Sunday, 24 January 2016

Where Seagulls Cry a Song

Director: Bernd Rendic
Writers: Bernd Rendic, Jason Rayment
Producers: Jason Rayment, Richard Hewison
Cast: Anthony Mark Streeter, Anita Constantine, Leoni Kibbey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010

Where Seagulls Cry a Song is a supernatural/psychological thriller about past life regression that ends in murder and rape. No-one seems to have ever reviewed it, commented on it or otherwise acknowledged its existence since it was made six years ago, and only 115 people have actually watched it online. This is a shame as it’s an original and generally well-made little movie with some clever ideas.

Eddie (Anthony Mark Streeter: Stormhouse, Bait) is an auditor who has taken on a new job that requires him to stay at a hotel near the sea, converted from an old manor house. He’s experiencing recurring dreams about having lived there in Victorian times, dreams which gradually impinge on his waking moments until he has difficulty distinguishing which reality/century he’s in and who he’s talking to. The twist is that his past life was a woman, Ada (Anita Constantine: The Snatching) who lived there with her domineering brother Richard (James Tweedy: Cold Blood). Ada falls in love with a writer (Graham Price: Intergalactic Combat) but Richard wants to rescue their strained financial circumstances by forcibly marrying her to old, fat, rich Mr Perkins (David Lee aka Daniel Jefferson, who was in Dark Rage, Dark Journey and The Dark Knight!).

As Eddie finds himself increasingly in love with Nicholas, he comes to doubt his own sexuality, as does his justifiably suspicious wife Denise (Sarah Bull) who thinks her husband is going mad or having a homosexual affair or both. Adding a further level of complication is that Eddie is also perceiving memories from another past life, albeit to a lesser extent. This is Elizabeth (Leoni Kibbey, also a casting director and organiser of the St Albans Film Festival), a 1940s nightclub singer. And – this I particularly liked – Elizabeth is worrying her beau George (Stuart Blackburn) by also having trace memories of her life as Ada. Which makes sense: if Eddie was Ada and Elizabeth in past lives, then by simple Boolean logic Elizabeth was Ada too. A motif of yellow flowers binds these three lives together and is explained at the end.

The acting’s generally good here and Streeter does a solid job of being feminine without being camp. The photography is flat and shows the tiny budget, and the sound mix is too quiet in places, but the way that the different time-frames are cut together within and between scenes is bang on the money. This is that rare thing – a film where you leave the theatre whistling the editing.

Not everything works. There are unavoidable anachronisms. For example Elizabeth meets George when they both shelter from an air-raid in a Tube station (a scene filmed at the Churchill Cabinet War Rooms) but there’s no-one else there. And they leave when the siren stops rather than when the All Clear sounds. And the aeroplane silhouettes representing the approaching German bombers are quite clearly four single engine fighters and a Lancaster.

In fact now I come to think of it, it’s probably the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The point is that a Lancaster looks nothing like a Heinkel or a Junkers, but this is a microbudget picture and the film-makers did what they could with what they had.

More problematic is the script’s use of extensive narration. Far too much of the story is explained to us by Eddie’s voice-over, to the extent that this sometimes seems like a dramatised book-reading. There’s an old saying ‘Show don’t tell’ but it doesn’t look like Rendic and Rayment got that memo. There is also an unexplained sequence early on when Eddie dreams himself in a Regency frock coat with blood on his hands. I kept waiting for some pay-off there and it was never mentioned or referred to again.

Jason Rayment works mostly as an editor, his credits including Community and Ibiza Undead. This appears to be Bernd Rendic's only credit. An interesting and original feature, Where Seagulls Cry a Song played a few festivals in 2009/2010 - and picked up a few awards - before being posted onto YouTube in May 2010. It's split up into ten segments of eight to nine minutes each. Irritatingly the last one cuts off just a few seconds before the actual end of the credits.

MJS rating: B

Friday, 22 January 2016

interview: Steve Lawson (2015)

It's the best part of ten years since I last interviewed Steve Lawson. That previous interview was about his early action movies. In 2015/16 he had three horror films released within a few months of each other, all very good in their own way but all very different. This flurry of activity prompted this new interview in December 2015.

It’s been quite a few years since your micro-budget action movies like Insiders and The Silencer. Why the long gap in your filmography?
"I think, like a lot of indie film-makers, my ambition had always been to be able to walk into my local branch of HMV and see my own movie on the shelf! When I produced and co-directed The Silencer, which was a riff on The Exterminator but with added kung fu, we actually achieved this and the film is still out there on DVD and occasionally acquires new fans and online reviews. So at the time there didn't seem to be any further you could go with indie film production, short of going the whole hog and attempting to raise serious money and shoot something on 35mm. We'd pushed the Mini-DV format as far as it could go."

How has independent film-making and distribution changed during that time?
"Well, this is what drew me back into film production. It's hard to believe but when we were shooting The Silencer in 2004 there was no Facebook or YouTube, and HD video was still only in the hands of high-end professionals. By the time I started to write Survival Instinct all of these things had become available, and digital SLR cameras that could shoot full HD video with a range of changeable lenses had totally transformed what it was possible to achieve on a low budget. And by the time we started shooting, things had progressed again, and we ended up shooting on a Panasonic digital cinema camera that was higher resolution than the cameras George Lucas used to shoot the Star Wars prequels! If you think about it, it's an absolutely astonishing situation when the likes of me can go out and shoot a movie that ends up showing in theatres. But this is the democratisation of film-making that has happened, and I think it's wonderful."

