Friday, 30 January 2015

interview: James Shanks and Neil Craske

This email interview with Jim and Neil was conducted in January 2015, just after I reviewed their terrific film Stag Hunt.

What did you set out to achieve with Stag Hunt, and to what extent do you think you were successful?
Neil: "The original concept behind Stag Hunt was simply to make something... anything. We'd just bought a camera, a computer capable of handling the editing process, had a bit of money in the bank and to be blunt we were film-makers who weren’t making films, so it was time to make something."

Jim: "Yeah, it had been a while since our last feature, which was Devil’s Harvest, and we thought it was about time we got our act together and made a new one. And why make a short film when you can make a feature and potentially sell it!"

Neil: "Really, the main aim was to get off our backsides and create again."

Jim: "Originally, Stag Hunt was a straightforward horror film, with very little if any comedy and based on a dream I’d had one night. And there were a lot more deaths in it, it was so much darker. It was still essentially a bunch of guys on a stag do on Dartmoor, but it was a very different film. Neil’s stroke of genius was to make it funny, which is when it started to really come alive, as our instincts as writers is comedy. So that’s how it became a comedy drama thriller with scary bits."

Neil: "Well, it is, after all, a stag do and by the very nature of the beast (pun may be intended) stag dos are supposed to be fun. Also the comical aspects of the film bring out the sides of the characters that we'd hope people will care for. And having characters that people actually like makes the audience root for our heroes when it all goes bad."

Jim: "Ultimately I think our main goal at the end of all this is to just entertain people for an hour and a half. We don’t have any serious messages to get across, but if we can make people laugh and hide behind their popcorn then that’s great. And judging by the reaction we’ve had so far at the screenings it seems to be working. We also, obviously, wanted to make a bit of cash too, as the film was totally self-funded, so it was our own money at stake and it’d be nice to see it back."

How did you assemble your cast?
Jim: "We got so lucky with the casting as the four actors fell into their roles completely. Mackenzie Astin and Neil Cole just hit it off on their first day, you’d think they’d been best mates for years. And they all still keep in touch, even though they’re often spread over four countries."

Neil: "We'd known Mack since 2001 when we all worked together on a film in Ibiza."

Jim: "It was called Welcome 2 Ibiza, starring both Mack and Gary Busey, but sadly never really saw the light of day. But we kept in touch with Mack as he’s just so good and the nicest guy."

Neil: "It was not necessarily something that shines out on our IMDB profiles but if nothing else we did at that time make a promise that 'one day' we'd be working together on something better."

Jim: "And Mack being so good kind of encouraged everyone else to raise their game a bit. Neil Cole and I were working on a shoot at Silverstone around about the time we were finalising the screenplay and after just five minutes with him I knew he was our Pete. So, after a short meeting between the two Neils we knew we had our best man. And he really surprised me with the emotional stuff too."

Neil: "Neil was the perfect choice."

Jim: "Donald Morrison and Chris Rogers we hadn’t worked with before and we found through good old fashioned casting and they were both perfect. Donald is completely crazy when you get to know him, and is just hilarious – miles away from the brooding and disturbed Jason you see in the film."

Neil: "We arranged to meet him in a pub, had a half hour conversation detailing who he thought the character was, where we'd written that he was coming from, and the mix of good vibes from Donald and the intensity he had for the character of Jason left no doubt that he was our man."

Jim: "We had a secret code word – Anthony Hopkins – which we could each say to each other if we thought he was the man for the job. He got two Hopkins within the first five minutes. And I’ve never met an actor who’s done so much homework as Donald, he really works his socks off, and it shows."

Neil: "Chris was cast in much the same way: online, pub, Eureka! So by the end of casting we had our four leads and a drinking problem."

Jim: "Chris was interesting because he looked the part, had a fantastic body of work and a great showreel, but, unlike Andy Bossoms who he plays, Chris is part German, part American, and has a very deep American accent. So we played around with regional British accents, cos we didn’t want to let a little thing like that stop us, and Chris pulled off such a good Yorkshire accent that people are genuinely shocked when they hear his actual voice. It helped that Terry, our sound man, is from Yorkshire too, so we had an expert on set. Of the four characters, Andy is the one people seem to root for and worry about, and that’s all down to Chris’ excellent performance."

What were the practicalities of shooting on Dartmoor like?
Neil: "We said from the very beginning that Dartmoor was going to be as much a character in the film as the four leads, and it turned out to be the most unpredictable and demanding of the lot. But in truth there was only one day when the weather got so bad we had to re-schedule and head back to base. I had created the schedule to be all day shoots in the first week and then a week of nights in the second, and as luck would have it the first week had some lovely dry, sunny weather during the day and the second week had grotty weather in the days but clear, albeit freezing, nights. Well no one said filming in Dartmoor in October would be glamorous."

Jim: "I love being outdoors and much prefer natural light to studio lighting, so I had a lovely time, especially as DoP. Dartmoor did all the hard work for me really. Most low or no-budget films are usually set in self-contained locations, pubs, living rooms, etc... I always try to use the landscape and scenery if I can, it just adds such scale and that all important production value. And we got so lucky with the weather, considering that it was late October. Spielberg had just finished shooting Warhorse when we arrived, so we share the same dramatic clouds and sunsets. Actually, several locals approached us during the time we were there asking if we were Warhorse, which considering we had a crew of seven people was quite funny. Maybe you had to be there..."

Neil: "Dartmoor was stunning and with shooting locations everywhere you looked. We went out on the day after everyone arrived, which was supposed to just be a rehearsal day, and within a couple of hours had shot one of the opening montages, including the shot that you see on the poster. There is one sequence in the film that was all shot within a 360 degree angle of the same point, but depending on which way you turn depends on the style of the landscape. Truly breathtaking."

Jim: "We rented a farmhouse just outside of Okehampton in which we all slept and ate together, Big Brother style, for the duration of the shoot. It even had an indoor heated pool, not that Neil or I had any time to use it, but the others made good use of it."

Neil: "I think the one defining factor that made filming a feature in a relatively short space of time was 'film camp', as the actors christened it. We were all living in what was basically a backpackers lodge, so at any time the actors could rehearse, talk through scenes or relax and bond together. This also meant that at all times myself and Jim were both on-hand to talk through any script issues that arose. It became a real collaborative entity."

Jim: "Yes, there was no going back to hotel rooms, we really were all in it together. But the best thing about it was that the farm had acres of land, which backed onto the moors, so we used that as our self-contained backlot for the night shoots. It meant we could leave the tents set up, not to mention the use of flame throwers and explosions because it was private land. But Neil did wonders with getting all the permits sorted for the Dartmoor stuff."

Neil: "As has been my experience in film, the West Country are far more obliging when it comes to filming. I worked with the Duchy of Cornwall, the Dartmoor National Parks Authority and the individual Dartmoor Rangers to secure the permits and to help deal with everything we needed during the shoot."

Jim: "I’ve spent a lot of time on Dartmoor, it’s the most gorgeous place. I’ve even organised a couple of stag dos there in the past, hence the idea. We didn’t see anything scarier than wild ponies though."

Was there a temptation to show more of the beast, given how much you’d spent on it?
Jim: "We’d always planned to not have the ‘shark jumping onto the boat’ moment and to keep the beast in the shadows. But yeah, it was a bit tempting, especially as how realistic it looked – Animated Extras had done a fantastic job, I think everyone had fun playing with it every now and again. But no, it was always designed to be used very fleetingly as, you know, that’s a lot scarier. But you see it just enough so that you can see what it is. A lot of the close ups were shot in a small studio at Shepperton but you’d never know. Neil cut those scenes beautifully."

Neil: "At the end of the day it's a head on a stick, a paw with usually my arm in it, or a bit of tail. We did shoot a lot more beast footage but I always felt that the scares or fear should come from how the guys react to the presence of the beast, seeing too much of the cat would always be likely to cheapen the effect we're aiming for. It's hard to be scared when you can see the wires or the operator in the background."

How has independent film-making changed in the two decades between Devil’s Harvest and Stag Hunt?
Neil: "Independent film has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, the arrival of the digital age has meant that we can do so much more with immediate results."

