Saturday 5 June 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #17: Reviews of The Last Bite (UK 2020), Kindred (UK 2020), Amulet (UK 2020), Clownface (UK 2020), G-Loc (UK 2020) and District Nurse (UK 2020)

The Last Bite (UK 2020: Dir Sebastino Pupino) Filmmaker Pupino's first 70 minute feature takes us into the world of artist Carlos (Carlos Carvalho) who not only feels creatively hemmed in (he's dealing with a self obsessed producer who's too busy taking phone calls to listen to Carlos's ideas) but disappointed by the distance he feels from everyone, including his best friend who just stares into his phone when they meet for coffee. Carlos has dreams of paralysis, of feeling like he's dead; we see him sitting in a restaurant alone eating (a scene that in its banal length rivals - and exceeds - the Rooney Mara pie eating scene from 2017's A Ghost Story). 

Romance seems to be off the cards for the lonely artist ("I'll be alone, I'll die alone, and it will be just like before I was born" he concludes) as witnessed by an awkward scene between Carlos and a woman, where he confesses to being obsessed with 'The Porcupine Principle' (a theory about the challenges of human intimacy) and his date pulls away when there's 'something' throbbing on his neck. But his later meeting with the ethereal but friendly Veronica (Laura Jean Marsh) is a turning point. Veronica not only listens to but understands his dilemma; and she has the metaphysical answers to his feelings of isolation.

The Last Bite is an abstract film which is light on narrative but heavy on the symbolism. Don't watch this if you're expecting a movie with a beginning, middle and end (although I was suprised that the denouement does offer some explanation). Many of the images in the film are manipulated to reflect the artist's refraction of personality, and various seemingly random characters offer facets of Carlos's personality. The soundtrack, by the enigmatically titled F.M., is a thing of great beauty, and the film's climactic images are, for the obviously slim budget, pretty mind boggling; the acknowledgement to Carl Sagan in the end credits explains a lot. I liked this; many will not, but it's bold stuff and well worth checking out.

Kindred (UK 2020: Dir Joe Marcantonio) Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and her vet partner Ben (Edward Holcroft) have decided that they're moving to Australia; in part the decision is based on Ben's need to leave behind his controlling mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw), who lives in a huge, tumbledown mansion with Ben's half brother Thomas (Jack Lowden). Charlotte discovers that she's pregnant via Ben's family's GP Dr Richards (Anton Lesser), although she maintains that she's been taking the pill, and clearly doesn't want to keep it, partly because of her mother's mental health problems and the fear that this disorder might be genetic.

Unethically, Dr Richards tells Ben's mum about the pregnancy, so Ben finds out before Charlotte gets to tell him gets to tell him. Margaret is opposed to Charlotte's plans for the termination; "you're not stealing my own flesh and blood", she says. Ben, also keen to keep the child but also to make the new start in Australia, receives a fatal blow to the head while tending a horse. After the funeral Charlotte, who cannot leave Ben's family home because of a complication which has resulted in Ben's own home being repossessed, is trapped, pregnant and afraid, as the rest of the family make arrangements for the new arrival.

One of the issues I always had with Roman Polanski's 1968 film Rosemary's Baby is in sustaining the disbelief that Rosemary was effectivelt trapped in her own apartment. Sadly the same plot contrivance makes Kindred even more implausible than the film whose plot it broadly echoes; as Charlotte Tamara Lawrance initially appears tough and no nonsense, but quickly slips into resigned compliance once the family start hatching their plan. The movie feels more like an extended retread of the kind of 1970s teleplay where a pregnant woman is helpless in the face of a family who may or may not have satanic connections, and where no-one believes her story (which the audience knows is actually the truth).

While the cast perform their roles well, and Margaret's house is convincingly run down, this all feels so hackneyed and unnecessary that it's difficult to sympathise, or indeed care about the heroine's plight. Perhaps this might be more effective for a viewer who hadn't seen this overfamiliar story in other guises over the years, but, for me, Kindred strained both credbility and patience.

Amulet (UK 2020: Dir Romola Garai)
Tomas (Alec Secareanu) has escaped from a country at war; he has been a soldier who has avoided bloodshed, staffing a remote outpost, his only drama to help a fleeing woman, Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), who appeals to him for help. Tomas discovers an amulet, in the shape of a woman seemingly with folded wings, in the forest and offers it to Miriam. Some time later, and having made the passage to the UK, Tomas does manual jobs for cash, but after being attacked in the street and robbed of his money, he's rescued by a nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). "Forward is not the only way" she tells him, enigmatically, and finds Tomas accommodation in an imposing and run down house in the south of the capital.

It's a house without electricity, whose only other occupants are  oppressed Magda (Carla Juri) and her bedridden mother (Anah Ruddin) who lives on the top floor, for whom her daughter is her sole carer. "The Lord will take her soon," says Claire, who doesn't want to charge Tomas for the roof over his head; he just has to help out a bit around the house.

And boy does the house need work. The ceiling seems to be covered in an organic, active mould, and when Tomas, doing his bit to help out, finds the body of a large albino bat/rat hybrid tucked into the U-bend of the toilet, things start to get very strange. In the bathroom Magda exposes a bite mark on her arm. Is this from her mother who has violent tendencies? Or something more sinister? 

