Tuesday 14 February 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #14: Reviews of Sacrifice (UK 2021), The Cursed (UK/France/USA 2021), There's Something in the Shadows (UK 2021), Box (UK 2021), Ghost Hosts (UK 2021) and Hatched (UK 2021)

Sacrifice (UK 2021: Dir Andy Collier, Tor Mian) Inspired both by the short story 'Men of the Cloth' by Paul Kane and by the works of HP Lovecraft (according to the opening credits), Sacrifice isn't immediately apparent as a British film, with its largely American cast and Nordic setting. 

Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) returns to his childhood Norwegian island home - inherited following the death of his father - with his pregnant wife Emma (Sophie Stevens). Their reception isn't that friendly until people find out that Isaac was born locally; but Emma is keen to point out that they have no intention of sticking around, seeing the house as an asset to be disposed of before their baby is born.

The arrival of a haughty local cop, Renate Nygard (Barbara Crampton, excellent) throws things out of kilter when it is revealed that Isaac's father was murdered, the crime remaining an open case, with his mother being the prime suspect. Soon enough the couple are introduced to Renate's daughter, the ethereal and largely silent Astrid (Johanna Adde Dahl) and become acquainted with the myth of 'The Slumbering One' and the island's belief systems. Isaac starts to become distant from his wife and his former life as the lure of his homeland exerts its influence.

There isn't much here that we haven't seen before. Collier and Mian build good atmosphere but the characters of Isaac and Emma are one dimensional. There are way too many 'oh it was all a dream' scares, the Lovecraft influence is discharged via lots of scenes involving water and tentacles, and many of the plot points remain unresolved. Pretty looking though. 

The Cursed aka Eight for Silver (UK/France/USA: 2021 Dir Sean Ellis) There's been a tendency for modern werewolf movies to use humour to navigate the issue that a tall guy running around in a shaggy suit doth not necessarily a great movie make. Ellis's first foray into creature feature horror eschews even the faintest of titters in favour of a morose tale of revenge which often feels more like a French shot western than anything else; it's also rather questionable that the beast in question is a werewolf, despite what the movie's publicity suggests.

The Cursed covers three separate time spans: 1917 (with a trench based prologue set in the Somme which only makes sense towards the end of the movie); a period 35 years earlier, where most of the action happens; and an unspecified future to those events. Seamus Laurent, steely played by Alistair Petrie, is a landowner with two cutesy children and a wife (Kelly Reilly) over whom he rules belligerently, and who is prepared to go to any lengths to defend his estate. When a group of gypsies turn up exercising what they see is a prior claim to the land, Laurent orders their slaughter - Soldier Blue style and including a horrific crucifixion - triggering a curse delivered courtesy of an old woman from the community, and a set of silver teeth which she buries. This ghastly curse is visited on Laurent's son Edward (Max Mackintosh) and then other members of the household as revenge for the slaughter; only the summoning of McBridge the werewolf hunter (Boyd Holbrook), a man with a score to settle, suggests a resolution to the carnage.

Sumptuously shot, and veering between sections of almost tableaux vivant intensity and limb ripping violence, with a background of the multi continent cholera epidemic, The Cursed is a werewolf movie that almost isn't (at times the monster is closer to the creature in John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing) and one which foregrounds the curse rather than the cast. This does make the film more one to admire than be truly invested in, but with its time sweeping narrative, impressive detail and a revenge plot that evokes audience sympathy, The Cursed is an excellent movie from a director formerly best known for the sexist nonsense of his 2004 short Cashback.

There's Something in the Shadows (UK 2021: Dir John Williams) 'On the 16th of September 2020, amatuer (sic) Paranormal investigation team 'Theres Something in the shadows' set off into the Scottish highlands to record the third episode of the popular Youtube series.' This rather shoddily written onscreen message sets the tone for an equally unimpressive journey to found footage land, with the by now overfamiliar (almost nostalgic) setup of camera footage from a missing expedition being discovered and reviewed for clues.

The group in this case is headed by Jon Farmer (John Solomonides), who has dragged his team - comprising Kurt (Pete Big Brother Bennett), Fred (Williams), Daz (Darren McAree) and Steve (Steve Wood) - up to Loch Ness. In true Fortean style Jon, never one to let a theory remain unbelieved, is here to investigate the possibility that the bottom of the loch may contain a dimensional portal for the passage of bigfoot (bigfeet - is that plural?), werewolves and ghosts. So the plan is to camp in the forests behind the loch and see what pops up.

As found footage enters its third decade (or fifth if you subscribe to 1980's Cannibal Holocaust being the first such movie rather than 1999's The Blair Witch Project) one wonders what there is left to offer by adding one more entry in the (sub) genre. TSitW is amiable stuff; its best (and only) scares are generated from the 'disembodied sounds in the woods at night' variety - unoriginal but still effective. But the rest suggests that this shouldn't be taken very seriously, from the Poundshop ribcage wedged in the trees - all that's left of one of the group - to exchanges like: Q: "It's bigfoot. What else could it be?" A: "People". Apparently the Sasquatch sounds in the movie are courtesy of  Al Barry and Ron Morehead's early 1970s recordings in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are not bogus at all. Just like the film.

