Friday 8 September 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023 #2 - FrightFest special: Reviews of Werewolf Santa (UK 2023), Lore (UK 2023), The Glenarma Tapes (UK 2023), Haunted Ulster Live (UK 2023), To Fire You Come at Last (UK 2023) and Hostile Dimensions (UK 2023)

Werewolf Santa (UK 2023: Dir Airell Anthony Hayles)
 Indie Brit directors seem to love making horror comedy films about werewolves. Maybe it’s the country’s love of our furry friends, or possibly the essential melancholy of the creature with the ability to send up some of the population’s anachronisms. A more likely reason is that you can get away with a lot for not much if you make a movie featuring someone wearing a werewolf mask.

Anyway in this one we’re introduced to Lucy Gray (Katherine Rodden), host of the globetrotting ‘Monster Hunters’ YouTube show, who has been slowly using up all her money searching for thus far non-existent creatures. On her uppers, she returns to Hastings to stay with her mum, Carol (Emily Booth; and if Ms Booth is now being cast in ‘mother’ roles I must be getting old). Accompanying her is trusty cameraperson and fuckbuddy Dustin (Charlie Preston).

As mentioned in the prologue, Lucy could have saved her money and stayed in Blighty, as cave dwelling werewolves have been active in the area since at least the end of the 18th Century; and guess what, they’re still around today. While out filming in the woods on Christmas Eve, also accompanied by Lucy’s old friend, monster expert Rupert (Cian Lorcan), they come across Santa Claus, having a waz break during the annual delivery of presents.

But disaster strikes when Santa is bitten by a werewolf while in his vulnerable state, and it’s not long before he becomes WereSanta. Not only are the residents of Hastings now in danger, but it looks unlikely that anyone’s going to get their presents. The only solution is to take out the head werewolf that started the infestation in the first place, to restore all the bitten to their former selves.

Director Airell Anthony Hayles was heavily involved as co-writer and director of last years’ excellent and rather slick portmanteau movie Midnight Peepshow. But Werewolf Santa rather echoes the scrappiness of his previous feature 2020’s They’re Outside. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation on style. Like TO before it, WS adopts the found footage approach as befitting Gray’s role, and tells its story in decidedly (excuse the slight pun) shaggy dog style, including crap seaside ghost trains, bickering families and a werewolf attack in a known dogging spot.

Booth, Rodden, Preston and Lorcan make a reasonably fun group to spend an hour or so with, and Hayles at least tries to conjure up a seasonal atmosphere, even roping in genre legend Joe Bob Briggs to voice an animated version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (although I’m not sure why). Apparently this is the first of a planned Christmas themed three movie horror cycle, and while Hayles is by no means the most polished director working in the genre at the moment, I quite like his have a go movies, soapsud snowflakes and all.

Lore (UK 2023: Dir James Bushe, Patrick Michael Ryder, Greig Johnson) 
The rise in short film making has seen a similar increase in ‘portmanteau’ films, many of which settle on gathering, often randomly, a set of premade shorts and knitting them together with a link story which sadly is often little more than an afterthought. Which is why it's such a delight that Lore, although also a portmanteau film, comprises short tales scripted and filmed specifically for, and as part of this feature.

Four intrepid thrill seekers (Miles Mitchell, Dean Bone, Sally Collett and Samantha Neale) head out to the country in search of an advertised ‘once in a lifetime’ immersive experience which turns out to be just them, their tents and an organiser named Darwin (Richard Brake, Barbarian). The camping area, they are told, was the site of a mass grave and the location of an ancient evil, and the four are encouraged to each tell a story as a means of establishing contact with the forces in the soil.

The four tales, two straight, two comedic, owe a consistency of look and feel to being lensed by the same photographer, Scott Coulter, which makes the veritable cinematic silk purse out of what is probably a very low budget. In ‘Shadows’ a guy fleeing from a gang demanding money ends up in a disused warehouse, empty save for a skulking monster; in ‘The Hidden Woman’ a mother and her young son take on more than they bargained for when they settle in to their late relative’s house; ‘Cross Your Heart’ has an obnoxious husband setting up a swingers party, the outcome of which he would never have predicted; and in ‘The Key Chain Man’ a disgruntled cinema employee embarks on a orgy of violence at a sparsely attended midnight screening.

