Wednesday 24 April 2024

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2023 #5: Reviews of Alice in Terrorland (UK 2023), Freddy's Fridays (UK 2023), The Mansfield Ghost (UK 2023), Power Cut (UK 2023), Alive (UK 2023) and The Elevator (UK 2023)

Alice in Terrorland (UK 2023: Dir Richard John Taylor) While the title may suggest one of those 'oh it's in the public domain, let's make some money' literary ripoffs, and a cursory look at the structure of the film may have you nodding your head in agreement, Taylor's odd, lyrical movie owes more to Neil Jordan's 1984 adult fairytale flick The Company of Wolves than its contemporary genre mates.

Alice Aciman (Lizzy Willis, who in addition to being an actor is also a trained intensive care nurse, British Army Officer and former Miss England contestant, don'cha know?) comes to stay with her grandmother, Beth (Rula Lenska, on excellent form) after the death of both of her parents in a house fire. Beth's house is called 'Wonderland' and was reputed to have been lived in by one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, although its wonder has a limit: Alice is warned to stay away from the woods which surround the place.

It's not long before Alice, still grieving the loss of her parents, falls ill and becomes almost bedbound. Beth's ministrations of various potions, together with her reading chapters of Carroll's books to her woozy granddaughter, do their work; in a series of what must be visions (mustn't they?) Alice meets key characters from both novels, all of whom are distinctly more nightmarish than their literary counterparts.

As an idea this really shouldn't work (like Rhys Frake-Waterfield's Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey shouldn't have - and, sorry, didn't). But what Alice in Terrorland has going for it is a pronounced sense of mystery, some very creditable performances, and stunning cinematography. My reference to The Company of Wolves wasn't an idle one; Rula Lenska occupies the same territory as Angela Lansbury did in Jordan's film, and if Willis doesn't quite capture the childlike wonder of Sarah Patterson's Rosaleen in that movie, she's still a convincing Alice. The film's greatest achievement is a seamless transition from the pastoral to the horrific and back again. Most of the terrors in the film are barely glimpsed, and the overall mystery of the piece is quite the achievement from a director whose previous genre offerings have tended towards run of the mill UK DIY horror movies.

Freddy's Fridays (UK 2023: Dir Ben J. Williams)
 Another example of a cash in title - Five Nights at Freddy's anyone? - which masks unexpected quality, Ben J. Williams's debut solo directed feature may have the guiding hands of DIY horror stalwarts Scott Jeffrey, Rhys Frake-Waterfield and Tyler James on production duties, but it's better than a lot of movies helmed by them.

Anastasia (Jeffrey regular Chrissie Wunna, in a rare blink and you'll miss her performance; see also The Elevator later in this round up) is the latest of a number of female escorts to go missing under mysterious circumstances; except that we know what's really happened to her (and presumably the others). She's been picked up by sleazy stockbroker bloke Todd (Jase Rivers), taken to an abandoned basement where she's made to read some Latin from a human skin bound book and then sacrificed to a group of demonic creatures headed up by chief demon in a dog suit named Freddy (Abu Barry).

Looking into the disappearances is police person Lily Mallett (Danielle Scott, another Jeffrey regular who divides her time between horror stuff like this and 50 Shades of Gray inspired erotic dramas) who, having identified the common link between all the disappearances - ie sleazy Todd - asks her mate Connie (Alexandra DeCaluwe) to stalk him on social media. Thinking that trapping him will be a cinch, Lily's investigations take her into the circle of kinky clubs and, eventually, to the demons themselves.

This may be 'business as usual' DIY horror, but there's much more gore than is expected of films like this (you didn't need the CGI additions folks!) and it's less loosely edited than many offerings from these filmmakers. As others have noted, some of the demon's costumes have been borrowed from the 
Jagged Edge company wardrobe, and there are also a few in jokes contained within the Necronomicon style book (whose cover features a blinking eye, its movement seeming to escape notice when presented to the police). Look I liked this, and maybe you will too.

The Mansfield Ghost (UK 2023: Dir Richard Mansfield)
People familiar with Mansfield's earlier work - a series of London based haunted house flicks - will be delighted that, following a move to Nottingham some years ago, the director has found a new spring in his step.

Following on from 2020's The House in Sherwood, which had a slightly similar setup, Lily Morgan (Kelly Goudie) is a rather desperate social media 'personality' (is there any other kind in a film like this?) searching for more followers and the ability to monetise situations. Looking for the latest initiative to push up likes and subscribers, Lily manages to secure, via a contact, a purportedly haunted house, in which she plans to stay in the days leading up to Halloween. And what's more, the owner will pay her for the privilege of staying there. Smell a rat?

So, with cameras hooked up around the house, controlled by her friend Michael (Chris Sims) and with fellow influencer Tania (Itasha James) along for the ride, Lily moves in, and almost immediately a shadowy figure is picked up on the live feed, which may be the ghost of Edward Mansfield, a former occupant who murdered his wife. As Halloween approaches Lily becomes increasingly spooked and Edward begins to make his presence felt more strongly.

The Mansfield Ghost borrows respectively from 1992's Ghostwatch (the unravelling history of the house, revealed in part by those watching the livestream) and any number of films which integrate multiple screens (and live messaging) to tell their story (a trend which kicked off via 2014 movie Unfriended). But while most of those offerings had a considerably larger budget than Mansfield's, the director is to be congratulated for achieving a lot of these effects on not much at all. As Lily slowly falls apart, we witness the endless stream of comments from subscribers, including the obligatory cries of 'Fake!', the haters and those who genuinely care about what Lily is subjecting herself to. The movie builds to a satisfying and reasonably tense climax, in which - of course - a social media star reaps what she sows in terms of on line ambition; I couldn't help feeling that Mansfield was taking a pop at this aspect of culture, from brand building to the reaction video, surely the most narcissistic innovation in social media broadcasting.

