Tuesday 24 October 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023 #3: Reviews of The Mummy Resurrection (UK 2023), Older Gods (UK 2023), Doctor Jekyll (UK 2023), Haunting of the Queen Mary (UK/USA 2023), Wrath of Dracula (UK 2023) and Three Blind Mice (UK 2023)

The Mummy Resurrection (UK 2023: Dir Steve Lawson) Over on the other side of the pond Universal may have struggled with their 'reimagining' of the company's classic monsters, whereas here on planet Blighty Steve Lawson quietly gets on with the job of bringing back characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and Van Helsing; and, er Jack the Ripper. Now, like a number of other low budget filmmakers, Lawson has turned his attention to the mummy, with a little Frankenstein thrown in for good measure.

Explorer Felix Randolph (Melvin Rawlinson) returns home to England from an expedition to the Egyptian tomb of Khenmetptah; he's one assistant down, due to a curse attached to the sarcophagus, but one coffin (and contents) up.

Back home Randolph's wayward relative Everett, in hock to dastardly moneylender Sykes (Carl Wharton), has one eye on inheritance - including the valuable sarcophagus - to solve his financial woes. In contrast Felix's other cousin, the attentive and virtuous Archie (Rafe Bird), cares only for the troubled health of his uncle and the latter's ability to continue experimenting with bringing dead bodies back to life.

Following Randolph's death and the bequeathing of his house and contents to Archie, who would now be free to marry Felix's maid Iris (Dawn Butler) with whom he is in love, the stage is set for a battle for the coffin, and the possibility of continuing Felix's experiments with the long dead body of Khenmetptah (Raven Lee).

Like pretty much all of Lawson's latter 'costume' horrors, the actual 'horror' in The Mummy Resurrection is rather restrained (and in this case almost restricted to the last few minutes). Budget rather than artistic intent may have driven the director, in the words of Churchill, to have his characters 'jaw, jaw' rather than 'war, war' but he's getting increasingly good at the sleight of hand that makes you eventually realise you've been watching a bunch of people in a room talk about what's going to happen rather than showing it. The cast are all on fine form, although Lawson regular Chris Bell is especially unctuous as the conniving Everett. It's a handsome looking piece with enough narrative twists and turns to keep it interesting; a possible hinted follow up would be quite welcome.

Older Gods (UK 2023: Dir David A. Roberts) This one’s been a few years in the making. I originally picked up the title back in 2020, but like a lot of productions kickstarted in that year a certain pandemic slowed down operations; Roberts’s movie finally saw the light of day this year.

Chris Rivers (Rory Wilson) has rented a cottage somewhere in Wales. He looks haunted and jumpy and with good reason; he’s just jumped ship on his family and heavily pregnant girlfriend, leaving them all the way over in Denver, Colorado with less than two weeks to go until the baby’s arrival.

Chris is in mourning for his close friend Billy (Ieuan Coombs) who, along with Billy’s partner Paula (Lindsay Bennett-Thompson), have both taken their lives in mysterious circumstances. Billy and Paula had been researching a phenomenon summarised in an article entitled ‘The Primordial Fear’ which dealt with the psychological state into which people can fall as a result of feeling an overwhelming ennui at the futility of life and their being a speck in it.

The pair have travelled the world, finding numerous incidences of people who have experienced this, and who sought comfort in a deity they have named ‘The Origin’, feeling that the only hope for the world was the awakening of this god and the destruction of everything as a result (a very Lovecraftian idea). The pair had focused their research in a corner of Wales where they felt that ‘the sleeper’ may be located; the same place at which Chris has arrived.

Using a package of evidence left for Chris by Billy, including audio and video interviews, Rivers pieces together his friend’s researches; but as he does so, he feels that the very presences that hunted Billy down (ie members of the sect), may have arrived to see that Chris suffers a similar fate.

