Thursday, 28 February 2013

Summer Scars

Director: Julian Richards
Writer: Al Wilson
Producers: Julian Richards, Sabina Sattar, Mike Tims
Cast: Kevin Howarth, Ciaran Joyce, Amy Harvey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: World premiere screening (Festival of Fantastic Films 2007)
Website:
www.jingafilms.com

Summer Scars is Julian Richards’ fourth feature and his most personal. It is based on an incident that happened to him when he was a teenager - but exaggerated slightly. It’s also defiantly non-commercial and thereby frustratingly difficult to pigeonhole. If I had to describe it as one thing I would say that it is a dark coming-of-age drama that stands comparison with, say, Stand By Me. I heard one person say it was like a more serious Goonies which is probably taking it a bit too far.

In a nutshell, six kids bunk off school to hang out in the woods, equipped with a couple of cans of beer, a few cigarettes and a stolen moped. They’re all meant to be fourteen - according to the publicity - but Bingo (Ciaran Joyce, who was in an episode of Torchwood and played Lol in Tracey Beaker) and Paul (Jonathan Jones) come across as slightly older, both with some stirrings of feelings for Leanne (Amy Harvey), the only girl in the gang. Jonesy (Darren Evans) and Mugsy (Ryan Conway, also in Torchwood) seem slightly younger - or at least, less physically mature. Ben (Christopher Conway) is Paul’s disabled younger brother, who has to leave his wheelchair and reach the woodland hide-out by piggyback. Both Conway brothers were also in a Dutch-Belgian time travel feature called Crusade in Jeans, starring Emily Watson and Udo Kier.

In the woods the kids meet Peter, a bedraggled chap with a North Country accent (apparently a Welsh accent and a West Country accent were both considered before settling on a touch of Lancashire). We know nothing about Peter and we never find out anything about him - except that he is not as stable as one might hope. He is played by Kevin Howarth, who was so terrific in Julian’s The Last Horror Movie, in another unnervingly bravura performance.

Over the course of this relatively short film - which started life as a half-hour script and now clocks in at 75 minutes - Peter helps the kids to grow up, partly through teaching and showing them stuff, partly through conflict with them. He’s an intriguing and deliberately vague character whose creepiness gradually comes to the fore but not in a steady, constant way. Sometimes he seems like a good guy, sometimes he seems like a psycho, and bit by bit the latter view starts to become prevalent. But even when he is effectively holding the kids hostage, he shows an avuncular side.

He’s a creepy uncle, basically.

When a film leaves this many questions unanswered, it is easy to read things into it and I was surprised at the religious subtext (something Julian says was added - if it’s there at all - by screenwriter Al Wilson). Peter initially claims to be looking for a lost dog named Jesus (pronounced like the Messiah, not the Spanish way) and later leads the frightened kids in the Lord’s Prayer. With his close-trimmed but straggly beard and his mysterious (but clearly disreputable) background, there’s a definite hint of Whistle Down the Wind in Summer Scars.

This is not a horror film, not by any definition, although horror festivals with liberal remits may want to programme it because it does explore the darker side of human nature and its director and star have a reputation in that genre. Nor, it goes without saying, is it a kids’ film.

What is impressive is that the six youngsters - quite apart from all displaying good, natural acting talent - are portrayed as modern, working class kids without limiting their vocabulary to grunts and F-words, yet nor do they come across as atypically refined or loquacious. The dialogue sounds right, even though we know in our heart of hearts that six teenagers bunking off school in 21st century Britain are unlikely to do more than swear and mumble.

If the film has a weakness it’s that, although it tells a story, there’s not much of a resolution. The kids at the end of the film don’t seem significantly different to how they were when we met them and there’s no real sense that this unusual and disturbing experience has changed them in any way. Have they learned anything about themselves or about the world from their encounter with Peter? There’s no evidence of this in the epilogue. Summer Scars is a rite-of-passage film which, to be honest, is all rite and no passage.

But treat it as a character piece, rather than a story, and the film works well. Kevin Howarth’s portrayal of Peter is key to this: at some points he’s a man-child, at others he’s an older brother, sometimes he’s a teacher and sometimes he’s a bully. It’s a rich, complex performance, as was Max Parry (in direct comparison, I would say Max was richer and Peter is more complex).

Devoid of easily-dated youth culture references and with an anonymous background that could put these kids anywhere in Europe if the film is dubbed, Summer Scars has good potential for overseas sales. And if it’s not as obviously commercial as The Last Horror Movie, nevertheless it reaffirms Julian Richards as a talented director with things to say and the skills required to say them.

Producer Sabina Sattar works mostly as a production designer, her credits including The Worst Journey in the World, Mark Gatiss’ one-off TV drama about explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, while Mike Tims executive produced The Last Horror Movie. The executive producers on this film are Robert Bevan and Keith Hayley whose joint credits include Julian’s Silent Cry as well as Vampire Diary and Reverb. Line producer Dewi Griffiths produced the 2008 vampire film High Stakes while cinematographer Bob Williams shot another High Stakes, a 2001 documentary about Las Vegas.

There are three credited editors. The brilliantly named Kant Pan also cut British horror flick LD50, mathematical TV play Solid Geometry, Richard E Grant-starring serial killer picture The Cold Light of Day (not to be confused with the Dennis Nielsen biopic of that title) and Scottish IMAX ghost romance Legend of the Loch. Ian Seymour’s credits also include The Toybox, as well as Christina Ricci-starring fable Penelope and occasionally oddball soap Night and Day. Mark Talbot-Butler edited Darklands and Top Gear! Dawn Stewart (The Descent, Mutant Chronicles) provided the make-up. Steve Murphy (High Stakes, StagKnight, Parasite) was first AD. Keith Tunney (Dark Corners, The Living and the Dead, Cold and Dark, Silent Cry) handled the sound.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 4th September 2007

Monday, 25 February 2013

Creature from Black Lake

Director: Joy N Houck Jr
Writer: Jim McCullough Jr
Producer: Jim McCullough
Cast: John David Carson, Dennis Fimple, Jack Elam
Country: USA
Year of release: 1976
Reviewed from: UK DVD


I first came across this movie when I interviewed cinematographer Dean Cundey back in the mid-1990s and I have been wanting to see it ever since so I was delighted to find it tucked away with 19 other movies in a big, random ten-disc box set of horror movies. (You want random? This thing was on a disc with Queen of Blood!)

The title notwithstanding, this has no connection with a certain well-known 1950s Jack Arnold picture. This is instead part of the 1970s boom in bigfoot movies. It is superficially similar to the later Boggy Creek II but considerably better, not least because it is actually slightly interesting.

Rives (John David Carson: Empire of the Ants) and Pahoo (Dennis Fimple: the 1976 King Kong, Bug Buster, House of 1,000 Corpses) are two anthropology students from the University of Chicago who head down to Louisiana in search of a legendary ‘bipedal primate’. In the small town where the sightings have been reported, they find that most people claim to know nothing about any ‘creature’ or to have heard of ‘Joe Canton’, a trapper whose partner was killed by the beast. (We saw this in a prologue - the creature is clearly hairy and ape-like but also aquatic as it drags the man from a small boat.) In particular, the town’s Sheriff (Bill Thurman, who made a bunch of genre pictures in the 1960s including The Yesterday Machine, The Eye Creatures, The Black Cat, Night Fright, In the Year 2889 and Zontar the Thing from Venus) is downright hostile and tells the Yankees to stop asking questions and head home.

However, the two students meet a young man, Orville Bridges (writer Jim McCullough Jr), who says that the creature slew his parents when he was a kid. He and his grandfather (Dub Taylor: The Wild Bunch, A Man Called Horse) are prepared to discuss the animal, but not his grandmother. While sleeping in the family barn (after a dinner table faux pas) Rives and Pahoo hear - and are able to record - the nearby screams of the creature (which is never given a name).

