Wednesday 20 December 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023 #4: Reviews of Alien Invasion (UK 2023), Punch (UK 2023), Crannog Bay (UK 2023), Artifacts of Fear (UK 2023), It Be an Evil Moon (UK 2023) and Casting Kill (UK 2023)

Alien Invasion (UK 2023: Dir Fred Searle) Another from the prolific - and then some - producers Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews, the pair offer up some sci fi this time round; however do not let the stargate opening and the words 'Lacerta - 102 light years from Earth' seduce you into thinking that you're about to watch a space opera.

The rest of Alien Invasion is resolutely earthbound: East Sussex to be precise. A group of young 'uns - ex military type and PTSD sufferer Phoenix (Benjamin Colbourne), Ursa (May Kelly), Carina (Leah Glater), bible quoting Norma (Amber Doig-Thorne) and her boyfriend Leo (Nikolai Leon) - are throwing a surprise party to cheer up Lyra (Sarah T. Cohen), a nurse, who now lives alone following the death of her parents. Next door to where they're hanging out is a very large, and heavily secured house owned by a doctor - of what, Lyra isn't sure.

Curious Phoenix manages to get round the security and break into the seemingly empty neighbour's mansion. Lyra and friends follow his lead; when inside they discover a room heated to a precise temperature, a load of lab equipment and a curious egg shaped object. The unexpected return of the doctor gives rise to the most awkwardly delivered exposition I've ever heard - where doc tells the egg (and the audience) of the object's extra terrestrial origins, and his own decision to steal it away from the authorities to a place of safety. Of course it isn't; the egg 'hatches' and the creature inside, unimaginatively named Lacerta after the planet from which it originates - which quickly grows to monstrous proportions - is free to kill. Luckily, Norma's dad (Matthew Baunsgard) - a boxer turned priest - has a church just down the road, so the group set off to take refuge for a final showdown with the beast.

Searle has a good track record - first AD on recent rather good movies Punch (reviewed below) and Midnight Peepshow - and he brings some finesse to this low on budget, high on aspiration creature feature. Lacerta is a mix of guy in a pretty nifty costume (Bao Tieu, who's kind of cornering the market in this sort of casting) and some patchy CGI that can't quite decide how big the thing is. Nods to the 'Alien' franchise abound - lots of flashing lights and "get away from her you bitch!" lines - but this feels more like a modern update of William Malone's 1980 flick Scared to Death, with Lacerta taking all its moves from that flick's 'Syngenor' creature.

Punch (UK 2023: Dir Andy Edwards) Unlike most of her friends and family, Frankie (Alina Allison) has managed to escape the dullness of her Hastings home by going to University. So when she comes back to the town to visit, things are difficult with a resentful mother, who has just taken up with a new man, and friends who think she’s got too big for her boots.

Only close friend Holly (Faye Campbell) remains loyal to her, as does her on off boyfriend Daryl aka ‘Dazzler’ (Macaulay Cooper). Both encourage Frankie to let her hair down for one night before leaving to resume her studies; but while she pursues a night of hedonism, a strange figure wearing a Punch mask, a creature descended from local legend, stalks and kills the fun loving denizens of the town.

Andy Edwards, who previously collaborated on 2022’s Midnight Peepshow, to some extent follows the well-trodden narrative arc of many a Brit low-budget horror: soapy domestic intrigue to establish the characters; some mid movie carnage; and a final girl who spends the last third of the film trying to outwit a murderer. 

But within this tried and tested formula Edwards is doing something rather different. Firstly there’s a fabulous sense of seaside ennui established by shots of closed entertainment, gaudy pubs and arcades, and the supporting cast of youths who effectively summarise the boredom of living in a largely employment-free area, where anyone seeking to better themselves is seen as ‘other’. As Frankie Allison is very effective as a young woman caught between the worlds of her past, containing the friendships that she has clearly missed, and a possible future.

The Punch character himself is pretty eerie, sporting a squeaky voice, uttering a series of sotto voce one-liners like a more embarrassed Freddy Kreuger. In some ways, Punch acts as a kind of animated spirit of the violence that lies vaguely hidden beneath the surface of the town, which is underlined in the film’s rather unexpected ‘twist’ ending.

The end credits announce that Mr. Punch will return, and I for one would be interested to see how Edwards develops his themes in future movies. That is, indeed, the way to do it then.

(a version of this review originally appeared on the Bloody Flicks site)

Crannog Bay (UK 2023: Dir Doug Kyle) I wrote a longish piece on Kyle in the third issue of my short lived 'Dark Eyes of London' hard copy fanzine, in which he mentioned that he was just finishing Crannog Bay, a continuation of themes of bringing Scottish island folklore to life.

While Crannog Bay as a location is fictitious, one of the great things about Kyle's short films is their sense of location. For this one (filmed in 2021 but not released until 2023) he deploys some very effective drone photography which perfectly captures the beautiful - and threatening - terrain.

Mixing song, Celtic folklore and, yes, monsters, Crannog Bay is the story of Chris (Josh Currie), a native of the area taken away at a young age by parents keen to help him overcome recurrent nightmares about attacking mer-men. Now an adult, Chris has been drawn back to the Bay, the nightmares having returned. He tries to make sense of what's going on, first by attending meetings of the 'True Believers' support group, and then, courtesy of group member Russel (Doug's brother Andrew, like many in the cast a regular in Doug's films) and a psychic (Jane Fullerton). But try as he might to rationalise what's happening to him, Chris is being steered inexorably towards the denizens of the Bay and his own fate.