Jim: "The biggest change is just how much cheaper it is, thanks to digital. You could, if you wanted, shoot an entire feature on your phone or a GoPro and it’d look pretty good. We shot Devil’s Harvest on 35mm film, which looks lovely, but we had no monitor and often had to wait weeks to see what we’d got, which as we were mostly using short-ends and off cuts of unused film stock from Evita, you could never be sure what it would come back like. But now, it’s completely instant and looks incredible. Just be sure to make several back-ups!"

Neil: "We had an edit suite set up back at the farmhouse base, so within an hour of getting back in the evening once all the cards had been captured we'd be able to see results, even sometimes small sequences being cut together by Emma Holbrook, our local editor, who graced us with her presence whenever she could."

Jim: "Emma was cutting the scenes together while we were out on the moors, (because, you know, Neil was busy producing, building props, sorting costumes, taking stills, blowing stuff up, etc...) But that was a real confidence boost for everyone because it was looking so good. And, of course, there are no longer developing or processing costs. And you can re-use the memory cards."

Neil: "Also, the kit is now a lot smaller and lighter. This really matters when you’re transporting kit up a windy tor for hours at a time. We could not have shot Stag Hunt on any other format as digital, the timeframe didn't allow for it."

Jim: "Saying all that though, I still love film. It just wasn’t practical this time around."

And what have you been up to in the intervening period? Were there any ‘nearly’ film projects which got away? . 
Neil: "In the years between Devil's Harvest and Stag Hunt we have been plying our trade. We have been involved in a myriad of 'almost/maybe' projects that have each reached differing stages of reality."

Jim: "Oh there were several ‘nearly’ film projects, some that we can’t talk about, others that might still happen. We made some short films, one of which starred Kevin Howarth just prior to him shooting The Last Horror Movie. And of course the Ibiza film, which was great fun to shoot. We also worked with the band Hard-Fi and made their first video ‘Cash Machine’ which helped get them signed (Rich Archer and I go way back). The most annoying one was a film version of Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased which came really close and had some great cast lined up, but the BBC had the same idea and bought the rights before we could. It might still happen though, it’s an interesting take on it. And there’s also a Bigfoot movie which has been keeping us busy for a while, which could potentially be our next project."

What’s next? Will we have to wait another 20 years for another Dog Face Films feature?
Jim: "Hopefully the gap won’t be quite so long next time – we’d be in our sixties! We’ve had loads of interest from various big studios and production houses, thanks to Stag Hunt, who were all impressed with what we achieved with our budget."

Neil: "We have been fortunate with the reaction people have had to Stag Hunt. While in Cannes we had positive feedback from everyone we saw, they were all keen on our next project. We have irons in the fire the trick is to opt for the one that will be what the markets want at the time they want it."

Jim: "It’s been a great calling card. So, as soon as we have the next screenplay ready you bet we’ll be knocking on those doors. It’d be nice not to have to pay for it ourselves again too."

Neil: "The film industry can be a vicious beast. You can put your heart, soul and life into something and never know if you've done the right thing. So watch this space...."


Unhallowed Ground

Director: Russell England
Writer: Paul Raschid
Producer: Neville Raschid
Cast: Daniel Gordon, Marcus Griffiths, Will Thorp
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Unhallowed Ground is set in the extraordinarily posh and expensive (fictitious) Dhoultham School, portrayed on film by the extraordinarily posh and expensive (real) Mill Hill School, an establishment whose former pupils include Denis Thatcher, Francis Crick, Norman Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Richard Dimbleby and Chaz Jankel. One might think that this tale of six teenagers from incredibly wealthy families would therefore be an irrelevance, a slice of upper class life inaccessible, even on a TV screen, to us ordinary mortal folk.

But there you would be wrong. Unhallowed Ground is aware that its protagonists are part of an elitist minority who will never have to deal with real life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to deal with mandatory teenage things like raging hormones, rebellious attitudes and demanding parents. They also have to deal with the savage ghosts of 17th century plague victims and a couple of ex squaddies turned burglars.

In fact there is some social commentary in the film, but it’s commendably non-didactic. “Thirty two thousand pounds a year to send your kid here,” says one of the robbers. “That’s more than I was earning when I was being shot at in Afghanistan.”

It’s the last day of term. Everyone – staff and students – has departed Dhoultham (crikey, I’ve heard of School’s Out but that’s some fast moving there). In the never mentioned let alone explained absence of any sort of caretaker, the only remaining occupants are a sextet of sixth-formers who comprise the school's Army Cadet Corp. Plus one teacher, who sets them a task after which they will receive some sort of gold medal award. Said task is to patrol the school and its grounds overnight, dressed in camo gear, toting unloaded (I hope!) assault rifles. The teacher will sit in his office, communicating with them by walkie-talkie.

Now, being a good comprehensive school lad who had to make my own way in the world, I have absolutely no idea how public school Cadet Corps work but I didn’t buy this for a second. Nevertheless it’s a reasonable set up that puts these six teenagers into an interesting location, without phones (though they do have walkies), wherein they will face both the supernatural threat and the criminal one. One big advantage that this scenario gives us is that, in a cinematic subgenre largely populated by moronic chavs whom one is often quite happy to see dismembered, Unhallowed Ground gives us a group of characters who are intelligent and (very) well educated. They may enjoy a spot of sly sex or a swig of under-age booze, but 32 grand a year teaches kids to think, learn and understand. When a character picks up a play script and says, “Ooh, Doctor Faustus – my favourite!” you can actually believe she means it.

In defiance of convention, this is an intelligent teen horror.

Let’s meet the boys first. Daniel (EastEnders’ Thomas Law) is Head Boy, a natural leader, but he has failed to get into Oxford, the first person in his family to not make the grade. Aki (Marcus Griffiths) captains the rugby team and has a confident swagger. Rishi (Paul Raschid, who wrote the screenplay) is a hardworking swot, whose acceptance into Cambridge doesn’t make up for his parents’ impending divorce.

Dhoultham being a boys’ school, the ladies attend a neighbouring academy. Verity (Poppy Drayton, Madeleine Allsop in Downton Abbey) is up for fun, especially with Daniel who has just (according to social media scuttlebutt) split up from his girlfriend. Sophie (Morgane ‘Roman’s daughter’ Polanski) is a real soldier girl, resolute and practical. Meena (Rachel Petladwala from ace kids spy-fi show MI High) is more bookish and not an integral part of the school’s inner circle of cool kids.

All six are nicely drawn characters, portrayed by a squad of talented young actors. Any one of these characters could have been a cypher or a stereotype but instead they come across as rounded, real and believable. The cast work well together and do actually all look like teenagers, despite being in their early twenties.

Casing the joint with a view to half-inching some valuable items from the school archive are former Marine Shane (Corrie/Casualty star Will Thorp – better known to discerning viewers as Toby Zed in that Doctor Who two-parter with the giant Satan thing) and former Bomb Squad trooper Jazz (EastEnders' Ameet Chana). The former is determined, organised and prepared to use violence if required; the latter is unsure, nervous but has a detailed knowledge of which wire to cut in any given situation. It’s just a shame that they didn’t wait another 24 hours. If they had burgled the school on the day after term finished, the place would have been completely empty, devoid of both the living and the undead.

Dhoultham was founded in the mid 17th century and was, we are told/shown in a prologue, spared the plague after the unexplained, ritual murder of four students. One surprisingly careless slip in what is overall a fine-looking, very professional movie, is footage of 17th century school master Richard Graystone (Richard Derrington – Professor Brelan from Jupiter Moon!) writing in his diary. Not only is the writing in large, individual, somewhat untidy letters, rather than the intricate cursive script of someone who uses a quill pen every day of his life, but also the spellings used are obviously modern (as oppof’d to fomething more in keeping w. the periode). It’s not much, but it’s a hap’orth of tar that threatens to spoil the ship.

Anyway, the teens set out in three boy-girl pairs to check various parts of the estate, including the cricket pavilion, but it’s not too long before both the characters and the audience start seeing odd things. The creepy shit gets increasingly creepier as the film progresses. Lone adult Dr Carmichael (who has changed out of his academic gown into his own camo gear) had promised some surprises over the course of the night and there is some brief suggestion that this might be his doing, but that’s never really followed up and if Carmichael (Holby City’s Andrew Lewis, who was in the late Frank Scantori’s unfinished Dead Crazy) did have any pranks planned we never find out what they were. In any case, as the spookiness escalates, the possibility that it’s anything less than genuine supernatural manifestations recedes at a rate of knots.

