Monday 1 November 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #8: Reviews of Curse of Bloody Mary (UK 2021), The Ghosts of Borley Rectory (UK 2021), Ghost Tale (UK 2021), When the Screaming Starts (UK 2021), The Ghost of Winifred Meeks (UK 2021) and The Curse of Humpty Dumpty (UK 2021)

Curse of Bloody Mary aka Summoning Bloody Mary aka Bloody Mary (UK 2021: Dir David Gregory) Indie creature features with Scott Jeffrey and his ilk behind the lens can feel a little formulaic. In the by now familiar prologue that launches us straight into the action, staff members Francine (Chrissie Wunna) and Ben (Stephen Saley) are fighting a supernatural creature called 'Bloody Mary' at a health spa (in reality a youth hostel in Yorkshire). Ben stops to smash a mirror, hoping to halt the advance of the creature, but karks it instead.

We meet four young women, reuniting for a weekend at the very same health spa: Elena (Antonia Whillans), journalist Morgan (Beatrice Fletcher), Kate (Sofia Lacey) and pregnant Dani (low budget fright flick scream queen Sarah T Cohen with a terrible strap on bump). They're here for a wellness weekend, and particularly for Elena and Dani to heal old wounds as a result of a bit of love rivalry back at school. Francine, who we saw in the prologue, is the rather distracted owner of the facility, and the girls seems to be the only guests; perhaps Francine's twitchiness has something to do with the fact that the mirror, responsible for Bloody Mary's appearance, is still front and centre in the lounge.

Morgan finds a book partly written in Latin which includes the legend of Bloody Mary. Francine later tells them the legend of Mary, a witch who, after losing a child, killed young girls and used their blood to resurrect her dead baby. Burned at the stake, she vowed that if anyone should say her name in front of a mirror three times she'd come for them. Francine encourages the girls to have a go, and as soon as the deed is done skedaddles out of the building. "I did everything you asked" she says to no-one in particular.

So yes the familiar setup transitions from friendship drama to a fight for life, as 'Bloody Mary' comes looking for victims who, when they are in the creature's thrall, are depicted via a red filter. I probably don't need to mention that the friendship rifts heal, there's a final girl, and the movie rather abruptly ends with footage of said FG being sick out of a car window. Nice.

The Ghosts of Borley Rectory (UK 2021: Dir Steven M. Smith) Despite the UK's rich history of haunted houses, it's perhaps surprising that few of them have gained any wider fame outside those with a direct interest. Perhaps this is why independent filmmakers have repeatedly returned to the subject of Borley Rectory, reputedly 'the most haunted house in England'. The fact that the claim was made by Harry Price, a now largely debunked psychic investigator who had attached himself to the legend of the Rectory for three decades, is telling: Price worked hard to keep the property's supernatural flame alive - and profiting from writing about it - even after it was destroyed by fire in 1938.

This is director Smith's second bite of the Borley cherry; his first, 2019's The Haunting of Borley Rectory, was set in 1944 after the building has burned to the ground. Ghosts is set in 1937, shortlly before the fire occurred, and as such serves as a prequel to the events of the first film. Although it's not that simple; Price's infamy at the Rectory had been established in the 1920s, so the events in this movie are based on his return to the place for a second attempt to record paranormal activity. Here Price (played by Toby Wynn-Davies, giving us a spook hunter considerably more well mannered than the real thing, if accounts are to be believed) has returned to occupy the building for a six month rental and to prove, scientifically, that the spirits he believes occupy the Rectory actually exist. 

In this endeavour, and in the interests of objectivity, he's joined by a small number of supposedly independent witnesses including the real life characters Reverend Lionel Foyster (Julian Sands), his wife Marianne (Leila Kotori, a woman around whom previous supernatural activity had been focused), journalist Charles Sutton (Colin Baker), landowner Basil Payne (Christopher Ellison) and medium Estelle Roberts (Toyah Willcox, excellent as ever). Although based on real events, Price actually invited 48 observers to his sojourn in the Rectory, but that's low budget filmmaking for you. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is that, although in real life Price's experiments came to almost nought, there is actually a proper (demonic, thanks James Wan) ghost nun, who seems to tease the ghost hunter by appearing to everyone except him. 

