Wednesday, 30 April 2014

interview: William Winckler

William Winckler is the writer, director, producer and star of the snappily titled William Winckler's Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove. He kindly agreed to answer some e-mail questions in July 2005. My thanks to Jeff Berkwits of Perplex PR for arranging and co-ordinating this interview.

What was the initial inspiration to make this film?
“I absolutely love classic monster movies and creature features. I grew up watching the old Universal films, the Hammer horror productions, the wonderful AIP drive-in movies, and classic Japanese monsters like Godzilla and Gamera. I love pure, entertaining, escapist horror, sci-fi and fantasy. These classic films are what inspired me to make William Winckler's Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove, and of course served as the inspiration for me to originally form my own production company, William Winckler Productions, in 2001.

“I also have to be honest: having worked in ‘mainstream Hollywood’ for the past two decades or so, I just can't stand most of the genre films cranked out each year. I strongly feel the Golden Age of horror and sci-fi films was back in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and early to mid-1970s. I love the classics because they were intelligently written and often produced with love and low budgets, forcing film-makers to focus on characters, not $100 million CGI effects. The horror genre used to be about many different subjects - vampires, mummies, werewolves, mad scientists, ghosts etc - but then in the 1980s the slasher films took over, essentially hijacking the entire horror genre. Horror films haven't been the same since. It's a tragedy, because for nearly 60 years the horror film was something totally different - it was a wide, wonderful world of different styles of monsters and creature features.

“I should note that I do like some slasher films, like John Carpenter's Halloween and of course Hitchcock's Psycho, but most horror films today are just absolute, bloody garbage and ‘paint-by-numbers’ gorefests. Some are good, most are not. What these film-makers (and I use the term loosely) don't understand is that human emotion - the physiological emotion of ‘fear’ - is totally the opposite of ‘disgust’. ‘Fear’ and ‘I'm going to throw up’ are two different emotions. I believe horror films should entertain, frighten and keep audiences on the edges of their seats - they shouldn't make you want to run out of the theatre feeling like you want to barf your guts out.

“So, taken together, all of these elements inspired the type of work I do. I'm interested in recapturing the magic and classic-style storytelling of the ‘good old days’ of horror. In fact, my idea of a perfect afternoon is relaxing on a comfortable sofa with my wife, drinking a nice cup of British PG Tips tea and watching an old Vincent Price movie (The House on Haunted Hill being a favourite). What more could anyone want in life?”

What sort of budgetary and time constraints did you work under?
“For William Winckler's Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove, I actually had a nice-sized budget (for an independent film). It was comparatively large, which enabled us to shoot the underwater footage, shoot at the many marvelous locations, have numerous monsters appear in the film, build a full-body latex creature suit and hire a cast and crew of over 60 people. So I actually had good money to make this film, and that's why I think the quality of the movie turned out so damn great. Fans, industry professionals, movie critics and others have just been blown away by our production values, which are incredibly high for an independent horror film.

“As for time constraints, we shot the movie in 21 days but we were in pre-production for months, so we really didn't have too many time constraints as far as schedule was concerned. We did have a limited number of days to shoot at the laboratory set location - which, incidentally, was a real working lab - but we got all of our footage shot in time. The only minor problem during the production was the long time it took for the various monster make-ups. It took about three hours to get our actor Lawrence Furbish into the Frankenstein monster makeup. The monster designs are incredible, and they look even better on screen, but they did take forever and a day to get made up and onto the set each day. That was the one constant worry that haunted me throughout the picture.”

Of all the classic monster films, to which this is an obvious homage, which is your favourite and why?
“It's hard for me to pick a favourite - I love them all for different reasons. Still, some of my favourite films are the classics like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The House on Haunted Hill, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the classic Mummy sequels, the early Hammer films featuring Dracula and Frankenstein, the early Godzilla movies (like Godzilla vs the Thing), War of the Gargantuas, Mario Bava's Black Sunday, Monster on Campus, the Amicus films like The House That Dripped Blood, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. On television, I loved Darren McGavin's Kolchak: The Night Stalker films and TV series, and Rod Serling's Night Gallery, among others.”

I was very impressed with the black and white cinematography. Can you give me some technical details about how the film's look was achieved?
“We shot Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove using state-of-the-art digital equipment, not unlike George Lucas' most recent Star Wars pictures. However, my cinematographer, Matthias Schubert, did a few tricks during filmmaking and post-production to give the finished movie the look of a full-fledged 35mm Panavision, widescreen, black-and-white film. And, as I've said before, audiences and critics have seemed thoroughly impressed by the high production values. Most can't believe it's not film!”

