Thursday 7 April 2022

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2022 # 2: Reviews of 60 Seconds to Live (UK 2022), Beyond Existence (UK 2022), As A Prelude to Fear (UK 2022), Homebound (UK 2022), The Haunting of Pendle Hill (UK 2022) and Exorcist Vengeance (UK 2022)

60 Seconds to Live (UK 2022: Dir Various)
Tony Newton's UK Vestra Pictures have been behind the last three '60 Seconds to Die' movies and have decided to provide their latest with a more optimistic title. Never fear though, the contents are pretty much as you'd expect, drawn from the four corners of the countercultural planet. To be fair, apart from the British production team, this is only a borderline BFF as most of the micro shorts (and I do mean micro, hardly any of them scrape a minute in length) emanate from the US.

Blighty is prepresented in the opening and closing shorts: 'Snuff Film Part 1' and 'Snuff Film Part 2' feature a man in a mask, tied to a chair being cut up. People being cut up or taking cut throat razors to themselves is a bit of a theme here, although a paucity of budget means a minimum of gore. 

The best part of the film is the middle section. The demon baby of 'Comfort Him', the 70s look of 'Savior', the jump scare of 'Tricks or Treats' and the animated killer pumpkins of 'Toxic Pumpking' by Davide Pesca all stand out. Pesca's strange man birth short 'R.I.P. Angel' is one of a number of abstract movies, best of which is the nightmarish soundtrack of 'The Holy Woman'. I also liked both the revenge shark coming through the TV to get his trophy killer in 'Poltershark' and Tom Gores' 'Raising the Stakes', a colourful take on The Fearless Vampire Killers which even finds time for a blooper. 

It's always difficult to review things like this because nothing stays around for long enough to leave more than a passing retinal image. Perhaps that's the point, but the older viewer here can only conclude that there's some sick puppies in this world; and someone's given them some cameras.

Beyond Existence (UK 2022: Dir Stephen Hoque)
 For his first feature director Stephen Hoque has traded in his usual CV of commercials and short films in favour of an ambitious subject; the potential end of mankind’s existence. And, equally boldly, he’s decided to tell this story with just three main characters and a setting of the UK countryside.

The Professor (Gary MacKay) is a once brilliant, now washed up alcoholic scientist whose Nobel Prize winning days, at the age of 23, are well behind him. The Professor is also the guardian of a couple of secrets; his own and the cube he keeps locked in a secure facility which has enormous, far-reaching powers.

On his tail is Ellen (a Tilda Swinton like Amelia Clay), a professional assassin who has been instructed to capture The Professor and bring him in. And on both their tails is The Guardian (Vincent Vermignon) who has exited from a gigantic pyramid. But once the pair compare notes they realise that there’s more sense in teaming up than being at each other’s throats, and so begins a quest for survival and the outwitting of The Guardian.

There’s a few narrative reveals in this movie that would be unfair to repeat here, suffice to mention that as each brain boggling detail is revealed, the viewer becomes ever more conscious that this is a film of people talking about science and alien worlds rather ponderously, rather than one which has the budget to show them to any great extent.

So what we have is The Prof and Ellen on an extended road trip round the UK while they get to know each other, or at least suss each other out. But the setup isn’t hugely successful in that Hoque really doesn’t develop his characters.

I liked the concept of the story, but its scope is way too epic to be successfully delivered by a couple of ordinary souls in a hatchback (McKay and Clay being little more than serviceable in their roles), and so it’s left to the Indian VFX crew ‘Wild’ to pull out some modest topped and tailed set pieces which are more impressive than anything that occurs between them. I can’t fault the director’s ambition but Beyond Existence doesn’t really work either as sci fi or drama.

As a Prelude to Fear (UK 2022: Dir Steph Du Melo)
Du Melo's second film out this year, after the disappointing C.A.M. (and you can read the review of that in issue #2 of the hard copy DEoL fanzine, details elsewhere on this blog) is apparently based on real events, and some statistics before the end credits suggest that AaPtF's story is intended to be a universal one.