Survival Instinct is far from the first film to centre on a nutter chasing a girl through the woods. What do you think you could bring to this scenario that’s new or different?
"I've always been a fan of what's called the 'survival horror' genre, which goes right back to films like Deliverance. It's usually a tale of city folk who go out into the wilderness and end up fighting for their lives either against the elements, the wildlife, or crazy inbred locals. So I wanted to make something in that style, and of course it's always popular to have the lead character be a girl, so I set myself the task of writing something that would slot easily into that genre, but at the same time hopefully wouldn't suffer from the many lame clichés that infect those types of films.

"So I watched an awful lot of movies that fitted this description, some good, many bad, and two things became very clear: in the vast majority of these films, the villains were random crazies who had no particular reason for attacking the protagonists, and the protagonists were incredibly annoying idiots who bickered with each other and usually caused their own downfall. The result was you didn't fear the villains and you didn't care about the heroes. So I was determined to do the opposite in Survival Instinct - have main characters that the audience could identify with and care about, and have a villain with realistic, plausible motivations. I wanted to create the kind of scenario the audience could believe might actually happen to them - if they just took that one wrong turn or made that one bad decision. The film has been compared by critics to Eden Lake and Straw Dogs, which are two films I admire hugely, so it's certainly in the right area."

How did you assemble your cast?
"Mostly by luck! The only cast member to actually audition was Helen Crevel, who plays the lead role of Stacey, and the audition process was frankly a bit of a shambles as I'd never auditioned anybody before. I was suitably impressed by the fact that she was willing and able to improv a highly tense scene from the script whilst sitting in my office car park! Also she has amazing eyes, really big, dark pupils, and I had already planned quite a few shots that would focus on the character's eyes, so that was what really secured her the part. That and the fact that I was too lazy to audition anyone else! Fortunately she was wonderful and I really can't imagine anyone being better in the role.

"The other key role was our antagonist Weaver, and by pure chance I had recently become acquainted with a local business owner who had a passion for films and was looking to get involved in something. Andy Coughlan had never acted in a feature film before but he was physically perfect for the part of Weaver and just something about him told me that he wouldn't let me down. I think his performance in the film is an absolute revelation and he really ought to be acting full time. Other cast members were people I knew from various places - Jay Sutherland had done a lot of corporates for me, Sam Smith was a member of a local stage school that I knew quite well, and there's even a cameo from The Silencer himself, Glenn Salvage."

The film was shot as Rites of Passage – why the title change?
"Whilst I liked the title Rites of Passage and felt that it had a ring of quality to it, the fact is when you're trying to get distributors interested in a horror-thriller you need a more hard-hitting title. It was always my intention to change the title at some point, in fact we even had a bit of a competition among the cast and crew to see who could come up with the best suggestion. Better Dead Than Queer! was put forward by one crew member who will remain nameless. It is actually a line from the film! But in the end Survival Instinct was my idea, and I googled it and to my surprise there was nothing else out there that had used that title so I jumped on it! And then they released the Walking Dead game..."

How did the distribution deal with Film Volt come about?
"Film Volt is a very new film distribution and sales company, and part of their plan has been to create a theatrical platform for independent films. They are releasing the last film Rik Mayall appeared in before he died, among other things. I had already agreed a DVD release with 88 Films but the release date got pushed back quite considerably so I started looking at what else I could do with the film in the meantime. As Film Volt are based in Derbyshire, and Survival Instinct is a Derbyshire-set film, I thought it might be a good match so I got in touch with them and they liked the film.

"In fact I was told it really stood out amongst the indie films they had seen, and so it was selected as one of a small number of films they are putting out theatrically. Of course, it's what they call a 'limited theatrical release' in 'selected cinemas' so it won't be in your local Odeon, but as of now it's showing in independent cinemas in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Portsmouth and we're still looking to add more locations during February or March 2016. Then the plan is that the DVD will follow from 88 Films in April or May. The latest screening information can always be found on"

Your sci-fi dino feature Killersaurus couldn’t be more different from the tense drama of Survival Instinct, and sexy ghost story Nocturnal Activity (which you produced for the enigmatic Georg E Lewis) is different to both. Is this a deliberate attempt to be diverse and avoid being pigeonholed?
"Not at all, I'd be happy to be pigeonholed if it meant I was at least known for something! Survival Instinct was something I really wanted to make and spent a lot of time planning, and I knew it was a quality film, so I was concerned about potentially signing away the rights to any old distributor who might just dump it onto VOD or do nothing with it at all. So the other two films were frankly quickies that I made specifically for two different distributors primarily to test the waters and see what kind of genres and distribution strategies might pay off the best. Turns out there was huge interest worldwide in Killersaurus and now I regret rushing it out as it wasn't as good as it could have been, I believe it was the second biggest-selling title of the year for our UK distributor 88 Films and it's been pirated everywhere. It's coming out in the States some time in 2016. So anyway, the different films in different genres were just horses for courses really - different films to appeal to different distributors."

