Tuesday 14 November 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #15: Reviews of Haunted 5: Phantoms (UK 2021), Doctor Prim (UK 2021), No One Gets Out Alive (UK 2021), Lair (UK 2021), Absolute Denial (UK 2021) and The Show (UK 2021)

Haunted 5: Phantoms (UK 2021: Dir Steven M. Smith) This isn't a great way to re-kick start my round up of Fantastic Films from 2021 (see my moans about Haunted 4 in a previous post), but the project is all about being comprehensive, so let's get going. Smith is back with the fifth of his 'Haunted' series; lucky us, but on the plus side it could be the last.

Smith's focus has now moved from the house in Erith featured in H4: Demons to, well, the pub over the road. The Corner Pin public house is therefore, not as presenter Andrew Robinson (Chris Bell) states, in south London - it's Kent. It was also not, as he informs us, "built in 1844"; try 1958.

Jon-Paul Gates returns as 'The Medium' although he's keen to point out that he's not a psychic, but just has 'psychic inclinations'. He does, however, still have his spirit guide Frank. Another member of the team with her spirit guide - or guides - is Jeanette, a proper medium who is assisted by an Indian child and her grandad.

Unlike the house in H4 the ghostly shenanigans here seem to be a little unfocused, although the centre of the activity could possibly be the late Sergeant Major Mark Stephenson, a spirit who believes in order and who acts up if his authority is challenged; at one point he possesses Tony, one of the pub's regulars, making him puke (off camera). Tony remains rattled throughout, poor chap. Later on JP gets his psychic nadgers trussed up while filming outside.

There's the usual scientific gubbins around which the drama is set - lots of static and a random word generating thingy - but the real action happens when JP's credibility is questioned and the capricious little prick starts lording it over anyone who suggests that he's merely chasing the money. 

After some night cam business, in which a ghost girl is briefly glimpsed (apparently - I failed to spot her but she gets a credit so I'm sure she's in there) Mr Robinson decides to down tools and leave the production, surmising that no fee is worth being on set with a bunch of fake ghost hunters. So it looks like the end of the 'Haunted' series, particularly when JP turns over the death card in a final reel tarot reading.

This is, as I'm sure you have concluded, pitiful stuff and like H4 before it runs to over two hours, which no one should have to put up with. I'll leave the last word to JP, as he lays writhing in agony following a spirit attack: "Fuck off!" he cries. Well quite.

Doctor Prim (UK 2021: Dir Steven M. Smith)
Now I've been fairly unkind to Smith's output; in my opinion deservedly so. It's pure coincidence that I lined up two Smith films in a row to review, and maybe it's that I don't have an inexhaustible supply of snark but Doctor Prim is actually quite good.

Let me qualify this: Smith's role here seems to be a co-ordinator, putting together eight 10 minute shorts with a silly wraparound featuring a disfigured medical character (Primrose Bigwood). So he doesn't actually get near the content, which is a blessing.

Watching Doctor Prim a few years after lockdown, the shorts in this film, which are (mostly) horror takes on aspects of the pandemic, vary in quality but most are reasonably successful. All the usual lockdown points are covered: Chelsea Grimwood gets infected and her whole body replaced in 'Infection'; Mike Kelson turns murderous on his lodger in a dispute over bog roll in 'Paper'; 'Meds', with Leila Kotori caring for her boyfriend, right up to the point where she finds out he's been having an affair; and, most effective of all, the final short, 'Delivery', featuring Kate Newall as Joan, a perky home cleaning vlogger whose upbeat personality masks a germophobic woman saved by a parcel in the post. 

Is it possible to be nostalgic about the pandemic and the bizarre things which people resorted to, many of which have now become pandemic shorthand? Possibly, but Doctor Prim is a pretty effective summary of that very weird time.

No One Gets Out Alive (UK 2021: Dir Santiago Menghini)
Menghini's debut as a director is British only in terms of technical credits and financing (some of the money was put up by Andy Serkis via his Imaginarium Productions company), plus the fact that it's adapted from a novel by UK author Adam Nevill.

Otherwise this is a very US looking movie, set (and partly filmed) in wintry Cleveland, Ohio. It's a city to which Ambar (Cristina Rodlo) has arrived, after taking care of her dying mother. As an immigrant Ambar can only take zero hours contract work, and as such has to slum it in the worst accommodation. The only place she can afford is an old wreck run by a louche guy called Red (March Menchaca) with his sinister brother Becker (David Figlioli). Ambar, her economic status limiting what she can do, has no option but to move in, with a relative promising her work if she can prove her US citizenship (which she will have to buy on the black market).

The house seems to have only one other occupant, troubled Freja (Vala Noren) who Ambar can sometimes hear crying. In fact the new accommodation is full of odd sounds and Ambar, still in grief following her mother's death, has horrendous dreams, which regularly include the contents of a sinister open box. Ambar is about to find out that her nightmares are to become reality.