Camping outside of town, they make out with two local young ladies but are interrupted by the arrival of the creature, who departs just as the sheriff arrives to take his daughter home (whoops!). By a stroke of luck they are locked up for the night in a cell with none other than Joe Canton (the ever-reliable - and top-billed - Jack Elam, whose genre credits include The Night of the Grizzly, Uninvited, the TV series Struck by Lightning, a Twilight Zone episode and the title role in a 1984 TV movie which has gone straight to the top of my list of A Christmas Carol adaptations that I absolutely have to see: Scrooge’s Rock’n’Roll Christmas) who tells them about his encounter and where he thinks they can find the creature. And indeed they do!

A large part of this film’s strength lies in the double act that Carson and Fimple create, helped by some neat dialogue and some smart editing (courtesy of Robert Gordon, who also cut Return of the Living Dead and Toy Story!). They are a likeable and believable pair of characters. It also helps greatly that the titular monster, although undoubtedly real, is neither explained nor properly revealed, with only a few dark long shots and a couple of less-than-a-second close-ups to show us what it looks like. (It looks like your standard bigfoot/sasquatch-type thing, frankly.)

Also in the cast are art director Roger Pancake (who also worked on Charles Band’s debut Mansion of the Doomed) and director Joy N Houck Jr as the university professor who sponsors Rives and Pahoo’s expedition. The Inaccurate Movie Database has some difficulty distinguishing between writer Jim McCullough Jr and producer Jim McCullough, but one or both of them also seems to have been involved with The Aurora Encounter, Video Murders and Mountaintop Motel Massacre. Director Houck’s other credits include The Brain Machine, Night of the Strangler and Night of Bloody Horror.

Bolivian composer Jaime Mendoza Nava (A Boy and His Dog, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, The Legend of Boggy Creek) supplied the music while Sterling Franck (Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural) was responsible for the special effects. Cinematographer Cundey, who later worked with the likes of Carpenter, Zemeckis and Spielberg) does reasonable work here although the widescreen framing is ruined by some of the most cack-handed panning-and-scanning I have ever seen. Charlene Cundey (presumably related) handled make-up, her only known movie credit.

While nothing special, simple competence and a lack of tedium raises Creature from Black Lake (which had the working title Demon of the Lake) above many of the other films in this subgenre. The story trots along nicely and the characters are interesting. Some bits are funny, some bits are scary. It’s not a bad little movie.

MJS rating: B-

review originally posted 27th December 2005

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cradle of Fear

Director: Alex Chandon
Writer: Alex Chandon
Producer: Eddie Kane
Cast: Dani Filth,
Eileen Daly, Emily Booth
Year of release: 2001
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK video
Official website:
www.cradleoffear.com

Alex Chandon, the enfant terrible of British independent film-making, has scored a definite bullseye with his latest feature, the gory, violent and hugely entertaining anthology Cradle of Fear. Dani Filth, the voice of Dominator and lead singer of goth metal band Cradle of Filth (for whom Chandon directed two very dark and disturbing promo videos), is The Man, an enigmatic figure in the control of a convicted child killer who provides the link between four stories in which not terribly pleasant people are killed in particularly nasty ways.

A girl who picks up a stranger at a nightclub experiences a sudden, hideously fatal pregnancy; two other young women who rob an old man’s flat get their just deserts; and there’s a terrific spin on the old transplant-from-a-murderer scenario - a sort of The Leg of Orlac. The final tale in the quartet is possibly the first internet-based horror story ever successfully presented on film; the deeply unpleasant images on view here actually look like they’re on the web, rather than what some know-nothing designer still living in the 1970s thinks a website might look like.

Whereas Bad Karma wore its low-budget on its sleeve, and the effects in Pervirella were deliberately cheesy, with this third feature Chandon has really come into his own, utilising all his resources to make a film which looks like it cost twenty times what it actually did. There’s blood, dismemberment, monsters, freaks and general weirdness aplenty, and all looking much better, more effective and more horrific than most modern so-called horror films.

The anthology structure (a tip o’the hat to the old Amicus films) means that Cradle of Fear doesn’t drag, despite being two hours long. The BBFC being what it is, Alex initially distributed the film from his website in an ‘unrated director’s cut’ although it is now available in shops.

Heartily recommended, this is the first great British horror film of the 21st century.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted before November 2004

Cowboys and Zombies

Director: Rene Perez
Writers: Rene Perez, Barry Massoni
Producer: Cheryl McIntire, Mattia Borrani
Cast: David Lockhart, Camille Montgomery, Rick Mora
Country: USA
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Left Films)


I’ll be honest: I expected a low-budget film called Cowboys and Zombies to be cheesy. Cheesy doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it rarely means good.

However this impressive film defied my expectations and proved to be not just good but frankly terrific. And not cheesy in the slightest. Well, maybe a tiny bit near the start. But no, let’s be honest. Cowboys and Zombies is not only a good zombie movie, it’s actually a good western too. And like all right-minded people, I love a good western.

David Lockhart (who starred in two Crow fanfilms) is Mortimer, a bounty hunter who is introduced to us in an opening shoot-out. Although I’m never a fan of starting a film with an action sequence because we don’t yet know or care about any characters, we can at least surmise who we should be rooting for. Yes, he’s got a black hat but he’s considerably better-looking than his opponent so he’s either a hero or an anti-hero. He’ll turn out to be a bit of both.

Mortimer is a bounty hunter for financial reasons; not greed but because he needs the money for a good purpose (which we find out later). The next assignment he takes on is tracking down Brother Wolf, an Apache who is wanted for the rape and murder of a white woman.

Displaying a gloriously amoral approach, Mortimer buys a blonde from a guy (Colin Hussey, who did a voice for a Next Gen video game) who is trying to make an honest buck by transporting young women out to the west and selling them as wives (or, if that fails, whores). This is Rhiannon (Camille Montgomery) who is a feisty, independent spirit but Mortimer doesn’t care. He takes her out to a location where the redskin might be, ties her to a peg in the ground and retires to a distance, leaving Rhiannon there like a tethered goat. (The IMDB calls her Rhianna but it sounds like Rhiannon on the film so that's what I'm going with.)

When Brother Wolf turns up we can instantly see that this won’t be a western of black and white morality but nor will it be a modern, apologist, revisionist western. Writer-director Rene Perez isn’t interested in cowboys’n’Indians, he’s interested in this cowboy and this Indian: fully rounded characters and individuals. (Brother Wolf is played by strapping actor/model Rick Mora who is of genuine Apache descent and had a tiny role in a flashback sequence in Twilight.)

The bounty is payable on bringing in the Injun alive and Mortimer takes him prisoner but only after a well-directed, well-choreographed fight between the two. Without making a fuss about it, we can see how Perez sets up the white man’s semi-formal fisticuffs against the red man’s more freeform fighting style, telling us a great deal about each character.

Characters, as I believe I have noted in other reviews, are defined by their relationships with each other and Cowboys and Zombies does a cracking job of working and melding relationships to reveal, define and explore character. But first there’s the little matter of zombies.

This is the slightly cheesy bit. A couple of prospectors discover a green-glowing rock and take it back to town where the townsfolk gather round to unwisely watch one of the prospectors try to smash the thing open with a pick-axe. Unsurprisingly, this cracks the ‘rock’ open releasing a cheap, computer-animated sparkly green gas which before long has turned everyone into lurching mutants with distorted faces and a tendency to chomp down on anything living. Zombies basically, although obviously the word is never used.

On the way back to town, Mortimer, Brother Wolf and Rhiannon encounter a rival, German bounty hunter (Austrian bodybuilder Robert Amstler, who was Arnie’s body-double in Terminator 3) and we get another shootout during which the first zombie appears and this is what I mean about character and relationships because there are so many relationships pointing in so many directions here. Mortimer and ‘The German’ are fighting over possession of Brother Wolf, who must be kept alive. Mortimer doesn’t care about Rhiannon and expects her to leave because, having served her purpose, she’s free to go. But she feels a responsibility towards Brother Wolf who showed her compassion when she was tethered.

