has points where it almost grinds to a halt. But I liked the imagination on display; and a final scene which hints at a possible Stateside sequel will be interesting.

The House of Shadows (UK 2020: Dir Nicholas Winter) Not 'House of Shadows' as it states on the DVD cover, nor 'The House Beyond Time' as the end credits suggest (although that title is probably more accurate), this is Nicholas Winter's third film for 2020 after Bone Breaker and A Dark Path. Sarah (Romanian actress Elena Delia sporting a pretty good American accent) inherits a house after the death of her thought to be penniless mother, to whom Sarah has a strong resemblance. She takes up residence with her boyfriend Jared (Luke Bailey) in her newly inherited gaff. Oddly the house's location is Spain (something not referred to in the script) which tonally jars.

Sorting through her mother's things, she finds a notebook filled with crude drawings and messages like "What have I unleashed?" Good question. One evening Sarah receives a phone message from her sister Megan (Yvonne Mai) which sends her into a bit of a tizz; understandably as Megan died five years previously. The property's housekeeper, the rather odd Anna Sofia (Harriet Madeley), tells Sarah that Megan is in great pain and that something has control over the house, a spirit who preys on the weak and collects souls. Determined to remain, Sarah and Jared realise that a presence has indeed invaded their lives, and it has the power not only to mess with people but indeed time itself.

For most of The House of Shadows' running time very little happens; much of the drama is derived from the tense relationship between Sarah, Jared and Anna Sofia, and Delia, Bailey and Madeley are all effective in their roles. The last third of the movie is where it gets tricksy and, sadly, more than a little confusing. But it's an ambitious attempt to make a haunted house movie that's a little different to the endless walking along corridors/jump scares outings, even if I could have done with a little more pep in the thing. 

Harvest of the Dead: Halloween Night (UK 2020: Dir Peter Goddard, Terence Elliott) It's helpful, but not essential, for you to have seen Goddard and Sam Mason-Bell's first 'Harvest of the Dead' movie, 2015's, er, Harvest of the Dead, which introduces the viewer to some of the more out there plot points in Goddard and Elliott's sequel.

This is a movie that starts with one of the cast topless and ends with, well, the end of the human race. Sally (Dani Thompson) is preparing for a Halloween party. Meanwhile nearby out on the moors a blood covered woman crawls away from danger. She's assisted by a passer by who takes her back to her car, but before she can drive off, a masked man - The Plague Doctor (Elliott himself) and a woman in a hospital gown with horrible facial scars attack and kill both women, one of whom is beheaded in a rather impressive bit of latex work. When the police discover their bodies they think that the murders may be the work of one Trent Hodder, who was tried for his crimes but got off on a technicality. The policemen, porn addict Detective Bava (Dean Jovi) and Detective Faust (Kevin Hallett) are managed by the ball busting Wes Mason (Lee Macdonald, who older readers will remember as Zammo from Grange Hill, and who was also in the first film.)

The party slowly gets going but is frankly a little lame. Sally's nice friend Laurie Pleasence (Rebecca Jean) comes round to help and her awful friend Tia (Abby Wareham) turns up without costume or booze - her ex Ben (Matt Brackstone) is also due, but he doesn't know he's an ex yet: Tia's that kind of girl, and she makes immediate moves on another party guest, Josh (Nicholas Pearce), who's waiting for his girlfriend Melissa (Hannah Coley) who was in the 2015 movie.

The Plague Doctor makes it to Sally's house and hides upstairs, gradually despatching the party guests who want to use the loo or indulge in some seasonal rumpy pumpy.

But behind this all is a mad doctor, Henry Moore, struck off because of his insistence on messing with body parts, who has a grand plan involving transforming humans into zombies and summoning a race of ancient beings, 'The Old Ones.' Sally's party house becomes a house of horror as the zombies also arrive, and no-one is safe.

Whew, it's all in this one! Halloween Night is terrific fun, quite a step up from the already rather bonkers 2015 original. The vaguely Lovecraft-esque story arc with the mad Moore is nuts, sitting awkwardly with the soap style drama of the partygoers' various tiffs and romances. I get the feeling that this was a lot of fun to make. One of the zombies is filmed laughing and several keep looking at the camera (their numbers swell the cast list); the gore scenes are impressive and properly old school splattery, and the script offers up some nice 'story within a story' moments. 

While the events are set at Halloween (although the house's internal decorations only seem to comprise a couple of signs and a cobweb), the night street scenes clearly show Christmas decorations on some of the houses, and there's a few script gaffes along the way (notably Macdonald, who says 'parameters' instead of 'perimeters' at one point); also using names like 'Bava', 'Hodder' and 'Pleasance' is a bit old hat these days.

But you know what? It does not matter; in fact this stuff endeared me to the film even more. And the good news is that the final scene suggests there might be a sequel, and I am so up for that. Well done people - very entertaining.

Awakening the Nun aka The Watcher 2 aka Bad Nun: Deadly Vows (UK 2020: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews) Matthews' second movie in this round up is the sequel to last year's Satanic Nun aka The Watcher aka The Bad Nun, directed by Jeffrey. 

Becca Hirani (aka director Matthews using her 'actor' name) returns (briefly) as Aesha Wadia from the first instalment. For those who haven't seen it, Wadia is a University student who encountered the titular nun while on a getaway in a B&B. Wadia learns that the nun has a more prosaic identity than first thought; it's Dan, ostensible owner of the B&B, who was abused by people of the cloth as a child and now dresses as a nun. Wadia escapes with her life, but as the sequel opens she's trying to make a new life, before being cruelly despatched by the returning nun in the first ten minutes.

A new group of victims, the Seers family, move into a house in the countryside (Norfolk doubling for the Cotswolds): gran Pam (Nicola Wright), mum Mandy, who has separated from her husband following his repeated infidelity (Stephanie Lodge), and her daughter, university student Cathy (Sarah T. Cohen ); oh and their Pomeranian, Julie. Things begin quickly: while Mandy's out getting a takeaway, the nun turns up announcing that she's Sister Cindy Lamb (voiced by genre regular Kate Milner-Evans) and that she's brought them a moving in gift. They wisely refuse to open the door but the nun leaves her present; a basket of maggot infected biscuits.

The arrival of Sister Cindy gives Pam the wim wams, and no wonder; her past is directly linked to the nun and to the events of the first film. 

Mandy meets the neighbours, Ted (Ricardo Freitas) and his daughter Nancy (Chelsea Greenwood), who Pam thinks would make a nice partner for the sapphically inclined Cathy - progressive grandparent! Meanwhile Pam tries to find out what's going on. She visits the local church and asks about the nun, but the local vicar, who's a bit shifty himself, thinks Pam looks familiar, and that she might be....Cindy Lamb!

Meanwhile the phantom nun proceeds to 'haunt' the Seers family as Pam gradually falls apart and plucky Cathy starts to put the facts together, after she receives a phone call telling her that her family aren't wanted in the area. Events escalate, with the entire family under threat from forces that may either be supernatural...or very real.

By the end of the movie the plot has rather cleverly merged the stories of the two 'Nun' films, but it does leave the question as to why Pam should have allowed her family to have moved to the area in the first place, knowing what she knew and what we find out. Nevertheless I enjoyed the peeling away of the 'onion skin' layers of the story, and the cast do a good job of ratcheting up the tension. Production wise Awakening the Nun avoids the 'flatness' of many similar low budget productions by concentrating on the actors rather than the English Country Cottage rental in which they are acting; good use is made of the countryside too, but I'm afraid that the 'ghost' nun, whose look is clearly borrowed from the infamous Armchair Thriller figure, is way too athletic to be spooky. Good fun though.

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