Saturday, 29 March 2014

Project Vampire

Director: Peter Flynn
Writer: Peter Flynn
Producers: Daren Hicks, Simon Tams
Cast: Brian Knudson, Myron Natwick, Mary Louise Gemmil
Country: USA
Year of release: 1992
Reviewed from: UK DVD

When you come to a movie with no expectations whatsoever, you can sometimes be in for a pleasant surprise. I picked up Project Vampire on a double-bill disc with The Dreaded for a quid. I’ve never heard of it, I’ve never heard of anyone connected with it. It’s something to do with vampires. Let’s slip it into the machine and take a look.

About 20 minutes in, I started saying to myself, “You know, this actually isn’t bad.” By the half-hour point of this 92-minute film, I realised that I was actually enjoying it. I wasn’t over the Moon and I hadn’t discovered a forgotten classic, but this turns out to be a well-produced, nicely-directed, quite original, smart little horror flick.

Myron Natwick (Ice Pirates, The Dead Talk Back) plays Dr Frederick Klaus, ex-pat Austrian biochemistry professor who is secretly a vampire. He is assisted by Teutonic glamourpuss Heidi (Paula Randol-Smith: Deadly Illusions) and two henchmen: leather-jacketed skinhead Hopper (Kelvin Tsao: LA Task Force) and snappy-dressing, eye-patch-wearing, limping weasel Louis (Ray Essler). He also has a bunch of lab-coat-wearing helpers working for him on ‘Project A’ which is nominally a longevity serum which he is working on as part of his university tenure. Louis is the only person involved who has not been vampirised through the injection of Klaus’ serum: he is allergic to it, although Hopper comments that he is “almost more like us than human.”

The film opens as three of the lab-coat-wearers escape with a syringe of the serum, though it’s not clear precisely what they plan to do with it. Eddie (Oliver Leymarie) is recaptured by Hopper and Louis while Tom (Chris Wolf: Amazon Women on the Moon, Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000) goes looking for blood in a nearby motel. Our hero is Victor (Brian Knudson) who escapes a beating from Hopper by jumping into the car of passing nurse Sandra Jensen (Mary Louise Gemmil).

Victor and Sandra together set out to defeat Klaus’ plans for world domination, which involve psychically empowering hundreds of syringes full of ‘longevity serum’ so that not only will the users, around the world, become vampires, they will also bend to his telepathic will. Or something. There is also an ‘antidote’ to the serum which allows the vampires to move around in daylight for a limited period.

Slightly confusing though this plan is, it does give us the movie’s stand-out scene as Klaus climbs inside the device shown on the UK DVD sleeve, which is referred to in the end credits as the ‘psychifuge’. Power crackles between Klaus and the hundreds of syringes arranged around him as he strains and suffers, his handsome human face contorting into a vampiric grimace. The psychifuge is a terrific piece of production design and though one may not normally leaving the theatre whistling the production design, nevertheless let’s give credit where credit is due. (The image of a naked young lady in the psychifuge, used on some other editions, is definitely not in the film.)

Victor and Sandra are respectively helped and hindered by two of her colleagues: Korean scientist Lee Fong (Christopher Cho) and medical lounge lizard Paul Holt (John-Scott Taylor). At one point, she is injected with the vampire serum by Louis, but a pre-internet computer tells Fong that all the vampires victims will recover if the head vampire is destroyed.

A fast-moving and quite exciting first half (including a car chase shot largely from inside the second vehicle, which is both different and effective) gives way to a more formulaic second half, much of it set inside Klaus’ headquarters which is a much less successful piece of production design, not least because the ‘very heavy’ doors have a tendency to wobble. The finale, while somewhat clichéed and slightly anticlimactic, nevertheless is a terrific sequence, incorporating an impressive fire stunt and clever cutting to a life-size dummy.

Considering the promise shown by this film, it’s a surprise to find that it is the only feature from Peter Flynn, whose other credits include art director on Time Trackers and construction foreman on Tremors. The plot, which superficially resembles that of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, is a tad wobbly to say the least but Flynn works his camera well and elicits excellent performances from his cast, many of whom had little or no feature experience in 1992.

Producer Daren Hicks works mostly as a production co-ordinator, in which capacity he can count Addams Family Values, Deep Impact, Starship Troopers and Showgirls among his credits. His colleague Simon Tams constructed props for films such as AI, Batman and Robin and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Recently, the two have produced two unofficial live-action Batman shorts: World’s Finest and Batman: Dead End. Cinematographer Joe Mealey also has a connection with the Caped Crusader: he worked on a Making Of documentary for the Special Edition DVD of Batman Returns.

Alongside Hicks, Tams and Flynn, the major creative force behind this movie seems to have been effects man John Criswell who worked on a whole bunch of Charles Band movies in the 1980s including Creepozoids, Catacombs and Cellar Dweller. His more recent credits include projects as diverse as Ed Gein and Little Bigfoot 2. Project Vampire was shot at his studio in LA.

Though far from perfect, this movie nevertheless kept me interested and entertained for a good hour and a half, and for 50p you can’t ask much more than that. In the USA, this is currently available for ten bucks as part of a Brentwood four-pack entitled Blood Thirst which also includes Beyond Evil, Back from Hell and The Passing.

MJS rating: B-

Project Assassin

Directors: Andy Hurst, Robin Hill
Writers: Andy Hurst, Robin Hill, Mike Hurst (as 'Michael Hanson')
Producers: Andy Hurst, Robin Hill, Michael Hanson
Cast: Michael Hanson, Kit Corcoran, Robert Hill
Year of release: 1996
Country: UK/Germany
Reviewed from: screener VHS

The best ever British film never released in Britain, Project Assassin is a stunning piece of ultra-low-budget film-making which propelled the Hurst brothers into careers on international productions working with big-name stars. This is a remarkable debut, but unless you live in Germany, you’ve probably never even heard of it.

A prologue set on 25th December 1972 sees a baby born in a laboratory; the birth complete, the restrained, screaming mother (Rose Mathews) is shot at point blank range and the baby is injected with... something.

Twenty three years later we find five people sharing a Brighton squat in a dilapidated old villa: long-haired drug-dealer George (Robin Hill), clean-cut Ellis (Michael Hanson), slightly drippy Lucy (Atlanta Cook), sensible Sarah (Sasha McGann) and self-righteous prick Jack (Nicholas Quirke). George and Lucy are sort of an item, while Sarah has a crush on Ellis. Into this group comes a mysterious sixth figure, Christian (Kit Corcoran) - long of hair, wispy of beard, short on words - and a 3-2 vote sees him moving in.

But Christian is not all that he seems. He is being monitored by the mysterious Dr Waltham (Robert Hill) and his assistant Richard (Chris Orr, who played several roles in a stage production of Frankenstein the following year). Christian, who was evidently the baby born in the prologue, is referred to as ‘the weapon’ and Ellis is ‘the primary target.’

The next day, two policeman call, leading to indignation about ‘rights’ from the pompous Jack and a frantic flushing away of evidence by George. But it’s not drugs they’re looking for, they just take a polaroid of Christian that Jack took and then destroy the camera. They don’t want any evidence that he is there. What is going on? That night, as Christian undergoes some sort of fit, Jack goes into sympathetic spasms and starts haemorrhaging from every orifice. The next morning Jack has gone - and so has all his stuff...

Waltham has the house not only under surveillance but fully bugged with both audio and video equipment. Some scenes, such as the one where the housemates debate what has happened to Jack, are shown split-screen, shot from up to four ‘hidden camera’ angles, predating similar techniques in movies like My Little Eye by more than five years.

The housemates and anyone else who visits the squat are, one by one, killed or abducted by mysterious figures, all working for whatever shady government organisation is headed by Waltham. Eventually Ellis goes on the run, leading to a terrifically original chase scene set in a bus garage, but he is cornered and taken to the underground base of the ‘Eugenics Division’.

Christian, it seems, is carrying a genetically engineered virus which can kill by telepathy; the virus has become self-aware and wants Ellis as its new host. Waltham and co have complete control of the media and the film climaxes with Jack broadcasting surveillance footage from the house to try and convince the public about what’s going on. There is a whole religious subtext to Christian - his name, his birthdate, even his hair and beard - but I’m not entirely sure what the implication is, unless it’s just emphasising the apocalyptic nature of the virus if it gets out of control.

