Sunday, 22 February 2015

The House of Him

Director: Robert Florence
Writer: Robert Florence
Producer: Joanne Daly
Cast: Richard Rankin, Louise Stewart, Kirsty Strain
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener

The House of Him is probably the best horror film you will see all year. A blistering combination of psychological, supernatural, social and violent horror motifs which not only works brilliantly but which constantly transcends itself to become more than you think it can be. Time and again, writer-director Robert Florence trips us up with something unexpected that makes us recontextualise all we have seen and heard so far. But The House of Him isn’t clever for its own sake, and it’s not just some continually unfolding mystery. This is a powerful, serious, thought-provoking film which really uses the horror genre in a way that few films do. Most horror movies play with the genre: its tropes and its themes and its iconography. But not The House of Him.

There are no easy answers here. This is a difficult film. There are a lot of answers certainly, but none of them are easy and most of them contradict at least some of the other answers. You will come away from this film with a head full of thoughts and doubts and imagery and concerns. This film will change you, at least in the short term. It will upset you, it will confuse you, it will frighten you. It will kneel on your chest and stroke your hair and tell you everything is alright in a voice that you don’t want to either trust or believe.

And yet, the whole thing is basically a two-hander, shot in a single location for under a thousand quid. Richard Rankin is magnificent as killer Croal, performing through a mask for more than half the film yet still letting us see what the character is thinking. Louise Stewart as the victim Anna gives a performance that, in any just world, where films are judged on their absolute quality rather than their budget, marketing or star value, would be laden with major awards. I’m sure all the actors nominated for tonight’s Oscars are very good, but their world of personal assistants and Winnebagos and magazine interviews is light years away from the real film industry where real actors turn in stunning performances in fiver-and-change productions. Even those film-makers who think they are ‘independent’ and ‘low budget’ are just another facet of the multi-million dollar, self-serving commercial clique which monopolises the media and pats itself on the back in Versace gowns.

Fuck the Academy Awards. Fuck Hollywood. Fuck the so-called ‘British film industry’ with its funding aparatchiks and luvvy-darling poseurs. Fuck the British Film Institute. Fuck Empire magazine and the press releases it calls features. Fuck the Baftas. Fuck everyone on Wardour Street. Fuck Netflix and LoveFilm and HMV. Fuck the Odeon and the Vue and the Showcase. Fuck the whole lot of them as they suck each other’s cocks and pretend they matter. Fuck the sheep who pay to see that shit and read about that shit and enjoy that shit. If you want to see real film-making, as raw and important and potentially life-changing as the first time you heard a single by the Clash, or realising there was one newsagent in your home town that stocked a comic called Viz, or Alexei Sayle throwing chairs at hecklers in the original Comedy Store at Raymond’s Revue Bar – if you want that sort of experience, then you need to watch The House of Him and other films like this. Give your Oscars and your Baftas to Robert Florence and Richard Rankin and Louise Stewart. Turn the world upside-down. Change your values. Change other people’s values. It will never happen, and it’s precisely because it will never happen that it should happen.

Angry? You bet your sweet bippy I’m angry. And confused. And bothered by all the ideas competing for attention in my wee cranium. That’s what we’re dealing with here. That’s what we’re dealing with, folks.

That’s what we’re dealing with.

At this point, I should probably calm down and describe the film, though it’s not easy because this is several films in one. At first, it appears to be a simple slasher movie, the opening scene giving us a glimpse of bloody, sharp violence as a masked man stabs a woman to death in a kitchen, witnessed by her friend. A single line of dialogue has already told us all we need to know about who these people are and where they are and why. The setting may be domestic but this isn’t domestic violence, and although The House of Him is on one important level a polemic against domestic abuse (positioning this film within the same subgenre as the recent The Devil’s Vice), it’s much, much more than that. It’s so much more.

Seeing her friend slain, Anna tries to effect an escape but the door is locked and all the windows are boarded up (with chipboard shelves from flatpack furniture). Croal’s pursuit of Anna through the house – the sort of bland, suburban semi that provides the setting for many of the better British horrors of recent years – resolves into a stand-off in which all the power is his. “I’m still going to kill you,” he assures her in his calm, Scottish burr. “But not right now.”

Throughout the second act, the balance of power gradually shifts, flowing back and forth but inexorably away from Croal and towards Anna. Much of this occurs through static conversations which Florence nevertheless manages to make gripping and dynamic through his (largely hand-held) camera-work. All of which leads into a nightmare-ish third act that sometimes teeters on the edge of abstract surrealism without ever toppling over. In less ambitious hands, this film could have been a simple revenge-thriller, but Florence has a grander view.

We never leave the house, but what we learn of the outside world, through a radio and occasional voices outside, suggests that something is happening globally, some form of mass hysteria turning people into crazed killers, attacking their loved ones. And for a while we think perhaps we’re watching the most blackly ironic of horror films: a woman trapped in a house with a psycho on the night when the world is suddenly full of psychos, her hopes of salvation crushed as surely as his hopes of infamy.

But, like the man in the suit says when he waves the £25,000 cheque in your face, we don’t want to give you that.

Because there is another layer to this film. This isn't the first murder committed by Croal in this house, and there are ghosts behind the walls and under the floor. Or at least, ‘ghosts’. Or maybe Ghosts. Or maybe things pretending to be ghosts, or things we would call ghosts, or maybe nothing at all. Or maybe they’re in his head. Or maybe they’re in her head. Or maybe they’re in all our heads.

A voice here, a movement there, a shadow there. Shadows really matter in this film. Florence’s lighting and camerawork (and editing) make what is in focus and out of focus, the foreground and the background and the light and the dark all part of a moving painting. Every shot is composed with a masterful hand. How literal are these ghosts? We don’t know. Does it matter? No, it does not. Just as it doesn’t matter whether the radio is telling us the truth, whether the global situation is something imagined or real or distorted. Is Croal imagining the ghosts? Is Anna imagining them? Are they imagining each other? Is this even a real house? Is there even a real outside?

Lots of questions. Questions tumbling over each other like pebbles in the surf, forming possible, potential answers just long enough for us to start to rationalise what we are seeing and hearing – before another wave sweeps it all away again.

The House of Him may be only 85 minutes long, but you need a lot more than 85 minutes set aside to watch it. The film needs to be seen in its entirety, undisturbed. Then you need to allow plenty of time afterwards to let the ideas sink in. To discuss them with the other members of the audience. Or, if you watched it alone, why not write a review, analysing what you have witnessed? Exorcise your demons. Change your values. Change other people’s values. Change other people. Throw the chairs. Buy the comic. Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.

Living south of the border, Robert Florence is a new name to me but apparently he is well known in Scotland as a comedy writer (sitcoms and sketches) and TV/online presenter, particularly in matters concerning video and board games. But it’s also clear that he knows and understands the horror genre, and this comes through abundantly in his debut feature, filmed in his mum’s house for £900.

