Thursday 23 November 2023

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #16: Reviews of Surveilled (UK 2021), Blithe Spirit (UK 2021), The Kindred (UK 2021), Repeat (UK 2021), The Power (UK 2021) and Snuff Video (UK 2021)

Surveilled (UK 2021: Dir James Smith) The partnership of Smith and producer/writer Caroline Spence is one of the small scale success stories of indie British filmmaking. 

Creators of a series of thriller movies, unbelievably shot on iPhones on next to nothing budgets but with incredibly high production values, their output is nothing less than remarkable. Surveilled is at its heart a fairly basic if labyrinthine murder mystery, but it's full of interesting quirks that make it stand out from the crowd and earn itself a place in a 'Fantastic Films' round up.

Much to the police's annoyance, someone is killing the occupants of Clairmont (actually Loughborough, Leicestershire); all that is known about the killer is that they use a hook as a murder weapon and wear a plague mask. Also, the method of murder and pattern of victims matches exactly the plot of the successful 'Plague Doctor' novels by someone called L C Morana. 

Desk bound CCTV geek Joe (Gavin Gordon) uses his skills to provide material for the extortion and blackmail of others (although his mum thinks he should get out more); his monitoring of a local businessman, William Marshall (Robert Roworth), a guy with a secret, leads Joe to think he might be a likely culprit for the murders. Joe's curiosity piqued, he poses as a client for sessions with William's psychiatrist wife Dr Laura Carlyon (Melanie Aumann), who's also suspicious regarding her husband's out of town activities. But the truth, involving a dark sect surrounding Morana, is far stranger.

While Surveilled does that annoying thing of having half the cast speaking in variously successful US accents (including a TV news reporter whose on the spot posts suggest, despite visual evidence to the contrary, that Clairmont might not be in the UK), this glitch is easily ignored once the plot gets a grip (Spence is a successful international screenwriter and boy it shows, even if some of the cast don't exactly bring their lines to life). The movie's narrative twists and turns, together with the stylish look of the thing, convince that you're watching a production far exceeding its meagre budget. CCTV and 'live action' are seamlessly interlinked, and the film even finds time for a couple of odd (and cleverly animated) dream sequences. OK it doesn't all hang together but I'd fight the person who doesn't applaud the effort.

Blithe Spirit (UK 2021: Dir Edward Hall) The son of the famous Sir Peter Hall, theatre director Edward, chose this as the subject for his first feature. And after struggling through all 96 minutes of it, my first (and last) question remains 'why?'

I've seen Noel Coward's play, and the reasonably faithful 1945 screen version. While both are reasonably entertaining, neither is a classic, and it's difficult to know what could have possessed Hall to see the advantage of another adaptation for our times. For the two of you unfamiliar with the story, socialite and novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is struggling to create a screenplay out of one of his own books, much to the annoyance of his bland second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher). Charles has unresolved issues following the untimely death of his first missus Elvira (a spirited - pun intended - performance from Leslie Mann). Seeking inspiration for his writing, he organises celebrity medium Madame Arcarti (Judi Dench) to carry out a seance at his house; Arcati may be an old faker but on this occasion manages to summon an actual spirit - the ghost of Elvira - who on her return to the corporeal world proceeds to make Charles's life hell.

While Blithe Spirit certainly looks the part - helped by exteriors being filmed on location at the beautiful art deco pile Joldwynds in Surrey - this is otherwise an absolute dud. Hall prises the action off the stage (the '45 version was very static) but in so doing jettisons most of the wit of the original play in favour of pratfall comedy. With the exception of Mann, whose physical performance raises her above the limits of the production, most of the performances are incredibly lacklustre; Fisher tries and fails to disguise her Aussie accent, and even Dench plays the Arcati role flatly and with little gusto. It's a 'Fantastic' film only by virtue of the inclusion of ghosts - in no other way does it justify the word. Awful.

The Kindred (UK 2021: Dir Jamie Patterson) It's a common thing for contemporary fright flicks to start with a prologue, often out of cinematic habit than for any specific narrative purpose. The Kindred's prologue is intrinsic to its twisty story and it's one that the filmmakers want you to keep in mind throughout the film; a distraught, pregnant Helen (April Pearson) is seen fleeing from her father's upper floor municipal flat, but when she reaches the street dad's body crashes from his balcony onto the pavement, causing Helen to step back into the road, where she's hit by a passing car.

While her father dies Helen survives the accident, awakening to find that a) she's been in a coma for the past year and remembers little of what happened and b) she has, miraculously, been able to birth a baby when in that state. Her supportive husband Greg (Blake Harrison) also breaks the news that he's had to sell the family house to make ends meet and has been forced to move into Helen's dad's flat (bequeathed in his will); she will return to the place where she grew up, and the scene of her last, albeit broken, memory.

