Wednesday 26 July 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023 #1: Reviews of Consecration (UK/US 2023), Breaking Infinity (UK 2023), Wolf Garden (UK 2023), Ripper's Revenge (UK 2023), The Bystanders (UK 2023) and Little Bone Lodge (UK 2023)

Consecration (UK 2023: Dir Christopher Smith) US actor Jenna Malone, adopting a 'proper' English accent, plays Grace, a successful ophthalmologist, whose life in thrown into disarray when she receives news that her brother, ensconced in a religious order in deepest Scotland, has killed a fellow priest and taken his own life.

Travelling to the convent where her brother met his end, she's confronted with a strict order, complete with a vaguely batty Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) and a visiting priest sent from the Vatican to find out what's been happening (Danny Huston). A series of incidents leads to Grace, now clad in the vestments of the order, having an enforced stay in the convent, and gradually learning more about the its history (something about being the keeper of relics dating back to the Crusades) and the circumstance leading to her brother's murder/suicide. And of course the more she learns, the more Grace comes to understand her role in the dark history of the order.

Smith's return to Fantastic Film after the not bad 2020 movie The Banishing is nunsploitation lite, with a big hitter cast and a story that tries oh so very hard to have meaning but which descends into silliness after offering up every cloister bound cliché in the book. Malone plays Grace as a somnambulant, one note character, and although there's a reason for that it doesn't make for very enjoyable watching. As Father Romero (geddit?) Danny Huston brings the usual quietly menacing gravitas to his part (I still maintain that his performance as the vampire Marlow in 2007's 30 Days of Night was one of the most frightening in a recent fright flick) but the rest of the cast, including a wasted Janet Suzman, are just making up the numbers. As Consecration gradually unveils its narrative layers it becomes difficult to give a toss about what's happening, and any atmosphere created in the first half is blown away by a silly ending. Not very good then, although the Isle of Skye locations are impressive.

Breaking Infinity (UK 2023: Dir Marianna Dean) Low budget time travel sci fi movies can be a tricky beast. Directors have the dual problems of encouraging audiences to suspend disbelief with little funds to spare, and telling stories that by their very nature can have the capacity to confuse and alienate if not handled well. Luckily Marianna Dean’s feature debut Breaking Infinity (whose title admittedly does sound a little like an oft quoted line from Buzz Lightyear) handles both these hurdles with aplomb.

When we first meet Liam (Neil Bishop) he’s all bandaged up in an otherwise empty medical facility with little idea who he is or how he got there. But soon we’ve been introduced to Liam in a number of different scenarios and timelines, encountering Emma (Zoe Cunningham) along the way, who may be just a nurse, or something more intrinsic to the story.

As the film unfolds we learn that Liam is involved in a complex scientific experiment to achieve time travel (with the usual added pressure of the top brass demanding results, and lots of timey wimey explanations, as per with this sort of thing), which has somehow gone awry, trapping him in some kind of quantum loop, the end result of which, as evidenced by glimpses into the future, could trigger the end of the world.

Using a script by David Trotti, whose CV lists over 30 years of credits in various capacities, Breaking Infinity unveils its core story slowly but carefully, echoing the loops of time described in the narrative. Bishop and Cunningham make for a watchable and increasingly believable pair, convincingly building their roles as the audience understand more and more of what’s really going on. This is a smart first feature from Dean and a great addition to the British Fantastic Film canon.

Wolf Garden (UK 2023: Dir Wayne David) Wolf Garden’s writer, director and lead actor originally had another movie planned for his first feature, but a certain Pandemic scuppered that project in favour of a more self contained, one location movie.

The result, described by David in a recent interview as a ‘werewolf love story’, puts us in the tortured mind of William, played by the director. William has moved to a cottage in the country, ostensibly to get his head together but also, we eventually discover, to lay low following an unspecified incident.

The forced relocation has been suggested by his supportive and ever-present girlfriend Chantelle (Sian Altman), the house belonging to one of William’s friends. But all is perhaps not as it should be: William is plagued by dreams of howling wolves, and of a certain something living in a shed attached to the house, a something which William is compelled to feed raw meat.

Told in a series of fractured scenes, don’t expect Wolf Garden to coalesce into a tidy conclusion or to be a straightforward werewolf flick; it’s all a bit confused in the telling, which was undoubtedly David’s intention. It’s really a one person piece, not too unlike an extended showreel, and I suspect that a lot was resolved in post-production; apart from David, Altman is adequate but doesn’t have much to do, and there are bit parts for a couple of other actors (including a – literally – phoned in performance from Jake Eastenders Wood).

There’s some lovely moody photography here and some impressive soundtrack work by Rupert Uzzell, but overall it’s a little too slight and perhaps overambitious given the material on display. The final credits feature a rather inappropriate power ballad entitled 'I'm Sorry', written by one Paul Griggs, who also Executive produced. Griggs has a long history in British pop music, being a founder member of 1960s band 'Octopus' (fellow band members later joining the New Zealand group 'Split Enz') and, the following decade, 'Guys n' Dolls'.

