Wednesday 10 January 2024

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #17: Reviews of Toy Box Killers (UK 2021), Blood House (UK 2021), Manhunt (UK 2021), Plague of the Dead (UK 2021), Afterlyfe (UK 2021) and Carnal Monsters (UK 2021)

Toy Box Killers (UK 2021: Dir Mark Denham) In Denham's debut feature we're on the mean streets of what looks like east London. Two American killers, Samantha (Elin-Margareta Nordin) and Daniel (Joshua Neil) have come to town and are embarking on a random killing spree, despatching anyone they either don't like the look of or see as easy pickings.

On their trail is Detective Sergeant Teri Logan (Sharon Hendry) with her forensic sidekick. 

Sam, who occasionally dresses up in Mexican 'day of the dead' makeup as part of their murderous rituals, befriends a couple of American girls, Monica (Emma Johannesson) and Jess (Toni Valerie). They all go out to a club, which looks like someone's living room; Sam spikes their drinks and takes them back home, with Daniel's assistance. Sam kills Jess with a hammer and they dump her body in the woods, but Monica is kept alive.

Detective Logan organises a press conference at which Monica's parents, mum and crime lord dad (Gengiz Hasim) plead for her return, with pop threatening to bring in his heavies if the police don't find his daughter quickly. But Sam and Daniel continue to evade the law, even as their own relationship undergoes its own difficulties.

Despite, or perhaps because of the rather rudimentary way in which Toy Box Killers has been put together - crudely added London stock footage, bits of slowed down action, choppy editing and terrible sound - the film attains a kind of 'fly on the wall' docudrama feel; it's too polite to be really grungy and the inexplicable, possibly tongue in cheek adoption of American accents by various members of the cast is just annoying, but there is something rather grim about the movie.

On his Film Freeway page, Denham tells us that "I'm currently writing a screenplay which I hope to pique the interest of the creators of American Horror Story with a script about a supernatural killer called Mr Piggy. I dream of a life in Hollywood."

Blood House (UK 2021: Dir Tony Manders) En route home from a school reunion, the car in which a group of ex classmates are travelling breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Ben (John Fisher), his girlfriend Sarah (Maria Hiscock), Jade (Gemma Harlow Dean) her boyfriend Josh (Richard Wilde), Harry (Matthew Hemmings) and his sort of partner Alice (Meg Owlett) make their way to a seemingly abandoned house for shelter. 

After doing a quick recce of the vacant property they are surprised to find that a cupboard, thought empty, mysteriously contains fresh bedding. This is followed by the appearance of breakfast items and later clean clothing from the same place (well, a number of white hazmat suits). One of the party, investigating another part of the house, strangely finds himself teleported back into the bedroom where they've shacked up. 

Of course we the audience know better; this is the house of a witch, one Elizabeth Blood, burned at the stake in the 17th century and who swore a curse both on her ancestors and anyone living nearby. And it's not long before the witch is back, possessing the house's occupants, leading to their grisly deaths.

Blood House runs for a bum numbing 110 minutes; it's a mix of a small cast ad libbing to each other about their predicament, punctuated with some odd bits of horror and gore (and with a 17th century prologue). Like his previous genre film Death Follows Manders's movie is hard work but not without merit, with a decent payoff and some nice witchy touches along the way. The fact that almost the whole thing is suffused with a blue filter makes it rather difficult to work out what's going on, but also imbues the piece with a weird, slightly otherworldly quality. It's not great by any means but the director's films are always interesting, provided that you adjust your expectations.

Manhunt (UK 2021: Dir Charles Solly) Solly's first feature, although clocking in at just 45 minutes, is an incredibly effective story about the revenge of a bullied student on his classmates.

Rodger Flank (Ashley Clarredge, excellent) is an overweight young man with some personal freshness issues who has a habit of going commando under his tracksuit bottoms. He's the subject of constant bullying by his fellow students, but that's not the end of his problems; at home his mother (Lauren Garner), alcoholic and confined to a wheelchair, constantly puts him down.

When Rodger receives an invitation from his classmates to an end of term 'illegal' party in a local park (the movie was filmed in lockdown, so the gathering is presumably against COVID rules) he's excited; but it's a mistake. Rodger was added to their WhatsApp group in error, and despite attempts of two of the gang to stop him and avoid further taunting, Flank flips out, rocks up to the park and starts his reign of terror. But he has a plan to deflect responsibility for his crimes.