How important was it that the dinosaur in Killersaurus was a puppet and not CGI?
"Well, it was never going to be CGI if I could possibly help it. The first version of the script was very different and concerned more of a raptor-type thing running around in corridors, and I planned to use one of those fantastic man-in-a-suit dinosaur costumes that you sometimes see performers using at live events. But due to the insane time-constraints involved in getting the film out onto DVD whilst Jurassic World was still in cinemas, everything had to be simplified and that's why you end up with a T rex that mostly just skulks around in a dark warehouse.

"One YouTube commenter announced that it was just the same old animatronic dinosaur from Carnosaur, but it wasn't! We didn't have the budget even for that! It was a hand puppet which we shot against green screen so I could scale it up to look huge next to the actors. Fortunately I had Helen Crevel again in one of the lead roles and she happens to be a very experienced puppeteer so it worked out well, but the puppet was pretty stiff and even she struggled to bring much life to it. But despite the limitations, I'd still much rather see a weak practical effect in a film than CGI, especially the crappy kind of CGI you see in low budget monster movies."

When we watched Nocturnal Activity, I turned to you afterwards and said, “Steve, you’ve made a Fred Olen Ray movie.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
"Funnily enough, I have vivid memories of watching the Fred Olen Ray episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show and thinking it must be great to do what he did for a living! It was certainly an attempt to get into that kind of B-movie territory with a mix of supernatural horror and sexy girls, but I don't think I quite got the tone right. In my mind it was very much a tongue-in-cheek affair, and I think some people get it but a lot of people don't. The 'name' star in that one was Jonathan Hansler who had starred in Axed which was released by Lionsgate, and he picked up on the humour in the script right away and played the gags very strongly, but I think overall it's played a bit too straight and we should have camped it up more, made the in-jokes and movie-references a bit more overt. But for a low budget quickie I'm pleased with the way it looks, the lighting and effects are pretty good and the climactic paranormal lesbian seduction scene is worth the wait! It's climactic in more ways than one..."

Creativ Studios’ three new features are all being released within about a year of each other. What can you tell me about your financing model and production process which enables you to be this productive?
"Oh, if only there was a financing model...! I am by no means a great film-maker, but what I do have is many years of experience running my own production company doing just about every type of video production there is, as well as by this point having directed or co-directed five independent features which have all found distribution in one form or another. So this means I am extremely well organised when it comes to planning and executing a shoot. I remember fellow director Dominic Burns asking about any trials and tribulations that occurred during the Survival Instinct shoot and he couldn't believe it when I said we shot the whole thing in ten days flat and it all went perfectly smoothly!

"People don't realise that making a film - whatever the budget level - is 90% logistics and planning. It's just about making sure that your cast, crew, equipment, props, costumes and whatever else you need are all in the right place at the right time. The creative part of if it is really quite small in comparison, particularly when you're on a tight schedule. So to get back to your question, I produced and directed three features in less than two years because each one was tightly planned and executed. I have never in my life had a shoot fall apart or a project that didn't get finished, but these seem to be common events for other film-makers."

Among the current UK indie scene, which films or film-makers have impressed you?
"Well, sadly I could name you any number of British indie horrors that I've switched off before the end, but not many that I've been impressed by to be honest. As I said before, I'm all in favour of the democratisation of film-making that's occurred, but it does mean that an awful lot of rubbish gets made. If we're talking about the micro-budget end of things, the only film that sticks in my memory is Stalled, which was a smart little zombie comedy. Not all of the ideas in it came off but it was a clever concept, well shot, and the ending was magnificent!"

What next for Creativ Studios?
"It depends on what comes of Survival Instinct's theatrical release. Obviously, the hope is that it might just come to the attention of someone with access to higher levels of funding who is looking for new projects to invest in. If that's the case, I've got a number of scripts in the £100k-£250k region that are ready to be developed. If not, then it's back to low budget horrors, and I think first out of the gate will definitely be Killersaurus 2 - Weapons of Mass Extinction. I can assure viewers it will have much more dino-action, craziness and gore than the first one!

"In addition to actual production, we now have quite a substantial studio facility in Leicester which I want to make available to other film-makers. Most indie producers aren't aware of the benefits of shooting in a studio, and end up spending a lot of time begging for locations and then shuttling their cast and crew from one place to another. We want to offer film-makers a base to work from with studio space, production facilities like lighting and camera gear, and comfortable, warm rooms for actors and crew to sit and have a cup of tea when they're not working - and all at a price-point that even micro-budget producers can afford! Details can be found on my website."


Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Hell Experiment

Director: Ricardo Benz
Writer: Ricardo Benz
Producer: Ricardo Benz
Cast: Constance Cheloudiakoff, Darren Easton, Maria de Lima
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: IMDB

If you said to me, “Hey Mike, there’s a film you should watch. It’s kinda found footage, and kinda torture porn.” I’d say, “Well, I’m kinda not interested.” But in my quest to watch as much new British horror as possible – especially if it’s free – I took a gamble on this. And discovered an extraordinary movie that I’m really glad I watched.

The Hell Experiment is raw, brutal, uncompromising and upsetting but also powerful, dramatic, thought-provoking, serious, maybe even important.

This was shot in 2010 and I have to assume that the online version, which is actually on the IMDB, was posted pretty shortly afterwards. In the intervening five years, so far as I can tell, not one soul has posted any sort of comment or mention of this film anywhere else on the internet. Apart from the IMDB page and the StarNow/CastingCallPro pages of the actors, there’s not a single reference to this anywhere.

