Monday 19 October 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #9: Reviews of Ravenstein (UK 2020), A Werewolf in England (UK 2020), Saint Maud (UK 2019), Markham (UK 2020), A Dark Path (UK 2020) and Rose: A Love Story (UK 2020)

Ravenstein (UK 2020: Dir Eveshka Ghost) One look at Ghost's 'how to make films on a budget' videos confirms a director who knows the limitations of low cost movies and how to work within constraints. Ravenstein, made for less than £400, is certainly not without its problems, but it's also a very impressive scare movie.

Two friends, David (James McClusky) and image obsessed Marky (Nik Kaneti-Dimmer), trespass onto a yard containing an abandoned glazing factory. While investigating the ruins of the facility and thinking that they're on their own, they come across mead swilling Jack (Chris Wilson), a homeless guy who sees the ruined factory as home, and who, for reasons we'll find out later, is unable to leave.

Marky goes off exploring on his own and encounters, first a flurry of dark feathers and then a life sized terrifying bird man: the 'Ravenstein' of the title (the feather thing is a nifty side effect of the creature's ability to move very quickly). An incoherent Marky struggles to communicate the source of his fear to David.

Meanwhile two stoners, Andy (Thomas Walters) and Charlie (Seth Easterbrook) stumble across the same abandoned factory, and after a lot of drunken farting about, get slain by Ravenstein. Soon David, Marky and David's dad Ray (Martyn Eade) who comes looking for his son, end up cornered by the birdman. But where has Jack gone?

Don't look for oodles of plot in Ravenstein, and what there is - about the birdman slowly killing off the factory employees, and a powerplay between Ray, who used to own the factory (and right hand man Jack; yes, the same homeless Jack) - is a tad confusing. It's also way overlong and many scenes outstay their welcome (often a problem with one writer/producer/director gigs). But oh goodness there's also so much to love about it.  

First off, the whole movie is shot at night. Now the odd night scene can be a challenge to a low budget director without the means to really carry the footage off, but Ravenstein is spectacularly lit and framed, making the junkyard setting way more spooky that it would have been in daylight. Second, the birdman is genuinely freaky, looking like a lifesize satanic version of that thing whose arse was regularly penetrated by Rod Hull, and with some genuinely eerie sounds emanating from it. And on the subject of sounds, particular mention should be made of Chris Wilson's diverse and hugely atmospheric soundtrack. From symphonic grumbles through stabs of shock synths and then cacophonous metal pieces signifying the arrival of Ravenstein; it's no wonder that the whole thing will shortly be available on the Rusalka Records website. So yes, this is a very good film. Shorter and tighter edits would have made it a great one, but it's a movie Ghost should be proud of.

A Werewolf in England (UK 2020: Dir Charlie Steeds) The prolific Charlie Steeds is back with his third feature this year, after the creepy An English Haunting and the rabble rousing Death Ranch. This time the director turns his attentions to a period horror piece, evoking memories of classic Hammer films, but also injecting an element of comedy hitherto missing from Steeds’ output (and doesn’t that title reference another rather famous lycanthropic shocks and yocks movie?).

Archie Whittock (Reece Connolly) is being transported for trial, almost certainly likely to hang following his murder of a man: except Whittock maintains that the person he killed was a werewolf. Whittock is handcuffed to his protector, Parish Councillor Horace Raycraft (Tim Cartwright), and the pair are travelling by coach. They’re forced to stay overnight at a coaching inn, appropriately named ‘The Three Claws’ and run by blowsy Martha Hogwood (Emma Spurgin Hussey). The area, Grittleton Marsh, is steeped in local legend, including being home to wolves.

But the inn they’ve happened on has its own secrets; not only do the Innkeepers have their own sideline in chopping up bodies, but it looks like the stories about lycanthropy are true, and worse, these two facts are connected. So Whittock is vindicated, but as the werewolves gather to attack the inn, will he last long enough to protest his innocence?

Steeds’ skills here – of creating something out of not much at all – are in abundance. Most of the movie takes place in a two room set (the inn is a real location in Cornwall but I’m guessing the owners feared for the soft furnishings) but so inventive is the camerawork and the interplay between the quirky cast that you barely get time to acknowledge and limitations of the interiors.

And let’s hear it for the werewolves, courtesy of the US SFX company Midnight Studios! There may not be enough money for a full on transformation scene, but with nary a CGI moment visible, A Werewolf in England’s ketchup and grue is authentically grisly; although I’m not entirely sure about the ingredients that went into the wolfman diarrhoea which features in a scene worthy of Peter Jackson’s early movies.

