Friday, 29 November 2013

Incubus

Director: Anya Camilleri
Writer: Gary Humphreys
Producers: Donald Kushner, Adam Shapiro
Cast: Tara Reid, Christian Brassington, Alice O’Connell
Country: UK/Romania
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Sony)


Even by my standards, Incubus is shite. I have a notoriously high tolerance for crap. I’m very forgiving, very understanding, I will give credit where it’s due and I will try to appreciate what the film-makers are trying to do.

But dear God this is bollocks.

A very long, completely pointless prologue has two characters in white coats (or it might be three - it’s too dark to tell) chasing each other along dimly lit corridors. Why are corridors in these places always dimly lit? I mean, either the lights are working or they’re not.

The movie proper starts with a car-crash - only the budget wouldn’t stretch to a stunt so we actually start with our six characters emerging from a van on its side with a dented roof that suggests it has done at least one and a half rolls. Yet none of the sextet are injured or even shaken, in fact they don’t have a hair out of place. They’re in the Bitterroot Mountains, Montana (according to a caption which isn’t even centred properly) and there’s no mobile reception so they’ll have to walk. You or I would set off along the road because, well, it must lead somewhere, you can’t get lost, it won’t get muddy or impassible and there’s a chance of encountering another vehicle. But these idiots decide to yomp across the Montana hillside and head into the woods.

This opening scene suffers by apparently having dialogue that was not rewritten to match the available props and scenery, so in discussing the damaged van they talk about “getting it out of there” even though it’s just lying on the grass, not ‘in’ anything. They make no attempt to right it even though I’m sure six fit young adults could move a van if they emptied their luggage out of it. Someone says they can’t even shelter in it - why not? And someone else refers to it as a truck.

Heading off without their luggage (although they will later turn out to have about thirty feet of rope, an ice axe and six large torches) they find, just as it’s getting dark, an isolated building that is “not on the map” - which suggests that, despite being in the middle of nowhere they know exactly where they are. They break in through a fence then climb onto the roof, prise open a skylight and discover a deep, octagonal shaft. It’s about ten feet across and goes thirty or so feet down to ... well, just the corner of a corridor, frankly. (The building is actually quite small so we have to assume that most of it is underground.) A girl named Jay (Tara Reid: American Pie, Alone in the Dark) goes down the rope - very easily, like she’s just rappelling down a cliff - and starts exploring. When she doesn’t return, her brother Peter (Christian Brassington, who played the title role in the Channel 4 drama-doc Tony Blair: Rock Star!) follows her.

One brief exchange establishes these two as siblings, otherwise we get no character information whatsoever. I mean: none at all, not on anyone. We don’t even know if the other four are two couples or just friends. We have no background on these kids; we don’t know who they are, where they’re from, what they think. I have never seen a film with less characterisation. The one and only comment that anybody makes which does not relate to their situation is when a girl called Karen initially refuses to leave the van because she doesn’t want to walk in $500 boots (what, she’s going on a camping trip with no other footwear?). (Karen is played by Monica Dean who sounds British but is actually from Romania - her real name is Monica Barladeanu - where this crap was shot. She was voted the sexiest woman in Romania by various local magazines and TV shows and has since gone on to have bit parts in Lost and Nip/Tuck.)

But Karen, after the other five have gone down the rope, climbs off the building and in fact is the only one who does set out walking - though we’re never told why. Josh (Russell Carter, fresh from drama school), whom we presume is her boyfriend, gets stuck on the end of the rope because it has caught on something up top, then it snaps and he falls to the floor but is not injured. So the rope is now considerably too short to reach the top of the shaft. Remember that.

Exploring, they find two bodies in lab coats, in a pool of blood, and can immediately deduce that they killed each other. Okay. They also find the centrepiece of the movie: in a large hall (about the size of, oh, a movie soundstage, which even has sound baffles lining the walls) they find an octagonal cell within which is a man. He’s bald, almost naked, sitting in a chair and has various tubes and wires attached to him including a tube going into his stomach, just above his navel, which they think (not unreasonably) is feeding him. However, as he seems to be wearing ordinary pants, you have to wonder where the waste goes after it has passed through his alimentary canal. (He’s played by Mihai Stanescu whose normal job is as make-up artist on movies such as Lurking Fear, Kraa! The Sea Monster, Totem, Voodoo Academy, The Brotherhood, Leeches etc.)

No, actually you don’t have to wonder about where his poo goes. There are far too many other things to wonder about in this inept production of a hopelessly clicheed script. For example, the power supply to the building. The outside lights come on as the group approach the fence, then once inside it’s dark(-ish) till they find the light switch that controls the whole building. This is later turned off, without noticeably affecting the general lighting situation. The octagonal cell is never less than fully illuminated and it has lots of computers and other equipment so presumably has its own permanent power supply. And they later find an office which is very brightly lit indeed. Basically, the sets are dimly lit when they want to be spooky, brightly lit when they want to be otherwise. The point is: it’s all done to suit the story, rather than with any logic. (There is also some business later with torch batteries starting to run out which is frankly these idiots’ own stupid fault for having all their torches on all the time, even when the lights are working.)

I should also note that the publicity consistently refers to the octagonal cell as a ‘cube’ which suggests that either the publicity was written before the production designer got to work, or someone doesn’t understand basic three-dimensional geometry.

So anyway, the nearly naked bald guy is instantly - instantly! - identified as a murderer who was supposedly executed ten years earlier. I mean, there’s no labels or notices or anything, it’s just: “Hey, this is that guy...” To be able to recognise a person you’ve never met from newspaper photos you saw ten years ago, despite him being now naked and bald and, well, ten years older - wow, that’s some feat. Bizarrely (or at least, it would be bizarre in a competent movie) we are never actually told what this guy’s crimes were apart from a passing reference to him having killed some members of his family. (Once again we have to turn to the publicity, which calls him a ‘serial killer’, something which is never alluded to in the film itself. Mind you, the publicity also calls the young people ‘teenagers’ whereas, in accordance with international cinematic law, they are all played by actors in their mid-twenties. In fact token name value Tara Reid was thirty when she filmed this - and looks it.)

A flashback, narrated by one of the group, explains to us that when this guy (called Kiefer, I think) was seven, his mother used to punish him for singing. We see a skinny kid in a filthy bathroom, cleaning his teeth and humming a tuneless melody. An evil-looking woman comes in with a small washing-up brush and scrubs his tongue - which is probably uncomfortable but hardly major-league child abuse. In response to this, the boy bites his own tongue off.

Biting tongues off is something of a recurring feature in this film and is pretty much the only interesting or scary thing on show.

We are never told how long after this the boy killed his mother, or whether he ever killed anyone else, or how our gang are so extraordinarily clued up on the life of this one guy. They subsequently find an office (as mentioned) where there is lots of easily readable information on the cell’s inhabitant that explains everything that is going on, plus a stack of VHS tapes because, yes, this is one of the many scientific research facilities where people, instead of writing things down, record them by speaking to a video camera. Despite there being dozens of tapes, Jay easily finds the ones she wants and even though she fast forwards through bits, each time she presses play, we get a nice, complete sentence that explains a bit more of what is going on.

So what exactly is going on? Well, first, let’s bring ourselves up to speed. The team find a lab-coated individual in one of the rooms (who may or may not be someone from the prologue) who repeatedly stabs Peter. The other four manage to drag Peter from the room and close the door before the other person reaches it, which suggests he/she wasn’t really serious about chasing them. Peter then dies and Jay is so upset about this that Tara Reid comes perilously close to acting. Later, they re-enter the room and we have the immortal line, “It’s all right, the psycho’s gone.” We never find out who this person was - I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman because it was so dark - and frankly I don’t think it matters.

After all the nonsense in the office where these experts on Kiefer are brought up to speed with what has been going on, Josh turns into a psycho and chases the other three (Jay and Holly and Bug the Token Black Guy). We are assured that he went psycho after he fell asleep but since none of the others were with him when he fell asleep or woke up, in fact there was no hint to the viewer that he was ever asleep, this leaves us all scratching our heads. Oh, and when he chases them, Jay, Holly and Bug all simultaneously decide that in this big facility the only place to hide is the octagonal cell, despite the fact that it has glass windows on all eight sides.

