Thursday 3 June 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #4: Reviews of Black Lake (UK 2020), Happy Little Bunnies (UK 2020), Benny Loves You (UK 2020), The Yird Swine (UK 2020), Shadowland (UK 2021) and The Reckoning (UK 2020)

Black Lake (UK 2020: Dir K/XI) Black Lake opens with a quote from Carl Jung ('No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell') and ends with a dedication to Jyoti Singh, the 23 year old Delhi student gang raped, tortured (and who later died) in 2012. And between these two references lies the heart of Pervaiz's beautifully shot, intense magic realist drama. 

Artist Aarya (K/XI aka Komal Pervaiz) rents a house from a friend located in the wilds of Scotland. She's here to get her head together and escape tensions never fully made clear. Her Aunt Ayaneh (Aditi Bajpai) sends her, by post, a beatuful gold trimmed red scarf, which triggers a stream of Proustian, where she was formerly resident, connecting her with the landscape of the house and her own sense of being.

But the scarf has a terrible history; unknown to her Aunt, it originally belonged to a woman who was raped and murdered in a Pakistan village. The scarf brings with it the Churail (Ayvianna Snow from The Lockdown Hauntings in a blink and you'll miss her performance) a demonic tree spirit ubiquitous in Indian legend, who returns to seek revenge for the suffering of another. Aarya experiences increasingly vivid dreams/visions, as the Churail takes over and forces her to relive the fate of the scarf's original owner.

Black Lake scores highly in the lush photography of both Scotland and Pakistan; Parvaiz, for once, refuses to submerge footage of the latter in filters, rendering the different landscapes more similar than one would expect. There also a sumptuous score by Burning Tapes that mixes natural sounds with harsh electronica, at times enlivening footage that is, it has to be said, very slow; nothing is rushed here, and for the most part this works.

What lets this down, and I really don't like to rain on such a committed and ambitious production, is Pervaiz herself as Aarya. For such a small cast this needed an actress with more focus than she delivered; a lot of the time her performance felt self conscious or just too studied; it's a raw piece, but for me that didn't come across, even accepting that the movie was either filmed or completed in a lockdown situation, and that Pervaiz herself hadled the photography; quite a feat. With Black Lake it's the film's images that stay with you: a strand of black hair, evidence of the creature's arrival; water on rocks threatening to show something shimmering underneath; and a billowing red scarf contrasting with the harsh elements of two different countries.

Happy Little Bunnies (UK 2020: Dir Patrick McConnell) "What is fucking normal?" asks psychotherapist Carl (an amazing performance from Simon Manley) as he attempts to understand, cajole and outright threaten his client John (Jon Scott-Clark) in McConnell's witty, uncomfortable and often plain misanthropic three hander psychodrama.

John is an unhappy man full of sick thoughts and suicidal tensions; he answers an ad in a local paper for a therapist who he thinks can help deal with his disgusting inner urges. But Carl may not be quite who's he looking for; in an early attempt to win John's trust, Carl confesses an incident from his past involving a drunk homeless woman and an empty wine bottle. Continuing to upset the accepted professionalism of the doctor/patient relationship, John is offered both wine and a cigarette by his shrink. Much of Happy Little Bunnies plays out this increasingly unhinged session, as Carl quizzes John on everything from pornography to his deepest desires (and the link between the two). Finally, as if to test John's mettle, Carl introduces a third (female) subject into the session. Will John's fantasies become reality?

As a backdrop to this, a killer in a bunny mask is prowling the area, killing off those town dwellers already living the life that John creates in his head, including a guy who gets his 'old chap' hacked off after sticking it through a glory hole, and a massacre in a seedy S&M club. The link between the two stories is only revealed at the end but the obvious culprit seems to be Carl himself; scenes from his childhood play out during the movie, including a violent, domineering father, a more gifted older brother who hangs himself, and a disastrous early relationship. It's textbook Freud; no good could come of this upbringing, and it explains his unique method of plying his medical trade.

