Sunday, 30 June 2013

Occupying Ed

Director: Steve Balderson
Writer: Jim Lair Beard
Producer: Steve Balderson
Cast: Christopher Sams, Holly Hinton, John Werskey
Country: USA
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: online screener

After making The Casserole Club, Steve Balderson directed two lightweight capers about Americans abroad getting mixed up in international crime shenanigans. Culture Shock was shot guerilla-style on the streets of London, The Far Flung Star likewise in Hong Kong. These two films represented a radical departure for Balderson and I would be lying if I said that I thought either really works. However, I can fully understand the catharsis that Steve needed after the intensity of Watch Out, Stuck! and The Casserole Club and hence his decision to indulge himself with a couple of ‘movies’ as opposed to his previous ‘films’.

Well, now Steve Balderson is back with Occupying Ed, a return to (a) form and (b) his home town of Wamego, Kansas. Steve’s body of work is notable for its diversity but his strength has always been in his exploration of characters and relationships. Stuck! and The Casserole Club - and indeed Firecracker and even Pep Squad - explored the relationships between a group of characters in a clearly defined environment (prison, suburbia, travelling carnival, high school). The anomaly in his filmography is Watch Out in which he explores one individual’s internal relationships, collapsing the environment into a single character.

Occupying Ed is something new from Steve Balderson: a romance. Just two characters, one relationship and an anonymous American small town as backdrop. The girl is a free-spirited English chick working as a waitress in a cafe that serves ‘vegan lasagne’. The boy is an uptight tax accountant. It’s an off-the-shelf set-up that is almost iconic of contemporary US indie cinema and this may very well prove to be Steve’s most accessible film since Pep Squad.


Nothing is ever simple in Wamego. There is a love triangle in this film. Okay, so: three characters, three relationships. That’s fine. That’s been the basis of many, many movies. No problem.


I told you: nothing is ever simple. This is a love triangle where we never see one of the characters, never see one of the relationships, and where two of the characters are the same person. Like all - well, most - Steve Balderson films, Occupying Ed is much more than the sum of its parts. It is something special, something magical, something unique. I loved it.

Christopher Sams (also in The Far Flung Star) stars as Ed: mild-mannered, single, thin, clean, white guy. British actress Holly Hinton (also in Culture Shock) is Nicole, the mysterious woman who seems to be stalking him and who possibly has some connection with Ed’s occasional black-outs. Ed is losing days at a time, yet he is apparently still functioning during these black-outs, even still going to work.

What we gradually discover, as indeed does Ed, is that he has an alter ego, Helena. During those black-outs, Helena takes over Ed’s body. And Nicole is her girlfriend. So there’s our offbeat love triangle. Nicole is in love with Helena, Helena is in love with Nicole, but Nicole shares a body with Ed, whose relationship with both Helena and Nicole forms the focus of this unique love story.

In our first act, at least, there is a glorious ambiguity to this set-up as we - and Ed - try to work out what precisely is going on. Is Ed possessed by someone else’s spirit? Is Helena just a psychological artefact of some sort of mental health problem. Or is Helena the real person and perhaps Ed is the ‘other personality’? Curiously, the story this most reminded me of was Jekyll, Stephen Moffat’s six-part BBC TV updated retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic. As in that series, there are two personalities sharing a single body who never meet but are aware of each other’s existence through third parties and through the situations they find themselves in whenever control of the corpus returns to their id.

The other comparison that sprang to mind while watching Occupying Ed is the most most famous two-sided love triangle of all: Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman. So there are precedents. Sort of.

Whether or not we ever meet Helena on screen is something I want to gloss over, but certainly for the first two acts she’s completely absent and everything we - and Ed - find out comes from Nicole and their two social circles. Helena, like Nicole, works in a cafe managed by June (the ubiquitous Pleasant Gehman) - but she is also able to take on Ed’s work at the tax office where his practical-joke-loving boss Bruce (Chris Pudio) says he doesn’t care what Ed wears to work.

In fact, everyone seems very accepting of Helena - she’s clever, funny, good with kids, hard-working - which doesn’t exactly do wonders for Ed’s self-confidence. In opposition to this liberal view is Ed’s older brother Troy (a nicely balanced performance by John Werskey: The Far Flung Star, Bite Marks) who, while certainly not a right-wing redneck nutjob, nevertheless finds it difficult to come to terms with the sight of his brother out in public in a dress. (Not showing us this is a sound move: this is a film which actually benefits from tell, don’t show.)

Of course, the nature of the film demands that Ed and Nicole gradually fall into and out of love. It’s that old, old story: boy meets girl (who is the lesbian lover of his transvestite alter ego), boy loses girl (who is the lesbian lover of his transvestite alter ego), boy gets girl (who is the lesbian lover of his transvestite alter ego) back. In fact, there is a complexity to Ed and Nicole’s rocky relationship (possibly because the relationship is, let’s face it, complex) which makes the narrative here seem less like a three-act structure and more like a 23-act structure. But the ups and downs flow naturally and lead to a satisfying conclusion.

What no-one ever comments on - the elephant in the room - is the, er, physicality of all this. To put it bluntly, Helena has a hairy, flat chest and a dick - which is pretty butch, even for a lesbian. But as with so much else, the glossing over of such details adds to our enjoyment of the storytelling - and to Ed’s bewilderment.

While not exactly a romcom, Occupying Ed is played with a light, indie touch that makes the whole 90 minutes a delight (Steve calls it a ‘romantic dramedy’). Supporting the two outstanding lead performances are a cast of well-rounded minor characters including postman Hank (Dwight Tolar), psychiatrist Dr Frank (Melissa Atchison), her gay secretary Lonnie (Ben Windholz) and waitress Lucy (Amanda Deibert, producer of popular YouTube musical LucasFilm/Disney mash-up Bonjour Star Wars!). Balderson regular Garrett Swann - one of the few actors in both of the overseas caper movies - plays the local pastor.

With legislation around same-sex marriage currently being debated on both sides of the Atlantic, Occupying Ed couldn’t be more topical if it came with a free 2014 wall-planner. It’s a film which will play equally well to both ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ audiences (in the sense that those might be defined audience sectors, as I’m not sure either exists in real life). This is exactly the sort of convoluted relationship tale that film festival programmers love and I suspect critics will love it to. It’s a real pleasure to spend an hour and a half in the company of Ed and Nicole (and Helena) and afterwards there is a great deal to think about. Steve’s films always leave one with a great deal to think about but not since Pep Squad has he made a film which could really be described as ‘enjoyable’ (and even that was a black comedy based around jealousy and violence).

The script for Occupying Ed (originally entitled Part-time Waitress) was written by actor/blogger Jim Lair Beard - and a finely crafted piece of writing it is indeed, perfectly suited to Steve’s directorial style. With an easy-on-the-ear soundtrack of contemporary US folk tunes and expert cinematography by Daniel G Stephens (The Far Flung Star, Anatomy of the Tide), Occupying Ed ticks all the boxes that we expect from a Steve Balderson joint.

Could this be an indicator of where Steve is heading? Perhaps we can see those previous, intense films as thesis, the brace of on-the-run comedies as antithesis, and this as the ensuing synthesis. Perhaps, Steve still being a young man, he is embarking here into the next period of his career, effectively combining his defiantly unique style and approach with the expectations and requirements of cinema-going America (and the world).

From Firecracker to The Casserole Club, Steve has ploughed his own furrow, effectively flipping the bird to established ideas of how you make films and (as the second Wamego documentary made clear) how you distribute films. But something extraordinary has happened. Steve’s iconoclastic individualism has become mainstream, not because Steve has sold out but because, incredibly, the world of film-making has come to him. Years ago he said: I don’t need a distributor for Firecracker, I’ll distribute it myself - and that was seen as a brave move. But now that’s what indie film-makers do as a matter of routine. Not by roadshowing a print, admittedly, but by distributing online. We are all Steve Baldersons now.

Occupying Ed, meanwhile, is a delightful film, carried by wonderful acting, beautifully sympathetic direction, a word-perfect script and most of all a brilliant conceit. By exploring an idea which (like so much of Steve’s work) is just half a step beyond reality, Occupying Ed broadens its unique subject matter to a whole world of ideas. This isn’t a film about split personalities, it’s not a film about inadvertent transvestism, it’s not a film about part-time waitresses or small-town America. It’s a film about life and love and sexuality and gender and identity and acceptance. Big issues but not presented in any simplistic or didactic way.

Following his brief diversion to England and China, it’s great to have Steve Balderson back in Kansas, working at the top of his game, making what could conceivably be his best film so far. He has been on an awfully big adventure, but there’s no place like home.

MJS rating: A

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Graveyard

Director: Michael Feifer
Michael Hurst
Producer: Michael Feifer
Cast: Christopher Stewart, Lindsay Ballew, Trish Coren
Country: US
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener

In the prologue of The Graveyard, when six identikit teenagers in their mid-twenties sneak into a cemetery for a game of hide and seek (which they call ‘run for your life’ in an attempt to make it sound less juvenile), the person who is ‘it’ is chosen by putting names into a hat.

One gets the feeling that the screenplay for The Graveyard was created in a not dissimilar way: that a bunch of horror movie clichés were put on bits of paper and drawn one by one from a hat, then stapled together in the order they were picked - and that was called ‘the script.’

Because this really is a rubbish film. Even in the genre of teen slasher films where, you know, standards are not high and most of the audience is fairly undiscriminating, this is still rubbish enough to raise howls of mystified disapproval from the fans.

Despite the title and that prologue, most of the film is set in a ‘camp’. Now, the whole concept of ‘camp’ is something that those of us on the other side of the Atlantic find alien. It’s one of those things, like ‘senior prom’, which we only know from cinema and TV because there is no direct equivalent over here. The cultural and social context and connotations of ‘camp’ are missing. This place has a bunch of... dorms? chalets?... with bunk beds. It appears to be a functioning camp from outside, kept quite clean and tidy, but there is a scene where a girl goes into a shower (in some sort of separate shower block?) and is grossed out by how disgusting this is. What does that mean? Does it play on a belief that camp showers are always disgusting or is it meant to indicate that this is a horrible, low quality camp (belied by other locations) or that this camp is in disrepair (which it apparently is not)?

Or it could be - and this seems more likely, given what the rest of the movie is like - that the director just wanted the scene to be like that and gave no thought as to whether it made any sense.

Let’s go back to, as Lurcio used to say: the prologue.

