Saturday 8 May 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #3: Reviews of Rise of the Mummy (UK 2021), 'Twas the Devil (UK 2021), The Lockdown Hauntings (UK 2021), Bram Stoker's Van Helsing (UK 2021), Paintball Massacre (UK 2020) and School's Out Forever (UK 2021)

Rise of the Mummy (UK 2021: Dir Antonia Johnstone) Opening with a scene which suggests it's a rehash of the end of an earlier film featuring the same bandaged creation (2019's The Mummy Reborn by Dan Allen - except it isn't), three people execute a plan to break a timeloop spell and lay a mummy to rest, using only a bag of aquatic gravel, a human heart and an ancient book. The murderous mummy who interrupts their session, and who looks like a swaddled burn victim trapped in a football goalnet, manages to take out one of the three. But as the spell is completed and the creature becomes inanimate, a guy from the army arrives to recover the sleeping mummy himself.

For reasons best known to the powers that be, the army guy chooses to deliver the creature to a local university (actually just a school but you take what you can get when you've not got much budget). Student Holly (Abi Casson Thompson Cupid, The Candy Witch) is worried about the mental state of her bi-polar brother, who will later take his own life. University professor Martha Dawson (Amanda-Jade Tyler Medusa: Queen of Serpents, Witches of Amityville Academy) gives her a sneak peek of the mummy; Holly notices the book of spells kept with it.

Holly's flatmate/boyfriend/fellow student Mark (Arthur Boan), one of a number of the cast required to adopt an American accent - a bit of a thing if you haven't seen any low budget Brit horror movies before - is a comfort when she gets the news about her brother, as is best friend and woman with impressive eyebrows Kira (Mya Brown Vengeance of the Leprechaun); she handles her grief by throwing herself back into her studies. Miss Dawson feels that the class's ability to get up close and personal with a mummy will be the step up they need to be fully fledged archeologists and land plum research jobs. Her question to the students, "Who can tell me what a mummy is?", followed by total silence from the class suggests that her aspirations are a little optimistic. 

Holly works out from the book that the mummy is actually one of the fabled 'hidden kings' and that the words in the tome are, according to Dawson, "a dark magic summoning". For anyone who's ever seen a mummy film, they'll know the danger of reading from the book; the words activate the resurrection spell, and the mummy is back; it's also on the search for an amulet which will help it complete the final phase of its ghastly plan. The mummy manages to bring back to life those which it has killed - all kohl eyes and crackly face makeup - to do its bidding. It also creates a kind of timeloop around it, trapping all those left alive within the school; looks like only Holly can save the day.

There's a lot going on in Rise of the Mummy, and between Miss Dawson and plucky vlogger George (the irrepressible Shawn C. Phillips) you also get to learn quite a lot about mummy lore. Quite how that helps the audience to believe, or take seriously, one jot of the movie is questionable. But you know I think that Johnstone and writer/producer (the uber prolific) Scott Jeffrey don't mind too much if you watch the thing with a wry smirk. The cast appear to be having quite a lot of fun making this (and some mask wearing scenes indicate that it was finished in lockdown; well done for persistence) and while it's daft as a brush, it's not terrible. I like the fact that this cottage industry of filmmakers have a stock cast that are regularly re-used, much as other indie filmmakers have done before, and that everyone is prepared to throw themselves into the piece. Stupid but fun.

'Twas the Devil (UK 2021: Dir Mark Garvey) Verily, confuseth be ye not with this film's slender running time on YeTube, for 'tis an interactive movie, where ye must choices make for the progression of the story, and its layers may only be found when doth you dwell inside.

Ok that's enough of that. There's a very A Field in England feel to this complex feature written and directed by Garvey; why it even has its own 'black sun' moment. A man, Zachary Makepiece (Simon Cleary) is carrying the body of his dead wife Agnes, lying in a makeshift coffin, back to her final resting place of Thaxted. He is bothered by flashbacks to her watery death; Agnes was tried as a witch and drowned, and Zachary was swept up in the zealousness of her conviction. He now wishes to give her Christian burial, and is plagued with remorse.

On the road he meets Mary (Rachel Cuthill), a scarred but not diseased woman, looking for a cure for her facial disfigurement. Here Zachary is faced with the first of a number of choices that he - and the viewer - must make as to Zachary's next actions.

Dependent on the viewer's narrative decisions, Zachary meets a variety of characters on his journey. It's like a middle England version of Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and you know that for every choice you make, there's another character that's going to go undiscovered (I did make a start to map the choices, but while they're not infinite there are a lot of options). While the narrative is driven by the various options, Zachary is by no means a passive character in the story, and his choices impact on others as his journey progresses. Pleasingly the end of the movie is different depending on what decisions are made, which invites you to rewatch, travelling down different narrative paths. 'Twas the Devil really is a very intruiging piece, and the soundtrack, performed by 'Tasha Fights Tigers' aka Bill Hooper, full of scratchy violins and quirky arrangements, fits perfectly. I loved this, and when I get the time I'm going in for more.

