Wednesday 2 December 2020

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #11: Reviews of The Understanding (UK 2020), His House (UK 2020), Vengeance of the Leprechaun (UK 2020), Medusa, Queen of the Serpents (UK 2020), Redwood Massacre: Annihilation (UK 2020) and Hosts (UK 2020)

The Understanding (UK 2020: Dir Adam Starks)  Xander Addington (Joshua Copeland), a confused man with little memory of childhood, travels out of London back to where "it all began." Specifically he heads to the town where he grew up: Graveshill, population 4000. It's a place where messages like 'Turn back' are painted on tree trunks: a forgotten town with historic devil worshipping connections. 

The purpose of his visit is to hear the reading of the will of his late father, who took his own life; Xander had become distant from him. The will leaves him his father's house and the local asylum, which dad also owned; he was an influential man in Graveshill. The solicitor in charge expects that Xander will want to sell both properties and has already lined up interested developers. But Xander surprises him; he wants to move in. 

In the woods he meets a deaf and blind man who wears a full head mask. He also encounters Tyler (Starks), who is surprised that anyone would return to the town, particularly as there had been around 700 murders in the area in the previous decade, and as a result Graveshill had cut itself off from the rest of the world and become self sufficient.  

Tyler comes to see him later that evening, after Xander glimpses some shadows in the house. He tells him that the asylum was built in 1870. The town was built around it. In 1910 the asylum was closed and the inmates were rehomed in Graveshill. The people committing the crimes all said they were driven by voices. The whole town is descended from mad men and criminals.

Pretty much everyone in the town is either angry at his return or shocked; Tyler shows him an article written a while back declaring Xander dead. Henry Walker, the Town Mayor (Rick Klink) wants to buy the asylum. The frosty reception continues with the girl behind the counter at the local cinema, who carries a wad of notes and a stun grenade in her bag. In fact the only person who's friendly to him is the woman behind the bar of the local, but she ends up dead. Xander's sketchy memories of his childhood included one Dr Landon, who used to make house visits. He decides to track Landon down; big mistake. 

Starks' debut feature sadly seriously overreaches itself. It's got enough plot strands for about three movies, and becomes more baffling as it progresses. Considering the paucity of budget, Starks manages some clever effects including some creative gore, but he's let down by flat performances (Copeland is pretty uninteresting as the movie's lead). Starks mentioned to me that some of the film was shot in 2019, with the remainder completed this year during lockdown; as a result, it wasn't what the director had envisioned. It's a pity as the project is well photographed, and there are some good soundtrack choices. Here's to him having more luck with his next one.

His House (UK 2020: Dir Remi Weekes) Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) escape from a war torn country and make their way by boat to the UK, tragically losing their daughter during the voyage. After being held in detention in the UK, they are housed, at an address of the Government's choosing, on condition that they do not work or move from the property they've been allocated (a fact that keeps them tied to the house when the weirdness starts). It's a home in the middle of a run down housing estate (filmed in Tilbury). Normally refugees would be expected to share accommodation, but strangely the Majurs have sole occupancy of the house. Their social worker Mark (Matt Smith) is impressed at Bol's confident signature on papers; "I work in a bank. I worked in a bank," he says. 

Although the authorities urge them to fit in, the challenges of being strangers in a strange land combine with their post war stresses and grief at the loss of their child. They literally don't know where they are living; even people of colour on the estate are racist towards them. 

Bol is determined to adjust to his new country; he buys western clothes and suggests that he and Rial use knives and forks when they eat. Which makes it all the more problematic when he starts to see things in the house; visions of demons and witches. Rial is more accepting of the supernatural threat, but it's not clear whether the house itself is haunted or the pair have brought something into their new home. Either way, Bol concludes, "we've been marked." 

Written and directed by Remi Weekes, His House has been compared to Babak Anvari's 2016 movie Under the Shadow, which is a bit lazy. While both films deal with the subject of people fleeing war and encountering the supernatural, the threat in Weekes's film is much more abstract; and, the odd well mounted scary shot aside, it fails to terrify. In fact it more closely resembles the 2018 South African movie The Tokoloshe with its migrant-community-meets-the-monster storyline, a film which, like His House, becomes mired in its own earnestness.

Dirisu and Mosaku both make rather unengaging leads; I got no real sense of their reality falling apart, and the experiences they've been through don't show in their faces. The later scenes of the movie, which border on magic realism, feel rather disconnected to the 'refugees in the UK' storyline; I felt that this was two separate films slightly at war with each other. Overall then, rather a disappointment.

Vengeance of the Leprechaun aka Vengeance of the Leprechaun's Gold aka The Leprechaun's Game (UK 2020: Dir Louisa Warren) Yes, Warren's back with her fourth (!) film this year, after Scarecrow's Revenge, Return of the Tooth Fairy and Virtual Death Match. The latest character to populate the director's low budget horror 'universe' is, as the title suggests, the leprechaun!

