Friday 23 April 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #2: Reviews of A Little More Flesh II (UK 2021), The Burning Baby (UK 2020), Archive (UK 2020), The Owners (UK 2020), The Curse of Hobbes House (UK 2020) and Cupid (UK 2020)

A Little More Flesh II (UK 2020: Dir Sam Ashurst) Ashurst's last movie, the first A Little More Flesh, comprised a sleazy director's commentary for a fictitious film, 'God's Lonely Woman'. The star of that film (played by Elf Lyons) and co-star are subjected to a series of indignities, leading to a bloody and ignominious end for the man behind the camera.

A Little More Flesh II opens with Ashurst asking Lyons if she'd like to work with him again. "Just...fuck off," she responds. In the second instalment of this rather unusual and at times disturbing franchise Ashurst himself becomes the director both behind and in front of the lens, and he has a new production concept, borne out of pandemic restrictions. He has asked two people, the actor Harley (Harley Dee) and a poet Sean (Sean Mahoney), to separately record ten minutes of improvised footage at home every week and provide a voice over, which he will edit into a feature. Both participants are initially unsure but go along with it for the experience.

Harley's footage, shown to us alongside Sean's, shows her applying makeup, lying in the bath and later praticising yoga on the rooftop of her apartment. Sam confides to Sean that he thinks Harley's videos are thinly disguised come ons, which Sean clearly thinks are the musings of a fantasist; he eventually quits the project because of this. Harley is predictably shocked when Sam makes the same suggestion to her, but her protestations are cut short, as he invokes the small print in her contract. With Sean departed, Sam changes the rules of the game and begins to exploit Harley, filming her in a number of short movies for various unseen clients, and his demands become more and more disturbing.

A Little More Flesh II, its title alone an absurd take on exploitation movies, asks a number of questions of its viewing audience: why are you watching?; why are you continuing to watch when you know that the director is exploiting his cast?; are you any better than the clients paying to watch the acts that Harley is put through (the more excessive pixellated out, possibly unless we pay towards an 'onlyfans' account)? Ashurst placing himself in the centre of this, rather than deflecting the tawdriness onto a third person director character as he did in the first film, is a brave move, and he has no problems convincing us just what an odious person his alter ego is; that Dee and Mahoney co-wrote is rather a relief, and all three should be congratulated for turning a very simple - and cheap - set up into something truly threatening.

A Little More Flesh II is not yet available to stream or buy. Meanwhile in the last part of the film the introduction of Laren Ashley Carter (from Jugface (2013) and 2019's Darlin') signposts her involvement in 'ALMF III' - well good luck to her with that.

The Burning Baby (UK 2020: Dir Paul Kindersley)
 Paul Kindersley's third feature, which may or may not form a cinematic triptych with his previous films Das Spiel der Hoffnung (2016) and The Image (2018), is a sumptuous, surreal fairytale redolent of arthouse productions of the 1980s.

The plot is slender; this is all about the visuals and themes. Somwhere in a magic-realist land (The Burning Baby was filmed on location on the Scottish island of Eilean Shona, where JM Barrie wrote much of 'Peter Pan') an abusive mother (Jenny Runacre) keeps her adult son as a baby (Nick Patrick), aided by her two sadistic 'ugly sister' siblings (Kindersley and performance artist/dancer Kitty Ray Harper Fedorec). The close-knit family's intense world is disrupted when a quintet of free-living woods-folk are invited into their home for baby’s 'second' birthday. The two worlds clash with dramatic results when an alluring stranger upsets the group dynamics, exposing their difficulties in communicating verbally and emotionally, leading to murder and the continuation of a cycle of abuse.

The Burning Baby is filmed almost as a series of tableaux, and much of the dialogue feels improvised. The atmosphere is increasingly intense as the family dynamic is tested by the interference of the seemingly more worldy wise wood folk (apparently the cast and crew lived and worked together for the duration of the shoot), one of whom (Ellie Pole) 'successfully' courts and marries baby, triggering the (Greek) tregedic events that follow. All this would be too strange if not for the superb cinematography of Oscar Oldershaw, who manages to humanise the grotesque and lyrically capture the remote beauty of the Scottish locations. As the production notes suggest, the film 'is a surreal fantasy that investigates our relationship to landscape, identity, family, sexuality and death.' It's an impressive, often jarring work that recalls Derek Jarman as much as Jane Arden. Strange and beautiful, I really liked it. 