As unfocused as Roberts’s film can feel at times, as well as the dramatic limits created by a cast that is largely one person slowly going out of their gourd, there’s no denying that Older Gods is a powerful piece of filmmaking. Apparently the inspiration came from Roberts losing a friend during the pandemic, and there’s a strong sense of grief running through this production. As Rivers, Wilson does very good ‘persecuted’ and his descent into the emotional abyss is well supported by some great camerawork and a moody score by Gerald Buckfield. Not perfect then, but a triumph of overcoming cinematic adversity, and a worthy addition to the Lovecraft film canon.

Doctor Jekyll (UK 2023: Dir Joe Stephenson) Like the corpses in some of the company’s movies, Doctor Jekyll represents Hammer Films’ latest return from the industry grave at the helm of new CEO, British theatre mogul (it says here) John Gore.

Lest we forget, the last time Hammer revived its fortunes under the captaincy of Simon Oakes, back in 2011, their debut offering was the dull The Resident. Luckily this time the resurrected company’s first output is a whole lot livelier, even if it does leave you with a feeling that you’ve just watched a Ken Russell movie minus all of the naughty bits.

Larger than life figure Eddie Izzard plays Dr Nina Jekyll, a pharmaceutical billionaire who now lives in stately isolation in a big house in the country, assisted only by Poole (Lindsay Duncan), Jekyll’s factotum. Newly released from prison, Rob (Scott Chambers, the acting name of the prolific producer/director known as Scott Jeffrey) is successful in applying for the job as carer to the mysteriously infirm Jekyll, against Poole’s wishes; Rob is spectacularly unskilled for the job. But Jekyll has faith in him, even going so far as to give him the code to the house’s security system.

Meanwhile Rob’s past catches up with him in the shape of an ex who wants him to come in on a plan to burgle Jekyll’s pile; but Rob needs to keep on the straight and narrow if he’s to have a chance of seeing his sick daughter again. He’s also a bit confused about Jekyll and a nighttime character called Hyde, whose appearance is heralded by the green glow of a cigarette.

As you’ve probably guessed this is a modern-day update of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, the sort where the names of the story’s characters are ported over (go on, guess what Rob’s surname is?) and with the added thrill that Izzard gets to play Jekyll and Hyde.

It’s patchily funny – an ongoing sort of gag around crunchy nut cornflakes gets some laughs - and Chambers and Izzard are both very good in their roles. Which is a blessing, as the viewer spends a lot of time in their company. Unfortunately Doctor Jekyll is all rather polite; I kept hoping that things would go a bit crazy, but restraint is the order of the day for the most part, and it’s such a well worn story that I needed more than the gimmick of Izzard to sustain me.

Haunting of the Queen Mary (UK/USA 2023: Dir Gary Shore, Rebecca Harris)
Oh good god. So the thing to mention upfront before we get into the problems in this UK/US movie is that the Queen Mary, permanently moored off the Californian coast as a tourist attraction, and on which the film is set and partly shot, has recently undergone a commercial makeover following its pandemic closure. One of the key visitor features has traditionally been a haunted walk; following the revamp, there are now no less than four separate such tours, so the owners of the Queen Mary are clearly hoping that the supernatural history of the ship (once included in a list of ‘Top 10 Haunted Places’ and boasting over 150 separate spooks) will boost visitor numbers.

What better way to assist this than basing an entire movie around that very same history? Told in two increasingly confusing timelines – 1938 and the present day – the first strand concerns the QM in its deco heyday, with a story involving working class passengers attempting to pass themselves off as posh, the dad of that family doing a Jack Torrance and going loco with an axe, and an unlucky member of the crew whose death is connected with the fate of the vessel.

The present day story revolves around a writer, Anne (Alice Eve) pitching to the ship’s head honcho a new book on the history of the QM, accompanied by her nine year old son Lukas (Lenny Rush) and estranged husband Patrick (Joel Fry). A sequence of events finds the family alone on the ship, while Lukas, off exploring, discovers the QM’s ghosts who refuse to lie quietly.