Then you throw the zombie into the mix, advancing on Brother Wolf (who is now tethered himself) and Rhiannon. It’s an adroitly handled melange of connections between characters which goes much deeper then simple protagonist-antagonist. And all this while two cowboys are blasting away at each other and a zombie’s trying to catch and eat someone!

One of the things I really loved about this movie was that characters behaved realistically, sensibly and consistently. Arriving in the deserted town, and now fully aware that it is in both their interests to collaborate, the two men decide to hole up in the hotel with Rhiannon. Which leads to probably the film’s most memorable sequence as Rhiannon is stalked by a blind zombie, a hideously deformed once-was-woman tracking its prey by sound (brilliantly played by Lauren C Kelly). This is a fantastically clever and tense sequence and worth the price of admission alone.

With a small principal cast of solid actors, effective use of a standing frontier town set, and skilful direction that manages to be clever without pretentious, plus a well-honed script that doesn’t waste a word, Cowboys and Zombies is great viewing. Exciting, sometimes scary, never silly or self-indulgent and a commendably taught 82 minutes. If the camera-work sometimes betrays its video origins, that’s not enough to distract from an overall impressive B-movie.

The pace is perfectly judged, moving from deft action scenes (including an audacious ‘first-person-shooter’ sequence!) to characterisation, notably a confessional scene between the two men which feels like so much more than two guys sitting on chairs telling each other about their lives. We find out why Brother Wolf really has a bounty on his head and why Mortimer really needs that money and both revelations add to our understanding of who these men are and why they do the things they do.

Perez, Amstler, cinematographer Paul Nordin, co-writer Barry Massoni and producer Mattia Borrani are part of a music/film-making collective called iDIC whose other movies include martial arts actioners War Machine and Ninja Warpath (the trailers for which, to be honest, look completely interchangeable). Most recently Perez has directed vampire feature Obsidian Hearts. Ed Martinez (Black Devil Doll, Death Row) supplied the imaginative make-up effects. Originally called The Dead and the Damned, the film was retitled for its UK release to opportunistically cash in on a certain Harrison Ford picture.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 13th July 2011

Community

Director: Jason Ford
Writer: Jason Ford
Producer: Terry Bird
Cast: Jemma Dallender, Elliott Jordan, Paul McNeilly
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: screener
Website:
www.newtownfilms.co.uk

When I started watching Community, my initial thoughts were that this was a sort of serious, urban take on the same themes as Inbred, with its tale of an isolated community slaughtering interlopers. But gradually I realised that what we have here is more like an expansion of Steven Sheil’s brilliant Mum and Dad, with its warped values of family, loyalty and love. There are also elements of Eden Lake, in the use of very young antagonists, and even Johannes Roberts’ F in the way that the ‘hoodie horror’ has a non-realist aspect; not really fantasy, but not the brutal reality usually associated with that subgenre.

All of which comparisons are not intended to show that Jason Ford’s terrific second feature is at all derivative, but instead to emphasise how ideas and tropes recur across the British Horror Revival as different directors find different ways of approaching the same interesting, important themes.

Jemma Dallender stars as film student Isabelle, determined to make a documentary about the notorious Drayman Estate, a no-go zone of once-respectable, now dilapidated 1970s housing. Elliott Jordan is Will, who has agreed to accompany her and act as camera-man. A local bus, which doesn’t run after dark, drops them off on the outskirts of the estate which, in a set-up that doesn’t quite ring true, seems to be an isolated rural community, unconnected to any actual urban conurbation.

Isabelle and Will encounter a group of primary-age kids who proudly show some of the animals they have killed (in an earlier version of the script, one of these kids was going to be a pregnant 12-year-old but Ford has wisely opted to keep the disturbing images limited at this stage). Mysteriously, the two students are being watched from a parked car by a pair of dodgy geezers whose relevance will become apparent later, simultaneously justifying Isabelle’s determination to not leave when the opportunity presents itself.

She wants to get a ‘money shot’ of the special, home-grown weed which bedevils the estate, and finds it in the run-down community centre. She also finds trouble when a mobile phone (not hers or Will’s) betrays them in one of the cleverest - and tensest - bits of plotting I have seen for quite some time.

The Drayman Estate turns out to be a truly awful place, where adults and children live empty lives broken only by drugs and violence. Three age-groups are neatly presented: the little kids, who seem almost normal apart from a tendency to hyperactivity and casual sadism; the adults, who spend their days stoned on their stained, torn sofas; and the teenagers, a purely animalistic generation who communicate in grunts and screams.

Binding all this together is the special weed and the estate’s de facto leader Auntie, a wonderfully observed study in creepy ambiguity by Paul McNeilly. In fact the cast as a whole - adults and children alike - are excellent, with none of the Drayman inhabitants ever tripping over into caricature, and two mesmerising central performances from Dallender and Jordan.

One reason why this all works so well is that there are places almost like the Drayman Estate and there are certainly people like its inhabitants. People with nothing to do all day except spend their state benefits on drugs and drink, raising a generation of kids with little chance of ever escaping the social dependency hell that the New Labour government created in the noughties: a working class distracted from having to think so that the privileged ruling elite could concentrate on making themselves and their friends even richer.

Like so many of the best BHR films, Community has something to say about 21st century Britain and modern British society - ‘Broken Britain’ - but also works as a terrific horror film in its own right.

Jason Ford writes and directs with confidence, creating characters we care about, characters we’re frightened of and characters who intrigue us. At its most basic level, yes this is the nth entry in the post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre stakes of young folks encountering inbred sickos and having to escape, but Ford works to create new twists and new ideas instead of relying on lazy clichés.

Producer Terry Bird (who also produced Ford’s debut, New Town Original) is an actor who has appeared in everything from The Bill to Chucklevision and here plays one of the Estate’s alpha males, a violent brute named Dumpy. The solid supporting cast also includes Jo Dyson who, bizarrely, was in another recent British movie about film students venturing onto a dangerously violent estate, Ash and Naeem Mahmood’s ‘apocalyptic thriller’ The Affected.

Editor Jason Rayment produced and DP-ed Where Seagulls Cry a Song, an intriguing-sounding 2010 psychological thriller set across three time periods (which is available to view on YouTube). Brad Watson (director of Asylum Night and The 7th Dimension) supervised visual effects while special effects were overseen by John Schoonraad (Little Deaths, 13hrs). The DP was Aaron Reid who has photographed videos for the likes of Professor Green, Alexandra Burke and, um, Jedward.

Shot around Basildon over three weeks on a tiny budget, Community premiered at the 2012 Frightfest with a local screening a few days later, appearing on UK DVD in March 2013. The end credits play under a song called ‘Final Project’ which was the film’s original title.

MJS rating: A-

Colour from the Dark

Director: Ivan Zuccon
Writer: Ivo Gazzarrini
Producers: Ivan Zuccon, Roberta Marelli
Cast: Debbie Rochon, Michael Segal, Marysia Kay, Eleanor James
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website:
www.ivanzuccon.com

I have never made any secret of my admiration for the work of Ivan Zuccon. He’s a good friend (though we have never met in person) and it has been a pleasure to watch each of his films, fresh from the edit suite. I have been able to watch Ivan grow and develop as a director since his feature debut, The Darkness Beyond. I think he gets better with every film.

I think this may be his best yet.

The influence of HP Lovecraft permeates Ivan Zuccon’s work more than almost any other film-maker that I can think of. Possibly only Stuart Gordon comes close in his enthusiasm and admiration for Lovecraft. Here’s a thought. Imagine a two-part Lovecraft anthology: one half directed by Stuart Gordon, one half by Ivan Zuccon. A bit like what Argento and Romero did with Edgar Allan Poe on Two Evil Eyes. I would love to see that.