Rankin and Stewart have worked with Florence on various projects as has Kirsty Strain who plays Sophie, stabbed in the opening scene. Strain was recently in Rachel Maclean’s horror short The Weepers, and Stewart was in Al Campbell’s 2011 zombie short Dead Wood. The supporting cast of voices and apparitions includes Amy E Watson who was also in a zombie short: Paul Michael Egan’s Pursuit of the Dead. That’s pretty much the extent of the players’ experience within this genre.

All the above plaudits notwithstanding, a significant part of the film’s success is the Carpenter-esque soundtrack by David Simpson (no relation) and Iain Cook, the latter of whom also scored a 2010 ‘audio movie’ production of The Dunwich Horror. Michelle Watson (Starcache) provided the FX make-up, some of which is very bloody when it needs to be.

A magnificent achievement by all concerned, The House of Him is absolutely, exactly everything that a horror film could (and should) be. It is also solidly 21st century and, in its suburban social realism, defiantly British and hence a perfect example of everything I have been banging on about all these years. Will it be seen for what it is, or will it be a forgotten gem, perhaps discovered in years to come when nostalgia for the British horror revival makes film fans realise what they lived through and missed? All I know is that this is a stunning horror movie that you absolutely must see.

Premiering to great acclaim at the Glasgow Film Fest in February 2014, The House of Him was released to Vimeo on Demand on Halloween that year (in a tighter edit, shorn of six minutes), with 10% of profits donated to women’s aid charities. In February 2015 it was picked up for VOD distribution by the canny folks at who kindly provided this screener, reinforcing their position as the go-to site for the very best in contemporary horror.

I struggled, I really did, throughout the writing of this review, over whether I should rate The House of Him as an A or an A+. I reserve the rare A rating for films that are perfect, which could not possibly be improved. The even rarer A+ is for films which seem to be perfect but actually, in defiance of all logic, go beyond that. Films which transcend themselves. I said at the top of the review that this film transcends itself, and I stand by that. And if I’m prepared to consider giving a film A+, and I can’t see any reason not to give it my highest rating, than I have to be true to my word. Bravo Robert and Richard and Louise and your colleagues. You have made one of the defining British horror movies of the modern era.

MJS rating: A+

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Zombie Resurrection

Directors: Jake Hawkins, Andy Phelps
Writers: Jake Hawkins, Andy Phelps
Producers: Jake Hawkins, Andy Phelps
Cast: Jim Sweeney, Joe Rainbow, Rachel Nottingham
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: screener

Every week there’s a new zombie film. Many of them are pretty much identical. Some of them are completely new and take the subgenre in different directions. Others are the standard zombie picture but with one distinct selling point. Zombie Resurrection falls into the third category, in that the bulk of the film is yet another motley collection of survivors trying to continue surviving, who then discover something new, but what they discover is something original that you won’t have seen in any previous zombie film (I think).

In any movie like this, the strength of the picture is the characters and the relationships between them. Zombie Resurrection does a great job here, somehow managing to introduce us to eight characters at the start of the film without leaving us confused. (There is a pre-credits sequence but it’s kind of dark and what I could see didn’t seem to relate to the main story so I’d skip over that if I were you.)

So: roll call. The nominal leader of the group is Major Gibson (Joe Rainbow: Stag Night of the Dead, Sisters Grimm, Night Junkies), a young officer in the TA (or whatever the Terriers are called now) who is, not to beat about the bush, an officious little twat. Outranked, but far more practical and pragmatic is foul-mouthed Glaswegian brick shit-house Sergeant MacTavish (Jim Sweeney: Idol of Evil).

Beaumont (Danny Brown) is a respectable middle-class family man with taped spectacles and a handy golf club, who keeps a protective eye on his teenage daughter Becca (Rachel Nottingham). As well he should because opportunist wet blanket Gandhi (Simon Burbage: Extinction, Tear Me Apart, Torn: A Shock Youmentary) has his eye on Becca too. Harden (Jade Colucci aka Jade Gatrell) is a potty-mouthed chav with a positive attitude who has formed an unlikely alliance with Beaumont and is therefore a sort of surrogate mother to Becca.

Then there’s Esther (diminutive, Zimbabwean Shamiso Mushambi), a heavily pregnant evangelical Christian given to explaining the apocalypse by spouting scripture (which, you know, almost makes sense). Finally there is Dr Sykes (Eric Colvin: ‘The Man’ in Adam Mason’s Broken), one of the scientists who created the virus that caused the zombies in the first place. He is being transported as a prisoner, in orange jumpsuit and chains.

This group of unlikely bedfellows are making their way across Britain on foot, heading for ‘Imperium’, the largest of the protected settlements which have been built up since the zombie virus destroyed civilisation about 15 months ago. Gibson is convinced that once they get there, Sykes will hang.

The zombies themselves are pathetic, in a literal sense. Emaciated, shuffling things which can be fairly easily destroyed with a well-aimed blow to the head, they don’t present much problem to the team and are colloquially referred to as ‘shitsacks’. A bite from one is still fatal, but it's pretty easy to avoid that bite under most circumstances.

When one of the group sustains a serious injury, they take temporary refuge in an abandoned school, which is where they encounter the first ‘fresh’ zombie – fast-moving and deadly – that they have seen for a long time. Sykes estimates it was turned less than a day ago. Further investigation reveals a large crowd of zombies, milling around a single male zombie who is some sort of zombie Jesus (Rupert Phelps), capable of bringing people back from the undead.

Now, truth be told this whole ‘zombie resurrection’ schtick (hence the title, which you might otherwise assume was just a generic phrase) is explained much more clearly in the synopsis on the film’s website than it ever is in the movie itself. I could get that the special zombie was special, and that some of the team witness a zombie turning back into a person, but the details are a bit vague. A female survivor located within the school (Georgina Winters, who had a bit part in Jupiter Ascending) is, I guess, supposed to fill us in on what’s happening but, again, what I learned about her from the online publicity was significantly more than I got from the actual film.

It’s clear that Jake Hawkins and Andy Phelps have worked out something clever and original here, but they’ve been a little too obtuse in showing that to the audience. Not to worry, because Zombie Resurrection is nevertheless a tremendously entertaining picture. The first half is darkly comic with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Later on, as members of the team start to fall away, things get a bit more serious, but the transition is smooth and effective.

Solid acting from all concerned makes us care about these people (even Gibson) and skilful direction keeps the story flowing as the character development, ah, develops. We are told enough about the post-apocalyptic world to understand what is going on, but not so much that we get laden down with back story.

Zombie Resurrection is the debut of Phelps and Hawkins who share ‘directed, produced and written by’ although Phelps alone is credited with ‘screenplay’. Hawkins was the DP, a role he previously handled on a micro-short called Zombeez. Robbie Drake (The Seasoning House, Cockneys vs Zombies, Evil Calls) designed the prosthetic make-up which was applied by Heidi Clarke. The cast also includes Kate Korbel (File Box, Piggy) and Ian McIntyre (who was in an episode of Red Dwarf) plus P&H themselves among the zombies. Several BHR names get thanked in the credits including Johannes Roberts and Jim Eaves.

