Wednesday 7 April 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #15: Reviews of Scopophobia (UK 2020), Zoom (UK 2020), Bite Night (UK 2020), Russian Submarine (UK 2020), Eve (UK 2019) and Dune Drifter (UK 2020)

Scopophobia (UK 2020: Dir Ben Smith) Scopophobia is, apparently, defined as an excessive fear of being stared at. Clocking in at getting on for two hours, this viewer spent an awful lot of time staring at the screen waiting for something to happen. For Scopophobia is nothing if not a langorous watch.

A group of school age filmmakers are preparing to make a feature film, working title 'Among the Woods', in a nearby forest area. One of their number, Nick, goes missing; meanwhile one of the others, Inaam (Inaam Barwani) receives a mysterious package containing warning notes. As filming progresses, a mysterious knife wielding figure is seen in the woods, wearing a mask. Inaam begins to lose track of time, and some of the cast/crew (it's a small production) end up waking up in the open air. They realise that the film's script itself might be cursed, and causing the events affecting them; but the truth is even stranger than that.

Scopophobia as a project has ambitions way beyond the skills of those behind and in front of the camera, and its arse numbing length does it no favours. But underneath the zero budget look of the thing, and the variable acting skills on display, it's clear that some work has gone into the story, and there are elements within the film - the time shift scenes, the coded messages received, and the meta film-within-a film moments etc - that are genuinely intriuging. Unfortunately there's a lack of clarity in the storytelling, particularly towards the end, when the film attempts to draw its loose ends together: shorter and punchier would definitely have been better. Smith is clearly still learning his art, and there's just enough here to suggest that some attention should be paid to his next feature.

You can watch Scopophobia here.

Zoom aka Catering (UK 2020: Dir Matthew Landford)
This 36 minute short starts with a Zoom conversation between three friends, Miles (Alex Brook), Roddy (Samuel Grant) and Sigmund (Harvey Smith). They're bored and have used up all their usual diversions like role play and card games. Randomly searching they come across a Twitter account belonging to 'joel8946'. They decide to access his account and, before long, they're thrown into a nightmare, where their new host warns them that they shouldn't have joined and rejoins the call even after being kicked out.

First to be threatened is Roddy's little brother, who Roddy thinks is safe downstairs. But is he? Next the omnipresent host forces his callers to admit a series of misdemeanours, the very least of which is Sigmund's confession that he once ate Roddy's goldfish. Failure to disclose their secrets will result in them being removed.

While Zoom undoubtedly borrows from Rob Savage's game changing Host (the "how did you get onto the call?" question and the subsonic rumbling announcing the presence of the sinister Joel), Brook, Grant and Smith are very convincing as three wisecracking friends whose camaraderie very swiftly breaks down in the face of a mysterious threat. Landford has made a number of short films which will be covered in this strand, and can be watched on YouTube. Recommended.

You can watch Zoom here

Bite Night (UK 2020: Dir Maria Lee Metheringham) There are a lot of indepedent horror films made these days whose creators talk about trying to capture a 1980s vibe. Very often (and often poorly) this is realised by a brooding synth score and a broadly colourful lighting design. Metheringham's follow up to 2018's Pumpkins doesn't aim for such a feel in its design but Bite Night conjours up memories of numerous daft 'kids-mixing-with succubii' movies of that decade in its execution.

At a nightclub a three woman band play to an enthusiastic audience; they are Zuzanna (Metheringham), Katarina (Martha Niklas) and Valice (Rachel Brownstein). Tonight, courtesy of a number of tickets randomly inserted into balloons, six lucky fans will be given the chance to accompany the girls back to their house for an exclusive after party.

The six, who include preppy Ebeneizer (George Walker) and feisty Tash (Marcella Edgecombe-Craig), get ferried by limo to the cottage, aka the 'House of Valice', where they're invited to freshen up in their allocated rooms. There's an increasingly predatory sense that the girls have something in mind for their guests apart from wall to wall partying; Valice takes a shine to Tash and seduces her, while punky Axel (Ryan Jay-James) finds one of Katarina's dresses and puts it on. Later, everyone meets in the dining room, and the girls announce their culinary inclinations by serving up a severed head and dipping a stick of celery into the blood. But just as the three girls turn all vampy/cannibal-y, there's another more terrifying figure who starts to take over the guests. Who will survive?

I use the word 'scrappy' quite a lot to describe a form of filmmaking which is rough round the edges, well intentioned but slimly budgeted; and Bite Night ticks all three of these boxes. The movie feels like it might at any point get a lot more raunchy than it does, but the cast are all good value and, considering that not much happens, things move at a fair clip. Of particular note are the songs performed by the girls (sung by the three actresses) written by 'Great Northern Hotel' and the film's incidental score by Leigh 'Scratch' Fenlon and Jerry de Borg, and some enthusiastic performances by Edgecombe-Craig and Brownstein, who have fun with the frequently camp dialogue. Bite Night's story is 'to be continued...' according to the end credits. Well ok then.