Helen's piecing together of why her father jumped to his death, and her gradual reintegration into society - and the role of being a mother to a child with whom she's had no maternal connection - are the twin stories which drive The Kindred; a third element, featuring corner of the eyes glimpses of ghostly children, ushers in an almost unwanted - and forced - supernatural narrative (including Steve Oram on guest duties as a workaday psychic, employed by Helen to try and contact her father) which crowds events and serves only to pave the way for the end of movie reveal. It almost threatens to, but thankfully doesn't, scupper the whole thing; overall the film does well with a slow pace, good performances from Pearson and Harrison, and a resistance to depicting tower block living as something squalid and crime ridden. Homes are homes, after all: it's some of the people that live in them that one should fear most.

Repeat (UK 2021: Dir Grant Archer, Richard Miller)
 Archer and Miller's debut feature is a bewildering fusion of ideas, reminiscent in theme to Paolo Leite's 2018 movie Inner Ghosts. The movie focuses on brilliant, erratic scientist Ryan Moore (Tom England) who has, through extensive experimentation and more than a little luck, managed to construct a machine that can talk to the dead.

But Moore's obsessive drive to go deeper into his discovery (like all inventors he's restless to make it better) masks a personal tragedy, which has made life between him and wife Emily (Charlotte Ritchie from Ghosts, brilliant as always) extremely difficult; the abduction from school and subsequent disappearance of their daughter Sam (Ellila-Jean Wood). Ryan is desperate for contact but dreads success, as it will mean that their daughter has died. 

Repeat spends a lot of its running time pondering the moral issues surrounding Moore's invention, quickly narrowing its focus to the relationship between Ryan and Emily; any couple going through the anguish felt by parents over a missing child would find it difficult to hold their partnership together; the added difficulty of Ryan being able to bridge the psychic gap to know the otherwise unknown brings the couple to breaking point. 

I loved this movie; the science is pleasingly head scratchy but the drama is real and never overplayed, with standout performances from England and Ritchie. The title makes sense only in the final part of the film, but Archer and Miller never overexplain what we're seeing; if things gets confusing that's a good thing. And Repeat is a very good thing indeed.

The Power (UK 2021: Dir Corinna Faith)
Blimey. Cast aside thoughts of her roles in Mrs Harris Goes to Paris and Sanditon when you see Rose Williams in this one. Williams plays Val, a new nurse assigned to a Victorian hospital in East London (the atmospheric Blythe House doing great atmospheric stand in work). It's 1974, the height of the Unions/Government face off which has resulted in regular power cuts. Val, who grew up in a children's home and faced abuse there, is nervous in her new role, her anxiety exacerbated by the stern authority figures at the hospital and having to work a late shift in blackout conditions.

But Val is about to discover that the hospital harbours horrors both of a human and non human kind; from Babs (Emma Rigby), a fellow nurse who knew and bullied Val when at the home, to something far darker in the hospital's basement, which triggers and builds on the young nurse's experience of abusive authority.

Faith's coruscating debut feature - an amazing feat, controlled and powerful without resorting to haunted house cliches - is filmed almost entirely in semi darkness, all hand held lamps flickering off tiled walls and just heard muttering. Val is all heart, taking under her wing a little Indian girl (Shakira Rahman) and facing down figures of authority, both men and women, who ostensibly hold the 'power' of the title. At the centre of this is Rose Williams's performance; Val is vulnerable but powerful, refusing to be a victim and through that refusal channeling a power that is both redemptive and horrific. Powerful stuff indeed.

Snuff Video (UK 2021: Dir Tony Newton)
The world of British Fantastic Film is a broad church indeed, and there's none so broad as Tony Newton, that's for sure. 

Along with others like Joe Cash and the Trash Arts team, the director mines a particularly grungy seam of filmmaking, obsessed with the glitchy VHS format, whose antecedents include enfant terrible Jörg Buttgereit and, further back, Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. Newton's output is prodigious; little has been released in the UK and mostly comprises segments in US produced anthology movies. 

Snuff Video, released on DVD in the USA, represents a feature of sorts for Newton, and is therefore worth including here - ish. Let's be clear, there's no story; sandwiched between audition footage of two wannabe scream queens (Harmony Filth and Elizabeth D'Ambrosio), Newton, in his 'Gore Zombie' guise, interviews and secures a video disclaimer from a woman, Susan Smith. There's some of Newton's 'faux' trailers for his other movies, then a lengthy scene in which Smith, a rather unwilling participant, is filmed sitting in a bath of fake blood, preparing for Mr Newton to 'murder' her on camera.

After a lot of setup footage arranging the shots and filming the scene, Newton does actually kill - and dismember - the actress. An end title card tells us that the woman has since gone missing, and Gore Zombie is also dead. And that's it folks. It's difficult to know who would be interested in seeing this; perhaps the only interesting thing is Newton's opening direct to camera interview in which he talks about how his obsession with extreme horror started. I blame the parents.

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