Smith's film is a distinct improvement on his previous Borley outing; production values are pretty good and there is some fine attention to detail (Smeetham Hall in Essex makes a pretty good stand in for the demolished Rectory). As you would expect there is a lot of talking in the movie but, unusually, this doesn't slow the film down too much; Wynn-Davies's compelling performance holds things together and his supporting cast, for the most part, deliver the goods more than adequately. Quite how much we're able to engage with a lead character (Price) and a setup that have both been comprehensively disproved is another matter.

Ghost Tale (UK 2021: Dir Katherine King) Peter (Daniel de Bourg) and his partner Laura (Johanna Stanton) are at the end of the road together. They've purchased a house for quick sell on, but now they're splitting up and managing the sale while clearly finding it difficult to be in the same room together. Peter shows round a mysterious character called Mr Blake (Edmund Duff) who's interested in buying but then promptly tells Peter that "this is not a happy home" and disappears. Even stranger, the photograph of a young girl appears in the bedroom of the house. Peter thinks that the photo may be that of Emily, who lived across the road. The occupants of that house fled earlier, unable to remain because they thought their house was haunted.

Peter and Laura do some internet sleuthing, finding references to Blake and their house, and also the mystery of a ghost girl, who "peers through the curtains looking for the person that killed her." The couple agree not to stay but find themselves mysteriously locked in the bedroom; the ghost girl is coming for them. 

At first King's first feature feels slightly awkward, until you realise that it's Peter and Laura's unwillingness to be with each other that causes that discomfort for the viewer. Ghost Tale is a bit of a love story in reverse; the couple realise what they've lost by being thrown together in adversity. Bizarrely, almost all of the drama takes place while they are locked in a bedroom of a house they do not call home. Whereas other movies would open events out, King bravely keeps her leads locked in a small space while things happen around them and the 'onion skin' of the story is gradually unpeeled.

This is an unusual, ambitious film that won't be for everyone, but King (whose previous shorts are worth checking out on Vimeo here) is an interesting filmmaker and Ghost Tale's black and white photography and unusual atmosphere stays in the memory; thematically and stylistically it reminded me of the movies of Richard Mansfield. Which is a very good thing.

When the Screaming Starts (UK 2021: DIR Conor Boru) Boru’s spirited first comedy feature, a cheeky titular riff on the 1973 movie And Now the Screaming Starts! (but with no narrative connection to that film) finds Norman Graysmith (Jared Rogers), a Louis Theroux type video journalist, shadowing serial killer wannabe Aidan Mendle (Ed Hartland) as he prepares to perpetrate mass murder across London.

Mendle takes his craft seriously; he has a collection of knives and guns, reads Poe aloud while wearing a raven’s head, and has it in for the neighbour’s cat, Richard, who he accidentally shoots.

Mendle decides to take the Charles Manson route to deadly mayhem, all lovingly recorded by Graysmith; with his serial killer loving partner Claire (Kaitlynn Reynell) (whom he met attending the aftermath of a hit and run accident), he interviews and assembles a ‘family’ of would be maniacs, including a restaurant critic desperate to taste human flesh; she doesn’t make the shortlist. Aidan houses the motley crew he’s put together in a disused warehouse, and trains them in preparation for their first slaughter, the target unexpectedly turning out to be the wealthy family of one of his disciples, posh Amy (Octavia Gilmore). But Aidan lacks Charlie’s charisma; before long there’s infighting among the group, leadership challenges, and the wheels come off his plans for notoriety. Can he regain control and get his murderous scheme back on track?

For the first half of the film, When the Screaming Starts is an amiable and occasionally funny movie very much in the observational mode of a lot of contemporary TV comedy (favourite line: “Too IRA?” Aidan asks as he models one of the ‘looks’ he’s planning to wear on his murder sprees, a balaclava and combat jacket outfit).

So the first slaughter, when it arrives, is somewhat jarring and authentically nasty; sadly from here on in the movie loses its focus, as if, having set up its shtick, Boru doesn’t really know what to do with it. There are some interestingly satirical observations on power and leadership, and a fine turn from Gilmore as the mean as a snake Amy, but interest quickly faded for me after a promising start.