Although explanations are eventually forthcoming in Amulet, the overall mood of the piece remains oblique; themes of female isolation and familial repression are explored but remain tantalisingly unfocused, as if Garai is afraid to make an overly forthright horror movie. Which is a shame as the production design is superb - a creaking, groaning house full of shadows and surprising elements - and there are some set pieces which recall Luca Guadagnino's 2018 revision of Suspiria. It's just that overall this is far too ponderous and portentous to satisfy.

Clownface (UK 2020: Dir Alex Bourne)
 Jenna (Hannah Douglas) has just returned to her home town after a traumatic incident. Some months previously she returned to her apartment to find her BDSM favouring flatmate Zoe (Dani Tonks) missing, and Zoe's boyfriend Rick (Thomas Loone) dead on the floor.

Jenna's now living with her dad. Her friend Amy (Abigail Wisdom) has managed to get her a job at Amy's parents' cafe, and, to get her back into the swing of things, has invited her to a party thrown by one of their mutual friends.

Meanwhile a rather odd chap, Owen (Richard Buck) has also moved into the area to rent a room. His suitcase incldes a pistol and press cuttings about the odd goings on in the town, and he's keen to find out more details from the locals.

All these people's lives are about to coalesce courtesy of Clownface, the abducter of Zoe, killer of Rick and scarer of Owen ten years previously (hence the lad's obsessive behaviour). Jenna, who still harbours guilt for not being around to protect Zoe - not helped by constant goading from former friend, jealous Charlotte (Leah Solmaz) - is about to find out that she is Clownface's latest victim; but he's going to toy with those around her first.

Bourne's second feature, after his 2017 debut anthology movie The House of Screaming Death, takes its subject matter pretty seriously. Not for him the camp mannerisms adopted by some other low budget British Fantastic Film directors, possibly to mask the paucity of budget (and sometimes talent) on show; Bourne plays it straight, and he's aided by some seriously good photography and atmospheric set pieces.

Sadly none of the cast quite rise to the quality of the filmmaking, although this is less to do with their skills and more about the rather perfunctory script, which puts them in rather ridiculous situations and refuses to tie any of the narrative loose ends together. There isn't even a reveal of who Clownface is, despite some reddish herrings being left around. And on the subject of the killer, he doesn't actually have a 'clownface'; his mask, Ed Gein style, is constructed from stitched together human skin, which is infinitely scarier, and the guy inside the costume (Philip John Bailey) gives good serial killer. Bourne's aspirations are laudable, even if his material isn't particularly innovative. But Clownface is well constructed and at times mounts a fair bit of tension.

G-Loc (UK 2020: Dir Tom Paton)
 After a false start with the not particularly good Redwood back in 2017, Paton has since delivered a trio of solid, low budget sci fi movies, of which G-Loc is the latest.

Set some time in the future, earth is facing a new ice age. Luckily years previously some ancient technology arrived in the skies over the planet; 'The Gate' is a triangular portal containing a wormhole that can take those passing through it into a new solar system capable of supporting life. Following on from a mass migration to a planet called Rhea, the movement has automatically created a refugee crisis in the new world.

Widowed Bran Marshall (Stephen Moyer) made his escape from earth after the death of his family, but got blown off course. Under the suggestion of his AI guide/companion Edison (basically a holographic Alexa with a sense of hunmour, voiced by Mike Beckingham) he makes his way to a Rhean supply ship, most of the occupants of which have been killed. The only survivor is Ohsha Rainer (Tala Gouveia), a Rhean assassin. Gradually the pair realise that the craft they're on is programmed for an event which is set to wipe out all the occupants of the new world.

The intrigue between the Rheans and the Earthers (as occupants of our planet are referred to) gives an interesting dimension to the film, the new arrivals having developed a superiority complex over their originators (something to do with 18 years on Rhea passing for every one on earth). But like a lot of low budget sci fi, the context, much of which is narrated at the film's beginning in true B movie stylee, is but window dressing for a two hander - or four if you count Edison and blink and you'll miss him baddie Decker (Casper Van Dien) - drama within a confined space. Moyer is excellent as the grief stricken Marshall and Gouveia makes for a feisty combatant and while the pace of the thing could do with some picking up, and the crises facing the pair feel a little episodic, this is a well realised, competent film that doesn't overstretch itself.

District Nurse (UK 2020: Dir Rob James, Bruce McClure)
Proper experimental films don't come along very often. Sure some movies might have 'freak out' scenes or maybe mess with time in their storytelling. But movies where one stuggles to get a handle on anything they're watching, to pick up one shred of a coherent narrative; well those films are as rare as hen's teeth and District Nurse, despite its prosaic title, is one of them my friend.

"A delicate faculty, the human psyche is both a beautiful and dangerous entity. With subtle manipulation from its host and external influences, it can err in either direction. What you are about to see could affect any new parent." This quote, at the beginning of the film, is as much help as anything else with which to gain an entry point into the 'narrative'. As far as I can deduce, a woman (Katie Davies Speak) who is the District Nurse of the title, believes that she and her baby have been kidnapped by a crazy old couple who plan to sacrifice them both to revive an ancient sea creature.

Any interpretations would be equally valid I suppose, but it's probably best to sit back and let the film's succession of images wash over you, which range from the prosaic (fencing) to the truly weird (a suited man attacks a toy baby viciously and then sticks a firework in its severed head). There's some US shot footage in the middle, and the suggestion of ritual runs through the piece. Don't ask me anything else: better you watch it yourself.

District Nurse can be viewed here.

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