Directors Patrick, Ryder and Johnson know the ‘lore’ (sorry) of the portmanteau film; keep it light, keep it tight and keep it moving. Only ‘The Hidden Woman’ is genuinely creepy but all the segments are well put together, occasionally gory (the first and last stories) and, importantly, don’t outstay their welcome. The link story is a little messy but the end coda, suggesting that story telling is a never ending process, works well. Good stuff.

The Glenarma Tapes (UK 2023: Dir Tony Devlin)
It may be nearly 25 years since the release of The Blair Witch Project, but here's Northern Irish director Tony Devlin to show that there's some life in the found footage genre yet.

Friends Gordy, or Gordon to his teachers (Warren McCook) and Jimmy (Rían Early) are students at Mid Ulster College of Art. Jimmy is filming a 'fly on the wall' project following Gordy around. The latter is both flattered and annoyed by the attention; he's a principled soul who's happy to slap a classmate for badmouthing a fellow student, and has a troubled home life. But he's intelligent enough to read his domestic situation into a class about 'Romeo and Juliet', much to the surprise of his teacher, Miss Mallon (Collette Lennon Dougal); he also has a star cross'd thing with fellow classmate Eleanor (Sophie Hill). 

When Jimmy films a secret conversation between Mallon and newly married teacher Mr Holmes (Declan Rodgers) in which they arrange a clandestine assignation in the nearby (ish) Glenarma woods, the students, along with Eleanor's friend, prickly Clare (Emily Lamey) decide to tag along and film the secret get together for shits and giggles and the potentially lucrative power of a sex tape.

Rather unprepared for the whole venture, the four make it to the woods via a bus and some stolen pushbikes but realise as soon as they get there that a) the forest is vast and b) there is no obvious way back. But forging on they eventually come across the errant teachers; but not in a setup they could ever have foreseen.

Filmmaking technology has improved tremendously since the days of trying to locate the Blair Witch, and Devlin exploits this by providing a range of filming techniques - GoPro headcam, 4K etc - that makes The Glenarma Tapes look infinitely better than many of its found footage predecessors. Event wise though, the film follows the FF template - establish characters, introduce the setup, have the cast get lost and then let the night time shenanigans begin - although Devlin mixes it up by having the whole thing go a bit Kill List and then adding a survivor coda which sort of kills the film's 'reality' buzz. It's way more watchable than 90% of this type of film though, and the forest looks authentically dangerous. 

Haunted Ulster Live (UK 2023: Dir Dominic O'Neill)
 There’s an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Dominic O’Neill’s debut feature is a fine example of this; an homage to/update of BBC TV’s 1992 production Ghostwatch, with events transposed from north London to Northern Ireland.

We join a film crew as they set up a live broadcast for Northern Ireland Television on 31st October 1998 (six years to the day after the events in Ghostwatch). Hosts Gerry Burns and Michelle Kelly (Mark Claney and Aimee Richardson, taking on the Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene roles respectively, and both excellent) are broadcasting from a reputedly haunted house in the north of Belfast, where a series of mysterious incidents have been terrorising the property’s occupants, the McKillen family.

Meanwhile up in the McKillen’s attic local radio personality DJ Declan (Dan Leith, playing the Craig Charles lovable geezer role) is spinning the tunes and raising money for Irish victim support via a phone in (the events are set just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and references to ‘the troubles’ echo throughout the ‘programme’).

Things play out much as they did in the 1992 classic: the story of the house – containing a notorious spirit - is gradually unveiled via a pair of psychics and members of the local community who gather outside; mysterious events begin to occur inside and there’s the usual VT playback to analyse them; and the McKillen’s daughter Rose (Libby McBride) eventually becomes the locus of supernatural activity.

There’s nothing as creepy as Ghostwatch happening here, but what is interesting, and not seen in the BBC production, are the ‘off camera’ moments when the presenters show their true disdain for the production, the family, and even the producer who is about to pull the curtain down on the whole thing, until increasing viewer numbers require that he keep the feed open.