Filmed back in September 2011, Zombie Resurrection had a brace of cast and crew screenings in November 2012. The movie emerged onto DVD in October of 2013 – but only in Japan. It took until March 2015 to find a UK release through Left Films. (Confusingly, a film called Zombie Resurrection has already been released in Germany, which is actually the 2010 Danish picture Opstandelsen. That was released in the USA as A Zombie Exorcism and in the Netherlands as The Resurrection. There is also an unrelated online game called Zombie Resurrection)

I can honestly say that I really enjoyed Zombie Resurrection. In this day and age one tends to have low expectations for zombie pictures, especially if they have such seemingly generic titles. Consequently, when one encounters a well-written, well-directed, well-produced feature with some original ideas, interesting characters and a solid mixture of fun and thrills, it’s a pleasant surprise.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Scar Tissue

Director: Scott Michell
Writer: Scott Michell
Producer: Michael Riley
Cast: Danny Horn, Charity Wakefield, Imogen Bain
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: screener

Scar Tissue is a stylish, well-made movie based around an intriguing, clever premise, with a bunch of notable, talented names in the credits, which spends an hour building up mystery and atmosphere – then throws it all away in a final act which could charitably be called ‘unsatisfying’. As such, it’s one of those films which raises an interesting artistic question: should I be extra-disappointed because I was sold a dummy, or should I be thankful that I at least got 60 minutes of entertainment out of the disc?

Danny Horn - who was in episodes of Doctor Who and MI High - stars as Luke, a young man (I’m not sure we ever find out what he does) who gets mixed up in a murder case after he finds a female friend in his bathtub, her corpse brutally disfigured. Quickly going on the lam (and the police don’t really seem to put much effort into tracking him down, to be honest), Luke teams up with Sam, a suspended WPC whom he locates via mysterious footage on his mobile phone.

With her scruffy bob of dyed blonde hair, permanent angry pout and determination to stick her nose in where she’s not wanted, Sam (played by Charity Wakefield, who was a maid in the John Cusack The Raven and Anne Boleyn’s sister in Wolf Hall) is inescapably reminiscent of Elfie Hopkins. She is on suspension for being ‘unstable’ but really doesn’t come across as the sort of person who would ever have passed out of Police Training College. No matter. That’s not the film’s problem.

The set-up is this. Twenty years ago, when Sam was five, her older sister was brutally murdered by serial killer Edward Jansen (Pete Lee-Wilson in flashbacks; his eclectic CV includes Blade II and Tibor Takacs’ Spiders 3D) who was subsequently cornered and shot dead by police. Now the killer is back: not just the same MO but DNA samples from the girl in the bath tub confirm it’s him. But how could that be when Edward Jansen has been dead these past two decades? Sam’s former colleagues DI Hackman (a gritty performance from Mark Cameron, who was also a copper in a run of Corrie episodes back in 2007) and his nemesis forensic pathologist Mo (Imogen Bain – formerly Dame Edna’s daughter! – having a whale of a time) respectively pumped the killer full of lead and sliced him up on a table. Just like Jacob Marley, Jansen was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

This gripping premise is, the astute among you may have spotted, not dissimilar to the plot of Nature Morte and in fact a reference to the Marseilles Police made me wonder whether writer-director Scott Michell was tipping his hat to Paul Burrows’ film, though it may just be coincidence of course. One thing that both Scar Tissue and Nature Morte do have in common is a clear stylistic homage to giallo movies. I found myself speculating that, although parts of the film seemed to make little sense, any film using this plot which had been made in Italy in the late 1970s would be considered a minor masterpiece. Alas, horror fans tend to operate on nostalgic double standards and are often less forgiving of films which don’t tick the box marked ‘rosy glow of adolescent memories’.

So anyway, I was very much enjoying Scar Tissue. Sam and Luke discover a shared connection to a canal bridge which deepens the mystery further. DI Hackman grows more exasperated. Mo dispenses sardonic, pitch-black bon-mots. A shady figure in a hat hangs around in the background. And a severed hand turns up in a lap-dancing club, adding further layers to the mystery by carrying DNA traces of another murderer who is still in the same prison she was sent to 20 years ago.

These killers can’t possibly be operating again – one’s incarcerated, one’s dead – and yet the forensic evidence leaves no doubt that they are. It’s the sort of explanation-defying impossible mystery that wouldn’t disgrace Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple (if either had still been detecting when DNA fingerprinting was invented, about 200 yards from my current office, in 1985). If Hackman was the central character, this would be a police procedural; instead he provides a counterpoint to Sam and Luke’s investigations. Sam’s connection with all this is clear: the bastard murdered her sister so she has a personal interest in bringing him to justice (again). But what is Luke’s connection? Who put that footage onto his phone? Who is that behatted guy in the background? What the jiminy is going on?

Unfortunately, in the third act Michell explains and shows us what’s going on. The explanations are dispensed through tedious, static dialogue, interrupted occasionally by scenes that would show us stuff if it wasn’t too dark to make out who we’re looking at, what they’re doing and where they are. This latter problem particularly irked me because up to that point I had been really impressed with the cinematography by Alan Dunlop (who also lit lost 2001 British horror anthology Dead Room.)

The actual solution to the riddle turns out to be a bit of loopy sci-fi hokum that jars with the horror-thriller we’ve spent the last hour watching. Sam and three other people (whom we don’t really know or care about) are kidnapped and forced to relay messages from the killer through video links to a screen in an old hospital where they are witnessed by Luke and two other people we don’t really know or care about. The revelation of the killer’s identity is a squib so damp you could wash your face with it: basically it’s someone else we don’t really know or care about. He pulls off his mask as Luke says his name – and this viewer, for one, just stared at the screen and said, “Who?”

It’s a double whammy of disappointment: a revelation that doesn’t support the big, mysterious build-up, delivered in a way that alternates between laboriously clunky and murkily indistinct. It’s also dragged out way too long after the mask comes off whoever that is, with too many scenes of people shooting at each other in the gloom that mean nothing to the viewer because we can’t see who everyone is and in some cases still wouldn’t know who they were if the lights were on. In particular, I still have absolutely no idea whatsoever who that guy in the hat was. Seriously. Was he a cop? Who was he working with/for? What did he know? Who did he know? Where did he come from? What was he trying to do? Did he succeed? What happened to him? It was fine when he was just another level of giallo-esque mystery, but if there was any explanation, I missed it. Was there even a guy in a hat? Did I dream that bit?

While we’re at it, the decision to cast two (possibly more?) supporting characters with actors who look superficially like the lead – same age, same build, same haircut – adds just another layer of unintentional confusion to a story which is already full of deliberate contradictions and red herrings and really doesn’t need any more. Would it have killed ya to cast a Token Black Guy? Plus… okay I’m spoiler-protecting the next paragraph.

