Saturday 27 January 2024

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2024 #1: Reviews of Lord of Misrule (UK/Ireland 2023), The End We Start From (UK 2023), Murder Ballads: How to Make it in Rock 'n' Roll (UK 2023), The Haunting in Rosemary Lane (UK 2023), Swiperight (UK 2021) and The Loch Ness Horror (UK 2023)

Lord of Misrule (UK/Ireland 2023: Dir William Brent Bell) Bell has an impressive CV of smart looking, unadventurous but serviceable genre flicks like The Boy (2016) and its 2020 sequel Brahms, and the sequel to Orphan, 2022’s Orphan: First Kill.

And no change here: Bell has amassed all the trappings of the folk horror movement and parcelled them up in a movie simply dripping with cliche.

Tuppence Middleton is Rebecca Holland, a priest who ten months previously located to a living in a small village, taking with her husband Henry (Matt Stokoe) and their 10 year old daughter Grace (Evie Templeton). 

Rebecca might be bringing the word of the Lord, but the villagers cling to ancient beliefs, their celebration of harvest festival appearing to honour something older than Christianity. Little Grace is invited to be the festival’s ‘Harvest Angel’ but lest this be seen as something benign and charming, the village chief Jocelyn Abney (Ralph Ineson) takes it very seriously in his guise as the Lord of Misrule, going to battle with a horned satanic figure, another guy in dressup called Gallowgog, as part of the festival rituals; this devilish character has a history involving the village bestowing him with gifts in return for good fortune.

Shortly after the festival celebrations, in which the Hollands participate happily, Grace goes missing; number one suspect is the guy in the Gallowgog costume, Derry Nash (Luc Ineson, Ralph’s son), but what looks like an open and shut case gets far darker, as Abney reveals his true colours.

Everything in Lord of Misrule is so thoroughly unsurprising that one could only generate an ounce of fear if unaware of The Wicker Man and every similar film that followed in its wake; certainly Rebecca and Henry aren’t aware of it. Spilt into four chapters, following some murky pagan celebrations involving hair, blood and fire, your folk horror bingo card can be quickly filled as you tick off ‘scary masks’, ‘village locals knowing more than they’re telling’, ‘ancient chanted songs’, ‘satanic history lesson’ and ‘Christian soul hoodwinked by people worshipping older gods’. House!

There’s nothing wrong with Lord of Misrule; it’s elegantly photographed and the performances are all fine. But it isn’t doing anything remotely new, and I wished that the resources had been used for something more original.

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

The End We Start From (UK 2023: Dir Mahalia Belo) The Brits do dystopian sci fi so well. Based on Megan Hunter's sparse novella (its title a kind of riff on a quote from TS Eliot) Belo's first feature starts with an unnamed, heavily pregnant woman (played by Jodie Comer - no character in this film has a name) sitting in the bath, contemplating her baby bump. Outside it's raining, and has been for an unspecific, but clearly extended period of time, enough for water levels to reach a crisis point. The rain strains at the doors to her home and finally breaks through.

London is deep underwater, triggering chaos, amidst which Comer has her baby in a hospital struggling to cope with demand; she decides to travel to relative safety in the country, staying with the parents of her partner, R (Joel Fry). But things escalate; food supplies run low and households start to starve. A tragedy forces Comer and Fry further away from the city towards groups of people who have organised shelter and provisions; meanwhile Comer struggles to raise her baby, teaming up with an American mother, O (Katherine Waterston) and eventually arriving at an island commune run by a woman (Gina McKee) keen to achieve a post flood 'reset' rather than look back at what came before.

The shadows of climate change and the post Brexit environment haunt The End We Start From, although the film is principally the story of a mother's relationship with her child, a reconciliation of past and present, and a rumination on home. Comer is excellent in an understated role, and while the film is perhaps only peripherally a 'Fantastic' film its homage to survival TV of the 1970s, and convincing - for the budget - scenes of London underwater, warrant its inclusion.

Murder Ballads: How to Make it in Rock 'n' Roll (UK 2023: Dir Mitchell Tolliday) Former child prodigy Keys (Imogen Wilde) auditions for bad boy band Stack of Corpses, whose lack of hits is in danger of getting them booted off their record label. Her rival for the job is pushy Annie (Lauren Cornelius) who, after a struggle with Keys, ends up under a car, thus reducing the competition to one.

Two of the band members hit upon the idea of stealing lyrics from the home of a successful musician, the late Richard O’Keefe (Simon Callow, whose advice to musicians bookmarks the six chapters of the film). The subsequent song goes all the way to number one, mainly because Stack of Corpses’ manager, the excitable Larry (Alyx Nazir), has paid to put it there, and now his creditors want their money back.

The stage is set for chaos as Larry is hunted down by the money men, the band fight among themselves and struggle to conceal their song theft from O’Keefe’s daughter Megan (Nicci Yin), who has turned up to interview them for a magazine piece. 

Murder Ballads is frantic, gory and stuffed with crazy characters to keep the story going. As a comedy though it generally feels very flat, unless your taste is towards the slapstick. There’s a very funny scene where the band’s drinks are spiked by Stack of Corpses’ druggy vocalist Brian (Rhiann Connor) but it’s the exception; separating the film into six chapters was a good idea in principle but actually just makes the whole film feel less cohesive.

