Sunday 6 February 2022

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #10: Reviews of Jekyll and Hyde (UK 2021), Spider in the Attic (UK 2021), It Came from Below (UK 2021), Martyr's Lane (UK 2021), Bad Moon Rising (UK 2021) and A Curious Tale (UK 2021)

Jekyll and Hyde (UK 2021: Dir Steve Lawson) The third of Lawson’s treatments of classic horror stories, following on from Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing and Ripper Untold. Jekyll and Hyde traces a similar pattern to these movies: a kind of reimagining of the story with good attention to period detail and some spirited acting from his usual cast stable.

Lawson’s version of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novella dances in and out of the original text. As the film opens Henry Jekyll (Michael McKell, who gets to sing a power ballad over the end credits) draws up a will with family friend and solicitor Gabriel Utterson (Tom Hendryk); in the event of Jekyll’s demise, the whole of his estate is assigned to a Mr Hyde. The morning after, Jekyll is chased back to his laboratory by the police, in the shape of Inspector Newcombe (Mark Topping) who have accused him of murder; on gaining entry they find that Jekyll, who has also been implicated in a number of other murders, has shot himself dead.

Most of the rest of the movie is told in flashback via a long letter from Jekyll delivered to Utterson, which describes his experiments, the existence of Mr Hyde and the trail of violence that follows. Convinced of Jekyll’s innocence in the face of almost incontrovertible evidence Utterson turns amateur sleuth; but the truth is stranger than anybody expects.

Lawson’s micro budget adaptation relies, for the most part, on accounts and descriptions of the action, rather than the action itself (although the final reel generates some excitement which is pretty amazing considering the paucity of the sets). There’s some rather ill-advised comedy in the form of the Enfield character (David Lenik) who has some entanglements with ladies of the night, but Sarah Utterson (Helen Crevel) is arguably the best thing in this, handy with her fists but looking the part as the normally demure solicitor’s wife. Slight, but not without appeal.

Spider in the Attic aka Spider from the Attic (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey) In the opening scenes of Jeffrey’s latest creature feature, scientist Dr George Zizerman (Chris Cordell) has been fired from his employer for unethical research practices (he’s been investigating ancient Nazi experiments into genetic mutations, possibly using alien life forms); which is a shame as he’s just perfected a growth serum which he’s used, successfully, on a spider. A side effect of the serum is that the treated subject becomes highly aggressive…and, of course, huge. I think you can guess what happens to the doc.

Radio host Linda Buxton (Nicola Wright), who runs a show devoted to the unexplained, is losing ratings fast, and vows to her station manager Shauna (Kate Sandison) that things will improve. Her daughters, heavily pregnant Belle (Chelsea Greenwood) and girl from the military Lucy (Sarah Alexandra Marks) rally round mum suggesting that she needs something new and exciting to enliven the show. And Lucy has the answer: an investigation into what happened to Dr Zizerman.

Linda, Belle and Lucy break into the scientist’s house and eventually find the good doctor, dead and cocooned in his bedroom, and one of the mutant spiders (actually they look more like a cross between a spider, a scorpion and the ‘facehugger’ from Alien); Belle’s boyfriend Dan (Clint Gordon) turns up, seemingly only to bicker and whinge with his partner, and they also come across Shauna, who’s been checking up on Linda, together with assistant Lorena (Danielle Scott). Whereas anyone else would do the sensible thing and exit stage right, Linda senses a story and suggests that everyone hangs around to get the scoop: big mistake.

Spider in the Attic is a little formulaic: like many micro horrors I’ve reviewed the horror is interspersed with scenes of domestic intrigue and of course the old B movie standby of wandering round an empty house. Jeffrey deserves credit for casting, instead of the usual YouTube teen, an older actor (Wright) who brings some gravitas to the role, and an all woman climax: and while some of the spider CGI looks a little hokey, in their smaller incarnations the creatures look quite scary, scuttling up walls or across beds.

The movie’s last half hour does mount some tension – despite the abrupt end – improved by Andrew Fosberry’s atmospheric soundtrack, in contrast to the rather talky first two thirds; Spider in the Attic isn’t great but, like a lot of Jeffrey’s movies, it has its heart in the right place and is definitely worth a watch.

It Came from Below (UK 2021: Dir Dan Allen) Allen’s second feature (after his 2017 remake of the 1982 Don Gronquist movie Unhinged) comes with the guiding hand of co-scriptwriter Sam Ashurst (A Little More Flesh) and producer Scott Jeffrey (ooh, everything!) but manages to be its own beast, a tense movie which rises above its low budget limitations.

Megan Purvis, sporting the by now obligatory but largely redundant American accent required for at least one character in these things, is Jessie Harper, a woman grieving her father (grief is often a narrative device in micro horrors I've noticed), a potholer who came across a certain something in some local caves and died as a result (Purvis can do good ‘moody’ and is a natural for parts like this). Jake Watkins is Sam Harper, also sporting a US accent (and who is possibly Jessie’s brother, or half-brother; it isn’t that clear), and together they’re on a journey to reclaim dad’s honour; he died a laughing stock, full of stories about underground monsters. In their revisit of the same caves that took his life they’re accompanied by their English friends Joanna (Georgie Grace) and Marty (Tom Taplin), the latter of whom has a past with Jessie. Dad left behind a comprehensive handwritten journal of his sightings, which the English pair dismiss as nonsense although recognising the potential for profiteering, furthering rattling Jessie’s cage; she wanted to travel alone.