The Darkness Beyond and Unknown Beyond both wore their Lovecraft influence on their sleeve. The Shunned House was a an intertwining of three narrative strands through space and time, all adapted from HPL stories. Bad Brains and NyMpha both have subtler but undeniable Lovecraftian elements; NyMpha, for example, owes a certain amount to 'The Dunwich Horror'.

Colour from the Dark is the first actual, feature-length adaptation of a single Lovecraft tale which Ivan has filmed. And it’s magnificent.

‘The Colour Out of Space’ is the source material, a novella that was originally published in Amazing Stories in 1927. This has been filmed twice before: in 1965 as Die, Monster, Die! with Boris Karloff and as The Curse in 1987, starring a pre-Star Trek Wil Wheaton. But I’m not here to compare this film with the original story (beyond observing a few salient differences in plot) and certainly not to compare it to loose adaptations made twenty and forty years ago. That would serve no purpose. For the record, all that Ivan has taken from the Lovecraft tale is the most basic concept and the phrase on the poster: ‘sucks the life out’. No, I’m just here to discuss how Colour from the Dark stands up as a film in 2008, and I can tell you that it stands up very well indeed.

The story, truth be told, is pretty simple. The setting is Italy in the early 1940s (the original story was set in New England in 1882) where Pietro, a farmer with a gammy leg whose disability precludes him from war service, lives with his wife Lucia and his mute, retarded sister-in-law Alice who carries a red-headed rag doll everywhere. A fourth member of the family, Luigi, is serving in the army although I couldn’t quite determine whether he is Pietro’s brother, Lucia’s brother or possibly even Alice’s husband. Up the lane from Pietro and Alice’s farm live Giovanni and his grand-daughter Anna, who have been sheltering a young Jewish woman, named Teresa, from the Nazis. Apart from a local priest, that’s pretty much the whole cast.

Something in the farm well gradually affects, through the well water, the crops and then the family. Pietro’s leg injury heals, Alice starts to speak and the tomatoes and peppers grow big and bountiful. But very rapidly things take a turn for the worse. Lucia initially develops a libido but this rapidly descends into violent and sexual behaviour which forces her husband to lock her in the attic. The fruit rots on the vine, Alice spends her days talking to Teresa’s undiscovered corpse, gradually decomposing among trees where she was shot as she tried to escape. Nightmares and hallucinations torture the minds of all concerned as the mysterious something and its effects ‘suck the life out.’

I said that I wouldn’t compare this to the original but it is worth noting that both ‘The Colour Out of Space’ and Colour from the Dark are atypical Lovecraft. There are no Old Ones here, no indescribable horrors, no Necronomicon. What there is instead is a science fictional element, at least in the written story which concerns a meteorite, examined by geologists who discovers within the rock a sort of bubble. It is on the surface of that bubble, which swiftly disappears, that the mysterious, unnameable colour of the title is first seen, later emerging as an indescribable sheen on the plants and animals and rocks of the farm.

In the film there is no meteorite, no suggestion of where this particular form of energy may have originated. And since Ivan is, naturally, limited to the colours of the real world, he cleverly uses instead a computer-generated effect of a web-like, white light, creeping across floors, walls and people, occasionally distorting faces or other images for a moment. It’s a terrific effect and works brilliantly in what it tries to achieve.

And while this may not be typical Lovecraft, nevertheless it’s archetypal Zuccon! An isolated farmhouse, a possessed relative locked away, the breakdown of a dysfunctional family and above all a network of multiple levels of reality, skilfully interwoven so that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure what is or isn’t a dream. This is not just a simplistic story in which every horrific, fantastical thing is explained away when someone wakes up, this is Ivan as writer-director twisting reality this way and that with his usual confident eye for frightening images.

For example, when the priest tries to exorcise Lucia, she flings his Holy water back at him, each drop burning his skin like acid as he lies on the floor and defends himself with prayer. Then suddenly - he is back standing at the entrance to the room, untouched. Yet while Lucia straddled the prostrate man of God, burning his skin, we saw Alice and Pietro in other parts of the building, cowering with their hands over their painful ears as an ultra-high pitched sound rent the air. What happened? Did anything happen? This is so, so Ivan Zuccon.

The effects, as mentioned, are excellent. Not only the digital visual effects but also the pale, scratched skin of the possessed Lucia, a number of gore effects, plenty of blood and even a brief, contextual shot of two Luftwaffe fighters passing overhead. Massimo Storari has been working with Ivan since The Darkness Beyond and, like other members of the ‘company’ on both sides of the camera, his work has progressed with each film, especially since he moved into digital work from The Shunned House onwards. On Colour from the Dark Massimo gets two credits: for visual effects and as make-up effects assistant.

The principal make-up effects artist was Fiona Walsh who trained under Neill Gorton and has subsequently worked on Doctor Who and Torchwood as well as ambiguously titled British indie feature Lesbian Vampire Killers. ‘Molding, casting and prosthetic effects’ are credited to Mauro Fabriczky, who has a photo of Debbie Rochon’s scratched arms on his website. Whoever did what, the cumulative effects is that the effects are all excellent and support the story and the characters without overpowering them.

Other Zuccon regulars at the top of their game include costume designer Donatella Ravagnani, set designer Valerio Zuccon, sound designer Antonio Masiero and 1st AD Eugenia Serravalli. Spanish composer Marco Werba previously scored Timo Rose’s Fearmakers (which starred Debbie Rochon) and is now working with Dario Argento. Ivo Gazzarrini, who wrote Bad Brains and NyMpha, provided another very fine script. And then there is the excellent cast which, in terms of this level of film-making, could almost be considered ‘all-star’.

Debbie Rochon is a legend of course, with more than 150 films roles to her credit in the last thirty years or so. But far too many of those are cheesy, semi-sleazy, ultra-low-budget comedy-horror romps, often also featuring Trent Haaga and/or Lloyd Kaufman. It is comparatively rare that Rochon really gets the chance to stretch her serious acting muscles and remind us just what a good actress she is. Opposite Debbie’s Lucia is Michael Segal’s Pietro, a powerful portrayal of a man whose life is torn apart for reasons way beyond his comprehension. Segal has appeared in almost all of Ivan’s features, allowing those of us who have been keeping track of things to watch him develop as an actor. He has always been good but in this film he is simply excellent, establishing a naturalistic and human centre to the supernatural horror tale.

The two UK actresses in the cast have both established themselves as leading lights of the British Horror Revival. Spooky Scottish lady Marysia Kay plays Alice with exactly the brooding intensity that the mostly wordless part requires. She has an impressive CV which include Johannes Roberts’ Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls, killer scarecrow indie The Scar Crow, vampire picture Blood + Roses and, by way of a change, spoof porno documentary Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice; she has recently completed Forest of the Damned 2. Neighbour Anna is played by Eleanor James who was also in Roberts’ Forest of the Damned as well as HellBride and The Devil’s Music for Pat Higgins and Stuart Brennan’s Zombies of the Night. Most recently she has filmed horror anthology Bordello Death Tales, playing the Bride of Frankenstein-esque lead character in Alan Ronald’s Universal homage segment 'Stitchgirl'.

Irish actor Gerry Shanahan adds to the international nature of the cast, playing Anna’s grandfather and there’s no denying that it takes a while to get used to the idea of a character named Giovanni who has a Dublin accent. But it is clear that Ivan, in wanting to get the best from his actors in this English-language production, has allowed them to use their own accents and trusts his audience to be intelligent enough to see past this. I think we’re all just used to seeing ‘Italian’ characters in movies and TV shows played by British and American actors whereas the Irish/Italian dichotomy stands out as something unusual.