What sort of instructions did you give Rich Knight in terms of designing and creating the monsters?
“Tons of instructions! First off, unlike many other indie pictures, for Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove the special effects team had over a year to prepare. Not only was the budget high for an independent film, but much of that money went to visual and editing effects, not necessarily make-up. I also called out specifically what we needed in the script. For example, I carefully detailed what all the monster characters looked like. Frankenstein's monster is based on Mary Shelley's description: long black hair, yellowish skin and a corpse-like face. As we hashed out the designs I had multiple meetings and phone calls and e-mails with Rich. He drew up designs based on my instructions - like any process, some were good, some were less-than-good - and we kept improving upon the good ones. For legal reasons I wanted to be certain that all the monsters in our film were totally original in design so that we would not infringe on the rights held by any other studio. For example, our Frankenstein monster does not resemble the Universal/Karloff character nor does it resemble the Hammer character, nor any other horror character. The same goes for our Creature from Blood Cove amphibious beast. It does not resemble The Creature from the Black Lagoon or The Monster of Piedras Blancas or any of the fishmen Paul Zastupnevich (who was a friend of mine) designed for Lost in Space or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

“The Creature costume was especially difficult. It was a full body suit, rubber mask, gloves and feet. Poor Corey J Marshall, the actor who portrayed the Creature, had to be squeezed into this costume each day, and he not only had to fight on land, but also in the ocean! So the costume had to be strong and durable enough to withstand all the underwater photography, with the Creature swimming and fighting under the waves. It's very tough to make a rubber suit that can endure that much punishment, and the costume was continually being stitched and glued for repairs (none of which are visible on camera).

“Both Frankenstein's monster and the Creature also had special dentures made. Rufus Hearn made these for Corey and Lawrence, casting moulds of their mouths and teeth, and then later the monster teeth were cast. The final result looked great, but imagine having to act in an unwieldy monster suit with uncomfortable dentures in your mouth. Then, as director, I tell you to battle, both on sand and underwater! Yes, the dentures fell out some times (it's pretty funny, and fans will be able to see it on the extras when the DVD comes out).

“Frankenstein's boots were a real pain for Lawrence, too. They gave him more height, but were difficult to walk around in on the sandy beach. We finally got special socks and protective cushions for Lawrence's feet. All in all, it's just not easy being a monster!”

What did you learn from making your previous film, The Double-D Avenger, that helped you when making WWFVTCFBC?
“Though I pretty much applied the same working methods to both films, the thing I learned from The Double-D Avenger that surprised me was that you really don't need ‘star names’ in genre films today. Without naming any names, I worked with some big cult film stars who turned out to be royal pains-in-the-ass and very difficult to deal with. As a result, it was harder to shoot The Double-D Avenger than it should have been. Then, when I discovered that 90 per cent of the customers who purchased the movie had never heard of our stars - that they were actually buying the film based primarily on the unique subject matter - I realised that the time had come, at least for small, independent films, where you just don't need ‘stars’ anymore.

“Now, for William Winckler's Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove, we do have many celebrity cameos and some cult film stars playing leading roles, like the wonderful Larry Butler (who also starred as the villain in The Double-D Avenger). But nowadays, it's clear that you don't need temperamental movie stars in your film for it to succeed and make money. This was the biggest lesson I learned. At the same time, star or no star, I should point out that of course the biggest name in our movie is really Frankenstein's monster.”

Far be it from me to complain about young ladies taking their clothes off, but I felt the T&A sequences interrupted the story and weren't necessary. Why did you include them?
“One major problem with the old classic horror pictures is that, more often than not, they didn't have enough sex appeal. In the Hammer horror films of the late 1960s and 1970s, the brief nudity added so much to the films, especially the vampire pictures. At the same time, the classic Italian horror movies of Mario Bava included nudity. So I felt that brief, tasteful, Playboy-style nudity would be important and nothing but a plus for the picture.

“From a story viewpoint, our heroes were a small group working for a cheesecake magazine, and it just wouldn't make logical sense story-wise for us not to show the models posing in the nude. The public today simply knows that men's magazines feature nudity.

“We also have a climatic scene in the story that takes place at a seaside bar/strip club. Now, what on Earth is the stripper going to do? Dance in a bikini? Everyone knows that strippers strip! To me, it's always ridiculous in cop shows on TV when the policeman or detective investigates a strip club and all the girls on stage are wearing bikinis!

“So, for logical story-related reasons, as well as being influenced by Hammer and Italian classics, I went ahead and incorporated a bit of T&A in the picture. I auditioned hundreds of women, and finally cast Playboy model Carla Harvey (who also starred on Playboy TV), real-life glamour model Tera Cooley and rising adult-film queen Selena Silver. Of course, if you don't like the nudity you can easily fast forward your DVD. There is only about two minutes of T&A scattered throughout the entire picture, which runs 90 minutes. But I think most viewers will find it fun.”

To what extent are your films fanboy wish-fulfillment and to what extent are they intended as commercial feature films?
“What I was trying to do with Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove was to make a new retro-classic. However, I'm a businessman too, and I've been in the business for over 20 years. I am making profits on my movies, and making a living doing what I love to do. Yet I also love and respect vintage horror films, and not many producers at the major Hollywood studios have that same love and respect. In fact, some of the studio producers I know have nothing but contempt for both classic horror films and genre audiences! Well, I love the fans, in large part because I am one! So I'm a balance of fan and professional, and it's the businessman in me that keeps me in business.”