You can watch 'Twas the Devil on YouTube here, and the 'Tasha Fights Tigers' Bandcamp page is here.

The Lockdown Hauntings (UK 2021: Dir Howard J. Ford)
There have been a number of lockdown inspired movies covered in the NWotBFF thread over the last 12 months, but perhaps none with the directorial pedigree of Howard J. Ford, whose two The Dead films, from 2010 and 2013 respectively, were excellent entries in the often rather tired zombie genre.

If you thought that the time of the year when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest was All Hallow's Eve, well Ford wants you to think differently. In his pandemic-with-spooks outing, the empty - and quiet - streets of the UK have made them a perfect breeding ground for spirits to return (I think he may have this confused with certain breeds of wildlife, but anyway).

Detective George Parker (Angela Dixon) is asked by her boss, Detective Alex Briggs (Justin Hayward - no not that one) to look into the unusual murder of a young woman where there were no signs of forced entry into her flat. The viewer has already seen the reason for this; a shadowy, mask wearing semi-visible assailant who presumably doesn't need things like doors for access and egress purposes.

After a succession of young women - all with blonde hair - have also been despatched in sinister circumstances, Parker's investigations lead her, after all other conclusions fail, towards Jordan Myers, paranormal expert (Tony Todd). Yes it seems that our killer has reached out from beyond the grave, a serial murderer who took his own life on the first day of lockdown, but has the ability to continue his reign of terror via spectral agency.

The more than vaguely distasteful storyline ("he has a penchant for blondes" is the conclusion as the bodies stack up) of a serial killer offing a number of beautiful young women in their own homes is given a backdrop that will surely be useful to the teachers of tomorrow trying to give their students a flavour of what's been happening in the last twelve months. Ford wants you to play pandemic bingo by ticking off the various Covid cliches: people drinking too much; tensions at supermarkets; the challenges of working from home; the need for daily walks; face masks; patronising Government advice; people spitting into others' faces as a threat; furloughed employees; home delivery parcels; the politics of self isolation; and the impact of separation and the inability to see loved ones in hospital. Did I miss anything?

Ford's way with a camera, and the ability to make his films look much more opulent than their budget, is both this movie's blessing and curse. The cinematography and editing are both excellent, lulling you into a false expectation that you're actually watching something worthwhile, but once you stand back from what's on screen The Lockdown Hauntings appears as a silly, nasty film where the limits of its production (Ford did pretty much everything except act in this) serve as the mother of confusion rather than invention.

Bram Stoker's Van Helsing (UK 2021: Dir Steve Lawson)
  Lawson's last feature, The Haunting of Alcatraz, saw a return to form of sorts after a couple of weaker movies in partnership with Jonathan Sothcott. His latest makes the assumption - probably correctly - that most people coming to this will have more than a passing familiarity with Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula' and the characters that populate it.

Bram Stoker's Van Helsing (don't confuse it with Stephen Sommers' 2004 CGI fest of sort of the same name) tells its story from the perspective of four of the book's central figures: John Seward (Joe Street); Arthur Holmwood (Tom Hendryk); Van Helsing (Mark Topping) and Lucy Westenra (Charlie Bond).

The first part of the film is an interesting take on a small aspect of the book: Lucy's gradual descent into vampirism courtesy of Count Dracula (interestingly the Count is never fully seen and only referred to in passing) and the rivalry for her affections between Seward (who she's thrown over) and Holmwood (who she's due to marry). 

Van Helsing's role is as much counsellor as vampire hunter; hired to provide a second opinion on the health of Lucy (as the film begins the Count's nocturnal visits to her bedroom have already commenced) he senses the rivalry and the class divide between the two men. At one point Seward refers to "Arthur's family home...well, one of them," and Van Helsing somewhat cynically observes that Lucy has chosen Arthur over John because it will allow her to be Lady Godalming one day. 

Lucy's eventual transformation into full on vampirism - she decends on a foggy London to prey on prostitutes, aided by an in thrall Arthur, her reign of terror being mistaken for a continuation of Jack the Ripper's -  provides perhaps more of what you'd expect from a film like this, but I found this film of two halves much more interesting than I was expecting. True, you'll have to get used to a very slow pace, and some of the music - from Will Van der Crommert's intrusively urgent score to the rather drippy end credits Eurovision track - can be a little awkward. 

But overall this is a rather clever selective reworking of an old classic with some great period detail and an atmospheric location (Pipewell Hall in Northamptonshire); it's a shame the film wasn't titled 'Lucy' because that character is truly at the centre of things (as opposed to being just one of the cast of the Stoker original). As Lucy, Bond is arguably more convincing as vampire than ingénue, but she manages the transition well; the anchor of the piece is Topping as Van Helsing, his slight Dutch accent hinting at the 'other' in his character, focusing on his human cast rather than the 'missing' vampire, and recalling Edward Van Sloan in the same role in Browning's 1931 version of the novel/play. 