Holly (Alice O’Connell, who has been in Silent Witness and Casualty) reaches it first, goes inside and locks the door (why?). Bug (Akemnji Ndifernyan, who was a regular in cut-price daytime soap opera Doctors) and Jay run up and bang on the door, shouting for her to open it, which she decides to do just before Josh reaches them. Since there is no other suggestion that Holly really hates the other two, we can assume that this was added to increase the tension despite it making no sense. Fortunately for the trio, possessed Josh hasn’t got enough enough sense of his own to smash a window, despite having eight to choose from, so he bites his own tongue off at them.

Oh, and how did they get the key? Let me take you back to the first discovery of the octagonal cell, when the door was locked. One of the gang (I think it was Josh) announced that he knew where the key was, led them all back down the various corridors to the two bodies and pulled a small chain from the mouth of one of them, on the end of which was the key to the cell. Just try to get your head round the sort of thinking that has gone into writing a script like this, devoid of common sense, motivation or cause and effect. Someone on this planet (in fact several people) find it perfectly believable that someone would notice a chain sticking out of a corpse’s mouth, not mention it at the time, then find a locked door elsewhere in the building and, putting nothing and nothing together get four, working out that the key must be on the end of the half-swallowed chain. I mean, where else could it be?

Jesus, this movie is stupid.

Oh yes, I did promise to explain what is happening. As far as I can tell, through the terrible dialogue and hamfisted direction, the CIA (or somesuch) were experimenting in remote viewing (a phrase that the writer presumably heard somewhere but didn’t bother to find out what it means), a project they claimed to have cancelled in the mid-1990s around the time that Kiefer was executed. But in reality they bribed the doctor at the execution to claim he was dead before his heart stopped so that they could ferret him away and experiment on him. This is all explained by Bug (I think) who has the most fantastically detailed knowledge of modern execution techniques, which he suddenly decides to share with his friends for no good reason. (Whenever people are inside the cell, we get distorted shots of them from Kiefer’s point of view, although his REM-shifting eyes remain closed.)

Quite why experiments in remote viewing would require a convicted psychopath with no tongue is something that concerns us as little as it concerns the idiot who wrote this. But the upshot of all this, not that there is any hint of cause and effect or any other sort of connection, is that Kiefer projects himself into people when they sleep and possesses them, turning them into psychos like himself, with a taste for tongue. Quite how Bug, Jay and Holly work this out is completely unfathomable, but not as mysterious as the question of how the audience is supposed to work this out or accept it when they are told it in one of many cack-handed infodump scenes. It’s like an off-the-peg horror movie plot has just been stapled to the existing script.

To test this, Bug and Jay tie up and gag Holly - on account of her being the smallest and weakest - and somehow send her to sleep (possibly by forcing her to watch a tedious movie called Incubus). She then becomes possessed so they very sensibly remove the gag from her mouth and she bites Bug who I think then kills her. Bug then rips all the tubes and wires from Kiefer in order to kill him but of course when he and Jay are walking away, Kiefer (now resplendent in white lab coat) leaps down from a walkway and breaks Bug’s neck.

Gee, it’s a good job that ten years of sitting in the same chair didn’t cause his muscles to atrophy. Mind you, his tongue muscle is particularly strong, having apparently grown back since he bit it off all those years ago, as he speaks quite clearly while chasing Jay (we also heard Peter speak clearly only five minutes after biting off his own tongue). Martin Sherman, voice artist on such games as Conflict: Desert Storm II - Back to Baghdad and Pac-Man World 3, provides Kiefer’s voice.

I mean, for Christ’s sake, the one and only thing that this film has going for it is a couple of gruesome scenes of people biting off their own tongues. Without the tongue stuff there would be nothing here at all. And yet the morons who made this film either didn’t know or didn’t care that we use our tongues to speak. This is the best (but far from the only) example of how monstrously inept this pile of crap is.

So Kiefer chases Jay through the corridors, nice and slowly, and she makes it back to the octagonal shaft. She attaches a G-clamp (which is presumably just lying around) to the end of the rope and throws it up the shaft where, on the third attempt it catches on a grill in the roof. Apart from the sheer unlikelihood of the G-clamp landing anywhere where it would hold a person’s weight, you have to admire the strength of this thirty-year-old teenager who can repeatedly throw a heavy, cast-iron tool more than thirty feet above her head.

Oh, and don’t forget that the rope snapped when Josh was coming down and was, when last seen, about ten feet shorter than the shaft, yet it now reaches easily to the floor, even with a knot tied in the end round a G-clamp.

Now here’s the clever bit. Well, not really clever, it’s actually as insultingly stupid as the rest of the film. When Kiefer finally reaches the rope, he climbs up it, calling Jay’s name. But then she appears from round the corner. She tricked him! He’s about ten feet up the rope and he could just jump down (as he did five minutes ago when he landed with great agility behind Bug and killed him) but instead he holds on while Jay yanks on the rope until the G-clamp slips off the grill and Kiefer plummets to the ground, sustaining inexplicably massive injuries. Lying immobile, he begs Jay to kill him which she does by holding a bit of rope over his throat and pressing down. I told you she was strong.

At this point, a Sheriff turns up and without asking anything about what has happened, or whether anyone else is around, pops some cuffs on Jay and leads her outside to his car, passing another police car with Karen (remember her?) sitting in the back. The final ‘twist’ is that, as the car drives off, Jay’s eyes glow - exactly like, erm, no-one else’s eyes have glowed, even when they were possessed.

Holy crap, I’ve seen some shit in my time but Incubus comes perilously close to setting a new level. Let’s rank this one up there (or down there) with Star Crystal, The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Rock’n’Roll Musical and Hellgate. There’s just nothing to recommend here. As if the crap script, crap acting, crap design and crap direction weren’t enough, the whole thing is full of flashy jump-cuts that do nothing except piss off the viewer. It’s like someone is saying, “Look, look, they’ve let me have a play on the Avid and I want to know what all these buttons do!”

Let’s name the guilty parties. Incubus was directed by Anya Camilleri who directed episodes of Boon and The Bill before helping to create Samantha Janus-starring cop show Liverpool 1 and trendy transatlantic drama NY-LON. This is her first and, thankfully, to date only feature film. I never saw Liverpool 1 or NY-LON so I don’t know this woman’s work from anything but the DVD I have to hand. Maybe she knows how to direct TV drama but she hasn’t got a clue how to direct a horror film. Not that anybody could have made a half-decent movie out of this terrible, terrible, unbelievably terrible script. But a more experienced director might have actually requested some changes, like a plot that makes sense or any characterisation whatsoever.

Gary Humphreys is the man who wrote this pile of tripe (or, to be fair, may have written something that got turned into this pile of tripe then not had enough sense to take his name off it). He graduated from Oxford in 1981, spent 1986-1992 working as a journalist in London and Paris then produced a series of novels, some of them written/co-written under the pseudonyms ‘Patrick Lynch’ and ‘Joseph Geary’. One of these, Carriers, was filmed as a TV movie in 1998 starring, erm, nobody I have ever heard of. To judge from on-line synopses, this tale of a killer virus outbreak has thematic similarities to Incubus such as Government conspiracy paranoia, bollocks pseudo-science, a nonsensical plot and a token black guy. Humphreys is now, apparently, a professional ghost-writer. Hmm, yes I would trust my book to the man who wrote the script for Incubus.

Evidently Humphreys makes a steady living out of writing although one must wonder how much of that is talent and how much is because he went to Oxford and met the right people. Did he really write a script with zero characterisation? Does he not know what characterisation is, or is his understanding of horror films so limited that he thinks it’s not necessary as long as you have young(-ish) people and the occasional bitten-off tongue? Is he so dumb that he thinks people with no tongue can speak clearly, or does he believe that his audience are so dumb we will accept that? Is he an idiot or just condescending?

Gary Humphreys seems to have one other produced screenplay to his credit, a Romanian-shot thriller called True True Lie starring, erm, nope, nobody I have ever heard of. I would rather cut my thumbs off than watch it.