I understand that the late Michael Billington was approached about playing the monster: how did that come about and why did it not happen in the end?
“Years ago I worked for a company called Galaxy Online. It was a website designed to be like the Sci-Fi Channel on the internet, devoted to science fiction, fantasy and horror. I was an executive there, and we were supposed to produce movies for DVD and webcast featuring various stars from famous science fiction films and TV shows. As part of the job, I visited Pinewood Studios and met with Sylvia Anderson (UFO, Thunderbirds, Space: 1999), Mike Billington (star of UFO), Elizabeth Sladen (Doctor Who) and many other English actors. Mike and I hit it off, and he was paid by Galaxy Online to help promote the company in England. Well, when the dotcom bubble burst, Galaxy burst too. However, Mike and I remained friends and kept in contact.

“As a person, he was fantastic: a down-to-Earth guy, friendly, nice and willing to work with me on my independent films. He loved The Double-D Avenger and was anxious to star in my next horror film. He didn't care that he'd have to be under lots of make-up, and was looking forward to the opportunity. Well, we were all set to go around November/December 2004, but there was a work visa problem. Mike told me that because he'd overstayed on his most recent trip to America (he and his son had visited Florida), there was a ‘mark’ against his visa. He was afraid there would be problems on his visit, and as a result he suggested I recast the Frankenstein monster role because he didn't want to screw up our schedule. So, reluctantly, I did recast the role. I told Mike he could be in my next film, playing a Christopher Lee-type vampire, and he was thrilled about that, because he loved the Hammer vampire films.

“Well, after that, there was a long silence from him. I had sent him a couple e-mails, and never heard back, but I simply thought he might have gone to Italy or something for a UFO convention. Then I found out he had died. I can't tell you how saddened and shocked I was ... it totally blew me away. A real tragedy, because he was not only a great actor, but also a helluva nice guy.”

What has been the reception to WWFVTCFBC so far and what are your plans for distributing the film?
William Winckler's Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove will be distributed all over the world, through different distributors, some in different dubbed languages (such as Japanese) in the coming months. The US DVD release should be out later this year, likely by November or December. Here in America, we also have various theatrical screenings planned, and some of the cast and crew will be making personal appearances at these events.

“Among those who have seen it, the reception has been absolutely incredible! All of the reviews thus far have basically been positive, and the fan response has been fantastic. In fact, recently the editor of Cult Movies magazine (a well-known genre publication in Hollywood) and his staff had a screening of the film, and they absolutely flipped over the picture. The editor, Michael Copner, told me it was like a trip back in time for him, like watching a long-lost AIP classic, which is exactly what I set out to do - to make a true, honest, dramatic, loving homage to the classics ... an homage done out of respect, not ridicule.”

interview: David Winning

I interviewed director David Winning by e-mail in September 2000 about his work on what was then a brand new, unaired show - Andromeda. David has also directed a stack of other TV shows, including Earth: Final Conflict, Friday the 13th, Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? plus the second Power Rangers movie.

How well are the cast and crew of Andromeda gelling at this stage in the production?
"This is the same production team that I worked with in Vancouver on three episodes of the NightMan series in 1998. Headed by executive producer Allan Eastman, it was as much fun then as it is now. This is certainly a bit different though; the stakes are higher and we're all aware of the legacy and the tradition - not to mention the fanbase that no one wants to let down. Director of Photography Gordon Verhuel is giving the series an amazing visual look. My second episode (‘The Pearls That Were His Eyes’ with John de Lancie) brought them to the halfway mark of the first season. This is a group that works very well together and is very talented and respectful of the material."

What problems are presented in working on a series which hasn't aired yet and so has no audience feedback?
"At last count there are already 94 websites in existence for Andromeda. How's that for pressure? Robert Hewitt Wolfe (DS9) who developed the series from Roddenberry's notes has an excellent feel for the genre and has created a very exciting group of characters and storylines for the first season. I think fans will be pleasantly surprised. It is tough with a new series but it's a whole new universe!"

To what extent is the legacy of Gene Roddenberry felt on the show?
"Star Trek (the original series) had an indelible impact on me as a teenager. And I didn't discover it until reruns started in the early seventies - on a black-and-white TV no less! I've said many times that it taught me how to make films. Even in the days of corny melodrama, Roddenberry certainly tapped into something special in 1966. The entire production team has an enormous amount of respect for the Creator - and hope we created something equally special with Andromeda. And yes, he's there on the bridge of the Andromeda Ascendant even today."

On the basis of what you've seen, which character, device or other aspect of Andromeda is likely to be the one that everyone latches onto and identifies with the show?
"Too many to name. Seven exciting and vibrantly different main characters to start - and some incredible new alien visitors that should keep fans tuning in. I really think there will be something for everyone. Stories filled with action, drama, humour and intelligence."

How well is Kevin Sorbo exorcising the ghost of Hercules and establishing his new character?
"Kevin is an incredible actor and person. He's bringing a real warmth and humanity to Dylan Hunt that I think audiences will respond to. He did seven seasons of Hercules and wasn't ready to jump back into television this soon. I don't think he could resist this part when it came along. To start with, Kevin is a huge Roddenberry fan. He's a very powerful presence on that bridge."