Paintball Massacre (UK 2020: Dir Darren Berry)
It's reunion time for the former students of Mass Acre (geddit?) High School. Shy psychiatric nurse Jessica Bentley (Cheryl Burinston) who hated school and is trying to conquer alcohol addiction, has arranged to meet up with former school chum, now fiance Simon. When Simon's a no show, Jessica must grin and bear a meet up with schoolfriends Sara (Aoife Smyth), who has discovered religion, and loud as you like Lauren (a spirited performance from Natasha Killip). They join the boys, who include Tommy (Lockhart Ogilvie), now as lifeguard (who, the girls cruelly observe, managed to turn a summer job into a career), Nathan (Lee Latchford-Evans), a former fire fighter who left the service because it was too intense, and Aiden (Joe Hallett) who, in a surprise move, becomes an opthalmologist, even though he doesn't seem to be able to pronounce it. Their professions will be important later.

Jessica, clearly a fish out of water in this laddish setup (guess who's going to be the final girl then?) is mortified to find that the morning afterwards, they've all been roped in to play paintball, and Simon has elected her to replace him. But while all goes well for a while, the team they're playing against, The Infidels, seem to vanish in the woods.The Mass Acres eventually find them, brutally slain along with the paintball organisers (including a cameo from comedienne Katy Brand). Left to their own devices, they quickly realise that the deaths are the work of a lone killer, and paint is the last thing in his gun.

A few years ago something like this would have featured Danny Dyer, the cast being full of 'authentic' characters whose f-bomb banter quickly tires. The comedy is more in the setup than the script, although the deaths are inventive - the shtick being that the killer despatches them with a method sympathetic to their occupation, so Aiden gets his eyes gouged out etc etc. (one unlucky guy is impaled with a 'For Sale' sign; now that's a first). 

Apart from Brand, Nicholas (Hellraiser) Vince turns up as the barman who thinks that reunions are a bad idea and tells a rambling story which falls a little flat, and of course you'll recognise Latchford-Evans as a former member of 'Steps', now serious actor. The paintball theme had already been addressed in the 2009 Spanish film, er, Paintball, so this is nothing new; it's intermittently humorous but the endless wandering around in the woods feels padded and the extended final reel explanation long winded and anti-climactic.

School's Out Forever (UK 2021: Dir Oliver Milburn) 
Based on a number of interconnected books and stories, collected as the ‘Afterbright Chronicles’ (written by Scott K. Andrews and published by Rebellion, the company that also produced this movie), School’s Out Forever takes us to St Mark’s School for Boys, where we meet Lee Keegan (Oscar Kennedy).

He’s that rare thing, a scholarship student in a posh school, who’s about to be expelled by the Headmaster (Anthony Head, blink and you’ll miss him) for being a bit lippy and anti-establishment. Driven home by his dad (the great Steve Oram, also in a cameo performance), Lee sees the signs of an imminent epidemic on the streets, with bulk buying in shops and at petrol stations.

Once home, things quickly go from bad to worse; a phone call from his mum, who’s away in the army, warns that there has indeed been a viral outbreak, and that only people with an O Negative blood group – like Lee – can survive. With his dad a victim – and buried in the garden – and the neighbourhood about to be looted, the lad’s only alternative is to return to the school for protection. Hooking up with his best mate, the resolutely middle class Sean (Liam Lau Frenandez), the school matron (Jasmine Blackborow) and one of the ineffectual teachers (Alex MacQueen), Lee, the adults and what remains of the kids must defend the school against the villagers of Worham, headed by the redoubtable Georgina (Samantha Bond), who are seeking to impose martial law.

The twin themes of Brexit and the pandemic initially loom large in the movie; “Are we closing the borders?” a politician is asked on the radio, and the signs at the petrol station and school reception knowingly and amusingly read ‘all out’ and ‘back soon.’

But any topicality is swiftly jettisoned as the action moves to the school and the collective attempts to defend it from the twinset and pitchfork village throng. As Lee, Kennedy turns in a rather confusing performance, initially ignoring the warning signs of apocalypse, Shaun of the Dead style (a dead body in front of his house, for example), before returning to school and becoming an unwitting hero; I’m guessing the creatives behind this may have seen Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film about warring public schoolboys, If…. a couple of times. The movie redeems itself with a rousing last half hour in which battle is waged within the school; brilliantly edited, brutal and bloody, these sequences almost make up for a plodding middle section.

I haven’t read the books on which the movie is based; I understand that they’re pretty popular with YA readership, who’ll probably get a lot out of this movie, but for me there were too many loose ends and confusing elements to make this any more than a mildly diverting if overlong watch.

This review originally appeared on 

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