Shane and Jazz also encounter the ghosts, and subsequently encounter the teenagers. Far from coming together in some sort of Assault on Precinct 13 style truce, the two groups remain at loggerheads, even as they try to escape the attentions of the vengeful spirits (who died exactly 350 years ago that night).

This is a well-written, well-directed, well-acted film and I found myself caring about these characters (even Shane) and wanting to see who would survive. Actions are believable, motivations are clear and credible, people get hurt and no-one is super-human. The pace is maintained throughout, leading to a final act twist that I certainly didn’t see coming. The only low point is some very poor flame CGI FX right at the end: another hap’orth of tar.

Documentarian Russell England (making his feature film directorial debut after 20 years of helming things like F1: Chasing the Dreams, Paul Burrell: What Really Happened and Dogs: Their Secret Lives) makes excellent use of his terrific location and commendably resists cheap Woman in Black-style cat-scares. DP Glen Warrillow does a cracking job on the photography; he also shot a couple of David Gregory-directed DVD extras and Drew Cullingham’s The Devil’s Bargain (and indeed Cullingham himself can be spotted in the credits as director of this film’s Making Of).

The special effects were provided by the ever-reliable Mike Peel, whose work we have previously seen in The Zombie Diaries, Evil Aliens, Dead Wood, The Scar Crow, Red Kingdom Rising and The Zombie King. Jonnie Hurn, usually in front of the camera in titles such as Penetration Angst, Umbrage: The First Vampire, The Zombie Diaries etc, was production manager here.

On the whole Unhallowed Ground can be considered a success and is an impressive debut for writer Paul Raschid, whose father producer Neville Raschid has made four comedy features but not previously ventured into horror territory.

MJS rating: B+

Monday, 26 January 2015


Director: Trent Haaga
Writer: Adam Minarovich 
Producers: Trent Haaga, Chad Ferrin, Jeff Hamilton
Cast: Will Keenan, Timothy Muskatell, Tanishaa Mukherjee
Country: USA
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: online screener

Chop is a Trent Haaga movie and what’s really scary about it is that it led me to realise that it’s nearly 15 years since I interviewed Trent. Back then he was just starting out, having got his first feature writing credit on The Toxic Crusader Part IV, acting in the film too. Since then he has written another dozen or so movies (including Hell Asylum, Deadgirl and American Maniacs) and acted in about 50 including Mulva Zombie Ass Kicker, Dead and Rotting, Dr Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, Easter Bunny Kill! Kill!, Bonnie and Clyde vs Dracula and Killjoy 2, 3 and 4. Trent Haaga is the face and the voice of cool, trashy indie US movies that ordinary people have never heard of and we salute him.

But he hasn’t directed before. This film, originally released on US DVD at the tail-end of 2011 and now picked up for exclusive UK VOD distribution by the fine folks at, is his directorial debut. The screenplay isn't by Trent but was written by Adam Minarovich who has previously made four films of his own. He apparently operates at the next rung down from Trent because I have at least seen some of Trent’s films and have heard of others. But Minarovich is way off the radar: Wiseguys vs Zombies, anyone? Buy Sell Kill: A Flea Market Story? Are these actual things?

The above notwithstanding, this feels like a Trent Haaga joint. It’s gory, it’s splattery, it’s darkly comic. It’s over the top but in a restrained way. It’s this side of Citizen Toxie, that’s for sure.

Will Keenan stars as Lance Reed, an ordinary guy who gets kidnapped by a never-named stranger (Timothy Muskatell). Forced to murder his own brother for no obvious reason, Lance finds himself returned to his ordinary life with the threat of discovery hanging over him and a resentful fear that The Stranger (thus credited) will enter his life again. Which he does.

With a relentlessly psychotic determination to make Lance apologise for some unspecified wrong, The Stranger takes away first the people that Lance loves, and then Lance himself, bit by bit. Starting with a finger. Hence the title. A seemingly bottomless supply of knock-out drug syringes leaves Lance repeatedly waking up with further bits of himself missing. Eventually, The Stranger kidnaps Lance again, ties him up in a remote workshop, and sets to work on what's left.

Lance’s problem – well, apart from gradually being chopped up into bits, obviously – is that he has absolutely no idea whatsoever who The Stranger is or what he’s supposed to be apologising for. In desperation, he digs up some memories of bad things he has done but nope, those weren’t this guy. So no end to the chopping. What is even worse, this guy then tracks down the people that Lance wronged and encourages them to chop bits off him. And to be fair, Lance does turn out to be a pretty awful human being.

A picture like this stands or falls on its lead performance and Keenan (who also started out working for Uncle Lloyd – he was the male lead in Tromeo and Juliet!) is simply awesome in the role, running through a full gamut of emotions, but stepping over the screaming terror that most people would feel. At various times there’s fear and trepidation, and pleading and bargaining, but also outright defiance and belligerent abuse and deep, dark sarcasm and eventually just weariness. Muskatell (who shares several acting credits with Haaga) provides a great foil: calm, polite, respectful but clearly a sociopath.

Tanishaa Mukherjee (more used to acting alongside global superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai in blockbusters like Sarkar Raj) lends sterling support as Lance’s wife Emily, who has some secrets of her own. Writer Minarovich and Tamil T Rhee make a nice double act as the cops investigating Lance’s brother’s disappearance. The cast also includes Elina Madison (Curse of the 49er, Butchered, Creepshow 3, John Carl Buechler’s version of Jekyll and Hyde, Charlie Band’s Petrified and a number of Creep Creepersin pictures) as a hooker, producer Chad Ferrin as Lance’s brother, Camille Keaton from I Spit on Your Grave in flashbacks as Lance’s mother, and Caleb Emerson (director of Die You Zombie Bastards!) as the proprietor of a hardware store.

Chop is joyfully violent and bloody, and very, very funny. It’s nicely structured too as Lance finds himself descending into lower and lower levels of hell, stuck on a ride he’s completely unable to leave and which he has no idea how or why he is even on it. Being honest, the ending is a bit of a let down and I would have preferred something bleaker, nastier and vague – but that doesn’t spoil what is a very enjoyable horror film laced with the absolute blackest of humour.

Haaga, who has spent enough time writing and acting (fifteen years or so, as explained above) to know his way around a movie production, directs with aplomb and confidence, helped by the cinematography of Christian Janss and the editing skills of Jahad Ferif. The special effects were provided by Tom Devlin who since 2002 has worked on dozens of cool movies including The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror, Poultrygeist, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, Mega Piranha, Piranhaconda, Sand Sharks, Puppet Master X: Axis Rising and – I’m not making this up – a porno called Fuckenstein. Oh Jeez, and also A Wet Dream on Elm Street. Seriously? Matt Olivo, by day sound editor on the American versions of Total Wipeout and The Apprentice, provided the score.

Chop screened over here in 2011 at Dead by Dawn but has not previously had a UK release so it’s great to see the title turning up on

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Spirits of the Fall

Director: Russ Diaper
Writer: Russ Diaper, Paul Kelleher
Producer: Russ Diaper, David Diaper
Cast: Russ Diaper, Paul Kelleher, Rami Hilmi
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

I’ve done some things in my time that other people haven’t, broken new ground, set new parameters. I was the first film journalist to champion Ivan Zuccon. I wrote the first reviews of a whole bunch of indie films, I helped to found SFX magazine, I wrote the first real biography of Douglas Adams. I was also (and this is something that no-one knows about me) the first person ever to go to a fancy dress party dressed as the British Antarctic Territory. Probably the last too. You see, the theme was ‘countries’ and I had this white shirt and...

Anyway, I now lay claim to being the first person to ever watch a double bill of two Russ Diaper feature films back-to-back. (On, as it happens, the day that Ivan’s latest was premiered in New York to great acclaim - see what a good word from me can eventually do for a film-maker’s career?)

The evening did not start well, as anyone who has read my review of Deadly Pursuit will attest. So then I settled down to watch Russ’ sophomore effort which sees him move from the action genre into horror. And do you know what? It’s not half bad. In places it’s downright spooky. It still has some of the technical problems of the previous feature but artistically it’s a huge step forward.