Box (UK 2021: Dir Matt Shaw) Shaw's last two features  - Next Door and They Came from the Sky, I Saw Them! from 2020 - were both inventive and funny, but the Pandemic has been no laughing matter, and Shaw's need to keep making films during this period has resulted in the stripped down and significantly gloomier Box, adapted, Like Next Door, from his own writings.

Shaw plays Frank, a man who wakes up in a room - or cell - with barely enough room to stand. That's a surprise in itself, as Frank is convinced he was a prisoner sentenced to die by lethal injection for the crime of murder. He should be dead; so is this hell?

A disembodied, distorted voice (Pete Eglitis) questions Frank about the reason for his incarceration; he killed a man for sleeping with his wife (Maria Lee Metherington, Bite Night). The voice also controls Frank's cramped environment almost sadistically (like providing cupcakes to the starving man which have laxatives in them - there's no toilet in the small cubicle). Frank works out that the voice may be related to Darrell, the guy he killed, and as such the continued persecution is personal.

There's a moral centre to this story and a reason behind the voice's gradual wearing down of his subject. Along the way there's all kinds of unpleasantness, including Frank having to drink his own urine and inhabiting a space containing the prisoner's faeces. Shaw is convincing as the troubled Frank; it's a small production that would suit itself to a stage play, if a particularly gruelling one.

Ouija Hosts aka Ghost Hosts (UK 2021: Dir Steven A. Smith) As well as his fictional film output, prolific director Smith also makes quasi documentary films about the supernatural. In this one he combines the two, sadly picking the worst elements of each. 

'Ghost Hosts' is an afternoon children's paranormal (!) show hosted by seasoned professionals Sarah (Louisa Warren) and Duncan (Jake Taviner); they're joined by new co-host Jenny (Chelsea Greenwood) who, unlike her more well-worn colleagues, fancies herself a bit. The place chosen for the episode is the "extremely haunted" Carruthers estate, formerly a children's hospital; in reality it's Smith's favourite location, the Tudor ruin of Poltimore House in Devon, which loses its impressiveness somewhat by its overfamiliarity. Anyway, for the purposes of this movie it's where the spirits of 17th century landowner Jackson Carruthers, and a young girl, Rose Wells, are said to roam.

Ouija Hosts relies heavily on the mechanics of reality TV to build up its atmosphere. The team lark - and wander (natch) - about, while an irritating voice over (Reece Putinas in the style of Dave Lamb from Come Dine With Me) offers up sarcastic asides, while ominously declaring that the footage we're about to see will depict the decline of the episode from kid friendly TV to something much darker.

Said decline takes the best part of an hour in an agonisingly long near 90 minute romp that overall is pretty painful to endure. We get an extended ouija session (perhaps unsurprising in that it's one of the film's titles) courtesy of Dan, a paranormal expert (Daniel Jones), and the slow realisation that one of the spirits may be a five year old girl, occasions much inane chat and the appearance of a ghostly teddy bear ("move towards the teddy!").

Things slightly hot up in the last 15 minutes when Jenny goes missing and gets possessed, and the hitherto bashful ghost deigns to appear, but by this time it's too little too late. If you hadn't worked it out yet, this is dismal stuff, and while it's good to see Warren on the other side of the camera for a change, sadly that can't be said for the rest of the cast.

Hatched (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey, Rebecca Matthews) It's rare to have a round up of UK Fantastic Films and only include one Scott Jeffrey/Rebecca Matthews movie; but here it is, albeit one of 9 Jeffrey genre directorial credits in 2021, four of which were with Rebecca Matthews.

Of course such quantity is bound to result in some hits as well as misses; Hatched is definitely in the second category, although as always there's something to like with these productions. In the by now de rigeur prologue, Simon (Thomas Loone) has been carrying out some experiments at home, messing about with synthetic DNA. He's had some success in producing a replica of his young son Mark (Marshall Hawkes) after the little boy died and, grief stricken, dad wanted him back. But he's bitten off more than he can chew in the shape of a raptor who, once created, has been kept in the shed. The raptor hasn't bitten off more than it can chew in the shape of Mark's mum Christine (Amanda-Jade Tyler) who stumbles across the beast and becomes dinner.

Puzzled at Simon's radio silence, his dad Bernard (Richard Kovacs), mum Rebecca (Nicola Wright) and sisters Caitlyn (Megan Purvis) and Jocelyn (Georgie Banks) travel to their scientist relative's pad in the country. Bernard looks a bit like a bearded "Wolfie" from sitcom Citizen Smith, but is marginally less useful in a crisis; which this is, with the raptor running around and even outsmarting the army (all four of them) when they turn up. Made up Mark manages to survive but can't outrun a downbeat ending.

The decision to avoid a redemptive finale, and some passable CGI raptor scenes (on the directors' budget anyhow), as well as the usual good quality photography, are all in Hatched's favour. Everything else is pretty much business as usual; it's all sluggishly edited, the characters are paper thin and unconvincing (why force actors to adopt totally unconvincing American accents?) and - perhaps in keeping with its low budget sci fi roots - most of the action is held back until the last 15 minutes. It has been suggested that this acts well as a prequel to Jack Munday's Dinosaur Hotel from the same year. but that movie at least had a good gameshow hook to its storyline.

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