Classical cellist Eve Taylor (Lara Lemon) is scheduled to meet up with a man who it is hoped will give her musical tuition but about whom she knows nothing. Dropped off by her boyfriend Jamie Harris (Jamie Langlands) at a local cafe - the agreed meeting point - she gets a call to rendezvous instead at a nearby, rather dilapidated building. On arrival she's promptly captured by a big hooded man with a Jigsaw like altered voice who imprisons her in the basement.

Harris reports Eve's disappearance to the police. The person in charge of the subsequent investigation is DCS Barnbrook (Francis Magee, who older viewers may recognise as Liam from Eastenders back in the 1990s) supported by DS Dobson (Lucy Drive), and suspicion immediately falls on Mr Corcoran (the movie's co-writer Roger Wyatt), a rather odd local music teacher who Barnbrook had interviewed in connection with three previous murders; all girls, all cellists.  

Back in the basement, Eve encounters other imprisoned girls who she can hear but not see. One fills some gaps in the narrative; mainly that the kidnapper has a track record of abducting and killing girls and is a bit of a musician on the side. As Barnbrook focuses his attentions on the admittedly shifty Corcoran, Eve fears that she's about to be the next dead cellist.

While AaPtF is an improvement on the woeful C.A.M. it's still a pretty flat movie, strangely managing to generate lifeless performances from the cast's professionals (Magee and Drive) as well as the less seasoned newcomers. This movie comes across as half TV procedural, half Saw like thriller, mercifully without the torture porn. Du Melo turns in a score which works in parts but which you hope will shut up once in a while (silence is also good for drama). It's well shot and put together, but terribly uninvolving, a movie aiming but not succeeding in punching above its budgetary weight.

Homebound (UK 2022: Dir Sebastian Godwin)
Godwin’s first feature (of sorts, it’s barely over an hour long) sees Holly (Aisling Loftus) travelling with her new husband Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill) to his family home in Norfolk. It’s a tense time for Holly – Richard’s first wife Nina will be there with his kids and it’s the first time she’ll be meeting teenagers Ralph (Lukas Rolph) and Lucia (Hattie Gotobed), and little Anna (Rafiella Chapman).

But when they arrive, Nina isn’t around and the kids have been left to fend for themselves. Holly immediately picks up an odd bond between the trio and Richard, something stronger than mere blood ties; a country family, she is aghast to see them catching and killing a goose for dinner, and Richard making liberal with the wine for all the family.

Holly initially decides to go with the flow and play along with the family’s odd lifestyle, but the longer she stays in the house the more she realises that nothing between them is quite right, including the man she’s recently married.

Homebound becomes progressively nasty as Holly struggles to understand the dynamics – and secrets – at the heart of her new family. It had the opportunity to be more unpleasant, but Godwin holds back on the shocks in favour of a growing unease, which can occasionally make the film feel a little undercooked.

The atmosphere is helped by some great performances, mainly from Richard’s three children (Gotobed in particular is subtly menacing) and Aisling Loftus is convincingly caught between love and fear; one also wonders whether this is another role for Goodman Hill which echoes his recent real life abrupt marriage walk out – he has famously said that the realities of his private life have helped him get into character for parts like these.

Homebound is helped no end by a script which avoids cliché even if the scenario is familiar, and an authentically jarring soundtrack from Jeremy Warmsley. It may be a little slight, but it certainly has its moments. And the atmospherically distressed Wiveton Hall in Norfolk is a great setting; property owner Desmond McCarthy, whose ebullient frame graced the recent BBC show Normal for Norfolk (in which he described the challenges of affording to keep a country house in order) has presumably seen the financial advantages of turning the gaff over to film crews, so expect more movies to be located there.

(A version of this review appeared on the Bloody Flicks website).

The Haunting of Pendle Hill (UK 2022: Dir Richard John Taylor)
The true story of the 17th century Pendle witches from Lancashire, while not as famous as their Salem sisters, is a small but notorious part of English history. Originally novelised by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1849, and later by Robert Neill in 1951, the womens' story was televised by the BBC as a drama in 1976 and a documentary in 2011.