You can tell that Steeds is having fun here: the The Evil Dead visual references fall over each other, and the cast look like they’re enjoying themselves too: Barrington de la Roche, a fixture of all of Steeds’ movies, in particular turns in a super ripe performance as one of The Three Claws’ shadier staff. The director once again shows his versatility at turning out quality product which doesn’t break the bank but looks a million dollars. I do not know how he does it, but I’m damn glad he does.

Saint Maud (UK 2019: Dir Rose Glass)
Maud (an astonishing performance from Morfydd Clark), a carer for the sick, has been appointed by her agency to provide palliative care to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer, who lives in a large but rundown house on the edge of a coastal town.

Maud is recently religiously converted and her passion to help is divinely inspired: the conversion was triggered by an earlier incident, briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the film, when she was responsible for a serious medical error with fatal consequences. Her religious conviction and seriousness of intent amuses Kohl, a figure who was once famous but is now ill, lonely and craving better company than the crowd of sycophants who regularly flock to her home to share her drugs and booze. In return Maud increasingly sees Amanda as a project for salvation. She  refuses to be publicly shocked at her client's substance use or lesbian lifestyle: but her attempts to assert control, ostensibly to protect her charge, backfire when she tries to dissuade Kohl's companion and lover Carol (Lily Frazer) from visiting, resulting in Carol ratting on her; now out of favour, a further incident leads to Amanda dispensing with her services. Maud freefalls, briefly lapsing into promiscuous behaviour, before regathering herself into something stronger and more lethal, inspired in part by the images from a book on William Blake given to her by Kohl, but equally to answer her inner calling.

Glass's extraordinary film is made even more so by virtue of it being her debut feature: there's an assuredness of tone, look and feel that recalls early Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Peter Strickland. Taut, economical and beautifully controlled, Saint Maud contains an almost constant threat of violence on the part of the title character, undercut with a painful vulnerability. 

We can never know exactly what Maud's motivations are, and Glass gives us precious little to play with here. While it's obvious that she's fundamentally damaged, and arguably channels this into a created religious fervour (we learn that after the incident referred to earlier she changed her name from the more prosaic Kate to 'Maud'), her moments of self harm might be dressed up as something more devotionally profound; but they could also be cries for help. 

Glass wisely holds back on the more upfront horror, adding to the tension of the piece; when strange things - well stranger than the rest of the film - happen they are more shocking as a result of the restraint. Much of the power of Saint Maud is down to Clark, who has already established an unusual acting CV of which Tilda Swinton would be proud. She's in every scene of this film, and her otherworldliness - which can never be accused of feyness or pretension - hits all the right notes. Ehle too is so good as the dying ex-dancer, amused and bored with life and finding true fascination in Maud's company. This is an exceptional film, and Rose Glass is clearly a director to watch.

Markham (UK 2020: Dir Matthew Cooper)
 This is the second time today I've seen a film which re-uses uses the old 1990s VHS classification public warning footage, the first being South African weird fest Fried Barry. And while both movies are mind fucks, Cooper's film, supposedly 'A tale told in four tides', is a beast entirely its own.

Cooper mentioned to me that "Markham was... improvised in a manner which was very labour intensive and then the plot was built in the edit over 18 months (we'd then go back and shoot other scenes to connect the narrative up)." That sounds like an insane way to shoot a film, and the results are understandably bewildering.

From what I can understand of the plot, filmmaker Rob (Ashe Russell) is putting together a unique feature within the horror genre; while all of the action will have been worked out beforehand, using a cast of actors, the protagonist will be an unsuspecting member of the public, and their reactions to the events around them will be the substance of the movie. Rob sends his unnamed accomplice (played by Cooper) location scouting, to the same are scoped out by two previous filmmakers who have mysteriously disappeared. One of this pair, Matt (Gareth Parry) had written a Lovecraft influenced script involving a race of sea dwelling beings related to the infamous Cthulhu (Lovecraft's infamous interstellar beings). While scoping out the locations, Rob's assistant is approached by Tony (Tony Coughlan) who tells him about the missing men and the humanoid fish creatures that emerge from the sea onto the land. Later at his digs, the assistant finds film equipment left by the previous pair, and settles down for a night's sleep.

What he doesn't know is that Rob has decided that his assistant is to be the first test of the previously described setup. It appears that Tony is an actor and the meeting has been pre-arranged. Rob has also ensured that the tea bags are laced with LSD, and when that takes effect, co-ordinates various sound effects and all round orchestrated eeriness to provoke a reaction. Unfortunately this goes wrong; the assistant, now crazed, leaves the room and heads off to the coast, where he lays his hands on the village monolith. This action, 2001: A Space Odyssey style, alerts a race of interstellar beings on Star Spawn base: the Sekurig Cthulhu Watch Station. This then seems to cause a number of the creatures to rise out of the water.