‘Found footage’ conjures up images of all those dumb films like The Mirror and ‘untitled’ and The Unfolding where people set up webcams everywhere in an attempt to capture footage of a ghost. In this case, the film is presented as genuine video footage shot by the unnamed main character (David Bruce Taylor), but most of it is just interviews, shot as simple talking heads. In fact this is the most talking heads-heavy film I’ve ever seen, apart from Simon Rumley’s Strong Language.

The 90 minutes divides fairly neatly into three half-hours. In Act 1, we first meet Harry (Harry Lobek), an old mate of the interviewer who was always a hit with the ladies, and who gladly shares some tips on pulling technique. Intercut with this, after a bit, is a second interview with Ruby, a middle-aged Portuguese prostitute (Maria de Lima) with the gaunt look of a junkie. We don’t know how far apart these interviews were recorded. At around the half-hour mark, something really nasty and shocking comes along which makes us sit up and pay attention.

Act 2 introduces us to Avanka (Constance Cheloudiakoff), a French teenager who has been abused since she was five. She speaks no English so her conversation with the interviewer is translated back and forth by Ruby. This isn’t nearly as tedious or irritating as you might expect and in fact adds greatly to the verisimilitude of the movie. Our unnamed, increasingly manipulative interviewer wants to know about Avanka’s sexual history and sexual preferences, and wants to see her strip. It becomes clear that he is paying her for something.

Intercut with this is the final interviewee, Daniel (Darren Easton). A fascinating study in amorality, it’s clear that Daniel is a card-carrying sadist. Not a psycho, not crazy or manic. He’s utterly calm and laid back as he discusses the number of whores he has killed and his favourite methods of torturing them beforehand. As the film progresses, with Avanka’s pathetic vulnerability and naïve acquiescence becoming clearer at the same time that Daniel’s prosaic descriptions of torture techniques become more and more appalling, we can sense that this is building towards something. We’ve got an idea what. But we don’t know how far the action, and the film, will go.

Thus we come to Act 3, upstairs in the ordinary suburban semi where this all takes place. Now we cut intermittently between two cameras: one fixed on the wall opposite a metal bed frame, one handheld by our interviewer friend. Under his instructions, Ruby dresses Avanka in a sexy outfit then Avanka is led upstairs and allows herself to be tied to the bed, gagged and blindfolded. Daniel – who has been told that the girl actually wants to die - begins his slow, subtle process of softening her up as the roving and static cameras looks on.

Where does this go? How far does it go? I’ll let you find out for yourself. There is narrative progression and some degree of resolution and you’ll finish the film with a head full of thoughts. There are a couple of faltering steps towards the end, admittedly. At one point it’s not clear what happens and it took me a moment (and a quick rewind) to realise that this related to Harry, whose involvement in the narrative had seemed somewhat oblique up to that point. And there is a slightly leaden speech from the unnamed interviewer about the difference between himself and Daniel which isn’t really necessary and sounds like the film trying to justify itself – which frankly it doesn’t need to do.

The film wraps up without any credits. There are just captions at the top and tail saying that what we are seeing is police evidence in an investigation into a planned murder. A carelessly missing apostrophe in the opening caption is annoying, but I’ll let it go.

The internet is full of micro-budget films about men torturing women, and most of them are utterly pathetic crap. So why does The Hell Experiment work? Well, a number of reasons. This isn’t a misogynist film. It’s a film about misogyny and sexism and patriarchy, thematically standing comparison with The House of Him and The Devil’s Vice. It's a film about what (some) men are capable of doing to (some) women. But it’s not about what such men do, it’s about who those men are and why they think they are entitled to do it.

It’s also a film about the women who allow this to happen, who let themselves become victims. It would be very easy to just dismiss Avanka as an idiot. What sort of person lets a stranger tie them to a bed and blindfold them? But it’s clear that Avanka and Ruby are both screwed up and have been their whole lives, because of the way they have been treated by the men around them: fathers and uncles and boyfriends. These women are victims before they even enter this house.

We know all this because of the interviews. We spend two thirds of the film getting to know the characters (including the interviewer himself), seeing into their psyches and, unless there’s something wrong with us, being repelled by what we find there. Those other cheapjack man-hurts-woman films that litter the web generally eschew characterisation in favour of action and gore. The reason why torture porn is so awful is that it serves up the worst of humanity with glee. It’s cartoon violence in the real world. There’s nothing gleeful or cartoon here.

Frankly I’m a little surprised that The Hell Experiment is so completely unknown. It’s not like it’s badly made. I have absolutely no idea who Ricardo Benz is; there are several people of that name online but none who seem to have any connection to film-making. Nevertheless, his restrained direction gives enormous strength to this film, which cannily uses its minimal production values: limited cast, single location, no music.

It’s the cast that really make the movie the undiscovered gem that it is. All five are excellent, but special praise must be reserved for Cheloudiakoff. Playing the victim in a film like this, a micro-budget indie where the budget is not much more than that of the fictional video being made by the lead character, requires bravery and dedication. Benz cleverly frames his image so that we don’t see the pain inflicted upon Avanka, yet the actress conveys the terror, shame and desperation superbly, even when acting through gag and blindfold. The third act cannot have been easy for anyone involved.