Matteo Tosi, who was so good as Mirco in Bad Brains, is perfectly cast as Don Mario, the sincere young priest who finds himself against an (apparently demonic) entity and calls on all his faith to withstand it. One cannot help thinking of The Exorcist when watching the ghoulish Alice attempting to seduce the strong-hearted but ultimately ineffective padre. Emmett J Scanlan, another Irish actor albeit with a much less noticeable accent, plays the soldier Luigi whose appearance at the farm, bringing a touch of the outside, war-riven world with him, reminded me of Christopher Eccleston’s cameo in The Others. Scanlan is a bit of a horror fan and his other genre work includes Paddy Breathnach’s Freakdog and Renfield in a stage production of Dracula. Alessandra Guerzoni, so effective as the Mother Superior in NyMpha, appears briefly as Teresa the young Jewish woman while effects man Massimo Storari has a cameo as a German soldier.

This is a superb cast, pulling together strong actors, some from previous Zuccon films, others with their own reputation within the independent film sector. Every one of these actors gives a stirling performance so that it is difficult to single out any one performer as the best. Though Rochon and Segal’s names are above the title, this is an ensemble piece without a weak link in its acting chain.

Colour from the Dark is the sixth feature that Ivan has directed although I know he has had plans for this one for a long time so it could have been the fourth or fifth. Tiffany Shepis was going to star at one point but she made NyMpha with Ivan instead (other actors attached at various stages included Katia Winter - who was in Night Junkies and The Seer - and Federico D’Anneo from NyMpha). To be honest, I think the wait was worthwhile because the film benefits not only from year-on-year improvements in the digital effects available to a movie of this size but also from Ivan’s progress as a film-maker - and indeed from the progress in their respective skills of his numerous regular collaborators.

One person whose contribution I haven’t discussed in detail is Ivan himself who not only directs and produces but also shot the film himself (on Digibeta) and cut it. There are some extraordinary camera set-ups, as one would expect, not least excellent use of the well which is shot from above and below. Another noticeable technique is the placing of one character in extreme close-up in the foreground with another seen full-length in the background. At the risk of sounding pretentious, Ivan Zuccon is a poet with a movie camera.

Looking at the Zuccon filmography, I see the two Beyond films as ambitious, imaginative and experimental, with Ivan trying out new film-making ideas in the transition from shorts to features. Then came a pair of very good, solid films - The Shunned House and Bad Brains - which showed Ivan maturing and consolidating his skills, really finding his own style. And the most recent two features, NyMpha and now Colour from the Dark, demonstrate that Ivan is a world class film-maker, not only in his ability to attract international casts and crew but also in the overseas funding that is providing the financial basis for this work; Colour was partly financed from Canada for example.

Is Colour from the Dark Ivan Zuccon’s masterpiece? I suggest a cautious yes because I know how special and personal this project has been to Ivan during its years of development. Everything else has been leading up to this and I fully expect to review Ivan’s seventh feature, whatever that turns out to be, with the observation that it’s a great movie although it doesn’t quite hit the peak that Colour from the Dark reaches, But you know, I’d love to be wrong on that. That’s one reason why I’m giving this magnificent film an A instead of an A+; I want to leave room for Ivan to get even better. The other reason concerns my credo which I have often cited here: that I judge each film on how well it achieves what it sets out to do with what it has available. One of the things that any Ivan Zuccon film has is... Ivan Zuccon. Because Ivan is so good at what he does, that raises my expectations about what each film should be able to achieve, which ironically makes it harder for Ivan to surprise me by being so much better than expected.

And here’s a point to end on. I took a look at the Inaccurate Movie Database and found just over forty Italian horror features listed since 2000. There are undoubtedly a few more. And obviously I haven’t seen most of those films but that's because many of them never made it outside Italy. Among the few which have, the only ones to have received any level of critical discussion are the most recent Argento films, the reaction to which among fans has been, ah, mixed. Even the best-received, Nonhosonno, was compared unfavourably to Dario’s classics from the 1980s.

Apart from Argento, Lamberto Bava has made a couple of tiny-budget pictures, Bruno Mattei is still cranking out dodgy cannibal movies and there’s a bunch of obscurities which, though they may be good, clearly aren’t good enough to break out of the domestic scene. Whereas all of Ivan’s films have been released outside Italy and Colour from the Dark actually went as far as a New York premiere with Ivan, Debbie, Michael and others in attendance.

In respect of the above couple of paragraphs and bearing in mind Ivan’s professional and artistic development with each movie, I am prepared to go on record as saying that Colour from the Dark is the first truly great Italian horror film of the 21st century.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 7th November 2008

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Colin

Director: Marc Price
Writer: Marc Price
Producer: Marc Price
Cast: Alastair Kirton, Daisy Aitkens, Tat Whalley
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website:
www.nowherefast.tv

Colin is not the first zombie film to make an actual zombie its protagonist but, like its most obvious precursor, Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie, it is a bleak, grim, depressing and hugely impressive film

I was worried that this would tread similar ground to Andy P’s feature but it doesn’t so that’s the last mention we’ll have of I, Zombie except to note that, while the earlier film documented somebody turning into a zombie, Colin is actually about, well, a zombie. Our eponymous central character is an unthinking, non-talking, shuffling, shambling human body with a craving for flesh. As a famous Rocky Horror poster once said: he’s the hero; that’s right - the hero.

This is a film which takes a while to get going so bear with the first ten minutes or so in which Colin comes home, cleans a wound in his arm with bleach(!) and fights his infected flatmate before finally succumbing to the Romero-esque condition. He then spends the whole night trying to open the front door before eventually falling through the ground-floor window. And after this, we simply tag along with him as he wanders through the city.

Colin is a series of vignettes in a city where the living dead have almost taken over. Society has utterly collapsed but there are surviving individuals and groups of humans, some finally falling victim to the never-tiring ghouls, others establishing themselves in the remnants of civilisation. We meet a couple of chancers who mug lone zombies for their trainers and watches. We encounter Colin’s unaffected sister and her boyfriend. We spot a loner who nevertheless stops his car occasionally to help those in trouble by smashing their attackers’ heads in with a crowbar. And in possibly the film’s scariest sequence we visit a house where some young people’s ‘end of the world’ party has gone awry, the zombies having flooded into the house. (This feels like an homage to Cloverfield although I don’t know if that’s the intention.)

There’s a creepy bloke who keeps blinded, female zombies in his basement. And there’s a gang who know that the only way to deal with the undead is to destroy them and then kill anyone who got bitten in the fracas, no matter how much they plead for mercy.

And through all this wanders - well, shuffles - Colin, his medical condition worsening as his physical condition deteriorates. We follow him, we go where he goes, and if we don’t actually see this world through his eyes, nevertheless he is the closest we have to a guide.

Now, this might be all well and good but where can it go? A film must have a narrative: a beginning, middle and end. And this is where writer/director Marc Price really excels. Because the last act of the film is actually a prequel to what we have seen before. As Colin, having wandered round in a huge circle, shambles in through his front door we leap back to another time that he entered the building, before he succumbed to the zombie plague. We meet his girlfriend, we get some more background on what has been going on - and rather brilliantly, a whole bunch of apparently meaningless background details become relevant. This is clearly a film which will repay a second viewing.

Alastair Kirton is absolutely fantastic in the title role. Barely even grunting until that flashback third act, he gives the sort of wordless performance that comes along only rarely, allowing an actor to shine. Don’t misunderstand me if I compare this to Karloff in Frankenstein. With all respect to Kirton, he may yet turn out to be an actor of Karloff’s stature or he may not. That’s not the point. The point is that both actors were asked to make us believe in and sympathise with a lifeless, mute, shambling dead-alive body. For any actor that is both a tremendous gift and a terrifying challenge. One wonders if there are any members of Equity out there who turned this down like Lugosi declined the monster. (Interestingly, Kirton once played Henry Clerval in a stage production of Frankenstein.)