Of course a long time has passed since 1993, and the world is considerably more culturally ‘hauntological’ than it used to be. Thus we have a very Ghostbox inspired degraded look for the footage and titles, some timey wimey subject matter and a soundtrack (by the director) that’s very au courant. But I liked this a lot and run wise it knows not to outstay its welcome.

To Fire You Come at Last (UK 2023: Dir Sean Hogan)
Hogan is perhaps better known as an author than filmmaker, and as such it's unsurprising that, like his previous movie, 2011's The Devil's Business, To Fire You Come at Last is a decidedly talky affair, full of the fruity idioms of the 17th Century, a la A Field in England.

Weighing in at a slight 45 minutes (perhaps no coincidence that it shares a similar running time with episodes of the infamous BBC 'Ghost Story for Christmas' TV plays, since it also shares similar narrative and thematic concerns) it's the story of four men, headed by the pompous Squire Marlow (Mark Carlisle), whose job it is to transport the coffin of his recently deceased son Aldis (Stephen Smith) through the woods to a safe resting place.

The others involved are Marlow's number 2 Master Holt (Harry Roebuck), Pike (Richard Rowden), a man charged with procuring assistance from trained hands, and finally the result of that pitiful search, the in his cups Ransley (James Swanton). As the four make their way across country bearing their awful burden, secrets divulged reveal dark connections between the men and the body in the coffin.

The skeletal setup (pun intended) of Hogan's movie means that its attraction is largely dependent on how much you like to hear a group of care worn men regale each other with discursive stories; the answer from this critic is 'very much indeed'. Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson's crisp black and white photography frames the journey from day to night with maximum atmosphere while the men bicker and cajole endlessly (Wanton's character is particularly insidious, sounding incredibly like Coronation Street's Madge Hindle at times - ask your parents/guardians). When the spook arrives, just like those BBC adaptations, it's briefly glimpsed and all the more effective for it. To Fire You Come at Last may be little more than an extended short, but it's a very good one.

Hostile Dimensions (UK 2023: Dir Graham Hughes)
Anyone who has seen Graham Hughes’s last feature, Death of a Vlogger, will attest to the director’s skill in deflecting audience awareness of working with a low budget by throwing lots of great ideas at us instead. And now Hughes is back doing exactly the same thing, although this time his topic is the multiverse, an increasingly popular theme in fantastic filmmaking.

Footage of the disappearance of a graffiti artist, Emily (Josie Rogers), via a propped up door in the middle of an abandoned building, comes to the attention of filmmakers Sam (Annabel Logan) and Ash (Joma West). Sam’s previous documentary, ‘Bear Market’, dealing with the capitalist treatment of the teddy bear business, had not been a success (“You do not know existential pain unless you’ve produced a film,” says the film maker). The disappearance of Emily, however, piques her interest, and after a brief tinfoilhatty chat with the weird guy who filmed the Emily footage, Brian (Stephen Beavis), before long Sam has ‘borrowed’ the door and installed it in the living room of her apartment with a view to constructing a new doc.

Aided by Dr Innis (Paddy Kondracki), whose scientific mind is alive to this sort of thing, Sam and Ash begin to experiment by filming voyages through the door, which turn out to be varied and surprising (such as a trip to a giant panda theme park complete with tentacled bear, and a strange country featuring pyramids and floating whales). But when a heavily bedraggled Emily emerges in one of the alternate worlds, pursued by a different Brian (Hughes), things start to get very weird indeed.

Whereas in his last film Hughes front and centred himself as the haunted vlogger, here the film is carried by Logan, a likeable actor (who was also in DoaV) whose interest and ambition nearly get the better of her. Hughes wisely keeps things buzzing (the multiverse idea, if edited effectively as is the case here, is a gift for those fantastic movie makers with slender budgets) and cleverly builds his action to an exciting climax. Hostile Dimensions might be a bit smoke and mirrors when you stand back and think about it, but it’s a fun way to spend an hour and a quarter nevertheless.

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