Several of the cast from Deadly Pursuit return, notably Paul Kelleher who also executive produced and co-wrote this one (on the IMDB he gets the curious credit ‘co-dialogue’ although on-screen he merely shares screenplay credit with Russ). Kelly-Marie Kerr is in both films too, as is top-billed Rami Hilmi and, obviously, Diaper himself.

Diaper and Hilmi play brothers Chris and Mark, the former of whom owns a hotel which closed down a year ago when his wife was murdered. Instantly, Spirits of the Fall scores over Deadly Pursuit by not only being set in the same country where it is filmed but by actually being shot in a hotel (though, curiously, we never see the outside of the building). What is distracting however is Hilmi’s accent. According to his bio he was born in Hampshire; I don’t know his parentage but Hilmi seems to be a Turkish surname and Rami is also from that end of the Mediterranean.

The point is that he and Russ play brothers and we’re given no explanation of why one of them has a British accent and one of them very definitely doesn’t. To be honest, I’m not sure why they had to be brothers. If they were just best mates or maybe cousins, the story would work perfectly well and we wouldn’t have to keep wondering about the accent. It may seem a minor point but it’s something that film-makers must look out for: audiences are easily distracted by unexplained, strange things like that because we keep expecting it to become relevant. Nothing in a film should be inconsequential.

Anyway, what happened one year ago is that a psychotic guest grabbed hold of Chris’ pregnant wife and threw the two-and-a-half of them from an upstairs window to their collective deaths. Understandably, Chris (Diaper) has since then kept well away from the hotel which was closed for business although Mark (Hilmi) employed a caretaker to look after the place. This is Henry, marvellously played by Kelleher with an eccentric intensity just short of over-the-top.

Unsurprisingly, spooky things start happening not long after Chris moves back into the still-closed hotel. He thinks he can hear his wife’s voice and a baby crying. Mark calls in a medium who identifies that the hotel was built on a site where witches were tortured and executed although precisely how this relates to the ghosts of Chris’ wife and unborn child isn’t clear. There is also a tall, hooded figure who is, I think, the ghost of the bloke who killed them.

Eventually, it turns out that creepy Henry, far from being involved in this spookiness has actually been ‘sent’ by some higher agency to resolve matters so that the ghosts can rest in peace. The film ends with Henry and Chris performing some sort of ceremony to banish the evil ghost and free the good ones. Again, I’m not sure if this has any relevance to the history of witch trials on the spot.

There are also a couple of passing references to Halloween, in fact the opening titles play over a jack-o-lantern, but this also seems to have no relevance except to satisfy some sort of EU ruling about things that must be in low-budget supernatural horror movies. However, even spurious EU legislation can’t explain the female character who is introduced near the start as a friend, possibly girlfriend, of Mark. She is in one scene, Chris suggests she could be the receptionist if the hotel reopens - and that’s it, we never hear from her again.

But the plot is not what makes a good ghost story, nor the characters. The characters must be good and it’s helpful, though far from essential, for the plot to make some sort of sense, but what sells a film like this is the atmosphere, the spookiness. Is Spirits of the Fall actually scary? Frankly, yes it is.

Director Diaper (aka Rusty Apper) admirably reins in the scares so that they are all the more effective. The hooded figure moves briefly, unnoticed, across the shot or sometime we see only his shadow when we know that Chris is alone. Brief visions of the dead wife include a startling one in a basin of water. Most disturbing of all is Chris’ trip into the torch-lit attic where he finds some antique photos, one of which briefly shows faces half-turned to skulls, as per the poster. This is terrifically unnerving. This is what we pay our money for.

The film’s biggest problem, which it shares with Deadly Pursuit, is the camera-work because once again everyone has a greenish skintone, presumably from the sodium lighting used for all the interiors. This isn’t so bad in the third act, which primarily comprises Henry, Chris and a bunch of candles where the unnatural skin hues seem more deliberate. But for much of the film it is almost as distracting as Rami Hilmi’s accent and we once again have shots where characters are almost in silhouette simply because there is a window in the background.

Unlike Deadly Pursuit, where the roll-call of camera operators was almost as long as the cast list, here there is only one credited cinematographer, Simon Quinlan, whose name is for some reason much smaller than anyone else’s in the credits. On the film’s website he is listed as ‘Simon Black’ and he’s not in the credit block at all. I don’t know how much contribution Mr Black/Quinlan (who also worked on Deadly Pursuit) made to the look of this picture but something has got to be done. Russ needs to make sure that his next film is properly lit by an experienced DP, whether that is Simon Quinlan with some training under his belt or someone else. He needs a proper camera, proper lighting, someone who understands white level and colour balance and that shooting directly towards brightly lit windows is generally a poor idea.

On Russ’ last film, the shockingly bad photography was just one part of a generally excruciating cinematic experience, but here it actually spoils what would otherwise be a smashing little movie (it’s 20 minutes shorter than Deadly Pursuit, which also helps). Perhaps it’s possible to do some sort of technical, computer thing which can restore the actor’s skin-tones to normal. That wouldn’t save Deadly Pursuit, not unless it was also possible to digitally remove all traces of Southampton, but it might make all the difference to this film.

Russ Diaper, whom I first saw as a copper in The Demon Within, has more films in development, notably Hellbilly 58 which features a Lloyd Kaufman cameo. He and Rami Hilmi are both currently working on Tour de Force for Kim Sønderholm (who was of course in Deadly Pursuit). Hilmi, who gives a solid performance here, was also in Colin and KillerKiller while Paul Kelleher provided a voice for Bane. Also in the cast are Fiona Domenica, Marlene Rodriguez, Caroline Boulton and Martin Wilkinson. An early version of the poster also lists Abigail Tartelin (The Butterfly Tattoo, Jack Says).

Watching Deadly Pursuit and Spirits of the Fall back-to-back has been a curious experience. The second film is in almost every respect a huge advance on the first and, to some extent, reinforces my suggestion that film-makers should not be so quick to release their first film on the world. On the basis of Deadly Pursuit, I never wanted to see another Russ Diaper film again. But as Spirits of the Fall was next in line in the TBW pile I had little choice and I’m happy to say that, based on the difference between the two, Russ Diaper shows real promise as a film-maker and I look forward to eventually reviewing Hellbilly 58 or whatever he comes up with next.

MJS rating: B

Review originally posted 24th October 2008

interview: Terry Stone

When I noticed the name of Terry Stone cropping up on my site several times - as actor in, and producer of, Ten Dead Men, Doghouse and Kung Fu Flid - I dropped him a line and he very graciously agreed to a phone interview in June 2009.

Are you an executive producer with a sideline in acting or an actor who also does executive producing?
“I’m an actor-executive!”

How did you get started in films?
“Basically from 1993 to 2003 I was running clubs. I did a thing called One Nation, Garage Nation. I won Best Promoter of the Year, I had a long list of awards and I went all round the world doing these clubs. Then a friend of mine, in 2002, said to me do you want to do a little bit in this film I’m doing? So I said yeah, why not? I turned up on the set and done my bit and my bit was basically standing there not saying anything! So after about an hour I said to the guy, I thought I was going to be in the film, and he said you’re just an extra.

“I said well, I’m not going to be an extra. If I don’t say anything, I’m walking, I’m going home. So the director said okay, what do you want to say? I said I don’t know. Because it was an ultra-low budget thing they said oh yeah, we’ll give you some dialogue and we kind of just made it up. Then the director said oh no, this guy’s really funny, we want to get him involved in the film. So I went from being an extra to actually having a part in it.

“Basically from there, we went to Cannes in 2003 where the film was screened. Everyone said: you should fuck the club promoting off, this that and the other. So I got out of it. At the time everyone thought I’d taken leave of my senses because I gave it all up to become an actor. I had some pictures done, took the scenes out of this film, then I sent out a letter to some agents. Got an agent - which was surreal really, bearing in mind I’d not been to drama school or anything.

“He put me up for stuff: I got EastEnders, I done My Family, a couple of bits of TV. Then I done another film called One Man and His Dog. Then I swapped agents, went to a bigger agency, and eventually sort of changed again. So really I suppose you could say, as an actor, I kind of went from having a small agent to a medium agent and now I’ve got a big agent. In the space of six years. That was my main thing: I wanted to be an actor.