The Ghost of Winifred Meeks (UK 2021: Dir Jason Figgis) Figgis's slow burn ghost story (originally just called 'Winifred Meeks' with the title changed by the UK distributor) is a change of pace for the director. Perhaps aided by his partnership with producer/paranormal journalist John West, both have dug deep into their lifelong love of MR James and the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas to deliver something that definitely taps in to those vibes (my partner, who isn't a big fright movie fan, looked in at what I was watching and asked "is this an old TV show?" which, hopefully, is the effect intended).

Lara Belmont is Anna James, a writer seeking a bit of alone time to work and distance herself from her failed relationship with ex David. She finds a place in Suffolk, Sea View House, in the middle of the country near the sea, and sets up home. She's working on the latest of a successful series of teen crime novels, and initially the change of environment seems to kick start her creative juices. But before long she senses that she's not alone in the house. Anna thinks she sees a strange woman in the garden, but can't be sure because of occlusions in the window glass. Strange figures begin to invade her dreams, which prompt her to uncover the history of the house and the tragic figure of Winifred Meeks, a former occupant. Isolated at the property, her emotional vulnerability seems to attract the restless spirit.

So it's probably best to get this out of the way: The Ghost of Winifred Meeks is a very, and I mean very, slowburn movie. Little happens for the first half of it, and James remains an elusive character to read; her interactions with her parents on the phone are pleasant but no more, and she is (undertsandably) in no hurry to patch things up with her philandering ex. She seeks isolation but this renders her vulnerable to the angry spirit of Meeks. Like the (male) victims of the stories of M R James, whose intellectual curiosity backfires on them, Belmont's writer is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you don't get on with Belmont's Anna then you may not like the movie, but I found it an absorbing if sometimes frustrating piece, which effortly captured the spirit of the genre TV drama.

The Curse of Humpty Dumpty (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey) Make that written, produced and directed by Scott Jeffrey. Yep, one of the key figures in low budget Indie Brit horror is back with yet another of his features made or released this year; and this just might be one of his best.

British Fantastic Films regular Nicola Wright is Wendy, a 50 year old mother of two who is becoming increasingly forgetful and confused; she's also having scary dreams which may actually be flashbacks to the past. Daughter Liz (Sian Altman) is worried for her mother and recommends that Wendy leave her flat in the city and move back to the family home in the country. The aim is that she'll be looked after by Liz and her sister Hazel (Antonia Whillans), who can't see what the fuss is about with their mother and thinks that Liz is being overprotective. Wendy's husband has long split the scene, leaving his family after being accused of adultery. Or so we're told.

No sooner are they all home than they receive a visit from Beryl (Danielle Scott), the sister of Wendy's ex. She's still suspicious about the sudden disappearance of her brother, and also keen to stake a claim on the property.

Shopping in a local bric a brac shop, Wendy comes across a gruesome looking lifesize Humpty Dumpty doll. Although they don't buy it, all are surprised to see the toy slumped on their doorstep when they return home. The arrival of HD in their lives seems to be a trigger for Wendy's increasing mania and vivid recollections of previous violence, including dreams about the toy murdering other people, transformed into a hideous monster with rows of jagged sharp teeth. As Wendy's mind deteriorates, she begins to recall the past; and her role in previous events.

The combination of almost soap opera drama and horror, which is a mainstay of many indie Brit Fantastic films, often feels a bit forced; not so with Jeffrey's film. Much of this is down to Wright's incredible performance as Wendy, her Alzheimers twisting all of her memories and, eventually, the ability to recognise people (the combination of this terrible illness with horror elements was also a feature of Jonathan Zaurin's excellent 2021 feature Wyvern Hill). The HD figure is truly disturbing, perhaps more so in that the audience is never sure whether it's real or not. Sian Altman is also excellent as the distressed Liz; indeed the whole cast are thoroughly convincing in their roles. Sure the poster may look like The Curse of Humpty Dumpty is another generic creature movie (and the title doesn't help either) but the movie itself is far better than that.

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