How does John de Lancie's character Uncle Sid compare with Q, and is he likely to return in future episodes?
"First of all - does he return? Well, that would be giving away the plotline of ‘Pearls’ - due to air in January 2001. John is kind of a hypnotic performer. He brought so much likability to the character of Uncle Sid in a portrayal that I'm hoping will entertain many fans when it airs next year. On a personal level, he's a quiet, soft-spoken, very intelligent man who is extremely busy juggling many projects at once. It was a fun experience."

website: www.davidwinning.com

interview: Justin Whalin

In 1994, Justin Whalin took over the role of Jimmy Olsen in the second season of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In February 1996 I interviewed him, together with several other Lois and Clark personnel, for a big feature in SFX.

What was it like stepping into a character that was already established?
"It was difficult. The fans of the show were really strong fans, and that's great. And when you have fans like that, they support the cast that's on the show. They want the characters that they're used to. I'd known Michael Landes for a really long time, who played Jimmy before, and he's a really good actor. Him leaving, it wasn't anything personal or anything like that, but I decided I couldn't do the same thing he was doing. I didn't come on the show and try to be him or try to do the character in the same way he did it in any way. So I came on and just did what I do.

"I totally put the character a different way. I tried to base him more on the comic book: kind of an orphaned kid who has raised himself and lived on the streets and all that stuff. I just went in the opposite direction and it was a little tough for the audience at first to get used to. You've got to remember: nobody asked them if they wanted Jimmy changed, nobody asked them if it was okay with them. I think at first they were like: 'That's not okay with me.' So that's hard. I've never done anything else where I've replaced anybody. I've come into shows where they've already been on a while, but I haven't replaced anybody. You've got to give the audience a little while to get used to you, and thankfully the audience got used to me. They're real happy, I guess, with me now, but when I started they weren't so happy!"

Were the rest of the cast okay with you coming on board?
"Again, I don't think they were asked, and Michael was their friend. But they were so great to me when I first got here, all of them. They were so good about it. They welcomed me, they made me feel comfortable. Dean and I are very good friends now, really really good friends. They just really made me feel comfortable with coming into the situation. They didn't put any more stress on me. You work with these people all the time, 12 to 15 hours a day, and after a year of doing that you develop some relationships with people. Sometimes it's hard to come into a show because relationships have already been developed. These people know each other so well, and you're like this new thing all of a sudden. It's like somebody being brought into your family. They were really welcoming and very cool."

Were you watching the series during Season One?
"I'd seen two episodes of the first season. I'm hardly ever home and I don't get to watch a whole lot of TV. But I'd seen it and I knew the show well, and I'd seen what Michael had done with the show as Jimmy."

Did you have to audition for the role?
"I did have to audition. The first year that Lois and Clark was on, I did a series for Warner Brothers called It Had to Be You with Faye Dunaway. So the people at Warner Brothers knew who I was and knew my work, so I only had to meet with Bob Singer and Randy Zisk. That was one audition. Then the next day I went again and that day I had it. So I had to audition but it wasn't a very stressful auditioning process. It was very quick, it took two days, because the people at Warner Brothers were familiar with my work."

Were you a fan of Superman in the comic books?
"I think every kid growing up is a fan of Superman. I never read comic books; the only comic book I ever read is Richy Rich. But I watched the Superman movies, I watched the old, old TV show. Superman is such an icon. I did an interview for CNN about three months ago; they asked me if, when I was a kid, I ever dreamed about being Jimmy Olsen. Nobody ever dreams about being Jimmy Olsen! Everybody wants to be Superman! How many people do you see running around with a camera going, 'I'm Jimmy Olsen!'? No, as a kid I wanted to be Superman. I tied a pillowcase to the back of my neck and ran around."

You got closer than most of us, though. You're on a TV show with Superman.
"That's right. He's my buddy."

Would you like to see more episodes with Jimmy as a more central character?
"As Season Three progresses, you're going to see more and more of Jimmy. In the comic books and the TV show Jimmy was getting in trouble almost as much as Lois. This show is Lois and Clark. It's not the regular Superman story, it's a little different. It's more about their relationship. The marriage comes closer and they start really getting together and having a relationship. This brings me into the picture more because you need another character who doesn't know about Superman. So I think you're going to see more of Jimmy getting into trouble."

How closely is the Daily Planet office designed to look like a real newspaper?
"You're asking the wrong person. I've no idea how much research was done. To me it's just a set. I go there, and I've got my script and I show up."

You've not been following real photographers round?
"Not personally. I never get to leave the office anyway, I'm still getting coffee for Lane Smith. I'm a coffee boy. This is a fantasy show. It's fantasy, it's an adventure, it's romantic. It appeals to a real broad audience. It's not trying to be a show about a newspaper. That's not the purpose of the show. The show wants to be about Lois and Clark's relationship. It wants to be about Superman and his exploits. I don't think the newspaper is a major thrust of what we do."

Are you getting much fan mail?
"Yeah, I'm getting some fan mail. I'm getting more than I've ever got, and I've done four or five other series. This is the longest consistent job where people see me all the time. So yeah, I'm getting more and more fan mail, and it's nice. It's nice to be appreciated. Especially as, after the first couple of episodes aired, everybody was like: 'Kill him! Somebody string him up! Thumbscrews, somebody!' That was difficult because that was the first time that I did anything where anybody said anything bad. I didn't get bad reviews from Lois and Clark, but I got bad reviews from the audience, off the internet or whatever. I was like: 'Wow! They want me dead! Oh my God! Mid-life crisis time!' But after about five episodes they settled down, they started to get used to me and they started to like me. Now, they're wonderful and they say really nice things. The fan mail that I'm getting is really wonderful, and it's really nice to get it."