Warren reminds us at the film's opening of the familiar Irish folk story of the leprechaun, who guards the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and comes after you if you steal it. This is later supplemented by an update from Warren regular Shawn C. Phillips who tells us that the leprechaun is in fact a soul collector appointed by Leviathan.

And in a prologue we get a taste of this rather less jolly version, when two girls on the run from the leprechaun are murdered, one being turned blind and then hammered to death, and the second knifed in the neck; oh and this is a full-sized version of the character too, unlike the one featured in all those wretched 'Leprechaun' movies of the 1990s.

Carl (Daniel Sawicki), a bit of a grifter, is informed by his girlfriend Mischa (Warren) that she's pregnant; as a result they're going to need some money. 

Carl receives a call from his mate Marshall (Marcus Brooks-Henderson) offering him a job which, like all the other jobs they've done together in the past, is dodgy. John (Mike Kelson), a collector of odd folk artefacts, like Bigfoot's claw and the sack used by Krampus, is offering £100,000 to the person who can locate and bring back the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Carl is skeptical but needs the cash, so to speed up the finding process, employs four more people to help them on the hunt.

Mercifully there's not that much trudging around in the woods before Marshall finds a bag of gold. But the team get greedy and, instead of bringing it back to John, decide to split the loot and keep it for themselves. Which of course triggers the leprechaun to track down the thieves and off them (and their partners if they get in the way), announcing his arrival with a little chuckle.

One of the team, Ruby (Magda Vero), who also took her cut as she needs cash to help her sick partner, goes to her psychic to find out what to do, when she learns that her colleagues are ending up dead. "You've been dabbling in black magic!" the psychic says, and tells her that there's only one way to stop him; the four leaf clover. I kid you not.

I've enjoyed Warren's previous movies this year, admittedly some more than others. But this is not her best work. I can't help feeling it was completed in a rush (a laptop date shows late March so I think she probably finished the film in lockdown); lines are fluffed, actors look at the camera, and the visual FX are below average. As per her other movies, acting quality varies considerably, but at least the cast aren't required to adopt US accents this time round. The leprechaun itself (Bao Tieu) looks quite good, but his Irish accent makes it quite difficult to hear what he's saying, when he's not being drowned out by the soundtrack. I think the big problem with this is the whole concept of the movie; it's just rather daft, although Carl and Mischa watching one of Warren's films on TV, and Carl admitting that he didn't understand it, raised a smile.

Medusa, Queen of the Serpents (UK 2020: Dir Matthew B.C.)
 Although B.C. is a first time feature director, the person behind this is prolific UK producer/director Scott Jeffrey, who already has three features out this year. Apparently Jeffrey got the idea for the film after ordering a snake head mask by mail order; when it arrived it looked fairly unconvincing on screen so he reshot the scenes in which it featured. Jeffrey also maintains that the script folds in the myth of Medusa, the snake haired gorgon whose gaze turned men (and probably women) to stone. We'll see.

A group of prostitutes lives in a group of caravans somewhere outside Canterbury, run by a madam, Val (Nicola Wright). Addict Carly (Megan Purvis) is driven to the site by her pimp Jimmy (Thomas Beatty) where she reunites with her friend Simone (Sarah T. Cohen). Jimmy takes her to a client, and she's told to ask for Alexis, which turns out to be the client's snake. When they have sex the snake bites her; this soon brings about a bodily change. When she returns to the client's home to find out what happened, she meets Alexis in human form (Jamila Martin-Wingett), who appropriately enough offers her a cocktail; a 'Snake in the Grass.' Alexis tells Carly that she was chosen for a specific purpose. 

Back at the caravan site, a john has beaten another prostitute, Maura (Nicole Nabi) pretty badly. But Carly, who is swiftly changing into something quite powerful, is to be the salvation of the girls as her transformation completes.

MQotS is for the most part a social drama into which themes of horror are gradually introduced. Some time is spent establishing the characters, particularly Carly, whose descent at the dual hands of her drug addiction and her pimp seems unstoppable. But Carly's discovery of her own power, assisted by the enigmatic Alexis, gives way to a rousing final act and a satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. B.C. and Jeffrey have, to use a phrase I tend to employ often, done a lot with not much at all here. Some impressive rural photography and great turns from some of Jeffrey's regulars in unusual (for them) roles - namely Cohen and Wright - make this a slowburn delight with a solid heart. 

Redwood Massacre: Annihilation (UK 2020: Dir David Ryan Keith)
This is a sequel to Keith's 2014 slasher movie The Redwood Massacre, which introduced us to a burlap bag headed killer who takes out a bunch of Scottish campers staying in the same area where he carried out a string of murders twenty years previously. RM:A starts much the same way the first one did; with the killer finishing off the last victim of his most recent spree. Pamela, the final girl from the first one (Lisa Cameron, uncredited). 

It's ten years after the events of the first film; Tom Dempsey is the father of Sarah, one of the missing girls, who has written a book about his search for the murderer. He's introduced to a guy called Max (Damien Puckler), who has  an interest in finding the original Redwood killer and has certain Redwood memorabilia as authentication; like a burlap face bag.

