Wednesday 8 November 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 #19: Reviews of Haunted 4: Demons (UK 2020), Unit Eleven (UK 2020), Paracide (UK 2020) Glia (UK 2020), Humanus (UK 2020), The World We Knew (UK 2020), and People in Landscape (UK 2020)

Haunted 4: Demons (UK 2020: Dir Steven M. Smith) I've found Smith's 'fiction' fantastic movies pretty hard going, but the prospect of having to sit through one of a number of the director's Most Haunted style reportage features too is a real test of the requirements of the British Fantastic Film project.

My predecessor on this venture, MJ Simpson (who comprehensively covered British Fantastic Films from 2000 to 2019) had to sit through the first three of Smith's Haunted series, concluding, by instalment 3, that "it's difficult to see who could possibly enjoy this evaporated nothing of a film". 

Harsh but arguably fair. Where MJ had the edge on me is that the first three films of the series clocked in at around 80 minutes each; Haunted 4: Demons is over two punishing hours long.

For those not acquainted with these works, the Haunted series follows the format of most 'real life' ghost hunting programmes, gathering a team of 'experts' in a location reputed to be a locus for supernatural activity; in 4's case it's a unprepossessing 1950's semi detached house, supposedly haunted by the ghost of a little girl called Lily. Some of the 'experts' in Smith's film are actors, so it's a sort of 'dramamentary', with lots of scientific stuff thrown in to make things more exciting - they don't. Consistent throughout the series is actor Jon-Paul Gates playing, er, Jon-Paul (credited as 'The Medium') who, with his spirit guide Frank (!) is the conduit through which the spooky goings on in the episodes are explained.

Also returning is Chris Bell, playing series presenter Andrew Robinson. Bell's Essex brogue, combined with the po-faced bobbins coming out of his mouth at regular intervals, makes him sound like a less funny Garth Marenghi. At some point he will have his fortune read and will be told he is destined for great things, which clearly came true as he went on to appear in four Steve Lawson movies and made his own - The Heiress - all much better than this nonsense.

"This is really feeling like a negative vortex now" says The Medium at one point, and he'd be right. There really is only so much of this that one person can take. But the movie has notched up nearly 4.5K views on YouTube to date, so what do I know?

Unit Eleven (UK 2020: Dir Theo Cane Garvey) It's 2035 and the country has gone thruppenny bits up; now a lawless society, the government and the police have retreated, and the UK has been segregated into heavily defended zones, run by gangs with names like Trojans and the Hackenthorpe Klash Force (one of a number of locational references to Sheffield, the City in which the film was shot). Money remains the currency of trade, used for the purchase of food and drugs.

Meanwhile David Maeson (the late Carl Kendall, who passed away in 2018, which gives some indication as to how long the film has been in gestation) has been keeping his wife Diane alive (ish) with regular injections of the drug called Riconium. But he needs more and in the latest batch realises that someone has also nicked a vial of Unit Eleven, containing a superformula which can bond with living tissue. The government want it back and are prepared to pay handsomely for its return; but Maeson has other ideas.

Garvey's incredibly fast paced feature debut - the director also edited and did an amazing job - is an almost non stop barrage of blokes fighting and yelling at each other. The number of photographers involved with the project again hints at the period of time taken to put the thing together, but one thing's for certain; Sheffield has enough grim points of interest to make for a convincing doom future backdrop. Unit Eleven is best seen as a South Yorkshire version of one of those 1980s Italian post apocalypse movies. It's not really my sort of thing but you can't help appreciate the effort that's gone into putting it together.

Paracide (UK 2020: Dir Paul Heron) I was commenting in another review that the concept of the multiverse is a gift for low budget filmmakers. Heron's single feature (to date) is the perfect example of this in operation.

Simon (Joe Davis) and his mates are off to a sci fi convention; the trouble is, they never make it, as the vehicle in which they're travelling is involved in a car crash.

But when Simon comes to, he's in a suburban bedroom which he's never seen before, in the middle of a swingers' party. And if that's not confusing enough, when he returns home his friends who were in the crash are just sitting there with no knowledge of what happened; he also finds out that he's been sacked from his work for 'lewd behaviour', with no knowledge of this happening.

From this point Simon gradually understands, courtesy of his guide and protector U (Helen Lewis), that the car crash has plunged him into a series of alternate dimensions, and also the mystery of a sphere which popped up in his garden and which the bad guys seem to want. U, who works for the 'Multiverse Investigation Agency', helps him navigate his new world, a place which includes The Naughty Pants Spa, complete with fake ads, ghostly Psi-fish and in house seer Stasi (Kat Majewska), and a convent comprising nuns with a cucumber fetish; oh and a bloke in a werewolf mask.

Paracide won the 'Best British Feature' award at the 2020 London Independent Film Awards and it would be a cruel person to pass comment that competition couldn't have been stiff that year. Heron's film tries so hard, but ultimately it's attention deficit filmmaking which was probably more fun to make than watch. If you can get through nearly two hours of almost constant atonal synth soundtrack (Heron himself channeling, and losing contact with, the spirit of 1970s era BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and Davis, a likeable chap but whose overuse, either naked or dressed in women's clothes or as a nun, quickly makes him outstay his welcome, you'll be doing very well. I shouldn't be hard on this jumble of Douglas Adamsisms, but it really is a chore to sit through.

Glia (UK 2020: Dir Richard Faria) A film you have to access via an app and watch on your phone, you say? I've long rallied against the viewing of movies on mobile devices, and I'm not used to film companies, however independent, mining my data just for the opportunity to view their output, but for the sake of the BFF project I did just that.