The Burning Baby currently remains unreleased. It is hoped to arrange a big screen premiere later in 2021.

Archive (UK 2020: Dir Gavin Rothery)
 In the mid 21st Century, George Almore (Theo James) is a robotics engineer who has invented, among other things, a self driving car. He's one of those hi tech guys who revels in nostalgia; he has a Bang and Olufsen music centre, on which he listens to old records, and a car from around 80 years previously is parked outside. 

Home is a former industrial facility deep in the snowy forests of Japan, where the engineer works on a project to develop increasingly sophisticated and sentient AI. He's in regular contact with his wife Jules (Stacy Martin) via video link; the only odd thing about this is that she died several years previously. In Archive's world, technology allows the dead to live on through up to 200 hours of analogue communication with the deceased, to pass on messages, tie up loose ends etc (an idea given a more supernatural spin in Hayden J. Weal's 2020 movie Dead). 

George's two robots, versions 1 and 2 of the same model, have attained increasing 'human years' intellectual activity. J2 in particular can reason, has dreams and fusses after George, a sort of father figure to them (reminiscent of Bruce Dern looking after the droids in 1972's Silent Rinning).  His experiments are conducted under the watchful eye of his supervisor, Simone (Rhona Mhitra). But George has a secret from the rest of the world; he's hacked in to the secure feed from his dead wife and re-routed it to inhabit a third robot, his most sophisticated model yet, with both the body and mind of Jules.

Archive successfully melds an austere but impressive mis en scene with a very human take on the Frankenstein story; Jules's death is so tragic and unexpected that he is unable to move on, and the development of his robots creates a family around him that are all connected with his late wife. This may be Rothery's first feature - he was creative consultant on Duncan Jones's Moon (2009) - but he gets the balance of style and substance just right. I'm guessing he also saw a few episodes of HBO's Westworld for tips too, and the snowy backdrop (with Hungary standing in for Japan) is very effective.

If the final scenes of the film gave us a surprise ending we maybe didn't need, I'm prepared to overlook that. Archive is controlled, haunting, sad and superbly rendered, with a cool as ice score by Academy Award-winning composer Steven Price. Strongly recommended.

The Owners (UK 2020: Dir Julius Berg)
Based on the 2011 French graphic novel 'Une Nuit de Pleine Lune', which translates as 'Night of the Full Moon' (created by legendary comic artist Hermann Huppen and writer Yves H), Berg's feature debut has three local lads breaking into the house of a country doctor. The trio, Terry (Andrew Ellis), ringleader Gaz (Jake Curran) and Nathan (Ian Kenny), have been tipped off by Terry's mum (who cleans at the doctor's house) that there's a safe in the basement. With Terry's on off girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams) also involved, against her better judgement, the break in reveals little of value and a safe which can't be unlocked. So the group decide to wait for the doctor and his wife to return. Once arrived Richard (Sylvester McCoy) and Ellen Huggins (Rita Tushingham) are tied up and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of their valuables. But when a tussle between the group gets out of hand, with Terry stabbed by Gaz, the young criminals are about to have the tables turned on them.

While home invasion movies are a bit de rigeur these days (Don't Breathe from 2016 and 2018's Breaking In, for example), The Owners provides a neat spin on the set up by having two older middle class characters facing off against the working class burglars; I'm sure I'm not spoiling anything if I mention that McCoy and Tushigham - both excellent, by the way - have more than a few tricks up their sleeve, from the psychological manipulation of the young people to the house modifications that trap their victims. The gore is brief but occasionally shocking; most of the violence here is of the mental variety. The fact that a group of local kids would try to rob someone in their village without being recognised (and despite the stockings over their faces they fail) underlines the stupidity of their plan, and it's fun watching the oldies get the upper hand again and again.

The Curse of Hobbes House (UK 2020: Dir Juliane Block)
 Block's sixth feature kicks off with a bit of made up history (delivered in portentous narrative tones) about the tyrant king Dormant who kills the owner of a house - called Hobbes - and takes over occupancy, only to have the undead hordes rise against him courtesy of Hobbes's witchcraft. We're then quickly plunged into the modern world, and meet Dormant's descendants.