Sadly we don’t really get to hear any of the band’s songs, which would have been fun, and the soundtrack, comprising music from pretty much every genre, doesn’t give the film much of an identity (Stack of Corpses look like they should be a hardcore group but we never find out). Not for me then.

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

The Haunting in Rosemary Lane (UK 2023: Dir Matthew Littlechild)
As a break from all the high production value films that usually occupy these 'pages', here's a return to good old DIY filmmaking.

Two lads sitting around drinking home brew (the director and his mate, Sam Eladlani) hit upon the idea of making a documentary about the legend of the witch at Rosemary Lane on the Isle of Wight.

They mange to contact four people, all with some knowledge of the legend, although it's touch and go whether this will come off, as Matt and Sam are, shall we say, 'jazz woodbines' experts.

Rachel tells the story of a woman possessed by a demon in the 1930s who killed some children and then hanged herself; apparently you can still hear the children crying in the night. Mia's story, disbelieved by everyone she tells it to, is about her mum who went looking for their cat and disappeared. Sally tells of a demon in the woods that killed her friend Dave by forcing him to hang himself. The last of the interviewees, Bill, tells of fishing at the local lake when he saw a demon face, resulting in all the fish dying.

Armed with all this evidence, the pair decide to investigate the woods where all the strange stuff occurred; Matt's keen, Sam less so. And before you can say The Blair Witch Project the boys are running into strange twig arrangements, hearing weird sounds, wandering around lost and discovering strange skull faced women. The quality of the filming renders much of the dialogue all but inaudible, so it's left to the rough and ready visuals to do the work. It's all pretty scrappy but at under an hour it's not going to test your patience that much.

You can watch The Haunting in Rosemary Lane on Vimeo here.

Swiperight (UK 2021: Dir Jane Sanger)
The one and only feature by seasoned shorts director Sanger, Swiperight has been around since 2021, when it troubled a couple of festivals, but has only now seen the light of day in the UK.

And the reason for the timelag? Yep, it's not very good. A brother and sister, Mark and Jodie, growing up in an imposing Connecticut pile, are having to contend with the arrival of a baby sibling. The boy, Mark, a troubled young chap, deals with the inconvenience by drowning the wean. Adjacent to the house is an asylum where, unsurprisingly, young Mark is incarcerated. The parents hot foot it to the UK to escape the family stain.

Many years later Jodie (Ellie Bindman) is all grown up and has returned to America with a group of girlfriends; they're dancers (pretty poor ones as it happens) about to compete in a big show, and are using Jodie's old house as a base for rehearsals and general hanging out; their number includes Madison (Melissa Sangar/de Winter) who grew up in the asylum, being the daughter of the presiding quack, Dr Bennett (Toyah Willcox). Some of the girls are obsessed with a dating app (you can probably guess how the title comes into its own) and end up inviting some internet dates to a pool party. And then the girls start getting bumped off, all fingers seeming to point to stringy handyman Luke (David Thackeray) with his penchant for, in his words, catching what he can eat.

Swiperight groans under the weight of its own ambition. There are flashbacks galore, an American setting (actually Kent) which seems to serve little purpose narratively and a lot of characters, most of whom don't have a lot to do. The second part, where the killings begin and the killer unmasks himself, is way better than the turgid first half, but the acting is uniformly flat and the US setting just weird, featuring some of the lamest uniformed cops to have graced a screen since Paul Marco and Duke Moore in 1956's Plan 9 from Outer Space (props through to Sanger for putting actors in front of giveaway UK power points in the interior shots).

The Loch Ness Horror (UK 2023: Dir Tyler-James) "Have you ever heard of...the Loch Ness monster?" asks deep sea team member Lara (Becca Hirani) as said beast mounts an attack on the vessel that she and her team have launched to track down a boat that went missing 48 hours previously. Nobody laughs in response at the seemingly stupid question; it's that kind of movie.

Two groups of experienced (it says here) technical personnel join forces to scout the area where the last boat went missing, but have different objectives. One group is simply fact finding, the other, headed by aggressive Ewan (Rob Kirtley), know that a certain water resident monster is responsible and want to...well it's not clear. Capture it? What no one expects is that the LNM, when located, can secrete deadly gunk which has the ability to transfer spore to unsuspecting humans, leading to the hatching of little critters, which apparently grow to great size very quickly.  

The Loch Ness Horror is brought to you courtesy of co-producer Rhys Frake-Waterfield's Dark Abyss company, who have been responsible for a whole slew of recent UK creature features rivalling US counterparts The Asylum for cheap CGI derived thrills. Regular readers of these reviews will recognise the usual suspects at work here: Hirani is the acting name of Rebecca Matthews, producing partner with the ubiquitous Scott Jeffrey (not present on this project), and the cast is packed with names familiar from other Jeffrey/Matthews productions. Some, like Hirani and May Kelly as crew mate Ava, are actually pretty good; others fare less well. 

Utilising the Chatham docks located HMS Cavalier as the set for the film was rather a good idea; the claustrophobic interiors make a good backdrop for the running around. And as a seabound thriller it functions pretty well (although characters remain undeveloped). But the LNM element plunges the movie into familiar murky  - and terribly overfamiliar - CGI territory, which is getting rather tired now. 

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