Although only running for about 40 minutes, Crannog Bay manages to combine creature feature, local drama and rumination about what it means to be, as one character puts it, "a true local." Chris feels the pull of his birthplace but also the awkwardness of someone returning home after a long spell away. The 'true locals' in this case have made peace with the occupants of the sea (a very 70s Doctor Who creation, put together as usual by Kyle and Claire Martin - see his other films for more of this sort of thing), turning a blind eye to the islanders who regularly go missing. I love Kyle's films; you can keep your faux 'folk horror', this is the real deal.

You can watch Crannog Bay here.

Artifacts of Fear (UK 2023: Dir Rusty Apper) This is Apper's first real feature, although the director has turned his hand to most behind the scenes functions in his movie career. It's therefore perhaps unsurprising that he wrote, edited, scored and directed AoF, and refreshing to report that it's actually pretty bloody good.

AoF is a portmanteau movie, which lets each of its three stories - and indeed its wraparound section - breathe rather than, as is more usual with these things, simply rushing to the next bit for fear of boring the audience. This would explain the movie's near two hour running time, but don't let that put you off; Apper knows what he's doing.

Alex (Luke Morgan) and Nathan (Cameron Patmore) are two lads on a mission; they've been tasked with finding something with a bit of 'wow' factor for a Halloween party, and have been tipped off that there's a curio shop nearby where they might pick up just what they need.

Run by proprietor Jack Korminski (Laurence R Harvey in a role which embraces the oddball shopkeepers from the heyday of the 'portmanteau' film) the boys are shown into the basement, where the piece de resistance is a strange, talking radio contraption - Tales from the Haunted Radio - which, for the cost of a ticket, will narrate tales of terror.

In the first, Apper's homage to the giallo movie, a police woman (Isabella Moore Richardson) investigating video evidence relating to a string of disappearances finds herself at the mercy of a masked killer; in the second the screaming skull of a convicted witch is passed through the generations until it comes to the attention of Rick (Nathan Head), an enthusiast who's not quite what he seems; and in the last Mike (Mark Porter), one of two brothers dealing with the estate of their recently deceased father, realises that dad was a Satanist whose beliefs may have the power to reach from beyond the grave.

One of the standout elements of AoF is the quality of the performances. No-one overacts or treats the short film format lightheartedly, and as the shopkeeper holding the wraparound story together Harvey gets the balance of quirk and sinister just right. Apper's film is both a love letter to the late 20th century portmanteau films of Amicus and a great movie in its own right. Tightly budgeted for sure, but Apper's control of all the elements (including an impressive score) allows for some serious wigout moments, Crowleyesque touches and even historical 'back in time' scenes that makes you think you're watching something considerably better resourced than it actually was. Superb.

It Be an Evil Moon (UK 2023: Dir Ben Etchells)
Poor Freddy Campbell (Ian Ray-White). Sacked from his job as a scientist, he now lives at home in Scotland with his demanding mother Gladice (Sue Moore) and, when he's not catering to her needs, divides his time between taxi driving services for ungrateful customers and manufacturing street drugs to be sold by equally ungrateful local gangs.

Dabbling in his home laboratory, Freddy prepares a serum to prevent hair loss, incorporating wolfbane (as you do). He tests it on Henry, his pet guinea pig, with positive results, then decides to spike mum's morning tea, possibly to bump her off (which it doesn't) before finally experimenting on himself. The serum is successful - too successful, turning him into a hairy werewolf, giving him enough strength to get even with the gang members but forcing him to flee to the Highlands when the drug kingpin comes after him.

122 years ago the Scottish filmmaker James Williamson created a comedy short called The Marvellous Hair Restorer which warned of the dangers of overapplying the product, there's something rather sweet about first time director Etchells using the same subject matter for his debut feature. Described as a comedy horror, IBaEM isn't really either (well a wig on a guinea pig provoked mirth), but acts more as a rather dark, but ultimately redemptive allegory about the outsider and the state of society; I was reminded of those dramatisations of Alan Bennett's writings that were on TV a few years back, where the author learned to live with his awkwardness (although I don't recall Bennett ever having to comb his face).

Ray-White is excellent in this, but he's ably supported by some fine supporting work from Sue Moore and Rod Glenn in two 'bastard' roles, one horrendous and the other even worse. If you approach this as a werewolf flick you'll probably be disappointed; as social drama it's really rather ace.

Casting Kill (UK 2023: Dir James Smith)
I really liked Smith's 2021 film Surveilled. He and his writing/producing partner Caroline Spence make a great team.

This time round they're turning their hands to all things giallo. Arthur Capstone (Rob Laird, looking a little like Chris Morris's sleazy boss in The IT Crowd) is a top US casting director; he's brash, he knows what he wants, and he's carrying out auditions for his latest project.

But, as Casting Kill progresses, we soon find that there is another side to Capstone. He's a ruthless psychopath, who probably isn't actually who he says he is, and uses the audition process to bump off his potential stars and keep their bodies hanging around for company.

But when he offs one young auditionee, he's made the wrong choice; the following day her boyfriend Domenic (Jack Forsyth-Noble) turns up looking for her. Sensing something a bit weird, he teams up with Ruby (Rachel Chima), another aspiring actress, and together they lift the lid on Mr Capstone's, er, business practices.

As with Surveilled, Casting Kill is superbly edited, with a lush score to add to the cinematic sleight of hand that would lead you to believe you're watching something with a bigger budget than is the case. Casting Kill also, rather cheekily, only has a couple of locations - the casting offices and the stairwell outside them - but is photographed in such a way to distract from these limitations. The murderous auditions director story is a theme straight out of Soavi or Argento, and is served by a cast that convince, particularly Laird, and there's a great sotto voce turn from filmmaker Andrew Elias (whose Tales from the Great War was a 2023 highlight) as the facility's caretaker. This is excellent work, as ever, from Smith and Spence, two largely unsung but very talented people.

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