Friday 26 November 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021#9: Reviews of Conjuring the Plastic Surgeon (UK 2021), Dinosaur Hotel (UK 2021), Familiars (UK 2021), Evie (UK 2021), Shepherd (UK 2021) and Seagull (UK 2021)

Conjuring the Plastic Surgeon aka Doctor Carver (UK 2021: Dir Louisa Warren) In Warren's latest we enter the murky world of plastic surgery and the perils of desiring the perfect body. Chelsea Greenwood plays Tonya, a model who, despite being 24 and beautiful, is dropped by her agent for being too plain; her photographer forces himself on her in return for pushing her career. Tonya feels that a nose job would give her more modelling opportunities. So a surprise call, offering her and three other girls free cosmetic surgery, feels like a dream come true. Tonya's boyfriend Dan thinks it's all too good to be true, but it doesn't stop Tonya heading off to the 'Look Perfect Agency' (which is basically the same house used in lots of Warren and producer Scott Jeffrey's films).

There, greeted by the cold aloof Alex (Danielle Scott), who appears to be running the show, she meets the other willing participants: Dina (Julia Quayle) who wants liposuction as a way of holding on to her man; Belle (Amanda-Jade Tyler) the oldest of the party, looking for some Botox work; and glamour model Peppa (Sofia Lacey) who wants breast augmentation.

Things start to go a bit off when Alexa asks them all to participate in a supernatural ritual, the result of which, following the usual summoning by mirror, is the manifestation of, as far as I can work out, a demonic plastic surgeon (Zuza Tehanu). We've already seen the surgeon at work in a prologue and it ain't a pretty sight. The ladies' desperation for free, normally expensive treatment makes them blind to the oddness of their surroundings, the increasing horror they face and the Doctor's unorthodox procedures!

Needles pierce flesh, fluids ooze and there's a general air of nastiness to the proceedings here which is quite unusual in Warren's films; Peppa's operation is particularly distressing. As a meditation on the horrors of surgery and the extent to which women are either 'forced' into such procedures or bring it on themselves it works well, and the surgeon, with his mangled face and straggly hair, is an effective villain.

Warren has said before that she makes two types of films: vaguely silly creature features, and more serious subjects. Conjuring the Plastic Surgeon is definitely in the second category; and there's already a sequel in the works.

Dinosaur Hotel (UK 2021: Dir Jack Peter Mundy) One of five films made by Mundy this year, and like Amityville Scarecrow before it, scripted by Shannon Halliday and produced/edited by Scott Jeffrey for his 'Jagged Edge Productions' company.

Mundy sets his stall out right from the get go in a prologue where a couple of women, already looking bruised and bloody, face off against a CGI dinosaur and a talking sphere. What's going on? All will be revealed.

Sienna Woods (Chrissie Wunna) is a struggling single mum of two, still grieving the loss of her husband. She gets a phone call telling her that she has been selected for a competition she applied for; she's to be a guest at somewhere called 'Dinosaur Hotel', "where the impossible is possible and all bets are off in the ultimate challenge". There's a prize of £100,000 for the winner, which we later understand means 'the last person to stay alive'. Struggling with what to do with her two kids while she's away (played by Wunna's own offspring, recalling an old phrase about not putting your daughter (or son) on the stage, so appalling are they), she decides to take them with her. Big mistake. 

Upon arrival Sienna meets the other contestants including Zara (Charlotte Greenwood, Dragon Fury), Laura (Sofia Lacey, Conjuring the Plastic Surgeon), Sam (Kate Sandison, Cannibal Troll) and Jenny (Nicole Nabi, Medusa). The floating sphere mentioned earlier is a device that dictates the rules of the game and monitors the action; it tells them that there can only be one winner. The sight of the first dinosaur, on the roof of the hotel - actually it's a youth hostel, and we know this because there are bunk beds - is announced by some soaring Jurassic Park style strings (which won't be the only time that movie is referenced; a couple of later scenes are direct steals, right down to the lighting). Sadly because of the budget the CGI beasts are distinctly sub par; of necessity most of the creatures roaming around the hotel are quite small and slightly more effective than their poorly animated full size brethren. 

