Friday 15 September 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2022 #5: Reviews of Cannibal Cabin (UK 2022), The Winter Witch (UK 2022), Among the Living (UK 2022), The Rise of the Beast (UK 2022), Are We Monsters (UK 2022) and Senseless (UK 2022)

Cannibal Cabin (aka Cannibal Lake) (UK 2022: Dir Louisa Warren) OK so in the past I've been critical of the films of Ms Warren and her ilk for including large amounts of extraneous exposition to pad them out to feature length. Here Warren decides to ditch any real attempt to establish character, motive etc in favour of what she would probably pitch as non stop action and violence, but what the casual viewer would conclude is interminable walking about in a dingy lock up.

Said lock up - and surroundings - has been kindly donated by the Lagoona Water Park in downtown, er, Reading, and despite the prominent trumpeting of their sponsorship in the credits, I'm not sure that the company may have seen the final version of the movie, otherwise they might think about removing their association with this travesty.

After an extended prologue, set in 2002 wherein three friends (including one who is heavily pregnant) are attacked by some mask wearing throwbacks for having the temerity to enjoy a spot of jet skiing, we're plunged headlong into the present day and a vanload of twenty somethings in search of a music festival (er, they're in Reading, how hard can it be to locate this?). The tipoff about the event has come from one of their number, Faye (Mia Lacostena, a new inductee to the Warren fold), a strange loner who may be sheltering a secret about her past. 

En route to the festival the music lovers get lost and stumble across some buildings, hoping to get directions from the occupiers. But instead of a warm welcome, the facility is home to the same masked throwbacks we saw in the prologue, who begin their flimsy reign of terror, triggering lots of running around and hiding.

Warren's films can be a bit hit and miss, but Cannibal Cabin is an absolute dud. Having grown up watching the fright flicks of the late 1970s/1980s it's perhaps no surprise that this one attempts a The Hills Have Eyes feel with a bit of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre thrown in, with the cannibal freaks, who all seem to be part of the same family, constantly complaining about city types as they mete out their vengeance. Warren has added a (royalty free I assume) cheesy FM rock soundtrack to add verisimilitude, which at times threatens to drown out the dialogue in its overapplication; thank heavens for small mercies.

The Winter Witch (UK 2022: Dir Richard John Taylor) I'm going to start with a positive. Some of the camerawork on this film was lovely; initially I was going to write this element off with some comment about good use of stock photography, but with an 8 strong camera crew and a drone operator I think the majority of footage was captured by the crew. So well done! And now for the rest of it...

A few years ago there was a small rash - more like a blister - of films based on or incorporating the Austrian/German originated myth of Frau Perchta, the Christmas Witch, including James Klass's 2017 Mother Krampus.

The idea of Frau Perchta as a recurring character in films didn't really take off, but some years later this hasn't deterred Richard John Taylor (otherwise known as British filmmaker, author and restaurateur Meredith Alfred Lytton) from putting together a film whose alternative titles have included 'The Curse of Frau Perchta' and 'Baba Yaga'.

It's Christmas (not that you'd know it apart from a few bursts of Hawes's 'Carol of the Bells' on the soundtrack), and troubled Ingrid (Rose Hakki) is about to take a trip with her daughter Eleanor (Evie Hughes) back to the home where she grew up, the scene of a deadly tragedy from childhood which seems to have repeated itself. Ingrid is a journalist, and her boss encourages the trip because he feels her coverage of the story will be good for his newspaper's circulation. On the other hand Ingrid's estranged husband Frank (Jimmy 'The Bee' Bennett) is against it, fearing that his wife and child will be in danger.

Ingrid's grandmother, or Oma (Rula Lenska) still lives in the village where it all happened, and the arrival of her granddaughter and great granddaughter upsets the locals, who fear that the tragedy that claimed Ingrid's mother and sister Hannah is being rekindled by her return. There is no further direct discussion about the recent murders, which it assumed as being perpetrated once again by Frau Perchta. There is an awful lot of hand wringing as various characters work out their personal crises; with about fifteen minutes to spare the Frau herself very briefly pops up and is quickly despatched.

Anyone hoping for some demonic visitations, a bit of gore or indeed anything beyond characters shouting and pointing at each other for an hour and a bit is in for some real disappointment. The Winter Witch is all close ups, portentous music and little else. 'The Curse is real' suggests the publicity - so, my friends, is the tedium.

Among the Living (UK 2022: Dir Rob Worsey) Anyone who saw the TV show The Last of Us before Worsey's debut feature may feel a little short changed (the dynamics and themes of both are very similar, the budgets aren't) which would be a shame as Among the Living has a lot to offer.

Filmed in North Yorkshire, with stunning rural photography by Jordan Lee, we follow Harry (Dean Michael Gregory) and his younger sister Lily (Melissa Worsey) as they travel cross country from their home in search of their father. Although the details aren't made clear, the nation has been overrun with a pandemic which has turned the infected into blood drinkers, who can sniff out the red stuff at quite a distance; hence any cuts must be covered up instantly to avoid detection.

On their journey they encounter other disparate souls, including the initially taciturn Karl (George Newton) and his 'son' Tom (Leon Worsey); but the spirit of the age is that no-one trusts anybody else,  civilisation being in danger of complete collapse.

