Friday, 25 July 2014

Stag Night of the Dead

Director: ‘Napoleon’ Jones
Writer: ‘Napoleon’ Jones
Producer: ‘Napoleon’ Jones
Cast: Sebastian Street, Sophie Anderson, Jeff Rudom
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: screener (Left Films)

I try to like these things, I really do. Look, you know me. I’ve been championing dodgy low-budget independent B-movies for the best part of two decades. I do everything I can to promote pictures like Stag Night of the Dead, but when it comes to a review I have to be honest. I’ll cut a film some slack, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t and won’t deceive you.

SNOTD has some original ideas and has been made with sincerity and enthusiasm. But I would be lying if I said I actually enjoyed watching it. In truth I was neither entertained nor engaged. Let me tell you what the film is about, and then what works and what doesn’t and, in the latter case, why - and maybe how it could have been fixed if picked up at an early stage.

Sebastian Street (Airborne, The Zombie King) stars as groom-to-be Deano, out on a stag do with his mates on the eve of his wedding. After ritual humiliation in a bar, a small group set off in a stretch limo (which doesn’t seem to come with a driver) for an activity session with a difference. On a disused army camp which is nevertheless full of military personnel, they engage in a bout of ‘zomball’, which is like paintball except that instead of shooting each other, you shoot zombies.

Dean, who arrives at the camp naked so togs up in his morning suit, is accompanied by stag-organiser Marky (Bruce Lawrence: Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice, Sisters Grimm, Back2Hell!) who is supposed to be a bit of a disreputable, shag-anything jack-the-lad but actually comes across as quite a decent bloke. In lieu of a Token Black Guy there’s a white TBG, DJ Ronny (Joe Rainbow: Night Junkies, Sisters Grimm, Zombie Resurrection) aka ‘DJ Hymen-Buster’ who is gleefully gangsta, very much in the manner of Lee Nelson (of Well Good Show fame - please note I only know of this show through trailers, I’ve never actually seen it).

There is also TC (James G Fain: Hardcore, Dark Rage), so-called because he has ‘Tourette’s Condition’ although he doesn’t act like he has Tourette’s, he just swears a lot. Plus Dean’s imminent father-in-law Gordon (Doug Grant) who is suitably dismissive of Ronny’s big man bluffery. There is a sixth bloke who seems to just be making up the numbers. Judging by the cast list this must be Sanjay (Rez Kempton, who was in Bollywood boy wizard parody Hari Puttar!) although I don’t remember him being Asian. That’s either a heartening vindication of our multicultural society or a demonstration of how bland the character is.

Finally there’s Candy (Sophie Anderson: Sinbad and the Minotaur) a statuesque stripper in a red PVC catsuit. It’s not really clear why she’s accompanying the boys to the zomball rather than just waiting at wherever she’s going to do the stripping, especially as we have already seen her stripped and whipping a naked Deano in the lengthy bar prologue.

SNOTD takes a long time to get going. Once the gang arrive at the base there’s a whole load of malarkey about a large, flamboyant American civilian who is in charge. Credited as ‘Mister Ree’ and played by Jeff Rudom (Beyond the Rave) - who died in 2011 and to whom the film is now dedicated - his exact role isn’t clear. After explaining flamboyantly at great length the simple premise, he spends most of the film flamboyantly watching events on some sort of computer/videoscreen, attended by his dwarf assistant Mr Big (former Ewok Brian Wheeler).

Eventually, after a dragged-out scene between Dean and Candy, the male sextette pass through a gate to the zomball playing area, equipped with large guns. And here is where the film scores its biggest bellyflop. What do we expect in a zombie film? Well, blood would be nice. A bit of gore, a dab of grue, a soupcon of carnage and a spot of the old ultra-violence.

The guns are, in fact, stun-guns. They fire an added-in-post jaggedy ray which knocks out any zombie it hits. For five minutes. And the guns need recharging at strategically located charging stations every so often. So despite TC’s constant exhortations to “blow their fucking heads off”, no heads get blown off in any way. Some shuffling zombies fall over when hit by a zigzag zap that looks very like something from Ghostbusters (I still can’t believe that six grown men would do something like this without one of them saying “Don’t cross the streams”...).

