Saturday 23 January 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #13: Reviews of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged (UK/USA 2020), Get Duked! (UK 2020), Conjuring: The Book of the Dead (UK 2020), Meeting (UK 2020), The House in Sherwood (UK 2020) and Blood Spirit (UK 2020)

47 Meters Down: Uncaged (UK/USA 2020: Dir Johannes Roberts) Roberts's claustrophobic 47 Meters Down was a surprisingly suspenseful movie given its budgetary limitations, although it was difficult to see a way into a sequel. One way round this was not to use any characters from the original movie, so here we have withdrawn and bullied at school Mia (Sophie Nélisse), whose family have taken up residence in Mexico (the beautiful exteriors are actually the Dominican Republic, but the underwater scenes were filmed at The Underwater Studio in Basildon, Essex) courtesy of dad (Grant Corbett) who has landed a job exploring some submerged Mayan ruins in the area. Also in the household are mum (Nia Long) to whom he's just got married, and her new half sister Sasha (Corinne Foxx). Sasha's all about fun with her friends, whereas bookish Mia, who's an experienced scuba diver (I'm sure this will come in handy later) shares dad's interest in all things aquatic; ok sharks. 

Dad suggests that the half siblings have some bonding time on a glass bottom boat trip in the hopes of seeing a great white shark, but Sasha, keen to hang out with her mates - pushy Nicole (Sistine Stallone, Sly's daughter) and Alexa (Brianne Tju) - bails, taking Mia with them. They end up in an isolated pool that is part of dad's Mayan dig, and guess what, someone's left some scuba gear lying around. Despite the fact that they're trespassing, the girls don the gear and before you know it, are swimming around the Mayan remains, deep below the surface; 47 metres below, I'm guessing.  

But as they're taking one more turn round the ancient ruins, a blind tetra fish surprises them, causing their way out to be blocked off. To add to their woes, not one but two great white sharks turn up; although the sharks are blind (something to do with the depth at which they're swimming) they're incredibly predatory, and the battle is on to make it out alive, with diminishing supplies of oxygen.

Despite the limited set up and some effects being more, er, effective than others, Roberts generates a fair amount of tension in this sequel. I'm guessing he took a few notes from Alexandre Aja's Crawl (2019) in creating a claustrophobic setup and some judicious editing to cover up the fact that the sharks are CGI created. Points for some wry details, such as a Jaws 'chewed head' jump, and ironic use of The Carpenters' 'We've only just begun' about half way through the movie as an indicator that there's more shark action on the way. 

And of course the movie finds time for a few life lessons; the sisters do eventually bond under duress and Mia learns to stand up for herself (no sock in the jaw for the school bully though, sadly). Ok the sharks may pick and chose who they immediately eat (adults and mean people, basically), but as the sequel no-one really wanted 47 Meters Down: Uncaged is great fun and proves that Roberts is one of the best low budget genre film-makers in the UK.

Get Duked! aka Boyz in the Wood (UK 2020: Dir Ninian Doff)  Doff's debut feature centres on four teenagers, three of whom, under the direction of substitute teacher Mr Carlyle (Jonathan Arise) are about to undertake four days on their own in the great outdoors - specifically the Highlands - for their Duke of Edinburgh award; and to address past school misdemeanours. They are bad boy Dean (Rian Gordon), dim Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and self promoting hip hop artist DJ Beatroot aka William (Viraj Juneja). They're joined by overkeen Ian (Samuel Bottomley), who unlike the others actually wants to do the award. 

Carlyle gives them a map, tells them that there's no mobile phone signal, and pretty much leaves them to it. "Don't get lost," he advises, helpfully. The four are initially three against one; Ian has ambitions to pursue a law career, in contrast to his new found colleagues whose plans range from getting a job in a factory to, well not much at all really. 

The delinquent arm of the group see through the whole exercise: "everyone knows that the Duke of Edinburgh award is all about getting shitfaced!" which prompts the drugs to come out and the shitfacing to begin; with the exception of Ian, of course.

But things are about to turn nasty. The boys are being watched by a real Duke (Eddie Izzard) and his wife, the Duchess (Georgie Glen) and, in a class based take on 1932's The Most Dangerous Game, lined up as 'vermin' to be hunted and killed. The four lads don't help themselves by tearing off large bits of the map for skins, leaving them pretty much lost. The rest of the film is largely taken up with the toffs' efforts to hunt the boys down, and our heroes gradually learning survival tactics to escape certain death.

