Monday 18 September 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #18: Reviews of A Helical (UK 2020), Black Box (UK 2020), Dark Web: Mystery Box (UK 2020), Fearfully Made (UK 2020), Goodbye Mary (UK 2020) and House of the Laughing Cuckoo Clocks (UK 2020)

A Helical (UK 2020: Dir Marcus McMahon) Stephen Richardson's glacial synth score and some impressive visuals kick off McMahon's impressive, puzzling and ultimately inscrutable 30 minute sci fi short. A man, the helical of the title, appears on an Earth like planet, confronting first a vision of his, or at least a mother, and then three antagonistic blinking men, as he walks through the subways and spaces of this strange environment, until he eventually reaches what could be a stargate: oh and there's a Zardoz like head which dispenses sage if baffling advice.

This is all about the mood; don't go looking for answers, you've come to the wrong place. A Helical is a master class in lighting, stunningly clear photography, a chilling score and enigmatic dialogue. McMahon's choice of locations, such as the south London subways of Crystal Palace, impressively renders earthbound places strange and unusual.

In its beautiful inaccessibility it reminded me of the equally impenetrable films of John Harrigan. "You are born into a pattern. You are a pattern" we are told. I'm sure you are old chap.

You can watch A Helical here

Black Box (UK 202: Dir Angel Delgado) Tyco Silver 7 is a space pod containing a lone man who awakes in the drifting vessel unsure who he is or how he got there. Said man is Marcus (Garry Graham-Smith) and by a process of mental reconstruction he works out that he's the sole survivor of an accident in space; his task is now to journey home with the black box that holds the key to the disaster. He's also injured and not exactly in peak condition, so the odds are rather stacked against him.

He's assisted in his endeavour by Sarah (Kelly Ely), a remote intern who helps him reassemble his thoughts and, as a non astronaut, to make sense of the switches and dials in front of him. There's also engineer Ray Getty (Simon Parker), whose lack of people skills is the last thing Marcus needs.

As another pod moves into view, potentially containing another survivor of the crash, Marcus's objectives are split; rendezvous with the other craft or sit tight and deliver both him and the black box safely?

Black Box's setup - one guy and a series of disembodied voices - rather stretches the patience over the course of 90 minutes. Each crisis is dealt with slowly and the movie struggles to build much dramatic tension. Some external scenes are added in to break up the monotony (in one you'll believe a man can travel in space with little more than gaffer tape over his gob) but this is really all down to Graham-Smith's performance, which thankfully keeps the attention. Add in some regional accents of the other staff, and a reference to Swindon Space Control, and you have a home counties Gravity without the emotional heft. Would probably have worked better as a radio play, and only very marginally a 'Fantastic' film.

Dark Web: Mystery Box (UK 2020: Dir Tony Newton, Josh Schultz) The Creepypasta legend of the cursed or haunted tape comes to life in this Tony Newton scripted, shot in lockdown movie. 

Newton is a British director who's found some success locating his product Stateside. Here he's teamed up with two low low budget US directors to make a kind of extended horror version of a YouTube unboxing video. 

A number of social media vloggers receive strange packages, presumably sent via mail from the dark web. The receivers include ubiquitous DVD obsessive Shawn C. Phillips, online astrologer Brandywine (low budget horror star Julia Anne Prescott), Sarah and Josh Shultz as 'The Haunted Honeymooners', JordanIntoMystery (Dane Keil), Tonez (Newton) and Nicole (Rheanon Nicole).

The contents of each 'horror box' contains different, and usually icky things - a bloody pentagram, rusty razorblade, human hair, coffin nails etc. Nearly all of the boxes also contain an unmarked video cassette. The vloggers' reactions to these boxes range from the intrigued to the disgusted, but all eventually manage to find VCRs to play the tape, which we fleetingly see and which contains masked figures and a possible sacrifice. And of course after watching the tape, each person becomes cursed; some are offed by a shadowy figure.

Dark Web: Mystery Box is actually a lot more watchable than some movies filmed as a result of the Pandemic. It's a bit long but there's a lot of variety and it's good to see the horror community having a good time.

You can watch Dark Web: Mystery Box here

Fearfully Made (UK 2020: Dir Jamie Foreman)
Foreman's 20 minute sci fi short (and therefore just nudging into this project, length wise) did quite a lot of festival business in 2020 and then promptly disappeared until its recent online resurgence. This is good news as it's a very poignant, well made tale of the possibilities of AI care for the elderly in the future.