Although filmed at Castel Studio in Romania (a fun place where I visited the set of Pumpkinhead 3) and actually described in the credits as ‘a UK-Romanian co-production’ (like the Pumpkinhead sequels, Seed of Chucky etc), Incubus is to all intents and purposes an American film. Yes it has a British director and writer and a largely British cast, but it was produced by Americans taking advantage of tax breaks and cost-effective production facilities in London and Bucharest. Donald Kushner is one credited producer, formerly half of Kushner-Locke, with a B-movie CV as long as your arm. His most recent credits include the aforementioned True True Lie, the equally aforementioned Pumpkinhead sequels, Bernard Rose’s Snuff-Movie and the non-Charlie Band sequel Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys. The other producer is Adam Shapiro whose work includes disability sports documentary Murderball and the 1999 version of Tom’s Midnight Garden.

Simon Boswell (Octane, Dr Sleep, Lord of Illusions and - crikey - Black Sunday) provided the music which I didn’t really notice so must have been okay I guess. The hyperactive editing is credited to Adam McGraw (NY-LON) and John Wilson (Billy Elliot). Cinematographer John Lynch worked on the marvellous Wordsworthsploitation movie Pandeamonium as well as pop videos for Bjork and Blur. Gary J Tunnicliffe gets a credit as ‘Special make-up effects designer’ - although it’s difficult to see what effects needed designing apart from a couple of bloody tongues - and Blake Bolger (whose e-mail address I managed to lose after she gave it to me in Romania) was the technician responsible for tongue-wrangling. Pretty much everyone else is Romanian and has credits that include most American B-movies shot at Castel.

Whenever the subject of crappy films comes up in conversation, people want to offer their own ‘worst film ever’ - and much of the time it turns out to be a perfectly reasonable B-movie. I love B-movies me. I don’t expect everything to be some star-studded, big-budget, big-screen blockbuster. I positively thrive on cheap and cheerful movies with plenty of faults. You have to go a long, long way into Awfultown for me to completely hate a picture. But Incubus is so egregiously bad that it beggars belief. The production is crappy but I’ve seen crappier. The script however is something else. And sorry, Gary Humphrey, but your name’s in the credits so you have to take the rap.

Incubus doesn’t have the tuneless songs of The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Rock’n’Roll Musical nor does it have the cavalier attitude to comprehension of Hellgate nor the jawdroppingly bad acting of Kannibal. But it does have the worst script of any film that I have ever seen - and that’s saying a lot. Anyone who read that script and thought it was even remotely passable needs to seriously rethink their career.

Now here’s an interesting thing. Incubus was the first film offered for download on AOL. A website called AOL Red made the movie available to download (for a fee) from Halloween 2006. The film was shot in summer 2005 and Adam Shapiro allegedly told the LA Times that they went with the straight-to-download option because they were “unable to find an attractive deal for theatrical release” which is unbelievably bogus because something like this wouldn’t go theatrical even if it was good. What he means, I suspect, is that the film wasn't even good enough to go straight to DVD. (I don’t think anything shot at Castel has gone theatrical except Cold Mountain, to be honest.) Whether anybody did download it, I have no idea - but I bet they were pissed off when they did.

Finally, a note on the title. According to the Inaccurate Movie Database the original script was called Nightmares (not to be confused with this 1992 anthology, this 2004 short or at least two other films) and the working titles were Heart Stopper (not to be confused with this 2006 feature) and Pulse (not to be confused with the Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie or its US remake, which also had Gary J Tunnicliffe effects). And of course Incubus is not to be confused with the legendary Bill Shatner-starring Esperanto movie of that name. Were the producers desperate to find the most overused title they could?

So anyway it ended up as Incubus. Now, remember how I mentioned that the writer clearly didn’t know/care what ‘remote viewing’ means? Well, he also was clearly ignorant of what an incubus is. At one point someone (Bug, I think) explains what an incubus is - but he gets it wrong. He says it’s a demon that gets inside you while you’re asleep, but in fact an incubus is a male demon who has sex with a woman (as any fule kno), the opposite being a succubus. In a half-hearted attempt to make up for this, there is a brief dream sequence near the end when Jay imagines she is in bed, something starts moving under the sheets - and it’s Kiefer! But that doesn’t alter the fact that what Kiefer does is nothing like what an incubus does. Plus, of course, he’s not any kind of demon. His powers are paranormal, not supernatural.

The fact that the makers of this film gave it a one-word title without bothering to check in the dictionary that it means what they think it means tells you everything you need to know about this sad waste of everybody’s time. Avoid this film as one would avoid a rabid dog.

MJS rating: D-
review originally posted 15th April 2007

Incident

Director: Norman J Warren
Writer: Norman J Warren
Producers: Norman J Warren, Brian Tufano
Cast: Carol Isted, Bob Mallon
Country: UK
Year of release: 1959, no wait, 2007
Reviewed from: screener DVD


A silent, black and white short film about a young couple who meet at a fairground, Incident is thoroughly French in every way apart from one, which is that it’s not actually French. It is, nevertheless and without a doubt, the most Gallic motion picture ever filmed in Battersea. It has even got an accordion on the soundtrack, for Heaven’s sake.

If it looks like it was shot in the 1950s, there’s a good reason for that. It was. Norman J Warren directed and edited this footage in 1959 when he was a callow youth of seventeen and then, for some reason, stuck it on a shelf. Around the same time he got his first film job as a runner on Peter Sellers comedy The Millionairess and one thing lead to another yada yada sex films yada yada Satan’s Slave yada yada Inseminoid yada yada Bloody New Year...

So Norman never actually got round to finishing Incident (meaning that his directorial debut was technically the 1965 short Fragment) and the film just sat there as the decades passed. In 2007, Norman decided to finish the picture, which is why it has two copyright dates 48 years apart. It was first screened at the 2007 Festival of Fantastic Films and must surely hold the record for the longest period of post-production of any motion picture ever. Has anybody actually tried contacting Guinness World Records to see whether they will accept this for the next edition of their book?

There’s precious little story to Incident - the narrative is as brief and open to interpretation as the title - but it’s a beautifully shot little film, using the fairground setting to full effect. Our teenage heroine wanders around the funfair on her own, soaking up the atmosphere and generally revelling in being a teenager during the first period in history when there actually were teenagers. It’s all very hey-there-Georgy-Girl but in a Jean-Luc Goddard sort of way. Cinematographer Brian Tufano does a grand job of capturing the exuberance of the fairground and indeed using it for his own devices, most notably in what appears to be an expensive crane shot but turns out to be filmed from the big wheel.

The girl (Carol Isted, who was in fact only thirteen) meets a boy (Bob Mallon, who now lives in South Africa), they have a lovely time - but perhaps she’s a little na├»ve about his intentions and hopes. When she runs away from him, the fairground becomes a scary place, full of noise and strangers and disorienting lights - though it should be firmly stressed that this not in any way, shape or form a horror film.

The story behind Incident is that Norman and Brian met in their early teens at the West London Film Unit, a club for budding 8mm auteurs. Norman was working on a ridiculously over-ambitious war feature called The Bridge for which Brian offered to handle photography. Though The Bridge was never completed, Warren-Tufano productions went into business filming weddings and parties before shooting Incident on 16mm.

This is the film exactly as it was edited together back in 1959, the only new parts being the music and the titles. All the sound effects are from a BBC recording made at Battersea funfair in 1953, Norman of course went on to great things in the 1970s and has in recent years been working on DVDs of his and other people’s films. Brian Tufano is now one of Britain’s leading cinematographers with more than forty years of film and TV credits including Quadrophenia, Billy Elliot, Virtual Sexuality, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. He also shot some second unit stuff on Blade Runner!

