Sunday 16 October 2022

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #13: Reviews of The Artist (UK 2021), Dark Ditties Presents 'Dad' (UK 2021), In the Earth (UK 2021), The Secluded (UK 2021), The Ultimate Sacrifice (UK 2021) and Hellkat (UK 2021)

The Artist (UK 2021: Dir Sebastian Li) Pedro Henrique Valladao plays Peter, a struggling artist (is there any other type?) whose self portrait work is unpopular, but remains disdainful of others' efforts. His friend (Peter Seungchan No) acts as a kind of agent in the face of disinterested gallery owners. Peter's cynicism with the state of the art world extends to copying the styles of others, much to the delight of his cash strapped friend, and then sabotaging the work because it has "no soul".

Peter's world is increasingly closed off and his frustration with the lack of interest in his art is compounded by his refusal to compromise. This situation reaches a head when Peter realises that blood seeping from a mysterious wound is key to his creative, and possibly commercial success.

This 58 minute film is a strange beast, an art film in more ways than one. Various unrelated characters sustain wounds on their bodies which, suggests Li, might be their inner truth leaking out. Or something; whatever else it might mean, there are some similarities with Jo Begos's 2019 movie Bliss, which dealt with the crossover between art and blood. For a movie with a low budget it looks pretty good, and there's a fine score by William Choo to give it some class. Abstract and impenetrable it might be, but The Artist is visually arresting.

You can watch The Artist here.

Dark Ditties Present 'Dad' (UK 2021: Dir Adam Evans) The 'Dark Ditties' series is the brainchild of the Cult Screenings company, who have been turning out episodes of their web films since 2017; the fifth episode is ostensibly a zombie flick which is actually more interesting than that premise.

In the film’s prologue two opposing men of faith – one Christian, the other a follower of the late Father Tyberius Crane – argue their points on live TV before the latter transforms into one of the infected, triggering a zombie outbreak.

18 months later, after the infection has spread and the non infected have marshalled their forces, we meet David (Corin Silva) and his dementia-stricken dad Terry (Ian Gelder), to whom David is primary carer. Distracted by an approaching zombie, who David kills while sustaining a scratch, Terry is abducted by three uninfected men living in the woods, displaced and deeply suspicious of anyone they meet. They are Jerry (ex Coronation Street actor Bruce Jones), Keith (Simon Bamford, the ‘Butterball’ Cenobite from 1987’s Hellraiser) and Steve (Neil Cole).

After a forest attack David, Terry and Keith take refuge in a nearby mansion, occupied by the barnstorming pugilistic Reverend Alistair O'Brian (Mark Wingett, with on/off Irish accent) and his daughter Elizabeth (Wingett’s real life daughter Jamila, who at the age of 7 and a half appeared on an episode of This is Your Life dedicated to her dad, and told Michael Aspel that ‘she wanted to be an actress’; there's still time Jamila). They’re soon after re-joined by Jerry and Steve, and while zombies gather outside the fortress, inside things turn equally dark as Jerry begins to show how unhinged he is.

Dad has its fair share of harrowing scenes, but they’re emotionally rather than physically charged. David harbours a dark secret about his past which plays on his mind as much as his grief at losing the soul of his father; and there’s a similar tension between Jerry and Elizabeth, all of which creates an atmosphere which puts the zombie threat very much on the back burner.

This is a clever and well-acted take on the traditional ‘infected’ narrative, and it’s perhaps a shame that it’s been hidden away within the webisode format of the ‘Dark Ditties’ series; it’s worth checking out.

In the Earth (UK 2021: Dir Ben Wheatley)  The joint spectres of cult writer Nigel Kneale and the recent pandemic hover over Wheatley's bio horror sci fi pic. Shot on a low budget, this is basically a four hander concentrating on scientist Martin (Joel Fry) who ventures into some woodland hoping to reconnect with his researcher friend (and possibly lover) Olivia (Hayley Squires). The journey to find her is long and arduous, so he's accompanied by a ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia) to help navigate the way. But en route the pair encounter danger from an unspecified, possibly floral source, finding assistance from a woodland denizen, Zach (Reece Sheersmith). The four eventually converge, discovering that an ancient entity deep in the woods is alive and well and demanding sacrifice.

In the Earth throws a lot of stuff in the mix, from mythology to deep ecology and psychedelics. Wheatley isn't too bothered about whether it means much to the viewer; he's happy to leave the elements to commingle. We're left with a group of characters stitching together their collective understanding of science and nature and struggling to apply it to the lore of the land. Some have argued that, in its harmony of ritual and chemically assisted psychosis, In the Earth is a follow up to the dirctor's earlier A Field in England, which featured a similarly bemused set of souls cast off the beaten path to battle unseen forces (or maybe just themselves). It's a slight movie that despite its occasionally comic set up takes itself seriously but resists overt interpretation.