A guy called Eric is picked to count to twenty which, for some reason, he must do behind the closed-but-not-locked gates of a particular tomb/mausoleum. The others run off to hide behind various gravestones in this remarkably well-lit cemetery.

As Eric counts, a figure in a mask appears, unseen by him, further back inside the tomb. Then the same figure appears (impossibly) in front of the gates and waves a large knife at the terrified Eric but makes no attempt to open the gates. Then the figure disappears. Eric runs off and the figures reappears, chasing him, pausing only to stab one of the girls. Eric runs and runs and...

...runs straight into the cemetery gates where he impales himself on a couple of bent bars. Which is pretty difficult to do and unlikely to be instantly fatal. But it is. His friends gather round in disbelief, including the girl who was ‘stabbed’ and the masked maniac who was actually a seventh identikit twenty-something teenager. The whole thing was a prank, you see.

Oh... you guys!

Five years later, the teenagers are closer to the actors’ rather obvious real ages. The one who was dressed up is called Billy and he has spent the past five years in prison for manslaughter while all the rest apparently got off scott-free despite being just as culpable. Billy is granted either bail or parole; the terms are used interchangeably as if they are exact synonyms, which I don’t think they are.

Now, where would be the best place for Billy to go when he comes out of prison? That’s right: straight back to the place where he was accidentally responsible for the death of one of his friends. The girl who gets him out of clink and the other five have all agreed to go back to the camp where they were staying when Eric died. Because they were at a camp, apparently, even though this is not mentioned in the prologue. And this is one of those camps that has a large cemetery next to it. Again with the cultural context: is this normal?

Although the camp is quite large, there will only be the six of them staying there. except that one of the blokes has brought along his new girlfriend who is only distinguishable from the other female characters by virtue of having a strange accent. Perhaps she’s meant to be South American or something. There is also the young man who runs the place as cook/handyman, who is indistinguishable from any of the other male characters.

You see, there are two huge problems with The Graveyard. One is that the plot, despite being a stack of clichés, makes not a lick of sense and blatantly contradicts itself in places. The other is that the characters are completely characterless and utterly indistinguishable. All the blokes are arseholes or pricks to some degree and all the girls are sluts or prickteases. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what any of the character names are except for Billy and Eric - and one of them dies before the opening credits.

The male characters are slightly less indistinguishable than the girls because the one who brought his girlfriend along is constantly boasting about his sexual prowess. The other one - the one who isn’t Billy, isn’t the cook/handyman and doesn’t boast about sex - is described by some of the others as a nerd but exhibits no nerdlike characteristics whatsoever apart from owning a laptop computer.

The women - well, the blonde one seems to be more slutty than the others but seriously, that’s it. Oh, and the girlfriend has a funny accent. Other than that, it could be the same actress and occasional split-screen effects for all the difference there is between the characters. Whatever they’re called.

As well as the camp, with its chalets/dorms and some sort of communal dining hall/bar seen in one brief scene, there is also plenty of woodland and a slightly ramshackle (from the outside), clean and tidy (on the inside) ‘boathouse’ by a lake which is actually a sort of summerhouse with tables and chairs and certainly completely devoid of boats. Oh, and there’s that cemetery. We are given absolutely no clue as to the spatial relationship between any of these locations and I suspect that’s because the director has no clue about it either. We also don’t know where this camp is situated although quite late in the film we’re told it’s ten miles from the nearest town.

So they all pitch up in their big cars and the idea is that Billy will “find closure” and “confront his demons” or some such bollocks but really, why would the parole board (who are told the plan) release someone convicted of manslaughter, knowing that he was going to immediately return to the scene of the crime along with all his accomplices? In terms of narrative bollocks, this is right up there with Camp Blood 2 and its belief that a murderer would be let out of prison to go and make a film about their murders. The Graveyard reminded me very much of Camp Blood and its sequel. The production values are higher but the story is just as nonsensical.

Now, I’d like to tell you who gets killed and in what order but because I don’t know the characters’ names and I can’t even describe them to you in any way that would differentiate them, I can’t do this. I’m not even sure if all the ones who aren’t in the final scene do actually get killed, especially as some of the characters who are very definitely and obviously killed subsequently appear, miraculously healed. One of them ironically ends up impaled on exactly the same broken railings where Eric died (I can’t help thinking that something should have been done about those five years ago, given how dangerous they obviously were) but not only does he survive, he somehow extricates himself (off screen) and is then able to run and jump and fight just like any healthy young guy.

One thing that a film like this could have going for it, which might negate the need for memorable characters or a coherent plot, is plenty of gore. But The Graveyard skimps on the gore (it skimps on the graveyard too) and shows us very little. There is one scene during the first night at the camp - or at least, during the hours of darkness, as this film has a completely cavalier attitude to things like night and day - when a person we haven’t seen before is brutally (but not graphically) murdered. Tied to a chair and beaten by the maniac in the mask, his howls of pain are mistaken by two of the girls for the sound of a dangerous animal.

But who is this guy? As the characters are so interchangeable, I couldn’t work out who he was and when all four men turned up together in a subsequent scene, I was thoroughly confused. Surely it must be one of them.

Well, it turns out no. This is the real cook/handyman at the camp being murdered by the maniac who subsequently impersonates him (who turns out to be Eric’s brother, who didn’t die in a house fire with their parents as believed - oh yes, like that really spoils this crappy movie for you). But when a by-the-book sheriff turns up later, he talks about a body found a couple of days previously in the woods, missing its hands and head. This is later identified as being the cook/handyman and Billy, who has been arrested, is freed because a call to the prison confirms that he was still incarcerated two days ago.

But wait, how could this cook who was murdered before anyone arrived at the camp also be the cook whose screams scared the girls after they arrived at the camp? This is just one of many logical and temporal inconsistencies. There are some comments on the Inaccurate Movie Database from people who say that there are scenes where Eric’s brother is in one place pretending to be the cook and in another place being the masked maniac at the same time. That may well be true but wild horses wouldn’t make me sit through this film again to check. The whole thing is so riddled with arbitrary ideas that contradict other parts of the film that one more or less really doesn’t matter.

Billy, who has been brooding and intense, turns into another arsehole halfway through, revealing that the whole intense thing was an act designed to lead up to pretending to be a knife-wielding maniac in a practical joke on one of the other guys. Wait, hang on. Wasn’t that exactly the sort of behaviour that led to the unpleasant death of one of your friends and got you banged up inside for five years? Have you learned nothing?

The first death is the girlfriend with the weird accent, strangled in the showers (despite the maniac’s proclivity for carrying a large knife) but when she goes missing there is no indication of how anyone knows she’s missing. It’s just stated that She Is Missing and they immediately split into two groups to search the (surprisingly well-lit) woods. Nobody actually searches any of the numerous buildings.

While in the woods, another woman turns up who is not one of the ones we’ve already seen but we only know this from the dialogue because she looks and acts the same. She says that one of the other women is actually a lesbian and she is her jealous girlfriend. This sexual revelation has no relevance whatsoever and the new girl then wanders off and gets killed, making her possibly the most redundant character I’ve seen in a horror film this year. It’s also not clear why bonkers Eric’s brother kills her or the weird-accent girlfriend as neither had any connection with his brother’s death.

A couple of the women visit Eric’s grave which is, incredibly, in that very same cemetery. They find that it is... open! But not open like a grave that has been dug up so somebody can steal the body. It’s actually a really neat, rectangular hole so it’s a grave that never had a body or coffin in it. That’s what happens when you employ a production designer who doesn’t know the difference between an ‘open grave’ and an ‘empty grave’ (or simply hasn’t read the script). Later, Eric’s brother is shot and falls into this grave (oh the irony) but subsequent dialogue indicates that the body has not been found. Given that Billy ‘died’ on the broken railings but later walked and talked and the sheriff was clearly killed but is fine in the final scene, we must presume that Eric’s brother also simply got up and walked away.

I’ve seen zombie movies with fewer walking dead people than this.

The Graveyard is just awful. It’s staggeringly dull and boring because it’s basically a bunch of identical young people we neither know nor care about doing random, clichéed things for no obvious reason without any lasting effect. At one point a character actually says the line, “Cliché cliché cliché!” and I think that’s a coded message from the scriptwriter, crying for help and letting us know that this isn’t really his fault.

Because this is a Michael Hurst script and I know for a fact that Mike Hurst could write something better than this in his sleep. There must be some other factor: perhaps he had to write the whole thing in an afternoon or perhaps he had to do a second draft based on nonsensical notes from the director or maybe he handed in a workable script and the whole thing was ruined during production. Yet Mike has kept his name on the thing (unlike the considerably superior Are You Scared) and that’s odd because he’s a jobbing writer-director and I wouldn’t have thought that being visibly attached to crap like this would help his career.

Who else has this film on their CV as a guilty secret? The cast includes Christopher Stewart, Lindsay Ballew, Trish Coren (Boo, Headless Horseman), Eva Derrek (Jacqueline Hyde, The Slaughter, Live Evil), Brett Donowho, James Gallinger, Sam Bologna (Unidentified, Terminal Island), Patrick Scott Lewis (Zodiac, Voodoo Curse: The Giddeh), Leif Lillehagen, Erin Lokitz (Robert Kurtzman’s Buried Alive), Markus Potter, Mark Salling (Children of the Corn IV) and Natalie Denise Sperl (Succubus: Hell Bent). I’ve listed them all because I’ve no idea who plays whom.

To be fair, it dawned on me halfway through that this film, despite appearing on the surface to be the most appallingly banal and unoriginal movie imaginable, actually offered something unique and different. Which is: there is no Token Black Guy. Every character is completely white. It doesn’t really mean anything but TBGs are the industry standard and this is such an off-the-shelf plot with absolutely nothing new or clever or original or interesting to say that it seems bizarre when it doesn’t follow this convention.

Even the killer isn’t memorable. He wears a sort of coverall with a hood tied round his face - Christ, it looks like a kagool - and his mask, when seen in occasional close-up, seems to be made from pieces of skin sewn together but that’s not relevant or alluded to in any way.

Released in the States in 2006 but only surfacing in the UK two years later, The Graveyard was the second feature directed by Michael Feifer, whose extensive experience as a producer of low-budget DTV pictures includes Witchcraft V, VI, VII, VIII and IX. From 2000’s A Crack in the Floor onwards he started doubling up as 1st AD and his directorial debut was Lethal Eviction, a thriller written by Leeches scripter Gary Barkin. In the couple of years since he made The Graveyard, Feifer has directed eight films including three based on infamous true-life serial killers, a non-horror comedy about a blogger, Grim Reaper (also written by Mike Hurst) and most recently an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula’s Guest' starring Andrew Bryniarski from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. I haven’t seen any of these - I sincerely hope he’s got better at making films as he goes along.