[spoilers on] Okay, so Luke, who has just turned 21, is a clone of Edward Jansen. But if Jansen was killed 20 years ago, how did they get hold of his DNA before that? To be fair, the film's original poster design refers to Jansen being killed 22 years ago. Mind you, the website synopsis says he died 25 years ago and that Luke has just turned 22, which raises the original problem that somehow the cloning scientists got hold of Jansen before the police did. Also, the plot depends on Sam and Hackman, who both have a long-term interest in the Jansen case, failing to spot that Luke is a dead ringer for Hansen as a young man. NB. While I refer to Matthew as the unmasked killer up there (and below), that is for spoiler protection purposes. I’m aware (at least, I think I am) that Luke killed Caz. But why? How? Was he drunk at the time? Does he have blackouts? Is this a Jekyll and Hyde thing? Beats the hell out of me. And presumably therefore the severed hand discovered by the lapdancer was from someone actually killed by the lapdancer, who is also a clone (as is the assistant pathologist). Or were there two different lapdancers? Who the hell knows? [spoilers off]

I can see what Scott Michell has tried to do with Scar Tissue, and he demonstrates a solid ability to put a guy in a tree and have him fall out of it in a way that is worth watching. But when we go to see if the guy is alive or dead in act three, the film just crumbles. Michell has created a plot so complex, with so many characters on the periphery who then turn out to have some significance, that wrapping it all up just creates a tangled bird’s nest when we are looking for, if not a neat bow, at least a reasonable granny knot.

Yeah, I think I’m stretching that metaphor a bit far. Moving on.

If the third act had been kept simple, with a bleak, shocking revelation of the killer’s identity, I think the viewer would be more accepting of the frankly daft solution to the mystery. But by throwing far too much into the final 40 minutes (which really should have been about 20-25) Michell leaves the viewer confused and unsatisfied and grasping for whatever bits of plot they can actually work out, chief among which is the bonkers key revelation, standing out in stark relief against what has up till then been a dark, brooding, twisty-turny thriller.

The above notwithstanding, the leads all turn in fine performances, as do the rest of the cast which includes Daniel Fraser (from under-appreciated sitcom Lab Rats), Shaun Dingwall (Rose’s dad in Doctor Who, also in The Forgotten and Hush), Steve Campbell (The Planet), Nathalie Cox (Clash of the Titans, Exam), Tim Faraday (the cloned cleaner in Primeval, also in Harvest of the Dead), Helen George (Call the Midwife’s Trixie), Lisa McAllister (Pumpkinhead 3), Sarah Strong (Colin) and Chris Cowlin (who has played at least 40 different policemen in the last three years, including in EastEnders, Silent Witness, Lewis and Muppets Most Wanted) plus child actors Ceyda Mustafa (Tower Block), Flynn Allen (The Eschatrilogy) and Lois Ellington in a particularly challenging role. Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley, who directed his own BHR entry with Greetings) provides a certain amount of name value for cult movie fanboys.

This is Scott Michell’s second feature following (at a considerable distance) his 1996 thriller The Innocent Sleep (which he produced but didn’t write). A number of key personnel worked on both films. Scar Tissue was produced by Michael Riley of Sterling Pictures who previously brought us Vampire Diary and The Seasoning House, two tentpoles of the British Horror Revival which Scar Tissue is sadly unable to match. Another behind-the-scenes stalwart of British horror, Tim Dennison (Lighthouse, Silent Cry, Evil Aliens, Room 36) is credited as co-producer.

The ever-reliable Paul Hyett, currently busy in post on his werewolf-on-a-train picture Howl, designed the make-up effects, which are suitably bloody and nasty. The excellent score was composed by Doctor Who alumnus Mark Ayres – whom I recall once showing me the original reel of 1960s audio tape containing the actual Who theme in its earliest format (I know I try not to be a fanboy, but some things just resonate…). Production designer John-Paul Frazer, who does a cracking job on the murder scenes, was art director on The Seasoning House and Airborne, and also designed Hollow and My Name is Sarah Hayward. Matthew Strange (Kill List, The Reverend, Strippers vs Werewolves, Truth or Dare, The Zombie King) is credited with special effects, and Jason de Vyea (various gigs on Hollow, Kill Keith, Stalker, Dead Cert and Just for the Record) with the visual effects.

Shot in October/November 2011 and carrying a 2012 copyright date, Scar Tissue premiered at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in September 2013 then seemed to disappear off the radar for a bit and I can't find any other festival dates. It was announced for a UK theatrical release in July 2014 with DVD/VOD a week or two later. In the event, the brief theatrical outing was bumped slightly to August and the small screen release to February 2015 (the disc includes a trailer and a Making Of).

A fine cast and crew plus good production values, alas, will never overcome a muddled and unfocused screenplay, even when directed with undeniable skill and panache. If the illumination in the third act had been more literal and less expositional (in short: less yacking, more lighting) and if the story and characters had been pared back to basics, Scar Tissue could have been as good as the promise made by its first two acts. This is a decent film which frustrates, rather than a poor one which disappoints. But that’s still not a good thing.

MJS rating: B-

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

interview: Russell England

After I reviewed Unhallowed Ground, director Russell England kindly answered a few email questions for me in February 2015.

How did you get the job to direct Unhallowed Ground?
"Producer Neville Raschid had seen my short film Welcome to Leathermill and we’d been talking about funding the full-length feature Leathermill. He was in the middle of developing Unhallowed Ground as a low-budget horror feature, but already had a director attached.  Neville did however use my casting director recommendation, Jane Deitch. She tipped me off when the other director left the project! Neville had thought I was busy, but I changed my plans to be available for his shoot (which had to film over the summer, due to the availability of the chosen location). I had also directed four ‘true-life’ horror drama-docs for the SyFy USA series Paranormal Witness, which Neville liked, so I think that’s how I got the job..."

Why is now the right time for you to move into features, and why did you select Unhallowed Ground as your debut?
"It’s a truism that every director has a feature script in their back pocket and I certainly have mine. I’ve been trying to get Leathermill off the ground for a couple of years, but as everyone knows, it is really tough getting funding, especially as a first-time director. I really liked Paul Raschid's script and Neville’s project was fully-funded, with a locked-down shooting schedule, ready to go. I jumped at the opportunity."

How much directorial independence did you have, given that the writer was one of the actors and his dad was the producer?
"We discussed this a lot. There were certainly healthy creative tensions. I impressed upon Paul that he would need to fully commit to his acting when he was on set, and put aside the writing role. He did this admirably - really throwing himself into the role of Rishi. I felt they both gave me the independence I needed during the shoot."

How important was the location to the film?
"Very important - it was a stunning location. I was keen to make it another character in the film. It has 350 years of history weighing heavily upon its shoulder, so every part of the school needs to give off this vibe. It was quite tough at times, as there are added-on steel and new glass bits, but I managed to mostly avoid these - the dark is quite useful! Mill Hill School in North London is set in 28 acres, with the junior school opposite (which became the girls’ school) - it’s just vast. Paul actually added scenes after seeing certain locations at the school - it just gave us so much scope."

What are you most proud of on the finished film, and what would you change if you could?
"I’m really proud of the cast. Everyone really came together, bonded and delivered. Hopefully the audience will also enjoy the look and pace of the film, and buy-in to the fantasy. As to what would I change? You’ll just have to wait for Unhallowed Ground - The Director’s Cut!"