The real brains behind the enterprise is the Games Master (Alexander John) and of course, as we've already seen in the prologue, he has no intention of paying the prize money to anyone; there will be no final girl here. So for the rest of the film, sit back and watch computer generated dinosaurs running after screaming women (and children) and try to guess who's going to be next for a 'saur snack. 

This of course is fairly pedestrian stuff, leavened with some lovely exterior photography and a location that at least attempts to look like a hotel (although I do think that Mundy could have removed the sign off the front door telling hostellers that the venue was closed for a private function ie a film was being made there).

Familiars (UK 2021: Dir Michael Munn) Familiars is Munn's fifth feature and fourth 'Fantastic' genre piece, although I confess that I've not seen any of his previous work. And although there's no denying the work he's put into this film, I'm not likely to be rectifying that any time soon.

When happy clappy Sarah is murdered in the woods - the latest in a string of victims, all who have evidence of burn marks on their bodies - the detective in charge of the investigation, Sutton (Munn), has a fleeting vision at the murder scene of a cowled figure with Sutton's face who exhales CGI flies.

Sarah's twin sister, anxiety suffering Emma (Jasmine Hodgson) experiences additional debilitating panic attacks, brought on by the grief of her sister's violent death, and the frustration of not knowing who did it. This can only be relieved in two ways; firstly by having regular chaste and clothes on sex with boyfriend Sam (Michael Howard) and secondly visits to a local medium, Rebecca (Holly Nicol) to get the answers she desperately needs.

While the psychic consultations provide some comfort for Emma, and eventually visitations from Sarah, they also seem to ramp up the threat of danger, ostensibly from Sutton, who appears to Emma in her dreams. But the truth of who killed Sarah and now threatens Emma is far less prosaic than a rogue policeman, as she's about to find out.

Familiars is a perfect storm of not very good things which together make it a well intentioned failure. With the exception of Hodgson the 'local' acting is generally pretty poor, which in itself isn't a massive problem; the other issues are an overambitious and increasingly confusing story coupled with (I'm guessing lockdown restricted) effects which look cheap and nasty (especially in the fiery climax). Possibly the most interesting aspect of the film was the rather accurate depiction of the anxious state (some animation showing Emma's fast beating heart actually worked quite well). Munn is a man of faith, which shows in the moralising 'don't dabble in the darkside' themes and the rather leaden songs - he's a Christian songwriter too. I don't fault the passion he put into this film; I'm afraid it's just not very good.

Evie (UK 2021: Dir Dominic Brunt) 
Outside of his Paddy Dingle character in the long running soap Emmerdale, for nearly a decade now Dominic Brunt has been building up a CV directing modest but effective regionally focused fright flicks, mingling the mundane with the terrifying. It’s been a while since his last, 2017’s Attack of the Adult Babies, a bizarre, surreal but blistering attack on the class system made, apparently, as an angry riposte to a major film deal that fell through at the last minute.

Evie sees a return to the more prosaic character setup of his earlier films. The titular Evie, when we first meet her, is a young girl playing on a beach (co-director Jamie Lundy’s daughter Honey) with her brother Tony (Danny-Lee Mitchell-Brunt, the director’s son), seemingly happy and carefree. Wandering among the local caves, she finds an amulet (from which she is afterwards inseparable) and has an unspecified encounter with something - or someone - which afterwards leaves her sullen, taciturn and increasingly volatile.

Twenty three years later we meet Evie as a grown woman (Holli Dempsey), dissatisfied in a dead-end insurance job and seeking - and failing - to find a connection with the opposite sex courtesy of a series of one night stands. In fact the only solace Evie achieves, other than chats with a workmate friend, is in alcohol; the intervening years have seen Evie taken into care and, finally, spat out into the world of adults. Is it the system that has failed her, or is she just spiritually doomed?