Their descent into the caves is despite warnings from the camp rangers; “Don’t go in the caves,” they advise, but Jessie’s full of purpose. Pretty soon the party are without Marty who swiftly loses it and runs off to the interior; somewhat inevitably he’s victim number one, and it’s not long before the (rather impressive) beast emerges, first seen crawling along the roof of one of the caves. Jessie and the rest of the gang become trapped in the stony netherworld, and the rampant beast isn’t their only problem.

Despite the rather undercooked script there’s a lot to like in It Came from Below; it really only gets going once the party descend into the darkness, helped by some stunning photography from Dominic Ellis and Allen’s tense direction. The creature’s pretty good value and although it doesn’t feature in the movie that much, this is probably for the best. Domestic disputes (another hallmark of UK low budget horror flicks) are kept to a minimum, and Purvis makes for a convincingly terrified protagonist. I’m going to guess from some of the exterior shots that the shoot was a cold and damp one, which really adds to the atmosphere of dread. It’s not The Descent, but then what is?

Martyr’s Lane (UK 2021: Dir Ruth Platt) Seen through the eyes of 10 year old Leah (Kiera Thompson) the world is a mysterious and often frightening place. With dad as the village vicar (the family live in a Victorian rectory) her life revolves around stressed mum Sarah (Denise Gough) who suffers from night terrors and wears a mysterious amulet containing a lock of blonde hair, and Leah’s bullying older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) whose unbridled anger is clearly overcompensating for something. Things get odder when Leah meets Rachel, a strange, ethereal little girl in the woods (Sienna Sayer), complete with broken angel’s wings, who she invites home.

I’m not really giving the game away to confirm that there's a connection between the lock of hair and Leah’s strange nocturnal visitor. Actor turned director Platt conjures up a beautifully framed, almost overly polite ghost story, where the central tragedy is discovered clue by clue (stray buttons, a doll, loose teeth), with Rachel and Leah at the centre of the mystery. Things only threaten to transform to full on genre movie at its climax; for the most part the story is happy to move slowly towards its dramatic conclusion.

Martyr’s Lane would be a lesser thing without the twin talents of Thompson and Sayer, the latter particularly achieving a delicate balance of prosaic and mystical, quite a feat for someone so young. Thompson’s Leah is a child adrift in a world of adults whose motivations remain a mystery to her (scenes shot from her height emphasise this) and her parents’ staunch Catholic faith runs at odds with Leah’s encounters with an increasingly strong Rachel, who may or may not be real, but is the closest thing Leah has to a friend. Martyr’s Lane may be a very mannered ghost story, but it’s one with a lot of atmosphere, topped off with Erased Tapes collaborator Anne Müller’s haunting score.

Bad Moon Rising (UK 2021: Dir Alasdair MacKay) Lucy (Dani Thompson), Jordan (Loren Peta, Sean Young’s performance double in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049) and Pip (Honey Holmes) make up ‘Scream Team’, a trio of fun loving TV ghost hunters whose ‘structured reality’ show in under threat of cancellation. Apart from gullible Pip, the girls don’t believe in the supernatural. So when slimy manager James (David Curtis) books them a gig in Bulgaria to investigate a real haunting, they’re a bit perplexed, but are pressured into accepting it to keep the show going.

Arriving in a quiet part of the country they end up in a small village. There’s one bar and a creepy graveyard with cages over the graves. To keep something in, the girls muse? And they might be right; a local woman is mauled by an unseen beast, and when the team are filming in the woods, they’re approached by a local man (and ferret) who tells them that the area is unsafe. As the team put their report together, things are gathering outside, waiting for the moon to rise.

Put out by the re-energised Vipco label (which is currently giving lifeblood to a number of recent UK fantastic titles), Bad Moon Rising is, sadly, just bad. Hampered by some poor sound, indifferent acting and an almost indecent lack of plot, at 75 mins this is a real chore to get through. Some of the footage has obviously been kicking around for a while; the late Richard Gladman, who died in 2016, plays himself as a journalist in one scene, and internet sources make mention of filming an earlier version of the movie back in 2015.

I’m all for low budget enthusiasm but Bad Moon Rising feels lazy, derivative and pretty pointless. A credit for the ‘Essex Ferret Welfare Society’ is about the only thing to commend it.

A Curious Tale (UK 2021: Dir Leigh Tarrant) In 1588, the film's prologue tells us, the Spanish armada invaded the shores of England; the Sussex heritage, in the shape of three buried crowns, aimed to protect the country from further invasion. The crowns’ powers meant that while one was still in existence, no foreign army would invade.

Hang on. Isn’t this the plot of M R James’s story ‘A Warning to the Curious’? Why yes it is, and although director Tarrant does  acknowledge the source text in the end credits of his 50 minute short (mistakenly referring to it as a novel) it’s still a bit of a cheeky move. So we open with a man digging in a coastal location for the remaining crown who gets bumped off by a fearsome cove who tells him (altogether now) “no diggin’ ere!”. 12 years later there’s a new treasure hunter in town: Pete Rattlebone (the oft used character name of Australian actor Pete Tindal, 60s musician turned TV personality and podcaster) who seeks the crown for himself, only to come across the ghostly protector of the antique, a Mr Hagar, as opposed to the story’s ‘Ager’ (Noddy Holder-esque Ian Kear).

Tarrant lifts stylistic chunks of Lawrence Gordon-Clark’s 1972 BBC adaptation of the story but adds a few ideas of his own, namely a female ghost and a dream sequence in the hotel where Rattlebone stays. Jeff Crampton’s score is sufficiently atmospheric, but there’s some ‘local’ acting which rather lets the things down and the budget forces some awkward compromises (word processed texts inserted into old books for example); it's ok but I would have preferred Tarrant to create a story of his own.

A Curious Tale can be rented via Vimeo.

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