Believe it or not, this entire 90-minute movie was shot on Betacam for only £4,000. The producers took it to Cannes where it was picked up by Marco Weber, an associate of Roland Emmerich on movies like The Thirteenth Floor. He spent a quarter of a million dollars on a state-of-the-art tape-to-film transfer and gave it a theatrical release in Germany, where it has since been released on VHS and DVD, variously subtitled as Project Assassin: Der Gedankenkiller (‘the thought-killer’) and Project Assassin: Wenn Gedanken Toten (‘when thoughts kill’).

Andy Hurst followed Project Assassin with the thriller You’re Dead starring John Hurt and Rhys Ifans which had a UK theatrical release in 1998. He was cinematographer on a 1999 documentary about Michael Reeves and wrote a screenplay called The Glades which has been filmed and released as a fake sequel to the 1998 Denise Richards/Neve Campbell movie Wild Things. Most recently he wrote Earthquake for one-word-will-do producers Nu Image (Spiders, Octopus). As well as writing, directing and producing, he also acted as cinematographer on Project Assassin, using coloured lighting and filters to help disguise the tiny budget. Though the constant use of red and blue is perhaps slightly overdone - at times it’s like watching a tinted silent movie! - nevertheless it’s effective and skilfully managed. In fact all the camerawork is of a very high quality.

Hurst’s brother Mike - credited here as Michael Hanson - went on to direct second unit on You’re Dead and wrote and directed the thrillers New Blood (with John Hurt and Carrie-Ann Moss) and Babyjuice Express before returning to horror with House of the Dead II and Pumpkinhead IV; he also got the unusual credit of 'script polisher' on The Pool. Fight choreography is by John Carrigan (recently seen in the interactive DVD Advanced Warriors) and Glen Salvage (Left for Dead). Special make-up effects are credited to Chris Archimedas.

Though you will need to spend some Euros to get a copy, Project Assassin is thoroughly recommended - it’s a thrilling, imaginative, original, blood-spattered SF-horror thriller. What a damning indictment of the British cinema industry that although we can make superb movies like this, we can’t find any way of letting people in this country see them.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 20th April 2006

Princess from the Moon

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Writers: Shinya Hidaka, Mitsutoshi Ishigami, Ryuzo Kikushima
Producers: Hiroaki Fujii, Masaru Kakatani, Junichi Shinsaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Katsuo Nakamura
Year of release: 1987
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Artsmagic)

In feudal Japan, poor bamboo weaver Taketori-no-Miyatsuko and his wife mourn the death (from illness) of their young daughter Kaya. One night, there is a massive light from the bamboo forest behind their house, and when Miyatsuko investigates he comes across a strange metal capsule, half-buried in the ground next to his daughter’s grave. A mysterious light flows between the two, then the capsule opens and out crawls a baby which grows, before his astonished eyes, into a little girl who is the double of Kaya.

Miyatsuko takes the girl home, where his overjoyed wife sees her as a gift from Heaven to replace their daughter. Meanwhile, other locals have discovered a huge, smoking pit in the middle of the forest. Miyatsuko sells a piece of the capsule and discovers that it is pure gold; shortly afterwards he and his wife return home to find that Kaya has grown into an elegant young woman.

Suddenly wealthy, the couple move from their shack to a huge house in the rich part of town, where all the men are bewitched by Kaya’s ethereal beauty. But the local Shogun hears tell of gold being traded in town and wonders where it has come from.

Kaya receives proposals of marriage from three suitors: two slimy old guys and a sincere young councillor. On the advice of a blind friend she sends the three men on impossible tasks. The two slimeballs apparently succeed but are shown to have cheated, while the youngest man, barely surviving his fruitless attempt, proves that his love for Kaya (or Kaguya as she has become known - meaning ‘shining lady’) is true.

But by this point, Kaya/Kaguya’s true origin has been discovered: she came from the Moon and must return at the next full moon. Squads of soldiers are posted around the family’s house but Kaguya is taken anyway, in a shaft of light, leaving behind her adopted parents, her blind friend and her suitor.

Princess from the Moon (Taketori Monogatari) looks fabulous, a terrific recreation of feudal Japan with amazing costumes (by Emi Wada: Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams) and great sets (by Shinobu Muraki: Ran and - blimey! - ESPY). Unfortunately it’s also very, very long and very, very slow. The Mona Lisa looks fabulous too - but you wouldn’t want to stare at it for 122 minutes. The great Toshira Mifune - looking a lot older than he did in Yojimbo! - is good as Miyatsuko, as are the rest of the cast. Miho Nakano, the girl who plays young Kaya - blank expression, pale blue contact lenses and all - is undoubtedly the creepiest child actor you’ll ever see. Adult Kaya/Kaguya is played by Yasuko Sawaguchi (Godzilla 1985, Godzilla Vs Biollante, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon).

There is one very brief sword-fight (not involving Mifune) and a fantastic giant sea-serpent which appears far too briefly - allegedly left over from the unmade Toho/Hammer co-production Nessie - but little else to get excited about for the first 100 minutes. (Special effects are by Teruyoshi Nakano, his last credit after a career at Toho which started with The Secret of the Telegian in 1960 and took in pretty much every SF, horror or monster movie after that, including Lake of Dracula, Evil of Dracula and 13 Godzilla films.) Princess from the Moon is a fairy tale, but is unfortunately presented as a soap opera with endless scenes of people talking - often in locked-off longshots which make it hard to tell, on the small screen, who is speaking at any given point.

Then in the last 20 minutes it turns into a full-blown special effects fantasia, with an alien spaceship straight out of Close Encounters accompanied by a faux John Williams score that also hints at Also Sprach Zarathustra! It’s a complete change (though still, it must be said, not terribly exciting) which sits oddly with all that has gone before. But there just seems to be no moral; there’s no sense of Kaya, in her short time on Earth, teaching people anything or learning anything about humanity. A fairy tale (a very long one) without a clear moral seems somewhat pointless, however beautifully designed and shot.

Also be warned that the end credits play under an unspeakably dire ballad (in English) by Peter Cetera.

Artsmagic’s anamorphic widescreen presentation, on their Shadow Warrior label, is a typically flawless transfer. Although there is a cast list - and biographical notes on Ichikawa (Seishun Kaidan, 47 Ronin etc) and Mifune (The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress etc) - the disc lacks the cast portraits seen on some of the label’s other films, which is annoying as many of the characters are never actually named in the dialogue, rendering the cast list somewhat superfluous.

MJS rating: B-

Prey for the Beast

Director: Brett Kelly
Writer: Jeff O’Brien
Producer: Anne-Marie Frigon
Cast: Brett Kelly, Anastasia Kimmett, Amanda Leigh
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.brettkelly.net

Prey for the Beast is equal parts formulaic Don’t Go In The Woods picture and good, old-fashioned monster movie of the sort that they don’t make them like any more. It is not overly burdened with characterisation or plot but makes up for this with decent acting, smart direction, a highly credible sound mix and a frankly terrific monster suit which is worth the price of admission on its own.

Four blokes go off into the woods for a weekend of male bonding to help one of their number get over his wife’s infidelity. I couldn’t actually tell you what any of their names are but there’s a tall one who is described as a ‘survivalist’ and has brought a pistol with him. Elsewhere in the woods are four young ladies (again, I couldn’t differentiate or name them although two are lesbians of course - it’s a tradition or an old charter or something). When these eight people discover each other’s existence and meet up, they also discover that there is a savage creature in the woods from which they must escape.

Actually before we get to any of this we have three earlier scenes. A pre-credits prologue has a couple (Kerri Draper and Dan Tait) in a tent getting amorous but disturbed by noises outside. She goes out to investigate then he goes to find out where she’s got to - and both meet an unpleasant end from something unseen.

After the credits there is a sequence with an old guy who is some sort of wildlife photographer (Lenard Blackburn) and the local guide (Kevin Preece) he has employed to show him the unnamed creature - which seems to be well-known, at least to the locals. Then we see the ‘survivalist’ guy and his missus (Thea Nikolic) discussing why he has to attend this jolly boys’ outing.

Thing is, the first prologue is entirely unnecessary, serving no real purpose except to boost the running time. Yes, it introduces us to the idea that there’s a nasty something in these woods, but so does the photographer/guide scene. And those two will later connect with our main characters and influence the plot whereas the couple in the tent are entirely unconnected to the main story. You don’t need two prologues; the second renders the first redundant.