Specifically we're introduced to Jane Dormant (Mhairi Calvey), who's a bit down on her luck, reduced to sleeping on her clapped out car and being fired from her bar job. So when she gets a call telling her that her Aunt Alexandra (Emma Spurgin Hussey) has died, she feels she has nothing to lose when summoned to a will reading at Hobbes House. 

Once there, she meets Syrian groundskeeper Naser (Waleed Elgadi) who immediately arouses suspicion because a) he's the only one who was around when Alexandra died (by shooting herself) and b) he was recently added to Auntie's will as a beneficiary. Also at the reading is Jane's half sister, social media queen Jennifer (Makenna Guyler) and her awful Tory (and therefore bound to be trouble) boyfriend Nigel Thatcher (Kevin Leslie).

Will executor Euridyce Saul (Jo Price) is keen to kick things off, but the reading is interrupted by a flare up between the two half sisters. Before you know it Saul is dead (skewered on a pair of antlers following an accidental fall), but fear not because she's soon back, angry as hell with glowing blue eyes, joining the legions of the undead as they collectively sense a challenge to the house of Hobbes and must kill all the interlopers.

While The Curse of Hobbes House looks very good, is well cast and benefits from some very good perfromances, it's probably best seen as some allegory around class and race (although the handling of the Naser character, who surprise surprise suffers at the hands of Nigel, is rather clumsy) rather than a straightforward horror film, because believe me in this it doesn't succeed. There's a slight fairy tale aspect to the story (there's a big moral payoff at the end) which would probably make it more suitable for a YA audience. Best line: "There was something uncanny about her" says Jane at one point, observing the recently re-animated will executor; oh and the movie scores extra points where the half sisters escape on a tandem, laughing. Bizarre and silly.

Cupid (UK 2020: Dir Scott Jeffrey)
 The creative triumvirate (and yes I know that two of them aren't men) of Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews/Hirani and Louisa Warren have been responsible for some rather bold UK filmmaking projects over the past few years. Many of their movies revolve around curses or an ancient revenge, and Cupid is no exception.

Technically this movie was made in 2020 (and released in the USA that year) but has only had a physical UK release this year. Like The Curse of Hobbes House this starts with a bit of history, but unlike that film this tells the story of Cupid, son of Venus and Mars, and his relationship with Psyche. But the spin on the story is that there was no happy ending, Cupid died, killed by a poison arrow primed by mum, descended to hell thereafter to be summoned by those affected by abuses of love.

With that out of the way, we're in modern day UK leading up to Valentine's Day; well, a version of the UK full of people with fake American accents (about 70% of which are successful, but I still don't know why filmmakers do this). We get an immediate taste of how Cupid, now a kind of winged demon, doles out his punishment. A distressed woman confesses to her father that she summoned Cupid because of the way he treated her mother. The creature arrives, plucks out dad's heart and impales his daughter on an arrow.

At the local high school, it's a hotbed of jealousy and rivalry, principally between two students; goth lite Faye (Georgina Jane) and uber bitch Elise (the always dependable Sarah T. Cohen here at her Mean Girls best). Mr Jones (Michael Owusu) is the lucky teacher who gets to deal with the girls; unfortunately Faye has a crush on him. Elise exploits this, nicking Mr J's phone and sending fake texts to Faye inviting her to meet him and asking for some suggestive photos, a request which she obliges.

Thinking that Mr Jones is sweet on her, a fake meet up is organised, and when Faye turns up to see him after school, kissing him in the mistaken belief that he's been sending the messages, both realise what has happened; and Elise is there to film the whole thing and show it to the class. Faye, incensed, goes home and opens her book of spells (seems she has some Wiccan in her) at the page that contains the summoning spell for Cupid. Asked what she wants Cupid to do about the school and anyone in it, she replies "I want it destroyed."

Sadly the budget doesn't allow for the scenes of catastrophe that the above setup suggests, and the mayhem is restricted to a few stray arrows in the face and infected limbs as a result of the poison. The 'Cupid' creature is actually quite effective with his emaciated look and empty eye sockets, and the shots of him descending from the heavens rather eerie. Look, this won't be to everyone's tastes, but I like what Jeffrey does with the subject matter, and he gets some good performances from his cast, especially Cohen, who improves with each role.

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