Russian Submarine (UK 2020: Dir Tommi Sorsa) This 50 minute featurette, shot in Bournemouth, opens with a Biblical quote. There isn't a reason for this and it's no more illuminating than the rest of the film.

What I think is happening is that, in a 2009 prologue, a group of young men (and one woman) hold a drinking party in a house (the name of which - the game not the house - is 'Russian Submarine', hence the title) and all die of alcohol poisoning.

Moving to the present day, a young couple rent the house, only to be haunted by the ghost of the last member standing from the original group. To deal with the unwanted supernatural visitation they bring in a team of ghostbusters, complete with resident psychic, who quickly realise that to engage with the spirits at a meaningful level they too have to play the 'Russian Submarine' game. Oh and as well as the ghost there's also an evil jester/clown character called Cletus, a figure whose spiritual ancestry may date from the medieval period of history.

I would recommend that Russian Submarine is best watched with the viewer imbibing the same amout of alcohol as the cast; you won't understand it any better but it may feel like it's over quicker. This is a film that chooses to include outtake scenes both during the movie and after it. The cast all inexplicably have American accents (and to be fair some of these are well rendered) which sits rather oddly in the setting of a Bournemouth semi. Scenes are repeated endlessly and if there's a point to this it was totally lost on me. Look I'm sure this was a lot of fun to make - many of the cast look like they're on the verge of 'corpsing' most of the time - but it sure isn't to sit through, unless you're an 'in-on-the-joke' student presumably.

You can watch Russian Submarine here

Eve (UK 2019: Dir Rory Kindersley) This glossy, psychological thriller aims for Nicolas Winding Refn or maybe Daren Aronofsky in its intensity, but sadly falls short through a combination of unlikeable characters and opaque plotting.

Alex Beyer (American Christine Marzano sporting a pretty good Brit accent) is an actor no longer getting the parts she wants, after being out of the business for over a year (her mental health is clearly not great). Turned down for the role of 'Eve' in a film version of a play in which she was the lead, her day gets worse when, returning to her swish London mews house with photographer boyfriend Liam (Andrew Lee Potts) which he's let out in their absence, she discovers that someone has daubed blood all over the walls. The police suspect it might be a jealous fan (the pair don't exactly fall over themselves to find out).

Alex continues to obsess both about the loss of the role and the identity of the home defacer (CCTV footage shows a woman standing outside their front door; a possible suspect?). Meanwhile her agent despairs at what to do with her, and gets the opportunity to drop her from the books when Alex assaults the actor who got the 'Eve' part when they bump into each other at an audition.Alex's downward spiral continues apace, to the point where she's not only a danger to herself, but maybe to others as well.

Eve is one of those movies where everybody is horrible, so it's difficult to care less about any of the characters; probably the most sympathetic is Liam, but even he may be having an affair with a client. I'm getting a bit sick of 'crazy lady' scenarios, where the instability of the lead means that the audience can't trust whether what they're seeing is fantasy or reality. Kindersley's movie looks good, but it's empty as hell and ultimately inconsequential; all dressed up with nowhere to go, in fact.

Dune Drifter (UK 2020: Dir Marc Price) Price has come a a long way since his £45 budgeted 2003 feature debut, the intimate zombie in the suburbs movie Colin. But maybe not thematically, as his latest, a low budget sci fi drama, quickly focuses its story on a lone survivor of battle who has to face hazardous alien elements.

Adler (Phoebe Sparrow) is the gunner in a small two person spaceship, part of the Dune squadron, who enter an intergalactic fracas with a race called the Drekks on instructions to do little more than make up the numbers. But the opposition have the upper hand: ill-equipped for battle, one by one the squadron craft are picked off, with Adler and her ship's pilot Yaren (Daisy Aitkens) crash landing on an alien planet. Left on her own after Yaren dies from injuries sustained during the crash, and with the remainder of her fleet having abandoned her, assuming that she has perished, Adler's outlook, and indeed her life support duration, seem critical. But worse is to come; there's another crashed ship on the planet containing some armed Drekks, who stand between her and any hope of returning to earth.

Filmed in the inhospitable volcanic wastes of Iceland, Dune Drifter certainly manages to be bleak. Its stripped down story, with no character detail or extraneous plot information, gives us half an hour of not particularly convincing space battle, then dumps its human survivor in the middle of nowhere and throws things at her. There's some wry humour at work here - some gaseous attacking rocks seem to have strolled in from an episode of Star Trek and one of Adler's many adversities is a stray lock of hair in her eyes (which, being inside a pressurised helmet, she can do nothing about). This is a brave hour and a half and Dune Drifter remains watchable largely for Sparrow's convincing performance as the soldier who just wants to get home. It doesn't hold a candle to bigger budgeted space sagas (and will doubtless be criticised as a result of that unfair comparsion) but Dune Drifter is a watchable and at times tense sci fi flick.

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