Once the octet discover that there is a beastie in the woods the plot becomes a fairly simple progression as they are killed off one by one. Unfortunately this generally happens because someone decides to wander off away from the group for no apparent reason and without telling anyone where they’re going. Only towards the end, when the numbers have been radically reduced, do we get any sense that this monster is actually hunting and killing the humans, rather than just helping itself to victims who inexplicably choose to wander around the woods on their own.

The men arrived by boat, which they didn’t bother to tie up and which has subsequently floated off. However, the ladies (and the photographer and guide) ‘hiked in’ so there should be no problem in hiking right out again. Indeed, when the survivors make it to safety (I can’t give you any spoilers here because the characters are so interchangeable that I genuinely have no idea which ones they are) we find out that they weren’t anywhere terribly inaccessible after all. After what seems a fairly short hike - even allowing for editing, it’s plainly still the same afternoon - the survivors end up on a tarmac path which leads to a car park - and quite possibly some sort of picnic area and visitor centre. It’s not as bad as the Camp Blood films and their ‘isolated’ woodland locations that are about five minutes walk from a busy main road but it certainly deflates the threat in retrospect.

While I’m picking holes, the other two major problems are that neither group of ‘campers’ seems to have much camping equipment and the locations chosen are relatively sparsely vegetated for woodland. Small trees and saplings with few leaves mean that we can see a considerable distance into the woods from any location so it’s difficult to understand how the monster is able to creep up on anyone. A chipmunk would have difficult hiding in some of this foliage.

But let’s sing the praises of the monster because this is a belter of a suit and director Brett Kelly is spot on in balancing the early scenes when we see only a claw or a flash of fur and the later scenes when we get a good (if usually brief) look at the beast. Shaggy of main, large of claw and in desperate need of a good orthodontist, this is something inbetween a bear and warthog. Actually it’s curious that no-one ever wonders whether they are dealing with a bear, especially when characters have actually seen the thing so they know it’s about eight feet tall, covered in shaggy brown hair and bipedal.

“What is it, some kind of animal?” says one character, burdened with the movie’s worst (and funniest) line of dialogue.

Because of the large number of potential victims, Kelly adds something extra to the mix by giving the creature some sort of hallucinogen in its saliva (I think) so that one of the men who gets scratched on his hand starts hallucinating (he was the cuckolded guy and we get a flashback to the discovery of his wife’s betrayal). Unfortunately there seems to be either a continuity error or some post-production rejiggery of events because his hand is bandaged (by one of the women) for no apparent reason, then later we see him with an unbandaged hand and subsequently it’s bandaged again. Even when he has the bandage on, that hand is still strong enough to grip a decent-sized automatic pistol apparently.

The culmination of the creature’s pursuit of its victims happens in and around a small wooden shack which the ladies say they passed on the way in but which they neglected to mention prior to that point, even though it’s full of handy, heavy, sharp tools and should have been their first thought when people started dying. It is also surprising that, given that this group have one gun (with half a dozen bullets) and one bow (with a presumably small but never specified number of arrows), no-one bothers to improvise a weapon by, say, sharpening up the end of a handy branch.

Once the survivors are besieged in the shack the interest and excitement picks up considerably, especially as one of them is hallucinating. I would have liked to see much more of this and less of people walking through the pleasant and slightly leafy woodland, presumably along a well-trodden path as they make it to the car park quite easily without the benefit of a map or compass.

Running to 75 minutes, Prey for the Beast has about eight and a half minutes of glacially slow end credits, including a reprise of all the names of its fairly large cast and its principal crew who were all introduced individually in two and a half minutes of opening titles. I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: we don’t know who these people are so we don’t need to be introduced to them one by one. Yes, it’s a thrill at the cast and crew screening but it’s a pain in the neck for the viewers. As for the Charlesband-ian creeping credits at the end, there is no point in watching them at all. If film-makers must drag out their end credit sequences at least put something under the words (or split screen or whatever) to justify our sitting through them. A few bloopers, in the Jackie Chan style, would suffice.

The four main male characters are played by Ray Besharah, Mark Courneyea, Jodi Pittman and Kelly himself. The female quartet are played by Anastasia Kimmett, Amanda Leigh, Lisa Aitken and Sonia Myers. Many of the cast have been in other Brett Kelly movies before or since but few if any of them have done anything else on screen. In the infidelity flashback Tara Lee Gerhard appears as the chap’s wife (she also handled make-up although her surname is spelled ‘Gerhards’ there; someone else provides the character’s voice on a phone in another scene) and Jody Haucke (a Kelly regular) is the other man.

Cinematographer Jera Kenez is aka Jeremy Kennedy and has lit several other Brett Kelly pictures as well as directing the almost wordless horror short Influence; Kelly and Kenez share the editing credit.

Brett Kelly has rather cheekily bolstered the film’s credits by putting a number of friends and associates in there as fake/spoof credits. How do I know this? Because I know Brett (through Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia forums), because he has never mentioned that he knows anyone else named ‘MJ Simpson’ and because I’m pretty damn sure that I did not work on this film as an electrician... (I also spotted ‘materials consultant’ Lou Vockell.)

Unusually director Kelly (whose previous films include The Bonesetter and sequel, the remake of Kingdom of the Vampire and a version of The Tell-Tale Heart) and writer Jeff O’Brien (Insecticidal, Alien Incursion, Bone Dry) never met during production. Having become acquainted through the aforementioned Fred Olen Ray forum, they collaborated by e-mail with O’Brien getting screenplay credit and Kelly getting ‘story by’. Still, it’s very modern, isn’t it? Both parties are evidently pleased with their joint effort (as well they might be) as they subsequently set to work on a remake of - would you believe? - Attack of the Giant Leeches. Composer Christopher Nickel had previously worked with both gentlemen on separate projects.

But the biggest plaudits here go to the make-up and effects guys. Ralph Gethings was responsible for ‘special make-up FX’ and also gets a ‘second unit DOP’ credit. He also worked for Kelly on Kingdom of the Vampire and My Dead Girlfriend and directed the short film Reckoning and here he does sterling work on the various injuries and eviscerations.

And then there’s the creature suit itself, which is the creation of Matt Ficner. Or, as the end titles have it: ‘Bruno the Beast created by and appears courtesy of Matt Ficner Productions Inc, www.mfproductions.ca.’ Ficner has really gone above and beyond the call of duty here, designing and constructing a believable, scary and practical monster suit. Ficner is also the man behind a series of short films under the self-explanatory title The Creepy Puppet Project.

Prey for the Beast is an entertaining hour and a quarter of relatively likeable (if not especially interesting) people being stalked and killed by a natural (rather than supernatural) predator. It’s a fun way to pass the time and has been put together with the skill and talent that one expects from people as experienced as Jeff O’Brien and Brett Kelly. I think it could have been more than it was with a bit more characterisation but from an action/horror point of view this ticks all the boxes and is well worth your attention.

Now, bring on that Giant Leeches remake!

MJS rating: B+

Friday, 28 March 2014

Prehysteria

 Directors: Albert Band, Charles Band
Writer: Mark Goldstein, Greg Suddeth
Producer: Charles Band
Cast: Brett Cullen, Austin O’Brien, Stephen Lee
Country: USA
Year of release: 1993
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Prehysteria is a movie which gives the impression that it exists primarily to showcase the effects work of David Allen. Which is great effects work, so that’s okay. But really, the central premise doesn’t make a lick of sense: miniature dinosaurs. I mean, come on.

It looks like Charlie Band wanted a dinosaur movie, David Allen could supply the effects - excellent rod puppets and a small amount of stop-motion - but only on a small scale. So either the dinosaurs would need green-screening into every scene, or - hey, what if the dinosaurs in the story were only as big as Dave’s puppets? Thus was born a three-film franchise. Who would have thought it?

In actual fact, that’s not how this came about, but it sure looks that way to those of us with a cynical turn of brain.

