Tuesday 19 October 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #7: Reviews of The Feast (UK 2021), Barbatachtian Returns (UK 2021), Lightships (UK 2021), Amityville Scarecrow (UK 2021), The Parapod: A Very British Ghost Hunt (UK 2021) and Acting (UK 2021)

The Feast aka Gwledd (UK 2021: Dir Lee Haven Jones) It almost seems a little odd to brand Wales' first original language horror film as a UK offering, as its ferocious subtext points towards the rape of the land and the perils of ignoring your own history.

"Who lives in a house like this?" I enquire, Lloyd Grossman style, on first sight of the modernist pile that provides the backdrop for The Feast's shenanigans. Glenda (Nia Roberts) and politician husband Glyn (Julian Lewis Jones) live, for that part of the year when they're not in London anyway, in an imposing rural residence built on the site of a former farm owned by Glenda's family, a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright type creation that's a wonder of line and texture but not somewhere in which you'd easily put your feet up.

Their family comprises two sons: Guto (Steffan Cennydd) an addict trying to clean himself up at home and his contrasting brother, the uberfit and uberweird Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies). As the film opens, preparations are underway for a dinner party, the guests including the couple's neighbours and a consultant, Euros (Rhodri Meilir), who's there to pursuade the landowners of the potential of fracking explorations. Local pub girl, the almost mute Cadi (Annes Elwy), has been employed for the evening, and it's clear from the outset that she has nothing but disdain for the people who surround her.

Having set up the unlikeable characters it's almost inevitable that Jones sets out to destroy them. This makes it very much a film of two halves, and while there's no denying the smart execution of these scenes, my preference was for the more restrained violence of the movie's first two acts. As the first feature of a director with a considerable TV CV, you'd expect it to be full of small details and nuanced performances. It's just that when things get bloody, I felt the sense of directorial control start to slip. Worth a watch though.

Barbatachtian Returns (UK 2021: Dir Ian Austin) When I did a recent talk on the state of contemporary British fantastic films, I assigned Austin's first feature, 2020's Barbatachthian to the category 'Esoteric' (meaning I hadn't a clue what the thing was about, rendering it unclassifiable). Austin threatened a sequel to the movie and now here it is, all 72 minutes of it. According to IMDb it may also be one episode of a 5 part TV series; I'm none the wiser.

Austin starts as he means to go on, with a theme tune sung by himself (which sounds like one of those tuneless things made up by kids when daydreaming) which implores audiences to rewatch his first movie; he then provides a recap of events, re-introducing us to the characters Chester Zerum, the being Barbatachtian and Captain Perspex. Oh and Odin, Loki and Zeus turn up for a family scrap.

Unlike the last movie, where Zerum was menaced and supposedly killed by Barbatachtian in his flat during lockdown, in the sequel a resurrected Zerum (Austin) gets dumped by letter and decides to take a holiday: to Aberystwyth in fact, where he narrowly escapes being attacked by a demonic chanting seagull and enters a multiverse (mainly his flat) to discover his killer...I think.

There's also a character called Captain Perspex (Austin in a hat) who is interviewed by Austin wearing a Mexican wrestling mask to cover the fact that he has no face, and whose wife Daisy is a ghost. This character will later spend a lot of time either trying to prise his mask off or kill himself; it's not really clear. Somebody called Professor Pickle (Richard Sasaki) turns up, who may or may not have been involved in Zerum's murder, along with Chester's racist uncle Fred.

Still with me? Thought not. If it's indeed possible BR is even more unhinged than the first film. I think there's some intellect here; it's just too odd to be entirely random. There are some ingenious filters and a genuinely unsettling sound design to give you the wim wams too. Narratively it's more of Austin's fever dream bobbins, but the character universe he's building is at least consistent, and there's a genuine strangeness that starts to rub off after exposing yourself to his output. Terrible but not terrible then. 

Lightships (UK 2021: Dir John Harrigan)
This is the third film directed by Harrigan in just under ten years. All of his works have divided audiences, and his most recent feature is unlikely to perform differently.

Based on the writings of healer and therapist Maryann Rada, we meet Eve (Lois Temel) who wakes up in a white roomed facility with no recollection of how she got there. As Eve meets and interacts with the other patients, who all seem locked in their own little worlds, she begins to remember the circumstances that led to her own incarceration - a son Orion (Ethan-James Harrigan, the director's son) who died, or was he, like the rest of her family, abducted by aliens? Slowly she learns that the inmates may actually be the hopsital staff, and that Orion may hold the key to what's happening via pictures he drew of distant constellations.

Eve begins to receive communications from an external source and to write them down in order to make sense of them. "There is no death," she writes, and "belief is a prison". Is she losing her mind, or is extra terrestrial salvation the endgame here?

As might be expected with source material dealing with the more extreme end of esoteric writing, Lightships is an acquired taste, possibly best suited to those who follow Rada's writing. The closest I can offer as a comparator is Jane Arden's 1972 devised piece The Other Side of Underneath, in which a group of women movie to different states of consciousness within the constructs of therapy. Harrigan's film is deeply personal, which as a consequence makes it very hard to get a handle on, and its almost total lack of narrative in favour of the cycles of instititional existence made it a big walkout film at the screening I attended.

Amityville Scarecrow aka Amityville Cornfield (UK 2021: Dir Jack Peter Mundy)
Mundy is a director who, before this year, had mainly created short films and promos. But in 2021 he hit the road running with no less than four features, all of which will be covered in this strand. There was clearly some hand holding going on with this one courtesy of seasoned indie horror producer Scott Jeffrey and scriptwriter Shannon Holiday; the result is a rather forumlaic entry in the category of dramatic horror which both have made their trade. 