You started acting very young.
"I was eleven. I got into acting because I had a crush on a girl; I took an acting class to be close. The teacher said I had some natural ability and asked me if I wanted to represent the school in an open call for a big play that had come to town. It was called The Little Prince. I got that part and I did that play for two years, playing the little prince. Then I started doing some commercials. I met a casting director from General Hospital; he asked me to come down and audition for a part and I got that part. From there I just kept working and working and working, so I've just been really, really lucky."

What other things have you done that we might have heard of?
"I'm sure you've heard of Charles in Charge, I'm sure you've heard of General Hospital. Child's Play 3, Serial Mom."

What's John Waters like to work with?
"He's a nut. He's crazy but he's so funny. I'm one of the first people John Waters has ever hired without meeting first. Because I was working here, I couldn't go to Baltimore to meet him. So he only saw me on tape. So I hadn't met him, and he hadn't met me. I fly out to Baltimore to do this film, and all I've heard is stories about John Waters, how zany he is and crazy, and he lived up to every single one of them! Talk about a guy who's definitely doing his own thing, but he does it so well. I've done a whole lot of stuff. I've done twelve TV movies, I've done four or five features and I've done five series. But when you do a John Waters movie; I don't care who you are, you listen to John Waters, because it's his genre. He created this whole look and feel and genre. So there's never any doubt about what he's saying. If he tells you to stand on your head while you deliver that line: 'Okay! Sounds interesting!' It's not really reality acting and it's not comedy acting. It's this weird, different kind of... I don't know. But it's definitely his thing. So you go in there with a lot of: 'I've got to trust you. Please don't mess me up.' You just go with him, and you just have to trust him. He's hysterical, he is so funny to hang out with."

The other title that's infamous over here is Child's Play 3. Was the controversy over that reported in the States?
"No."

Basically, it was blamed by the media for causing two young boys to murder a two-year-old, although there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that either boy had ever seen that particular film.
"Oh my God! I heard something about this but I thought that was here. I didn't know that was in England. So I'm infamous there now. I can show up and be banned."

Child's Play 3 has gone from being an inconsequential little horror film about a possessed doll to the most evil film ever made.
"That's wild."

How long do you see Lois and Clark going on for?
"I don't think it can go on indefinitely. I think it can go on as long as the relationships are honest, the stories are good, and - to be honest - the writers don't ever make the audience feel like they're cheating them. There has to be no fear of doing something that's never been done. The marriage stuff is cool. I don't know if they're going to be married or not be married or what. Like last year in 'Tempus Fugitive', she learns that he's Superman, then she forgets. As good an episode as that was, that really pissed off a lot of people. You can only do that so many times before an audience starts getting disillusioned. If something's going to happen, they want it to honestly happen. If it's not going to happen, fine. They'll sit there and wait and hope that it happens, but if you tease them with it they start to get upset, and I think the show has to be careful with that.

"I think it has to keep growing. The thing about shows that's different from life, is that life is always changing. You never really know what the hell's gonna happen. Shows are manipulated. Their stories are manipulated; what's going to happen is manipulated. In life you can't do that. Life will throw some really weird stuff at you, and sometimes TV shows are afraid to throw that kind of stuff at you. If this ever becomes a show where Superman has a bad guy to defeat every week, and you know that this villain's going to be tough, it's going to be hard for Superman but eventually he's going to win, that'll work for a while. But that'll only work for so long. Part of the reason the show's been successful is the romantic relationship between Lois and Clark. I think that keeps people coming back; they like those two characters and they want to see them together, they want to see them happy. It could never just be about Superman beating up people."

Have you got anything lined up for the hiatus?
"There's some talking about a lot of stuff. I may do another John Waters film, there's a Wes Craven film I may do, a Linkletter film I may do. We've got two and a half months still. I'm not at the point where I'm just being thrown every movie I want to do yet. I'm still knocking on the doors, and it's still too early to have been cast because I'm not going to be available for two and a half months."

Take Me to Your Leader

Director: Keith Wright
Writer: Keith Wright
Producer: Keith Wright
Cast: Roger Bingham, Keith Wright’s dad, Keith Wright’s mum
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.frissonfilm.co.uk
Watch now - Distrify link at end of review

You know that film, Ed Wood? The Edward D Wood Jr biopic directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp? Imagine if that was set not in 1950s Hollywood but in present day Yorkshire. With a script by Alan Bennett.

Take Me to Your Leader belongs, like Mark WithersHardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice, in the subgenre of ‘recursive mockumentaries’: fictional, narrative films which pretend to be non-fictional documentaries about the making of an entirely imaginary fictional, narrative film. Hardcore was about the making of a porno flick, in Take Me to Your Leader the genre in question is science fiction.