“And then, because I’ve run businesses and I’ve raised money and stuff like that, people said, you know, why don’t you do your own film? And that was how One Man and His Dog come about really. I went back to my mates and said I’m doing a film, do you want to invest? I pulled the money up for that film that way. And that was a real low budget film but we got it released and considering I had no film-making knowledge or any clue about the film industry, I’m surprised we even got the film finished and put out really! It’s not the best film in the world but it was definitely a learning curve on how not to make a film!

“That led to me then doing Rollin' with the Nines then that led me to then doing Rise of the Footsoldier which led to Doghouse and all the other projects I’m involved with. It’s a little bit like when I started running the clubs. I started off giving out fliers, then I had a magazine, then I started selling tickets and then I started putting on events - and then I become the biggest club promoter in England. It sounds completely fucking nuts! But it was sort of organic: I did one thing that led to another thing that led to another thing.

“And it’s been the same with this really. I started off wanting to be an actor and then done that for a little while. Didn’t want to really just do TV stuff, then I started doing some other stuff. Then I got into films and made my own films. It’s weird how it’s all just kind of played out, you know! It’s as if I’m in a movie and it’s all fucking unravelling before my eyes! But it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been really exciting.”

Is there a film-making scene in London at the moment, a lot of people all working together frequently? Every time I get sent a British film now, there always seems to be cast and crew who worked on Rise of the Footsoldier, in particular.
“Well, the story about Rise of the Footsoldier is: the guy who it’s about is a mate of mine and he gave me his book and said I want to make a film. I read the book and said yeah, it’s a great book, make a good film. So I basically got it developed, I believed in it, I had a vision of it. This was in 2004 so it took me two years to get it off the ground, and it was fucking hard work. We kept getting the money then it fell apart, then we got the money, then it fell apart. It was a nightmare but the good news was we got it done in the end and it’s become one of the most popular and successful British films for that budget ever made.

Football Factory’s been out a lot longer, but Rise of the Footsoldier came out on DVD December 2007 and we’re only in June 2009 now and it’s done over 425,000 DVDs. So in another year and a half, two years, that could quite easily hit Football Factory figures - and obviously that’s one of the most successful British movies to date on DVD. So I think what happened is, when something’s successful or popular, it’s like anything: if an actor or actress is red hot everyone wants to use her, if a director’s red hot everyone wants to use him or her. It’s just that there’s this kind of mentality where no-one can come up with their own stuff, they just want to copy what everyone else does.

“So what I’ve kind of done is, I met Jake West and we got talking and I thought Doghouse was completely nuts. I thought it was a great concept and I just thought it was something different, you know. Everyone says it’s another Lesbian Vampire Killers but it’s not, it’s something completely different. It’s unfortunate really that it was released inbetween all the Hollywood blockbusters. If it had been released at a different time it could have done much better in the cinemas, with all the talent attached. But the good news is we didn’t spend a great deal on the cinema release. It’s done relatively well considering what we spent and the amount of cinemas we went on.

“And when it comes out on DVD, it’s a film that’s like Footsoldier, it’s a DVD title that everyone will buy and own and tell their mates about. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a year and a half’s time, that’s sold similar units to Footsoldier. For me, it’s great: wow, my film’s in the cinema, it’s took two or three million pounds. But the only person who’s happy about that is the cinema because they take seventy per cent of all the money. And the producer, he never has any money off the cinema and he spends all that money on advertising - you’re forever waiting to pay that off to get any money.

“So obviously we’ve not followed that model. We’ve just said well, we don’t want to spend too much but if the film’s going to perform on DVD the cinema release is, if you like, the advertising for the DVD. We’re not Transformers 2 or Star Trek. We haven’t got 180 million budgets, we’re working on one or two million so obviously we’ve got to make it work. So the way we make it work is: we make it as cheap as possible with the best quality, use the best actors we can get and use fresh talent. Jake West has been going a long time but this is his best film. Julian Gilbey had done Reckoning Day which was shot on a wind-up camera in his garden with his mates! He started off doing that and now he’s BAFTA-nominated, he’s behind Footsoldier and Rollin’ with the Nines, two films that I developed and produced. So I think I’ve got a good eye for talent.

“What I try to do is look for things that are similar to other things but different and then get up-and-coming actors, up-and-coming directors. I mean, obviously you have to use certain names when you make a film. If you want a big, scary, six-foot-three, cockney-looking actor you’re limited to three or four actors. If you want a kind of cockney geezer, you’re limited, it’s not like there’s hundreds of them. So you have to go for whatever you can get. And sometimes the people you want are available, sometimes they’re not. But we always try and use the best people for the job.

“We’re just in the process of setting up an animation studio which is going to be the first animation studio in Britain, called Gateway Animation. That’s going to be like an English Pixar. So we’re getting all that put together at the moment and we’ve got a really cool film that we’re going to be doing in September which is a kids’ movie. Noel Clarke’s going to be directing that. That’s called Bob and the Lost Idols and that’s going to be our first animation movie. Having kids, I’ve gone obviously into making kids’ movies! I’m not just doing violent gangster film, I’m doing kids stuff. We’re going to be doing some horror movies and some romcoms and some action movies. We’re just going to do a complete spread of different films. We’re not going to stick to just doing horror films or just doing gangster films.”

Will that be stop-motion animation or CGI?
“It’s going to be 3D animation. Monsters vs Aliens, Shrek - that’s what we’re aiming at. Obviously 3D animation is big at the moment. It takes two years to make a film from start to finish. So in two years’ time, everyone’s going to be doing 3D animation so there’s no point making it any other way. We’ve got to do it with what’s what, what everyone’s doing now. Because it’s definitely going to go that way. It’s not going to go any other way. Everyone in the world will be 3D animation and maybe some of the live action films are going to start being in 3D as well. I haven’t got a crystal ball to look into the future but I would bet quite a bit of money on it that that’s the way it’s going to go.”

I want to ask you about Kung Fu Flid. What was the idea behind that because it’s just completely out there?
“Hahaha! Well, what happened was this. A guy contacts me and he said, ‘I want to meet you, I’ve got this amazing script.’ I said well, send it to me and I’ll read it. ‘No, no, I’ve got to meet you because if I send it to you, you’ll think it’s a joke.’ He said, ‘I’ve got to meet you and pitch it to you.’ I went all right. So I’ve gone and met the guy. He turned up, sat down and he said, ‘My mate’s going to come and join us as well.’ Then Mat Fraser walked in and sat down. I said okay, what’s your film called. He said it’s called Flid.

“So I’m sitting there at he table, looking at Mat Fraser and this guy telling me about this film called Flid. So straightaway I think this is some fucking wind-up. Someone’s setting me up here. One of them fucking TV things - you’ve been punk’d or whatever! He was saying Mat’s going to be the action hero and all this and I just said, you know, this is the most fucking ridiculous thing I’ve heard in my life. I just said, this isn’t something that I think (a) we could get money for, (b) I want to do really.

“So then what happened was I kind of went away, then I was in Cannes. We started this movie website. I was talking to people and saying I want to get people coming to the site and this, that and the other. They said well, you need to put some mad stuff on there that people want to watch, make it exclusive to the FilmLounge. So I thought well, this guy’s just pitched me this mad idea and I thought maybe that’d work. So I was talking to people in Cannes about it and they said why don’t you call it The Karate Flid or The Kung Fu Flid. There was all these kinds of people saying oh yeah, I’d watch that, it’s fucking nuts, blah blah blah.

“Then when I got back I thought well, if I made it for a real low budget. It helps him out, obviously being a disabled actor he’s never going to get a chance to play a role like that. I thought, it helps him out and we donated two and a half per cent of the profits to Scope. I just thought we’ll do it, see what happens. So we made the film, we got some good talent attached. And you know, it’s not the best film in the world but we shot it in three weeks and for no money. It looks like a two or three hundred grand film. It gives Xavier Leret a chance. Obviously he wanted to direct another movie.

“So it was more to do with creating something for the FilmLounge to direct people to the site. But also to help charity, also to help Mat, so if you like it was my kind of charity film really where I done something to help other people. So that was why it come about. Some people still think it’s a fucking joke. When you tell people they say no, you’re fucking winding me up. You’re like no no no, honestly, it’s on the FilmLounge.