There is no credited production designer, which is odd but leaves one assuming that Price himself was largely responsible for creating the recently-deserted look of the streets and rooms. One very noticeable aspect of the production (and design is part of this) is that Colin is very, very British, to the extent that it’s extremely easy to believe that this is the same plague that we saw in Shaun of the Dead. Whereas something like The Zombie Diaries, good though that movie was, seems more specifically Romero-esque. Diaries could have been made in another country and not looked much different. Colin just wouldn’t work in most countries, certainly not in America. Maybe the Germans or the Aussies could have done something like this but it would, I suspect, have ended up as intrinsically German or Australian as this is British.

But nothing is perfect and there is one area where the film falters, which is the camera-work. For some reason, Price feels the need to shoot a lot of the scenes using a wobbly, handheld technique which simply distracts from the imagery, characters and story. Which is a shame. This is not part of the recent run of ‘found footage’ movies like the aforementioned Zombie Diaries or Cloverfield, [Rec] or Vampire Diary. There is no sense, in any scene, in which the camera is part of the action, so there is no reason to foreground the fact that we are looking through a camera by shaking it about.

Price owns a tripod, clearly, because some scenes are conventionally shot. And there are some parts of the film, primarily action scenes, where a shaky camera is justifiable artistically because it helps to create the pandemonium of, for example, the zombie-infested party. But there are other sequences, such as the kitchen-set opening, when this is gratuitous to the point of actually being annoying. Obviously this use of ‘shaky-cam’ is a stylistic decision by Marc Price but it’s over-used, inappropriately used and stops Colin from being the minor masterpiece which it could have been.

Kirton and Price previously collaborated on a short film called Midnight about three people thrown together in the build-up to a nuclear attack. Also in the cast are Tat Whalley (who played Rick Allen in a Def Leppard biopic and was in Russell Mulcahy’s little-seen Egyptian adventure The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb), Helena Martin (also in Darren Ward’s A Day of Violence and Stuart Brennan’s Zombies of the Night, making her one of the few actors with two British zombie films on her CV), Dominic Burgess (bit parts in Batman Begins and Doctor Who), Sarah Strong (who was in a short spoof called Fluffy the English Vampire Slayer), Ken Dirke (who played the title role in Jason Impey’s psycho feature Sick Bastard), Julia Eve (who was also in a couple of Jason Impey films) and Darren McIlroy (The Scar Crow). Michelle Webb was in charge of the make-up team, several of whom also worked on Stag Night of the Living Dead.

Colin is a terrific film and an absolute must-see for anyone with an interest in the British Horror Revival or curious to see how the zombie genre, which so often shuffles across the same old ground, can be taken into new directions.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 14th October 2008

Monday, 18 February 2013

Coldspot

Director: Ed Radmanich III
Writer: Ed Radmanich III
Producer: DCG Films
Cast: Ed Radmanich III, Alida Humer, Jason Brown
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener


A couple of years ago, when I reviewed Ed Radmanich’s very funny 35-minute short Artie Saves the Hood, I commented that there might possibly be enough scope in the story and characters for a feature. With Coldspot (which is 'based off' the earlier film) Ed has produced a feature-length remake/sequel and while I still believe that there’s a great feature to be made about Artie and Mason, I’m not convinced that this is it.

Coldspot doesn’t assume any previous knowledge of the characters - in fact there is a flashback to clips from ASTH quite late in the film - but maybe it should. Because this 110-minute film is more than halfway through before the audience is given a clue what is going on. There is some sort of slimy-skull-headed alien wandering around suburbia, killing people. That is, his head is a sort of slimy skull, the alien as a whole isn’t slimy. Somehow all these brutal, violent murders go undetected and no-one ever calls the cops. But that’s just part of the plot.

Artie and Mason being the laissez-faire dudes that they are, our main protagonist is Sam (ballet dancer turned actress Alida Humer), whose friend’s boyfriend (William 'Chip' McKee) installs a new wi-fi server for her which is actually stealing broadband from next door. As a result of this, she picks up a strange voice on her laptop which turns out to be her mysterious neighbour Artie Guy (Ed himself) who is stuck in some sort of desolate other dimension where he wanders around and occasionally tangles with the zombie Nazi clonebots from the first film (who don’t make any inroads into our reality this time). Far too much of the film is Artie giving instructions to Sam to find things and switch things on and suchlike which eventually brings him back from wherever he was.

Sam has her own problems, not least a blind date who refuses to take ‘no, absolutely not, never’ for an answer and actually breaks into her house to kidnap her. Meanwhile Mason (Jason Brown), who we saw jumping trancelike from a bridge at the start of the movie, has found a note and a hotel key in his pocket and is waiting patiently to find out who he is. And Mason’s brother (Kyle Brady), who is dating Sam’s room-mate Amy (Melissa Melancon), is driving around looking for... something.

The essential problem with Coldspot is that all this preamble goes on far, far too long. As a general rule of thumb, by one third of the way into the movie, we should have been introduced to all our characters, we should understand the setting and the characters’ relationships, all our characters should be aware of each other and, crucially, both the audience and the characters should have identified the threat, quest, McGuffin or whatever it is that will give the movie its narrative purpose. This is the end of the first act and in a film this length we should get here about 30 to 35 minutes in.

In fact we’re about an hour into the film before we reach a point which could reasonably be described as an act transition. This leaves only 40 minutes or so for the second act and then a frankly perfunctory final act when the bad guy is defeated in a way which I couldn’t follow entirely but which looked rather arbitrary and easy. The script is simply unbalanced and that can’t help but make for an unbalanced movie. In fact, what we’ve effectively got here is a film not much longer than Artie Saves the Hood which has a prologue that is longer than the film itself.

Which is a shame because otherwise there is much to enjoy in Coldspot. While not nearly as knockabout as its predecessor (and clearly not so cut-price), there is still a streak of dry humour running through the often deadpan performances of the cast. Radmanich’s direction is confident and the special effects, bearing in mind the budget, are excellent. Apart from anything else, it’s just so nice to see someone doing something different rather than yet another psycho or zombie film.

Now, I must mention the credits because, firstly, Coldspot has one of the best opening title sequences that I have seen for a long time: great song, great graphics, great images. And secondly, because I feel the need to create a league table of who gets mentioned the most:

  1. Melissa Hester: assistant 2nd AD, assistant props, special effects technician (3 credits)
  2. Josh Lind: audio recording, boom, special effects technician (3 credits)
  3. Manny Marmolejos: art director (‘art designer’ in the opening titles), model maker, location manager (3 credits)
  4. Bryan Jackson: audio recording, B camera operator, boom, key grip, special effects technician (5 credits)
  5. Fawn Sutherland: 2nd AD, production supervisor, script supervisor, make-up artist, special effects technician (5 credits)
  6. Phil Mohr: special visual FX, special FX art design, cinematography, lighting, musical score, sound mastering, unit production manager, graphic design, set designer, A camera operator, key make-up artist, special effects co-ordinator (12 credits)
  7. Jason Brown: lighting, production design, 1st AD, stunt co-ordinator, stunts, set decorator, B camera operator, boom, chief lighting technician, special effects technician, foley supervisor, plus Mason, ‘Nick’ and two non-speaking roles (15 credits)
  8. Ed Radmanich III: art director, sound design, editing, screenplay, director, stunts, storyboard artist, set designer, A camera operator, sound mixer, costume supervisor, production co-ordinator, special effects technician, additional audio, locations provided by, plus Artie and two non-speaking roles (18 credits - ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!)

I’ll tell you what: the end credits of Coldspot would make a fabulous drinking game.

