Wednesday 8 June 2022

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #11: Reviews of Alien: Battlefield Earth (UK 2021), The Midwife (UK 2021), The Seed (UK 2021), The Mutation (UK 2021), The Haunting of Hythe House (UK 2021) and The Devil Came Home (UK 2021)

Alien: Battlefield Earth (UK 2021: Dir Andrew Jones) Prolific Welsh filmmaker Andrew Jones has, in his last few movies, broken away from the mould of his previous films, home grown supernatural horror dramas which have been well made but rather boring. But nothing prepared me for this: micro budget director goes seriously epic with his first big concept sci fi flick. It's also his Covid movie.

When two crew members from a distant planet crash land on earth, the US army capture them fearing they're the spearhead of an alien invasion. The aliens see this as a declaration of war and mount an attack on our world's cities, causing widespread destruction and, with their massive saucers hovering over key capital cities, force a political stand off. 

Being 'Jones the filmmaker' (hopefully that'll catch on) of course all this happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, leaving him free to do what he does best in his movies; have people chat. So as the aliens pontificate about what to do next, and the President of the USA seeks answers, the people of the world, well, sit about really, rather unperturbed by the chaos surrounding them.

Stirring it all up is internet conspiracy freak Saha (Peter Cosgrove) whose metaphysical ruminations set up the more chin strokey elements of the film. The aliens, a combination of people in suits and CGI, go by the names of Magon, Gweldor and Hagor; they're a range of shapes and sizes, and their slowed down voices can't disguise that one of our ETs has a Welsh accent. 

Elsewhere the human drama is largely rendered via some Zoom calls, the chat centring on the restictions placed on the people by the Government, which is a thin bit of narrative allowing the characters to talk about confinement and being cheesed off about being locked down. I suspect that Jones was having his Neill Blomkamp moment (the South African director's District 9 was clearly an influence) while working around, and incorporating the Pandemic.

I appreciate that this is a conscious step up for Jones, but while there'a lot more action here than we're used to seeing from him, and some admittedly creative use of stock footage, elsewhere he's still plagued by pacing (and script) issues, with talking heads carrying most of the narrative weight. But Alien: Battlefield Earth looks very good, I'll give him that (well done to funders 4 Digitalmedia!) even though the visuals sometimes part company with the logic of the thing (there's a scene set in Egypt that I'd love someone to explain to me), and you can't help like an earth huggy message, no matter how confusingly delivered. Nuts.

The Midwife (UK 2021: Dir Ryan Gage, Marta Baidek) Lissie (Lara Goodison) and Charlie (Jeremy Joyce) are living in a house way too big for them. It's a family house, but luckily Lissie is  pregnant. She's also incredibly superstitious and fanciful, a combination just made for an indie fright flick; it's not helped when Charlie, who may or may not be fibbing, tells her that the site of the house has a dark past. Money is tight and they're dependent for income on their new lodger, Kara (Ellie Morris), who's a bit of a nouveau hippie herself. Wendy (Adeline Waby) the assertive midwife arrives, unexpectedly, and takes over, but her efforts are made redundant when Lissie loses the baby, who they'd named Michael. 

Lost in grief,  Lissie becomes afraid and increasingly manic, convinced that there are shadowy things in the house, while Charlie and Kara seem to become close. Resisting Charlie's requests for Lissie to commit herself to hospital, the tension between them thaws somewhat when Lissie tells him she's pregnant. But Lissie is far from well, and the re-emergence of the creepy Wendy, ready to look after the new arrival, and the continued presence of the fruity loops Kara, suggest that Lissie's problems have only just begun.

The title's all you need to know about this one; it, and the film itself, is a rather classy throwback to psychos-in-the-house movies of the 1990s; you know, the ones with the third reel twist. This is a four character movie where no-one can be trusted, with an ending that left this reviewer scratching his head. It's crisply filmed, well (and occasionally, justifiably, over) acted with an impressive score by Andrew Leung, and until the last ten minutes or so has a firm grip on its rug pulling narrative. At one point Charlie, Lissie and Kara are sitting down watching Gaslight, which is about right. Fun, though.

The Seed (UK 2021: Dir Sam Walker) In a recent interview Sam Walker said that with The Seed he wanted to make a "popcorn creature feature...and hide something in it". The 'something' in this case is the supposed vacuity of social media, and the "dark, nefarious algorithms" which are part of it. 

Three young women head off for a house in the Mojave desert, the perfect location to watch a promised 'once in a lifetime' meteor storm. The house is owned by the father of one of the girls, Heather (Sophie Vavasseur), the kind of spiritual soul who greets you with a 'namaste'. Deidre (Lucy Martin) is a social media star and their friend Charlotte is both technophobic (she still has a flip top phone) and social media unfriendly ("I don't want 'likes' - it's really invasive", she says). I'm not really sure why she's with them, but it makes for some interesting dynamics.

During the aformentioned storm something falls into the swimming pool. Initially thinking it's frozen, er, waste from a passing plane, they are surprised when the blob comes to life. The girls are, respectively repulsed with and fascinated by it, until the creature starts exerting its influence on them, first mentally and then physically; with very squishy results.

The Seed's last 15 minutes, a gross out fest full of lots of great practical effects, would have made a great short film. As it is the movie takes an incredibly long time to get to the action, and once you've familiarised yourself with the characters it's a case of sitting around waiting for someting to happen. The filmmakers do a pretty good job of getting Malta (and some stock footage) to stand in for the USA, and the three leads mainly pull off convincing American accents and do good 'going bonkers' (Ms Vavasseur even has to eat raw eggs, shells 'n' all, as shorthand for alien possession). But this is a film that wears its influences pretty openly - I counted ET, Eraserhead, Earth Girls are Easy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Possession in there - but doesn't really have enough going for it to sustain interest over the movie's 90 minutes.