If this set up sounds a little like the A Quiet Place movies you'd be right; but it's more a jumping off point than a ripoff. Among the Living - the title comes from a line in one of the soundtrack songs by US band 'The Rinaldis' - concerns itself with ordinary people trying to stay sane in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Here it's all about the performances; low budget movies can be a little shaky in this department but the cast create a believable sense of isolation, fear and confusion, particularly the children Lily and Tom (played by the director's siblings). The lush score by Mitch Gardener heightens the mood of despair perfectly; this is a well directed, well acted movie that rises above its unoriginal premise.

The Rise of the Beast aka Devolution (UK 2022: Dir Jack Ayers) Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews, a 21st Century home counties equivalent of US budget schlock producers Nicholson and Arkoff, are back (again) with their by now rather formulaic approach to sci fi horror.

Damien Smith (Andrew Rolfe) is the head of Darrow, a company involved in the murky world of genetic experimentation; their hotshit lead scientist John (Arthur Boan) is in reality a mole who actually leads a group of saboteurs, including his girlfriend Elena (the ever dependable Sarah T. Cohen), keen on exposing to the world the seamy goings on in the company.

To do this they need to break into Darrow's facility and document the testing, as well as uncovering the mystery of the recent disappearance of a number of people in the vicinity of the lab. But there's a problem; before the group can get anywhere near their destination they're attacked by a giant gorilla (in reality this is Kira, a former prostitute from Brighton, who like the other mispers has been genetically modified) who manages to take a bite out of Elena. Taking sanctuary nearby, they encounter Dr Kafka (Heather Jackson), an addled scientist with a bloodstained lab coat and a messiah complex who seems to be the brains behind the experiments, and a gung ho group of solders. As the assembled cast get slowly picked off, Elena begins to fear that her bite might have infected her more seriously than first thought, when her thoughts turn to human lunch.

To be fair the Jeffrey/Matthews template, which remains remarkably consistent irrespective of the person directing, has undergone some massive improvements since the early days of their filmmaking (that would be 2020 then). There are now sufficient narrative left and right turns to keep things interesting, the wandering around in corridors element has sensibly been reduced, and the Kira creature is a reasonably good looking bit of CGI although the budget doesn't yet stretch to interaction with the human cast (it does however provide for some improved locations). On the downside there is still a persistence in requiring some of the cast to adopt variously successful US accents (Cohen is, as ever, the most convincing) and there are still some draggy bits even despite a 75 minute run time.

Are We Monsters (UK 2022: Dir Seb Cox) A lycanthropy movie with a difference; don't come looking for shaggy coats and dripping fangs here! In fact, don't come expecting a werewolf flick in any of the usual senses of the term. 

Everett (John Black) and Connor (Stefan Chanyeam) are brothers, the last of a long line of werewolf hunters, now operating under their own auspices having watched their father die at the, well, hands of a strange entity, whose rubbery torso and extended neck (and lack of hair) mark it out as no wolfman - or woman - you've ever seen before.

With only two of the original silver bullets left, the pair are considering their position, when they encounter Maya (Charlotte Olivia) and her awkward friend Luke (Jathis Sivanesan) while on patrol. Maya realises that there is something wrong with her and that she has monthly 'urges'. Sickly Luke definitely has something wrong with him, although his condition is more identifiable; Maya hopes that her friend's knowledge of folklore will aid her understanding. But an uneasy non alliance with the wolf hunting brothers bizarrely provides her with the information she requires; Everett even feels protective towards her, but Connor reminds him of the brothers' mission, and as the next full moon approaches allegiances and divisions among the four will be fully tested.

Aside from the sweary dialogue, this is a YA movie at heart, and heart is its chief selling point, As Maya Olivia is authentically awkward, and her early will-they-won't-they scenes with Luke have more than a ring of truth. The back story to the whole thing, told in fits and starts, is rendered in crude but effective animation; it's a technique also used to scrappy but keen effect at the movie's schismatic climax. Are We Monsters is low on budget but high on genuine feels; it may lope along (sorry) a bit but its heart is definitely in the right place, and as a coming of age allegory it's very effective.

Senseless (UK 2022: Dir Sam Mason-Bell) "You are nothing but dirt, and to dirt you will return". There really is no one out there in the UK making films quite like Sam Mason-Bell. One of eight (!) projects made and/or released in 2022, this one follows Home is Where I Lay and is similarly claustrophobic and possibly autobiographical.

Best seen as a journey into a form of hell from which redemption is eventually but uneasily attained, nothing much, and yet everything, happens in Senseless. Jason (Ryan Carter) is a tortured soul; when we first meet him, he is, like Dante in his 'Inferno', lost and wandering alone into a dense forest with nothing to his name apart from the clothes on his back and a box of roll ups. 

Through fractured voices echoing in his head we know that he has separated from his partner Diane (Ella Palmer) who rains down hateful abuse about Jason's worth and value to her and society generally; it's "like a stench has gone" as she describes life without him. Later on there's a suggestion that Diane may have died at Jason's hand. As he progresses, again Dante like, he meets ghosts and shadows that taunt him but who also warn him to go back; voices he ignores as he pushes on. The assailants become more physical and, as the film enters into abstraction, Jason is literally pulled part (a simple but effective piece of animation) before his eventual reconciliation at the end of the night.

Mason-Bell's film puzzles, bores and excites in kind of equal amounts; it's carried by a beautiful score by Craigus Barry (one of the most talented people working in British independent film today) which picks up and drops musical styles, perhaps echoing Jason's fractured soul. Impressively edited, Senseless is really something out of nothing, but in Mason-Bell's hands becomes an enigmatic and powerful piece.

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