What other projects do you have lined up?
"Something completely different. I’m currently making a television documentary for BBC2 about an unsung code-breaking hero of Bletchley Park, who fell-foul of GCHQ and the NSA and died in ignominy. I’m also developing three feature scripts: Leathermill and two more horror films, one based on a true story."

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Girl

Director: Simon Black
Writer: Simon Black
Producer: Nigel Wingrove
Cast: Hannah Short, Mark Blackwell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Are you sexually aroused by launderettes, Rubik’s cubes and Alphabetti Spaghetti? Then here is the film you’ve been waiting for. An avant-garde, black and white, surreal, arty, erotic horror about one young woman’s descent into madness. (Or something.)

There was a time, many years ago, when I might have poured scorn on such a film, calling it ‘pretentious’ and mocking individual elements. But we’re all more mature than we were, and though A Girl undoubtedly does exhibit pretentions I don’t think that makes it a bad thing or worthy of mockery. It’s trying to do something new, something different, something outside of the mainstream pablum that passes for entertainment, even within the field of indie horror cinema, and I think it’s achieving what it sets out to do. With an uncritical critical eye, one can certainly judge that director Simon Black knows what he’s doing. The cinematographic conceits – monochrome imagery, extreme close-ups, lengthy sequences of inaction – are deliberate choices. The man knows how to photograph an actor on a set and how to construct a feature-length picture from that photography – and he does it very well.

But, you know, don’t come here if you’re looking for a scary thrill ride. Or indeed, if you’re looking for sexy fun time.

A Girl is bleak, highly artistic, challenging and only ‘erotic’ if you have very specialised, unconventional tastes. So welcome back to Redemption Films and the extraordinary cinematic oeuvre of Mr Nigel Wingrove!

Redemption is of course best known as a distributor. Launched in 1993, the company’s VHS (and later, DVD) sleeves used arty, black and white photographs in place of traditional, lurid, exploitation artwork, instantly marking out Redemption as a cut above its competitors. (Many of those sleeve photos featured Wingrove’s then-girlfriend, Eileen Daly, and a couple of them are actually Emily Booth.)

Less well-known are the company’s (and Wingrove’s) forays into original production. Before launching Redemption, Nigel made three arty short films in the late 1980s: Axel, Visions of Ecstacy and Faustine. The first had a soundtrack by Danielle Dax and the other two featured music by sometime Banshee Steve Severin, who later scored Nature Morte and London Voodoo and is currently working on Borley Rectory for Ashley Thorpe.  Of course, it was Visions which achieved notoriety when the BBFC banned it on the unique grounds of ‘blasphemy’ (a move which has lately been rescinded).

Ten years later, with Redemption riding high as part of the Salvation Group of companies/labels, Wingrove had a crack at a proper, feature-length horror movie and the result was Sacred Flesh. No-one (who knows such things) could deny that the film is historically interesting, perhaps even important, but it would be a stretch to call it ‘good’ or even ‘watchable’. Nigel had plans for a whole slate of features (I deal with this in some detail in Urban Terrors) but none ever happened.

In the 21st century, Nigel Wingrove’s willingness to embrace the unconventional, avant-garde and ‘not obviously commercial’ has seen him distribute some of the most interesting films of the British horror revival, including Penetration Angst, Nature Morte and Dominator, as well as overseas titles like Aquarium and The Shunned House. In 2004, being an astute entrepreneur who knows his niche market, he came up with the idea of the ‘Satanic Sluts’, a loose collective of fetish models/performers who were featured in three subsequent videos and a coffee table book (a description I use in a purely objective sense to mean ‘large, and full of glossy photos’ as I suspect most of the book’s readers are not the sort of people who own coffee tables).

With the best will in the world, I really can’t include those three original Satanic Sluts videos in the master list of the BHR because they’re not really ‘films’ as such. The first, The Black Order Cometh, is (I understand – I haven’t watched these things, dear God!) a collection of performance vignettes interspersed with short interviews with the young ladies in question. This was followed by The Black Masses which was a documentary record of live performances given by the Sluts at some goth/fetish gathering.

Then, in October 2008, Wingrove had a stroke of luck when Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand managed to get themselves into trouble by telling Andrew Sachs that Brand had fucked his grand-daughter. The tabloids pretty quickly discovered that said grand-daughter, Georgina Baillie, was also known as Voluptua, a member of the Satanic Sluts (which, let’s face it, was a brand name that could only ever have been invented with a view to baiting the tabloids anyway). Suddenly far, far more people had heard of the Sluts than could ever have been reached by Redemption’s own marketing.

(As an aside, I once met Andrew Sachs at a radio show recording. A thoroughly nice and decent bloke, who I think managed to come out of ‘Sachsgate’ with his dignity intact. The closest I have been to meeting Jonathan Ross was being at the British Comics Awards when he was host. I think the SFX crew went on stage at one point to receive or present something, but that part of the evening was being compered by Paul Gambaccini.  Ross is of course a huge comics fan (as indeed is Gambaccini) and a devotee of trashy horror films, even having his own British horror credit with a cameo in Pervirella. Plus his wife Jane Goldman wrote the hugely successful (and hugely awful) The Woman in Black for NuHammer. I’ve never been in the same room as Russell Brand, have never watched, heard or read anything he has done, have no particular desire to do so, and as far as I am concerned his only genuine contribution to the world was in briefly distracting Katy Perry from singing.)

Anyway, it’s an ill wind etc and Nigel Wingrove took advantage of the free publicity to release a third Satanic Sluts video, Scandalized. Like the first, it was a loose collection of goth/fetish/S&M vignettes, linked by the concept of Voluptua dreaming about media scandals. I’m sure it appealed to its target audience. For horror completists, one of the segments features “crazed vampire witches and weird Ouija games turning girls mad” – but that’s still not enough for me to consider it as a legitimate entry in the BHR.

Well, now the Satanic Sluts are back, and Redemption have a staggering list of 19 future titles in various stages of production/development, some of which have allegedly already been released in the Netherlands. The difference is that at least some of these ‘Satanic Sluts Second Generation’ DVDs are actual feature-length narrative movies, although on the basis of A Girl the term ‘narrative’ should be interpreted loosely. Wingrove is producing the films but not directing all of them.

Volumes 4 and 5 are going to be called Sexterminate and The Sluttification of Alice, with A Girl released first but numerically postdating them as vol.6. Simon Black is also working on vol.10, The Girl with the Orange Nails, about a witch who creates magic nail varnish that turns good girls into sex-crazed nymphos, also starring Hannah Short. Before that will arrive Red Kiss, She Comes in Colours and Dawn of the Slut (which is just a three-disc repackaging of the original vids). I don’t know anything yet about those other titles and I’m not expecting them to be horror films (although I suspect Sexterminate may have some sci-fi elements…). However, some of the later titles definitely will be horror (if they get made) including Ghoul Girls, The Black House (a loose adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher) and, seriously, I was a Frankenstein Nymphomaniac Girl.

Having watched A Girl (and it is curiously, compellingly watchable – feel free to put that on the sleeve, Nige!) I’m inclined to consider it a British horror film because the story, loose though that is, concerns a descent into madness and self-destruction. Combine that with the Redemption marketing and it’s enough to meet my personal criteria (though either factor alone wouldn’t necessarily be sufficient).