“What begins as a fun but gory game soon turns into a fight for their lives” says the publicity but the game is about as gory as Monopoly. Frankly it doesn’t look particularly fun either. Although one of the characters subsequently enthuses about how awesome the experience was, what we see on screen doesn’t warrant any such enthusiasm. All you did, dude, was stand still with your pals pointing a ray-gun at some slow-moving people who then fell gently to the floor and lay there for five minutes. Sheesh, talk about easily pleased.

Sorry, but temporarily stunning zombies is no more fun to watch than it would be to participate in. Where is the thrill? Where is the excitement? For them or for us. In fact, what is the relevance of the zombies in all of this? If all the guns do is knock people out, you might as well use students as targets. At least they’d be a bit more lively and more of a challenge to hit.

I have no doubt that the stun-ray-gun thing is a cost-saving measure. Special effects make-up costs money. But look, if you can’t afford to show zombies being blasted in the head - don’t make a zombie film. Or just make a short. God knows there’s nowhere near enough story here to justify 80 minutes of running time. This could have been a half-hour short and the money saved from not shooting those extra 50 minutes could have paid for a box of squibs and a couple of exploding heads.

Here’s the second problem: there is no sense that the zombies are a threat. These are traditional shuffle-shoes drool’n’lurch Romero zombies. They appear some way up the road, hobble forwards, get zapped and fall down. We don’t see them attack anyone or anything in this part of the film. In order to give the sense that this is a dangerous, exciting game played with live zombies, two things were needed, both conspicuous by their absence.

First, the participants should have been togged up in basic body armour. Nothing over-the-top, just sporting padding, goggles etc, something to give the impression that what they are about to do is at least marginally more dangerous than hopscotch. If they looked like they were ready for combat, we would perceive the zombies as much more of a threat.

My second suggestion is that we could, in fact should, have been shown the zombies beforehand, attacking something. Maybe ripping apart an animal carcass. A demonstration of what could happen if our players don’t stay alert. Like chucking a lump of meat into a seemingly placid pool to prove that it’s full of piranhas. Either, preferably both, of these things would have made the film more exciting. Or exciting. But not a handful of guys calmly zapping a bunch of slow-moving, large, placid targets at a considerable distance.

After this fast-paced, thrill-an-hour sequence, the gang relax but then somebody lets the zombies out of their cages. We’re not shown how they are rounded up after their five-minute naps and returned to captivity. But then we’re not shown who lets them out. I was losing interest by this point but as I recall there’s a close-up of a hand slipping open a bolt. I don’t know whose hand it is, I was more wondering at the staggeringly lax security. Haven’t these people heard of padlocks?

The plot, such as it is, surprisingly revolves around deliberately irritating and unfunny comic relief DJ Ronny. He falls in love with a zombie girl (who isn’t locked up or unconscious for some reason, nor is there any explanation of why she is not hungry for flesh). From there he decides to become king of the zombies or something and transforms into the film’s main antagonist. There is also an angry-looking military officer (1st AD Mike Busson, who was Randolph Gerbles in Hardcore) whose role isn’t clear. And quite what the large, flamboyant Yank is up to is anyone’s guess.

Stiff, old Gordon undergoes a transformation at what can roughly be considered the start of the third act but not enough is made of it. He’s not dull enough beforehand and not really dynamic enough afterwards. He seems calm and polite throughout whereas Gordon Mk.1 needed to be bored and irritated by the antics of the young men while Gordon Mk.2 should have been a testosterone-dripping, yelling action-machine.

But all of this is, to some extent, by the by, because after the zombies get loose - the geography of the base is never made clear - most of the film becomes a load of running and shooting (mostly still with those uninteresting stun-ray-guns) and it’s difficult to care about the characters inbetween all that padding. There is some sort of half-hearted explanation of where the zombies came from in a TV news report (delivered by ‘Georgina Romero’!) about bird flu. But you will learn far more from the film’s publicity than you can work out from what’s on screen. Also worth noting are commendably exploitative not-in-the-film promo images like the zombie hand-bra DVD sleeve and the rear-sleeve shot of Deano surrounded by morning-suit-clad living dead.

The acting is, on the whole, okay. None of the characters are particularly subtle or rounded so the cast aren’t called on to do a great deal. Jemma Lewis is Dean’s fiancée and Eva Gray (The 13th Sign, Dead Crazy) plays the future mother-in-law. Technically the film isn’t great, alas. The photography by Richard J Wood (Dark Rage, Blood + Roses) is grainy and at times looks like it was shot on 8mm and the sound is distinctly variable (almost certainly caused by the large number of credited ‘sound recordists’, which suggests a you-can-hold-the-boom-today approach).