What I can’t understand is why the normally reliable Revolver would pick up this piece of junk - unless it came as some sort of package with their two other Feifer-Hurst collaborations, Are You Scared (directed by Mike’s brother Andy) and The Butcher (directed by Mike himself). Since they started sending me screeners, I have been consistently impressed with Revolver’s choice of titles, from Kiltro to The Killing Floor. Some, like The Last Winter, were truly magnificent; some, like Wrestlemaniac, were great fun. The Graveyard is just lousy and I really can’t see how even the most undiscriminating slasher fan (a breed of movie fanatic not exactly renowned for their critical values) could enjoy this film.

Cinematographer Hank Baumert Jr lit this and several of Feifer’s other pictures while editor Christopher Roth has a hefty CV which includes Wizards of the Demon Sword, Steel and Lace, Return of the Living Dead 3, Leprechaun 1 and 2, The Dentist 1 and 2, Hatchet and Ghouls. Richard Redlefsen, who supplied the prosthetic make-up effects, has worked on the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Indiana Jones 4 and various CSI episodes and is now doing stuff on the Star Trek prequel.

I don’t know who is to blame for The Graveyard turning out the way it has done but this is so boring, so full of holes and generally so unwatchable that one of two things seems certain. Either somebody with no idea about film-making exercised complete control over this or several people with genuine ideas about film-making pulled it in different directions. Whichever, the result is a mess which can’t be recommended in any way for anyone.

One final note which I think perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with The Graveyard: despite all the night-time scenes being well-lit, there are some cutaways to a crescent Moon. I mean, you could at least try and justify the brightness with a full Moon, but no...

MJS rating: D
review originally posted 5th May 2008

A Gothic Tale

Director: Justin Paul Ritter
Writer: Justin Paul Ritter
Producer: Justin Paul Ritter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Marshall Hilton, Ryan McGivern
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener

The second feature from Justin Paul Ritter (KatieBird *Certifiable Crazy Person) is one of those films which, though artistically marvellous and technically impressive, is narratively impenetrable. Looks fabulous, well crafted, makes not a lick of sense as far as I can see.

The thing is, when a film is this well made but still doesn’t have a clear, understandable narrative, you can reasonably assume that it’s deliberate. Ritter doesn’t want people to easily follow what’s going on here. This is more a stream of consciousness than a story. It has ‘personal passion’ stamped all over it like an anti-bootleg watermark. Ritter has put his soul into this film - and it shows. He doesn’t have to give us an easy ride, so don’t be disappointed when you don’t get one.

Ostensibly this is based on three classic short stories: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Markheim’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Dr Heidegger’s Experiment’’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Poe tale is the only one I’m familiar with but I checked synopses of the other two on Wikimaninapub so I would have some idea what to look out for. But to be honest, this is ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’, the only obvious, direct connections with the source material being a character called Mark Heim (sic) and another called Dr Heidegger - who is conducting an experiment. Nevertheless, in conflating three unconnected literary sources into a single storyline, this joins The Shunned House in the micro-category of what I like to call an ‘unthology’.

Thomas Heidegger (CJ Baker: Devil Girl, Stupidman) is a solitary old guy working on some sort of reanimation or rejuvenation device (in the Hawthorne tale, his work involves water from the Fountain of Youth). He has a daughter Lillian (stage actress Jamey Hood making her feature film debut) and a protégé, Mark Heim (Marshall Hilton: Breakfast with the Colonel, Sorceress II, Beetleborgs) who is romantically linked with Lillian. Confidently defying chronological storytelling, the film contains numerous flashbacks to thirty years earlier when Lillian (Rena Enea) was a little girl and Mark (Randy Shelly: Beowulf) was a teenager who came to live with the Heideggers under mysterious circumstances. Young Thomas is played by Emrys Wright (who unfortunately doesn’t look that much like Baker) and his since-deceased wife Rose is played by Lake Sharp, who was in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Weaving in and out of both current and flashback scenes - and appearing identical in both time frames - is ‘The Stranger’ (Ryan McGivern, who was in the web series Bones: Skeleton Crew), whose smart suit and Van Dyke facial hair mark him out as some sort of demonic/satanic agent, possibly Old Nick himself. A similar character is the antagonist in the Stevenson tale. While never actually vanishing or appearing from nowhere on screen, The Stranger is in the habit of popping up in scenes without explanation or announcement when the characters are not necessarily expecting him. This supernaturally Machiavellian catalyst drives the complex story through his instructions and offers to the other three, yet he is clearly not as in control as he would like to be and in some scenes is restraining himself, barely controlling his anger or frustration.

In fact, all four main characters spend a great deal of the film with heightened blood pressure, muscles straining, veins bulging in their necks. This is a very intense film about intense, unhappy characters. Frankly, I can’t recall anyone smiling during the entire 104 minutes, with the possible exception of Rose Heidegger, comforting her daughter.

Mark is a drunken bum, a petty thief who can only rail “Fuck you!” ineffectually at the equally drunken street whore (the wonderfully pseudonymous Zenith Lovecraft) who steals his beer when he pushes her away from their grimy, alleyway embrace. Lillian has been taken in by a hostel run by a city pastor (Thom Michael Mulligan: Callous) where she is befriended by a young woman named Brenda (RADA-trained Nancy P Corbo: Rift) and put to work by the cook (Jeanne Mount: Dreamkiller). Thomas experiments with reviving wilted roses and then digs up a corpse which may be his wife, I think.

A steel briefcase is important although I wouldn’t say it was necessarily central enough to be considered a McGuffin. The Stranger was going to give it to Thomas a part of a deal but held onto it when Thomas broke some sort of rule. Later (in chronological time, but at the start of the film) Mark steals the briefcase from someone and then sells it to Thomas. I think. Mark’s parents (Derek Grauer: Haunted House; and Maria Olsen: Dragonquest, Sam Hell) also feature in flashbacks. Michael Villar, who plays a detective here, takes the title role in Ritter’s forthcoming zombie picture The Living Corpse, which also features several other Gothic Tale cast members.

Throughout the film (although to a lesser extent towards the end) we have the enigmatic narration of a street bum narrator, sometimes on screen, warming himself by a brazier, sometimes in voice-over. Underneath the woolly hat, rasping voice and scabrous make-up is none other than genre legend Roddy Pipper (They Live, Hell Comes to Frogtown) adding a whole extra level to this already multi-levelled enterprise.

Stylistically, A Gothic Tale really stands out in three ways. The first is that Ritter (or possibly his DP Josh Fong, who also lit KatieBird and gets a co-producer credit here) really likes to shoot up close. There are very few wide shots here, it’s all close-ups that are slightly too close-up for comfort: tops of heads are often deliberately cropped. It’s not extreme close-up - no mouths filling the screen - but it adds to the intensity of the script and the performances and imparts a sense of urban claustrophobia to the whole film. In addition, Ritter is fond of splitting the widescreen image to show us two scenes at once, or two aspects of the same scene. He also has a fondness for a slight solarisation with a blue sheen.

Sometimes all three techniques are combined. On top of the non-chronological jumping about between scenes (which is exacerbated by The Stranger looking identical in all of them, even to wearing the same tie), this just makes the film harder to follow - and yet, in some strange way, all the more rewarding.

Production designer Alex Cassun (director of Sunset in the Valley) has given the film an ambience which certainly allows it to live up to its title, yet there are no mist-shrouded castles here. This is an urban gothic, dark like an unlit alley, unnerving like an empty building. No cat scares here, it’s all atmosphere.

There is nothing to say where or when this is. America obviously but only from the accents. There seems to be little specific about the clothes apart from The Stranger’s suit and tie (and haircut) which suggests the cusp of the 1970s/1980s. In fact, it looks like the first week of June 1979 - but since he is a supernatural being who looks identical in scenes set three decades apart, this does not help us one iota. The point surely is that this is everywhere and nowhere, everywhen and nowhen, no more a pin in the map of reality than the House of Usher or the Castle of Otranto.

And yet, just to tease the audience, in among this timeless urban gothic milieu the characters have 21st century mobile phones (I honestly didn’t notice if these are in the flashbacks too).

For a personal project, there have been a surprising number of hands on the script, even if we discount Messrs. Stevenson, Hawthorne and Poe. Ryan Plato (Wishtaker) is credited as ‘co-writer’ while Ray Gower (Dark Corners) and Mike Lancaster (also associate producer and key grip!) were ‘script consultants’. Don Randles and Steven Hirsch (both Dark Wolf) were the executive producers.

The unbelievably busy James Lacey handled ‘make-up/FX’. Lacey has already worked on another nine films since A Gothic Tale; his many other credits include Automatons, All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos, Dismembered and a 2008 documentary about Jack PIerce for which he recreated the Mummy. The unpronounceable Daniel Iannantuono, who also scored KatieBird, provides the music once more. Ritter did his own editing.

A Gothic Tale is a deep, almost impenetrable film. No, I couldn’t follow what was going on (nor can I find any reviewer anywhere yet who has even attempted a synopsis) but that is not a negative in this case. It’s a film that make you think, a piece of art onto which one can project one’s own interpretation, while admitting that it will probably never quite chime with Justin Paul Ritter’s own intentions.

I can see this one dividing opinion sharply. I believe that’s a good thing.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 27th May 2009

Goke - Bodysnatcher from Hell

Director: Hajime Sato
Writers: Susumu Tanaka, Kyuzo Kobayashi
Producer: Takashi Inomata
Cast: Teruo Yoshida, Hideo Ko, Tomomi Sato
Year of release: 1968
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Artsmagic)

I’ve wanted to see this film for a long, long time so when the screener disc turned up from Artsmagic I was delighted (though not overly surprised as I had compiled the cast filmographies for the disc a few months earlier).

It’s great to see a completely serious vintage Japanese science fiction film. Though I adore all kaiju eiga, the introduction of extra-terrestrials is usually pretty poor in terms of both storyline and design. But Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro is a searing look at the human condition under extreme SF circumstances. It plays like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode and it’s great.

An internal commercial flight crashes in a remote part of Japan. Flying through a blood-red sky and scared by birds hurling themselves to death against the windows, the crew are alerted that there might be a bomb on board. A search of passengers’ luggage turns up no bomb but does reveal the presence of assassin Hirofumi Teraoka (Hideo Ko: Horror of a Deformed Man) who has just killed the British Ambassador. He forces the plane to divert so that when it crashes, they don’t know where they are. A radio report later reveals that rescuers can’t find them and have given up.