Brett Cullen (CAPCOM in Apollo 13, an astronaut in From the Earth to the Moon, the Governor of West Virginia in The West Wing) stars as Frank Taylor, the obligatory single parent, who is raising teenage daughter Monica (Samantha Mills: Beanpole) and 12-or-so son Jerry (Austin O’Brien, inbetween roles in The Lawnmower Man and The Last Action Hero) on a farm where he has a sideline in finding fossils and selling them to the local museum. This is run by slimy, overweight Rico Sarno (Stephen Lee: Dolls, The Pit and the Pendulum, RoboCop II, Ghoulies III, Black Scorpion and Carnosaur III; he also played the Big Bopper in La Bamba) and has two employees, sexy Vicki (Colleen Morris, who was in episodes of Cheers and Baywatch) and old janitor Whitey (Tom Williams, who did some voices for Batman: The Animated Series and the old Planet of the Apes cartoon). Outside views of the museum show a large building with steps and columns, but our only interior view looks more like a junk shop to be honest. Quite why this establishment would buy common fossils from Taylor isn’t clear, but that whole side of things exists only to get the Taylor family into the shop/museum in order for a mix-up of picnic coolers, after which it is entirely forgotten.

Sarno’s cooler contains five odd-looking, sacred, ancient eggs which we saw him steal from a South American temple in a prologue, despite the dire warnings of local guide Jefe (Peter Mark Vasquez: Robot Wars, Sleepstalker). The Taylors’ cooler has the remains of their lunch so it’s a mystery why they don’t just leave it in their pick-up truck. The family labrador Ruby (played by two dogs) is responsible for grabbing the wrong cooler. She manages to open it and remove the eggs, which she swiftly incubates. The implication is that she views the hatchlings as substitutes for her own recent little of five puppies which Taylor had to give away, much to his children’s annoyance, because he couldn’t afford to keep them.

Sarno wants his cooler back but Taylor sends him packing, unaware of the contents. Jerry is the first to discover the mini-dinosaurs, then he shows them to his sister after she discovers what she thinks is a bat but is actually a pteranodon. Jerry is a big fan of Elvis (though there’s little evidence of this and of course no Elvis on the soundtrack) so he christens the tiny T rex ‘Elvis’ and frequently refers to him as “the new King.” Monica, whose tastes in music are more up-to-date, decides that the pteranodon’s name is Madonna. There is also a brachiosaur, a stegosaurus and a triceratops.

Sarno’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve his ‘sugarbabies’ - which he of course plans to exhibit to make himself rich - lead to an altercation with Vicki who has the mutual hots for Taylor and ultimately to the abduction of the four non-flying dinosaurs, along with Vicki herself and Ruby the dog. He is assisted in this by a Latino henchman double act: Louis (Tony Longo: Splash, Suburban Commando, The Flintstones in Leaving Rock Vegas) and Ritchie (Stuart Fratkin: Teen Wolf Too, Dr Alien, I’m Dangerous Tonight). It looks for a while like Vicki has fallen in with Sarno as he prepares to unveil the dinos to the media on the museum steps, but of course in fact she has been tricking him and all works out okay in the end.

If you examine the story of Prehysteria, it’s absolute tosh with no serious attempt (how could there be?) to explain the microdinos - either why they exist at that size or why their eggs were still hatchable after being stored for thousand of years in a freezing cold temple, or indeed where they came from in the first place. And the story feels very, very rushed towards the end, with great leaps in the story. Whitey has very little to actually do and Monica’s jeep-driving teenage stoner boyfriend ‘Braindead Danny’ (Gill Gayle: Death Tunnel) has nothing to do at all. The film runs about 80 minutes, including a fairly lengthy title sequence of stone carvings and a very long (but not painfully slow) end credit crawl. It certainly looks like scenes in the script were dropped for time.

What saves the film is David Allen’s superb dinosaurs. There’s real character there and an extraordinary range of movement, especially from Elvis, all achieved by having one leg or the tail extend off-screen or bolting the dino by one immovable leg to a raised surface. Great puppeteering adds to the realism, with the only example of repetitive movements being a sequence when Jerry puts an Elvis tape on and the dinosaurs all dance to it.

The acting is decent throughout with the expected broad pantomime villain and his stooges. Cullen and Morris make a personable couple, Mills and O’Brien make believable siblings - squabbling yet supportive - and the stuff about their late mother isn’t laid on with a trowel.

Writers Mark Goldstein and Greg Suddeth also wrote Pet Shop and both Oblivion films for Band, who shares directorial credit on this with his father. The original story is credited to Pete Von Sholly whose IMDB entry gives the impression that he is primarily a storyboard artist by trade, having worked on the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street III and IV, The Shawshank Redemption, Heathers, Darkman, the remake of The Blob, Puppet Master II and III, Bride of Re-Animator, Demonic Toys, Dollman vs Demonic Toys, Return of the Living Dead Part III, Freaked, Roger Corman’s legendary Fantastic Four movie, Bride and Seed of Chucky and Mars Attacks.

Von Sholly has also worked in animation, comics and children’s books and even recorded an album with fellow dinosaur enthusiast Donald F Glut. According to his website, Prehysteria was based on his childhood dream of having little dinosaurs as pets. He directed second unit on the film, as well as co-producing and, of course, drawing storyboards. He also worked on Pet Shop and both Prehysteria sequels. His wife Andrea designed and sculpted the five mini-dinos.

Cinematographer Adolfo Bartolli was a regular on Full Moon pictures from The Pit and the Pendulum to The Exotic Time Machine II, taking in Leapin’ Leprechauns!, Fowl Play, Trancers II-V, Puppet Master II-V and even a few non-Band films such as Octopus. Production designer Milo was another Full Moon regular throughout the 1990s and also worked on House IV. Costume designer Mark Bridges went on to work on such major films as Boogie Nights, 8 Mile and the remake of The Italian Job.

This film (which was called Prehysteria! in the USA but lost its exclamation mark when released in Britain) was the first release from Moonbeam, a ‘family films’ division of Full Moon which also produced Beanstalk, Magic Island, the six Josh Kirby features, Dragonworld and a few other films. It sold 70,000 copies, making it the bestselling DTV title ever (or at least, up to that point). This Paramount UK video includes the trailer for Prehysteria 2 but not one for Prehysteria 3 (which I reviewed years ago for SFX when it was released as a rental tape). None of the three films are connected in any way except through the dinosaurs.

TF Simpson (two and three quarters) enjoyed watching “the baby dinosaurs film” so for pleasing its target audience I’ll give it a...

MJS rating: B+

Po Sledam Bremenskih Muzykantov

Writer: Vasili Livanov
Cast: Oleg Anofriyev, Muslim Magomayev, Anatoli Gorokhov
Country: USSR
Year of release: 1973
Reviewed from: Russian VHS

This direct sequel to the 1969 classic Bremenskie Muzikanty demonstrates a clear progression, not only in the quality of the animation and design but also in the infiltration of western culture into the Soviet Union (as was).

In this story, the King decides that he wants his daughter back from that vagabond Troubadour who is carrying her around the countryside with his four animal friends, and to this end he employs the services of a weaselly private detective. Clad in a garish check suit and driving a rather eccentric old car, this character reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes lampoon Coke Ennyday in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish - but surely that must be coincidence.

In a fairly simplistic storyline, the detective manages to snatch the King's daughter and takes her back to the city, chased by the animals and the Troubadour in a scene which could almost come out of Wacky Races. Back at the city, the Troubadour rescues the girl while the animals distract everyone with a swinging pop concert in the town square. That's about it, the whole thing enlivened with a bit more knockabout comedy than in the first film - the bandits make a brief reappearance - and of course all set to a bunch of folk/pop songs by Genadi Gladkov and Yuri Entin.

What is most interesting here is that in the intervening four years (some sources wrongly list this sequel as 1971) the influence of western pop and pop culture has clearly increased. The musicians in the first film looked like a Russian folk band accompanied by a ballad-singer in bell-bottoms. Here they have been transformed, not too much, but enough to make them recognisably a pop band. I don't know whether Yellow Submarine was ever shown in the Soviet Union - maybe somebody just saw some stills from that film - but the scene of the four animals performing in the town square shows a definite influence in my view.

I haven't been able to find out the name of the director, only that it was not Inessa Kovalevskaya who directed Bremenskie Muzikanty. The film runs about 20 minutes, the title means (and is sometimes cited as) On the Trail of the Musicians of Bremen and it is available on the same tape/DVD/VCD as the first film.

