Thursday 25 March 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 # 1: Reviews of Bats: The Awakening (UK 2021), The Heiress (UK 2021), Righteous Villains (UK 2020) and The Banishing (UK 2020)

Bats: The Awakening (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews) Jeffrey's first film for 2021 (I'm sure there will be more, he directed three last year and produced six more) with his stablemate Matthews (aka Becca Hirani) under their Proportion Productions banner.

Three Americans (ok Brits with US accents, two blokes and a girl) break into an English country cottage; a decade previously the area was subject to nuclear contamination and mass evacuation. They've come to party, which involves them taking turns in bedding the clearly virginal girl ("it wasn't as bad as I thought," she says). In the grand tradition of characters in horror films being punished for sexual transgressions, two are killed by a strange man bat who lives in the attic; the other guy is bitten to death by more conventional versions of our leathery-winged friends.

Three weeks later Jamie King (Megan Purvis) is grieving the death of her fiancee Matty (Mat Sibal; fun fact, he was elevated to DoP after the first one walked off the shoot half way through). She's both afraid to move on with her life, and also wants to treasure his memory. Her mum Lisa (Amanda-Jade Tyler) and sister Amelia (Georgia Conlan) are concerned for her welfare, as is Jamie's grandmother Georgie (Kate Sandison), who needs to go back to her 'ranch' in Nosferatu Village (I kid you not), the same house in which the kids in the prologue broke in. But no sooner have they returned, to an area where the radiation warning signs still stand, than the strange man bat stalks the family, maiming and infecting Georgie and closing in on the rest of the family.

Shot in six days on a very small budget, Jeffrey and Matthews' film really is a game of two halves; the first is a rather soapy bit of exposition as the relationship between the characters is a little shakily explained; but the second half, where the family come under siege, is actually pretty tense. The fact that shooting wrapped the day before the first lockdown, meaning that all editing had to be done without reshoots, means that the story is at times a little confusing. 

But there's a lot to like about Bats: the Awakening. The man bat creation is, for the most part, a rather scary creation (although the less you see the more effective it is). There are some great practical effects here, sparingly used (a head peeling, the result of the creature's cry, is very effective). Also Greg Birkumshaw's score is very good, although I'm not sure it's as 80s sounding as the directors would have liked (Jeffrey and Matthews had mentioned that they were trying for an 80s vibe in the movie, but I couldn't really see it) - it's murkier, more like 70s BBC Radiophonic Workshop with hints of classic Italian horror scores, but offsets the darker moments very well indeed.

Bats: the Awakening will be released by ITN Distribution later in 2021

The Heiress (UK 2021: Dir Chris Bell) Claire and Anna Tate (Candis Nergaard and Jayne Wisener) are sisters who enjoy a close bond: when we first meet them they’re at a wake following the funeral of their grandmother, Abigail. It is immediately apparent that Anna is the stronger of the two; Claire, who is epileptic and heavily medicated, reads a poem to the guests and is then forced to rest. She has a troubling vision of a burning building.

The sisters’ parents are keen to clear Abigail’s house as soon as possible. When Claire and Anna visit, Anna finds an old book on witchcraft, which contains a story about a woman who does a deal with a witch to be rid of her terrible husband, with the soul of her daughter being forfeit in return, and the promise delivered via a fire which consumes both the husband and the woman’s two sons. Following the funeral Claire’s health deteriorates, and she has fleeting glimpses of an old woman and a child. Anna’s decision to cheer her sister up, by double dating on an evening out with Anna’s boyfriend Dan (David Wayman) and Dan’s boorish mate Brad (director Chris Bell) is an unwise one, and comes to an abrupt end back home when Brad also has a vision of a young boy wearing a mask.

Claire becomes convinced that the story she read might be true and that a curse has been visited on the family; pretty much everybody else, Anna and her sister’s doctor included, believe that the problems entirely exist in Claire’s mind. The only person who believes Claire is local priest, Father O’Shea (David Schaal), who has knowledge of Abigail’s dark history.

Chris Bell’s latest feature couldn’t be more different to his last, 2015’s Hooligans at War: North and South, the only thing in common being the Essex and Kent locations. Bell here offers a much more subtle piece concentrating principally on the tortured Claire (a superb performance from Negaard). The only ‘war’ here is between science and faith; for most of the film, the viewer is in doubt as to whether Claire’s visions are a product of her own illness or the manifestation of something external and deadly.

The Heiress is, for most of its running time, a character piece looking at the impact of grief and its effects both on those directly affected and the people who live with those facing loss. As such it’s a subtle film and all the better for it. The slow, creeping dread of the family’s growing realisation that Claire’s torment is supernatural rather than medical takes place among the prosaic locations of suburban sitting rooms and hospital wards, which makes The Heiress all the more scary. 

The Heiress is released on VOD from 15 March 2021

Righteous Villains (UK 2020: Dir Savvas D. Michael) 'The Anti Woke Backlash' proclaims the trailer for Michael's latest guns 'n' er more guns outing, which he wrote, directed and released via his 'Saints and Savages' distribution company (previously 'Macho Movies Ltd'). Michael's shtick is British gangster features, shot on the mean streets of London, and to some extent Righteous Villains is no different to his previous flicks (2016's Smoking GunsRed Devil from 2019 and his companion piece to this one, Original Gangster, also made in 2020) although here the effing, jeffing and gunplay are mixed with some satanic elements.