Happy Little Bunnies is a bleak watch, that's for sure;  in its combination of wretchedness, frank dialogue and sly humour, it brought to mind a home counties version of the films of master miserablist Jörg Buttgereit and, in its economy of nastiness, Michael Fausti's recent Exit. The star here - if indeed that's an appropriate phrase - is Manley, his clipped north east tones emphasising his air of nihilism; it's a terrifying performance in a movie which excels in atmosphere, with a low budget that keeps things spare but nasty. Oh and there's some fourth wall breaking with the director himself appearing, directing a version of that pie scene from A Ghost Story which arguably meant more to him than me.

Benny Loves You (UK 2019: Dir Karl Holt) It's kind of hard to be overly critical of Holt's first feature, an entry in the 'demon toys' sub genre which, although scrappy, benefits from some great gags - verbal and sight - and a pervading sense of low level anarchy and silliness.

As a child down on his luck toy designer Jack (Holt) was the owner of a stuffed bear (although it looks like one of the more indeterminable Muppets) called Benny. On his 35th birthday things go decidedly pear shaped for him, losing both his parents (with whom he still lives) in quick succession courtesy of domestic accidents.

Faced with the difficulty of keeping the house (and mortage payments) going, his troubles continue when he's due to be laid off at work, the knife being dug in by his co-designer, sleazy Richard (George Collie) and unsympathetic boss Ron (James Parsons). With the house on the market, as Jack makes arrangements to downsize he comes across Benny, the bear with a life of its own. Unbothered about decades of being discarded, Benny worms his way back into Jack's heart by being his playful self; Benny also murders those that have been giving Jack a hard time, paving the way for Benny's owner to reinstate himself in work's good books and acquire a sort of girlfriend in Dawn (Clare Cartwright). But as Jack once again thinks of putting away childish things, Benny clearly has other ideas.

A number of people have been very excited about this one - it went down extremely well at its 2020 FrightFest screening - and while it's undeniably creative and at times very funny, it's still as limited as other similar films such as the Child's Play franchise and the Puppet Master series. Holt is a rather unengaging lead and Cartwright doesn't have much to do, so it's left to the set pieces which mostly take place within Jack's house. It's fitfully amusing but I found it outstayed its welcome rather quickly, and some of the support characters seem to have stepped out of BBC sitcoms, the type that don't get recommissioned after one series.

The Yird Swine (UK 2020: Dir Douglas Kyle) To introduce Kyle's Aberdeen set folk-horror movie, the director announces that his project was entirely financed by the cast, and filmed in their spare time. That it was also filmed just before lockdown, and presumably edited only with what he managed to shoot, is a testament to indie film making.

Archie (Niall MacKay) and apprentice Jack (Josh Currie) are two government employees sent to examine some biological irregularities in the forest outside the Scottish town of Tarn-Na-hay (town motto "Love the land and what comes from it"). More mysteriously, the local church's graveyard has been plundered of its coffins, which have turned up, minus bodies, randomly around the woods.

While many feel that these occurences have a natural explanation, local hunter Munro (Kyle) feels that there is a more supernatural reason, particularly when two bird watchers go missing in the same wooded area, and he manages to snap a blurry phot of something large that looks bear like. Of course Munro is right, despite holding a minority opinion; the forest is the home to the 'Yird Swine', a creature from Scottish folklore who takes the form of a subterranean pig-like being. As the beast rises to seek its victims it's drawn to the local church hall, where the village is holding a fundraiser. Can Munro convince Tarn-Na-hay of the danger they all face?

Local colour abounds in this ragged but amiable 68 minute feature, to the point where some of the characters' accents are nigh on impenetrable (to this sassenach anyhow). A cast of non professional actors share the load of characters ranging from disbelieving authority figures, hapless bureaucrats, to a couple of women keen on exploiting events to maximise tourism opportunities. The beast itself is basically a giant shaggy pig that walks on its hind legs (a rather 1970s Dr Who type creation from Claire Martin) that's more mop than monster, but where the movie scores, in its own rough and ready way, is some great action sequences, tight editing and an atmospheric soundtrack designed by Danny Morrison and Sean Jones.

You can watch The Yird Swine here

Shadowland (UK 2021: Dir Simon Kay)
 Another film set in the Highlands and its '19,000 acres of dense ancient woodland', Kay's debut feature nicks its opening title style from Alien and then robs from a variety of genres to produce one confused, over-ambitious film.