Darren Easton has played a policeman on numerous occasions including Silent Witness, Call the Midwife and the Dark Shadows movie, although most disturbingly on Crimewatch where he was cast as PC Keith Blakelock, the copper who was so awfully killed during the Brixton riots. David Bruce Taylor was Count Dracula himself in Sarah Steel’s 2010 short Job Interview with a Vampire and was also in a Paul TT Easter film. Harry Lobek mostly does theatre, including tours of War Horse and The Gruffalo’s Child. Maria de Lima has extensive experience in her native Portugal where she was nominated for that country’s version of a Gloden Globe (she was also a regular in the Portuguese version of Yes, Minister!). As for Constance Cheloudiakoff, she’s still acting, including a spell in LA, and also does comedy improv. While something like The Hell Experiment may not be an obvious choice for a showreel, her performance here as a vulnerable, pathetic, foolish, helpless victim - a woman who is weak because she has been systematically weakened - is a stunning piece of acting.

Although the film does not linger on the make-up effects, they are an integral part of the movie. Arabella Clarke was the make-up artist responsible and the results look suitably realistic, although the poor quality of the IMDB image hides the detail. Her other work includes a lot of theatre, music promos and TV ads, as well as the 2008 short Zombie Office. The only other name on the IMDB is editor Jenna Kay.

That then is the first ever published review of The Hell Experiment, after a mere half-decade. Don’t watch it if you’re looking for a fun movie, don’t watch it if you want gore and glee. But if you want 90 minutes of bleak, painful, depressing, compulsive insight into the lower reaches of the human condition, head over to the IMDB and take a look.

MJS rating: A

Sunday, 10 January 2016

interview: Angus Scrimm

At the American Film Market in Los Angeles in October 1998, I was introduced to Angus Scrimm, best known as the Tall Man in the Phantasm films. Angus, who was promoting the new fourth film in the series, turned out to be the most wonderful interview subject. An absolute gentleman, unfailing polite and enthusiastic. And knowledgeable too, about films and music. In fact he actually had a Grammy, which he won for writing the sleeve notes to an Itzaak Perlman album! A short version of this interview appeared in SFX magazine and proved to be the most popular, most commented-on feature I ever wrote for the mag.

In January 2016 came the news that this much-loved actor had passed away, so I dug this out and reposted it as my own humble tribute. Here's a secret no-one knows: when I interviewed Angus Scrimm, I had never actually seen a Phantasm film! (I have the silver sphere set now, of course.) It's a measure of the man that he was able to give me such a great interview when I had so little detailed knowledge to work with. Back in 1998, before I could ask my first question, Angus asked me:

“Whereabouts in England is your magazine based?”

In the town of Bath.
“Bath? Oh, that’s where I fell of a b... No, I fell off a bus in Bournemouth, rode all the way to Bath, was limping, limping, limping, and we went to the local hospital. This was in 1953 - coronation year - I won’t tell you how old I was, I was pretty young. I thought, ‘Well, this is the end of my English trip. God knows what I’ve done to myself. My arm is hurting and it’s going to cost the Earth.’ Well, they took X-rays and said, ‘You have a slight fracture in your ankle and in your elbow, but we’re going to bandage them up for you. Stay off them for about a day or two and then you can continue getting around. And you’ll have no further problem except that when you’re older you may have an ache where that fracture occurred.’

"Then I asked the burning question: ‘How much do I owe you?’ ‘It’s all on the National Health.’ You don’t know what that is when you’re a visitor! I can tell you: I always loved England but I dearly loved England after that. Of course I was there for six months and lived in London for a long time and in Bournemouth for part of the time, travelled over to Paris and back and went to Wales and just had a marvellous, marvellous six months.”

Tell me about Phantasm IV. What’s the basic premise?
“It actually begins at the precise moment that Phantasm III ended, with Reggie the ice cream man suspended from a wall with silver balls all over his body, ready to drill into him. Of course we have to free him from that situation - I won’t tell you how. Then it proceeds from there, unravelling the relationship, that’s always been a mystery, between Michael and the Tall Man: the young leading man and the sinister Tall Man. Just why is the Tall Man constantly in pursuit of him but letting him survive? The Tall Man doesn’t let very many people survive that he comes in contact with. This provides the answer to that and further involves Reggie in a number of unpredictable occurrences. The first film, as you probably know, I understand that it was not widely seen in England initially because it was just on British TV last year for the first time.”

I missed it.
“Did you? It definitely was. Because for a long time I worked for EMI over here and Capital Records, which they own, as an annotator, a writer of notes on the back of LPs and compact disc booklets. In fact, I was at Capital in 1962-3 when you sent over to us a rock group and I was asked to do the notes for the rock group. I got volumes and volumes of press materials from all over England and Europe and out of that wrote a note praising the group, very highly of course, saying that they were going to make a big impact on the United States. I remember my editor came to me and said, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good note. Don’t you want to sign it?’ ‘No way,’ I said. ‘These kids with their crazy haircuts and the strange little suits they wear, they’re never going to make it with clean-cut American kids.’ Well, you know who I’m talking about, I’m sure. And a year later I was listening to the Beatles with great enjoyment myself.”

How, over the course of the four Phantasm films, has the Tall Man developed?
“I’ll tell you. I’ll answer that, but did I answer your other question? I think I side-tracked you. I don’t remember. Something about... Why did I get into EMI? Oh, oh, we were talking about it having been on British television. That’s right, and you didn’t remember it. Friends at EMI - I still have friends there - told me that it made quite an impact. Barry, being an American who works for EMI in London, tells me that his co-workers refused to believe that he actually knew the sinister character of the Phantasm series.