“But funnily enough, Anchor Bay have picked it up and are putting it on DVD in September in America, Canada, Australia, England. It’s got a multi-territory release. But they’ve changed the name to Unarmed but Dangerous because they said Kung Fu Flid’s offensive and stuff. I mean, he came up with the name! I said to him I’ve had these suggestions and they said yeah, we love that. We’ll call it Kung Fu Flid or Karate Flid, we don’t care.

“So it was all done a bit tongue in cheek but obviously, Mat being a thalidomite and obviously having the piss taken out of him when he was younger, growing up. I mean, he’s 48 years old. So he had the piss taken out of him badly - there was no political correctness when he was growing up. So he just got to the point where he was so used to it he didn’t care. He embraces the whole thing. It doesn’t offend him, he just thinks it’s funny. We had a lot of publicity, the Express did a nice piece about it and the News of the World. We had some great press on it so I’m really pleased with that.”

Finally, apart from the animated film, what other stuff are you working on?
“We’re doing a film at the moment called Shank which we’re doing with Revolver which is going to be like a futuristic Adulthood. That’s going to be filmed in August. I’ve got a horror film which is like a British Blair Witch-type movie called The Basement. That’s going in October. The kids animated movie is going in October. We’ll be prepping it in August but we’re actually recording the voices and doing all the work in October. Then we’re doing a film about the Essex Boys called Bonded by Blood. That’s going to go in November/December time. So I’ve got a busy year!”

Interview originally posted 1st September 2009

The Scar Crow

Directors: Andy Thompson, Pete Benson
Writers: Andy Thompson, Pete Benson
Producer: Andy Thompson
Cast: Marysia Kay, Kevyn Connett, Anna Tolputt
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: festival screening (LIFF 2009)

One of the advantages of a clichéed story is that it is usually quite easy to follow. We know what’s happening (and often, what’s about to happen) because we’ve seen it all before.

Conversely, original tales can be harder to follow and, at the lower levels of film-making, sometimes the convolutions of the story get so wrapped up that, to be honest, it’s not clear what is going on. That doesn’t necessarily stop them from being enjoyable of course. But one of the things that a bigger budget brings you is better (and more) writers who can fashion a plot which constantly surprises while at the same time remaining coherent and consistent.

The Scar Crow is a decent little film. I caught it on the closing night of the 2009 London Independent Film Festival where it had picked up the prize for Best Sci-fi/Horror Feature. And deservedly so. I enjoyed The Scar Crow (which was preceded by the impressive short My Name is Sarah Hayward). It’s well-made and different to the majority of indie horror films being trotted out nowadays. But, thinking about it afterwards, I honestly couldn’t piece together precisely what happened and why.

The film kicks off with a 17th century prologue. A village woman is hanged as a witch (one character says she was “hung” which annoyed me because, while folks may not use the verb very much now, in those days I’m sure even peasants knew the correct past tense of ‘hang’ in this context - but I digress).

Elizabeth Tanner (Julie Barnard, on-screen for no more than a minute but earning her fee) was married to a right bastard (Andrew Bolton, who may possibly have played Winston Churchill on Japanese TV) who is glad to see the back of her, not least because it leaves him more time to have his way with his two oldest daughters, Vanessa (spooky Marysia Kay: Blood + Roses, Colour from the Dark) and Proper (buxom Gabrielle Douglas). When he tries to rape his third daughter Primrose (pixie-ish Anna Tolputt, who was in Hellraiser: Hellworld and a touring version of Fahrenheit 451), the girls turn on him - then have to figure out how to get rid of the body.

You wouldn’t have thought that was too difficult a challenge for someone living on a farm in those pre-forensic days. Tie rocks to his feet and chuck him in a lake. Chop him into pieces and feed him to the pigs. Maybe just bury him in the woods.

Or... you could tie the body to a wooden cross in the middle of a cornfield, dress it in rags, stick a sack over the head and hope that any passing folk assume it’s a scarecrow. Or a scar crow (the film’s title is never actually explained). Before their father burned all his late wife’s magical texts, Primrose purloined one and the girls now use this to put a curse of some sort on their evil dad. Which seems a bit extraneous, what with him being dead and everything.

But Father Tanner is not quite dead and with his last breath he curses them right back. They can never leave the farm unless, well, until, ah, erm, it’s not exactly clear. But they’re well and truly cursed.

Suddenly we’re thrust into the present day as a young chap named Daz (Kevyn Connett: Jesus the Curry King) wakes from a nightmare but is comforted by his fiancee Rachel (Anya Lahiri, who was part of the UK’s 1999 Eurovision entry!). The film proper starts here and is presented as one enormous flashback to what caused Daz’s recurring nightmare.

It seems that Daz, along with three slightly more laddish colleagues, was sent on a sort of outward bound, team-building course, which immediately lumps this into a sub-subgenre with the likes of Severance and Bloodmyth. Daz’s compatriots are Tonk (Tim Major: 24 Hours in London) who has agreed to be his best man, Joe (Michael Walker) and Nigel (Darren McIlroy, who played a zombie in Colin). 1st AD Iain Rogerson and Markolai Bolkonsky play the two ‘commandos’ who, having taught the lads survival skills, leave them without phones, maps or money in the middle of nowhere. Neither ‘commando’ looks like he could do an assault course without stopping for a long sit-down halfway round, to be honest.

As soon as the two organisers are gone, the lads retrieve a mobile phone and some cash from where they have secreted it about their persons and phone for a mate to come pick them up once they have worked out where they are. (That’s the essential problem with leaving people in the middle of nowhere in Britain. Unless you’re somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, it’s very difficult to be more than a few miles from a road.)

So the lads walk and find a farm occupied by three comely young country lasses who welcome them, offer shelter in the barn and provide directions to the nearest pub, where the locals warn them to stay away from the farm because it’s haunted.

Staggering back across the fields, late at night, the first casualty is Joe who stops for a piss. And because men must always piss against something upright (it’s a tradition or an old charter or something) he urinates against a handy scarecrow ... which flexes its fingers then reaches down and rips the man’s dick off. Which is rather startling because that’s the sort of thing you expect in a Troma film and this is not, for the most part, aspiring to be Tromatic. Presumably Joe's mates are too far away and/or drunk to hear his screams across the quiet countryside night.

Back at the farm, Nigel and Tonk get amorous with Vanessa and Proper but Daz and Prim are uncomfortable and would rather just talk. After those two leave, Proper informs Tonk that a shag is out of the question as Arsenal are playing at home so he leaves, disappointed. Meanwhile, Vanessa is seducing Nigel in a bedroom. When Proper enters and both get their baps out, Nigel can’t believe his luck and allows them to blindfold him and tie him to the bed for some kinky stuff. Which is, you know, never a good idea. I think you can all see where that’s going...

After a drunken disagreement, Daz and Tonk crash out in their sleeping bags, waking the next morning to find that neither Nigel nor Joe is anywhere to be seen. This is where the film picks up considerably, not least through some smart editing between the blood-spattered bedroom and the pristine sheets that the girls show the lads. The discovery of their friends’ bodies convinces Daz and Tonk that a psycho is on the loose and actually that’s a smartly handled, original idea. Far too often, characters in films accept unquestioningly that the danger they face is supernatural or paranormal in some way rather than the more likely (but equally appalling) suggestion that multiple deaths are due to a serial killer.

The downside of this third act is that it becomes increasingly difficult to work out why the girls and their scarecrow/father are doing what they are doing. There is a mention of them needing five people to lift the curse although they actually have six as the pub landlord gets eviscerated and so does Mike (actor not credited), the mate who is driving over to collect the boys. I think - and this is only a vague guess - that the girls have to construct a new human scarecrow from parts of five men, which is why they initially strap a torso to the wooden cross and later add a head. I guess the other three bodies provide the arms, the legs and the heart. Or something. And this will lift the curse on their father who will then lift the curse on the girls. Or something.

Oh, there is also a really bizarre bit somewhere in there where Prim gives Daz a dreamcatcher. Eh? Isn't that a Native American artefact? What's that doing in rural England, in the hands of a 300-year-old ghost?