Hannah Short stars as ‘Pearl’ in what is almost a solo performance. We meet her in a launderette where she is washing a single, dark item of clothing. This sequence takes up a full ten per cent of the movie’s 75 minute running time but, as evidence of Black’s directorial skill, it is more interesting (certainly less tedious) than many other opening sequences of similar length films that don’t have this one’s artistic ambitions.

Pearl favours old-fashioned, demure dresses but has a pierced septum. All we can see at this stage is the nose ring, but we shall later discover further piercings and at least three large tattoos. Oh, these modern girls. (Although curiously she doesn’t wear ear-rings, not even studs.)

After returning to her sparsely furnished but scrupulously clean flat, Pearl calls her bank on the phone, one of the few pieces of dialogue in a soundtrack which mostly consists of discordant electronica and ‘found sound’ (generally pre-war recordings, intended to contrast with the visuals, including a couple of songs in the distinctive, fabulous tones of the great Sophie Tucker).

Well, google her and learn something.

Pearl is evidently on her uppers financially, although one can’t help thinking that if money is tight she shouldn’t be going to the launderette to wash a single item. Especially as we can see she has a washing machine at home. Maybe she gets off in a launderette atmosphere, although she doesn’t lean or sit on the washing machine and let’s face it, launderette machines tend to be well bolted down and so don’t provide the same vibratory thrill.

Pearl is a good girl, although not so good that she hasn’t had the piercings and tatts done. She has no obvious source of income (hence the financial straits in which she finds herself) although we do later find out that she has in the past written and painted. She’s in the middle of doing some washing up when a voice addresses her through a small radio, claiming to be Jesus. The voice encourages her to be more assertive, more sexual and ultimately more debased and degraded. And thus begins her descent into madness. Or erotica, depending on your own perspective.

We’re about halfway through this short feature before we get the first hint of anything even vaguely raunchy, a bath scene skilfully constructed by director Black using overlapping imagery. After which a freshly charged Pearl calls back the bank manager (Or does she? We have no way of knowing if there’s anyone on the other end of the line) and tells him what she thinks he wants to do to her. And I have to say here that, whether it was written by Black or improvised by Short, one of the very best lines of dialogue I have ever heard in a movie is this: “You want to fuck me like you fucked me with your overdraft charges.” Genius, I telya.

Later on we see Pearl, with lacy blouse, PVC corset and gloves, six-inch stilletos and nipple clamps, gyrating in front of a mirror. In contrast to this formal, starched and shiny attire, we also see her on a filthy mattress in a cellar, naked and smeared in blood as she cavorts with various raw meat products (including a jaw-dropping use of an uncooked chicken which I suspect may have required the poor sod at the BBFC who got this one to hit rewind and check what they had just seen). On the other hand, we also see her, again dressed in a prim and demure manner, strolling around a park after finding a briefcase on a bandstand. To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you what eventually turns out to be inside it.

There’s a scene of Pearl writing obscenities on her face, backwards, so that they are readable in her bathroom mirror (contrasting with an earlier shot of her in the same place, washing her face and cleaning her teeth). There’s a quite lengthy sequence in which a middle-aged man (Mark Blackwell) comes to see Pearl, expressing concern at her reclusiveness. It wasn’t clear whether he was a friend or relative and it was only when the end credits rolled that I discovered Blackwell plays ‘The Neighbour’. (Short is credited as ‘The Girl’.) Later Pearl walks past a church and by the film’s end she’s acrobatically cavorting on her kitchen floor with a wooden cross.

Or, as the Redemption marketing blurb puts it: “Includes a number of disturbing and erotically charged scenes in which the diminutive Hannah Short uses her body and sexuality to challenge and arouse the viewer in equal measure.” Personally I felt more challenged than aroused but then I’m not the target audience, am I?

There clearly is a target audience for this sort of thing. For all his work releasing good quality, complete versions of old horror movies, Wingrove has built much of his career around creating and packaging product for, well, the sort of people who buy Satanic Sluts videos. Simon Black has previously made a bunch of shorts under the banner ‘Eat Cake and Worship Satan Films’ which even from this distance I can see are targeting the same sort of folk. (Realistically, all the Christian, Satanic, Nazi and sexual imagery in these films comes across as a wee bit infantile though, doesn’t it? It’s not making any sort of socio-political or cultural point, it’s just sticking its pierced tongue out behind someone’s back. Actually, that’s probably why I found A Girl relatively satisfying, in that its artistic pretentions compensated for, and to some extent provided a rationale for, the non-shocking ‘shocking’ imagery and themes.)

Simon Black does seem to have made one previous feature, The Vampire Controller, in which a black magician uses two sexy female vampires to seduce a priest (played by Mark Blackwell). This was self-distributed via his blog in a limited edition in July 2014; you may still be able to pick up a copy from the director (ecaws93) on eBay.

I can’t find out anything about Hannah Short, and I don’t know who provides the voice of Radio Jesus, though I assume it’s either Black or Wingrove. The only other name in the credits is David Palser, who created the titles.

Originally slated for November 2014 and bearing a 2014 copyright date, Redemption released A Girl on UK DVD in January 2015, passed uncut 18 by the Beeby-Efsy. The double-sided sleeve features either a still from the lace top/PVC gloves mirror dance sequence or a shot that’s not in the finished film of Short/Pearl in a lacy black top with a white Lord Fauntleroy collar, caressing a dildo. The disc includes a stills gallery and a Black/Short short film from 2014 entitled Tar Rot, which I haven’t seen.

One final point which needs to be made is that Hannah Short is very, very good in this film. Aside from the conversation with the neighbour, she carries the whole thing on her own, largely without dialogue, monologue, narration or even diegetic sound. Yet we get a real feel for Pearl as a person. Short never seems to be ‘going through the motions’ in either the sexual or non-sexual scenes. It’s a fine showcase for her talent… just not one that you could necessarily show to a casting director.

MJS rating: B+

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Dead Still

Director: Philip Anthony Booth
Writer: Philip Anthony Booth
Producers: Christopher Saint Booth, Phillip B Goldfine, Pejman Partiyeli
Cast: Ben Browder, Ray Wise, Elle LaMont
Country: USA
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener

It would be wrong of me to suggest that Dead Still is, by any reasonable set of standards, a good film. I would be a damned liar if I implied that it is in any way scary or entertaining, or that it gripped me to any measurable degree. And I would certainly be bound for Hell if I were to let you believe, for just one moment, that anything in this film makes a lick of sense.

Having said all that…

Dead Still does at least have an original premise. And it is not insultingly stupid. And you know, there are precious few SyFy original movies that can tick both those boxes.

The idea of a haunted camera is a distinctly groovy one – and surprisingly unexplored. A quick google turned up only a series of three Goosebumps paperbacks called Say Cheese – and Die! So I was intrigued to see what writer-director Philip Anthony Booth could do with it.