Incident is a lovely little curio. Brian and Norman are planning a DVD release that will include an interview with the two of them discussing the film. In the meantime, festival programmers looking for a short to play as support to a late 1950s feature would do well to see if Norman can lend them a copy. [Incident was subsequently released as an extra on the BFI DVD of Norman's feature Her Private Hell. - MJS]

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 12th March 2008

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Inbred

Director: Alex Chandon
Writers: Alex Chandon, Paul Shrimpton
Producers: Yazid Benfeghoul, Michael Kraetzer, Margaret Milner
Cast: Seamus O’Neill, Jo Hartley, James Doherty
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener
Website:
www.inbredmovie.com

Inbred is Alex Chandon’s first feature since Cradle of Fear, a film which was released on video in April 2002. Let’s just consider what has happened in the intervening decade.

Back in 2002, there was no YouTube (invented in 2005), no Facebook (2004), no Twitter (2006), not even MySpace (invented in 2003) - the only way to spread the word about a film was through magazines and fanzines (of which there were still a few). No-one was going to see your trailer. Cradle of Fear had a website, crude and simple though it was, and thought it was at the cutting edge of indie film marketing for having this. And it was, it really was.

There were DVDs in existence ten years ago but most people still watched things on VHS, usually rented from Blockbuster or a corner shop. There was certainly no Blu-Ray or any of that HD nonsense. According to Wikipedia, 2002 was the year that the last Betamax VCR was manufactured!

Most films were still shot on 35mm or super-16, and most cinemas/festivals required a 35mm or 16mm print. Also, we were all a lot younger, slimmer, fitter. Jason Impey was doing his A-levels and Liam Hooper, director of Darkwood Manor which screens in a few weeks at the 2012 British Horror Film Festival, was still at primary school. I was doing a Masters Degree in Scriptwriting and working on a biography of a certain recently deceased comedy sci-fi author for a major publisher. TF Simpson was just a twinkle in my eye (and a stern look of admonition in his mother’s).

Jeezus, when did we all get so old?

Until 2002, there was an average of three British horror films released each year, but that year saw the first blip in this low production rate. In the space of 12 months, a dozen UK horror features were released including four which made a significant splash: Dog Soldiers, 28 Days Later, My Little Eye and Cradle of Fear. Fangoria ran a ‘British Invasion Special’ issue and in an issue of Scriptwriter magazine the phrase ‘British horror revival’ was coined (not by me).

In my book (did I mention I’m writing a book?) I single out Cradle as being very important in the burgeoning BHR, moving away from the bleak miserablism of (nevertheless great) films like I, Zombie and Urban Ghost Story to a much punchier, entertaining, but still set-your-watch-by-it ultra-contemporary style of film-making. Cradle of Fear was produced about the same time as Channel 5’s groundbreaking anthology series Urban Gothic and the two have much in common. They were startling then and they still stand up really well today.

Ah, today. September 2012. Ten long years we’ve waited for a new Alex Chandon movie, while the world, and film-making, moved on at a reckless pace. Was it worth it? Remember, we waited a long time for the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones IV and the film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide. So was Inbred worth the wait?

Freaking A, yes! Inbred rocks big time.

Inbred is riotously funny, insanely gory, jaw-droppingly horrific, arm-grippingly exciting and so intrinsically British it should have a Union Jack sticking out of its arse.

Thematically, this is another in a fairly long line of you-ain’t-from-round-here-boy horror films in which townies venture into the countryside and find that the locals are, shall we say, special. Films like Small Town Folk, Gnaw and The Cottage fall into this category and variants on the idea have surfaced in everything from Doghouse to Eldorado. But Inbred really shows how to do it right.

Jo Hartley (When the Lights Went Out, Dead Man’s Shoes) and James Doherty (Deviation) are Kate and Jeff, the adults taking four young offenders away in a minibus for a weekend of work and fun in the countryside. They park themselves in a semi-derelict cottage and head down to the local pub for a round of soft drinks.

Impressively, the script by Chandon and Paul Shrimpton gives each adult and each youth a clear, believable character, establishing the relationships between them clearly but unobtrusively. It would be very easy for Jeff to just be an officious, stick-to-the-rules, stick-up-his-arse figure of fun. And while he is sort of one of those, he’s a lot more besides. None of the six are simplistic and all of them will change and develop once we lurch into horror territory.

But first there’s the evening in the pub where we meet the scraggly-toothed, vacant-eyed locals and the film’s most memorable character - Jim, landlord of ‘The Dirty Hole’. Seamus O’Neill (Dead Man’s Shoes, Curse of the Were-Rabbit) gives one of the great British horror performances of recent years as Jim, who pretty much runs the village. He is happy to serve suspicious fresh lemonade and even more suspicious home-made pork scratchings to the visitors, on the house, but later, when things kick off, Jim will be the ringleader. Indeed, the ringmaster, quite literally.

The next day, the townies set to work: recovering salvageable metals (such as copper wiring) from a fleet of abandoned railway carriages in a field. I assume that Alex and Paul either knew about these carriages already or wrote them into the script when they found them. I can’t believe they sent some hapless location scout around Yorkshire on the off chance that there might be some derelict rolling stock on a hillside somewhere.

Among the carriages, the townies run afoul of three locals and things escalate, rapidly but believably (and comically too, in a sick way). One of the party is accidentally injured, ferried back to the pub and - well, that’s when we start to find out what makes Mortlake such a special village, so rarely visited by outsiders. The locals have, ah, entertainments which are a little stronger than you might see on Saturday night telly.

The really great thing about Inbred is that it’s a solid horror film as well as a comedy. It’s actually scary and tense and frightening. We really feel for these people - we want them to escape, or at least survive, and we genuinely (perhaps justifiably) fear that they won’t. But at the same time, it’s extremely funny. You could take the comedy out - and you would still have a good horror film. You could take the horror out and you’d still have a good (if probably very short and incomprehensible) comedy. This combination of scary horror and funny comedy is something which very few horror-comedies pull off, most plumping for (whether intentionally or not) either scary comedy or (supposedly) funny horror.

Inbred is also marvellously imaginative in the manner of its violence and gore, which not only adds to the entertainment value but is also entirely credible within the context of the story and the locals’ theatricality. Far too often in horror films the more extravagant manners of demise seem to be there to serve the purposes of the special effects unit, rather than the other way round.

Among an excellent cast, all of whom hit the horror/comedy interface at just the right angle, are James Burrows (Eden Lake, uwantme2killhim?), Neil Leiper, Chris Waller and Nadine Rose Mulkerrin as the youngsters. Emmerdale’s Dominic Brunt, whose own horror film Before Dawn follows hard on the heels of Inbred, clearly has fun as a chainsaw-wielding lunk; Mat Fraser (Kung Fu Flid) appears without explanation in one scene to hammer some nails in; and Emily Booth is in a fun but completely irrelevant prologue. Also in the cast are Mark Rathbone (Cradle of Fear), George Newton (The Eschatrilogy, Dead Man’s Shoes), Lee Jerrum (Dead End) and Neil Keenan (who has been in all previous Alex Chandon films - even Siamese Cop!).

Cinematographer Ollie Downey (Deviation) does a bang-up job with both interiors and exteriors; editor Oliver Griffin has lots of TV credits including assistant editor on Urban Gothic, and he also performs commendably. Dave Andrews (A Day of Violence, Aggressive Behaviour) provides the music, of which the most notable piece is of course the ‘Ee bah gum’ song. In the film, this is an incomplete, interrupted performance, but on YouTube you can find both the full song and a version performed live on stage by Alex at Frightfest.

Inbred looks fabulous due to the terrific production design and art direction of Melanie Light (Psychosis, The Scar Crow, Beyond the Rave, Omni). Tris Versluis, Graham Taylor and Duncan Jarman all contributed to the special effects make-up.