The Mutation (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey) At one point Jeffrey's gazillionth creature feature for 2021 was to be called 'Rats Reborn' which gives you a better idea of the beast in this movie. And considering the director's amazingly prolific output, you might think that the title change was intended to manage audience expectations; but really this is not a bad movie, showing the continuing improvement of a genre director whose cinematic offerings are growing increasingly watchable.

So in the film's now obligatory prologue a benign scientist, Peter Rowe (Nick Danan), is working on secret experiments while a large beast - actually a giant rat - is chained up; it later escapes. "Remember, you're home" the scientist tells it a little bafflingly, before the beast rips him to pieces (just one of this movie's effective pieces of effects work).

Meanwhile two timing Jenna (Jodie Bennet) is about to leave her zoologist husband Allen (Ricardo Freitas), but before he can respond to this news the local police, headed by Sergeant Chambers (Megan Purvis, spared the ignominy of attempting an American accent, like most of the rest of the cast, and given an Irish brogue instead) asks for his opinion on the type of animal who has ground up Peter, Allen's neighbour. Peter's wife Dr Linda Rowe (Amanda-Jade Tyler) knows what her husband was up to - using chemicals on rats - but wants to avenge her husband's killer anyway, forming an alliance with him and Allen's zoologist assistant, Julie (Abi Casson Thompson). So while the beast is on the loose posing a clear and present danger, the police want to sit on the story of a giant escaped rat so as not to scare the public and create panic; their inaction leads to the rat embarking on an orgy of destruction.

Jeffrey has decided to come off the fence with The Mutation and set his events in a version of the US, judging by the range of accents (and the odd US police car) on display, although the interiors are still clearly UK based, and a TV news strap reads 'Mutated Rat seen in English countryside'. Doh! But having nearly every cast member (all Jeffrey regulars and reliable at this sort of thing) pretend to be American is actually less distracting than his usual character blend of different nationalities. The good news is that Jeffrey seems to be getting better and better at this sort of thing. The Mutation has pace, a good plot, and is clearly in love with the monster movie genre; some of the set pieces, including a standout scene where the giant rat goes beserk in a packed restaurant, are some of the best I've seen from the director. My only concern is that one of my favourite actors from the Jeffrey/Matthews/Warren stable - Sarah Cohen - only has a cameo role in this. But I love the coterie of regulars who populate these movies and work incredibly hard for probably not much at all. Pretty good. 

The Haunting of Hythe House (UK 2021: Dir Steven M. Smith) Harsh critic Danny 'The Destroyer' (Luke Stevenson) takes enormous pleasure ripping into the independent horror movies he reviews. When he wishes in one particular savaging that the producers of a film should take their own life to save everyone's time, his words come back to bite him via an anonymous hacker, 'Control' who breaks into Danny's system and blackmails him, via threat of exposure, to spend 24 hours in an empty house while being filmed. The offer of £1 million is the sweetener that gets Danny out of his grotty flat and into the new location (the abandoned and boarded up Poltimore House in Devon, a regular Smith location).

Once inside, a series of digital clocks in various rooms begin to count backwards to mark his remaining time in the house, and the hacker voice welcomes him to "24 hours in hell". He's told about the mansion's history and the buried treasure hidden somewhere in the property; it's the rich pickings pilfered by the evil butler of one of the house's owners who, with his wife, allegedly haunts the house to protect it. So Danny has less than 24 hours to find the treasure and make his escape.

'Control' wants the movie it's making to be "a cult classic and not another micro budget piece of shit". With lines like that, and a central character who's obviously an amalgam of people like me who are public in my dislike of Smith's films, you better be pretty sure you're going to serve up something that exceeds expectations. Now I like trash, I love low budget films, and I'm prepared to forgive some indifferent acting if the overall project is worthwhile. But this is unintelligent, juvenile drivel, making not a lick of sense, without panache, style or wit. The people in front of and behind the camera have all made better films than this; hell Smith has made better films than this. But The Haunting of Hythe House is listless, dreary, poorly paced and just awful. Yes, even more awful than his 2019 movie Scare Attraction; and I thought that would be impossible.

The Devil Came Home (UK 2021: Dir George McCluskey) McCluskey's gloomy but competent debut feature takes us into the lives of the Baxters, a West Midlands family where all is not well. Dad Tim (Greg Hobbs) suffers from PTSD, the result of 22 years in the army and a difficult time in Bosnia. Tim's increasingly disturbing nightmares - including visions of a goggle masked wearing figure - are affecting the rest of the family, namely Tim's long suffering wife Elaine (Diane Ellis) and step-daughter Mindy (Jade Callender), who had no say in the addition of Tim to the family unit.

Tim's condition deteriorates to the point where therapists are of little use, a straitjacket is purchased to afford protection to his family, and the stricken father begins speaking in a Romanian accent. A priest is engaged, followed by a psychic, and the reality behind Tim's possession is gradually and terrifyingly revealed.

The Devil Came Home's drabness of backdrop - its action largely confined to an anonymous semi detached house - is matched by rather prosaic performances from the cast, which is at odds with the increasingly surprising reveals of the plot. Ultimately this makes the movie both tense and uninvolving; a strange mix of dull and strange, with only Hobbs's committed performance leavening the proceedings. The production team's collective background contains a lot of TV experience, so it's perhaps not surprising that this feels like a rather small screen affair; it's a bold concept, but ulitimately didn't pay off for me.

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