Don’t get me wrong - I enjoyed Coldspot and it was a real pleasure to spend more time with Artie and Mason, even if they are actually apart for much of the film. This is well-directed, well-produced, nicely photographed with good sound and flawless special effects, both physical and digital. But I still have a hankering for a proper, full-length Artie and Mason movie. Some sort of Artie and Mason’s Bogus Journey or Dude, Where’s My Clonebot? In the meantime, Coldspot is good, solid, sci-fi fun and well worth your time.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 20th October 2008

Club Death

Director: Jake West
Writer: Jake West
Producer: Simon Hunter
Cast: Mark Leake, Christopher Adamson, Louise Edwards
Country: UK
Year of release: 1994
Reviewed from:
Razor Blade Smile DVD

Although I was aware that Jake West (Evil Aliens) and Simon Hunter (Mutant Chronicles) knew each other - indeed, they each provided an uncredited radio voice for the other’s first feature - it was still a surprise to discover that this half-hour short, which was Jake’s graduation film, was actually produced by Simon. Furthermore it stars the guy who subsequently produced Simon’s debut feature, Lighthouse.

Club Death was included on the 2-DVD special edition of Razor Blade Smile in 2004, giving us all a chance to see Jake’s first serious foray into film-making (a clip from one of his earlier student films, A Bizarre Short Film About Death..., is included in the documentary on the RBS special edition). And crikey, it’s weird. Frankly, it’s more than weird, it’s obtuse. But here’s a handy synopsis which I found on the internet:

James Clover, killed at his own fancy dress party, finds himself with a choice between joining the Afterlife Corporation and reliving his life again or joining Club Death and accepting that his time is over.

Well, that’s more than I could work out from watching the film, to be honest. The black and white opening sequence shows various folks partying and James Clover (Mark Leake) upstairs committing adultery with a young lady played by Caroline Crampton-Thomas (now a barrister!). He complains of deja vu and then a figure dressed as Death enters the room and shoots him.

After that it all gets very surreal, albeit in colour, as Clover finds himself in Purgatory where he meets Magus, played by Jake West regular Christopher Adamson, the bastard offspring of Christopher Lee and Terry-Thomas. Magus (who may even be Satan himself) works for something called the Afterlife Corporation (ALC) who produce a thing called the Karma Kard. This is advertised using some very early computer graphics and inserted into Clover’s body through a slot-shaped wound.

Clover returns to Earth and we see the same adultery/shooting scene again but with some of the dialogue slightly different, after which Clover returns to Purgatory. There he once again meets not only Magus but also an elderly vicar who was previously seen at the party (Stanley Lloyd, who was in McVicar and two episodes of 2.4 Children) and a gorgeous, Gaiman-esque, female Death (Louise Edwards, who changed her name to Louisa Moore between this and Razor Blade Smile and now seems to have disappeared).

It all ends up with the (thoroughly unsurprising) identity of Clover’s killer being revealed while Death dances with and somehow tricks Magus. Precisely what is what and who is who is something that’s impossible to determine as everything seems to be a metaphor for something else. It’s a very student-y student film.

However, it’s also a very confident and extraordinarily well made student film with excellent contributions from the future Razor Blade Smile creative team of cinematographer Jim Solan, production designer Neil Jenkins and costume designer Dena Costello plus make-up artist Claire Le Vesconte who subsequently did Lighthouse and now works on Harry Potter movies. In typical Jake West fashion, everything you can think of is thrown into the mix, in both stylistic and narrative terms, with an elan that demonstrates a love of, and an understanding of, cinema in its most creative form. I suppose it all works - because I don’t think it’s meant to be straightforward.

While the actual story is an enigma, the film is carried by its directorial style and three performances from the leads which are considerably stronger than one often sees in student films. Adamson uses the RADA voice familiar from RBS and it’s quite a surprise in the Making of Club Death/RBS documentary to hear him talk in his normal London accent.

Mark Leake had a few other acting roles, including a BBC radio dramatisation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but may have returned to his original career as an investment banker. Sound recordist Simon Price went on to work in various audio roles on Chicken Run, Alien vs Predator, Batman Begins and The Dark while boom handler Nils Petter Midtun is now a DoP on documentaries in his native Norway. Cameron Kerr, who provided the computer graphics, has worked on top games such as Tomb Raider and Carmageddon. There there’s special effects bods Nick Rideout and Richard Thomas who share a credit for ‘Armourer and pyrotechnics’; the former’s CV now includes The Descent, Cold and Dark and the remake of The Quatermass Experiment, while the latter, after constructing the eponymous model building for Lighthouse, went on to ply his trade on Alien vs Predator, Batman Begins and Mutant Chronicles.

Costello, Hunter and Jenkins are all extras in the party scene along with a chap named Edward Lynden-Bell who has now relocated to New Zealand where he has directed a feature called The Last Great Snail Chase. The music was composed and performed by Jake Knowles who also appears as Jimi Hendrix.

Club Death, which was premiered at Raindance in London, was also included on a German 2-disc edition of Evil Aliens along with its own nine-minute Making Of (which may simply be re-edited material from the Slices of Life documentary on the Razor Blade Smile disc).

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 4th August 2008

Close Your Eyes

Director: David Lilley
Writer: David Lilley
Producers: David Lilley, Kevin Norcross
Cast: Jennifer Evans, Nick Ewans, Phil Smeeton
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener DVD


This enjoyable 12-minute vampire film from director Dave Lilley (God’s Desk) is an exercise in lighting as much as anything. He cuts between two stories, both shot in very low light, and distinctively coloured (presumably digitally) almost to the point of looking like an old tinted movie.

A middle-aged, middle-class couple (Nick Ewans and Annie Walker) arrive at a holiday cottage with their two daughters. With the kids in bed, they snuggle in front of the telly but a curious sound prompts a possibly unwise investigation. In the second story, three young people (Jennifer Evans, Phil Smeeton and Nina Reizi) prowl an old building, hunting something which is also hunting them. The family scenes are yellowish-orange, the trio’s scenes are greenish-blue. Ace DP Simon Fretwell (Slipping) does a bravura job on what must be one of the darkest (literally) films I have ever seen.

How are the stories connected? Are they happening at the same time and/or the same place? With such a short running time, it would be unfair to spoil the story by giving any further details, but it does raise an interesting idea and there is a certain amount of bloody violence, the two basic criteria on which any horror movie must be judged. When the vampires appear, they fly through the air, eyes glowing, suggesting a Hong Kong influence.

Close Your Eyes features an all-star cast, at least for this sort of thing, bringing together Nick Ewans, who was in both Shaun of the Dead (as the ‘pyjama zombie’) and 28 Days Later; Jenny Evans, who played Cat in Evil Aliens; and singer/songwriter Phil Smeeton who was one of the Angel gang in Judge Dredd and has also been in episodes of Randall and Hopkirk, The Last Train and, um, Crime Traveller. Greek model Zoi Stamkou (Dangerous Twins, Happy Halloween) provided the makeup effects while digital effects are credited to Stephen Gray. There isn’t a great deal of dialogue, apart from one scene, but the sound (courtesy of Grant Bridgeman) is clear. Ed Earl’s music doesn’t really register, sadly, behind the action but it can be enjoyed separately accompanying a stills gallery on this screener disc.

The low light levels do cause a certain amount of uncertainty about what is what but they also help to disguise a crucial plot point until the reveal. There are one or two oddities, such as Nina Reizi’s character’s inability to speak English, which are never explained, and there is a slight tendency for characters to come back from the dead (not just the vampires). But as a taut, atmospheric vampire chiller, Close Your Eyes scores.

The accompanying stills gallery includes some shots from an alternative ending although this is not included on the disc.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 5th March 2006

Christmas Carol: The Movie

Director: Jimmy T Murakami
Writer: Piet Kroon, Robert Llewellyn
Producer: Iain Harvey
Cast: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage
Year of release: 2001
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release


Much as I love animation, and much as I do my best to support British films, and even though the total number of British animated features ever made is only a dozen or so - nevertheless, I cannot tell a lie. Christmas Carol: The Movie is awful. Laden with potential, this could have been a great movie, or at least a fun movie - but it seems to be trapped in a mire of uncertainty and compromise which has rendered it merely dull. In fact, not just merely dull, but very dull indeed.