The film follows the efforts of Corbin West (Roger Bingham, who was in episodes of The League of Gentlemen and The Last Train), a predominantly cheerful 55-year-old underachiever who decides to make a 1950s-style alien invasion epic on a shoe-string, starring himself as the alien leader Zortan. He ropes in a motley crew including American cinematographer Joe Palentino (Tristian Cooper with a completely convincing LA accent), stunt arranger Chet Harris (director Keith Wright’s father, who is also called Keith and is credited here as Keith S Wright) who claims to have worked on a Bond film, costume designer Margaret Fipps (Margaret Wright, mother of Keith and wife of Keith S) and elderly production designer Ray Pickles (retired roofing contractor Ray Ledger). The cast of this sci-fi movie includes aggressively self-confident leading man Simon Delgado (Grant Bridges) playing a character called ‘Wildboy’ and leading lady Jennifer Almon (Penelope Ellis).

Rounding out the family connection, Keith’s gran Margaret Collier plays Corbin’s estranged mother Betty who, in a continuation of the Ed Wood angle, wanted a girl so christened him Shirley and dressed him in skirts. Keith S Wright (as ‘Keith Wright Snr’) and Margaret Collier previously appeared in Keith Wright’s short film Long in the Tooth (available on the Frisson Film website) as a vampire scarecrow and his mum.

Over the course of 71 minutes we see these intrepid film-makers, armed with a surfeit of self-confidence but no discernible talent, attempt to make an SF feature called... Take Me to Your Leader. There is a mixture of fly-on-the-wall observation and to-camera interviews although the interviewer himself is only rarely heard. Other participants appear occasionally, notably a young special effects enthusiast with a slightly overdeveloped enthusiasm for explosives (whose appearances are, to be honest, too few and too brief to really register) and two double glazing salesmen persuaded to provide financial backing. Bubbling under this story is a subplot about the mother-son estrangement.

It’s slightly misleading to call this a mockumentary because it doesn’t mock anything. The characters are all massively sympathetic and portrayed with enormous affection, even the arrogant leading man and the loudmouthed Yank DP. There is a gentleness to Take Me to Your Leader which one doesn’t see in the likes of This is Spinal Tap (which Wright acknowledges as an inspiration) and this has the curious effect of making the film undeniably enjoyable without ever being laugh-out-loud funny. This is wry Northern character comedy; Keith Wright and co. may not thank me for saying this but it sometimes feels more Lancashire than Yorkshire in its humour - although I appreciate that to soft, shandy-drinking Southerners there may be no discernible difference.

What suffuses the entire film is pathos. The pathos of Corbin West’s confidence that he can make a film (not a great film, just a little one); the pathos of those who trust and follow him; and the pathos of his mother who, interviewed separately, has finally come to accept that her child is male not female and wishes to see him again.

If there is a fault it’s that the character conflict, which is indispensable to good films but especially to one like this, when it comes, comes too suddenly. Everyone is having a jolly time, buoyed up by West’s positive attitude, then about halfway through people start arguing and in some instances fighting. And this conflict comes solely from characters rather than from the situation of a semi-amateur film shoot; one gets the impression that the same characters, if thrown together in any situation, would have the same disputes.

Contrary to expectations (and the tropes of this particular subgenre) the film-making process itself does not throw external problems into the mix as one might expect. The fact that the cast can’t act, the script is clichéed and facile and the designs are ridiculous - none of this creates problems for West. And to be fair it’s not really a problem for the viewer either except insofar as it’s not what one expects when popping the disc into the player.

What can be said - indeed, what should be emphasised - is that despite many of the real cast being amateurs (including several who are not directly related to Keith Wright) the level of performance here is wonderful. Entirely naturalistic, there’s not a bad performance on screen, not even a bad moment in an otherwise good performance. These characters are so real that the line between Keith Wright’s cut-price feature film and Corbin West’s even more meagrely budgeted effort becomes blurred. We utterly, utterly believe that these are real people. There are a couple of moments in the accompanying 15-minute Making Of when it is very difficult to tell whether we are watching Roger Bingham talking about a spoof documentary called Take Me to Your Leader or an out-take of Corbin West talking about a sci-fi picture called Take Me to Your Leader.

Because, boy are there out-takes (albeit none on the actual disc). Keith Wright shot a massive eighty hours of footage, meaning there’s about 78 hours and fifty minutes sat on a hard drive somewhere (including some 16mm and super-8 clips of the ‘actual film’). The whole of Take Me to Your Leader was improvised, with the actors (both pro and am) developing their characters over the course of production. There was no script, just a basic list of scenes with starting points, key elements and approximate, hoped-for finishing points. Which, let’s face it, is also how they did Spinal Tap.

But the important thing about a film is not how it was made (despite the aforementioned Making Of and a Wright/Bingham commentary). To the viewer, it shouldn’t make any difference whether the actors are pros or the director’s parents, whether the film was improvised then distilled from nearly a week of raw footage or whether every word was carefully scripted beforehand. It’s what’s on screen that counts and, while we can all admire Keith Wright’s determination (especially a fortnight of self-imposed isolation in a caravan park to do the bulk of the edit), we must judge the film on the film alone.