The ten crash survivors are: co-pilot Ei Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida: Horror of a Deformed Man, Shogun’s Joy of Torture, Oxen Split Torturing); stewardess Kazumi Asakura (Tomomi Sato: Babycart in the Land of Demons); corrupt politician Gozo Mano (Eizo Kitamura: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge); corrupt arms manufacturer Tokiyasu (Nobuo Kaneko) who is constantly toadying up to Mano; his wife Noriko (Yuko Kusunoki) who is having an affair with Mano; American widow Mrs Neil (Kathy Horan: The Green Slime, War of the Insects, Attack of the Monsters) whose husband was killed in Vietnam the previous week; psychiatrist Dr Momotake (Kazuo Kato: The Last Days of Planet Earth, Ran, Mishima); ‘space biologist’ - that’s handy! - Toshio Saga (Masaya Takahashi: Tidal Wave, GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack); and would-be hijacker Matsumiya (Toshihiko Yamamoto: Door III, Ring TV series) who swiftly hides his home-made bomb. Plus Teraoka.

Just before the crash, Sugisaka and his pilot (Hiroyuki Nishimoto) saw a flying saucer. Teraoka now kidnaps Miss Asakura and drags her around the mountain where they discover the alien spaceship. In an iconic image, Teraoka’s head cracks open (Harry Potter has nothing on this forehead scar!) and something nasty oozes inside him. From then on the cluster of survivors gradually disintegrates as they are torn apart by internal squabbling and the outside force of Teraoka who is now some sort of space vampire.

In particular, unpleasant truths are revealed about Mano and Tokiyasu, with the politician coming out of the film as easily the most loathsome individual on the plane. But the construction and subsequent breakdown of the group dynamic is not done simply or obviously and unlikely allegiances are formed and broken at the drop of a hat. It’s a great script, and with the picture clocking in at not much over 80 minutes, a taut and tense one.

The whole film is essentially an anti-war movie, with several blood-red montages of Vietnam War atrocity photos driving home the point. In a twist on the peaceful intentions of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the ‘Gokemidori’ aliens are here because of mankind’s propensity for violence, but to take advantage, not to warn or help. A bleak ending includes an image which will be familiar to all fans of Tim Burton movies,

Many of the crew also worked on another Hajime Sato movie, Golden Bat; the director’s other genre credits include Ghost of the Hunchback, Terror Beneath the Sea and obscure 1960s TV superhero series Captain Ultra (not part of the Ultraman franchise, despite the title). Writer Susumu Tanaka also wrote Golden Bat, War of the Insects and Fist of the Northstar as well as working on the TV series Inazuman Flash, Space Sheriff Gavan, Battle Fever J and Mazinger Z. Cinematographer Shizuo Hirase, who lights the interior of the plane with some evocative filters, also photographed War of the Insects and the delirious The X from Outer Space, while production designer Tadataka Yoshino‘s other work includes Sure Death.

Composer Shunsuke Kikuchi’s extraordinarily impressive list of credits includes music for Ghost of the Hunchback, Terror Beneath the Sea, Golden Bat, War of the Insects, Ghost Story of the Snake Woman, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, Sister Street Fighter, four Gamera films, one Ultraman movie and Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess plus the TV series Key Hunter, Kamen Rider, Iron King, Jumborg Ace, Grandizer, Message from Space and several thousand different versions of Dragonball Z.

Artsmagic have released a nice subtitled widescreen print on their Shadow Warrior label, complete with bio-filmographies and an unsubtitled trailer which includes some footage of the plane crash (typically excellent miniature effects) which is missing from the film itself. Goke - Bodysnatcher from Hell is an excellent, gripping, scary, thought-provoking movie which, not unexpectedly, belies its cheesy international title.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 19th December 2004

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

interview: Paul Hyett (2008)

You can’t be a fan of British horror and not know the work of top make-up effects artist Paul Hyett. From I, Zombie (when he was still in his teens!) through to The Descent, Mutant Chronicles and beyond, Paul has created some amazing effects. I did this interview by phone in January 2008 and an edited version was published in Fangoria. See also my 2013 interview with Paul about his directorial debut The Seasoning House.

Am I right in thinking that The Descent was a watershed for you in terms of moving on from low-budget films?

What immediate effect did it have on your career?
"It was the difference of being able to go into a meeting - and people had seen The Descent. The nice thing about Descent was I finished it and then, about two months after we actually finished shooting, it was out. So it was absolutely great. For the first year after that, I would go into interviews and: ‘Oh, you’ve done The Descent! Yeah, yeah.’ And suddenly, the things I was going for I tended to get. That was absolutely great."

What was the first thing you did after The Descent?
"Let’s see. I’m going to check my CV. I know that straight after The Descent we were looking at The Cottage but it didn’t happen. Sick House and Straightheads was one year after. It might have been Wilderness."

Would you say Wilderness was a horror film?
"It’s rat-kids borstal, in the woods. Yes, I’d call it a horror film because it is about people terrorised by psychopaths with dogs. I didn’t do prosthetics on Wilderness but I did all the dog effects. I got a call, right at the last moment. Basically the guy that was supposed to make the dogs had let them down and they said, ‘Please, please make these dogs.’ I was told that I had quite a bit of time but it turned out, once I’d started, there was hardly any time. So we rushed it all in and I think we made all the dog puppets in three weeks or even less than that."

When you say ‘we’, do you have a regular team?
"I’ve got a few people that I always, always use but they’re all freelancers so if I haven’t got any work on they go and work somewhere else."

But you’ve got a pool of people that you know you can call on and you know you can work well with them?
"Absolutely. To be honest, there’s some guys who’ve only worked with me for the past few years, from Descent. There’s probably a core two or three that I always use but it changes from film to film. Sometimes, like on The Descent, I’ll have up to ten people. But usually there’s a few guys milling around in my workshop."

The skills required to make a dog puppet, are they different from the skills required for prosthetic make-up?
"Basically, I’ll design exactly what I want it to look like, what I want it to do. I’ve got one person who comes in; she’s worked on absolutely loads and loads and loads of stuff. She’ll come in and be in charge of the sculpture and fabrication and then we’ll have a mechanical person coming in, I’ve got electronic people that I call in from time to time and fur people that I call in, guys that are really good at sculpting creatures. Part of my job is going to meetings, putting together the right team for such a big project, delegating it, all this sort of stuff."

Some time after that you did The Sick House, which comes out on US DVD in March. Did that ever have a UK release?
"As far as I know it only had an American release, I think. It had US theatrical distribution."

Were you making up the plague victims?
"Yes, that was an interesting one. The make-up artist was Jacqueline Fowler and I was prosthetics designer but she had a lot to do with it. We would make up all the prosthetics and she would apply them all. I don’t think I actually applied any plague victims."

Were you aiming for realism or, given that most people only have a vague idea what bubonic plague looks like, did you have a bit of creative license?
"Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it just has to look cool. Like on Doomsday, we looked through so many different things and I said to Neil, ‘What do you fancy? Does it have to look like anything in particular?’ and he said, ‘No, just make it look gross and cool.’ So we went with a real mix of sexual diseases and fungus and pretty much everything that was gross that we could think of."

Is it more fun, the more gross you can make it?
"Yes, he just wanted grossness: ‘Ah, let’s do something really, really nasty.’ I was like, ‘Okay...’ I showed him a few gross pictures and he was going, ‘That’s gross... that’s gross...’ There was one point where I put something on each side of their face and asked, ‘What do you like?’ He said, ‘I kind of like all of them.’ So I said, ‘Which should I use?’ and he said, ‘Use all of them, we’ll call it an ultra-virus.’ Fine, let’s do that."

Is there a danger, in trying to push the limits of extremely gross stuff, that you’ve then got to try and top it with the next picture?
"It’s kind of weird. I mean, take the work on WAZ for example. Me and Tom Shankland the director, we were thinking of the grossest things possible and we came up with a lot of gross things. It’s all been cut out of the theatrical version but it’s all going to be in the DVD version. But if you said to me, ‘You’ve got another torture sequence,’ I’d be like, ‘All right,’ and I’d just think of new stuff to do. To be honest with you, as a prosthetics guy you tend to think, ‘I wish I’d done this, I wish I’d done that.’ So there’s always somewhere to go."

WAZ hasn’t been released yet but the early press coverage suggests it falls into the ‘torture porn’ category.
"No. Basically, reading all the article about it, people may think it’s torture porn but it’s actually not. Everything is done for a reason. Everything is done because someone is going through a certain state of mind. If you look at Hostel 1 and 2, it’s pure torture porn: let’s get some kids, torture them, beat them. But with WAZ it’s all in the story. The torture scenes are secondary. It’s more about the story than it is about some cool gross stuff."

So what sort of stuff did you have to do for WAZ?
"We did flayings, cheek slicings, we saw a guy’s cheek sliced open with a scalpel and then fingered. We had a nipple being ripped off, we had bits of stomach being torn out, we had a whole leg flayed, we had scalpel slices. We had nails being hammered into people’s fingers. We had, I think... did we have a castration? We’d got a castration but we felt we didn’t need to show it. Oh, and his knee gets hammered until it’s pretty much completely smashed to pieces. So me and Tom really went mad. We were talking about all the gross things we could do: what about this? what about that? We shot loads - and also Selma Blair’s got the most horrible rape scene - and I remember saying to him, ‘There’s no way all this can get through, I’m sure.’ I watched it and, yes, they’ve taken it out. It’s still a great movie, it’s really good. Great reviews. But there’s always a part of you that goes, ‘It would be nice if...’ But like they said, it’s got great reviews, it’s a great movie, they’re going to stick it on DVD with all the extras. I saw them putting up an extra section when I was up at Vertigo last and it was pretty predetermined. So it’s a treat for all the gore fans."

With something like that, does the script accommodate what you can do? It sounds like you had a script that said ‘torture scene here’ and the director said ‘What can you do?’ and you said, ‘Oh, I can do a knee.’
"You know what, as I remember, it wasn’t that specific. Me and Tom pretty much worked it out. The writer of WAZ came on set and he went, ‘Oh, this is gross! This is gross! I didn’t think up that bit!’ The writer was actually quite squeamish and he wasn’t as full-on as you’d think. So basically, me and Tom had a talk and Tom was going on and on about flayings. I wasn’t sold on the flayings - ‘Is that going to look good?’ - I was thinking more about drilling knee-caps. I knew about inserting things whereas he was much more about the flaying. I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it’ so we did a quick test and I said, ‘You know, that’s actually quite gross.’ We also did, with the cheek flaying, instead of having huge chunks sliced out, I made it so that it was like the smallest sliver being cut away with a scalpel. As it was coming away from the cheek, it just looked, rather than a chunk, like a really thin slither. I think that made it look a hundred times worse."

