Thursday 28 March 2024

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2024 #2: Reviews of Out of Darkness (UK 2024), Dagr (UK 2024), Gods of the Deep (UK 2024), Stopmotion (UK 2024), Ship of the Damned (UK 2024) and Frankenstein: Legacy (UK 2024)

Out of Darkness (UK 2024: Dir Andrew Cumming) The Scottish Tourist Board may advertise the wilds of the Highlands as a romantic holiday destination, but 45,000 years ago – the period in which this film is set and location for Out of Darkness – it was a rather different proposition.

The first shot of Andrew Cumming’s debut feature is impressive; a spot on a black screen increases in size, resolving itself into a campfire, around which sits the film’s Stone Age ‘family’, with young Heron (Luna Mwezi) asking to hear a bedtime story. The account that’s given is the family’s history of how they came to occupy the “old and dark” land, an inhospitable spot full of nighttime terrors.

The other members of the group include leader and Heron’s father Adem (Chuku Modu), his brother Geirr (Kit Young), Adem’s pregnant mate Ave (Iola Evans), elder Odal (Arno Lüning) and young Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a ‘stray’ recently adopted by the others, whose value to the group as an additional child bearer is secured when she menstruates for the first time, particularly after Ave loses the child.

As if wilderness survival isn’t tough enough, there’s a ‘something’ stalking the land; whatever it is, it’s big enough to leave piles of bloodied bones in its wake and cause harm to members of the family. Ultimately it’s Beyah who becomes the hero of the piece (not least for persuading the others to eat one of their fallen family in order to survive), but as the movie progresses, the question is (silently) asked as to where the line is drawn between human and animal in this prehistoric world.

Out of Darkness does a lot with not much. If one can ignore the rather tidy haircuts and well-fed faces of the cast, a lot of work has been done to establish these characters as 'other', down to the guttural ‘Tola’ language spoken; the whole movie is subtitled. The plight of the family is supported by crisp photography and natural lighting (what there is of it).

This isn’t a horror film as such, but Cumming mounts the scares and the tense moments just like your favourite fright flick. Ultimately the real horror here is the desolate existence carved out by a civilisation who may have left the caves but have yet to acquire the skills to stave off starvation and external threat.

A version of this review was originally published on the Bloody Flicks site.

Dagr (UK 2024: Dir Matthew Butler-Hart) Ellie Ducles and Riz Moritz play, respectively, the notorious Thea (definitely not Thelma) and Louise, a pair of YouTubers whose show, ‘They Deserve it’, sees the pair rob from the rich and entitled and redistribute to the poor and needy. Emboldened by their popularity, Thea and Louise egg each other on to bolder and bolder adventures.

As we join them they’re off to a country pile in deepest Wales, where a high end fashion advert is being filmed; their challenge is to break into the house, liberate the clothes being modelled, and scarper. But when Thea and Louise finally locate the seemingly deserted place, all is clearly not well. By reviewing production film on a discarded laptop, they witness an awful incident that is the prelude to the awakening of an ancient, dark force. And it’s only thanks to the police, who re-assembled events from available recovered footage, that we get to understand the horror that unfolded.

I can’t give too much away about the plot of this British found footage movie, except to mention that a lot of its appeal lies in the change of tone from its wittier, lighter first half – where a lot of the fun is witnessing the urban YouTubers getting to grips with the countryside - to a darker second act, and in the meshing of the two storylines. Along with the other cast members Ducles and Moritz largely improvise their shtick and it’s a relief that this works perfectly; you might actually want to watch ‘They Deserve it’. 

Director Matthew Butler-Hart’s choice of location - Abercynrig House in Brecon – is perfect for the hand held shenanigans one expects from a FF experience, and while Dagr does descend into running around and screaming for the last 30 of its brief 77 minutes, the whole thing is handled with a panache that injects new life into a sub genre that everyone – me included – thought had breathed its last.

A version of this review was originally published on the Bloody Flicks site.

Gods of the Deep (UK 2024: Dir Charlie Steeds) It's astounding that just eight years ago Steeds made his first full length movie, the Mad Maxesque Deadman Apocalypse, filmed in a large storage container with little more than chicken wire and shopping trolleys to dress it. Gods of the Deep is the director's thirteenth feature, and how far we've come. You can read about that journey here.

In thrall to 'vintage' aquatic creature features like 1989's Leviathan and Deep Star Six, GoDP takes place on a 'deep diving submersible' called Providence 3, capable of negotiating depths formerly unheard of; which is handy because the sponsors of the vessel, the Pickman Corp, have recently discovered what looks like an ancient portal deep beneath the ocean. The Corp have assembled a crack team to pilot the craft to the depths, including James Peters (Derek Nelson), Miskatonic University marine research expert (you've probably guessed by now from the references; like Steeds's previous feature, Freeze, we're in Lovecraft territory), marine biologist Christine Harris (Makenna Guyler), and a shadowy member of the Pickman family (Chris Lines). 

