Thursday 7 January 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #12: Reviews of Monstrous Disunion (UK 2020), Barbatachthian (UK 2020), Carmilla (UK 2020), Cognition (UK 2020), Wreck (UK 2020) and After the Flames; An Apocalypse Anthology (UK 2020)

Monstrous Disunion (UK 2020: Dir Jackson Batchelor) Portsmouth's Trash Arts productions, a hothouse of independent film making talent from the south of England, have done it again with Batchelor's spot on Brexit satire.

It's 23rd June 2016, the day of the EU Referendum. Dad of two Mark Baker (Martin W Payne) is a Brexiteer (he proudly wears a 'I Be Leave' sticker on his shirt) and a traditionalist, quietly waiting at the dining table while his mother Anne (Janette Evans) does all the cooking, and regurgitating jingoistic 'facts' that he's read about in the right wing press. He's keen for son Pete (Connor Mellish) to follow in his political footsteps, telling him how to vote in the Referendum. Pete's sister Maddy (Jessamie Waldon-Day) on the other hand is a media studies student, dismissive of the reactionary comments made by her dad. Maddy has persuaded Mark to allow two of her fellow students, politics studying Mikey (Ryan Carter) and Jas (Alexandra Robertshaw) to lodge in the house, clearly seeing them as intellectual allies opposed to her father's views; the dining table becomes the scene for a heated leave/remain debate doubtlessly echoed across the UK on that day.

But something's stirring as the nation prepares to cast their vote; rumours abound about the spread of swine flu and fellow ranty Brexiteer neighbour Nigel (Simon Berry) has broken into the Baker's back garden, crouching on all fours seemingly in the throes of transforming into a pig. Barricading themselves in the house for protection, Mark decides that the three students are a threat and confines them to Maddy's bedroom. And it's not long before Pete and Mark also transform into pigs, their attention turning to the three people upstairs; let battle commence!

Batchelor's satirical take on Brexit Britain is delivered with a decidedly angry subtext; state of the nation statements at the end of the movie set out Batchelor and co-writer Sam Mason-Bell's stall very clearly. The tone of the thing reminded me of Dominic Brunt's similarly scathing 2017 movie Attack of the Adult Babies, but while that movie swung fists at the whole establishment, Monstrous Disunion concentrates on 'little Britain', or more precisely England. 

Shot in black and white, possibly to mirror the partisan nature of the Brexit debate (or maybe in homage to Night of the Living Dead?), Batchelor's movie starts quietly and ends, just over an hour later, in violence and fratricide. The tension of the piece is helped immeasurably by Mason-Bell regular Rusty Apper's brilliant sound design, and some good performances, particularly Payne, whose character personifies all those who saw a 'leave' vote as a chance to get their country back.

Barbatachthian (UK 2020: Dir Ian Austin) Back in 1977 indie band 'The Desperate Bicycles' uttered the rallying cry "it was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!" at the end of one of their songs, which could equally be applied to independent filmmaking. Well it does if you're Ian Austin, whose debut, ahem, feature cost £100 and was shot and edited on an ipad during lockdown. But just because you can make a film, it doesn't always mean you should.

Meet Chester Zerum (Austin wearing a Superman T shirt), who works for Blue Sky, a global think tank dealing with fringe science. Zerum's home is haunted by a being named Barbatachthian. He finds out from his landlord that said home was built on the site of a convent which, as well as the nuns, housed an orphan called Timoteus Zerum, who summoned Barbatachthian via a ouija board and subsequently burned the convent down.

Zerum tries spirit writing to communicate with the entity and then undertakes a one person séance where he ends up having a lengthy physical tussle with the being, involving beating himself up and being thrown round his kitchen. Rather slowly. Eventually he's assisted by the Archangel Michael (Holly Schelkens) who turns out to be Lucifer who hastens Chester's demise and descent into purgatory and then hell.

Austin, who slightly resembles a cross between Louis Theroux and Timmy Mallett, plays a number of other characters such as Detective Perspex (Austin with a stick on tache, hat and cane) and distant relative Frederick (Austin wearing a hoodie). 

According to his Film Freeway profile "Austin’s life is a whirlwind of weird and whimsy. A lifelong fan of horror, he aspires to make the sort of films that he and his friends can have a good laugh watching." Judging by the deeply unfunny Barbatachthian, he'd probably have to pay his friends to do that. I'm sure that Austin had a good time making this, but asking an audience to watch over 90 minutes of improvised extemporising, silly voices, fluffed lines and dodgy visual effects is quite the ask. On the plus side the soundtrack is quite good, if pilfered.

In his blog Austin threatens us with two films this year; Kung Fu Island and an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Oh and he's planning a kind of redux version of Barbatachthian, complete with director commentary, and a sequel. Well don't say you haven't been warned.

Carmilla (UK 2020: Dir Emily Harris) Firmly in the Cadbury's Flake school of filmmaking, all soft focus and filters, Harris's debut feature, the latest adaptation of the 1872 novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, is a confident and ambiguous take on the familiar story of vampirism and same sex attraction.