In the film's prologue a young couple trespass onto the site of the former Amityville House (now a campsite, complete with scarecrow) and have sex in a caravan. The scarecrow comes to life and kills them both.

The campsite is the focus for a dispute between two women, Tina (Amanda-Jade Tyler) and her older sister Mary (Kate Sandison), both sporting the obligatory (and unnnecessary) American accents. Both spent time at the campsite as kids, before it fell to rack and ruin. Tina wants to redevelop it as an adventure maze for kids and replace the ropey caravans with hi-tech ones. Mary just wants to flog it, still annoyed that Tina slept with Mary's husband (the source of the rift). 

Tina and Mary's respective daughters, nieces Lucy (Chelsea Greenwood) and Harriet (Sofia Lacey) are caught up in the middle of the fracas. Meanwhile Tina's rather useless husband Derek (Andrew Rolfe) finds the Scarecrow's battered hat in one of the caravans; he puts the hat back on the scarecrow, which is still in the campsite. "Amityville; why does that sound so familiar?" asks Harriet; the pair seem oblivious about the history of the place (where have they been?). But not for long; for it would appear that the very ground on which the house stood has retained the evil that triggered the original murders, and the same dark force has now entered the scarecrow who, once animated, seeks revenge on the feuding families, who must reunite to save themselves.

As usual with this type of film there's the usual confusion about where the film is set; the campsite seems British for example, but at some point in the movie it's investigated by a very US looking cop. The Amityville legend is reworked and the names are changed (the word Amityville is obviously there to pull in unsuspecting punters) and the movie follows the pattern of many of its ilk: two thirds talk, one third running and hiding from the titular creature. Amityville Scarecrow isn't terrible, just formulaic and rather unimaginative. And there are a lot of indie Brit films like this doing the rounds these days.

The Parapod: A Very British Ghost Hunt (UK 2021: Dir Ian Boldsworth)
The Parapod Podcast is the insanely popular creation of Ian Boldsworth and Barry Dodds; for the last five years the pair have ripped the wee out of the ‘Most Haunted’ style paranormal shows in pitch perfect parody, all night vision, ponderous silences and running about screaming. They play a pair of ghost hunters: Boldsworth is the rampant sceptic, who believes in nothing that he can’t see or touch, whereas Dodds is his accepting, emotional counterpart.

So now the lads have crowdfunded to create a feature film, which takes them on a road trip of the UK’s most haunted places. Told from within the confines of their studio, the pair recount their
adventures, which for the most part consist of Boldsworth mercilessly and sarcastically teasing the innocent, ‘I want to believe’ Dodds.

Setting off from Amble in Northumberland, in a converted hearse purchased by Boldsworth and liveried with ‘The Parapod’ on the side (much to Dodds’ embarrassment), the pair visit Manchester, Kent and Scotland in a series of haunted escapades which predictably produce no real evidence, finally arriving back in Pontefract to track down the infamous ‘Black Monk’.

But the real pleasure here - in fact the whole premise of the movie - is the relationship between
Boldsworth, whose delivery recalls prime Ricky Gervais, and gullible Dodds, who never seems to get
wise to his partner’s endless windups, whether it’s getting Dodds an unannounced slot at a skeptics
conference (clearly a real conference they’d hijacked for the occasion) or throwing things at him in
the dark to give him the wim wams. Like all great comic partnerships, it’s the pairing of straight and
funny man, both in their way quite tragic figures, locked together and seemingly unable to exist

Acting (UK 2021: Dir Sam Mason-Bell)
Director Mason-Bell does a nice line in very British, slightly uncomfortable thrillers and fright flicks, and Acting is probably his most uncompromising work yet.

Una (Annabella Rich) is a struggling actress, picking up small film roles and commercials.  She's offered the key part in a one woman play, 'Tales of the Black Mantis'. She'll play Christine, a serial killer whose murder victims are male prostitutes. Before being given the script she's advised that the role will be intense and involve sex scenes; this also acts as a flag to the viewing audience about what's to come, as does the word 'mantis' in the play's title (and we all know what they're famous for!).

Una's detailed preparation for the role, as well as learning lines, involves mapping diverse aspects of Christine on paper. 'Who is the mantis?' she writes, a question that becomes increasingly unclear as Una develops her role.

Memories of a past abusive relationship begin to intrude into and inform the part. As written in the script, Una's need to kill is unapologetic. In one of her monologues Christine reflects that male serial killers often blame someone else, usually women; she unashamedly likes it, and revels in the eroticism of the moment. But as the preparations continue the line between Una's rehearsals and the character she's playing increasingly blur. Like Catherine Deneuve's 'Carol' in Roman Polanski's 1965 film Repulsion, reality and unreality merge until a final act, which darkly unites actress and character.

Acting is a powerful chamber piece which, within its short 71 minute running time, asks a lot of questions of its audience. Does Christine overtake Una or is it the perfect fit for the actress, tapping in to her extreme feelings about the worth of men? To what extent are there parallels between Una and Ms Rich? Both are offered parts that are bigger than they're played recently, both are required to be nude as part of the role. Is this coincidence or design (maybe a little of both as Rich co-wrote the script)?

Ultimately whether the film succeeds or fails depends on whether you believe Rich as Una/Christine. Hers is a raw, honest performance, strongest in her eventual descent to madness; a method actress hopelessly out of her depth. Or is she? Acting is pretty unpleasant stuff, shot almost as a devised piece with a claustrophobic design and an insistent, sometimes jarring score. Don't expect rom coms anytime soon from Mason-Bell; I think that's a good thing.

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