I was looking forward to Stag Night of the Dead, which premiered in 2009 and was released online in November 2010 before an eventual DVD release through Left Films in January 2012. But it doesn’t live up to its marketing campaign. I was expecting a mixture of sex, laffs and gore but all three boxes remain unticked. It may be that if your expectations are low, your blood alcohol level is high, your mates are jovial and your pizza has just been delivered - then the film could satisfy you. But in this house it counts as a good try but a miss.

Director Neil Jones is credited as ‘Napoleon Jones’ which might sound daft or pretentious but at least helps to differentiate him from the other 14 Neil Joneses on the IMDB, especially as one of those is also a British indie horror director. To be clear, this is not the same Neil Jones who directed The Reverend and Deranged.

MJS rating: B-

Review originally posted 22nd December 2011

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Benny Loves Killing

Director: Ben Woodiwiss
Writer: Ben Woodiwiss
Producer: Nick Jones
Cast: Pauline Cousty, Canelle Hoppé, Kristina Dargelyte
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from Cinema Zero

Benny Loves Killing doesn’t have much in common with Call Me a Psycho except this: both have a title which implies something very different to what we actually get, without disappointing.

This is the debut feature from Ben Woodiwiss, previously known to BHR fans for writing Simon Aitken’s vampire feature Blood + Roses (which I still haven’t seen). Somewhat bizarrely, he also worked for Uncle Lloyd on Citizen Toxie. That’s not the IMDB being crap again; there is only one film-maker called Ben Woodiwiss and he did work a Troma gig.

So although his previous pictures were a trilogy of short, artistic ‘film poems/essays’ about cinematic representations of women, nevertheless Woodiwiss is a horror fan and Benny Loves Killing, while certainly not a horror movie per se, is influenced enough by the genre to sit on the fringes of the British Horror Revival. At the very least, it’s about somebody making a horror film.

Pauline Cousty gives an absolutely stunning central performance as Benny, a young French woman studying for a qualification in film studies at some unspecified English institution. Complex and conflicted, Benny is not a likeable character. Moving from friend’s sofa to friend’s sofa, her homeless state is entirely of her own making. Partly because she could move in at any time with her mother (Canelle Hoppé: Sanitarium, Hellbreeder, London Voodoo), whom she visits on a fairly regular basis, but mostly because she blows most of her money on drugs.

Throughout the film, Benny snorts coke constantly, but not brazenly, frequently excusing herself to “go to the bathroom.” It’s a mechanical addiction and is partially funded by theft and burglary, from friends and from strangers. What concerns her college tutors however is that, despite being on a purely theoretical course, Benny is determined to submit her work in the form of a film, specifically a horror film. We do see a little of this being filmed, Benny assisted by actors and crew who either don’t know or don’t care about her personal life.

But this isn’t really a film about things happening, it’s a character study, an exploration of an individual with self-destructive tendencies and deep neuroses. Woodiwiss calls it a psychodrama and that seems a fair description. (NB. That does not mean this is a ‘psycho’ drama). We gradually find out more about Benny and her world. We don’t find out much about how she got to where she is (in any sense) and the supporting characters, mother aside, are tangential. But we do peel away layers and find out more about someone who fascinates us even as she repels us.

A lot of the film’s power lies in the artistic way it is shot. Swedish cinematographer Markus A Ljungberg (Voodoo Magic) uses lots of handheld, tight close-ups with shallow depth of field, with characters slipping into and out of focus. We spend a lot of our time right in Benny’s face, which is framed for much of the film by one or other of two wigs: a blonde bob and a dark bob. This is more than an affectation (though it is that as well); the wigs hide Benny’s hair which is never washed, her morning ablutions relying on wet-wipes as she rises from another night on a sofa.

This is a powerful, fascinating, poetic, perhaps even elegiac film, a long, long way from commercial cinema, yet also not falling prey to the clichés and overworked tropes of typical ‘indie’ film-making. And it absolutely stands or falls on the powerhouse central performance by Cousty, a trilingual, London-based French actress whose previous roles include Madame Acarti in what must have been a pretty individual production of Blithe Spirit! She and Hoppé act most of their joint scenes in subtitled French, which only adds to the sense of estrangement which we the audience feel from both tragic characters.