Going into to much detail about who does what to whom with which tool, weapon or device would just spoil the fun. Inbred succeeds magnificently on every level and really doesn’t put a foot wrong. Was it worth waiting ten years for Alex Chandon’s new film? Yes, it was worth the wait. Let’s hope there’s not another decade before the next one. But if there is, you could alternate nightly screenings of Cradle of Fear (which still holds up well) and Inbred, and keep yourself entertained until 2022.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 1st October 2012

I Love You

Director: Tristan Versluis
Writer: Tristan Versluis
Producer: Tristan Versluis
Cast: Leslie Simpson (no relation), Axelle Carolyn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener


There are several paths one can take to being a film director. Some people just plunge straight into directing low-budget, independent movies. Some go to film school with the express intention of emerging as a director like a moth from a cocoon. Within the industry, the two most common career paths are probably editing and cinematography and you can often spot these in the film-maker’s work. An editor-turned-director like Jake West makes films which depend on construction: flashbacks and fantasy sequences and jump-cuts and points of view. A DP-turned-director like Alan Ronald makes films where what is shown takes precedence over how it is arranged. Cinematographers’ films tend to be more visually poetic and languid; editor’s films are often more frenetic and intricate. Neither approach is better or worse than the other - that depends on the individual director - and both of course rely on understanding something of the other skill.

Occasionally one encounters directors who started as writers, producers or 1st ADs but these are rare and I don’t know of any directors who started as production designers or composers although I suppose there might be one or two. However, another route to the top of the crew has fairly recently become viable and that’s via special effects. Robert Kurtzman, Robert Hall and Chris Walas are examples of FX-guys who moved into the director’s chair and I think what distinguishes ex-FX directors is a propensity to really incorporate effects into the story. You might think that someone experienced in effects would want to cram their films with effects but, apart from the fact that they’re obviously moving into directing to make a change from doing effects all the time, it is very evident that effects artists use effects sparingly and integrally precisely because they are so experienced. It’s the directors with no background in special effects who often feel the need to cram them into every corner of a film, whether they’re needed or not.

Which is where my old mate Tristan Versluis comes in (declaration of interest there!).

Tristan has done special effects for a load of recent British indie flicks including Evil Aliens, Cradle of Fear, Broken, LD50 and Frank Scantori’s when-will-we-ever-see-it fantasy epic Warrior Sisters as well as being part of the crew on stuff like Sweeney Todd and Doctor Who. He has also moved into directing his own short films, starting with Plastic Reality. He followed this with Pixel but while that whirrs away in post-production he has made this little gem - short on dialogue, high on concept.

Reviewing a film where basically a bloke sits at a table and does something then a woman does something the end - is tricky. If I tell you even one little thing, I’m telling you everything. Look, it’s called I Love You, it literalises the concept of the heart as the seat of romance and passion, it’s made by a guy who specialises in prosthetic effects for horror films. The film is icky without being gross, shocking without being unpleasant. Probably it’s greatest accomplishment is that it is both gory and sexy without any violence or nudity. Exploitation film-makers may think they’re being ‘sexy’ by cramming their movies full of topless busty bimbos - and let me stress, I am as big a fan of topless busty bimbos as the next bloke - but frankly you haven’t seen sexy until you’ve seen Axelle Carolyn, a woman composed of at least fifty per cent cheekbone, blink slowly.

Nor, for that matter, have you seen self-inflicted pain until you’ve seen Leslie Simpson (no relation) do things to his bare chest with a range of household cutlery. It’s to Tristan’s credit - and it is indicative of a good horror film - that we come away from I Love You thinking we’ve seen more and worse than we actually have.

Simpson (honestly, no relation) is something of a Neil Marshall regular, having appeared as a squaddie in Dog Soldiers, a crawler in The Descent and ‘Carpenter’ in Doomsday (or possibly ‘a carpenter’ - I haven’t seen it yet). Axelle Carolyn (as she is credited on screen) is, in full, Axelle Carolyn Marshall (as she is credited on the poster). She’s in her hubby's latest feature Doomsday too, writes for Fangoria and was PR girl on nouveau Hammer episodic malarkey Beyond the Rave - which starred Leslie Simpson (definitely no relation) and had effects by young Mr Versluis.

For this picture, Tristan designed the prosthetics (while he was supposed to be working on Book of Blood) but left the application to Duncan Jarman, whose CV goes right back to Alex Chandon’s Bad Karma in 1991 and also takes in Funny Man, Proteus, Pervirella, The Killer Tongue and a bunch of big budget stuff.

Stuart Nicholas White was DP on I Love You, assisted by Trevor Speed (who knows Tristan from The Devil’s Chair and was DP on The Scar Crow) and Simon Pinfield. White and groovy-named 1st AD Tiernan Hanby previously worked together on Psychic Cat Productions’ film noir spoof Detective Story. Art director Mel Light is another Beyond the Rave alumnus. Justyna Dobrowolska handled make-up.

Although one might expect a film directed by an effects guy to be very visual - and one would not be disappointed here - I Love You also benefits from some noticeably terrific sound design. Let’s face it, the mere fact that it’s noticeable means that it’s either very good or rubbish, and it ain’t rubbish. Paul Yarrow is credited as ‘sound designer and recordist’ and I feel confident in saying it’s probably not the Paul Yarrow who used to be 33 per cent of Peter, Paul and Mary. Mind, I also feel fairly confident in saying that either the IMDB or Wikipedia will think it is at some point. Ian Morse composed the score - there’s an effects guy called Ian Morse, maybe he’s branching out.

The other credited crew are stills photographer Owen Billcliffe and boom op Alan Leer. Tristan gives himself ‘directed, edited and produced by’ and it’s noticeable that there’s no script credit. But then, there wasn’t really a script per se. There’s only seven words of dialogue!

I Love You is as brilliant in its execution as it is simple in its premise. Only two things stop it from getting an A+ and neither is a problem, just something that distracted me momentarily. The first is that, yes I know it’s fantasy and allegorical and whatnot, but just like the victims in Heartstopper, Leslie Simpson* appears to have no sternum. And the second is that the collection of implements on the table includes not only knives, forks and scissors but also spoons and at least one ladle. I just keep thinking: what was he planning to do with a ladle?

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 25th April 2008

*No relation.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I'll Be Seeing You

Director: Paul Burton
Writer: Paul Burton
Producer: Paul Burton
Cast: Gary Roberts, Emma-Jane Redman, Clare Hanson
Year of release: 2002
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK theatrical screening


This little oddity was shown at Phoenix Arts in Leicester on 1st June 2003 along with four other shorts made over an 18-month period by local film-maker Paul Burton. This title stood out by being a supernatural romance whereas the other four were all fairly violent thrillers.

Philip Weston (Roberts) is the manager of a local cinema which has posters for The Two Towers, 8 Mile and Jackass: The Movie, although Weston prefers old black and white films and has programmed a mini-festival of movies starring Fiona Brent, a British actress who died in 1945.

Assistant manager Heather Keen (the incomparably cute Clare Hanson) has a crush on Weston but he only has eyes for the flickering black and white images of Fiona Brent. After a screening of 1943 Ealing classic With the Searchlights to Guide Us, Weston is astounded to find Fiona (Redman) in the auditorium - in the flesh, in colour even. On her instructions he drives out to the countryside where she meets him in an old church and explains to him about Heather and, after some initial hesitation, he decides that he probably loves her in return. Later, the two get together. The End.

The three leads are all good actors and form something of a rep company for the prolific director (Mark Jardine also features in the fake 1940s footage as Brent’s husband and co-star). Burton’s shot-on-video work is technically competent although it suffers from the usual low-budget problem on inadequate sound mixing. The biggest problem with this film, and indeed with the others shown with it, was the script, which is simplistic in the extreme. The terrific possibilities of this situation, which is basically Somewhere in Time meets The Purple Rose of Cairo, simply aren’t explored and there is plenty of room to do that, even in twenty minutes.

For the record, the other Paul Burton films shown as part of ‘The Big Screen Project’ were: The Country Murders (2003, 20m) in which a man (Roberts) brutally kills women; Run for the Shadows (2002, 25m) in which a man (Roberts), um, brutally kills women; The Passenger (2002, 7m) in which, for a change, a woman (Hanson) brutally kills a man (Roberts); and the most original of the batch, Watching Over You (2003, 25m), in which a nurse (Hanson) thinks she’s being stalked by Roberts but it turns out to be her lesbian colleague (Redman). All suffer the same problem of poor scripts, sometimes hampered by awful info-dump closing monologues, which rather detract from the obvious hard work and dedication of Burton and his cast and crew.