MJS rating: B+

The Pool

Director: Boris Von Sychowski
Writers: Lorenz Stassen, Boris Von Sychowski
Producers: Benjamin Herrmann, Werner Possardt
Cast: Thorsten Grasshoff, James McAvoy, Anna Geislerová
Country: Germany/Czech Republic
Year of release: 2001
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Mosaic)

Twelve teenagers (most of whom, in the tradition of these things, are clearly in their early twenties) are stalked and despatched one by one by a masked psycho. It’s not something we haven’t seen plenty of times before. Nevertheless, The Pool turns out to be a decent example of the genre and an enjoyable 90 minutes.

What attracted me to this tape was that the names in the credits block suggested that this was a Czech movie - and indeed it is. Well, it’s a Czech/German co-production, with a Czech director, a largely Czech crew, filmed entirely in Prague and Liberec and funded with a mixture of Marks and Korunas*. It was shot in English although there are credits at the end for a German dubbed version, and it was released in that country as Swimming Pool.

The film kicks off with a Scream-derived prologue starring Anna Geislerová, who was in a 2003 British sci-fi short called Ozone but more relevantly here is easily the biggest star in the movie - in Czech terms - justifying her role as the equivalent of Drew Barrymore. Catherine (Geislerová) is on the phone to her mother while preparing a dinner for her boyfriend Oliver (Josef Pejchi). She seems to be dubbed and I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular scene was originally filmed in German or Czech. Oliver’s car arrives but the driver is dead and bloodied, and Catherine then plays cat and mouse in her house with an assailant who is revealed to be a machete-waving psycho dressed all in black with a white skull mask. Catherine leaps out of a window but is dragged back in by her feet, across the broken glass, hacked up some more and thrown into the indoor swimming pool.

But that’s not the pool of the title. We’ll come to that.

We are introduced to our main characters as they sit their finals at the International High School in Prague. This is a clever sequence which is designed to show their characters as it cuts between them answering questions in verbal exams - but it’s all a bit too hectic and in fact one of the film’s major faults is that there are too many characters and it takes most of the movie to work out who is who. On the other hand, that helps to make the killer’s identity even harder to guess. Or maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, here’s who we have. The nominal leader of the gang is local boy Gregor (Thorsten Grasshoff): cool, tall and handsome but a bit of a knob. He has a timid American girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Miller: Cherry Falls, Team America: World Police), and an Argentinean sidekick, Diego (Maximilion Grill). There’s the rather aggressive German girl Carmen (Elena Uhlig) who, we later discover, has some sort of secret history with Gregor, and there’s American Chris (Jonah Lotan: NY-LON) who is a bit of an arse. Scottish Mike (James McAvoy: Shameless, Children of Dune) is an item with nervous New Zealander Kim (former Home and Away star Isla Fisher, who was born in Oman to Scottish parents and raised in Oz, but her accent here definitely sounds more Kiwi) who is convinced that she has failed her exam. Making up the numbers are English Frank (John Hopkins: Sergeant Scott in Midsomer Murders) who carries a torch for Sarah, Svenja (Linda Rybová: Dark Blue World), Mel (Cordelia Bugeja: The Calling, MindFlesh - who is British, despite her exotic name) and Carter (Bryan Carney: The Devil’s Tattoo). They’re all rich kids and they’re determined to celebrate the last day of school with a party. Not just the official party, but a private party at a special secret location, chosen by Gregor.

The location that Gregor picks is a health-spa/hotel/thing with an absolutely huge and fabulous swimming pool (the Aquapark Babylon Centrum in Liberec is the actual place if you want to visit). It has fountains, it has slides, it has grottos, it has a well-stocked bar - and it is all closed up for the night. But Gregor calls on the lock-picking skills of Martin (Jason Liggett), once part of the gang but now a motor mechanic, and carrying his own torch for Mel. The students drive to the venue in four cars, drinking and laughing, late at night. Martin is there already, with the burglar alarm disabled and the door unlocked.

Director Boris Von Sychowski does a great job of capturing the exuberance and sexiness of a dozen horny young people in swimming cossies, knocking back the beers and spirits and generally having a whale of a time in a luxury swimming pool. Actually it’s only eleven young people because Kim isn’t there. Mike thinks it’s because she has dumped him, but in fact it’s because she went out walking alone earlier that night and met our skull-faced friend. Also of note is that Sarah is the only one not swimming, due to some unstated childhood trauma involving water.

The first sign that something is seriously, seriously wrong is when Carter and Svenja are found dead in a cloud of blood in a subsidiary pool at the bottom of a water slide. Neither was exactly a clearly defined, well-rounded character, but nevertheless their deaths - which we witness before the bodies are discovered - are nasty and rather shocking. This happens about halfway through the film and while it hasn’t dragged - there has been plenty of plot development and characterisation - the killings really make you sit up and take notice. Especially poor old Svenja who is killed on the water slide in a way that will make you want to avoid any such ‘entertainment’ after seeing this film.

The group has already split up as various individuals and couples go exploring, and a return to the door reveals that it is now locked, as are all the others - and the killer has taken Martin’s lock-picking tools. Is it one of the students, or an outsider now on the inside? Accusations and recriminations fly as the group are gradually whittled down by the methodical, machete-wielding maniac. There is a particularly tense and nasty scene in an air-duct - one of those big ones with unscrewable grills that real buildings never have - which ends with blood dripping down the wall. Intercut with all these goings-on are the investigations of a grizzled old detective, Kadankov (Jan Vissak: Dune), assigned to the death that we saw in the prologue.

The Pool keeps you guessing until fairly near the end, kills off some sympathetic characters whom you would expect to survive, and though it doesn’t end up with a single, lone female survivor, nevertheless the ending is a little bit of a cheat - though not enough to really spoil things. For its genre, this is a pretty good film which has a unique setting, a handful of original ideas and a mixed cast portraying a mixed bunch of sympathetic or not-so characters. I enjoyed this, and I’m not usually a slasher fan.

Of particular interest are the early scenes in Prague which, unusually, here represents the city of, um, Prague. The Czech capital has been vastly overused in recent years as a substitute for 18th or 19th century London (Shanghai Knights, From Hell) or Paris (the Scarlet Pimpernel TV series) and it doesn’t even vaguely resemble either of those cities. Even people who have never been to Prague can recognise it on screen nowadays. Well, here’s a brief chance to see this beautiful city as itself: the churches, the bridges, the whole thing.

Although the Czech Republic has played home to many international productions since the fall of Communism, actual Czech movies released in the west are few and far between, the aforementioned WW2 drama Dark Blue World being a rare example. As for Czech horror movies, the only other one I know of is the recent zombie comedy Choking Hazard.

This was the first film from director and co-writer Von Sychowski, who has subsequently directed a TV movie that wasn’t horror but did feature more good-looking teenage boys in states of undress. The Pool is ‘based on an original idea’ by Andreas Bütow, but the really interesting writing credit is ‘script polished by Mike Hurst’. Apart from the sheer rarity of seeing a script polisher receive a credit (largely because, under WGA rules, they wouldn’t be allowed one on an American studio picture), the good news is that this is the same Mike Hurst who wrote, produced and starred in the excellent ultra-low-budget British sci-fi/horror feature Project Assassin.

There aren’t too many obvious special effects but what there are were supervised by Jim Healy who also worked on Dune and Children of Dune. Producer Benjamin Herrmann was co-producer on the German psychological thriller Das Experiment. His colleague, Werner Possardt, was one of the victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami while on holiday in Thailand.

The video sleeve gives a copyright date of 2000 but in the end credits it’s 2001 and that’s what I’m going by.

MJS rating: B+

* A popular high street clothing store.

(Update: I have now spoken with Mike Hurst who tells me that he did in fact write every word of this screenplay. He was asked to completely rewrite an existing script and the only things he had to keep were the character names and the number of visible nipples - which apparently is six! Because of the various tax concessions involved in this German/Czech co-production, however, British-born, LA-based Mike could not be credited as anything more than 'script polisher'.)

The Poison

Director: Ch Ratchapol
Writer: Yodnam
Producer: Jirun Rattanaviriyachai
Cast: Nantawat Arsirapojanakul, Julaluck Kittiyarat, Sushao Phongwilai
Year of release: 2002
Country: Thailand
Reviewed from: Thai VCD

In the jungles of Thailand, a group of young men gather, armed with swords and bows. In another part of the forest, atop a sort of altar thing, a ceremony is taking place. A young woman in a white dress stands before a priest. Behind her is an older woman (her mother?) in a blue dress, and numerous villagers are stood around.