"The Tall Man, to me, is always represented as the Grim Reaper, the personification actually of Death. What I tried to do with him in each film is to try to realise that concept as truly and as deeply as I can while contending with some of the unexpected things that Don Coscarelli the writer/director throws at me. Sometimes it’s a little hard to reconcile the things that occur. But I think we’ve managed to sustain that and I’m still convinced that that is the Tall Man’s essential character. He is certainly an alien figure from another dimension. But to Michael’s eyes I’m sure he represents Death.”

How long is it now since the first Phantasm?
“The first Phantasm came out in the United States - actually Avco-Embassy was the studio which then distributed it and it opened in the Spring in San Francisco and San Antonio. Then they bunny-hopped it around the country in increasingly greater clusters of cities. They sent Don and me on air flights to do press for the openings and that was in ‘79. Then the second one didn’t come out until ‘88, that was Phantasm II. The next was Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. It became fashionable for the third one to have a descriptive subtitle. That came out in ;93.”

There was big gap between the first two.
“Yes, a very big gap.”

Why was it felt that Phantasm should be brought back after so long a time? It couldn’t be cashing in on the success of the first one.
“Actually there was a great movement for a Phantasm II after the first one, but Don Coscarelli did not want to become too closely identified with the horror genre. So he did a picture called Beastmaster instead which was a sword and sorcery movie, and then went on to do some other films, Survival Quest among them. In '88 there must have been a groundswell based on the horror cycle rejuvenating itself. But in any case he was approached by two or three studios to do a Phantasm II and he went with Universal Pictures.

"The film, I remember, came out in the United States the same week as Roger Rabbit and, I think, Rambo II, and Big with Tom Hanks. It was the greatest week in the history of American motion picture exhibition and Phantasm II was lucky to hold its own in the midst of all those big pictures, but we did and we went on to perform respectably. Not as well, I think, as if we had come out around Halloween. But for reasons of their own Universal was very keen to market it as quickly as possible and thought it would be a big summer hit. Then Phantasm III actually test-marketed here in Baton Rouge and another city and did very well. It outperformed all the pictures that week, but for some reason MCA decided that they didn’t want to invest the additional $7 million it would cost for prints and advertising, and sent it straight to video.

“This picture we’re hoping for a theatrical again of course and I do think it has some of the qualities that could be very compelling at the box office. The second two were really action pictures with comedy and a lot of gore. This pictures goes a little easier on the gore and gets back to the eerie mysticism, the weird, unsettling resonance of the first picture that made it such blockbuster. I think it’s going to be the most successful Phantasm picture since that time, although I think Titanic will probably outperform us!”

Does it help to have the same principal cast and crew working throughout the series?
“It’s certainly helpful for me to go back and see the wonderful, familiar old faces. It’s rejuvenating also to have the new people who come in each time. Don Coscarelli magnetises good people - he simply seems to draw them to him, and most of them have come to him because they are fans of the original Phantasm and want to work on a Phantasm film. Some of them are avid fans.”

I guess you’re starting to get people now who were hardly born when the first one came out?
“That’s true, that’s true. I remember on those aeroplane flights around the country, publicising the first Phantasm, Don and I had long, long periods onboard planes to chat. I remember one of us saying to the other - well, I said in fact - ‘When I was a child, a young kid, I saw Frankenstein and Dracula.’ They were my first horror films and they made an enormous impact and I went through a whole period of wanting to see nothing but horror films after that. I saw everything that came out and was re-released. And I said, ‘There will be youngsters all over the world for whom Phantasm will be their first horror film, and twenty years from now we’ll be meeting them.’ And indeed we have! They come up to me and they say, ‘I saw Phantasm when I was 13 and it scared the H out of me!’”

With the series having gone for so long, and especially with Part IV picking up exactly where Part III left off, is it difficult keeping the continuity going?
“I always go back and watch the previous films, and soak up the feelings that they engender. In actual fact, I continue to do the Tall Man inbetween pictures because I do occasional fan conventions and interviews and I’m invariably asked to say, ‘Boy!’ So he’s very much part of me; in fact he’s so much part of me that it’s getting to be a problem. I feel now that I own him, I forget that he’s Coscarelli’s. I feel that I own him and I’m very protective of him, constantly arguing, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t do this, he wouldn’t do that, this shouldn’t be done.’ I have to fight to distance myself from him; he’s become like another self.”

How good is it for your career in general to be identified with this one character?
“It’s given me much, much more visibility. On the other hand I’m sure there are many, many people who think that’s probably all I can play. That’s a misperception that I have to correct as soon as possible.”

What was your career like leading up to Phantasm?
“I had done a previous Don Coscarelli picture called Jim the World’s Greatest, which was actually Don’s first picture, made when he was a late teenager, which was picked up by Universal and distributed and did rather well. In that, I played the alcoholic father of the hero, played by a young actor named Gregory Harrison. That got me into the Screen Actor’s Guild and got me an agent. Then I did small parts in ongoing TV series, usually just as a bit-player in one episode for a while. I did a small role in Sidney Poitier’s picture, Piece of the Action.