Do you sometimes come up with ideas for things and keep them on file somewhere until you can find a use for them?
"Not so much. What tends to happen is that if I have ideas for a script and we don’t use them then those will be stored and that’s all cool. But I will hardly ever think of anything then right it down. It will always be connected to the script. I’ve got so many ideas about torture now that if I’m given a film with a torture scene I just go, ‘Oh my god, yes, there’s loads of torture things I’d like to do.’"

Do you prefer trying brand new stuff or perfecting new variations on things you’ve already done?
"I’m always trying to come up with new stuff, I’d say. A lot of people think ‘Oh, I wish I’d done it this way... If I get a chance to do it again I’d do this...’ But I’d rather try something new, just because it keeps me sane. To do the same thing wouldn’t really be interesting to me."

Straightheads is a film that completely passed me by. Is that a sort of Straw Dogs revenge-type movie?
"Yes, it’s kind of odd. It was out in the cinema a while ago. Huge posters."

Not in Leicester, there weren’t!
"Alan Jones was a big fan of it. It’s like a very dark revenge-for-rape movie. There’s one guy who gets a shotgun inserted into him. We did an eyeball puncture, all the stitching and the healing around eye wounds. We did a mechanical deer that they run over. There’s a whole thing of them trying to rescue a dead deer. They get it off the road and that’s when they’re attacked and she’s raped and he’s beaten up. We did a dead dog, loads of bits and pieces. There was an eye-gouge at one point but I think they cut that in the end, it was just too nasty."

Another one coming out soon is The Cottage. Does the fact that it’s a comedy affect how you do the effects?
"The gore’s in there but because it’s done in such comedic way, none of it’s scary. It’s all fun and gory. They still do the same things: some guy gets his foot chopped, you’ve got the farmer. The farmer’s make-up is not so much state of the art, more like what was done in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was a cool, dirty old farmer with loads and loads of scars, so it was a scary make-up but also a funny one as well. Everything was done slightly tongue-in-cheek. Jennifer Ellison gets a spade through her mouth. She’s swearing at first - ‘You fucking...’ - and then the farmer just gets this spade, shoves it in her mouth and takes it all the way down so it chops the top of her head off. It’s hilarious, everyone laughs, but it’s one of those things where, if it was done in a serious way it would be horrible. Yet the actual effect doesn’t change. It’s just how they shoot it. Being a comedy doesn’t really affect you."

The last time we spoke was in 2006 on Simon Hunter's Mutant Chronicles, which is still in post. Do you know how it’s going?
"Last time I was up there they had about 400 effects shots to do. Poor Simon, it’s a three-year project for him so it’s quite full on. Apparently it’s looking great. It’s a green-screen movie and I haven’t seen much of it, maybe just a couple of minutes. It’s one film that I’m not quite sure about, really because it’s such a big ‘post’ thing. When we were shooting it, it was pretty hard to tell what it was going to be because you’re shooting loads of mutants on green screen and actors walking around. But Simon’s got a really great vision. You always hope that it’s going to be great and it has the potential to be amazing."

After The Descent you did a lot of violence and wounds but this was a return to designing fantasy creatures. Which do you prefer?
"To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to do just one or the other - but I’d be happy doing just one or the other. It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s lovely to just go along and chop someone’s head off or slice someone up, but on the other hand it’s nice to do a full creature make-up like in The Descent or a full mutant make-up like in Mutant Chronicles. We had so much stuff to do: infection make-up, dead bodies, heads exploding, decapitations, squashed cows, people being run over and squashed by tanks. Every day was different on that film for me and it was great. With The Cottage, all I did was gore, with Mutants I did mutants. Also Gallowwalker was another fun one to do. We had skinless cowboys, lizard make-ups, flaying victims. Sometimes I get hired just to do gore and I’m totally fine with that. But I wouldn’t want to do gore all the time, I do like to have a few different things now and again."

Gallowwalker is another one that was film back in 2006. What’s the latest you’ve heard on that?
"It’s still in post. As far as I know, it’s 90 per cent cut and they’re just finishing it off. I’ve seen bits of it and I think it looks great, it really does look good. And that was a lovely film to work on. The director’s a lovely guy, the producers were lovely. It was a very rewarding film."

There are several directors who you’ve worked with more than once: Neil Marshall, Simon Hunter, Andrew Goth, Paul Andrew Williams? Are these relationships important to you?
"Yes, obviously. It’s a mix of they like my work and they like working with me. It’s a big thing. You can do the make-up and sit in a corner and wait for them to film it or you can actually get in there and make it a real collaborative thing. Some effects guys, they do the most beautiful make-up but they’re not very good on how they film it. I really try to get in there with a director, talk through the storyboards, talk about how they went to shoot in. Really work out not so much what they need from me but exactly what we need to make this scene work. It can be so many different things apart from your make-up: what shots they’re doing, how your effect fits into the telling of the scene. Rather than some guy who just goes ‘You want a head cut off? Okay’ and they just cut off a head.

"It’s all the other things within a scene, trying to make it work. I come along as a head of department and I’ll make sure everything’s in place, everyone knows what they’re doing, they know exactly what they’re going to get. Every single shot is what they need. Another one we’ve done - have you heard of Donkey Punch? Basically four kids on a boat and it goes horribly wrong. It’s a Warp X production shot in Cape Town and basically I came along and filled in all the blanks. They’d shot loads of stuff but they’d maybe not had enough time to shoot prosthetics or whatever. So they called me along, wanted to get me in. I came in, studied all the footage, worked out exactly what we needed to tell the story, all the different shots. We built it all and we worked out everything the director needed and we shot it all. Someone gets a piece of glass in them and they pull it out, it’s a horrible, wincy moment. Someone gets an outboard motor in their chest. Someone gets stabbed, they’re twisting the knife and pull it out. It’s one of those things where I had to study all the footage and work out exactly what we need - and them come along and shoot it.

"I’m working with Tom Shankland on his new movie, the last one being WAZ. That’s a film called The Day but I’m not sure how much I can tell you. It is a horror film [Eventually released as The Children - MJS]. Tom is absolutely lovely to work with. When I work with people like Neil Marshall and Tom Shankland, they very much have a vision and they’re very collaborative: 'What do you think? Where should we go?' It’s that whole collaborative thing where everyone brings their skills to the table and you’ll get a much better effect."

We haven’t yet discussed Eden Lake - I don’t know much about that.
"Basically lovely, young, good-looking couple, out having a little holiday. They get harassment from some horrible kids. Somehow, the character played by Michael Fassbender, he grabs a knife off them and the lead bully’s dog is stabbed and killed, so basically it becomes a hunt across the forest with all these ASBO kids trying to kill this couple. James Watkins was the director for Celador. I’m not sure how much I can tell you but there’s a lot of gore effects. I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to give away but believe me, it has some nasty moments. It pretty much is like a chase movie: nasty kids after lovely young couple."

Is there anything else we haven’t covered?
"I don’t think so. There’s loads of other stuff I work on like docudramas but nothing that would be of any interest to your readers. We just finished The Hunger which is the story of Bobby Sands."

Have you got any burning ambition? Do you want to direct?
"I’ll tell you about all my plans when it gets a bit closer. Some people really love doing old age, some people want to do more creatures but when I get a script, that’s when I get excited and then all my ideas start flowing. If you give me a script with a stabbing, I’ll come up with a different way of doing it. If you give me a script with infection make-up, I’ll come up with a different way of doing it. I pretty much get off on a script when somebody gives it to me and all the ideas will flow. I’d kind of like to do another torture scene but then, saying that, the uncut WAZ will come out. Truthfully, I wanted to do the strongest torture scene ever done on film - that’s what I’d like to do.

"A lot of people come to me because I’m seen as the guy to go to for gore but the nice thing about The Mutant Chronicles, Doomsday is they’re something different. Doomsday is going to be great because it’s such a big movie. It’s really, really good and it doesn’t disappoint in the gore. Me and Neil were talking about it, in fact I think we were actually out in Cape Town shooting it. The day before shooting, Neil was looking at this fake head which basically explodes and I said to him, ‘Neil, you know there’s more gore in this than in The Descent.’ ‘You sure?’ We went through the list and he was, ‘Yes, there is, isn’t there?’ But because in the movie there’s so much going on, the gore is secondary but when it hits you it’s full-on."

When you’re working with actors you’ve worked before, is it easier because they’re relaxed and confident that you know what you’re doing?
"That’s definitely a part of it. Now and again I’ll work with an actor who’ll say, ‘I’ve done this but your stuff’s much better’ and that’s cool. There’s people I’ve worked with quite a few times. You get friendly and it’s easier. You know what they’re going to be like and you can go for a beer afterwards. It’s a lot easier if you know the people. More and more I’ve worked with the same directors and it’s lovely because you all know each other. Working with production designers like Simon Bowles who I’ve done Cold and Dark with, Straightheads, Doomsday. He’s an absolutely brilliant production designer and I love working with him because he’ll always have an idea and we’ll work stuff out together. Sam McCurdy, DP of Descent and Doomsday, he’s great as well. I know how he likes to shoot stuff, he knows what he’s going to get from me. Jacqueline Fowler, who’s a make-up designer, we’ve worked on maybe eight films together. It’s great because I know exactly what she’s going to do and she knows what the prosthetics are going to be like. I can give her some prosthetics to put on while I deal with the bigger stuff. So it’s always lovely working with the same team. Also it can be very rewarding working with people you haven’t worked with before. A new director will come in and have a chat and it’s a new vision, a new way of working."

Finally, you’ve established yourself in the UK but have you been tempted out to Hollywood?
"The whole thing with Hollywood is it’s so hard to work out there, just because their film industry is really suffering because all their films go abroad. For me to go out there, I wouldn’t be welcome because I haven’t got a green card. I’d have to be really requested. For me, I love shooting abroad, that’s my main thing. Last year, to have three months in Cape Town on Doomsday and four months in Namibia - I absolutely loved it. Yes, if Hollywood calls me to come out and do something I’d be out there like a shot but it’s hard for me to pursue projects in Hollywood."