And I'm really pleased I did. Glia is a really well made, ambitious (but not overly so) sci fi which does a lot with its meagre resources. Set in the very near future, Alex (Arnas Fedaravicius) is a poorly paid, entry level grunt, employed by a Cambridge based biotech company. When he complains about his conditions of service, the company boss reminds Alex that there are no rules, and his employment is a golden opportunity to "get something started".

And so he does. Recognising the opportunity to manufacture a cheap copy of a well known, and very expensive neuroenhancer called 'Modafinil', he ropes in fellow students Satish (Fady Elsayed) and Gunther (Bobby Lockwood) and launches into production, with the aid of some loaned robots. But Alex's desire for success means that he sidesteps the inevitable animal testing of the prototype and takes it himself. The ingested drug has an almost instant effect, turning Alex into a hyper aware, super intelligent version of himself. But his process shortcuts have an unfortunate side effect; the instability of the tablets makes them transmittable by touch, and very quickly Alex and his friends draw the attention of the military, who are keen to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak.

Like so many indie genre films, the action is more talked about than done, but in this case care has been taken with the production values, and the robotic scenes - courtesy of the Global Robots company in Bedford, look both fabulous and believable. Glia opts for a rather oblique ending (although the film website offers the opportunity of a different one too) but the whole thing is a joy to watch, even if my only option was on a tiny screen; I'd have loved to have seen it on a bigger one.

You can access Glia here.

Humanus (UK 2020: Dir Steve Mitchell)
Here's something very unusual; Mitchell is writer, producer and director of this horror musical, and is also the boss of Back 2 Front films, a company whose projects star people with physical and learning disabilities. The majority of the cast of Humanus therefore comprises people with disabilities, which makes the film refreshingly different and surprisingly honest as a creature feature.

When young Molly's boyfriend goes missing, rather than alerting the police she enlists the services of a psychic, Madame Belle (Melanie Morgan) to track him down. The good news is that MB is successful in making contact with the boyfriend; the bad news (for Molly) is that the success means he's dead, the latest victim of a killer who has been murdering (and in some cases beheading) the locals. And as the bodies pile up, so does the reception area of limbo presided over by two women who guard the entrances to heaven and hell.

So what's going on? Well a less than generous answer would be 'who knows?' but it seems to have something to do with the creation of a lab created drink which, when consumed, has terrible side effects; the bodies procured are in connection with the potion, and the whole thing is the brainchild of the other worldly Princess Lamia (Robyn Horne). It's probably best not to think too deeply about all this, and to appreciate the film for what it is; an anarchic and often very funny showcase for people who don't normally get the chance to perform in front of the camera. So we get some primitive gore, fabulous songs (courtesy of Mitchell), a few dance numbers and an awful lot of inventive larking about. Rather good, actually.

The World We Knew (UK 2020: Dir Matthew Benjamin Jones, Luke Skinner)
After a bungled heist which has left a policeman dead and one of their number severely injured, a gang of six robbers hole up in a large house to lie low. And that's where the trouble starts.

I confess I'm not a huge fan of this type of setup, and Jones and Skinner's debut feature didn't convince me otherwise. For some bizarre reason the criminals are named after (male) horror alumni - Barker, Gordon, Carpenter, Stoker, HP etc - which suggests that we might get to see 'the horror' after all rather than a bunch of bickering, sweary blokes gradually losing their shit and imagining things.

TWWK is clearly designed to evoke mood rather than offer us something narratively interesting, but the pace is slow and the setup somewhat of a cliche. Struan Rodger as veteran crim Barker (who'd been here before in the admirable Kill List) gets to tell some stories by the campfire, as it were, and Johann Myers, as Gordon, effectively loses his marbles (although he's the only black actor in the group and the first to the marching powder...hmmm). But overall this was inconclusive stuff which kept me waiting for a payoff that never happened.

People in Landscape (UK 2020: Dir Benjamin Rider)
The sixth title of 2020's 'Fantastic' films that I've classified as 'Esoteric', and as usual when covering films like this, it's difficult to know where to begin, because any summary of 'plot' really isn't going to help you.

Sandra and her husband David are coming to the end of their marriage; well at least that's David's position. Sandra may have suggested divorce out loud in the middle of a dream, but David is taking her up on it, dismissing all their planning for the future - including having kids - as belonging to a different time. Sandra, despairing, thinks that the news will 'bring about the end of the world'.

And she may be right. In a series of vignettes, the world is clearly not right. Sandra, packing to move out of the marital home, records a number of advisory blogs to help others, all delivered with a manic energy. 

Elsewhere a guy called Alex is having an affair, with a woman also named Alex. He's having second thoughts, but when he finds his lover dead, via an accidental bathtub drowning, he must dispose of her body. Missing Alex triggers concerns with her mother Jodi, and the discovery of a woman's body at the foot of some cliffs confirms mum's worst fears. Other couples fall out and make up, including another Alex, where the bone of contention between him and his partner is the reappearance of a childhood imaginary friend, a lizard called Velez (voiced by Eric Roberts...yes the Eric Roberts). At the end of a movie, a talking wig mannequin (Gina Gershon...yes the Gina Gershon) will attempt to explain things.

PiaL is as odd as it sounds, but is extremely well put together. You may not understand what's going on all the time, but there is an overall themes of identity, control and chaos warring against each other which works really well, assisted by some great if bizarre performances and a score which pilfers naughtily but effectively. Not for everyone, but a real curio.

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