Ripper's Revenge (UK 2023: Dir Steve Lawson) Lawson's last five movies have seen him extensively raiding the dress up box in a series of period features mixing horror and adventure. After 2021's Ripper Untold, Lawson clearly feels there's more to tell about the UK's most notorious serial killer, so offers us Ripper's Revenge (and there's a gag in that title for fans of Hammer movies thinking that it might refer to a diminutive member of their stock cast finally getting his own back).

Picking up where his last Ripper movie left off, we're reintroduced to Sebastian Stubb (Chris Bell), the enterprising journalist from Ripper Untold, not beyond manipulating the facts to get the story. But now the Ripper's reign of terror is over and Stubb, shacked up with prostitute-with-with-a-heart-of lead Iris (Rachel Warren), is finding it hard to make ends meet now that he's not earning front page news bonuses.

Worse still, the paper has taken on a new journalist, Lenny (Rafe Bird) whose ambition threatens Stubbs's economic future further. So when Stubbs receives an anonymous letter, purportedly from Jack the Ripper, telling the journalist that he's back to his old tricks and leading him to a new body, it looks like the beleaguered journo has been given a reprieve. But things are about to get a lot darker.

If Ripper Untold was only nominally a horror movie, Ripper's Revenge is even less so; basically it's a costume drama with a few dead bodies chucked in. Lawson has some interesting things to say about the power of the press - which are as relevant now - and he assembles a small but capable cast to tell a story that is, at its heart, one of greed and self involvement. His cast may look rather too clean for the era in which the movie is set, and the film drags in places, but Lawson is a solid director of low budget features, and his trend for costume dramas filmed for just a few quid sees him ploughing a unique furrow.

The Bystanders (UK 2022: Dir Gabriel Foster Prior) More borderline material here: only nominally a 'fantastic' film, this breezy sci fi/comedy is very much in the spirit of the TV show Misfits. Former chess champion Peter Weir (Scott Haran) is mysteriously recruited into a new pan dimensional role; he will be inducted to the ranks of the Bystanders. It's a job in which, ghost like and unseen, he must safeguard (and quietly assist in improving the life of) a person who he is chosen to shadow. His inductor is Frank Barron (Seann Walsh) who is bystander to luckless Luke (Andi Jashy), a games fanatic living off junk food and leading a hermit like existence.

Peter's allotted person is Sarah (Georgia Mabel Clarke), living out an equally dull life working as a marketing assistant at a 'happening' record company run by a cringeworthy boss ("come in for a flatty and a chatty!" he says at one point - yeah, that kind of person). Sensing he stands more of a chance of winning the coveted 'Bystander of the Year' award if he had better raw material with which to work, he suggests to the considerably less driven Frank that they swap subjects; once achieved Peter begins his campaign of assisting in changing Luke's life, but he soon finds that any plans he had in mind are jeapordised by others' ambitions.

As a debut feature from writer/director/co-producer Prior The Bystanders runs into the usual problems associated with something TV literate and expanding it to full movie length ie pacing. But there are some great comic touches here: I particularly liked the instructional induction video shown to all new Bystanders, and the fact that, while technically the Bystanders can zap around the dimensions freely, they choose instead to go to an after hours pub in their spare time. Oh and because they aren't human any more, alcohol no longer has the devised effect; instead they get drunk on oven cleaning fluid and turpentine. 

I'd have liked the characters of Peter and Frank to have been a little more fleshed out, but their spiky working relationship carries the film and there are loads of incidental characters introduced to keep the thing going. It all rather runs out of steam towards then end, but it's good fun for most of its running time, aided by a fine score from Prior's musician father Foz (also guitarist with the band 'David Devant & His Spirit Wife').

Little Bone Lodge (UK 2023: Dir Matthias Hoene) As a fledgling director Hoene was responsible for  2008's Beyond the Rave (the movie that relaunched Hammer Films) and, four years later, the Brit veteran stuffed Cockneys Vs Zombies. Ten years later and Hoene returns with a much more sombre downbeat effort.

Mama (Joely Richardson, given a meaty role for a change) lives on a farm with her young daughter Maisy (Sadie Soverall) and a disabled, voiceless and also nameless Pa (Roger Ajogbe). From the outset there is something rather odd about the family setup, but any viewer concerns are put on the back burner following the arrival of two men in the middle of a raging storm, young Matty (Harry Cadby) and his older brother Jack (screenwriter Neil Linpow); the latter has been injured in a car crash. 

Mama shows that as well as being a self sufficient farmer she also has a range of nursing skills, managing to patch up Jack and apply her bedside manner to the troubled, bipolar Matty. But as one would expect, nothing is as it seems; the brothers have left a dead body and a stash of cash behind in the car, and some gangsters are hot on their trail. And of course Mama has her own secrets, starting with Pa who is subject to a rigorous medication regime; is that to help or render him docile? The two men will soon regret their choice of victims.

Little Bone Lodge is a pretty well executed but hardly original movie that hinges on a mid point plot twist to allow the viewer to understand what's going on. Home invasion/revenge movies like 2011's You're Next and Julius Berg's 2020 flick The Owners are useful thematic jumping off points; the movie's title suggests it's more exploitative than it actually is, but for the most point Hoene's film keeps the grand guignol to a minimum and concentrates on some good performances which cover up some WTFery in the plot, particularly Richardson as the not-all-she-seems farmer's wife.

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