Writes Cooper "It was a mad thing to try, as was shooting portions of the film on Super 8mm - we often waited three months or more for the footage to come back from the process people. It was a very real learning experience."

Markham is an extraordinarily bold mess; it has about thirty different ideas all fighting for prominence, and no one concept ever claims primacy. It's amusing, baffling, often incomprehensible, and inventive as hell, with masks, animation and some effective CGI. You can keep your multiplex blockbusters or your costume dramas, this is inventive, nuts guerilla filmmaking, which fractures its own narrative on several occasions and challenges the concepts of cinematic storytelling. There's a great doomy score by Mariella Nelson Renaud which works well with the often sumptuous photography of northern coastal locations; again Cooper adds that "we shot in places which are dangerous and are well known for fatal rock falls," which is no more or less bonkers as an idea than the rest of the film. Brilliant. 

A Dark Path (UK 2020: Dir Nicholas Winter)
 Uptight Abi (Makenna Guyler) is in Eastern Europe with her rather more carefree sister Lilly (Mari Beasley) at a hen night for friend jess (Annabelle Mackinnon-Austin). But she's not having a lot of fun, being the designated driver and everything, and having to deal with a hungover Lilly the morning after. They have to make an evening return flight, whiling away the time on the long road back and bickering, as sisters do. But as evening falls they're still a long way from the airport, and worry that they might miss the flight; a flat tyre on a lonely country road, with no mobile phone signal, about sums up the whole excursion for Abi. But it gets worse; the hire car spare tyre is flat, so they decide to walk to find help. 

Abi's uptightness in the face of a party stems from an experience at Uni where she and a friend were attacked; when locked in she freaked, escaped and hadn't talked about it since: there's a sense that this story might be preparing us for something. Lilly goes for a wee and gets lost, and Abi finds another English girl in the woods. She's Hanna (Thomasin Lockwood) and she has a serious injury to her leg, but is unable to articulate how she sustained it. Abi and Hanna find shelter in a woodlands hut, but their place of safety is interrupted by the arrival of a something...they must fight to stay alive.

In the grand tradition of creature feature B movies, A Dark Path is 80% conversation, 10% beginning and end credits and 10% monster action. Winter builds the characters of Abi and Lilly well but to little effect as the peril element of the movie is so brief. There's some great night-time photography going on - the films looks far better than it plays - and the director opts for a less straightforward ending than the viewer is expecting, but A Dark Path is a very slight film with some real pacing issues. Winter's previous movie, Bone Breaker, had its problems but was better than this. His latest released work, House of Shadows, will be reviewed in NWotBFF #10 coming soon. 

Rose: A Love Story (UK 2020: Dir Jennifer Sheridan) Sheridan's debut feature is arguably a horror film that doesn't want to be called a horror film, leaving its ultimate story reveal almost until its closing moments. 

Rose (Sophie Rundle) and her husband Sam (Matt Stokoe, the film's writer) live, as it were, off the grid. Rose is ill; the specifics are withheld but what appears at first to be a self sufficient lifestyle (Like a Survivors version of Tom and Barbara Good) is in fact a need to remains secluded. She's writing a book, suggesting another reason for their remote life, while Sam sets traps and hunts dinner.

The film charts their day to day existence; as such by its nature the movie is a slow burner, charting the cycles of day to day living; the snowy Welsh landscape provides a diverting backdrop to the carefully shot but patience testing scenes of rural domestic life. Hints are offered regarding Rose's condition (which genre fans will pick up) - she eats odd looking, bloody food, which turns out to be mashed up leeches, of which there are a number of jars around the cottage - and it's clear that Sam's temper is barely in check.

When a young girl, Amber (Olive Gray), gets caught in one of Sam's traps, the two hander becomes three. Amber's arrival, which threatens exposure, changes the dynamic, and Rose's secret stands to be exposed.

Rose: A Love Story is a bold, almost Tarkovsky like attempt to integrate nature and surroundings into a story about human dilemmas. Stunningly shot, and with subtle but powerful performances from real life husband and wife Rundle and Stokoe, the final reel reveal almost felt unnecessary; this is a film that deals with abstractions and nuances, and I personally didn't need anything spelled out. I was reminded of Dominic Brunt's 2013 movie Before Dawn (also about physical breakdown and featuring a husband a wife team on screen) but Sheridan's movie is more careful, narratively occluded, and possibly too polite.

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