Get Duked! (the original title, a play on Boyz in the Hood, was changed as a mark of respect to the BLM movement), is pretty much a one joke movie, leavened by some nifty graphics and funny-ish musical interludes. Whether you find it amusing watching the boys creating makeshift weapons and bickering their way from one situation to the next largely depends on your sense of humour; I found the whole thing fairly quickly outstayed its welcome, although Juneja's clueless DJ, while by no means an original character, is by far the most interesting in the cast. With his endless raps about the size of his penis, a discussion about not using the word 'orienteering' because it's racist, and his gradual understanding of the ridiculousness of his adopted name, he's a good comic creation. The inclusion of comedy heavyweights like Izzard and Alice Lowe as a bossy policewoman come across more like favours called in than wise casting, and the final haves/have nots monologue feels like it's strayed in from another movie, however much I might agree with the sentiment.

On reflection this is probably a movie best seen with a beer and a crowd, not on a laptop screen in the middle of the day during 'dry' January. But there you go.

Conjuring: The Book of the Dead (UK 2020: Dir Richard Driscoll) Now I'm not going to get into the whys or wherefores about Richard Driscoll; I'm here to review films, but my previous exposure to this guy's work has convinced that he hasn't really got an original thought in him. And so we get to Conjuring: The Book of the Dead which tricks from the outset, with its opening prologue about demons and runic symbols, which pretty much plagiarises the subject of and opening to Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957), surely one of the best British fantastic films ever made. This however is among the very worst British fantastic films ever made.

Vicodin addicted writer George (Driscoll in his Steven Caine persona), who's seriously off his game, is persuaded by his agent Martha ('troubled' Lysette Anthony) to travel to New Orleans with a book that she bought in auction. Purported to have been included in a lot of paperwork belonging to HP Lovecraft, Martha thinks that what she has is a diary which originally belonged to 'The Great Beast', Aleister Crowley, but she needs its authenticity verified.

George accepts an all expenses paid trip to New Orleans; while he's there, Martha also asks him to start developing a story, incorporating Crowley, which can be turned into a graphic novel. When he arrives he questions the locals and finds out that the Crowley expert is a kind of dominatrix tattooist called Zillia (Bai Ling). After a torrid night with the rather forward lady, he realises that he's involved in a plot to use the book, a precursor to the Necronomicon (although the cast keep pronouncing it as Necromonicon), to raise the spirit of Crowley.

A quick scout around the internet shows that this movie is a rehash of his possibly unfinished 2017 flick, the terribly titled When the Devil Rides Out. And the story that George composes, which is shown on screen in graphic novel form, is basically scenes from his earlier movie, 2008's The Raven: Evil Calls aka The House of Harrow. This cobbling together of earlier work allows him to include a cast list that, as well as Anthony, includes Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Oliver Tobias, Dudley Sutton, Norman Wisdom, Jason Donovan and Robin Askwith. 

In between the shonky CGI scene setting moments, real locations are used including New Orleans (including an actual Crowley haunt, The Absinthe House) and New York, but don't go thinking this adds any excitement to the whole farrago; everything looks messy and awkward in this movie. It's literally stitched together and if the synopsis above makes sense to you, well try watching the thing. Driscoll is appalling and half the cast mutter their lines like they don't want to be discovered acting in the movie. Only Ling pushes the boat out performance wise; she shouldn't have bothered. Awful.

Meeting (UK 2020: Dir Emre Sen) Turkish born Sen is by day a classical pianist, whose own experiences in therapy inspired his first film. "Upsetting people is important in filmmaking," the director said in a recent interview, going on to mention that, when making a film about psychotherapy, "you need to dive in the shit." 

Quite a lot of shit gets dived into in the course of Meeting, mainly courtesy of Julianne (Shipra Jain Khanna) a woman who is, from the point where we first meet her, on the edge. And that introduction comes as she organises a meet up group for creatives at her mother's flat; they're an odd bunch, including over the top Elisabeth (Linda Clark), her friend Can (pronounced John, played by Sen), bitchy Samantha (Ava Amande) and various others. One of the guests, Linda (Nalân Burgess) sings a song called 'Light Me Up' which gives Sen a chance to tinkle the ivories, and then play one of his onw compositions. But it's all too much for Julianne who, after experiencing violent flashbacks, retires to the bathroom to self harm, prior to fainting. When she wakes up, she's alone.

Julianne confesses to her therapist Carol (Portia Booroff) that she thinks her guests are trying to kill her and rationalises her self harm by explaining "I hurt. I've got no choice". Carol thinks the guests might be figments of Julianne's imagination, and feels that her client's trauma stems from childhood abandonment by her father and a poor relationship with her mother (Bhrina Bache).

But Carol also feels affected by Julianne's condition, which stirs up memories of her own trauma. Julianne begins to withdraw from any help offered, but a figure from the past re-enters her life and, deeply unwell, she decides on some drastic measures to achieve salvation.

