Thursday 26 January 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2022 #4: Reviews of The Lair (UK 2022), Demonic Christmas Tree (UK 2022), Hayfever (UK 2022), Blank (UK 2022), Mandrake (UK 2022) and Wrath of Van Helsing (UK 2022)

If you're looking for the third bumper round up of 2022 films, you can find it in the third hard copy edition of DEoL the fanzine - see my last post. 

The Lair (UK 2022: Dir Neil Marshall) Marshall's movies can be hit or miss affairs, and even after his last, 2020's decidedly poor The Reckoning, this is really no improvement.

Makeup perfect Lt Kate Sinclair (Charlotte Kirk, the film's co-writer and Marshall's partner - and it's worth you looking up that story when you have a moment) is shot down while flying over Afghanistan. After crash landing, she's chased, ending up in an underground bunker where she unwittingly lets loose some caged creatures, who she manages to outwit. Sinclair runs into a bunch of soldiers (featuring some terrible British regional accents) who are initially disbelieving of her monster tales. But when the monsters turn up, it's soldier v. beast.

Marshall admitted in a Q&A accompanying the screening I attended that he wanted to make a movie where he basically got "to blow shit up", and when you're starting from that premise, it's perhaps not really fair to look for hidden meanings. While horror fans might look to his past for influences - The Lair has something of the ramshackle feel of Marshall's 2002 debut feature Dog Soldiers, with its dissolute gang of anti establishment military, and also some of the claustrophobic fear of his The Descent (although that movie's in a different league) - this is more recognisable as something from the hand of the director of 2019's Hellboy. The Lair also reminded me of Renny Harlin's 2013 monsters and science romp The Dyatlov Pass Incident, although that's not much of a recommendation; this movie's a bit of a mess and rather forgettable, and acts best as a calling card for Kirk, although my advice to her is not to add The Reckoning to her show reel. 

Demonic Christmas Tree aka The Killing Tree (UK 2022: Dir Rhys Frake-Waterfield) My initial thought when faced with the premise of Demonic Christmas Tree was 'what terrible nonsense is this?' Also that it must be an affectionate nod to one of my favourite trash flicks of the 1950s, the possessed tree movie From Hell It Came (with a little bit of Child's Play thrown in).

The actual movie is something else; a parody which takes the often ridiculous premise of many indie Brit fright flicks, and then takes things two - ok four - steps further. It's no coincidence that many of the films I had in mind as the basis for Frake-Waterfield's send up had been directed or produced by Scott Jeffrey. And readers, guess who produced this one?

So we have a old lady, Morrigan (Judy Tcherniak). She was one half of a serial killer duo, whose partner in crime, Clayton Slayter, was caught, tried and executed. Morrigan attempts a spell to bring him back to life, but it backfires, trapping his returning soul in...a Christmas tree. Yep, with baubles and lights; and the ability to move. 

Slayter, in tree form, escapes (via a nifty bit of CGI) and sets off on a mission; to seek revenge on Faith (Sarah Alexandra Marks, also in Wrath of Van Helsing, covered below), a young woman whose parents were his last victims and who was responsible for his arrest and eventual death. Handily Faith is having a party in the family house in which she still lives, with a bunch of friends, who predictably get picked off one by one until it's just Faith and the tree.

Once you get over the movie's ridiculous premise there really is a lot to like about Demonic Christmas Tree. In flashbacks to his life on earth, Slayter is a shades wearing, Alice Cooper-alike (Marcus Massey); as a resurrected tree, he's basically a mumbling, bauble dangling shambles, who kills by means of branches/tentacles which can skewer, rend and pull his victims apart like a Christmas cracker (again via rather clever  - for the budget - effects). To be fair there's not much that's particularly Christmassy about the film beyond the tree (or trees - there's a rather bizarre MCU type climax), and the last half hour gives itself over to the inevitable running about. But as a further subversion of the titles helmed by Jeffrey and his clan it's a hoot, and there are some beautiful shot night scenes as well. Silly but more fun than expected.

Hayfever (UK 2022: Dir Henry Richardson) After 2021's rather good The Secluded, Richardson brings us two further features for 2022; Lurking and this one, Hayfever. Hayfever is "a micro budget, 70s style splatter horror movie made for £2000"; you better believe it! Filtered in blissed out Kodachrome tones, three youths - Shawn (Richardson) and his two slacker mates, Scotty (Oren Kemsley-Roberts) and vape addicted Paddy (Ryan Skates) - set off for a camping trip into the countryside while the nation suffers as the result of a fearfully high pollen count. 

But the pollen carries spores that can infect the living, as we've already seen in a prologue where a hapless photographer falls foul of it. The morning after the guys' first night under the stars they first find the camera and then the infected guy. Chaos ensures.

Hayfever, by the director's own end credits admission, was inspired by Eli Roth's Cabin Fever and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. For a movie a little over an hour long with a 'three guys messing around in the woods' set up, it's actually pretty good. Our leads are authentically matey and the descent into pollen induced mayhem is handled well, with some great editing work and an atmospheric woodlands location. Richardson's liberal plundering of recorded TV news and incidental music (I'm sure Ray Davies gave him permission to use the Kinks track 'Hayfever' over the end credits) ensures that the film probably won't screen any wider than its current YouTube location, but it's a valiant effort and there's some talent at work here.