A remarkably international cast includes Lithuanian Kristina Dargelyte (Psychotic), Belgian Carla Espinoza, Italian Jean-Paul dal Monte and numerous others without CastingCallPro pages but whose names suggest a non-Anglo-Saxon heritage. Plus a few Britons including Trevor Nichols who was in Hot Fuzz. Most of the cast and crew have either no previous credits or only those of Woodiwiss’ earlier shorts.

Premiering in April 2012 in Norway, BLK played a number of festivals and was then made available online twice in 2014 for limited periods. First for two weeks in May as part of the American Online Film Awards, for which a paid pass was required but which nevertheless, by my house rules, qualifies as the commercial release date. And then two months later for ten days on the excellent Cinema Zero site, which included an optional director’s commentary track.

I really wish I could write more about Benny Loves Killing, which is clearly a very special film and certainly without any significant flaw, either technical or artistic. But it strikes me as more of a film to discuss, rather than to mull over on one’s own, which is perforce the reviewer’s lot. Perfect festival fair then. See it if you have the opportunity.

MJS rating: A

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Hell Hath No Fury

Director: ‘Nicholas Medina’
Writer: 'Henry Krinkle'
Producer: ‘Noble Henry’
Cast: Shauna O’Brien, Paul Michael Robinson, Jenna Bodnar
Country: USA
Year of release: 1996
Reviewed from: UK DVD

With a knife featured prominently on the sleeve and a still on the back showing someone lying in a pool of blood, it would be easy to mistake this DVD for a horror film. And indeed I did, assuming that this disc, its packaging devoid of any credit block or copyright date, was the 2006 anthology Hell Hath No Fury partially directed by Vince D’Amato of Vampires vs Zombies notoriety.

In fact this turns out to be a completely different Hell Hath No Fury (IMDB lists five features, six shorts and 29 TV episodes with that title), a retitling of Friend of the Family II, a 1996 in-name-only sequel to a 1995 feature. The only actual connection between the original (aka Elke) and this is the presence of Shauna O’Brien. Generically, this film has no real horror elements, instead it falls squarely into that most lowly and reviled of cinematic genres – the erotic thriller.

Who exactly watches straight-to-video erotic thrillers? What purpose do they serve? They’re not particularly thrilling. Sure, there’s some tension, duplicity and the threat at least of violence, but nothing to write home about. Granted they are intermittently sexy – certainly more erotic than all those terrible micro-budget spoofs from Surrender Cinema with ‘Erotic’ in the titles – but that sexiness is largely token and arbitrary. The plot simply stops for five minutes every so often so that two people can have a shag.

At least a porno serves a purpose, but who is actually satisfied (in any way) by watching an erotic thriller? That said, I’ve seen worse than this.

Paul Michael Robinson (a regular in Alain Siritzky’s 1990s run of Emanuelle in Space softcore silliness) stars as Alex Madison, a Californian businessman who hasn’t been getting any since the birth of his daughter six months earlier (and presumably for several months before that). On a business trip to New Orleans (identified through plenty of second unit footage of mardi gras), he befriends and rapidly beds Linda (O’Brien, a regular in Siritzky’s slightly later series Emanuelle 2000, albeit not as the title character). She falls in love with him and rejects her fiancé Marcel (Emmett Grennan: Zarkorr! The Invader). When Alex returns to LA, Linda is distraught but not as much as Marcel who blows his brains out and is discovered in a pool of blood, a suicide which gets mentioned once later on (when Linda confuses Alex by calling him a murderer) but otherwise has no effect on the story.

Linda somehow tracks down the Madison house and fortuitously arrives just as Alex’s wife Maddy (Jenna Bodnar: Huntress: Spirit of the Night) is interviewing prospective live-in nannies so she can return to work. Alex himself is away on a trip to New York (perhaps having another affair?) so knows nothing of this until he comes home and is introduced to the new nanny.