“I did the first film Jim Wynorski actually wrote and directed. Do you know Wynorski’s name in England? Wynorski’s very well known here; he’s done 20, 30 films as far as I know. He’s renowned for doing films under budget and under time. He always gets them in a day or two before he has to, and under budget oft times. He’s a very quick and deft film-maker with a great sense of humour. Anyway, Jim had liked Phantasm and he did a picture called Lost Empire and cast me as his main villain in that. So that was my first large role again. Then I’ve gone on to do a picture called Mindwarp with Bruce Campbell who’s another genre star. Bruce was the hero, I was the first villain. A picture called Transylvania Twist for Jim. Deadfall for Christopher Coppola with his brother Nicholas Cage and Michael Biehn and Peter Fonda. Charlie Sheen, James Coburn - it had a wonderful cast - Michael Constantine. I could go on forever just saying one name after another. I had again a villainous role in that, a wonderfully written part.”

Is there any problem with playing villains all the time? Would you like a nice avuncular role?
“Jim let me play the nice, avuncular father-figure of Vampirella in his version of the famous comic-book. I got bumped off very early in the picture by Roger Daltrey of all people. I got bitten in the neck by Roger Daltrey - there’s not many other fellows that can say that, I’m sure! He played the lead vampire and I was an old gentle vampire who he wanted out of the way. Roger was fun to work with.”

I spoke with John Landis who also had a cameo in that.
“Actually he did. He was an airline pilot who also got bumped off. It was a Showtime premiere here. I think it will be turning up again on the Movie Channel later this year. A lovely actress named Talisa Soto played Vampirella and was just charming to work with also. Just divine; radiantly lovely and gracious.”

What next (a) for Angus Scrimm and (b) for the Tall Man? Will there be a Phantasm V?
Phantasm IV brings the film to a very logical and satisfying conclusion. But of course if it’s an enormous success, I’m sure ways would be found to do a Phantasm V. In the meantime, I still want to do that drawing room comedy. If they ever revive that. Fortunately the other villains I’ve played have all been different. The diamond fence in Deadfall, the megalomaniacal seer in Mindwarp: they’ve all been quite different and challenging from that point of view. So it hasn’t gone stale. The villains always register strongly with the audience, so they’re funny to play. But in Transylvania Twist I got to do comedy for example, and it was lovely to get back to comedy roots.”

Thank you.
“Oh, you were asking about other things I’ve done. I forgot to mention one of the perks of being an actor is getting invited abroad to do a picture. And I went for Full Moon to Romania to do Subspecies. I got to play Vlad of all people. I got bumped off early in that picture of course. Then I was invited to Italy by Al Festa, the famous director of MTV-type musicals who was doing his first picture. He was a Phantasm fan and cast me in Fatal Frames alongside Linnea Quigley and Donald Pleasence and Rosanno Brazzi and Alida Valli and also a wonderful cast of great old Italian actors. With Rick Gianasi, who was an Italian-American actor, playing the leading man, and Stefania Stella who played the leading lady. A very, very charismatic star with all the impact of a Dietrich or a Garbo or a Rita Hayworth.”

RIP Angus Scrimm 1926-2016

Friday, 8 January 2016

Sudden Fury

Director: Darren Ward
Writer: Darren Ward
Producer: Darren Ward
Cast: Nick Rendell, Paul Murphy, Andy Ranger
Country: UK
Year of release: 1998
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Sudden Fury is an action-packed, low-budget British gangster picture with effective, professional-looking action sequences and the sort of generic two-word title that Andy Sidaris has made a career out of. (Actually, although Sidaris has never made a Sudden Fury, the title was used for films in 1975 and 1993.)

The plot is not overly complicated. Crime boss A, Randall (Paul Murphy), has stolen £2.5 million of cocaine from crime boss B, Harris, but his goons left one of the guards alive so Harris knows who hit him. Randall and his lieutenant Jimmy (Andy Ranger) hire top hitman Mike Walker (Nick Rendell) to pretend to return the goods but really take out Harris’ men. Jimmy will then kill Walker and plant stuff on him so it looks like he was working for another gang entirely, thereby deflecting the heat from Randall and co. But things go awry when Walker survives - which comes as no great surprise, really, given that they have already said he’s the best hitman there is. Now Walker is on the run with the cocain, Randall wants him taken out, and the threat of all-out warfare between the two gangs looms ever closer.

But before we meet Walker we have a prologue which, presumably in some attempt to out-pottymouth the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, crams the word ‘fuck’ 57 times into five minutes. Yes, I counted. There’s plenty of other swearing - as indeed there bleeding well should be in a gangster picture - but it is so heavily laid on with a trowel in the prologue that it distracts from the important scene-setting information conveyed by the small number of words that don’t begin with F.

Considering the low-budget, the acting’s not bad, at least among the main characters, but no-one’s going to win any Oscars and most of the smaller roles are completely wooden. The cast are basically a rep company for writer/director/producer Darren Ward, their only other credits being his other films such as Bitter Revenge and Nightmares. There’s something to be said for the convenience of casting your mates but at some point a film-maker with ambitions needs to start putting out casting calls and getting people who actually profess to be actors.

And there is one of those here, to be fair: none other than dear old David Warbeck in his final screen role. He plays a slightly effete, asthmatic sadist named Pike, who works for Harris and takes great delight in torturing two of Randall’s men with a blow-torch. He lifts his scenes - in fact the whole production - to a new level through his presence and must have been a great boost to the morale and confidence of cast and crew. Unfortunately, he gets plugged about half an hour in.