The story per se is reasonably faithful to Dickens, except that Scrooge is considerably younger and his estranged fiancée (who does actually feature in the book) is still around, running an alms house which turns out to be heavily in debt to Scrooge, thus bringing her back to him and leading to a romantic ending. As you can see, that’s a pretty big ‘except’ - and it’s not the only one. The film-makers have also introduced two mice, presumably because they think that any cartoon has to have cute animals. Deeply irritating, and with all the comic relief quotient of Jar-Jar Binks, these mice turn a film which would merely have been ‘not very entertaining’ into a real chore to sit through.

The film isn’t just dully written, it looks dull too, with a palette composed almost entirely of browns and greys. And there are songs, but really dull, forgettable ones. The whole is topped and tailed by a live action sequence in which Simon Callow, as Charles Dickens, reads his novel to an appreciative American audience (Callow also provides the voice of Scrooge). Thankfully, his false beard in these scenes is considerably more realistic than the wispy bit of string which clung to his chin when he played Dickens for the BBC.

There were two ways in which Christmas Carol: The Movie could have worked. One would be to go back to the original story - which is a ghost story, remember? - and make it a dark, scary film for adults, set in the disease-ridden world of the Victorian backstreets. There’s a version of the tale which has rarely, if ever, been presented. Alternatively, one could go all out for A Christmas Carol as it exists in the public consciousness, with the singing and the dancing and the laughing and so on.

This film tries to do both, but since they’re mutually exclusive, it ends up doing neither. From the former possibility we have the Callow intro sequence - which might reasonably lead one to expect a faithful adaptation - and the muted colour palette; from the latter come the songs and the mice. But even there the film falls between two stools. Rather than go for ‘cartoon mice’ or ‘realistic mice’ the designers have hedged their bets and created ‘semi-anthropomorphic’ creatures. They are drawn realistically (like the human characters) and don’t speak - but they do stand on their hind legs and adopt human poses, such as shaking their tiny fists when angry. So they’re not realistic enough to make sense, but not cute enough to be entertaining. What is more, since they are both the same shape and size, and only slightly different shades of grey, it is only halfway through the film when the two creatures meet that one realises there are two of them!

Director Murakami (The Snowman) says on the film’s website that it “preserves the original story ... while also developing the relationships between Dickens’ wonderful characters” (you can’t do both!), especially when you’re also “adding some new characters” (mmm, that’s preserving Dickens’ story...) and “expanding the drama and humour of the story” (you can’t do both!). The sheer hubris of buggering about with such a popular, long-lasting story is astounding. Do these people think that all the previous films, from the silent versions to Alastair Sim to Patrick Stewart, have somehow got it wrong and could have been improved with a romantic subplot and some mice? Nothing wrong with altering a classic if you admit that’s what you’re doing, but to present such as being faithful to the original author’s intentions (when in fact even loose adaptations like Scrooged had more Dickens in them!) is downright deceitful.

The whole film is a hopeless waste of time on everybody’s part, and it is utterly mystifying as to who this is aimed at. Adults will be bored to tears and irritated by the mice and songs, and even the animation, though reasonable, is nothing spectacular. Children will totally fail to be captivated by the characters, especially those bloody mice, and will probably be scared by the ghost sequences, which get quite psychedelic and weird.

An all-star voice cast - Jane Horrocks, Rhys Ifans, Michael Gambon - doesn’t make the film watchable. Above all, the film is totally and utterly lacking in humour; there’s not a single gag anywhere in the bland script (co-written, bizarrely, by Red Dwarf star Llewellyn), which would only be excusable if the writers had gone back to the story’s roots as a scary ghost tale. But they haven’t.

A boring film which sadly can’t be recommended to anyone except Dickens completists.

MJS rating: D
review originally posted before November 2004

A Christmas Carol [1969]

Director: Zoran Janjic
Writer: Michael Robinson
Producer: Walter J Hucker
Cast: Ron Haddrick, B Montague, J Llewellyn
Year of release: 1969
Country: Australia
Reviewed from: UK video (Pegasus)

You see them in bargain bins and cheapo shops everywhere - those anonymous cartoon adaptations of public domain stories. They are often stories which have been filmed by Disney (and I’ve known people be daft enough to buy them by mistake), they never have any cast or crew credits on the sleeve, and they’re always 47 or 48 minutes long.

In the spirit of (a) research, and (b) the festive season, I splashed out three quid down Poundstretcher to see what this version of Dickens’ timeless classic actually was. It turns out to be not bad. The animation is for the most part smooth and full, not the limited animation of a typical 1960s/1970s TV cartoon. It is imaginatively directed, using silhouettes effectively for some scenes, for examples. Nothing Oscar-threatening, but considerably better than what one might expect. And the painted backgrounds (by Ann Williams) are colourful and artistic.

The story is very faithful to Dickens, using almost entirely the story’s original dialogue (something that later, bigger animated versions would do well to note). There have been a few scenes snipped for time, so that Scrooge’s nephew Fred appears early on to wish his uncle a merry Christmas, but is not visited during the ghostly sequences. There is also, oddly, one song (sung by Scrooge and Fred). The short running time (47 minutes, though it cheekily says 60 on the sleeve!) means that the film does not outstay its welcome, though the pacing is hampered by the Scrooge/Marley scene which is way too long and too static.

My point (and I do have one) is that what one might assume to be a recent cheap-jack knock-off from the Far East is actually a well-made 1969 Australian TV special, worth three quid of any animation fan’s money. The animation betrays a very obvious East European influence, which is no surprise as director Zoran Janjic worked in Zagreb before moving to Australia in 1960 where he worked on, among other things, the short-lived cartoon adventures of the Beatles.

A Christmas Carol is one of many TV cartoons which Janjic made for API Productions, most notably the series King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table. In 1972 he joined Hanna-Barbera’s Australian studio, working on shows such as The New Scooby Doo Movies and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.

Scrooge’s voice is supplied by Ron Haddrick, a busy and acclaimed actor on Aussie stage and screen (Quigley Down Under, Shirley Thompson vs the Aliens) who performed with the RSC in the early 1960s. He was also the lead voice in API's 1977 version of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted before November 2004

Saturday, 16 February 2013

A Christmas Carol [1914]

Director: Harold Shaw
Year of release: 1914
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (British Silent Cinema Weekend 2001)


Not the first version of Dickens’ classic, but certainly one of the earliest which still survives in a viewable print, this is a terrific one-reeler which combines all that’s best about silent cinema with the real spirit of Dickens’ story.

The plot is, perforce, heavily condensed, but then it was never the most complicated story in the first place: Scrooge is a miser; Marley’s ghost visits him, followed by the three spirits of Christmas who show him visions of what was, is and may yet be; Scrooge repents his miserly ways; the end. Perfect for a 15-minute silent film.

What really impresses here are the effects - double exposure ghosts as good as anything being done fifty or sixty year later. Not just a novelty, hoping to impress audiences by their existence, they are seamlessly integrated with the main action and must have amazed audiences back in 1914. Cinema advanced quickly in its early days. This was made only 20 years after the Lumieres were screening their train station film in the Cafe de Paris, yet already all the basics of plot, pacing and cinematography are there.

To those for whom A Christmas Carol means singing and dancing and jokes, it’s worth remembering that it is a ghost story and supposed to be creepy, which this film undoubtedly is, even 86 years later. Although one might think that British audiences in 1914 would have wanted something to cheer them up, in fact what they wanted was a traditional Christmas ghost story with a strong moral message - and that’s what they got.

Various lists of Christmas Carol film adaptations exist around the web and most don’t even mention this film, directed in the UK at Twickenham Studios by American ex-pat Harold Shaw, formerly a director for the Edison Company. (Shaw made a version of Trilby the same year which seems to be much better known.) Sadly, unless the BFI digs out this print for another festival, it’s likely to remain unseen (though hopefully not for another 85 years...).

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted before November 2004