Although this may initially come across as filmed youth theatre, Solly tells his story well, gradually uncovering Flank's plight, providing justification for his anger, if not perhaps the end result. It's also rather disturbing stuff, which surprised me; Clarredge's portrayal of the damaged youth is satisfyingly convincing.

There is a slightly sour note to this work; the cast were recruited from the National Youth Film Academy, a subscription based service established, as the name suggests, to assist young people in accessing movie roles. NYFA closed down in 2023, with some sources suggesting problems with opportunities presented to students and delays in processing course refunds. This is a shame, as most of the cast here are extremely credible (and talented) and I wish them well in the future.

Plague of the Dead (UK 2021: Dir Tony Newton) The connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and zombie outbreak has, perhaps surprisingly, not been overused by indie filmmakers. Newton's film however has no shame in conflating both. Filmed in lockdown in 2020 but not released until a year later (it came out on DVD in the US in 2022) PotD acts as a kind of 'notes from the frontline' zombie flick, comprising stand alone vignettes filmed separately then patched together by Newton.

Most of the to camera pieces emanate from the US which gives the film a distinctly non UK feel (although it does count as a British Fantastic Film, and includes a turn from the director). Split into two halves, the first section is made up of individual survivor reports; towards the end we witness those same people after zombie interaction, some bitten, others choosing to take their own life rather than face an uncertain future existence.

So yes the parallels between lockdown and staying out of the way of infected zombies are exploited to the max. "The news said to stay indoors" informs one of the talking heads, and that's just what they do. The audience doesn't get to see much zombie action (the first infected rears its ugly head 45 minutes into the film's rather trying hour and three quarters) and the gore is restricted to random (and rather rubbery) body parts, infected wounds and a zombie who feasts on its own entrails. The omnipresent Shawn C Phillips gets to do one of his meltdowns (although - spoiler alert - he makes a pretty convincing zombie without the need for much makeup) and there's a scene where a couple, getting it on, experience coitus zombicus interruptus; possibly a first. This is all quite bleak stuff and a real chore to sit through; a bit like the pandemic then.

Afterlyfe (UK 2021: Dir David A. Roberts)
This 21 minute short (it's over the 20 min threshold and thus qualifies for inclusion in the BFF project) was made by the director of the very good 2023 movie Older Gods.

Andrew (Rory Wilson) wakes up in a medical facility with no knowledge of why he's there. He comes across a man, alive and mumbling, zipped up in a body suit, and is attacked by a soldier. A voice informs Andrew that he was in a car crash together with his husband, which he didn't survive. But technology, and a few random body parts, have saved the day.

Afterlyfe is a bit of a tease; it just starts getting going at the end point, after which there's a 'To Be Continued' message. But based on this I want it to continue! 

Roberts suffuses his film with a palette of shades of red, and provides his own lush score to heighten the drama onscreen. Afterlyfe is powerful and well made stuff, with a payoff which explains and anticipates. Not sure why we haven't seen the director develop this one into a feature yet.

You can watch Afterlyfe here

Carnal Monsters (UK 2021: Dir Joe Cash)
Cash's film was released by the infamous Troma films (studio boss Lloyd Kaufman appears at the beginning, treating us to an oboe rendition of the English national anthem) and you only have to sit through the first ten of its scant 65 minutes to understand why,

Featuring a nearly all female cast, chosen principally for their willingness to appear in not much at all - or nothing -  the 'story' revolves around a scientist, Dr Dilf (Ian Sen) who dies after creating a gas which prevents death, only for his killer acolytes to chase down a group of women who just seem to want a bit of R&R. Oh and it's set on the outskirts of Tromaville. And there are no monsters. There is some monstrous acting, if that counts?

I understand that this was, at one point, the most streamed Troma movie ever. I can't help feeling that, for most people paying to see this, they would feel rather sort changed; and talking of short change this was apparently made for about £500 (some of which must have comprised payments for cameo artistes like Stan Lee and the original 'Jason Vorhees', Ari Lehman).

Things get slightly more exciting towards the end with the goryish despatch of the two killers, but overall this is pretty awful, although I was too old for Troma films in their heyday so I'm probably way off the target audience age for this one. The film was re-released in Italy a year later under the title Le Vendicatrici Tossiche ('The Toxic Avenger' to you).

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