Which leads me to one of the main problems with the film: characters are introduced and then killed off and it’s very hard to work out who our protagonist and antagonist are; in other words, who should we be rooting for and why? There has to be at least one character with whom we sympathise (even if he has a dark side - that’s the depth that an anti-hero brings to a story) and we must want him to achieve something. He must have a quest, even if it’s only to survive. All that stuff you read about ‘the hero’s journey’ may sound like media studies nonsense but, when you analyse why some films work and some films don’t (or, as in this case, only work partially), you find it often comes down to the presence or absence of a hero’s journey.

You can have as many explosions and as much spurting blood as you want - Sudden Fury has stacks of both and it’s all very well done - but the key to a good film lies in the script and that, of course, is where so many micro-budget pictures fall down, even though a good script doesn’t cost any more than a bad one.

The protagonist and antagonist here would seem to be Walker and Randall, but the relationship is simply one of employer and employee for the first act, until Randall and Jimmy double-cross Walker, and then they separate completely into two plotlines. The hitman hides out in the house of a friend, Alex Renzie (also a hitman, I think) while he recovers from his wounds and it is only when he learns that Alex has been kidnapped and tortured in an effort to track him down that Walker becomes an active character, driving the plot in the final act. Which is about the time that an unseen assailant plugs Randall full of lead.

We never know enough about Walker - or indeed anyone - to really care what happens to whom. Randall may be an amoral bastard who takes a delight in killing two small children but our introduction to Walker sees him gratuitously killing Randall’s bodyguard when he arrives for a meeting with the crime lord, so why should we sympathise with him either? He does get one of the few brief scenes of tenderness, but as that involves shagging a prostitute that Alex has ordered for him as a treat, that also fails to ground our sympathy with Walker. Ultimately, we sympathise with him only because everyone else seems to be much worse. The one truly likeable character who is not a violent criminal (or at least, not depicted as such) is Alex, but he doesn’t have much screentime before being brutally tortured and killed by Randall’s men.

This torture is actually pointless because Randall has a watch on Alex’s house anyway and the goon on duty spots Walker answering the door to the hooker. Unfortunately this was shot in 1997-98 when mobile phones were not ubiquitous, the few on display here being the size of a small house brick, so there’s no way to get the message back. (We also see Randall reading a copy of the now defunct newspaper Today - oh, it all seems so long ago...)

Alex’s torturer is a moustachioed South Africa named Lennox (Victor D Thorn, also in Chris Barfoot’s sci-fi shorts Phoenix and Helix) who seems to be in charge of the various gun-toting goons guarding an old warehouse which is, we assume, Harris’ (now Randall’s) cocaine factory. When Walker comes looking for his friend, he despatches a number of these before teaming up briefly with a character whose appearance is a surprise. This volte-face, and the instant trust which Walker places in his new accomplice, is narratively convenient but doesn’t make any sense at all and the other person is killed fairly swiftly.

This leaves the climax of the film as a one-on-one battle to the death between Walker and Lennox, briefly interrupted by a flashback to a time when they worked together. Dressed in camouflage gear, it’s not clear whether they are meant to be soldiers or mercenaries, nor where they are (it’s clearly deciduous English woodland, but I got the impression we were meant to be in Africa). Anyway, this reveals a long-standing enmity between the two men but it’s too little too late.

The climax is very exciting indeed, let’s not take that away from Sudden Fury, but our antagonist has switched arbitrarily from crime boss Randall to Lennox, who is nothing but a chief thug and whom we only met halfway through the picture. It’s simply unsatisfying to have the main threat dead elsewhere by another’s hand while our hero battles someone who up to now has been a minor character. What we want to see, after an hour and a half of this stuff, is the last two men standing: Walker, with nothing left to lose, and Randall, the wine-drinking sophisticate reduced to getting his hands dirty. But it is not to be.

Which is a shame because the climactic battle, in fact all the action sequences, are very, very well-staged. Pyrotechnics are deployed well, exciting without being gratuitous, while bodies and (importantly) the walls behind them are riddled with bullets. In terms of what would literally be ‘bang for your buck’ if this had been paid for in US dollars, Ward and his team have put together terrific action scenes that are violent, tense, bloody and exciting, without overstepping the mark. No kickboxing here, thank Christ! Ward’s direction combined with the two-for-one cinematography and editing of Peter Dobson (Sanitarium, Hellbreeder, Darkhunters) shows some of the Hollywood big boys how to stage a fight scene so that the audience is drawn in without losing track at any time of who is where and what they’re doing.

One final criticism of the script is that never, at any point, does any character make any reference to the police. Bodies pile up, entire families are wiped out in blood-splattered attacks and no-one seems at all bothered about what PC Plod might be doing to track down those responsible.

To sum up, despite excellent effects and professional-looking action sequences, Sudden Fury has a plot structure which doesn’t stand up, extremely limited characterisation and dialogue which boasts lots of swearing but no wit and no snappy, quotable ‘zinger’ lines. But does any of that matter to the intended audience? I suspect not. This is a film for those DTV movie fans whose idea of ninety minutes well spent is watching Steven Seagal’s unconvincing body double cracking skulls at least twice in every reel. In that respect, it succeeds and DVD releases in both the USA (through Sub Rosa) and UK (through Boudicca) are testament to that. But it is still a shame that Sudden Fury couldn’t find more time for characters and plot, in either the development process or, indeed, on the actual screen.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 13th November 2006.