Are you happy being a big fish in a small pond?
"I’ve never really thought about it. If a film in Hollywood called me I’d be straight out there in a second, don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way saying that I wouldn’t want to work there, it’s just that the opportunity’s never come up."

They’re not short of effects people out there, are they?
"There’s so many great effects people. You’ve got the KNBs and the Stan Winstons and loads and loads of companies. I don’t know if I’d have to work on non-union pictures. I don’t know how it would work. If somebody I’d worked with before, like a director, suddenly gets this big job in Hollywood and wants to bring me out, I think that’s the way I would do it - and I would be out there in a second. But it’s hard for me to actually pursue a film I want to go for; if it’s in America I tend not to go for it just because I haven’t got a union card and I don’t know what I would need. To be honest with you, it’s just never come about. I haven’t crossed any of those bridges yet.”

interview originally posted 22nd January 2012

interview: Paul Hyett (2013)

Sometimes it seems like I've spent most of my career writing about Paul Hyett's effects work, who has more mentions in Urban Terrors than anyone else. Back in 2008 I did a fairly lengthy interview with Paul for Fangoria about his work since The Descent. In June 2013 we finally met at the press screening for Paul's directorial debut, the fantastic The Seasoning House. The following week, Paul kindly answered a few questions by email.

Why was last year the right time for you to make the move into directing, and how long had you been working up to that?
"I had been wanting to direct for a good few years, probably about five years or so. I've been doing prosthetics and creature effects for over 18 years and really been wanting to direct for a while. Michael Riley and I had been friends since we did a film together about 15 years ago and over the last five years or so we had been talking about my directorial debut, and we started to seek out a project for me to direct. The first was to be The Black Site."

Why did you make The Seasoning House rather than The Black Site?
"With The Black Site, the budget had been circling the £1.5-£2 million mark (its quite an ambitious war movie) and we felt it really wasn't going to happen at that budget on a first time, unproven director. So we decided to make a smaller budgeted film, more contained, to show that I could handle a bigger, more ambitious film. We hope to tackle The Black Site at a later date."

I was surprised to see that many of your department heads hadn't worked with you before: how did you select them?
"Adam Etherington the DOP is at the same agency I'm on for prosthetics and we met up and he really got what I wanted to do with the film. The whole look, the way I wanted to shoot it, was crucial and Adam really understood the whole beautiful but nihilistic look to the film I wanted. Elle Baird the make-up designer had worked for me on a lot of films in the prosthetics department. Caroline Story the production designer, she had such an amazing feel for the seasoning house. She had a lot of ideas about the textures and colours. Raquel Acevedo the costume designer really worked miracles to be able to give all the characters their own identity and personality as well as populating an entire village. Both Caroline and Raquel were from Mike's last film and Christiaan Forbe De Jonge, the 1st AD, I had used on my trailer for The Black Site. Conal Palmer was the co-writer and prosthetics supervisor and Filmgate the VFX company I had worked with many, many times. And John Moolenshot the construction manager I had worked with in South Africa on Doomsday. I had worked with just under half of the crew before. I was really lucky to get such a good cast and crew."

Reviews have been very marmite: people love this film or hate it. Would you rather have had a positive but lukewarm response or does the polarisation of opinion mean you're doing something right?
"I was speaking to Mike about this the other day, he loves that opinions are so divided, that it really is such a love or hate reaction, and he feels that means you've made a more interesting film. As a director it's always hard when you get negative reviews, but you have to take the bad ones with the good ones. When you make a film so dark and harrowing, and about such a dark subject matter which people would rather not face, then you put yourself in the line of fire. Not everyone is going to like it."

How much involvement were you able to have with the make-up effects while you were directing?
"Well, the make-up effects were all made at my previous workshop, we were making them all on the side of other jobs that were happening at the time so I always had an eye on them, but Conal Palmer the prosthetics supervisor knew exactly how I wanted them as he's worked with me for many years on most the films I've done in the prosthetics departments. It was actually really easy for me as I knew exactly what I was getting and how to shoot them, and easy for Conal as I wasn't ever going to ask him for something he didn't have or ask for something impossible (as usually happens with directors)."

There was a mention at the screening of a trilogy: can you elaborate on that?
"Well The Seasoning House is part one of a war-themed horror trilogy Mike and I are planning. They are very different stories, different war zones, different conflicts with different characters and themes. But they all revolve around the horrors of war. And all are very different from each other. The Black Site is the next in the trilogy. It's very much a Jacob's Ladder/Manchurian Candidate type of psychological horror.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Seasoning House

Director: Paul Hyett
Writers: Paul Hyett, Conal Palmer
Producer: Michael Riley
Cast: Rosie Day, Kevin Howarth, Sean Pertwee
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: preview screening

Before you watch The Seasoning House, you should read this review. Or at least, read a review. This is not a movie which benefits from being seen without foreknowledge; you need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. So read a review. But not a review in the mainstream press, because most of those say it’s rubbish. And it’s not rubbish. But it’s a truism that mainstream film reviewers generally hate horror films and generally hate British films, reserving their most extreme knee-jerk reactions for any British horror film which crosses their path.

Unless it’s got a big star in it. The Seasoning House doesn’t have any really big stars. It has names which you, the discerning cult movies fan, will recognise. But not A-listers, and the mainstream press work on the principal that any film without A-listers, or any film which does not have a heavily marketed blanket theatrical release, must be a piece of crap, because otherwise it would attract top talent and open nationwide on 400 screens. Obviously.

So don’t look for reviews in mainstream film mags, and certainly don’t look for reviews in the increasingly anachronistic national papers. Bear in mind that all mainstream printed publications are, by their nature, conservative. They only survive by selling adspace; they can only sell adspace if they have a large, demographically defined readership; and they can only maintain a large, demographically defined readership by telling that readership what that readership already knows. Most people read magazines and newspapers in order to be told things which they already agree with, to confirm their prejudices, whether that’s ‘student loans cause global warming’ or ‘asylum seekers ate the housing market’ or indeed ‘modern British films are crap’.

Stick with the independent, online reviewers and bloggers, the folk whose judgement is not clouded by financial forces and narrow-minded editorial policies. Take a look at the reviews on the horror websites and the cult film websites. In fact, frankly, you might as well just stick with this review now (although I’ll give you fair warning, it’s a long’un).

Anyway: The Seasoning House. The title doesn’t tell you much, so let’s be clear. This is not a jolly romp. It’s not a heart-warming family drama. It’s certainly not a date movie. The Seasoning House is harrowing, disturbing, grim and bleak. It is also thought-provoking, socially relevant, morally fascinating and brilliantly directed, acted and designed. It’s maybe not an easy film to watch but it’s a film you absolutely must watch if you have any interest in 21st century British horror cinema. If nothing else, The Seasoning House is an important film.

Important because it marks the directorial debut of Paul Hyett. I first came across Paul’s work when I was on SFX in the late 1990s, writing about Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain. The prosthetic effects in that tent-pole BHR title were provided by a teenager named Paul Hyett (or Hyatt - these things were harder to check in ancient times), and a quick look at his IMDB page will give you some idea of how his career has progressed: Lighthouse, An Angel for May, The Last Horror Movie, The Descent, Cold and Dark, Wilderness, WAZ, The Cottage, Doomsday, Mutant Chronicles, Eden Lake, The Children, Tormented, Heartless, Attack the Block, The Reverend, The Woman in Black... and a whole load more. When I compiled the online index for my book Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema, I was not overly surprised to find that Paul had more mentions than almost anybody else. Now finally he makes his directorial debut.

The Seasoning House is set in ‘The Balkans, 1996’, so not overly specific but not too vague either. The thing about the Balkan conflict was that it took place in a modern European setting amid comfortable, settled working/middle class families. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia: we feel disconnected from these modern conflicts because the environment is so alien to us. Deserts and jungles and little mud-built villages and ramshackle Third World cities. Unless we have a loved one directly involved, or a personal connection to the country, it’s as difficult to relate to these war-zones as it is to Dresden or Passchendaele. They are somewhere or somewhen else.

But the part of the world formerly known as Yugoslavia is much closer to home, not just geographically but socially. Before the Iron Curtain fell it was the most accessible Warsaw Pact country. People went on holiday there; Bob and Thelma planned to go there in one episode of The Likely Lads. The Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.

So it was really, really difficult in the 1990s to get our western European heads around the idea that the disintegration of Yugoslavia had left the inhabitants shooting, bombing, torturing and mutilating each other with every modern weapon they could get their hands on. That’s what African warlords do, or Afghan tribal chiefs, not civilised white folk like us.

And although it’s not the main focus of the story, the domestic suburban reality of the Balkan conflict underpins The Seasoning House (which was entirely shot on an old RAF base near Uxbridge) and is a vital part of its success. This is not the empty, unpopulated east European wilderness of Outpost or Severance. The sequences away from the house of the title - some flashbacks, part of the third act - show us houses and factories where ordinary people are going about their ordinary lives as best they can except when the nightmare of brutal war smashes down the door, a nightmare that most of Europe reasonably confidently assumed had disappeared for ever in May 1945.

The titular building is a brothel of sorts, where young women are held captive and used as sex slaves for any passing militia. The always fascinating Kevin Howarth, in probably his biggest and best role since The Last Horror Movie, is Viktor, proprietor of this unpleasant, squalid establishment. With the help of his hulking colleague Dimitri (David Lemberg, also in vampire web serial Blood and Bone China, who somehow manages to make a sheepskin coat look threatening) Viktor keeps the girls in line and takes payment from clients through a facade of sickeningly fake bonhomie. Viktor is a complex character, with layers that are gradually peeled away. In fact, every character in this film is a rounded, complex person but at the same time our only understanding of them comes from what we see them do and hear them say. And that’s important too, because that is all that the other characters can use to underpin their own understandings of those around them.

And this is crucial because one of the two key themes of The Seasoning House is this: trust. Near the start of the film, Viktor explains How Things Work to a new group of girls, their shivering, terrified, tear-filled silence contrasting starkly with his oleaginous kindliness and congeniality in a scene where the subtext is a thousand kitchens that have echoed to the empty promise “I swear, babe, I’ll never hit you again. I’d never do that.” Viktor asks the girls to trust him, and demonstrates, with a graphic, sociopathic calm exactly how and why they should trust him.