Apparently, what he could do with it is just knock it around with a baseball bat for a bit then throw it hard at a wall and hope that it somehow sticks in a way that creates a picture. Which it doesn’t. Dead Still clearly thinks it has some sort of narrative but really it’s just a random jumble of stuff, much of which either comes out of nowhere or goes nowhere. Or both.

Ben Browder, off of Stargate and Farscape, plays Brandon Davis, a jobbing wedding photographer who lives and works in a large, rambling shack that looks, from the inside, like a bunch of painted wooden flats in a film studio. When he was a kid, his father dropped him off somewhere and then crashed his car and died in a way that somehow traumatised Brandon, except it didn’t and that seems to have no bearing on anything at all in the story, except to explain why Brandon inherits his grandfather’s house directly.

In among the items in this creepy old mansion is an antique camera (and presumably a supply of unused glass plates – although we never see these or the large bag required to carry them around, possibly because the writer didn’t think it through). This camera – and indeed the movie - is concerned in some way with ‘death photography’.

Death photography was a real thing. There was a fashion in Victorian times to take photographs of the recently deceased, dressed and groomed and posed in a lifelike fashion. Child mortality being extremely high, even among the wealthy, this was a way in which families could preserve a memory of a dead baby or child. Often the parents or siblings would pose with the deceased, who might be arranged as if sleeping or resting, or propped up with some sort of brace. You can find some examples of death photography on the web and they are definitely very, very creepy. You can see why a horror film-maker might want to do something with this genuinely unnerving historical phenomenon.

If only Philip Anthony Booth knew what he wanted to do with it.

It seems that Brandon’s ancestor Wenton Davis (Ray Wise: Swamp Thing, original RoboCop, Twin Peaks) was a celebrated death photographer, and this has somehow cursed this antique camera, which Brandon starts using to take both professional and family snaps, starting with a random homeless guy he drags in off the street. Because you would, wouldn’t you?

The pictures, which are hung up on strings in Brandon’s dark room, despite the fact that they ought to be on heavy glass plates, show the subjects as damaged, tortured souls, although this isn’t discovered - by Brandon’s goth girlfriend/assistant Ivy Monroe (Elle LaMont: Machete Kills, From Dusk Till Dawn TV series) – until after a newlywed couple and two of their guests have died in hideous ways. As indeed does Ivy. In a particularly stupid scene, Brandon comes home to find cops in his house who simply lift up a sheet corner and ask him if he knows the deceased. Yes, that’s what happens at murder scenes.

Wenton’s soul has somehow become trapped inside the camera, as some sort of punishment for the death photographs he took. Because, for some reason, instead of using real corpses, he photographed living people who were drugged to appear dead and, as a result, died. Some of these subjects suffered further: one is shown having large, visible clamps screwed onto his head so hard that blood dribbles down his face. Another is covered in leeches.

What the hell? The whole point of death photography was to make the dead appear to be still alive. What was Wenton trying to achieve by making living people appear dead? What did he actually achieve, apart from killing them in the process, thereby rendering the whole thing moot? What the hell is going on, and why?

Brandon is separated from his wife Jenna (Carrie Lazar: Gingerdead Man 3) and they have a curiously effeminate eleven-year-old son Bobby (Gavin Casalegno: Noah) who is mute and converses in a Stephen Hawking voice via a speak’n’spell app on an iPad. When Bobby is alone with the camera, he is tricked (presumably by the ghost of Wenton, who is inside the camera) into standing in front of the lens. The camera takes a photo by itself which sucks Bobby inside it, into ‘the negative zone’. Which is not in any way, manner or respect actually negative. It’s not filmed negatively, nothing is the wrong colour or back to front or anything. Just one more random idea thrown into the mix without any thought or planning.

Meanwhile Brandon has gone back to his grandfather’s house where he finds a strange young woman (Natalie Mejer) lighting candles around a quasi-Satanic symbol on the floor. She tells him what is going on, because she knows, because she is a direct descendant of one of Wenton’s victims, who died when she was a little girl, which doesn’t make any sense or anything. Seriously, what the hell? And who is she anyway? And how did she get in? And why?

Brandon then somehow gets himself inside the negative zone where he somehow rescues Bobby from the clutches of Wenton, along with the Victorian girl (Evelyn Boyle: Sorority Horror House) who was the strange woman’s ancestor who is alive in there. Whereas the rest of Wenton’s victims are dead and are now represented by a completely random selection of admittedly nasty and creepy horror make-ups.

Seriously, absolutely not one thing in this film makes any sense at all. I haven’t even mentioned Professor McKlaren (Eric Ruff, overacting so much you wonder whether he took the role for a bet), an old tutor of Brandon’s who is writing a biography of Wenton. Ivy meets him in an antiques shop where he is also a customer, then later breaks into the shop after dark to speak with him (so, what, he owns the place now?). But he’s not there, but then he is, and later he is possessed by the camera (which he has never been within half a mile of) and starts chopping his fingers off with a cigar cutter.

What. The. Absolute. Fuck.

Let’s also chuck into the mix not one but two scenes where people open padlocks by simply sticking a straight bit of metal into the keyhole and waggling it a bit. And the camera, or possibly Wenton’s ghost, possessing Bobby’s iPad and making it say creepy things. And the movie’s obsession with the word ‘destiny’. And spooky voices everywhere saying, "Memento mori." And, and, and… oh I give up.

Dead Still takes an original, intriguing, historical, creepy concept and totally pisses it up the wall with a mishmash of random horror ideas that only intersect when they take the trouble to contradict each other.

Not helping matters is Booth’s directorial style which is jumpy and jittery and so packed with micro-flashbacks to things either before the film or previously seen that it would be almost impossible to follow what was going on even if something coherent was actually going on. Seriously, this is such a pip-packed pomegranate of flashbacks that I would estimate at least 10-15 minutes of the 85-minute running time is stuff we have already seen, jarringly inserted into the film to remind us that we already saw it about 20 minutes earlier.

Philip Adrian Booth and his identical twin brother Christopher Saint Booth are ‘the Booth Brothers’, a film-making duo who have between them crafted a dozen or so previous features including Children of the Grave, Soul Catcher, Death Tunnel, Ghouls Gone Wild, The Exorcist File, Children of the Grave 2 and a bundle more you haven’t heard of either. Posters for a couple of these are on the wall of Brandon’s apartment because, why not. Alongside writing and directing (I use both terms loosely), PA Booth handled cinematography, editing (with Adam Michael Johnson) and digital effects. CS Booth was one of three producers and was also responsible for the production design, which is pretty much painted hardboard flats throughout, even in the negative zone, some of the costume design and the music. In fact, he’s quite an experienced composer, having spent the 1990s providing soundtracks (under the pseudonym ‘Saint’) for pornos including a couple of Ginger Lynn Allen lingerie videos and a Traci Lords workout vid (!). I have actually seen at least one of the titles on his filmography, an Asia Carerra flick from 2000 called Search for the Snow Leopard. It had a wafer-thin narrative about women turning into cats when they weren’t having sex (or something), but it still made more sense than Dead Still.