Blackmailing Alex, by virtue of still having the note he left her when he skedaddled, Linda forces him to rekindle their affair at night while Maddy is asleep; even while she and the mother of her charge are becoming new best buddies. Adding to complications is that Maddy’s virginal slacker brother Byron (Kevin Patrick Wallis: Blade, Scream) is staying for a couple of months and takes to watching the shapely Linda undress from the bushes outside her window. She begins a second affair with the very grateful Byron, telling him that his brother-in-law is forcing himself on her. She also shags Alex’s colleague Mark (Jeff Rector: Dr Hackenstein, Hellmaster, Terminal Force, Dinosaur Valley Girls, Dinocroc vs Supergator and many, many more) after hosting a dinner party for the boss (Arthur Roberts, who was in both the 1988 and 1995 versions of Not of This Earth as well as Chopping MallMom’s Outta Sight plus many, many more) and a visiting Japanese client (Sam Hiona: Mom Can I Keep Her?, Phoenix 2, Cyclone) while Maddy is in hospital recovering from Linda-induced food poisoning.

It all eventually comes to a head with murder, a couple of cops and an interestingly bleak open-ended denouement. More interesting than the rest of the film, anyway. There are half a dozen or so sex scenes, all featuring Shauna O’Brien (who was Penthouse Pet of the Month in January 1992). There’s no denying that she’s got a fine body (if rather small tits at this stage of her career) and can reasonably simulate passionate ecstasy better than many. Robinson has a finely chiselled bod, although the other two gents don’t work out quite so much. Of course you don’t see anything because of camera angles or strategically placed hands. But the problem is that the sex scenes are just a bit too long and dull. Not the fault of this particular film; it’s a defining feature of the genre.

Yes, they are physically attractive people. Yes, they are reasonable actors. Yes, they are simulating copulation. We get it. Can we move on with the plot now please?

Ironically, Hell Hath No Fury proved considerably more watchable than many other films I’ve seen, probably because behind the directorial pseudonym ‘Nicholas Medina’ stands reliable film-factory Fred Olen Ray. Currently listing 134 directed features on his IMDB page, Ray made this the same year that he directed Night Shade and Over the Wire (also as Medina), Masseuse (as Peter Daniels), Star Hunter (as Sam Newfield) and Caged Fear/Fugitive Rage (as himself). And Invisible Mom. It is that facility to pump the pictures out, switching back and forth between genres, that has kept Ray at the top of the work-for-hire B-movie game for so long. His rival and friend Jim Wynorski was producer ‘Noble Henry’ on this movie which was made by Andrew Stevens’ company Royal Oaks.

Robinson later reteamed with Ray for Active Stealth/Shadow Force and Stranded/Black Horizon/Space Station (because no really good B-movie can have only one title) while O’Brien reteamed with Wynorski for his Bare Wench Project series of cheap-as-chips sexy horror films before retiring from acting in about 2008. Don Scribner (Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, Alien Armageddon) is Alex’s client in New Orleans; Claire Polan (Angels’ Wild Women, Bikini Drive-In)  is a candidate for the nanny job; Steve Scionti (Megalodon, Mom Can I Keep Her?, Invisible Dad) is a waiter. I’m not sure who plays the cops at the end and I can’t be bothered to look it up, frankly.

Veteran cinematographer Gary Graver (too many titles to mention) handled the photography. He subsequently directed Masseuse 3 which was retitled Hell Hath No Fury 2 for some territories! Production designer David Blass subsequently moved on from B-movies to reality TV shows like Beauty and the Geek and America’s Next Top Model. Fred’s son Chris Ray was second AD. And composer Adam Berry progressed to scoring animation, working on shows like Kim Possible, The Penguins of Madagascar and even South Park!

The identity of writer 'Henry Krinkle' isn't clear, but here's something bizarre. 'Henry Krinkle' is of course a false name which Robert De Niro gives to the cops in Taxi Driver, but according to the IMDB it was also the name of a character in a 2010 TV series called The Renfield Syndrome. That character was played by Rob Carpenter, who wrote and directed a segment of the 2006 anthology... Hell Hath No Fury!

The nature of these sort of B-movies is that all this work results in an utterly forgettable film which will never be anything more than a title in long IMDB lists. This cheapo-cheapo British DVD, which boasts ‘special features’ of interactive menus, Dolby 2.0, aspect ratio 4:3 and scene access (so no special features at all then!) is so cut-price that it carries neither a copyright date nor even the name of the distributor (Third Millennium, apparently, but I had to go to the BBFC site to find that out). In some other territories the film was released as Passionate Revenge - I particularly like that Russian DVD cover.

Marginally better than I expected, but my sights were set low anyway, this will pass 85 minutes of your time but do little more.

MJS rating: C