Maggie (Alex Povah) lives with her husband Arthur (John Arthur). When Maggie has a fall, necessitating her being sent to a nursing home, their daughter Laura (Kate Hampson) has a dilemma: who's going to look after dad? Laura decides, following her father's discharge from hospital, to employ Aria (Jessica Blake) an AI care assistant.

On the face of things it's a good plan; Aria can provide for Arthur's every need; but she becomes too attentive, ultimately making the old man a prisoner in his own home.

Desperate to escape Aria's tender clutches and see his wife, he hatches a plan to escape, but it turns out that Aria's motives were more benevolent than first thought.

On the basis of Fearfully Made (the title is from a well known quote from Psalms) I'd like to see more work from Foreman; his short is elegantly produced and within its slim running time asks some interesting questions about what it is to be human and robot.

You can watch Fearfully Made here.

Goodbye Mary (UK 2020: Dir Eva María Fernández)
This movie seems to have originated in 2018 -  judging by some of the cast's CV pages - as a 90 minute movie, but was released in October 2020 (it eventually turned up on YouTube with Spanish subs a year or so ago at an inflated 113 minutes). Fragile Jane (Zoe Cunningham) is a woman hosting a wake following the funeral of best friend, party loving Mary, who died in a drink-drive accident. A small gathering of mutual friends have reunited at Jane's, mostly women, and waste no time laying into each other, prompted by recollections of their departed 'friend'. It's a tense scene. Jane's partner George (Rob Kirtley) one of two men at the wake, has some history with flirty Sally (Helen-Rose Hampton) whose partner Amit is away at a conference. Also in the group is bossy Rebeca (Fernández), sculptress Anne (Claire Louise Amias)  - who once photocopied her tits in a drunken prank - and Isabel (Eugenia Low) whose sexual orientation is just one source of gossip. 

Jane, keen to escape the difficult scene below, retreats to her room. Maybe it's her medication, but she starts to have visions of the dead Mary, who encourages her to think less of the people downstairs, who are busy trading secrets and lies. Like a middle class dinner party version of a Jane Arden film, Goodbye Mary goes on and on for a bum numbing near two hours. Fernandez gets a lot of dialogue but sadly is the weakest of the cast (but I guess it was her prerogative) and as the writer of this tedium is really not doing any of the women any favours by defining them as a bunch of bickerers. Apart from the visits of Mary you'll have to wait until the last couple of minutes of the film for anything vaguely horrific to happen. Pretty awful. 

You can watch Goodbye Mary (and brush up on your Spanish) here.

House of the Laughing Cuckoo Clocks (UK 2020: Dir Michael Fenton Crenshaw)
You like the esoteric? Well pull up a magic mushroom and feast your eyes on this!

Michael Fenton Crenshaw, originally south London based, set up Demogorgon Productions to publicise his very odd films. The Left Hand trilogy, of which House of the Laughing Cuckoo Clocks is the second instalment, commenced with The Left Hand Path back in 2017. Don't worry if you didn't catch this one; it won't really help you understand HotLCC, which is best seen as an extended (2 hour!) musing on belief, cosmology and magick. 

Only marginally categorisable as a 'Fantastic Film', HotLCC is split into five sections; the only consistent theme running through them is a devil faced amulet, which causes no end of psychic trouble for those who come into contact with it. In the first section, 'Solve Coagula' (the title refers to a principle in alchemy), a priest in possession of the amulet (literally) pisses on the Bible and later (off screen) takes his own life. Other men of the cloth urinate, fart and expose themselves. In 'Bacalou Junction' (a reference to a saint of the Gnostic church), two girls kill hikers in the woods and drink both blood and bottles of morphine. In 'The Blade of Kalfu' (the knife an element of Haitian belief) we witness a fire ritual. In 'XV1' the 'action' veers between London and the USA - apparently some scenes were filmed at what's left of the once infamous Spahn ranch, as snippets of Manson's "I'll Never Say Never to Always" play and a violinist interprets the theme to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. And finally, in 'Aptal 5' (five being the numerical value of Aptal in Pythagorean Numerology, don'cha know?) the amulet is returned to its original location via a couple of goths, only to be picked up by a punky looking girl who starts off a new chain of possession.

HotLCC is the kind of thing that you might find playing in an art gallery and is best appreciated as a set of images rather than a narrative whole; if you have the patience. Beware though, that Demogorgon Productions' strapline is "The British new wave avant-garde where nonsense makes sense" so any interpretation is clearly up to the viewer.

You can watch HotLCC and all of Crenshaw's works at the Demogorgon site here.

No comments:

Post a Comment