The scarecrow is by now a full-on perambulatory monster and there is an effective but underused effect of bits of straw appearing before he does, so that when Mike is driving along the first indication that we have that something is up is straw blowing in through the air-vent. But why did the girls have to wait 300 years for four men to turn up (we are told that other people have tried to work the ‘cursed’ farm until fairly recently), especially given that their family’s influence can evidently reach as far as the pub, where there must have frequently been enough potential victims.

Eventually we cut back to the framing story of Daz and Rachel in bed. Truth be told, only at this point does it become evident that it’s a framing story. The early scene of Daz waking up was from a nightmare about Elizabeth Tanner’s hanging and it really wasn’t clear, when we cut to the four colleagues being trained by the two fat blokes, that this was related to Daz’s nightmares rather than a few days later. That’s an example of film-makers thinking that something is obvious when it’s not. There is at first no apparent connection between the 17th century lynching and the 21st century survival course so the audience, not having read the script, aren’t clued in that what happens to Daz in the field is before the bedroom scene.

But beyond that, the framing story creates its own, frankly enormous problem, which is this. Rachel tries to convince Daz that his nightmares are just that: bad dreams. That this didn’t really happen. But hang on: what about Daz’s friend Tonk? You remember, he was going to be Best Man at your wedding. Even if his bloody corpse hasn’t been found, aren’t you wondering where he has disappeared to? And Daz’s other two colleagues.

Four young men were left in an unidentified location by a survival training company contracted by their employer and only one came back, babbling about ghosts, witches, scarecrows and how his three friends were gruesomely killed. Wouldn’t this raise some alarm bells with their employer, with the fat training commando guys, with the police? On top of which, somewhere there is Mike’s car, its interior splattered with Mike’s blood. And the regular drinkers at the village pub must surely have discovered the rotting cadaver of their partly dismembered landlord by now.

And Rachel is convinced that Daz’s story is all a dream?

If it was a dream - let’s just play Devil’s advocate here - wouldn’t Daz be the prime suspect in a series of five related murders? After a gripping and well-crafted third act, the film falls apart with this nonsensical epilogue (and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that something else happens right at the end...).

Special effects bloke Mike Peel (Dead Wood, The Zombie Diaries) does stirling work here with injuries, body parts and a particularly imaginative heart-ripping scene. He also plays the unfortunate Mein Host of the village inn. Michael Walker (he plays Joe - do try to keep up) pulls double duty inside the scarecrow costume.

Cinematographer Trevor Speed was part of the camera team on The Hills Have Eyes II, The Devil’s Chair and I Love You. The video image looked a bit flat at the festival screening where I caught this but then projecting a DVD rarely flatters decent photography. He certainly seemed to make a good job of the historical prologue. The most obvious problem is the lighting of night-time scenes: since the sisters’ candles are insufficient to provide believable light, the room is illuminated by bright lights outside the windows, filtered through ragged curtains. But it’s just way too bright and suggests that it’s the middle of the day when we know from the story that it’s supposed to be the small hours of the morning. Meanwhile, editor Jake Proctor was kept busy with a few switcheroos between levels of reality and also with occasional flashback blasts of images which don’t really work because (a) we can’t see anything clearly but, more importantly, (b) it’s unclear who, if anyone, is experiencing these flashbacks.

Soundman Stephen Taylor has an extraordinary history as an album mixer/engineer going right back to Gong’s 1976 LP Gazeuse and taking in albums by Peter Gabriel, Stomu Yamashta, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Bob Geldof, Judie Tzuke and others. As a result of hiring a bloke who knows what he’s doing, The Scar Crow has a fine sound mix, in other words one that you don’t really notice.

Production designer/art director Melanie Light has a number of interesting genre credits including I Love You, Beyond the Rave, Vivid, The Devil’s Chair, Blood River and Arthurian Asylum epic Merlin and the War of Dragons. She is also one of the zombirds in Doghouse, apparently! Costume designer Nell Knudson has worked on various short films (The Robot Man, Monica Guildheart) as well as Ed Boase’s Most Dangerous Game variant Blooded.

The Scar Crow is the feature debut of Andy Thompson and Pete Benson who shared writing and directing, with Thompson also producing and lending a hand with editing. It’s a commendable, enjoyably scary horror flick with some parts that are very good indeed and others that are less impressive but nothing that’s really bad. The cast are good, the effects are well-done and used effectively, the production values are impressive for a low-ish budgeted indie. Historical is always expensive.

In terms of genre, The Scar Crow slots neatly into the ‘unreconstructed laddish mates vs female supernatural threat’ subset of horror movies. With this film, Lesbian Vampire Killers and Doghouse all released within six months of each other, something is definitely afoot with British horror. However, the movie’s biggest problem is simply uncertainty over what it wants to be, exemplified by the every-man’s-nightmare penis-ripping and the every-man’s-dream-come-true topless sisterly threesome, both of which scenes sit awkwardly within this film but would be right at home in a trashy sub-Troma flick. Unlike LVK and Doghouse, this isn’t an actual horror-comedy but it has elements of character-based humour and it’s that tricky balance between horror and humour that doesn’t quite work.

Plus of course, there’s the inexplicable ‘curse’ plot. It is never clear to what extent the daughters are working with or against the scarecrow/father and we’re never given a clear explanation, even towards the end, of what their actual goal is that they’ve been working towards over the past three centuries.

But the operative word in the phrase “doesn’t quite work” is ‘quite’. It would be an impressive debut feature indeed that ticks all the right boxes, hits all the right buttons and gets everything right. The Scar Crow gets most things right and is worth 90 minutes of your time when it comes to DVD.

Mind, I never did work out what the title is supposed to mean.

MJS rating: B+

Review originally posted 4th May 2009

Red Lines

Director: Frazer Lee
Writer: Frazer Lee
Producer: Joseph Alberti
Cast: Doug Bradley, Kirsty Levett, Leone Hanman
Year of release: 2003
Country: UK
Reviewed from: VHS
Official website:

From Robber Baron Productions, the team that brought us the highly acclaimed, award-winning short On Edge, comes a new six-minute horror short. Once again it stars Doug Bradley, he of Pinhead fame (and author of Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor), who shot this in London just before jetting off to shoot - Lord help us - Hellraiser VII.

Bradley is a teacher, newcomer Kirsty Levett his miscreant pupil, caught running in the hallways and sentenced to detention: lines. “I want to see that pad half-full by the time I come back,” says Sir. “The sooner you start, the sooner you finish.” Which is sort of contradictory, but if you think about it is the sort of inconsistency that characterises creepy, control-freak teachers.

With such a short film, it wouldn’t be fair to describe the story, so I’ll just say that it’s bleak, creepy, nasty and supernatural. Levett is very good in a role without dialogue, looking genuinely frightened. Bradley underplays his role to excellent effect. It’s simple but original and tightly written and directed by Frazer Lee. Though shot on digital video - for - the cinematography by Alan Stewart (Band of Brothers, On Edge) is top notch and adds to the atmosphere.

While it doesn’t hurt to have an actor as good and as well-known as Bradley in a film like this, this is much more than just a star vehicle. It’s an excellent slice of British horror, well-crafted and genuinely unsettling.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 13th January 2005

Sacred Flesh

Director: Nigel Wingrove
Writer: Nigel Wingrove
Producer: Louise Bass
Cast: Sally Tremaine, Simon Hill, Moyna Cope
Country: UK
Year of release: 2000
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Redemption)

Once upon a time, Salvation/Redemption was the most important British label for horror videos. They released a mixture of Euro-sleaze (such as Lips of Blood), British horror (such as Virgin Witch) and old classics (such as The Vampire Bat). All the tapes came packaged in those black and white stylish covers, most of which had photos of Eileen Daly looking suitably gothic. You could spot a Redemption video at a hundred yards and the company had a reputation for caring about their product. Redemption developed a whole franchise around itself, even to the extent of having its own magazine, The Redeemer, about all things vampish and gothic.

And then Redemption sort of faded away. They repackaged old product at lower prices but there didn’t seem to be much new stuff emerging and the excitement of a new Redemption video became rarer. I don’t profess to know the business side of things but the impression given was that there were commercial as well as artistic factors involved. The UK cult video market has changed dramatically in recent years, with the advent of DVDs, a slew of new specialist labels, greater international availability and the emergence of the web requiring complete reinvention of sales and marketing techniques.