The girl in white (let’s call her Su) gives the priest a small statue. He invites her to touch a sort of stone font with a candle in the centre; when she does so a small, golden snake magically appears from her arm and melts into a pool of blood-like liquid which runs down carved grooves in the stone into a brass cup. The priest takes this cup and anoints a baby held by one of the other women.

Suddenly the men we saw at the start attack, brutally cutting down men and women left right and centre. There are even young boys of 12 or 13 hacking away with their swords. Only Su (Julaluck Kittiyarat aka Ying Jularuck, also in epic mermaid-vs-giant fantasy Phra-Apai-Mani), her mother and the priest escape to a big temple, but the young men follow them there. The priest is cut down, Su’s mother is grabbed and spits two jets of poison from her open mouth into a man’s face, but is then killed with a flaming arrow in the back.

Bad idea. Su glowers, her eyes glow, her skin starts to change colour, and before our eyes she transforms into an eighty-foot long giant cobra! She whips men with her tail, crushes men in her coils - and we even get a quick POV shot as she eats one whole.

Eleven minutes in and this is instantly the best snake-woman film I have ever seen! (And regular readers will know that it’s a genre I’m very fond of!) This isn’t just a very large snake, this is a supernaturally giant serpent rendered in very good CGI. If Bert I Gordon was alive today and making snake-woman films, this is what he would make.

The only downside is that this VCD, distributed by Right Beyond, has no English subtitles. That’s why Su (and everyone else) will have to have made-up names in this review. There are apparently English subs on the DVD - maybe I should have spent that extra five dollars.

One hundred years later...

Five young men and a woman, laden with cameras and video-cameras, arrive at the altar. I think they’re shooting some footage for the Discovery Channel or something. The altar looks a good location but one guy (let’s call him Andy) is unhappy about shooting at what was obviously once a sacred place. So they all pack their equipment again and set off. Across a river, through an amazing cave.

As they walk through the jungle, Andy is suddenly shot dead. And so are three of the others. This is a shocker. We’ve spent the past ten minutes with these people and assumed that they were the main characters. Now suddenly they’re under attack from a couple of dozen bandits armed with M-16s and AK-47s. The leader of the video team (let’s call him Joe, played by Nantawat Arsirapojanakul aka Tor Nantawat: Lhob Pai Tang Ar-kad, Bullet Teen, Rang Pen Fai, Hunch) shoots back with an automatic pistol as he leaps for cover (someone has been watching too many John Woo movies, methinks).

Joe escapes, along with a moustachioed guy but to be honest there’s no point inventing a name for him because he took a hit and he dies shortly afterwards.

The bandits - whose leader wears a Ramones T-shirt! - make their way through the forest and suddenly come across a young woman who seems to appear from nowhere. It’s Su, dressed in white still though a more modern dress. They challenge her but are distracted when one of their number is bitten by a snake, and when they look back she’s gone. The bandits continue through the jungle but suddenly find themselves surrounded by hundreds of snakes which attack and kill several of them, including the Ramones fan.

Joe is hungry, tired and lost when he comes across Su sitting by the river. She takes him to the temple, which is well lit with flaming torches, and explains something that is probably important but I don’t speak Thai. At one point there’s an insert shot of her naked except for a twenty-foot snake strategically wrapped around her.

In the dark jungle - actually it’s extremely well-lit, considering that it’s the middle of the night - the bandits continue under a new leader, whom we’ll call Zack. He spots a snake in a tree ahead and shoots it. Back at the temple, Su feels a sharp pain in her arm. She goes out into the jungle to confront the bandits but they evidently now know who/what she is because they hold her with two magically glowing lassoes. But Joe appears and shoots through both ropes, makes the bandits drop their weapons, then helps a weakened Su back to the temple. He spots a patch of scales on her shoulder and she explains everything to him, including flashbacks to the prologue.

To be honest, the film goes downhill on the second disc and I had to keep reminding myself “Eighty-foot cobra, eighty-foot cobra...” to stay interested. Joe carries Su through the jungle to a road where the video team parked their vehicles - blimey, that’s easily found! He takes her home and tends to her and there are lengthy, soft-focus romantic scenes. With no subtitles, these are just boring.

Then who should turn up, in a very expensive red sports car, but Joe’s girlfriend Amanda (or whatever), evidently very rich and beautiful but not a truly nice person. Joe explains that he has found someone new and she slaps him and runs out crying - straight into Zack...

Another night-time scene of Su and Joe together by a lake is interrupted by the arrival of Zack and co., with Amanda and with plenty of guns. Jealous Amanda grabs a pistol and shoots at Su but Joe leaps forward to protect her and takes three bullets in the back. Su is mad now and does the eighty-foot cobra thing again - yay! - but rather than attacking Zack and Amanda she just grabs Joe in her coils and disappears into the lake.

Back at the temple, Joe is stretched out on the stones and Su is praying to a broken statue of an eight-armed god. Zack, Amanda and the bandits arrive and there is a tense stand-off. Unfortunately, rather than another giant cobra, we get the clichéed spectacle of Zack and Su blasting bolts of magical energy at each. She knocks out all the bandits and knocks down but doesn’t stun Amanda, but Zack has her cornered when - zap! - Joe comes to her rescue with his own bolts of magic.

That’s right, once again we have someone with no magical ability suddenly acquiring it in the final scene to save the day. It’s a shame the cobra didn’t reappear but as if to make up for this, Su turns Amanda into a snake which slithers away.

The first disc starts with unavoidable trailers for dreadful Vin Diesel action stinker A Man Apart, the latest one-word-will-do film from Nu Image Submarines (which evidently reuses sets and CGI models from Octopus) and Japanese scarecrow horror flick Takashi. After the film finishes, disc 2 has trailers for Australian train-surfing film The Pact and Hong Kong human-canine soul-swap comedy Every Dog Has His Date.

Nantawat Arsirapojanakul and Julaluck Kittiyarat seem to be quite big stars in Thailand (Julaluck has even released her own yoga video!) but I can find nothing on any of the other cast. If you know anything at all about Sushao Phongwilai, Lakkhet Wasikachart, Tasanawalai Ongartsittichai, Krt Suwanaphap, Yanwisat Bokert, Orawan Terrakirilin, Jinsujee Namthong, Arch Wangtaweephaiboon, Sakwich Timsan, Tanapon Teerasin or Thuanthong Teerawat Phokasap - please drop me a line!

Nor can I find anything else directed by Ch Ratchapol, though that certainly doesn't mean he hasn’t done anything else. The excellent cinematography is by Artit Hongrat with special effects by Michelle Thi and Jeab Ssi.

The Poison (original title Asirapis) is a mixed bag. A terrific first half is let down by a slow, talkie second half (though I’m sure it’s more interesting if you can understand what they’re talking about) and the ending, though it notches up the interest again, is an unimaginative hoary old ‘you zap me, I’ll zap you’ cliché. But that can’t take away the fact that the production values are top-notch, the effects are great, the direction is slick, the acting good, the cinematography superb and, most importantly, a woman turns into a giant cobra! The first eleven minutes alone are worth the price of admission and although this VCD was very good quality (almost no artefacting) I would recommend the DVD.

MJS rating: B+

Plastic Reality

Director: Tristan Versluis
Writer: Tristan Versluis
Producer: Tristan Versluis
Cast: Andre Gilbert, Jennifer Evans, Jonathan Klahr
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Special effects maestro Tristan Versluis turns director for this imaginative and well-produced 13-minute short, although as one might expect, there’s plenty of effects work on show too.

Set in a grimy, run-down nowhere, our main protagonist retires to a graffiti-covered public toilet cubicle to wash blood and bruises after being mugged. But something is watching, something is in there, and before you know it the protagonist is trapped down and the unwilling donor in that old horror staple, the face transplant. An epilogue shows the face’s new recipient, very happy with her latest addition.

That should be enough to show that there’s very little story here and almost no character - this is an exercise in atmosphere and effects. Central to this is the slicing and removal, using fingers as much as scalpels, of the face, an extraordinarily well-done effect, by which I mean it is appreciable as an effect, rather than being realistic (though it may be - who’s to say?). Suffice to observe that we have come a long way in these matters since Georges Franju.