Private security head honcho and ex military man Cam (Keenan Ben) is leading a group of staff to protect an ambasador (David E Grimes) and his family on a trip to Scotland, deep in the Highlands. But when the car transporting them is ambushed and the Ambassador's wife (Susan Coyle) shot, the security detail escape, with the rest of the family, and take refuge in a nearby barracks, where they also take prisoner some of the ambushers, including Elaine (Amelia Eve); meanwhile wifey comes back from the dead and takes out the rest of the Ambassador's would be kidnappers..

Once inside the facility, the group come across the mysterious Kane (Tony Greengrass) who knows what's happening (as do we - sort of - courtesy of a prologue involving Kane as a young man) as he's been involved in military experiments to perfect a new weapon, the specifics of which are never described except in its dead resurrecting properties and dislike of light. Cam and the motley group must wait it out in the bunker until the sun rises five hours later.

Shadowland suffers from a surfeit of chat, much of it to little purpose (such as developing the characters, for example) and a confusing series of flashbacks that exist to distract from the fact that the present day elements of the story are pretty much a group of frightened people stuck in a series of rooms. To be fair Kay generates some tension as the group face a series of uncertainties, but as one of those is the nature of what they're up against, it''s difficult to define any real threat. The film might have seemed like a good idea on paper, and it's well cast (the box office draw here being Eve, who was recently in Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Bly Manor, and whose fee would likely have taken the lion's share of the movie's budget) but it's terribly inconclusive and overly showy for no good reason.

The Reckoning (UK 2020: Dir Neil Marshall)
Apart from 2019's not very good Hellboy, Mr Marshall has been in TV land for the last few years. Here he returns to historical content last seen with 2010's Centurion, offering up a story which is supposedly 'inspired by actual events'.

It's 1665; we're in the time of the plague, and the great unwashed blame the pestilence on the devil. It's the job of the Witchfinder General to sort the innocent from the guilty; but he's never reckoned on anyone like Grace Haverstock. 

When we first meet her Grace (Charlotte Kirk) is about to bury the body of her hanged husband Joseph (Joe Anderson), who took his own life after contracting the plague while unknowingly drinking from a cup used by a plague sufferer in a tavern. There's more to the scene that meets the eye, for the flagons are switched by the evil Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington) ensuring that Joseph sups from the infected one.

We soon work out what's going on when Pendleton visits the widowed Grace and her daughter Abby to pay his respects and remind her that the rent on her cottage is soon due. Knowing that she's destitute and probably unable to pay, the Squire suggests an 'arrangement' in lieu of actual money. Grace rejects his advances with a swiftly applied hot poker; back in the tavern, the Squire whips up the locals and before you know it, Grace and her little baby are imprisoned on charges of witchcraft, awaiting the arrival of the Witchfinder General, John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) and his scarred assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) to extract a confession.

In The Reckoning Marshall builds an oppressive, mysoginistic world of fear, superstition and cruelty created and meted out by both local landowners and the visiting Witchfinder; and, as the title suggests, this is a world whose structures of power are fragile enough to be shaken by just one person who can stand up to the tyranny suffered by women nationally; and Grace is that person. Much of the movie then is devoted to her torture; if Marshall often looks to source movies for his inspiration, I'm guessing that Michael Armstrong's lurid, sadistic 1970 movie Mark of the Devil may have been watched a few times.

There's some Verhoeven-like inconsistencies going on here, mainly in the form of Kirk as Grace who, when first glimpsed, seems to have stepped out of a shampoo advert; this is the cleanest 17th century movie I've ever seen. Some of the dialogue is pretty ripe too and at times unintentionally humorous; when it's confirmed that Grace has been given a bed to sleep on in prison, Moorcraft replies "you must get rid of it; you're too lenient", which felt like a line from Blackadder II.

Marshall's movies are for the most part good in parts but overall a struggle to enjoy, and The Reckoning is no exception. It's way overlong, rather monotonous, and any feminist message is lost within the poor script, random dream imagery, moustache twirling villains and 17th century villagers with perfect teeth.

No comments:

Post a Comment