You surely do not need to be told that once submerged a) the crew do indeed find something and bring it back to the craft, b) it starts to misbehave and c) at least one of the crew unveils their ulterior motive for the whole mission. With Steeds's by now familiar low budget limitations, don't expect any massive F/X set pieces here (although there's a nifty end scene which makes effective use of CGI). Most of the director's practical effects are limited to some tentacular action, the discovery itself (which looks like it was assembled from items found in the local garden centre) and a rather impressive Cthulhu sized aquatic creature.

An on point 80s score from Matt (Vampire Virus) Aker and the usual high Steeds production values make this an impressive, if at times empty watch. But there is no denying the director's 'quart from a pint pot' talents; there's a lot of fun to be had here, even if all you get from it is a quick round of 80s monster movie bingo.

Stopmotion (UK 2024: Dir Robert Morgan) "Don't you want to make your own films? Have your own voice?" asks Tom (Tom York) of his girlfriend Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi). "I don't have my own voice," she responds, which may be true; but what Ella does have, in spades, is vision.

Ella lives in the shadow of her mother, Suzanne (Stella Gonet), a famous animator. Suffering from arthritis, mum is no longer able to manipulate the armature inside the models she uses for her stop frame movies, so Ella helps her. Ella, also an animator, struggles to develop original ideas so ends up helping her mother finish hers: but when Suzanne has a massive stroke, ending up in a coma, her daughter has to move into an empty flat in a deserted block to complete the film. 

But after meeting a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) in the supposedly empty building, Suzanne is encouraged to change the characters in the animation to tell a much darker story.

Morgan's debut feature is a woozy mix of animation and live action, which - of course - calls forth memories of the films of Jan Švankmajer and, in Ella's isolation and dislocated mental state, Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's 1965 movie Repulsion and maybe poor Henry in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977); it's not as successful as either of these films by the way. Although impressive, this functions more as a mood piece than a structured drama. But it's Franciosi's film; she's a slight but increasingly terrifying - and sympathetic - presence, evoking that of Niamh Algar in Prano Bailey-Bond's 2021 movie Censor. But the whole thing feels like a number of loosely connected set pieces, and the fairy tale elements feel muddled.

Ship of the Damned (UK 2024: Dir Steve Lawson) After a prologue set in 1622, Lawson's latest fright flick takes us into the 21st Century, in contrast to the historical setting of his last few movies. 

We meet Elena (Hannaj Bang Bendz, Wrath of Dracula), a teacher, who's having a hard time with her persistent ex Michael (Jacob Anderton, Ripper Untold). He works for a marine agency, and has been asked to look into a mysterious vessel which has just been pulled to shore. He enlists Elena's help because she's an expert on boats. The ship is very old, and its arrival at the harbour unexplained. Two officials check the craft out, but are despatched by unseen forces within. Michael and Elena indulge their curiosity and manage to steal on board, where they encounter the occupants; a group of cannibal pirates, cursed to remain on the ship and eat anyone who encounters them. But they're also on the lookout for someone who is healthy and fit for breeding, and with Elena in their possession, they set sail.

Lawson's 19th (I think) feature is a few steps back in creativity from his recent run of period movies. I was hoping at least that he'd managed to secure an authentic vessel on which to film, but sadly the ship is a combination of (actually pretty good) miniature work and the usual tightly shot confines of the director's Creativ studio. As usual Lawson makes the best of his meagre resources, and Bendz is a feisty lead, making use of her kick boxing skills at the movie's climax, but this isn't one of his best.

Frankenstein: Legacy (UK 2024: Dir Paul Dudbridge)
Dudbridge directed the overlong, lovely to look at but rather, er boring Fear the Invisible Man last year. Now he's back, plundering the classics again with the overlong, lovely to look at but marginally less boring Frankenstein: Legacy.

Beginning with a rather well done sequence showing the transference of Victor Frankenstein's diaries - a book full of how-to-make-a-monster tips - from person to person through the years; said volume eventually falls into the lap of well to do Millicent Browning (Juliet Aubrey turning in a very good, unhinged performance), who lives in a big country pile with her ailing husband Robert (Philip Martin Brown), son William (Matt Barber) who is a psychiatrist at the local asylum, and daughter Clara (Katie Sheridan). Millicent has a secret lab in the basement (as you do) within which she recreates Frankenstein's experiments. Early results end in failure, but it's only after the death of Robert that she gets her hands on some real material.

Throw in a couple of subplots - one involving the pursuit of the diaries by the ruthless Lady Charlotte (nice to see Michelle Bionic Woman Ryan getting some work), and another featuring William's burgeoning romantic attachment to a nurse, Liza (Alexandra Afryea) - and some rather unfocused comments about the state of medicine and the politics of poverty and race (the script actually contains the line "Let the bodies pile high!") and the result is, well a bit drab. Things liven up in the last half hour with the creation stumbling to life but it's all rather wooden and the script lacklustre. And why the hell Dudbridge decided to chuck in an insipid contemporary ballad over the end credits after spending the preceding 95 minutes trying to create a late 19th Century period atmosphere is beyond me.

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