Motherless Lara (Hannah Rae) lives in isolation with her distant father (Greg Wise) and involved but repressed governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), who equates Lara's left handedness (as she does a lot of things) with the devil and physically binds it, rendering the left arm unusable while at study. Left to her own devices, Lara daydreams and by night surreptitiously borrows books on anatomy from her father's library.

The lack of companionship with someone her own age looks to be at an end when the daughter of one of her father's friends, Charlotte, arranges to stay with the household. Sadly Charlotte becomes unwell and is unable to make the trip; Lara feels guilty that she may have had something to do with Charlotte's condition, and it's clear that Miss Fontaine's repression has rubbed off on her young charge; there's even a suggestion of the beginnings of self harm.

But later that night a disappointed Lara experiences an excitement; outside a carriage overturns and its occupant, a young girl, is brought into the house to recover. Lara is immediately interested in the stranger but forbidden to disturb her by Miss Fontaine. But it's not long before the two girls find each other, and Lara is immediately drawn to the unusual young woman (Harris has moved the location of the story from Austria to England, accentuating the otherness of their guest, played by German born Devrim Lingnau). The stranger asks Lara to pick a name for her, and of the options given, 'Carmilla' is selected. From then on the pair become inseparable, but Miss Fontaine strongly suspects, after finding a book of satanic woodcuts in the overturned coach, that 'Carmilla' may be evil, and also responsible for Charlotte's declining condition.

Stylistically Carmilla treads rather familiar ground; the blissed out pastoral look of the thing, with closeups of insects and rotting fruit, together with the soundtrack's carefully plucked strings and folk horror-esque glitches and bleeps (courtesy of 'Radiohead' drummer Philip Selway). But look beneath this and something more interesting is happening. Carmilla's arrival, rather than the predatory vampire of Le Fanu's story, here is a trigger for an extended battle between repression and individual freedom (the images of binding and corsetry contrast with Carmilla and Lara's flowing nightdresses). Carmilla, who is nameless until Lara provides her with one, is almost a constructed response to the strictures of the household. At one point Miss Fontaine warns Lara against the perils of infatuation, hinting at her own lovelorn past, but whereas she dealt with her emotional turmoil by over-analysing the relationship, Lara sees her friendship with Carmilla as liberation.

Performances here - principally from Raine, Lingnau and Rae, are beautifully controlled, Miss Fontaine only finding release through a brief liaison with a local doctor and, finally, in staking 'Carmilla', finding truth in the theory that a stake driven into the heart would kill anyone, vampire or not. Carmilla is a peripherally slight movie whose surface belies some more profound activity beneath. Cautiously recommended.

Cognition (UK 2020: Dir Ravi Ajit Chopra) Bit of a change of pace here; a 27 minute sci fi short that spares no visual expense in its sweep.

Based on a story by Chopra, watching this feels like being dropped into the second or third reel of a sci fi epic. A father, Elias (Andrew Scott) and his son Abner (Milo Panni) stand on the surface of a distant planet, surveying the worlds visible in the night sky. Elias has always wanted to visit them but never realised his ambition: "if you have a dream, follow it. Otherwise it stays in your heart for the rest of your days," he advises. A fierce storm blows up, forcing the pair to take shelter. When they emerge, two armed hooded men confront them. 

14 years later on the planet Vega, a grown up Abner (Jeremy Irvine) has been chosen by the Consul to lead an expedition to new worlds; he will be accompanied by a clutch of younger people, as talented as Abner was when a child. Abner has been conditioned to reject the past and embrace the future, and he has a control chip in the back of his neck. Abner's crew have similarly been trained to think themselves superior to others, with no fears, doubts or fluctuating emotions. Abner has one recollection of his youth, and it is a shocking one. The recollection forces Abner to take a decision; he will lead the expedition but on his own terms, leading to a final shot involving a pre converted Battersea power station.

Chopra's CV is mainly based on his work for the BBC, which has stood him in good stead for this, as I'm pretty sure a few Auntie colleagues were among the 150 odd people behind the scenes, not least the BBC Orchestra who provide a majestic score. The visuals are the main reasons to watch this; I'll be honest, the whole sp*ce op*ra thing isn't really my bag, but I can recognise a labour of love when I see one. As many have commented already, Cognition feels like a very impressive calling card for Chopra and a visual begging letter to give him a feature. Oh go on!

Wreck (UK 2020: Dir Ben Patterson) Written by Patterson and co-produced by Tony Manders, whose first movie as director was Death Follows, this is another from John Pasternack's and Manders' 'Kerchak Films' stable, a kind of 'bigfoot in Swindon' movie with added crime elements.

Mean club owner West (Ben Loyd-Holmes) asks his two mules, Jimmy (Ryan Gilks) and ex stripper Sandy (Gemma Harlow-Dean) to drive to a specified destination to deliver a case for him; Sandy, to whom the case is handcuffed, is keen to release some cash to pay for medical treatment for her mother. But others are after the case too, a couple of tooled up bad'uns who'll stop at nothing to track it down, including torture.