It was touch and go whether to include Meeting in the NWotBFF strand, but on balance it's strange enough to secure a place. It's a difficult watch despite some indifferent performances and the whole thing feels like a soap opera version of the 1965 movie Repulsion, via a Jane Arden film. Khanna is the standout performance here; she falls apart very convincingly, and Sen's inexperience in directing a film helps maintain a continued sense of awkwardness. This won't be for everyone, but I thought it was quite brave, very sad and at times menacing.

The House in Sherwood (UK 2020: Dir Richard Mansfield) I've covered a number of Mansfield's London based spook films before a shift to Nottingham several years ago moved his seat of operations but continued with the frights; looks like this guy's going to be haunted wherever he lives. Last year he gave us The Investigation: A Haunting in Sherwood, and this year he's brought out a new podcast, The Demonic Tapes, (now on its second season) and a follow up to last year's feature, a lockdown-filmed fauxcumentary which picks up where events in the 2019 movie left off.

The infamous house house in Sherwood has been shut up since the incidents in the first film, where two people went missing; but now YouTube medium Angela Bennett (Eleanor Aldous) has moved in, streaming live to her fans and hoping for some paranormal activity. Fake medium buster, peevish Karen Keane (Kathryn Redwood), who runs a Twitter channel called GhostEXPOSE, is hot on Bennett's tail, with an obsessive need to expose the medium; a state driven by the desire to seek revenge for Angela providing her with dodgy psychic investment advice and rendering her penniless as a result.

Let the pranking begin! So while Angela gets serious about exploring the house, Karen gradually ups the ante, from hoax calls to poison pen letters. And when she finds a spare key to the house she wastes no time in gently trashing the place, secreting a walky talky on the premises, and generally making a nuisance of herself. But, for anyone's who's seen the 2019 movie, there's real bumps in the night going on. And without giving the game away, the fact that the film has been constructed from the phones and social media accounts of both women doesn't bode well for either.

Mansfield's previous films have been quiet, unassuming affairs, where a spirit of dread slowly creeps up on the (usually male, usually solo) occupant of whatever building is being haunted. The House in Sherwood breaks the mould with two central characters, both given equal screen time, and the focus is as much on their motives as the supernatural aspects of the film. While this set up is initially rather clever, there's a bit of a law of diminishing returns operating here. Redwood's Keane character is a figure of almost cartoon spite, and while her motivation is obvious, an hour or so of her 'more by vinegar than honey' approach to life gets a bit wearing; hats off to the actor though; I'm sure she's very nice in real life.

The House in Sherwood ups the gears in the final section, and manages several low budget scares, which have become Mansfield's trademark. I just wasn't as sold on this movie as his others; heaven forfend that I would want any director to stick with one style of filmmaking, but I wasn't fully convinced by this one.

Blood Spirit (UK 2020: Dir Anthony Allin) A young couple, Solomon (Smari Gunn) and Cassie (Ayvianna Snow), arrive at their friend Josh's house; correction, it's his late great uncle's place and Josh (Tom Scurr) has decided to hold a Halloween party in the unoccupied but fully furnished property. Luckily, the discovery of certain items in the loft, suggesting his late relative was into necromancy - blood magic - will help Josh set the party mood, much to the disgust of Josh's on-off girlfriend, Rowena (Carmen Silva). One of the bedrooms has been set up as a shrine to great uncle's wife, Grace, who died under mysterious circumstances. An ominously locked room is accessed by the foursome, which has strange markings on the walls and rubber sealant, protecting entry to a connecting room. Cassie, who's studied stuff like this at Uni, feels that the shrine is "a classic set up to commune with the dead. I wonder if he made contact?" But when the group decide to access the hidden room, they discover that Grace is more than spiritually present.

Blood Spirit is a pretty daft hour and fifteen minutes, where an awful lot of sitting about and chatting eventually leads to a narrative turning point that descends through layers of silliness involving mirrors, beyond the veil rituals and some very gothy makeup. I couldn't help feeling that the script/story would have been better delivered in an older country house, rather than a two up/two down in the Surrey suburbs. The cast do their best with a script that meanders all over the place and then piles on the mystery without concern that the plot's actually bobbins. Things aren't helped by a very limited soundtrack which, for the most part, comprises the same piano motif played again and again. Don't get me wrong: I love indie filmmaking, I don't doubt that it can be a very challenging business, and defend to the hilt the right of people to pick up a camera and get stuck in. There's no denying that the Blood Spirit team know what they're doing technically; it's what they've shot that's the problem.

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