Burton was a prolific maker of programmes for a now defunct Leicester community TV channel and good luck to him. But one can’t help feeling that he should put more effort into the quality of his scripts and less into the quantity of his output.

MJS rating: B-

review originally posted before November 2004

The iDol

Director: Norman England
Writer: Norman England
Producer: Norman England
Cast: Jin Sasaki, Erina Hayase, Takako Fuji
Country: Japan
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD
Website:
www.theidol-movie.com

Norman England, Fangoria’s Japanese correspondent, is not the first film journalist to start making his own movies, nor will he be the last. It’s almost a natural progression. You hang around on enough sets, you start to think, “Hmm, I could do this.” That’s not presumptuous or arrogant, it makes sense. What better apprenticeship could there be in any trade than to watch other people doing it and then get to ask them questions?

It is massively to Norman’s credit that his first film is not some cheesy kaiju spoof or knockabout sci-fi comedy but a gentle, imaginative, amusing look at the Japanese culture in which he has lived for 14 years - with a sci-fi twist of course.

The iDol of the title is a retro-looking green plastic alien toy and the first part of the film follows its progress from one character to another. We know that it is extraterrestrial in origin because a bug-eyed alien beastie lands in a flying saucer and presses it into the hands of a terrified homeless guy (Yukijiro Hotaru: Pyrokinesis, Zeram, Cure, Stacy and all three 1990s Gamera pictures). The figure is swiftly stolen by greedy, unscrupulous Tanaka (Bobby Nakanishi), proprietor of a sci-fi/toy shop who recognises that it might be valuable, especially when he can’t find it in any catalogue. (Nakanishi played Akira Kurosawa(!) in a Blair Witch spoof called The Penny Marshall Project in which the three campers are replaced by Kurosawa, Marshall and Francis Ford Coppola. I find this extraordinary - a Blair Witch spoof which actually sounds worth watching.)

Tanaka sells it to our hero Ken (Jin Sasaki) who collects these things but by now we know that the iDol itself is influencing what happens, as it shines light beams into people’s heads. Ken has a girlfriend Rika (Takako Fuji: the spooky Kayako in the Japanese and US versions of Ju-on/The Grudge and their sequels) whose birthday he is in imminent danger of forgetting, a geeky best friend Taki (Hiro Miyama) and a sharp-suited office rival Yamada (Mitsu Katahira). And like every young Japanese male, he has a crush on babe du jour Mayuka (Erina Hayase, who was in a TV series based on the early life of Takeshi Kitano).

The iDol’s extraterrestrial powers give Ken the best day of his life and then the worst, a Twilight Zone-like existence as someone else entirely. Finally he realises that he must pass on the iDol to someone - or something - else.

Running just under an hour, this is a delightful film which presents us with a view of Japan which is at once an insider’s and an outsider’s. This is a nation where too many people fritter their lives away obsessing over pop culture and short-term celebrity instead of worrying about the realities of life. England directs with an assured, lightly comic touch. The acting is top-notch and the limited special effects are great, especially the alien which first brings the iDol to Earth (created by Kakusei Fujiwara: Pyrokinesis, Zatoichi, Godzilla Final Wars).

The screenplay was written in English by, erm, England (who is, of course, American) although Jiro Kaneko (Ultraman Max, Zero Woman) gets a ‘script’ credit for helping to translate it and transfer it into Japanese script format (he also designed some fake magazines and adverts seen in the film). The cinematographer was Hiroo Takaoka and the editor was Rob Moreno. Bill Gudmundson, a big name in kaiju model kits, sculpted the iDol itself, Hajime Matsumoto (Another Heaven, Ju-On, Ringu, GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) handled visual effects and Takashi Yamazaki (director of Juvenile) was responsible for the computer graphics. No less an artist than Bob Eggleton painted a matte for the final scene; he also receives a ‘concept artist’ credit along with England, Fujiwara, Yamazaki and German actor/model Daniel Zoehrer.

Original music is Koh Otani (Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Pyrokinesis) and Norman scores extra points for including a great song by Jane Wiedlin which I haven’t heard in a dog’s age (and no, it’s not ‘Rush Hour’). Tomoo Haraguchi (director of Sakuya: Slayer of Demons, special effects on Uzumaki) appears briefly as Ken and Yamada’s boss and there are lots of background references to other films and TV shows including a Dawn of the Dead poster and a toy SHADO Interceptor in Ken’s apartment (surely not filmed in Norman’s own flat?).

Although Norman is fluent in Japanese, nevertheless it takes guts to produce one’s first film in one’s second language. Despite this, The iDol is an accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable movie of which the writer/director/producer can be justly proud. It hits the right notes, it’s funny when it needs to be funny and serious when it needs to be serious, it’s beautifully observed and it’s professional on every level and in every sense. Yoku yatta, Norman-san!

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 17th August 2006

interview: Emil Hyde

Emil Hyde, director/writer/producer of the very enjoyable horror-comedy The Landlord, kindly answered a few e-mail questions for me in March 2010.

What is your film-making background?
“Prior to making The Landlord, my only film-making experience was shooting some no-budget music videos for my band, where we basically took a camcorder and filmed ourselves running around in ridiculous barbarian and robot costumes. The Landlord was the first time we actually wrote a script and tried to tell a coherent story about an average guy who inherits a demon-infested apartment building from his devil-worshiping parents.”

How did you assemble your cast and crew?
“My good friend Rom Barkhordar, who plays the flesh-eating, late-night-television-watching, Hawaiian-shirt wearing demon Rabisu, is a fairly accomplished stage and television actor. Readers in the United States may have seen him in car commercials or playing terrorists on police dramas, and video gamers worldwide know his voice acting as Subzero from the Mortal Kombat series. Anyhow, Rom was able to convince several of his comparably accomplished friends to appear in The Landlord for no pay, hence we wound up with a far better cast than most zero-budget indies.

“On the crew side, we know several professionals here in Chicago who worked on movies like The Dark Knight and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. And while we couldn't afford to hire them, even at a heavily discounted rate, we did bring them over to my apartment to give our unpaid art-school volunteers a crash course in lighting, sound, etc. Some of the volunteers absorbed the lessons better than others, and a few members of The Landlord's crew have gone on to score ‘real’ jobs in the industry.

“Whenever you have a situation where no one's getting paid, there's bound to be chaos. People have conflicts with their day jobs, or some just say ‘fuck it’ and don't show up, leaving everyone else to scramble for a solution. More than one of the actors in The Landlord didn't realise they'd be appearing in a film when they woke up that morning - we called them over as a last-second replacement for someone who didn't show. But, despite the turmoil, there's also magic and camaraderie.”

What sort of balance between horror and comedy were you aiming for (and how well do you think you achieved that)?
“We followed the ‘Will Ferrell rule’, where you take an absurd situation - in the case of The Landlord, a guy owning an apartment building where demons eat the tenants - and play it completely straight. From there, the horror/comedy balance pretty much took care of itself, in that the situations were often funny to the audience, but always deadly serious for the characters. As for how well we achieved it... that's for each viewer to decide.”

What problems did the make-up and effects present for a low-budget indie production like this?
“Make-up was a huge challenge for the actors playing the demons, in that they were both acting in The Landlord during the mornings and on stage in the afternoons. So they'd show up on set at the crack of dawn, spend two hours in the make-up chair, an hour and a half in front of the camera, then another forty-five minutes in the make-up chair scrubbing all the make-up off, after which they'd have to race across town to get dressed and made up for whatever play they were in. It was tense, racing every day to cram in all the shots we needed, and left little time to improvise and experiment with those scenes like we normally would, but I think it all turned out wonderfully, considering.

“As for visual effects, there are over 270 visual FX shots in The Landlord. In every case, we'd ‘rehearse’ the effect beforehand - for instance, if a demon was going to teleport in a flash of light, I'd make a short film of myself teleporting in a flash of light. That way, we'd know exactly what we needed to get on video when the shooting day arrived.”