In which respect I think I can declare Take Me To Your Leader a thorough success. It’s a wonderful slice of very British humour, about underdogs who fail to triumph (in America, everything would end happily - even Ed Wood culminated in a fictitious successful premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space). There is redemption and development here but above all there are characters: rounded, fully believable characters with hopes and dreams and lives beyond the 71 minutes that we see.

Making a film about film-making is considerably trickier than it sounds because one must balance what it’s really like against what people think it’s like. Most film sets are incredibly dull places but Corbin West’s location work looks like great fun. During the ‘zombie walk’ scene it’s entirely unclear whether the people being zombies think they’re making a real film for Corbin West or a fake film for Keith Wright. That surely is the sign of a good spoof documentary (I’m not going to call it a mockumentary again, I think it’s misleading).

Take Me to Your Leader is a warm, gentle, slice-of-life comedy that just happens to be about a man trying to make a science fiction film. Maybe it’s a little too short - and I don’t say that very often! - with room for another ten minutes or so in the middle to make the transition from calm to conflict less sudden. But that’s not a major problem by any means. Kudos to one-man-band Keith Wright (who did everything except the music, basically) for doing something different and making it work, despite the obvious odds stacked against him. And fictional kudos to Corbin West for exactly the same thing!

(The disc also includes Wright's award-winning short Where's Bingo Betty?)

MJS rating: A-

 

The Witches Hammer

Director: James Eaves
Writer: James Eaves
Producers: James Eaves, Laura Tennant
Cast: Claudia Caulter, Jonathan Sidgwick, Stephanie Beacham
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD
Official website: www.amberpictures.co.uk

It’s always a thrill and an honour to be the first reviewer of a film but it’s also a worry. What if I’m completely out-of-step with everyone else? How honest should I be about stuff that I don’t like? How do I write a review which will be as relevant when it is first read - by people who, naturally, know nothing about the film - as it is when it is read later by people who have read other reviews or seen marketing material? It’s a responsibility, that’s for sure.

In the case of this thoroughly enjoyable British indie horror movie, my natural reaction is to pre-empt what other critics are going to say: Blah blah blah Blade blah blah blah Underworld blah blah blah low budget blah blah blah. The main character is a vampire who hunts other vampires, a sexy woman in a tight, leather costume who uses martial arts in an ongoing supernatural conflict. It’s impossible not to make such comparisons, however lazy they may be, so let’s get them out of the way now.

I should also get out of the way any concerns about the apparently ungrammatical title by directing you to my interview with writer/director/producer James Eaves (Sanitarium, Hellbreeder). And now, on with the review...

Claudia Caulter (who was in a sci-fi short called Frozen and also in an Oasis video) stars as Rebecca, a ‘genetically created vampire’ who is resurrected by the shady ‘Project 571’, injected with blue goop and then trained as an assassin. This early part of the movie is terrific, helped by suitably poker-faced performances from Andrew Cullem and Liza Keast as the project’s overseers and a powerful (and decidedly icky) scene where Rebecca, still unaware of what is happening, is forced to choose between a glass of water and a glass of blood.

Trained up by the project’s martial arts instructor (Adrian Johnson, who is female despite her name), Rebecca learns to use her increased strength and agility but she also learns that she cannot go back to her husband and young son. Eaves was also editor on the film and really uses the edit suite as a creative tool. There are lots of flash-cuts, especially in these early scenes, sometimes jumping around in time and space in a way that could be disorienting but isn’t. I found the sequence where Rebecca is told she can see her family briefly particularly moving because of the editing which only allows us to understand quite what is happening and what the words we hear really mean right at the end.

Having established Rebecca’s situation and prowess, partially through a hostage situation which goes awry, the story moves on when the staff of Project 571 are murdered and Rebecca finds herself ambushed by a bunch of vampires. The fights in this film were choreographed by Kris Tanaka (fifth degree black belt, who also appears as a vampire later on) and they’re very good. All the protagonists clearly know their stuff and, while the fights are naturally slightly stylised, they don’t come across as artificial or posed. The martial arts moves are complemented by appropriate direction and editing, something which many big budget films forget when it comes to action sequences.

Rebecca finds herself roped into Project 572, which seems to have even fewer staff than 571. To wit: Madeline (Stephanie Beacham) and Edward (Jonathan Sidgwick: Man Who Sold the World). Madeline is a high-ranking witch and Beacham (whose surprisingly long list of genre credits includes Dracula AD1972, The Nightcomers, Tam Lin, And Now the Screaming Starts, Schizo, House of Mortal Sin, Inseminoid, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first season of seaQuest DSV and episodes of UFO, Star Trek TNG and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense) plays her splendidly with a debonair superiority and a supercilious insouciance which puts one in mind at times of a supernatural Ann Robinson. Edward on the other hand is an occult scholar, played with an ambiguous mixture of nervousness and confidence.

We are introduced at this point to the movie’s McGuffin, an ancient book called Mallues Maleficarum or The Witches Hammer which contains the spells required to defeat the great vampire Hugo Renoir (Tom Dover), who is plotting world domination with the help of his chief assassin Victor (Miguel Ruz). (Hmmm... ‘Victor Hugo’? I don’t think it means anything.) Although the A-plot is Rebecca and Edward’s quest to defeat Hugo, the movie’s greatest strength lies, to be honest, in its subplot about two vampires who are on the trail of the book.