The house - and the demonic entity within it - are the stars of the show here, very Mike Flanagan esque; a genuinely creepy setup. Ambar's economic struggles mirror her emotional ones, making the film an exercise in anxiety as much as, towards the end anyway, outright horror. Rodlo is fabulous as the distraught but resolute Ambar, and Figlioli's frightening Becker is truly menacing. Sure there might be a cliche or two too many on the road, but this is a competent scary movie, and a much more successful adaptation of Nevill's work than the 2017 film The Ritual.

Lair (UK 2021: Dir Adam Ethan Crow)
OK buckle up for the plot of this one. When mild mannered dad and faux parapsychologist Ben Dollarhyde (Oded Fehr) goes loco and slaughters his family - and does his surname sound familiar to anyone? - his partner in crime in the fake haunting racket, Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson) is in the horns of a dilemma. He doesn't believe Dollarhyde's defence - that he was possessed by a demon as a result of fooling with the supernatural, and driven to murder - but decides that he wants to help his cause. His solution? Try to recreate, and film, an event to prove the existence of the supernatural possession, using one of a number of items the pair have stored based on previous 'hauntings', Ed and Lorraine Warren style.

Renting a couple of flats in an otherwise empty apartment building in London, Caramore installs himself in one, complete with CCTV to monitor the action, and lets the other to a family comprising newly divorced Maria (Aislinn De’ath), her new partner Carly (Alana Wallace), teenage daughter Joey (Anya Newall) and Joey's sister Lily (Lara Mount). Bizarrely he then inserts into the guest flat the items he's stored from previous cases, hoping that one of them will pay off in terms of supernatural action, which he will film and offer up as evidence.

The thing about Lair, although plot wise it's completely bonkers with holes in the plot through which you could drive a hearse, is that it's also hugely enjoyable. Partly this is because of a cast who mostly play it straight (even Johnson, who has to utter some absolutely ripe gumshoe lines that feel like they've strayed in from a different genre altogether). It looks great, has some fabulous but pretty understated FX, and it manages to remain appealing even when every member of the cast is either annoyingly bickering or totally sleazy. Worth your time, believe me.

Absolute Denial (UK 2021: Dir Ryan Braund)
There's a basic tenet of science fiction that, at some point, technology will develop to the point where it bites you on the arse. In Braund's brilliantly realised movie of ideas, David (voiced by Nick Eriksen) is a computer nerd whose driving principle in wanting to develop a self-improving super computer is, as he says, "we don't want Artificial Intelligence to be just like us, we want it to be better than us". Human beings are fallible; computers by their very nature aren't. Oh dear.

So David's super computer, achieved by buying up pretty much every server unit available on the internet, is designed for the core unit to act as an online repository of all available world information. But he also builds in an 'absolute denial' protocol that effectively denies the supercomputer the ability to become sentient; quite a good idea based on the information being fed into it. He also denies it access to the internet for the same reason.

After watching the computer assimilate the room full of information, David is delighted when it finally acquires a voice (the 'reasonable' tones of Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto) and he can engage with something tangible, rather than code. But if David is Frankenstein to the computer's creation, like Shelley's characters the relationship swiftly becomes challenging. When the superbrain discovers the AD protocol, the trust between them is broken (if it existed in the first place) and it starts to question its goals and very existence. David's wish, to create something that is humanly infallible, increasingly seems like an unreachable goal.

Braund's beautifully if sketchily animated feature is a movie about ideas; a story of the growing tension between creator and created. At 70 minutes it knows not to outstay its limitations. The use of a largely US voice cast means that it feels like an American movie but its AI tensions absolutely place it within the canon of British sci fi. Recommended.

You can watch Absolute Denial here.

The Show (UK 2021: Dir Mitch Jenkins)
Author Alan Moore, who scripted Jenkins's feature, has both lived in and drawn inspiration from the town of Northampton, so it's perhaps unsurprising that it becomes the location for the bizarre events in Jenkins's second filmic collaboration with the author (the first, the little seen 2014 series of shorts, Show Pieces, also featuring Northampton after dark, was a precursor to this film).

The Show stars Tom Burke as a mercurial character, Steve Lipman aka Fletcher Dennis, who has come to town in pursuit of a Rosicrucian cross, but this quest is wrapped up in another, the search for a man, James Mitchum (Darrell De Silva), who has killed the daughter of market trader Bleaker (Christopher Fairbank); for Burke's character is an 'exit technician' - an assassin for hire.

Because this is based on a text by the notoriously reclusive Moore, Dennis's descent into 'Nighthampton' encompasses freaks and weirdos galore; in fact the whole thing comes across as a kind of louche take on Peter Greenaway's early movies, with some signage that's pure The League of Gentlemen. Burke, in his red and black sweater and unruly mop of dark hair, looks like, as many critics have already noted, Dennis the Menace in the underworld. At two hours The Show is often hard work; there are some real pacing issues and whether you like this will depend to an extent on your appreciation of Moore's lysergic conspiracy theory writing. I didn't much get on with the film, but I'm happy that it was made, and the use of Linda Jardim's 1980 track 'Energy in Northampton' (one of my favourite novelty songs ever; Jardim also contributed vocals to 'Video Killed the Radio Star') over the end credits was an unexpected surprise. 

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