I’m not saying Redemption ever really went away, but they were quiet for a while. Well now here’s a couple of blood-spattered new releases landing on my doormat, requiring me to ensure that TF Simpson is sound asleep before I pop them into the DVD player. One disc is the first uncut UK release of Night of the Bloody Apes. The other is Sacred Flesh which is, I believe, Redemption’s only foray (so far) into actual film-making.

It’s British, it’s sleazy, it’s nunsploitation at its most nunsploitational. It’s sexy but, er, it’s pretty dull I’m afraid.

Let me be clear. If you’re Redemption’s ideal target customer - a corset-wearing goth with a library of vampire novels, a bathroom cabinet full of eye-liner and hairspray, an eye-watering collection of tattoos and piercings, a subscription to Skin Two magazine and far too many Gene Loves Jezebel albums (ie. one) - then you’ll love this. As for the rest of us...

The film revolves around a nunnery where the Mother Superior is having visions which cause her to describe the other nuns indulging in sexual shenanigans. The Abbess (Moyna Cope) calls in a local Abbot (Simon Hill) whose scarlet cassock and wide-brimmed hat is probably ecclesiastically and historically accurate but unfortunately can only make one think of Monty Python’s Cardinal Fang. With his servant Richard (Moses Rockman), a straight-talking, lusty peasant lad, the Abbot sets off from wherever he is (an abbey, I suppose) towards the nunnery.

I couldn’t help noticing that the Abbot tells Richard to pack his bags as they will set out first thing tomorrow but in the scenes of them travelling - one on horseback, one on foot - the only luggage is Richard’s tiny satchel which is far too small to contain the cooking pot that they use when they stop for a meal. (A peasant girl spies on them and then steals some of their food although this has no bearing on, or connection with, anything else and seems to have been added just to pad the running time.)

When they reach the nunnery, the film breaks up into a number of strands. One is simply the Abbess and the Abbot walking through the gardens, discussing the matter in hand and its bearing on Christian teachings. An adjunct to this is Richard chatting up Marion (Louise Linehan) a local girl who works at the nunnery. This sub-subplot is presumably supposed to show their healthy sexuality in contrast to the repressed lust of the nuns, which it does to some extent - but then Richard and Marion just disappear from the film.

The Mother Superior (Sally Tremaine) appears in three strands of the ‘plot’. On her own in her cell she talks to herself about what she believes the other nuns are doing. In another strand, in some sort of limbo, she debates religion and sex with Mary Magdalene (Kristina Bill: The Affair of the Necklace) who has a red-painted ‘succubus’ sitting beside her throne. This was evidently shot green-screen and the background is a constantly moving montage of medieval writing. Thirdly, the Mother Superior faces a skeletal nun (Rachel Taggart, who had a small role in Cronenberg’s Spider) who is credited as ‘Catechism’ and whose electronically treated voice is quite difficult to make out. Dear old Eileen Daly is also in these scenes as ‘Repression’. Clad in an extraordinary green rubber cape and an even weirder green rubber wig, she scampers around behind the skeleton, impishly spouting odd phrases and little poems.

I’m tempted to say, ”Christ alone knows what’s going on” - but He surely doesn’t watch stuff like this.

The final part of the film is the bit with the naughty young nuns getting up to all sorts of malarkey because they are so sexually repressed, do you see? There are four sex scenes, the first one being a full 25 minutes into this 73-minute film. First a single nun rubs one out, then two nuns go at each other. Then a nun is groped by two randy priests and finally there’s an odd three-(or possibly four-) way. A lesbian trio take revenge on a nun who reported one of them, ‘ambushing’ her and tying her to a wooden cross. The scene cuts between the three nuns having their way with each other and one of them having her way with the nun on the cross. Both these intercut sequences seem to follow on from the same scene but they can’t both be happening because that would require five nuns - and there’s only four. My head hurts.

All the nuns, by the way, look identical, with or without their clothes on. Fortunately none of them appear to have any piercings, tattoos or obviously fake breasts.

Eventually the film just ends. Oh, there’s some final weirdness about a lesbian nun groping a female Christ or something but that’s not really explained.

The sex scenes are nicely shot and yes, quite erotic. This is certainly several steps above the sort of lesbo antics that one finds in Surrender Cinema titles although it shares those films’ determination to show everything except actual sex. There’s nothing hardcore but the original release (on one or two cinema screens in London in 2000, then on DVD that same year) required about 19 seconds of genital close-ups to be replaced with less salubrious shots in accordance with the wishes of the BBFC.

But to get to this good stuff you have to sit through all that pontification by the Abbot and Abbess which just ladles up boring, sixth-form discussion of moral issues and Christian dogma. It’s like listening to two people reading out their essays. This film doesn’t just have infodumps, it has infodumps that are clearly labelled with big stickers that say ‘infodump’ and are easily found by following all the signs that say ‘infodump this way’. Dear God it’s boring.

I can’t see what this film is trying to do. Well, I can see the basics: it’s trying to criticise religious repression of sexuality and be as blasphemous as possible (although thankfully not quite as childishly as crap like Hellraiser III). But who wants to watch something like this, apart from British horror completists and those Salvation/Redemption fans so in thrall to the company/franchise that they spend their hard-earned money on postcards of ‘Satanic sluts’?

This is not well-written enough to be intellectually stimulating (in fact, let’s be honest, the script is lousy) but neither is it trashy enough to be entertaining. Granted, it’s arousing on a basic level: what sort of heterosexual man isn’t going to feel stirrings in the Y-fronts while watching two young women sixty-nining on a stone floor, clad only in stockings and wimples? But is it enjoyable? Not really.

The nuns include several actual porn actresses: Sarah McLean, who seems to specialise in ‘wet’ porno films (whatever they are - don’t tell me); Hannah Callow from Bosom Buddies 4 and 6; Majella Shepherd, who apparently starred in Barely Legal 18 when she was 22; Cindy Read and Amanda Dawkins, who were both in another indie horror feature, Sentinels of Darkness; and Michelle Thorne, who was in Cathula 2: Vampires of Sex and has also done voices for UK anime releases. Other nuns include producer Louise Ross (who was also in a certain Silence of the Lambs rip-off) and Swedish actress Anneka Svenska who was presenter ‘Eden’ on the first series of weird filmclips show outTHERE. (The role of Eden was subsequently taken by Emily Booth who has a non-speaking blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role as a peasant girl being groped by Richard when we first meet him.)

Christopher Adamson (The Last Horror Movie, Lighthouse, Evil Aliens) plays one of the randy priests while Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris is one of two red-robed inquisitors in a scene which features in the stills gallery but not the film. Marc’s business partner Jake West gets a credit for additional editing and for editing the blood-dripping title sequence. The rather nice cinematography is shared between Chris Herd, James MacDonald and Geoff Mills. Dena Costello (Razor Blade Smile, Warrior Sisters) designed the costumes which fall to the floor with alarming regularity.

There’s a couple of dozen photos (stills and behind-the-scenes shots) in the DVD extras - although it would have been nice to see them full-frame instead of cramped in a corner of the screen - plus a selection of storyboards, two trailers, a commentary and information on assorted Redemption merchandise. The sleeve blurb has three typos; I do wish Redemption would proof-read their sleeves before sending them to the printers. Why go to the trouble of designing a classy DVD package then not check which way round the accent goes on ‘exposé’?

Sacred Flesh is a soft porn film with pretensions but ultimately it’s still a porn film, in that a significant portion of its running time consists of sex scenes with no narrative purpose whatsoever. To be fair, the sex doesn’t drag on enough to become boring but it doesn’t need to because the dialogue scenes - between the Abbot and Abbess, between the Mother Superior and Mary Magdalene, and between the Mother Superior and the unintelligible skeleton nun - drag on more than enough to drag the film down, down, down. There’s no narrative here and certainly no characterisation. If you’re looking for a film that actually has a story and is about something, you’ve come to the wrong place I fear.

Watching Sacred Flesh is like listening to a staged debate on the nature of sexuality which is interrupted every five minutes to allow members of the audience to lick each other’s tits. It’s just thoroughly unsatisfying. Either give me a drama (preferably one with a much, much better script and less wooden acting) about psychosexual turmoil among medieval nuns - or give me 73 minutes of sexy lesbians. I don’t mind which.

MJS rating: C-

Review originally posted 14th March 2007