Among this new intake is a petite deaf-mute teenager with a birthmark on her cheek. If anything, her disability is helping to shield her from the full horror around her: she can’t hear what Viktor says, she can’t speak out of turn. But Viktor doesn’t want to use her as one of his unwilling crack whores, instead he sets her to work administering the crack itself. Christening her ‘Angel’, he shows her how to inject the other girls, who spend their days and nights tied to rusting metal bed frames. Angel empties their slop buckets, Angel bathes the blood from their wounds, Angel applies eye-shadow and lipstick to each girl, a mockery of feminine beautification designed to satisfy the visiting men’s casual, callous self-deception that they are screwing real prostitutes, loose women with loose morals - and also to distract from the blood, bruises and scars left by the previous ‘customer’.

In assigning this work to Angel, Viktor places his trust in her. Or rather, misplaces his trust, because in doing so, he sows the seeds of his own downfall. Angel has the run of the house, as invisible and ignored as a Victorian servant. She knows what to do, has her routines and keeps mostly out of the way. Her lack of hearing and speech isolates her from the other girls, denying them - in their individual solitary confinement - one final, tantalising opportunity to interact with anyone who isn’t a violent, sadistic bastard.

Flashbacks show us a little of Angel’s earlier life in pebble-dashed Balkan suburbia. Anna Walton (Vampire Diary, Mutant Chronicles, Hellboy 2) plays her mother Violetta, raising ‘Angel’ (we never learn her real name) and her sister after their abusive father leaves, presumably to join the fighting. Again with the trust: Violetta must have once trusted her husband, but no longer.

The film’s other theme is this: responsibility. Violetta takes responsibility for both her daughters, and they trust her as every child trusts their mother, implicitly and without reservation. But circumstances beyond anything that they (or we) can imagine will find Violetta appallingly unable to honour that trust or fulfil that responsibility.

A group of camo-clad soldiers work their way down the street, 'ethnically cleansing' each house in turn, backed by a rumbling tank which makes it clear that there is a degree of twisted authority and legitimacy to their actions; they’re not just random psychos playing at dress-up. Violetta and her older daughter are casually executed before the younger girl is thrown into the back of a lorry. In a few moments, her entire life is destroyed. Home, family, education, friends, neighbours, hopes, dreams: all swept way by the tide of war. Every experience, every memory, now counting for nothing. The first day at school, the holiday by the beach, the pop stars she liked, the boys who liked her, the kindly teacher, the strict teacher, the dolls, the TV and radio and record player and books and dresses and days in the park and nights under the stars when she should have been home in bed.

Everything is gone. As Viktor explains when she and her companions arrive, by whatever circuitous route, at the seasoning house, their previous lives are gone and there is no world outside these walls.

No longer a person, each woman is now a slab of meat, a commodity to be sold, traded, stolen or bartered as casually as petrol, bullets or cigarettes. But petrol is used up when it powers an engine. A bullet can only be fired once. When a cigarette is smoked, it has gone forever. The women in that lorry will eventually find themselves in a situation where they will envy the finality of a used cigarette or a spent bullet.

“You will learn to show kindness to my customers,” Viktor tells them, entrusting them with a thankless, awful responsibility that none of the women would ever wish for. But Angel is given a different responsibility, a domestic responsibility, a position of trust.

In the manner of serial abusers, Viktor feels a responsibility towards his charges. It’s a self-serving responsibility: if a girl is unable to work, he loses money in clients unserved and eventually in the expense of buying another slab of meat. Though he presents himself as - perhaps even believes himself to be - some cross between an employer and a father-figure, he’s not of course. He’s a slave-owner. He doesn’t care what happens to these women as long as they stay alive enough to satisfy the men who pay him. Their lives can be nasty and brutish, just as long as they’re not too short. His treatment of them is the same as a peasant whipping and beating his under-nourished, overworked cow as it struggles to drag a plough through the dry, brittle soil. He will treat and mistreat the dumb animal to near its limits, but cannot afford to lose its essential services.

The narrative zero point, the moment which sets this tale in motion, comes when Angel discovers that one of the other girls in the house can sign. Until then, her injection and swabbing of the girls has been as mechanical as Viktor expects it to be, their pleas for help falling on literally deaf ears. But Vanya (Dominique Provost-Chalkley in her feature debut) can communicate with Angel and a secret friendship develops. Angel has two advantages in her favour about which Viktor knows nothing. One is that she is small enough to crawl through the ventilation holes in the walls, and through the wall cavities themselves. So she can visit Vanya in her room even after all the doors are locked.

And the other thing she has is chocolate. Who knows how she came by this? Perhaps it was left behind by a customer, perhaps one of the men gave it to her out of some misplaced concept of kindness or generosity. But she has it, keeping it hidden beneath her own filthy mattress. When she shares this with Vanya, it’s one of the most subtly powerful moments in the whole film, a tiny, insignificant, everyday act blown out of all proportion by its symbolic status as a residue of the world outside and the life once lived now gone. Vanya, like the other girls, lives only in the (often drug-hazed) moment. When Viktor said that their previous lives no longer existed, he was absolutely correct. But just the presence of one square of chocolate shows that he wasn’t, providing the slenderest of threads to that late 20th century reality somewhere close by. There is a world beyond the walls: a world where factories make chocolate, where shops sell chocolate, where people eat chocolate, where people do things which make themselves, and the people around them, happy. There is something other than the moment, other than the house, other than violent rape, forced crack addiction and shitting in a bucket.

Throughout all this, the clients who use Viktor’s amenities are faceless, nameless figures. But one day, Goran comes calling. Goran and Viktor know each other of old. They each know things that the other doesn’t want everyone to know. Neither is remotely trustworthy, yet their professional relationship rests solely on a very unsteady mutual trust. Goran is played by Sean Pertwee, no stranger to British horror or indeed to army uniform. With him are a handful of men under his command, including baby brother Josif (Alec Utgoff: Outpost 3). Goran has responsibility for his men - especially his brother - just as Viktor has responsibility for his girls. Goran’s men - especially his brother - trust their leader.

But Viktor is not the only person in the house who knows Goran. We have already seen Sean Pertwee in this film, in flashbacks, wiping out Angel’s family and neighbours. The man who killed her mother and sister is here. Just in case Angel had any doubts about seizing the moment for revenge, one of Goran’s men, Aleksander (man mountain Ryan Oliva) brutally rapes Vanya to death. It’s now or never. Angel emerges from the air vent, unnoticed by the rutting ogre and from that point on the film becomes a sequence of violent, bloody attacks, defences, hunts and chases, inside and later outside the house.

But let’s just pause for a moment to observe a startling visual image. Angel clambers head first from a tiny rectangle, as if pulling herself between worlds (in a sense, maybe she is). Long, dark hair falling over her face as she lowers her body towards the floor, walking her hands down the wall, emerging from a place where she should not exist in the first place - any horror movie fan is going to think of one word. And that word is Ring. I don’t know to what extent it’s an unavoidable coincidence (there are, after all, only so many ways you can climb out of a small, rectangular hole) and to what extent it’s a deliberate homage - or indeed whether Paul Hyett is consciously imbuing the action with added significance. But it’s there and it’s obvious (and I’m glad to say it doesn’t detract from the rest of the scene, except momentarily).

And so now we have a more conventional story in our third act, as Viktor, Goran and Goran’s remaining men try to find Angel. Goran sees this as a betrayal of his trust of Viktor, Viktor sees it as a betrayal of his trust of Angel. The two men’s mutual trust shatters. Actually, I have just realised something which I’m going to spoiler protect because it’s too specific:

At one point, unseen by anyone, Viktor casually shoots one of Goran’s men then says that Angel did it (she has got hold of a gun by then). This seemed extreme, even by Viktor’s standards, notwithstanding his professed love for Angel. But now I realise why he does it. After Aleksander and Vanya were both found dead, Goran angrily confronted Viktor: “I’ve lost one of my men!” “And I just lost a girl.” At which point Goran casually shoots another girl, making his point that to him they are utterly disposable and he cares for Viktor’s problems no more than he cares for the girls’. Viktor’s equally casual murder of a soldier is surely to even the score, a personal debt repaid to nobody’s satisfaction but his own. If he can’t resolve the situation, he can at least make sure that Goran suffers as much as he does. That’s his new responsibility.

As Angel makes her break for freedom, Goran and Viktor both give chase independently since neither trusts the other. Although we think this has become a story about Angel’s revenge, if we look closely we can see that in fact it’s not, beyond her initial attack on Aleksander. What we might expect, indeed what some of the crappier reviewers implied, is a game of cat and mouse, a simplistic rape-revenge saga along the lines of, say, Ms.45 or I Spit on Your Grave. But actually Angel’s goal is not to take revenge on Goran, or Viktor for that matter. Her goal is to escape the seasoning house. And something easy to miss among the gunshots, shouting and movement is that Angel gives no thought to the fate of any of the remaining girls. They’re not her responsibility. Not any more.

All the above will, I hope, have served to convince you that The Seasoning House is a powerful, disturbing film. It’s a film about misogyny (something which less attentive observers with personal agendas can often mistake for a misogynist film). It’s a film about violence so yes, it’s a violent film, but it’s a film about the effects of violence. It’s certainly a lot less violent than many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays and never, ever seeks to glorify or justify violence. Those critics who have dismissed it as sadistic or overly brutal or even (because they don’t know what the term means) ‘torture porn’ are probably the same ones who clapped and cheered during the third act of Man of Steel when thousands of off-screen people were killed in city-wide collateral damage from Superman’s battle with General Zod - and no-one gave a monkey’s. That’s the violence and casual sadism in cinema we should be worried about - wholesale casual slaughter with no consequence - not carefully plotted films exploring the dehumanisation of violence and slavery and its effects on both captive and captor. Man of Steel is the sickeningly exploitative film in these two almost simultaneous releases, and I certainly know which one I would be prepared to sit through again.

The Seasoning House has many strengths and few if any failings, with the obvious exception that it is definitely not for the squeamish. One of its strongest cards is the cast, every single one of whom is absolutely on top form. Kevin Howarth brings to Viktor the same ambiguous amorality which he brought to Max Parry. The character could have been a cartoon villain, but he’s not. He’s a businessman surviving in a world torn asunder by taking advantage of others, not just the girls but the soldiers who pay to use and abuse the girls. The seasoning house is a means to an end for Viktor, a way to make enough money to maybe one day not have to run the seasoning house.

The casting of Sean Pertwee was absolutely essential. He’s a recognisable face, a constant reminder that what we are watching, for all its horrific true-life inspiration and research, is fiction. Quite apart from turning in a typically masterful performance (if anything, more restrained than some of his BHR outings) in a costume which puts one inescapably in mind of Dog Soldiers, Pertwee provides a solid grounding to the film, a reassuring hand on the shoulder which says that this is a 21st century British horror film and we should acknowledge it as such, and view it in that context.