Dempsey's other daughter Laura (43 year old pint sized scream queen Danielle Harris playing a character about twenty years younger than her actual age) feels that her father's obsession is ridiculous. But Tom wants to trek out to an abandoned RAF base where he thinks they might find The 'Evil Highlander' from the first movie. Their trip is augmented with brick outhouse Gus (Gary Kaspar) and Jen (Tevy Poe) who has some practical skills; both are Americans and, apart from keeping their countrywoman company there's no reason why they're there at all. Laura thinks Max is shady and she'd be right: in reality Max is a serial killer (whose bonkers credentials are firmly established in a scene where he captures a married couple, kills the wife and has sex with her while her husband is tied up and forced to watch). His plan is to meet and possibly team up with the killer. 

It turns out that the military facility they're looking for is underground, which gives an awful lot of opportunities for wandering around corridors, flashlights cutting through the gloom. It also seems to have shifted continents; the entire second part of the movie loses any Scottish connections, passing itself off as a US based flick; very strange. It also turns out that the killer is actually an experiment in genetics, perpetrated by a scientist working deep in the bunker - American obviously (Stephanie Lynn Styles).

RM: A was the sequel nobody asked for. It's a well photographed, passably acted and painfully drawn out mess (105 minutes? Really?). Harris has obviously been cast based on her horror CV (including both of Rob Zombie's Halloween reboots) irrespective of her suitability for the role, but she at least shows off good fighting skills. Puckler is a serial killer who sort of forgets his motivation, but is no stranger than the whole movie morphing into something entirely different at the half way point. The gore scenes are very much of the practical Hatchet franchise variety; well done but impressive rather than horrifying, with some set pieces just aching to be included in the next 'Fangoria' issue. Sorry but this is terrible stuff, lacking both wit and imagination.

Hosts (UK 2020: Dir Adam Leader, Richard Oakes) Leader and Oakes's debut feature, for its first half anyway, feels like a domestic TV drama, character rather than narrative driven. Jack (Neal Ward) and his partner, teacher Lucy (Samantha Loxley) are deeply in love and looking forward to spending Christmas together. Unfortunately, they've been invited to spend Christmas Eve at their neighbours, the Hendersons. But while they're exchanging presents, strange lights in the garden announce the presence of...something, which takes over the pair, making them the (undisclosed) entity's hosts.

The Hendersons function as you would expect a TV drama family to do; lazy dad Michael (Frank Jakeman) skips out of helping prepare dinner, his wife Cassie (Jennifer K Preston), who delivers a dinner table confession that she is in remission from cancer (just before the real violence kicks off), son Eric (Lee Hunter) and their other kids, young Ben (Buddy Skelton) and older sister Lauren (Nadia Lamin), who is hesitant about accepting her (unseen) boyfriend Matt's marriage proposal.

On the TV news the newsreader talks about the decline of the traditional Christmas and the rise of pagan beliefs, and also about fracking related electrical anomalies in the area. Jack and Lucy arrive, now taken over, but the Hendersons don't seem to notice or care. Michael shows them his workshop, including his late dad's old non-functioning television and, er, a shotgun. Lucy stows a borrowed hammer under the dining table. Cassie's declaration about her all clear seems to trigger a bout of violence in which the pair imprison the family in their own home while carrying out experiments on their human victims.
"Demons come as angels of light" is the explanation given when asked who Jack and Lucy have become. Lucy delivers a long speech about them being children thrown out of their father's house who have come home to wreak havoc; it's an explanation that has a Biblical, or a Greek tragedy whiff to it. Are their controllers aliens or something closer to home? We never know, but frequent shots of an open maw in the ground suggest the latter. 

Hosts is a very impressive feature debut, morphing from its strange domestic setup to something infinitely darker at the click of a trigger. It certainly doesn't stint on the gore - one scene is truly shocking both for its ferocity and its suburban backdrop - and the film is all the better for not providing easy explanations. Good work.


  1. Another great set of reviews, although having just seen Leprechaun's Game I feel your review is too kind. Some of these reviews are now linked on MOVIES and MANIA. Cheers, Adrian

    1. Thanks Adrian. I think you just have to admire the sheer hutzpah of making a movie like that. I've plugged your site on my FB page.

  2. "Sheer hutzpah" isn't anything like. Bare-faced cheek more like. Pretty much all of these lower than low Scott Jeffrey British productions are insultingly awful and sold only on the title and some tempting artwork. I'd be livid if I'd have paid to see this. Perhaps the biggest insult I have seen recently is in Rise of the Mummy which they pretend is set in a university but then leave in a shot that shows the name of the London school location! Just sloppy and it treats the viewer so contemptuously. Like the movies churned out by American 'filmmaker' Mark Polonia, this is assembly-line stuff designed to grab a few $$$$s or quid and move onto the next 'product'. Beggars belief and will put people off sincere attempts to make low budget horror in the longer term. As a fan of the genre, I find it very shameful and somewhat depressing. All we can do is write about this stuff online and warn people what to expect.