Ben Browder, who was also in that Doctor Who western episode, is one of a small army of producers, variously executive, associate and co-. The cast also includes Steffie Grote (House of the Witchdoctor, American Vampire), Han Soto (Ghost Shark, Ender’s Game, Fantastic Four redux) and Corey Mendell Parker (Spider-Man, Scream 2) plus two boys credited as ‘Bully #1 and #2’, suggesting there’s a cut scene somewhere of Bobby being teased. I know characterisation is important but seriously, that’s not what this movie needed to save it….

First broadcast in October 2014, Dead Still was released to VOD in February 2015 but is not yet available on DVD anywhere. Some people might enjoy it: Ben Browder fangirls will wet their pants and undiscriminating gorehounds will relish some surprisingly gruesome deaths. But none of them will have a clue what's going on. Because neither did the writer-director.

There’s a terrific horror movie waiting to be made based around the idea of death photography. But this ain’t it.

MJS rating: C

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Landlady

Directors: Rory O’Donnell, Jason Read
Writer: Rory O’Donnell
Producer: Sabrina Catellano
Cast: Caroline Munro, Zoe Grisedale, Gina Jones
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: YouTube (link at end of review)

The Landlady (not to be confused with The Landlord) is a bit of fun, a British horror bagatelle with an EC Comics vibe and the name value casting of Bond/Hammer hottie Caroline Munro.

Last time I saw Ms Munro was at the Festival of Fantastic Films a few years back when I spent a pleasant evening chatting with Caroline, the equally lovely Martine Beswick (who also ticks the boxes marked JB and HH) and suave, debonair filmmaker-about-town Mark Redfield. Caroline’s great: she strikes that balance of accessibility that can be so hard for those who were stars in earlier decades. She’s not reclusive yet not so ubiquitous that attendees at film fairs and horror conventions think, “Oh gawd, she’s here again.”

Plus, of course, she’s still a fine looking woman. And damn good company. And what’s more, she’s evidently prepared to help out indie film-makers by giving their projects that all important name value. In the past couple of years she has filmed roles in two Toni Jopia pictures - Crying Wolf and Cute Little Buggers – and this short for Rory O’Donnell and Jason Read of Robo Films.

Despite running a mere 25 minutes, The Landlady is an anthology: four vignettes set across four decades, in each of which a young lady takes a room in the lodgings of the unnamed title character, played with starched Victorian primness by Caroline. There’s a hippy chick in the 1960s, a punk in the ‘70s, an ‘80s babe and a present day girl. The 1990s and 2000s have been skipped over, which is reasonable because they were spectacularly bland decades devoid of anything memorable or iconic.

Each segment is structured the same way. The Landlady listens to classical music on her antique wireless, then finds another station playing some modern rubbish. A young woman arrives, suitcase in hand and is shown up to the room. There are just four rules in the house, explains CM: no smoking, no loud noises, no pets and no company after midnight.

Each new tenant makes herself at home and promptly breaks one of the rules, quite deliberately. After which, the Landlady puts one of her little magic figurines into the room which enacts supernatural revenge on the miscreant.

Without giving too much away, the first two girls are compelled to do something to excess which kills them, creating expectations that the others will suffer a similar fate but in fact girls 3 and 4 are delivered of more obviously fantastical punishments. Each death is sort of connected with the rule that was broken, but to varying degrees. There are some anachronisms, unavoidable at this micro-budget level (you certainly couldn’t get cider in ring-pull cans in the 1970s!) but that would be picky. The whole film is slightly mannered and is in no way aiming for realism.

Fun though it is, and undeniably well-made and smartly directed, the main problem with The Landlady is that there is no progression and hence no pay-off. The four segments were posted individually to YouTube over the course of a week in December 2013, with the full version following a couple of days later. At the end of Part 4, we are in exactly the same situation as we were at the end of Part 1. Nothing, decade aside, has changed. There’s no twist and no punchline. What the film really needed was a final segment which confounded our expectations by being different to the others.

What it could have done was have the 2013 lodger follow all the rules, not because she’s honest and polite and well-behaved but because young people today are so bloody boring. That would leave the Landlady herself, who never changes her appearance in 50 years and is presumably some sort of supernatural entity distributing overzealous, righteous justice to the badly behaved and inconsiderate, stuck with a lodger she can’t actually get rid of. Structurally that’s what a story like this needs: the tables turned in an unexpected, ironic way.

Well, that’s what I would have done.

Jason Read and Rory O’Donnell shared the directing gig, with the former helming Parts 1 and 2 and the latter taking over for the home stretch. O’Donnell wrote the screenplay, going halves on the story. The four tenants are, in chronological order, Marian Elizabeth, Zoe Grisedale (Bloodshot, The Thompsons), Gina Jones (who was in a DirectGov advert and a Comic Relief ident) and Sarah-Jane Howard. Their friends include Richard Ochampaugh (Three’s a Shroud) and Holly Rivers who was Drusilla in The Worst Witch.

Cinematographer (and good hand at scrabble) Zoran Veljkovic (Tales of the Fourth Dimension) shoots the picture well within the very constrained situation of basically a stairwell and a bedroom. And I was particularly impressed with the sound: recordist, Tomo Davies; editor, Alistair Lock.

Hang on, I know that name. It’s the curse of the film journo - vast swathes of minutiae washing around in my head waiting to make a connection. Alistair Lock... Alistair Lock... he had some connection with Hitchhiker’s Guide, I know. Something at the back of my mind says he’s connected with The Illustrated Hitchhhiker’s Guide.

The IMDB says he worked on a bunch of Doctor Who spin-offs including Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans directed by my mate Kevin Davies, who was also involved with the Illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide. Plus I’ve just watched a clip on the Robo Films YouTube channel of Rory O'Donnell directing Sophie Aldred in their next film, The Sitter, and reminiscing about the time they worked together many years ago aboard HMS Belfast, which is where Shakedown was shot.

Eventually I resorted to Google where I located the answer in – oh irony – the Googlebooks cache of my own first book The Pocket Essential Hitchhiker’s Guide. Before The Illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide was produced (it was the big silver hardback with digitally done photo stuff that was wow back then but can now be done by eight-year-olds on an iPad) a test photo was taken of Simon Jones and David Dixon, from the TV series. Except that Simon was unavailable so Kevin asked Alistair Lock to stand in. And that’s where I know him from. Bloody hell.

I also liked the music in The Landlady, which was overseen by Jason Read. I particularly enjoyed the drum solo version of In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Rory O'Donnell has a bunch of casting director credits including BHR entry The Last Man and a recent feature called Little Deaths which confusingly isn't this one. He also runs training courses for Raindance. Jason Read has directed a bunch of music videos etc. Inbetween this and The Sitter he made a horror short called Face Book.

Shot over four days in August 2013, The Landlady premiered at the Misty Moon Film Festival in London on Halloween that year. In January 2014, the film had a second big-screen outing as half of a Caroline Munro double bill, paired with 1980s daftness Slaughter High, at a one-day horror event in Bournemouth also attended by Emily Booth. Robo Films also pressed up a bunch of DVDs in February 2014 for those people who had funded the film on Indiegogo.

So: lots of fun and a nice little aside among the barrage of features which I have to plough through every month.

MJS rating: B