Plastic Reality is a nightmare, an almost wordless dream in which someone we care about but don’t know is subjected to horrific treatment by ... people? things? You’ll have to see to find out and even then you won’t know. The main (unnamed) character is played by Andre Gilbert who is also credited as set designer and whose other work includes sculpting costumes for Dungeons and Dragons 2. The girl at the end of the film is my pal Jenny Evans who worked with Tris on Evil Aliens. The other credited cast are Jonathan Klahr (a model designer who worked on the Harry Potter films) and Val Oliveira.

The credits are a bit of a British horror who’s who. ‘Doctor Versluis’ (as he styles himself here) wrote, directed and edited - and presumably produced as no producer or executive producer is credited. Alex Chandon (Cradle of Fear) was camera operator while Adam Mason and Simon Boyes (who together made Broken) are credited as runners but, curiously, only on the ‘2 min version’ of the film. This is a much more concise edit, missing the prologue and epilogue entirely, which actually runs about three minutes and is slightly retitled Plastic Reality (Curta Versao). Also on this screener DVD is a three-minute behind-the-scenes photo slideshow.

Almost everyone here seems to be a make-up or effects artist in their day-job. ‘Sound design and score’, for example, is by Ian Morse who helped with prosthetic effects on Doctor Sleep and 28 Days Later while costume designer Jo Glover made creatures for the Harry Potter pictures and was ‘prosthetics technician’ on series two of Doctor Who. Justyna Dobrowolska was responsible for the actual make-up design on this film while Sunita Parmar (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) handled prosthetic effects.

Tristan Versluis has clearly called on his mates to help out with his first film, and why not? His own effects career includes Evil Aliens, Cradle of Fear, Frank Scantori’s still unreleased Warrior Sisters, LD50, Broken, Hellbreeder, Darkhunters and Doctor Who.

As a calling card for his film-making skills, and as a disturbing short horror film in its own right, Plastic Reality works brilliantly. It is available to view on MySpace but of course works much better on a proper TV screen.

MJS rating: A-

Review originally posted 23rd August 2006

The Planet

Director: Mark Stirton
Writer: Mark Stirton
Producer: Michael Clark
Cast: Mike Mitchell, Patrick Wright, Scott Ironside
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: Festival screening (FFF 2007)
Website:
www.stirtonproductions.com

The Planet is a massively frustrating movie. On many levels it’s very good. In fact, considering that this was a low-budget British indie by a first time feature-director with a largely neophyte cast, it’s a magnificent achievement. I don’t know how much it cost. The figure of £8,000 was bandied about in publicity but you never know how reliable a figure like that is. The point is that this film looks like it cost a couple of million quid and it clearly cost a tiny fraction of that

Great special effects, terrific production design, effective props and costumes, excellent photography, good acting and direction, an impressive score and an absolutely stunning sound mix. The problem - and you may have already guessed where this is going - lies with the one thing that doesn’t cost a penny. The script was... less than magnificent.

Even having said that, much of the script was great. The characters were clearly identified and all had something to do. This is a movie about ten men all dressed roughly the same in one location and it would be easy for them to be nameless, faceless blanks but these were ten characters - mostly that was done through the dialogue and the way they reacted to things. Throughout the middle act, when the plot was developing, the script told the story well and showed how it affected the characters. If the whole film was like the second act, it would be stunning.

There was one line of dialogue which did get an unintentional big laugh from an otherwise respectful audience: when the captain asked a badly injured young man to go on what is effectively a suicide mission because the doctor has decided that he’ll probably die in two days anyway. Mmm yes - that’s the sort of sensitive commanding officer I’d like in charge of me. That line was out of character and should have been caught, but it’s one bad line in a 75-minute film. Hardly a major problem.

There is however a major (albeit solvable) problem with the first act. And the third act... well, all in good time.

We open with an impressive CGI spaceship sailing through the void. Actually we open with an interminable series of credits, with each actor’s name listed separately on screen, just white on a black background. Yes, the music is good but this goes on forever and has the audience begging for the next name to be the last. Why do indie film-makers do this? Okay, it’s great fun at the cast and crew screening but in commercial terms it’s pointless. We have never, ever heard of any of these people. No-one has, except you and their respective mothers. If you have inveigled a star name into your film, sure, put their credit above the title. Maybe put two or three lead actors above the title, but not the whole damn cast and certainly not one at a time.

Anyway - that spaceship. A digital readout tells us that this freighter is commanded by Captain Morgan and has a crew of 126. Being really pedantic, one character later refers to there having been 126 men on the ship but a captain is not part of the crew so a Captain and a crew of 126 is a ship’s complement of 127 men. And the cargo? One prisoner. (So that’s 128 really.)

Suddenly the large, cumbersome freighter is attacked by a dozen or so small, fast fighter spaceships. This is all done very well. Not Hollywood blockbuster quality effects but certainly Hollywood straight-to-video B-movie special effects. Of course there’s lots of whooshing and whizzing and guns blasting and explosions and while it is, as I mentioned, a seriously impressive bit of sound-mixing, it has the same effect on me that such space battles always have. It makes me long for a film-maker who will realise that the lack of sound in space can work to their advantage. One day I’ll see a film where the sound during the interior shots on the spaceships is deafening, all crashing and exploding and thumping and banging and every time we cut to the exterior the spaceships are zipping around in complete and utter silence. Wouldn’t that just kick arse?

Not in this film though, and I can’t really blame them for following Hollywood cliche but still, it was a chance for them to do something different.

But that’s not the problem.

Before the ship blows up, twelve people make it to individual escape pods or ‘e-pods’ which blast away from the ship. They’re not much more than automatic metal coffins and the poor sods inside are trapped, cramped and have no real idea where they’re going - but that makes sense. I like the e-pods - they’re an excellent idea done very well and make more sense than a nice, roomy escape capsule. I also like the way that we are specifically told, later, that they are designed for ship-to-ship escape but can just about make planetfall in an emergency - because, let’s face it, these guys were bloody lucky that their ship was blown up so close to a planet. That said, it doesn’t look to me like there are 116 unused e-pods still on the freighter and you have to wonder how the prisoner is able to get into an e-pod - but in he gets. (And it has just occurred to me: shouldn’t the Captain have gone down with his ship rather than being the first guy out of there?)

Anyway, the e-pods all land on a barren planet with nothing but sand and sparse vegetation - or at least on a sandy, sparsely vegetated part of the planet which may have icy wastes and lush jungles elsewhere. Nah, it’s a planet in a sci-fi movie - it will be exactly the same all over. We have to accept that all the e-pods come down within a few miles of each other so that the ten survivors are able to meet up, firing flares into the sky to locate each other.

The other two pods contain the prisoner - a bald chap with an odd tattoo above his eyebrow who wanders off into the desert - and one guy who didn’t make it. Something went wrong with his e-pod and he died on re-entry. He was, it turns out, the brother of the youngest member of the group, David (whom everyone calls ‘Kid’).

Okay, here’s where the problem starts. That ship was a freighter. We were told that in a caption on screen. So why do all ten of our survivors wear camouflage gear? And why do they all have big fuck-off guns? One of the characters later refers to the group as ‘mercenaries’ but in that case, what the hell were they doing on a freighter? We were told it had a crew of 126. That’s not a crew of a couple of dozen and a hundred or so professional soldiers. You specifically explained to us, in green computer writing that beeped as it appeared, that this was a freighter and these ten men (plus the 117 dead ones) were the freighter crew. Now suddenly they’re military.

Either they had those big guns on board ship - erm, why? - or those guns were stowed in the e-pods, which is an even bigger ‘why?’. Why would you have a damn great gun in a cramped metal box primarily designed for evacuating a person to another spaceship?

And then there’s the tent. Even assuming that these ship-to-ship e-pods contain emergency supplies just in case they need to land on a planet, surely there would be one small bivouac per pod. Instead, we have a large frame tent, big enough to sleep 15-20 men, which the team erect. Hello? Where did this come from? Are we supposed to accept that out of the 128 e-pods they fortunately picked one that had a large tent included? Kid has his own small ridge tent - so why haven’t the others?