But something else is lurking in the woods to the side of the roads along which the pair drive. We've already seen two policemen attacked by a wild beast while investigating an abandoned bloodstained car, ominously discovered near a fracking plant, and a woman walking her dog.

Back in the car, and Jimmy, bickering with Sandy, takes his eyes off the road, and before you know it the motor's overturned, Jimmy is dead and Sandy, still handcuffed to the case, is alive but her leg is trapped under the crashed vehicle. A passing hiker (Manders) offers assistance but turns out to be no good; Sandy's options are running out as both the creature and the robbers close in for the kill.

The creature, who looks like a gone off Bungle from 'Rainbow' and then an angry Banana Split after it's been singed (Charles Clark-Devonauld, who also this year played a monster in Kris Carr and Sam Fowler's The Young Cannibals) may not be very good, and Sandy's threat remains pretty unconvincing, but the film's merge of creature feature, survival movie and crime caper was actually quite entertaining, with some inventive DIY gore and, at 70 minutes, just long enough.

After the Flames: An Apocalypse Anthology (UK 2020: Dir D. W. Hoppson) Hmmm. Another loose group of short films - all but one from the UK - and a rather thin link story around them. A gaggle of young people gather round initially to talk about their favourite apocalypse (for which read zombie) films, then invite each other to share stories:

Story 1: 'Road Trip' 2019:  dir Ronald J Wright. A family arrange to go on a trip; where they're going they won't need phones and they can't take the dog because he barks. As they travel to a clifftop coastal location there are glimpses of dead bodies by the roadside. When they get there the cries of seagulls sound human. Turns out the noises aren't coming from birds; this is the end of the road for the family and if you've ever seen The Mist...well let's just say it isn't a happy ending. 

Story 2. 'The Dogs' 2020: dir Ronald J Wright. A mother and her son walk through an estate at night - she has a bruise over one eye. They're chased by a feral pack, but what they initially think are dogs turns out to be something much more human...and hungry. 

Story 3 'Sola Gratia' 2011: dir Danny Cotton, Simon Edwards. The oldest of the shorts, and the cleverest of the stories on show. A man cradles his sleeping daughter, Grace, apologising for the state of the world; mum lies dead upstairs in a rocking chair. Outside zombies roam the streets. One breaks in and while it's feeding off mum they make a break for it. "Everybody's bad now," dad says, but when they arrive at a shopping centre there's an abrupt twist to the story.

Story 4 'Shift' 2018: dir Johan Earl. We're taken away from British misery for a change of pace in this lavish Australian short. In the near future a group of renegade survivors of a war, fused with biotech to allow them to breathe the polluted air, do battle with alien soldiers who appear and disappear through a portal; the group capture one, take it back to their hideout and dissect it in a last ditch effort to find the invaders' achilles heel. Very impressive, even if tonally it's totally out of keeping with most of the other shorts.

Story 5 'To Live from the Land' 2020: dir DW Hoppson. A young woman, Emi, defends her farmhouse. Two strangers arrive looking for shelter and get more than they bargained for when they find out how Emi manages to survive. The interesting thing about this short is that everyone talks in broken English, as if they've either forgotten, or had to learn, the language. Oblique and very interesting. 

Story 6 'Journey' 2017; dir Radheya Jegatheva. This animated short takes some of its visual cues from 2013's Gravity and 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey in a story of an astronaut trying to find his way home to Earth and learning that the planet may already have destroyed itself.

Most of the stories in this anthology work well - the first three particularly build up a gloomy atmosphere - but the wraparound story features weak acting and is pretty pointless. There's a quote at the start from Orson Welles which reads: "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." Well quite.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. It’s Ian Austin. Director of Barbatachtian, and influenced by the stylistic choices of Louise Theroux/Timmy Mallet. I’ve only just seen this review, and thought I’d stop by and say thanks for taking the time to sit through the film. I’m sorry that you found it terribly unfunny, but I guess you can’t win them all.

    It’s always lovely to read ones work reviewed in such a fashion, at any rate. And it is especially awesome to see you basically recapped the entire plot in matter of fact detail, which serves to make me smile as it really is quite crazy and yet exactly what I wanted to achieve. I get the sense you’re disappointed there weren’t other people in it, which is understandable. I mean it was made during lock down when, gasp, you had to isolate from people, but that’s neither here nor there.

    I would like to mention at this juncture you have the honour of being the first publication to review the film. I’ll be sure to make a note of that for the future. It will be a point of pride for me, and I will endeavour to link to a copy of this film from the old website. Hopefully you can review my future films as well, so that I can see if I ever reach the point of convincing you that my friends enjoyed the film. They say they did, but how can one really know unless I manage to convince you as well?

    Ah well, thanks for the review. Sincerely.


    Ian Austin

    (Ps: Kung Fu Island is the shit, I’m telling you.)