How has the film been received by audiences and critics?
“Well enough. About a third of critics have said, ‘This is a fantastic story for any movie, regardless of budget!’, while a third have said, ‘It's not bad for a low-budget effort’, and the last third said, ‘It's shit’. Still, we've had more than a few people approach us at horror conventions and film festivals, telling us it's one of their favourite recent movies and how they've watched it several times over. If we can make a few people's favourite movie for $20,000, my guess is we can make a lot of people's favourite movie for $2 million.”

What are you working on now?
“Our next project is called The Dog Cage, and it's about a monster-hunting cop who, after getting bitten by a werewolf during a raid, is locked up in a state-run asylum for monsters. We hope to produce a graphic novel adaptation sometime this year, and a movie whenever we can scrape the cash together. Speaking of which, your readers can buy copies of The Landlord at www.thelandlordmovie.com.”

interview originally published 2nd April 2010

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

interview: Mike Hurst

In the mid-1990s, Mike Hurst (brother of Andy) sent me a tape of Project: Assassin which I enthusiastically plugged in SFX and raved about to anyone who would listen. Since then, he has moved to the USA and built up a solid catalogue of movies including House of the Dead 2 and Room 6 and the screenplays for The Graveyard and The Butcher. I finally had the chance to meet Mike in Romania in April 2006, where he was preparing to shoot Pumpkinhead: Love Hurts back to back with Jake West’s Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes.

How did you get this job?
“I saw on a horror website they were making Pumpkinhead III and IV. They were making them in England so I called my manager, asked her to get me a meeting with Brad Krevoy’s company. She got me the meeting but in the interim I found out that Jake West was doing III and IV so I went to the meeting very much as a kind of meet-and-greet. I told them: Jake is great, I met Jake years ago, he’s a lovely guy, good luck with the movies. Then I was showing my showreel to the Head of Development when Brad Krevoy himself poked his head through the door and just saw a moment from New Blood with John Hurt on screen.

“He watched about two seconds of the reel and he was like: ‘Did you direct this?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He went, ‘Are you from England?’ ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Do you want to do Pumpkinhead IV?’ And it was that easy! I said, ‘Oh, okay...’ Then he told me that they didn’t have any script or any story and I had to come up with both in seven days for the Sci-Fi Channel. So I’ve basically written a Romeo and Juliet archetypal story.

“So that groundwork was already done by Shakespeare and I basically put Pumpkinhead into Romeo and Juliet and set it against the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, which apparently is a real American feud in the South. I’ve never heard of it but a lot of Americans have heard of this feud. So I sort of spliced Pumpkinhead into that story. The Romeo character gets beaten up by Juliet’s family and then calls Pumpkinhead to wipe out the entire family so that he and Juliet can be together, and that’s the motivation for it all.”

What’s the appeal of Pumpkinhead?
“Pumpkinhead’s a cool, archetypal horror character. I like the first movie a lot; I’m not such a huge fan of the second one. I actually know the director of the second one a little bit: Jeff Burr, he’s a really nice guy and I think he’s a good director. I just don’t think that’s a good film.”

What is it about Pumpkinhead that makes him more than just a generic monster?
“There’s a very elaborate mythology around him. I think the first film’s an excellent morality play and I like the complication involved with the summoner feeling like he’s in the right then realising that revenge is not the best option and violence begets violence and all that stuff. That makes it somewhat deeper than your standard stalk-and-slash movie. Plus it’s a great monster, a great design. Stan Winston designed it in the first place. If you’re making a monster movie, you want to make a monster movie with a good monster - and I think it is a good monster.”

interview originally posted 5th July 2006

interview: Andy Hurst

I first encountered Andy Hurst way back in the mid-1990s when a tape of Project: Assassin arrived at the SFX offices. He followed this up with a thriller, You’re Dead and now has a set of writing and second unit credits that includes several DTV sequels. He returned to directing with Are You Scared and very kindly answered a few questions that I e-mailed him.

How did you get involved with Are You Scared and what attracted you to the project?
“The company behind Are You Scared was also responsible for many of the DTV sequels I've written so I had a really good working relationship with them. Marc Bienstock and Rich Goldberg produced a series of lower budget horror movies and my brother and I were involved with coming up with ideas. The initial spark of Are You Scared came from a spec script they'd bought a while back, the idea of a reality game show that turns deadly. Obviously it has more than a little similarity to the Saw movies, but when you're making low budget movies without stars you kind of have to make the concept the star. So the logic goes that if you're into Saw, then you'll be into other kinds of stuff that's in that same world. (It's a catch 22: the movies can't be wholly original because to sell them you need a recognisable hook, but because they're not wholly original people compare them unfavourably to the 'source material'. Such is life.)

“I was intrigued by the idea of directing again for a few reasons, some artistic, some practical. The script was lean and mean, it had some opportunities for twisted scenes and it was contained (a must for these lower budget movies). On a practical level I was excited to work with Robin Hill again, my co-director on Project: Assassin. He'd been working for a few years as an editor and after-effects artist and the work he'd been doing was mind-blowingly good. If we'd had that kind of technology and expertise when we were doing P:A, the film certainly wouldn't have taken us so long to complete!

“So, with Rob on board, I felt that we had an opportunity to do something in a similar to vein to P:A, but with all the money in place upfront, meaning we could get in done in a matter of months. It was a tough shoot, but the editing was a blast, and Rob came through big time with all his work in post production.”

Am I right in thinking that your brother Mike wrote the script, and if so, what is the significance of the ‘Ellis Walker’ pseudonym?
“Mike did write the script, but because he's writing and directing bigger movies too he didn't want to use his real name and let his current and future employers know that he'll work for cheap! Ellis Walker is his character's name from P:A. Simple as that.”

What are the pros and cons of having one brother directing and the other shooting second unit?
“The pros of having Mike directing second unit (and I assume of having me shooting second unit for him) are that there's a complete trust between us. We also have similar styles and we have a shorthand for understanding what we want from the scenes that we shoot. I've recently shot second unit for a director I hadn't met before and it's much more stressful; you shoot a lot more to cover yourself, and you don't take risks. With my brother I know he'll be cool with what I do and I've always been really pleased with what he's shot for me.

“The cons are that no-one in the world can make me angry the way my brother can. He's such an ass.”

What’s the story behind Project: Assassin’s German release and how did you get from this ultra-low budget British indie to working in Hollywood?
“The story behind P:A's German release is a long, convoluted, twisted tale, one that involves a fair share of regret and sadness. Ultimately the film is what the film is, and the experience is somewhat of a distant memory, but for all the joy, passion and hard work that we put into the film, it's tinged with a regret about the way things went down once this opportunity for a European release came about.

“Robin and Mike went down to Cannes with a rough cut of the film, showed it to anyone who would watch, and they happened to meet a guy named Marco Weber. He liked the movie, thought it needed a few reshoots, some new music and offered us the chance to remix the sound properly and then transfer the film to 35mm (it had been shot on Betacam video).

“At the time Marco was setting up a company with Roland Emmerich (the director of Independence Day), and he offered me the chance to come to Hollywood and work with him. It was an amazing opportunity, but the same offer wasn't extended to Mike and Rob. It was a very difficult time and I think that I made the best choice I could by coming out to LA, working hard to get things going and then bringing the guys out as soon as possible.

“We got together a year or so ago and did a DVD commentary, and in a way laid some of those ghosts to rest. It was also great to see the film again, cringing at how young and naive we were, but also revelling in the achievement of making a feature film on our own by the time we were 21.”

With ‘sequels’ like Single White Female 2, Wild Things 2 and 3 and Vampires: The Turning, what sort of instructions are you given about connecting to (or being distinct from) the originals?
“The DTV sequels business has taken off in the last few years and I've been lucky to ride that wave. Again it's kind of a catch 22 situation where you're making a cheaper version of the original film, without the original stars, so the backlash is inevitable. I do think that we've always tried our best to make something cool out of the movies, try something new, but there's a definite formula for these movies and that's the reason they're so successful.”