Jeremiah (Jamie Crew, in a performance of vowel - and consonant - mangling intensity) is a scam artisit, diddling little old ladies out of their belongings. At the place where he fences his booty, he's given a tipoff to meet a mystical guy in a car breakers yard. At the rendezvous he also encounters kick-ass Jolie (Lois Brabin-Platt), former prostitute, later happy publican's wife, now driven crazy following the shooting of her husband Mickey (a cameo from Gray Dourdan, yes, Warrick off of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and loss of her unborn child.

Jeremiah and Jolie are offered a cool £1 million if they will journey to a distant island and retrieve a child, captured by a group called the New World Order, headed by a reincarnation of Satan in the body of a child molester, whose numbers include members of the Royal family. There's also some nonsense about a bunch of guardian angels called 'The Essence' from whom Jolie may be descended. Oh and did I mention that Steven Berkoff puts in an appearance, biting off large chunks of the scenery as he goes?

To get to the island they must be transported by a ferryman who can only take them if they're wearing masks (geddit?). Once there they must deal with the New World Order, whose court holds sway, doling out punishments to people for crimes of sexism and telling racist jokes; they also have to face the devil incarnate.

This inept film at least has a promising opening twenty minutes as Jolie and Jeremiah's stories intersect (poor old Crew gets some bewilderingly complicated lines with which the actor's mouth can barely keep up), but once on the island any semblance of tension (and logic) gets lost amid a mess of confused exposition, random nakedness and shouting. 

Full disclosure; this is the first of Michael's films that I've seen, and I wouldn't have reviewed this were it not for the 'Fantastic' elements. It's pretty hard to know who the audience for this would be apart from pissed blokes who like to see guns waved around and people saying "fuck" a lot. Oh and look out everybody: Michael has signed up Nicolas Cage and everyone's favourite liberal Jon Voight to star in his next outing, Heroes & Villains. Where does he come up with these titles?

Righteous Villains releases on Digital Download from 19 April 2021

The Banishing (UK 2021: Dir Chris Smith) This is the first time  Smith has returned to the fright genre since the enjoyable outward bound horror comedy Severance back in 2006. The Banishing is a more sober, and indeed sombre prospect altogether.

Set in a period in England just before the outbreak of WWII, and where the spectre of national socialism is rising in Europe, three years after a bizarre murder/suicide involving the previous occupants at Borley Rectory, Reverend Stanley Hall and his wife Beatrice, new incumbents arrive, in the shape of  former missionary Linus (John Heffernan), his new wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and their daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce). Marianne is the archetypal 'fallen woman' who Linus has married, making her respectable; Adelaide's parentage is questionable, particularly as Linus seems more at home with his prayer books than in bed with his wife.

The Rectory is far too large for the family and their small retinue of servants; most of it is closed off, a fact which Marianne feels is slightly obscene in that other parts of the country are in deprivation. Wandering around the house, Adelaide finds an eyeless doll which she names Veronica and accommodates in a dolls house style facsimile of the Rectory, complete with three small brown robed figures.

In town Linus meets an odd character by the name of Harry Price (a ripe turn from Sean Harris) who warns the new vicar of the history of the Rectory and its latent power; supposedly built on the site of a monastery whose monks had some rather particular worshipping practices. In turn a higher priest, Malachi (John Lynch) warns Linus of Price's mental instability, but the audience knows that Malachi was involved in the aftermatch of Stanley and Beatrice's deaths. Gradually all three members of the family start to lose their wits, as the marital tensions between Linus and Marianne escalate. Was Price right about the house all along?

If the names 'Harry Price' and 'Marianne' ring a bell, it's because they were both pivotal in the history of Borley Rectory, a real (now demolished) house which was, reputedly, 'the most haunted house in England.' It's a story that has recently captured the imaginations of several independent filmmakers, and with various degrees of success, from prolific Welsh director Andrew Jones' 2015 outing A Haunting at the Rectory, to Ashley Thorpe's dreamy Borley Rectory (2017) and the underwhelming The Haunting of Borley Rectory by Steven M. Smith in 2019. Chris Smith's take on the story is the most sumptuous of all of them, and there's clearly some budget behind his latest feature. Cast wise he's been able to secure some real talent, from Harris' over the top, twitchy performance as Price to Heffernan's vulnerable Linus and Jessica Brown Findlay's indefatigable Marianne. 

Smith isn't beyond some genre hallmark scares; mirrors that don't behave themselves; eerie dolls; and an atmospheric soundscape which effectively evokes the isolation and age of the Rectory. He also deploys at least one scene which, if not exactly frightening, is at least very alarming. The supernatural activity in The Banshing is kept to a minimum; this is mainly a study of vulnerable people under the influence of an evil haunted house with the power to manipulate thought (and recalling both Hill House from 1963's The Haunting and The Overlook Hotel from Kubrick's 1980 The Shining). There may not be much new here, but the director certainly achieves a lot from a fairly simple premise, even if the last scene came across as far less portentous than he had maybe desired.

The Banishing will be released on digital platforms from 26 March 2021 and will stream on Shudder beginning 15 April.

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