You can watch The Mansfield Ghost here:

Power Cut (UK 2023: Dir Mark Spayne)
 Spayne's gonzo feature is an anthology movie with a wraparound story involving three friends - Rebecca (Becky Lindsay), her boyfriend Josh (Kushan Bhardwaj) and pizza bringing gooseberry Melissa (Sarah Bulmer) who pops round just as the two lovers are about to get it on - getting stuck in a power cut and deciding to tell each other ghost stories. 

The four tales (Josh gets two goes because his first is so lame) comprise: 'Get Off My Land' featuring two brothers, attacked when their car breaks down, one of whom reveals a secret identity; 'Sophie', in which a mentally unstable girl is preyed on by a masked interloper; 'Rewind', a sort of Groundhog Day featuring a camera wielding killer and his put upon girlfriend who live the same day again and again; and finally 'The Curse of Eddie Bishop', the longest and most bonkers of all the stories, featuring lesbian cannibals, time travel and bickering girl campers.

Power Cut is exactly what I love about independent British filmmaking; filmed in the north east of England with an authentic regional cast, the film refuses to play by any rules, logically or temporally, and is thus a riot from start to finish. It's half affectionate homage to a number of movie genres, half people making it up as they go along like a group of kids creating games with each other, all made for the cost of a round in a (London) pub. Excellent! 

Alive (UK 2023: Dir David Marantz)
Strangely the recent pandemic largely seems to have killed off (pun of course intended) the UK zombie movie. Marantz's debut feature as director has been some time coming, and the weirdness and isolation we all recall from those odd times runs through the film, giving it a quality of humanity normally missing from the genre.

The movie focuses on several initially disparate characters who, perhaps predictably, come into contact with each other in their quest to stay alive following an infection outbreak caused by a sanitary crisis (water companies are you listening?). Central to proceedings are Helen (played by Eileen Hillman), boyfriend Kevin (Kian Pritchard) and Kevin's young brother Barney (a part shared by twins Andrew and Daniel May-Gohrey) who has already been bitten by one of the infected. 

The group have heard of a safe place on an island off the English coast; on their way they encounter two very different bands of people. The first is Dan (Neil Sheffield), whose wife Olivia (Helen Coathup) is infected but from whom her husband is unable to separate; more threatening is the rifle toting Father Albert (Stuart Matthews) and his hard as nails sidekick Lucy (genre regular Gillian Broderick, who also doubles as an uncredited TV newsreader).

Alive's pacing runs rather contradictory to its title. The infected are relegated to minor supporting parts; all the drama is concentrated on the human interaction. As such, with its washed out colour palette and elegantly staged shots, the movie feels more akin to TV drama, with only the occasional burst of action. But what sets Alive apart from its genre brethren is its subtextual plea for tolerance. The infected are given equal emotional screen time to the human and, towards the end, emerge the humanitarian victors. Marantz is clearly making a wider point here about the need for different groups of people to foster understanding, and the movie ends on an uncharacteristically upbeat note. Good stuff.

The Elevator aka Haunted Hotel aka Hellevator Hotel (UK 2023: Dir Rebecca Matthews, Tom J. Kelly)
First time feature director Kelly joins with seasoned filmmaker Matthews - she of Scott Jeffrey partnership fame (who again co-produces here) - in a film which is a bit of a departure from the usual Jagged Edge/Proportion Productions roster.

Lily (Jeffrey/Matthews regular Chrissie Wunna, here in what I think is her first lead role) joins the skeletal staff of the Imperial Hotel as an overnight duty manager. In reality Lily is an undercover journalist, whose employment is a handy cover for her to do some digging into a rash of unexplained deaths in the hotel.

After being shown the ropes by the creepy manager (Alix Maxwell) Lily examines CCTV footage of the last person to have come a cropper (Danielle Scott, another company regular), at the hands of a flickering demon (Bao Tieu); all of the previous disappearances seem to have taken place in the hotel's lift. The undercover journo encounters handyman Tom (George Nettleton) with whom she shares a steamy moment after he comes to her room to fix her leak. Elsewhere two guys enter the hotel to play 'The Elevator Game' (a sort of urban myth which has clearly influenced this movie) and also successfully throw a six. 

Lily digs into the history of the hotel and finds that it was the basis for Satanic rituals and the seat of operations for one Alfred the Warlock. It's only so long (well after about 30 minutes of her roaming the hotel corridors) before Lily encounters the secret of the Imperial and realises the danger she's in.

If you've seen many movies from the Jeffrey/Matthews stable you'll recognise that The Elevator jettisons the usual extended character exposition in favour of something a little more mysterious; maybe using the true story of Elisa Lam as a source helped. Although Lily does harbour a tragic secret this isn't disclosed until the final minutes of the film; we spend most of it not knowing anything about her, although we do spend a lot of time in Wunna's company, walking the corridors of the Bradford youth hostel (do you really think they filmed in an actual hotel?), having baths and looking thoughtful in her big glasses. 

The Elevator could do with shedding a few minutes in running time, but overall this isn't a bad effort considering the budget was probably miniscule, and Wunna gives a better performance than supporting roles in other movies would have suggested.

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