But of the three leads, the film absolutely stands or falls on the performance of Miss Rosie Day as Angel. What an incredible role for an actress. What a stunning performance in that role. Playing a deaf mute is always going to be a challenge for any actor: not just relying on expression and movement to convey every thought or feeling (a few lines of subtitled sign language notwithstanding) but also having to avoid responding in any way to auditory signals, remaining unaware of all speech unless the other person’s lips are visible. As an aside, Angel’s deafness, though never explored in any depth, gives extraordinary levels of tension to the third act. When creeping or running around, not only can she not hear her pursuers, she also has no idea how much noise she herself is making. If she leans on a creaky board or beam, others in the house will hear it - but Angel won’t. And as another aside, it’s remarkably how many deaf and/or mute women feature in revenge films, from Ms.45 to The Evil of Frankenstein. I’m sure there’s a thesis to be written there.

But I have been distracted from my praise of Rosie Day and I shouldn’t have been because she is absolutely fantastic. She just nails it, simple as that. Angel is vulnerable, but not overly so, confident but not overly so, frightened but not overly so, brave but not overly so... You get the picture. This is a complex character where many traits compete but none dominates. You could never sum up Angel in a few words, not even in a thousand. She is real, she is more than real. One thing we can pin down about her, possibly the only certainty in her world, is this: the only person she trusts is herself. And her only real responsibility is keeping herself alive.

Day may be a new face and name to most viewers, but she is very experienced, having been acting since she was five. As a child she was in episodes of Black Books, Hope and Glory and Family Affairs. She was Nicolette, nemesis of the title character in the last two series of CBBC fantasy series Bernard’s Watch; she was the voice of the older daughter in CBeebies elephant animation The Large Family; and she was the youngest actor to ever work with the Royal National Theatre. Only 17 when The Seasoning House began filming in January 2012, she was 18 by the time it premiered as the opening movie of that year’s Frightfest, meaning she could at least get served at the bar. Although I suspect she normally carries some form of ID because she looks much younger. We are never told Angel’s age, but she could conceivably be as young as 13 and certainly no older than 16. While The Seasoning House won’t make Rosie Day a household name, it is a gilt-edged calling card which ably demonstrated her phenomenal acting talent to any casting director who watches it.

Elsewhere in the uniformly strong cast we find Laurence Saunders (DeadTime, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer), Daniel Vivian (Apocalypse Z), Abigail Hamilton (Porcelain Presence, Steve Balderson’s Culture Shock), Adrian Bouchet (Alien vs Predator, Idol of Evil), Christopher Rithyin (Blood Army/Nephilim, Axed, Serial Kaller), Katie Allen (who used to be Ethel Hallow in The Worst Witch) and Sean Cronin (The Thompsons, and uncredited ‘high priest’ roles in The Mummy and its first sequel).

Behind the camera, we also find a bunch of talented folk working at the top of their game. I have long maintained that the three most important people on a film set are the cinematographer, the production designer and the 1st AD - even more so in the case of a debutante director. Adam Etherington is The Seasoning House’s DP, building on an extremely busy few years lighting shorts including a surprisingly large number of sci-fi quickies: Mono Ghose’s The 13th Mirror, Daniel Bugeja’s Interrogating Vivian, James Sharpe’s Notes and William McGregor’s Eradicate and No Escape, although his only previous horror credits seem to be Daniel Shea Zimbler’s Exit and Frank Rehder’s Taxi Rider. That said, The Seasoning House is not his first feature; he also worked on comedy mystery The Drummond Will and afterlife fantasy Lovelorn (and he was 2nd unit DP on Stalker and, for his sins, camera assistant on some of the Evil Calls pick-ups). Anyway, Etherington does a bang-up job, creating a bleak, washed-out world that varies in intensity, approaching a warm reality the further it gets from the house itself.

In this he has been aided by the work of production designer Caroline Story (Vampire Diary) who has excelled herself here. We have to absolutely believe that this is a working shit-hole sex-slave brothel in late 20th century eastern Europe: any clue that it’s not would tear a hole in the film and destroy all our empathies and understanding. Throughout the main building, and in those others that we see, and indeed in the relatively few external sequences, Story’s design is spot on every time. And a tip of the hat to hard-to-spell 1st AD Christiaan Faberij de Jonge (Deviation, Scar Tissue); people outside of the industry generally have no idea what a 1st does and just dismiss the job on the basis that it includes the word ‘assistant’. But it’s the 1st AD who basically runs the set, barks the orders, makes sure everything and everyone is where they should be, allowing the director to concentrate on the actors and (via the DP) the camera.

Agnieszka Liggett handled the very fine, sympathetic editing. John-Paul Frazer (Scar Tissue, Hollow, Airborne, My Name is Sarah Hayward) was the art director. Paul E Francis (The Colour of Magic) composed the score. Raquel Azevedo (Truth or Dare, Scar Tissue) designed the costumes; am I a bad person for really wanting a brown leather jacket like Viktor’s? Elle Baird (Harry Potter 8, Citadel, Tower Block) designed the hair and make-up. Kudos to all.

What is particularly interesting is that, contrary to my expectations, none of these people seem to have worked with Paul before (apart from possibly Elle Baird, whose IMDB page includes an uncredited gig on The Woman in Black). Other recognisable/notable names in the crew include prosthetics supervisor Robbie Drake (Beyond the Rave, Attack the Block, Evil Calls, Storage 24), storyboard artist Jaeson Finn (another Evil Calls alumnus, who once threw a hissy fit when I linked to his MySpace page), armourer Clive Shaw (Truth or Dare, The Reverend and yet another veteran of Scar Tissue) and visual effects co-ordinator Malin Persson (The Woman in Black, Iron Sky).

Robbie Drake’s credit notwithstanding, it’s not clear how much input Paul himself had into the prosthetic effects - I’ll get back to you on that one. They are, needless to say, excellent. But, crucially, they are never gratuitous or dwelt on unnecessarily. This is not a gore film. If you’re looking for a movie full of splatterific effects hanging on a wafer-thin story, look elsewhere. The effects in The Seasoning House serve the story, not the other way round. Which is very obviously exactly what Paul wanted.

Before moving onto Paul’s direction, a quick pause to mention the script which is primarily a collaboration between Paul and Conal Palmer, a regular colleague of Paul’s in the make-up departments of such titles as The Descent, The Cottage and Attack the Block (and with a number of notable non-Hyett credits too, including From Hell, Doctor Sleep and Storage 24). Helen Solomon, whose film career has included stints as a location scout, production assistant, camera assistant and stills photographer, and who wrote an unfilmed biopic of Fred and Rose West, came up with the original idea of a deaf-mute girl climbing around inside the walls of a brothel, so receives due story credit. And there is also a credit for a notorious gentleman named Adrian Rigelsford, who contributed to early drafts of the script.

I was very surprised the first time I saw Rigelsford’s name attached to this project, not least because it proved he was out of prison. Not quite on the Richard Driscoll level (actually there’s a credit Paul Hyett probably tries to forget: Kannibal), Rigelsford is nevertheless a serial fantasist whose career seems to have been largely based on being charming to people who don’t do quite enough research. His most notorious lie was a supposed 'final interview' with Stanley Kubrick which the TV Times published in good faith but which was exposed as pure fiction by Kubrick's assistant. In 2004 Rigelsford was sentenced to 18 months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for stealing 56,000(!) photographs from the Associated Newspapers Library. Where he's been since then isn't clear. Odd bloke.

And so, at last, we come to an evaluation of Paul Hyett’s direction. He’s not the first prosthetic effects artist to make the move to the folding chair. One thinks of Robert Kurtzman (the K in KNB), Rob Hall, good old Bob Keen and indeed Tristan Versluis (who seems to have done make-up effects for all the other BHR titles, the ones that Paul didn’t work on). The thing about make-up effects is that, because no-one else really understands them, their creators often get to be a separate little unit, to some extent calling their own shots, yet at the same time having to collaborate closely with other department heads like the costume designer and the DP. So it’s a good grounding for a young man (or woman) who wants to one day direct their own movie.

Hyett has worked with the best and it’s clear from The Seasoning House that he has learned from the best. He directs with absolute confidence, and is entirely justified in doing so. The camera lens and the actors and the script (by Hyett, as noted) come together under his watchful eye and skilful hands. He knows what he wants, he knows what works, and he knows his audience. It’s not that this panders to some clique or minority interest, but Paul knows enough about how and why people watch movies of this sort to understand what they look for and appreciate. And despite what the patronising idiots in the mainstream press say, that’s not cheap shocks and gratuitous gore. It’s character and story, relationships and narrative, events and developments.

Producer Michael Riley of Sterling Pictures previously made Vampire Diary (with Anna Walton) and has also recently produced Scar Tissue (hence presumably the number of crew from that film reteaming here) and Deviation (with Walton and Danny Dyer), as well as executive producing UK-filmed American vampire sequel The Thompsons. He and Hyett were originally going to collaborate on a project called The Black Site, for which a two minute trailer was shot that you can find on Vimeo with a quick google. This shares some elements with The Seasoning House, notably a modern conflict (in this case, Iraq), Anna Walton and a shockingly impressive throat-slitting effect that was clearly much too good to waste. Neil Jones (director of The Reverend, producer of The Feral Generation), who is a partner in Templeheart Films with Riley and Hyett, is one of three executive producers.

The Seasoning House is a fine directorial debut by any measure. But it’s more than that, it’s a magnificent piece of film-making. It makes a point, it says something and does something, but it never descends into propaganda or polemic, just as it never descends into cheap scares, gross-out grue or titillation. And, possibly most surprisingly of all, if you go in with an awareness and understanding of the film, so that you’re not shocked or caught by surprise, it is eminently watchable. It’s not something like, say, Eden Lake (with which it shares a narrative comparison at the very end) which, for all its undoubted excellence, is deeply upsetting and an absolute struggle to sit through (researching it for my book, I only managed it in five-minute chunks).

No, The Seasoning House is a powerful, hard-hitting but ultimately very, very human drama. It’s about the human condition: what we can do to other people, what we can do to ourselves, what we can overcome. It’s about trust, and it’s about responsibility. It is one of the best films you will see this year. If you have any interest in what horror films can do and say, you owe it to yourself to find a copy and watch it.

MJS rating: A