Are you planning to direct more films in the near future or will you be concentrating on writing?
“I'd love to direct again, it's just a matter of time. I have a young son, so being away from home for a long time isn't that appealing right now, but I'm sure the day will come (maybe soon) when he wants his father out of the house, away from the computer, so there's a good chance I'll get back to work directing one of these days.”

interview originally posted 8th August 2007

interview: Simon Hunter (2009)

I interviewed Simon Hunter just before he started shooting Mutant Chronicles and I interviewed him on the set so it seemed a good idea to do another interview after the film was complete. This e-mail interview was done in early February 2009, a few months after after the film’s rather sudden and underpromoted UK theatrical release and just before the film’s UK DVD release and US cinema release.

It's fair to say that Mutant Chronicles had mixed reviews: some people loved it, some hated it. How surprised (or not) were you by that?
Mutant Chronicles was a grand experiment! I desperately tried to do something no-one else has done before. I went for a very extreme look and feel for the film. I always felt that if I didn't do that, the movie would look very generic and cheap. We would have literally been running around on a back lot somewhere trying to make a sci-fi movie without the proper resources. No-one has made a movie that, almost end-to-end, uses so many models, miniatures and traditional matte paintings - it was a very extreme look, one I like.

“I am always surprised that people hate movies so much, especially these types of movies. It’s just a bit of popcorn fun. The entire style was meant to be fun, rough, quick and energetic - I am glad some people got that. If you enjoy Thomas Jane saying, ‘I'm not paid to believe, I'm paid to fuck shit up,’ then you will enjoy the movie; if you think that's very theatrical and cheesy then you won't like the rest of the movie because we made it in that style.”

What's the deal with the date? A lot of reviews, presumably working from publicity material, said it takes place in the 23rd century but the year is clearly shown on screen as 2707, and yet the DVD sleeve says 'Welcome to the 23rd century'. Who's right?
“I had decided on a date and we had a title card made, then a few months later I see a poster with '23rd century' written on it. I think some marketing people perhaps did not check the movie. These things happen so I am not going to get upset about it, But Philip the writer, myself and Ed Pressman had all agreed on the date. It was just a mistake so let's leave it at that. The US poster says the 28th century which is correct. It should not have happened.”

How happy are you with the way that the film has been treated by the various distributors?
“Once a film leaves the cutting room on the last day you have very little connection with it. That’s where the date issue came from, which was way beyond my control. It makes movie fans mad because it looks like you don't care to figure out stuff like that: well, we did figure it out but what can you do? I removed the date from my director’s cut. I hope that doesn't distract for too many people.”

In retrospect, what do you think works best about the film and what aspects do you think maybe don't work as well as they should?
“Works best: I think the whole look was incredibly bold and interesting. It had not been done before. I would have liked to have pushed the coal-powered feel further. I love the sequence of the ship being stacked with coal before the take-off on the mission. I know it would never fly(!) but it's fun. We could have gone further with a bit more cash: you know, wind-up torches, steam-powered lighting... that kind of thing! We had just eight weeks’ prep on this movie so it gave the production designer Caroline Greville-Morris very, very little time to get stuff together - but she did an amazing job.

“No-one has ever made a low-ish budget, UK, sci-fi movie in this way before. We went for a painterly, highly stylised look and feel: not a photo-real look, more like an impressionist look, more like early German cinema in the twenties. I am very proud of that. Some people I have read say, ‘Oh it tries to be like 300.’ Well, if they check their dates they will see that we were deep into post production well before 300 came out. So I like the look and feel very much. I know it's not to everyone’s taste - I appreciate that - but I think we should get high marks for being both original and bold which we were unquestionably.

“The set pieces in the movie are good fun: the lift shaft sequence, the pod escape, the final fight in the machine. These sequences were really hard to do - everything was virtual including the entire lift shaft. They were very complicated sequences to stage and involved an enormous amount of logistics. I am really happy with these sections of the movie. I also like the opening battle, its feel and look.

“The worse aspects: I wonder if the film has too much narrative, ie. too much story. It has the corporation story, the stone seal story, the mission story: perhaps too much. If we didn't have to set up the world so much then we could have got the mission aspect going earlier. The internal logic to the machine could have been better and we needed a mutant figure head, a baddy behind the curtain.

“Also there is too much religious talk in the movie; I have cut that from the director’s cut. One of the worse things was the voice-over. Not that it's bad, it’s that the movie doesn't need it. I have cut almost all of that from the director’s cut. Voice-over (in this case) just makes the audience think they are being treated like children.”

What are the differences between the various edits shown at previews, in cinemas or on DVD?
“There are only two cuts. We finished one cut just before a tax deadline (it was a UK tax break movie) and we had literally just got all the footage in, the visual effects shots, so we had no chance to have a short break and preview it. The movie had no voice-over halfway during post production then it was added to help explain things - but I was never wholly happy about that. So I asked the US distributor Magnolia to go back and change a few things and they gave me permission and the resources to do so - so good on them!

“So now there is a director’s cut of the movie. Basically it is about eleven minutes shorter, which is a lot. I have got the mission moving off faster and removed tons of explanation which the audience does not need, in my humble opinion. It was very cathartic to be able to just cut where I wanted without worrying about anyone’s opinion. I would urge people to go and check that cut out - it's way better.”

You must have been working on the film, from the promo short through to release, for about four years: what effect did that have on your life and how hard or easy was it (or will it be!) to finally let go?
“I think I enjoyed the promo most of all in the process. It was a really fun experience and I have very fond memories of the summer of 2005. We worked really hard and did everything in-house. The movie became my life and we worked round the clock for far too long on it. So many people put so much into this movie; it was made as a labour of love with very little resources. I am letting the movie go, day by day, and that makes me happy. It's time to move on and I have a big desire to go and make a live action movie without green screen on 16mm!”

website: SimonHunter.com
interview originally posted 6th February 2009

interview: Simon Hunter (2006)

I first met Simon Hunter at Fantasporto in 2000 where he was introducing his first feature, the enjoyable serial killer movie Lighthouse (released in the USA as Dead of Night). Six years later, and with only two weeks to go before the start of principal photography on his second feature Mutant Chronicles, Simon very kindly answered some e-mail questions for me.

I remember writing about The Mutant Chronicles back in the 1990s when I was working on SFX. Why has it taken so many years to get to this point?
“I never really know with projects. A combination of things but the stars seem to have come together for us this year. We have really worked hard on the script and have a distinct vision for the film which I hope people will find fresh and exciting.”

Apart from obvious technical advances in special effects and the contribution of your good self, how will the 2006 film differ from the version that was in development in the 1990s?
“The title is the same! I wanted to try and take the movie in a radically different direction. There is nothing left of the original draft, it's just my vision and I hope people will like that.”

What have you learned from your experiences with Lighthouse that you can apply to this film?
Lighthouse was not a pleasant experience for me. It has some good moments but I think the story wasn't fresh enough. I have been directing commercials since then and learned so much. We are trying to make Mutant a war picture rather than a horror picture.”

What are you most worried about as the start date looms?
“It's a massive undertaking. Millions of elements. Most of all I want to focus on telling a tight story and getting good performances. That's what I want to do most of all. We should have had a lot more rehearsal time on Lighthouse and I really regret that. It's not good for the movie and unfair to the actors. In Neil Marshall’s The Descent you really care for the characters - that, combined with the danger of the creatures and the set pieces, made it an excellent film. But you have to care!”

And what are you most confident about?
“Technically we are breaking a lot of new ground. It's something I know quite a bit about and I am very confident we can make everything work. The film is an almost virtual shoot and we are recording everything onto huge data drives. It’s a totally tapeless digital workflow. Editing, sound and visual effects will be totally integrated. We have a great crew, Tim Dennison is a superb producer and Ed Pressman has been 100 per cent supportive all the way along. So we are in good hands.”

What one piece of information can you tell me about the film which has not yet been made public?
“Ummmm. Not sure I can help on this. But head to Mutantchroniclesthemovie.com and I'll try and post some stuff up soon! It's a smaller movie than people might imagine but all the better for it. A tough ‘men on a mission’ film, not a sprawling sci-fi and ten thousand Mutants versus ten thousand humans! The Mutants will be prosthetic not CG. Paul Hyett is in charge. He did The Descent but he also did Lighthouse for me years earlier!”

website: SimonHunter.com
interview originally posted 15th May 2006