We also have to accept that although less than ten per cent of the crew escaped the ship, the team assembled on this planet includes not only the captain but also a doctor, a cook and an engineer. That’s convenient.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? We start with an attack on a freighter (their word) crewed by more than 120 men but when we reach the planet surface we have a planned, prepared and apparently carefully selected military squad. Well, I say planned but we see them huddling together for warmth around a small fire after the sun goes. Shame there was no heating device included with the e-pods (instead of that enormous tent) but then again, it’s a good job they didn’t land on an ice planet, or simply near the pole of this one.

A film should not contradict itself to this extent. Tell us nothing and we’ll make assumptions about what we see, but tell us one thing and then show us something incompatible and we’ll be distracted. Trying to work out why a randomly selected group of freighter crew are suddenly a small military detachment means we’re not paying full attention to what is going on.

There was an easy way round this. Just don’t tell us it’s a freighter! Tell us it’s a military expedition, an army ship with a complement of eleven men (plus one prisoner). That would make sense. You might need to rejig the few brief scenes on the ship itself but that’s no hassle. As it is, you’ve confused your audience from the start and that’s never a good idea.

Once we’ve worked out that it’s best to just ignore everything we were told at the start and simply view this as an eleven-man military expedition which has already lost one of its members, things settle down somewhat. The camp is attacked by an almost invisible humanoid thing and the ‘blaster weapons’ have no effect - though that doesn’t stop everyone pouring whatever it is those things fire into the see-through beastie. One guy finds his gun has jammed or the battery is flat or whatever but fortunately he carries with him, for back-up purposes, an antique revolver. And it turns out that actually shooting the transparent monster with a solid projectile causes it to explode, while the energy bolts (or whatever) from the highly advanced guns can do nothing but piss it off.

This is a really neat idea, but that’s all it remains. An idea. It’s never explained or explored.

The Captain, a muscular mountain of a man who could have a pretty good career in action flicks if he gets the right agent, decides that they should try and contact ‘Captain Behan’ with whom they were intending to rendezvous. But they cannot do this from the planet, they need to get into orbit. The engineer says that if they combine the power units from two e-pods they can probably give one of them enough juice to lift itself on anti-grav doodads high enough to blast above the atmosphere. It can all be done on automatic but it will need a ‘pilot’ to send the signal. The captain valiantly volunteers for this but in a commendably sensible move the engineer points out that putting the heaviest man into the somewhat dodgily repaired e-pod is ridiculous and that it needs to be the lightest member of the team. That’s Kid. I really liked the way that he now points out that his name is David and the Captain starts using it, treating him with dignity and respect. That was good storytelling and good characterisation.

Unfortunately, the Creature from the Id (or whatever it is) attacks again, David/Kid is mortally wounded and we then get the previously mentioned hilarity of “you’re going to die in two days anyway.” Which is a shame.

While all this is going on, along with a subplot about the cook working out what local roots are edible, a team hauling a two-ton e-pod across the dunes and so on, what about that prisoner? Well, he wanders off to an apparently completely random point in another part of the desert, digs away the sand and finds, just below the surface, a rusty sword. Standing this upright, he smacks his hand down on the blade and as the blood trickles down the weapon it is restored to its full ceremonial glory. Quite why he does this is unclear as we never see the sword again.

Clearly something odd is going on and the prisoner knows this planet - and this part of the planet.
But then, out of the blue, one of the squaddies - for so they effectively are - announces that he is actually a traitor and belongs to the same cult as the prisoner (or something) and that he is responsible for guiding them to this planet because it is the portal to another universe. Or something. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the planet does not show up on the charts they have with them, although the other worlds in the star system do. One of the soldiers says at one point, after the beast attacks, “I thought this planet was meant to be uninhabited” which doesn’t square at all with the planet being unknown. But maybe he was just confused, poor dear.

Quite what the cult’s intentions are regarding this new universe malarkey isn’t clear, but we can see that letting them get away with whatever they plan to do would be a bad thing. What I don’t understand, however, is why we needed the prisoner in the story at all, if one of the squad was arranging everything for his own nefarious ends. Ooh, and I also forgot the money: a big bag of cash which the Captain accepted for transporting this prisoner (and which he decided to bring down to the planet with him). And it’s only at this point that any of the others question what is so special about the prisoner.

Dude, you had one prisoner being transported on a giant spaceship with a crew of 126 - did you not wonder at the time why he was deserving of such special treatment? Mind you, the audience is still wondering, because although we now know he belongs to some weird cult, we don’t know where he was being taken from and to or why, and certainly not why he couldn’t be put on a smaller ship (or at least, the ship could have carried some other cargo while it was making the trip).

And the bag of money? They put it in the e-pod with David. Hang on a mo, I thought you were trying to keep the weight down?

With the e-pod launched, the three surviving squaddies trek off across the planet until they find a large, amorphous blob, which they blast with their energy weapons. Then one of the fighter ships from the start of the film turns up, piloted by a bald guy with a tattoo on his eyebrow. I thought this was the prisoner (so where did he get the ship?) but other people at the same screening thought it was another member of the cult, come to get the prisoner (so why does he approach the squaddies instead?).

Wait, wait, wait! Suddenly a giant, transparent creature makes its presence felt and attacks the squaddies who blast back with all their firepower. This is a brilliantly produced and directed sequence. The special effects are simply amazing, the camerawork and editing and sound is far in advance of anything you would expect to see in an indie B-movie. But nothing is explained so we have no idea what the hell is going on.

What was that blob? What is this giant monster? What are the smaller monsters? Where did the fighter-ship come from?

What the hell is going on?

And then the planet blows up.

That’s it. The world blows up; final shot of David in his metal coffin floating in space; roll credits. What the bloody hell...?

The beginning of the film, the first act, all the stuff with the spaceship battle (which, truth be told, goes on for too long, although it’s still preferable to the interminable opening credits because at least it has things blowing up) - that could be fixed. It can be fixed in the short term by audiences astute enough to ignore it and create their own simpler, more coherent and credible back-story for these men, and it could be fixed in the long term, if someone wanted to, by slightly re-editing that whole opening sequence and substituting different captions.

But the third act, the climax of the movie - that’s beyond help, I fear. There’s no resolution. It’s one of the most unsatisfying endings to a movie like this that I have ever seen. Yes it’s all terribly exciting and - I will reiterate - very well made, but we have no possible way to know what is going on. We don’t even know whether the planet blowing up is a good or a bad thing.

What was with the magic sword? What was the amorphous blob? Why did the traitor bring them all there? Who is Captain Behan? What (and I forgot to mention this, sorry) was the giant, buried, humanoid statue all about? We are told nothing. Nothing. It’s just staggering in the way that so much time, effort, dedication and undoubted talent has been wasted on this bizarre script that starts in confusion, settles down into a pretty good SF-military action movie and then descends into chaotic and unexplained cataclysm.

I so, so wanted to like this movie. It so deserves your attention. It’s a magnificent technical and artistic achievement. And it makes not a lick of sense. We can only assume that the film-makers think it does and that there are some clues as to what is going on - but if so, they are extremely well hidden and nobody at the festival where I caught The Planet spotted any of them.

Some people, dissatisfied with this movie but unwilling to spend 3,000 words analysing its strengths and weaknesses, will tell you that the acting is wooden. It’s not, it’s very good. Mike Mitchell as Captain Morgan is excellent. He was 49 when this was shot in 2004 and is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. A former Mr Universe (or WWF Mr Universe - I don’t know if there’s a difference) he carries the biggest handheld gun since Predator and brilliantly captures the mixture of toughness and sensitivity required of a man commanding an isolated group of frightened but well-trained soldiers. Also in the able, professional cast, mostly making their feature debut, are comedian/presenter Patrick Wright and this film’s producer/art director, Michael Grant Clark.

Stirton Productions, the Scottish indie company behind The Planet, is run by Mark Stirton, holding down at least four jobs on this film as director, writer, cinematographer and editor. (The other credited crew are co-producer/modelmaker Kerwin Robertson and composer Nicky Fraser, a popular Aberdeen DJ). All credit to Stirton for making this film (which can be purchased in both PAL and NTSC form direct from his website). It really is hugely impressive in every respect - apart from the story. Oh, it just makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Stirton is following The Planet with One Day Removals, a black comedy about two men and a van which is a feature-length remake of one of his shorts. It will star two actors from The Planet, Patrick Wright and Scott Ironside. It should be good - but please, please make sure the script is ready before you shoot it.

MJS rating: B