So now here's UK director Richard John Taylor, taking a break from his trademark gangster movies, to deliver his take on this bit of history. Mixing the real characters of the original account with a contemporary storyline, as the film opens, in 1612, John Law (James Hamer-Morton) leaves the home of Roger Nowell, JP and witchfinder (Noel Brendan Mcalley) and his daughter Maud (Lowri Watts-Joyce): encountering a mysterious figure in a cat mask in the woods, he promptly dies.

Flash forward to the present day, and Matilda, an American (also played, with a pretty good US accent, by Brit Watts-Joyce) is concerned about her father (also Mcalley). He has been in England researching a book (with the same name as the movie) concerning Nowell and the potenially supernatural events surrounding arch witch Demdike, and has gone missing. Matilda's uncle Alfred (played by Taylor regular Nicholas Ball, sporting a particularly bad American accent) fills her in on the Pendle witches and suggests she travels to the UK to look for dad; there is a suspicion that the evils of Demdike and her like may have travelled through time and put Matilda's father in danger.

On arriving in Blighty she teams up with another American, local guide Arthur (Brit Jeffrey Charles Richards) and the search is on. The movie's main shtick is moving backwards and forwards in time, with Matilda and Maud both searching for their respective fathers, and with the threat of the supernatural looming large. Taylor, who also wrote this, fiddles with history here by making the historical figures actual witches rather than subjugated working class women coming a cropper at the hands of powerful local men. 

But the director does deserve some praise for trying something a little different, and for disguising a story which combines lots of walking around in the woods while borrowing folk horror motifs from The Blair Witch Project with some interesting historical flavour and dialect (although one 17th character asking another "art thou ok?" did provoke a snort). Best line: "I'm an atheist"; "you're a millennial!"

Exorcist Vengeance (UK 2022: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews)
This is the second of Jeffrey and Matthews's movies to utilise the, er, specific talents of Mr Robert Bronzi (following last year's The Gardener, which won't be covered as it falls outside the NWotBFF remit) ie that the Hungarian actor looks exactly like Charles Bronson, I'm assuming the pair got a BOGOF contract for his services.

Anyway in this one Bronzi is Father Andres Jozsef, priest, ex drug pusher, hardman, exorcist, religious pontificator, as handy with his fists as he is wielding the King James version, and mourning for his dead wife. His multi skilled talents are called into play fairly quickly, when he fells and shoots a fleeing killer on the mean streets of London town. But when an old possessed lady takes her own life, but not before transferring the demon inside to her maid Magda (Anna Liddell), Father J is appointed to the case via the Vatican in the shape of Bishop Canelo (Steven Berkoff). 

After consulting his dead wife's grave for advice, he arrives at the house, where the family remains in shock. They are grandma's children Patrick (Simon Furness) and Christine (Nicola Wright), Christine's kids Nick (Ben Parsons) and Rebecca (Sarah Alexandra Marks) who have returned from America - hence the dodgy accents - and Patrick's daughter Rose (Nicole Nabi). But Father J's talents are tested to the limit as, one by one, the family members start getting killed, presumably by the demonic entity; the same family who don't want him on the premises in the first place.

The main takeaway from Exorcist Vengeance, apart from the extraordinary casting of Bronzi as the impassive, impenetrably accented Father Jozsef, is how Jeffrey and Matthews have upped their directing game for this film. The pair's CV, as covered extensively in these pages, has tended towards slower paced, social drama centred fright flicks. But no more! EV is, for them anyway, non stop action, cleverly combining possession drama with a whodunnit subplot. As Gavin Whitaker points out in his review, this may have something to do with the presence of US producers Jeff Miller and Mark L. Lester (the latter of whom had production duties on, among others, The Funhouse (1981) and 1990's Class of 1999). 

Plot wise there's still the usual amount of bobbins associated with this sort of thing, and scenes like Chrissie Wunna's police interview, where she's dressed like a stripper cop, complete with US badge, suggest that Jeffrey and Matthews haven't lost their sense of humour. But this is huge fun and the final scene, hinting at Bronzi's return in a sequel, prompted a small round of applause from this reviewer.

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