Her brother Tony (now played by Jay Taylor) makes contact with her, desiring to reconnect. Their reuniting is a trigger for Evie to confront painful memories of childhood, and to face the truth of what happened that day on the beach.

I’m not sure whether it was the result of pandemic filming conditions, a paucity of available time or maybe a lack of confidence with the subject matter, but Evie is, in this reviewer's opinion, Brunt’s weakest film. Plot turns feel forced and unnatural (in contrast to the authentically remote and credible production design) and Dempsey’s adult version of the haunted Evie fails to convince. The background myth of the selkie (a seal like creature from Celtic and Norse mythology with the ability to change into a human) is atmospheric in itself, but rather leadenly applied; for most of its running time Evie is a downbeat drama which finally and rather bluntly resolves itself into a horror movie. I could see what Brunt was trying to achieve but that intention got lost, making this for the most part an awkward and unfulfilling movie.

Shepherd (UK 2021: Dir Russell Owen)
Now I really liked director Russell Owen’s last film, 2020’s sci fi opus Inmate Zero, and this enigmatically made horror drama follow up is a production of equal quality, if slightly less satisfying than his previous outing.

Tom Hughes plays Eric, a man whose wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss) has died in a car crash while pregnant. A bereft and barely functioning Tom, haunted by images of the crash and the baby he will never hold, heads north, first to the parental home in Scotland where his mother (Greta Scacchi) wants nothing to do with him, and then deeper into the mountains, to take up a job as a shepherd.

He is shown round the ramshackle accommodation that goes with the job by local boat owner Fisher (Kate Dickie), a woman with only one good eye (eyes will feature heavily in this film) who looks like she’s never left her home village. Curiously as part of the accoutrements she leaves for him is a blank journal (he later finds similar books, presumably completed by previous occupants of the house, which suggest that his predecessors had all lost their mind). “Escaping or running?” asks Fisher. She also tells him that “something’s haunting you, Mr Black, I can see it”.

If Tom was hoping to escape his fears, he finds that his new location has actually compounded them; a scribbled message in one of the journals reads “She’s a witch, she’s here” and visions of a gnarled creature are the least of his problems. A nearby lighthouse offers a different but equally powerful set of terrors. As Tom becomes more and more disorientated in his temporary home, it seems like something there wants him.

The issue I had with Shepherd was that everything looked too polite and mannered, from the designer scuffing of his Scottish home (which I could never believe wasn’t a set) to the visions which seemed almost elegantly interspersed. Some of the imagery is effective – a field of crucified animals, stripped of their carcasses, startles – but the ending was well telegraphed and I couldn’t reconcile the force of the supernatural happenings with the rather mundane upshot. Beautifully photographed, yes, but strangely uninvolving.

Seagull (UK 2021: Dir Peter Blach)
 It’s rather pushing it to see this first time feature by Danish born director Blach, shot in the gloomy environs of Folkestone, as anything but a domestic drama, despite its rather tenuous fantastic elements.

Centring around two grandparents, Jeff (Adam Radcliffe) and his disabled, alcoholic wife Janet (Jessica Hynes), their daughter, feisty Violet (Rosie Steel) and granddaughter Lily (Miranda Beinart-Smith), disruption to an already unhappy family unit comes in the form of Jeff and Janet’s long lost daughter Rose (Gabrielle Sheppard). For the last eight years Rose has been living on a beach, her home a makeshift tent which finally catches fire and is destroyed; so, with a masked folk-horror figure in tow, she decides to return to her former home and reconnect with Violet, who in reality is her daughter. But Rose has revenge on her mind too, courtesy of an event that occurred eight years earlier.

Even with the presence of the usually great Jessica Hynes this is thin stuff. Populated with actors whose inexperience makes the film appear hesitant where it should be emotionally powerful, its biggest crime is that it makes no sense either as a drama or a more abstract piece of magic realism. None of the characters are developed and the whole project feels under-rehearsed and, well, unfinished. Not very good at all, although shots of the Kent coastline are very atmospheric.

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