The Secluded aka Monkton Lane (UK 2021: Dir Henry Richardson) Richardson's debut feature (although IMDb states that it isn't), made for £2,000, is a low low budget slasher movie shot on location in the Buckinghamshire woods (the aka title refers to a local area in Marlow).

A 1986 prologue, set in the radiation infested Sector 13 deep in the forest, has a killer taking out a hazmat suited guy, killing him and nicking his protective gas mask. Flash forward to the present day and we meet Michael (Richardson, who also edited, produced, wrote the movie) who has escaped from a correctional facility; he's been wrongfully implicated in a robbery and wants revenge. 

As he makes his way through the woods he bumps into a social media chappie, Miles (Malachai Hall) who's making a documentary on the radiation scarred area which used to be a nuclear test site. Both lads then encounter three authentically provincial sounding blokes whose car has conked out on the way to a music festival. But their luck is about to worsen when they meet axe wielding Michael, who has mayhem on his mind.

You have to hand it to the very young Richardson; his movie might be one step up from a school project, but he presents a stripped down slasher flick which eschews the usual girls in peril storyline in favour of a cast of blokes who all look like axe fodder. The acting is more than a little self conscious, although the lads from the car do good muttering teenager, but the woodland backdrop brings a sense of atmosphere and there's some surprisingly good camerawork on display. Richardson brought out two more mirco horrors the year after; an interesting home grown talent.

You can watch The Secluded here.

The Ultimate Sacrifice (UK 2021: Dir Leon Cole) Cole's rough and ready £100 student movie shot on iphones doesn't mess about, front and centring a clutching Frankenstein monster even before the opening credits arrive. Daniel (Cole) is a would be actor and school attendee. His class is set some history homework about ancestry. He discovers via a box in his parents' loft a family tree that shows his connection to the Frankenstein family and a document about Experiment One, including a photograph of a mangled head - Experiment One was not a success. Experiment Two was successful  - named Adam - and depicted by a photo of Boris Karloff from the eponymous 1931 movie. Troubled by dreams about his unusual family tree, Daniel decides to travel to the Transylvanian castle documented in the written accounts to trace his ancestry. 

His journey to Frankenstein's castle (shot in and around Cole's parents' house and a local theatre, to which I'm guessing the director is attached) brings him into contact with the monster who is, predictably, less than friendly, and gives chase. A friend, worried about Daniel, follows him where it's revealed that the boy has been chosen to reanimate the ghost of Dr Frankenstein's creation (Experiment Two) - which places him in a moral dilemma; to raise or not raise the (already) dead?

I'm sure it was a lot of fun making this, perhaps less so watching if you're not a friend of the small cast and crew. But there's always something to salvage from even the slightest of films; in this case some deft editing, creative makeup and effects work, a well chosen soundtrack and a perky performance from the director. Oh yes, and in its later stages it's a Christmas movie with real snow!

You can watch The Ultimate Sacrifice here.

HellKat (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews) Well it wouldn't be a NWotBFF roundup without a Scott Jeffrey movie, now would it? This time round he and directing partner Matthews have gone for an 80s Stateside feel and a slightly different approach to subject matter, courtesy of writer/creator Michele Pacitto.

Katrina 'HellKat' Bash (Sarah T Cohen) is the former top world middleweight fighter, now fallen on hard times, and with a personal tragedy gnawing away at her. She hitches a ride with a god fearing chap who turn out to be a demon; Bash shooting him in the head only makes him annoyed, but it's all in a day's work for our troubled heroine.

Taking a toilet cleaning job in a dive bar in return for endless tequila and smokes (which she never actually smokes), Bash is eventually pursuaded (ok tricked) into utilising her chop socky skills in the ring, against a series of half man/half beast figures.

And that's it! The usual domestic drama subplots common in the films of Mr Jeffrey and his ilk have largely been jettisoned in favour of small time Americana atmosphere and, well, fighting. I don't wish to sound snobby, and I'm sure there's a market for this sort of thing, but as a seeker of British Fantastic Films I felt rather short changed by the whole setup.

For the first half hour there is at least the pleasure of seeing Jeffrey and Matthews create a US atmosphere on a budget which is pretty convincing if you can ignore left hand drive cars with UK number plates and a clearly seen muncipal bin owned by the London Borough of Croydon. The normally reliable Cohen is a bit at sea here and more than slightly unbelievable as a powerhouse of energy (a stunt Cohen takes care of the difficult bits). It's slow, it's uneventful, but I guarantee it's the only movie you'll see this year with monsters and bare knuckle fighters slugging it out in a south London gym. Or maybe I'm just seeing the wrong movies... 

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