Add in some rather ‘didn’t-see-THAT-coming’ gore, a few black and white sequences, some animation and an increasingly annoying toggle between the two timelines and you get…well, a mess. But because it’s shot on the QM it’s a gorgeous looking one, which manages to confuse and confound the longer the viewer is exposed to its two hour running time. And in terms of my earlier reference to the potentially commercial application of the film, consider that it includes three of the spirits supposed to haunt the ship; a guy trapped in the engine room, a little girl called Jackie and a ‘White Lady’, here glimpsed frustratingly playing the piano.

There are, I understand, two sequels planned and if the whole thing has a whiff of 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie/attraction crossover about it, well I would have to agree, as I would with the critic who commented that the whole thing was very well shot and then edited by primitive unsupervised AI. Bizarre.                                                                                                                                                            
Wrath of Dracula (UK 2023: Dir Steve Lawson)
 The second Lawson production for this round up and it's another of his verbose treatments of classic horror characters. 

Here he returns to Dracula, sort of picking up where his last vampire movie, Bram Stoker's Van Helsing, left off. He again uses Mark Topping as a very serviceable Van Helsing, but while his previous film concentrated on the character of Lucy Westenra, this one devotes its time to feisty, independent Mina Harker (Hannaj Bang Bendz), whose fiancé Jonathan (Dean Marshall) has been imprisoned in Castle Dracula.

Van Helsing realises that impetuous Mina wants to travel to Transylvania to free Jonathan, although the vampire hunter feels it might already be too late for her intended. But to give his young charge the best fighting chance, he teaches her martial arts as a back up to the usual silver bullets/crucifix combo; skills which come in handy when she encounters Dracula’s brides on arrival. Unlike the previous film Dracula actually turns up in this one (played by Sean Cronin) although largely played in shadow: as it should be.

In true Lawson style this is ponderous but handsome looking stuff, mixing real locations, the director's cramped Creativ Studios interiors and stock shots, with a faux orchestral score to keep things classy; oh and a surprisingly ambitious beheading too. The odd line raises a smile – “Taste the blood of Dracula!” cries the Count as he almost successfully persuades Mina to drink of his life force – but it’s all a bit am dram and the director’s agonising pace makes me shudder that, based on his current output, we’ll have another five or six films to go before we reach the end of his 'Dracula' adaptation. Still, there's no one else doing this sort of stuff at the moment; is Lawson a home counties Andy Milligan with a better temper?

Three Blind Mice (UK 2023: Dir Pierre B) Another film from the ridiculously prolific Scott Jeffrey production roster, this one’s been directed by a French guy named Pierre B, and is co-produced by Rhys Frake-Waterfield, of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey fame.

Abi (May Kelly) is a drug addict whose family have staged an intervention to help her kick the habit. Facilitated by counsellor Cara (Helen Fullerton), the whole bunch relocate to a remote woodland cabin. There they surrender phones and individual choices as they work on getting Abi clean.

Did they pick the wrong location! Nearby to the cabin is a seemingly disused lab, and it’s from here that three mutated humans, blind maybe but looking precious little like mice, forage for human flesh. Also in on the action is a pack of actual sized, equally murderous (CGI) mice who swarm over their victims. The whole family come under siege from rodents large and small and must battle to stay alive!

While most (not all to be fair) projects with Scott Jeffrey’s name on them are rather turgid affairs, Three Blind Mice is actually pretty good. The human sized killers might just be people in slightly dodgy latex masks but they’re served up quite creepily, and there’s also a rather sad backstory to their creation. Kelly is fabulous as the tortured Abi who goes from victim to victor. She radiates genuine feelings of panic, shock and anger as her family are picked off and, unlike many movies of this ilk, Mr B creates a sense of real dread towards the end. This remains a low budget flick, of course, but its resourcefulness – and the cinematography - reminded me of the movies of Charlie Steeds. Not bad at all.

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