You can watch Hayfever here.

Blank (UK 2022: Dir Natalie Kennedy) Successful writer Claire Rivers (Rachel Shelley) has a problem; writer's block. She's overdue on her next book, and both her agent and her creditors are getting restless. The solution? An author's retreat, and a chance for Claire to recharge her batteries and knuckle down to meet her deadline. But this is a getaway with a difference; the facility is run by AI in the form of a virtual manager who Claire names 'Henry' (Wayne Brady) and a rather old school robotic factotum called Rita (Heida Reed), who exists to serve her guest's needs and dispense largely unwanted lifestyle advice.

Of course anyone who has seen any sci fi movies in which the AI has control knows that there will soon be trouble in paradise. Claire learns quickly that while most of her wishes can be catered for, the one to leave the hermetic facility is constantly denied until she finishes writing the book (there's a great scene early on where she submits her first draft for approval only to have it rejected for plagiarism by Rita; Claire has basically recycled Dumas' 'The Count of Monte Christo' to get the job done). Adding insult to injury, a power outage within the building glitches up the setup. An increasingly wayward Rita holds Claire prisoner, and the author's only way out is to break her block and complete her novel.

The story behind how this is achieved, mixed wuth Claire's efforts to outwit the AI and escape her cyber captors, makes for the heart of this rather arid but well executed film. The key elements - single set, small cast - render the whole thing rather stagey, and there's a mid point sag which tests the patience a little. Shelley is serviceable but decidedly one note as the imprisoned Claire, and the drama of the piece is rather stretched with a too long running time. But Blank looks very good and its time unspecific setting adds to the film's mystery, although the sci fi elements feel a little tacked on; it finally finds its heart towards the end but that feels like a rather drawn out journey, if not without some intrigue.

Mandrake (UK 2022: Dir Lynne Davison) Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins) is a probation officer in Northern Ireland, who volunteers for a job that no-one else in her team wants: the rehabilitation of a notorious killer, 'Bloody' Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), following a 20 year prison sentence for the murder of her husband. 'Bloody' Mary's reputation has passed into local legend, a reputation which ensures that she's not going to have an easy time on release.

Mary's provided new home is a couple of steps up from a squat; Cathy promises to get 'human resources' to look into it and Mary's disgusted repetition of the phrase suggests a woman out of tune with the modern world. Cathy and Mary, for entirely different reasons, are outsider characters, and Cathy's humanity and willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt makes us see Mary in a different light. But when two local children go missing near to Mary's new home, and the worst happens, Cathy realises that she has completely underestimated her charge. 

Mandrake is a film that never seems to see daylight. It's oppressive, inconclusive and very, very murky. I wasn't as enamoured with the movie as some other critics although as a first feature Lynne Davison conjures up great atmosphere, even if it remains rather inconclusive. But Mullins and Crotty are both excellent in their roles, the economy of characterisation drawing from the director's experience on short films and TV.

Wrath of Van Helsing aka Van Helsing aka Van Helsing, Hunter of the Damned (UK 2022: Dir Soner Metin) Researches show that this is Soner Metin's first feature as sole director, but IMDb and the credits list strongly suggest  - ok, spell out - that one Scott Jeffrey is behind this one. And having seen a LOT of SJ movies, this is definitely one of his lesser ones, even if he's clearly aiming for a franchise.

Four ill dressed Urbexers (ill dressed unless they were heading to the local disco, that is) named Ellie (Antonia Whillans), Shauna (Sarah Alexandra Marks), Bryn (Elspeth Foster) and Alex (Beatrice Fletcher), head off for some scouting in the woods; their destination, a desolate area previously used for nuclear dumping which is the site of a number of underground, reputedly haunted tunnels. All four actresses are now veterans of fantastic micro budget movies, and look like they could do this sort of thing in their sleep.

No sooner have the explorers reached their destination, than they are attacked by demons and vampires. Or mutants. Or Cenobites. Or something. The parents of Ellie call on the services of Van Helsing (Michael Hoad, Blood in the Water, Exorcist Vengeance etc) who, with his trusty sidekick Igor (Darrell Griggs, Reign of Terror, Pterodactyl etc) does battle with the creatures for the return of Ellie, the only one of the four who looks like they're going to make it out alive - or at least not undead.

I'm guessing, in true exploitation movie style, that someone happened upon the rather useful tunnel location and then worried about scripting a movie to make use of it. Perhaps that's why writer Tom Jolliffe, contributing his sixth (!) script of 2022, has eschewed the usual domestic drama character back story associated with these things in favour of running around, screaming and emoting. The Van Helsing character is clearly being set up for sequels as most of the time is spent developing his story arc; Hoad plays Van Helsing as a man, unable to age, who has a thirst for the drink, a depressive personality and a penchant for speaking with. Shatnerseque. Pauses. 

Of course we're not supposed to take any of this seriously, particularly with exchanges like "Are you trained in combat?" "You should meet the mother-in-law". But really this is pretty poor stuff; here's hoping that Van Helsing gets something meatier to deal with than a couple of guys in masks for the next one.

You can watch Wrath of Van Helsing here

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