Jason Tompkins, who plays Oscar (and was apparently in a game show called Beat the Cyborgs), is not the first short actor to play a vampire but Sally Reeve (“a voluptuous comedy blonde” - Time Out), as Charlotte Apone, is certainly the fattest actress in the history of cinematic bloodsuckers. We meet the tiny man and the huge woman at a circus where we establish not only their sanguinary tastes but also their arch and mannered passion for each other. Every single line of dialogue between them ends with ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honeybun’ or ‘angel’ or some similar affectation of affection, even as they calmly discuss the violence and bloody gore which they leave in their wake.

These two are a terrific double act, Apone raising the interesting question of how do you kill a vampire so rotund that no stake could get anywhere near her heart? Actually, the film does take the trouble early on to explain to us - by explaining to Rebecca - the ground rules for the vampires in this film: severing the head kills them, puncturing the heart kills them, sunlight burns them (Rebecca keeps her motorcycle leathers on during the day and makes a lengthy train journey in a coffin).

Eaves has a penchant for flashbacks and we get four during the course of the film. Madeline explains how the Mallues Maleficarum came to be written by Kitanya (Magda Rodriguez: Castell de Ferro), a peasant girl in Medieval Russia who was ‘the first witch’ (and who is seen despatching the priest who wronged her using a bloody great hammer). Edward explains how he was recruited by Madeline, how arch assassin Victor became a vampire and how Apone was turned. This last flashback takes place in the late 19th century and is presented as a black and white, silent film with intertitles. Like all the Apone/Oscar scenes it’s laugh-out-loud funny, although The Witches Hammer, while it’s directed with a light touch, is certainly not a comedy. Rare indeed is the comic relief which manages to not only be genuinely comic but also provide effective relief from the main story without detracting or undermining it, but this film proves that it can be done.

The finale, which takes place in a suitably gothic castle (God knows where that is - this was filmed in Southampton!) has some plot twists, some revelations, the resurrection of Kitanya and some more fighting, including a casual beheading of a deliberately irritating character which should have audiences grinning and quite possibly cheering. The whole thing ties in somehow to three Grim Reaper-style ‘souls of the damned’ whom Hugo is attempting to control for his own ends.

Overall, The Witches Hammer is enormous fun. It doesn’t try to be any more than it is. By not being overly ambitious, the film works wonderfully on its own level and constantly impresses; anyone who loves independent horror movies will get a kick out of this one. The acting varies somewhat and there are some sequences which don’t really make complete sense but get away with it by being stylish and clever, notably a fight in a (swiftly emptied) pub between Rebecca and some sort of supernatural ninja. There’s not a whole lot of plot but there’s some nicely drawn characters, some kick-ass fights and some surprising laughs including a Carrie reference and an audaciously silly Citizen Kane gag. The film also looks great thanks to top-notch cinematography by John Raggett (Forest of the Damned, Nature Morte, Nightmares) using 35mm stock; I don’t care how good digital video gets, there’s still a sense of cinema that you get from 35mm footage which you just can’t get any other way.

Dark Raven Digital (Kingdom, Warrior Sisters) provided the visual effects, including vampire deaths which are surprisingly similar to those in Kaew Kon Lek. Nemesis CGI, React Films (With Evil Intent) and Poppy Effects are also credited for specific sequences. The Demon Within director Harold Gasnier, who gets a ‘special thanks’ credit rather than ‘executive producer’ as listed in some places, has several small roles, all of which end unpleasantly and one of which is a gag reference to his role in Hellbreeder. An all-girl band called the Lillettes play a number in the pub before it empties for the Rebecca-vs-ninja fight.

The Witches Hammer (which was retitled The Vampire Hunter for its German release and Dark Evolution in Japan) is a corking horror/action movie which oozes professionalism. Deftly directed and carefully paced to balance action sequences with slower, character-based scenes, this is a highly commendable addition to the continuing British horror boom of the early 21st century.

MJS rating: A-

Review originally posted 14th April 2006

interview: Julian Richards (2003)

This interview with Julian Richards was conducted at a screening of The Last Horror Movie at the old Phoenix Arts in Leicester on Halloween 2003. The last couple of questions were added by email a few weeks later as I was crafting this into a feature for Fangoria.
Is The Last Horror Movie your third film?
"My third feature film, yes."

What did you do after Darklands?
"I did a film called Silent Cry which is a conspiracy thriller, which was made on a reasonable budget for a UK film, three million pounds. It had a nice cast as well: Douglas Henshall, Emily Woolf, Frank Finlay, Kevin Whately, Craig Kelly. We made it for a company called Little Wing Films and it was financed through a tax break scheme which existed at that time. At the moment it’s being sold by In Motion Pictures. It’s on DVD in Germany already but we’re still looking to get a UK release for it, though we’re not sure exactly how or where that’s going yet. But it should happen hopefully within the next six months."

What was the genesis of The Last Horror Movie?
"I wanted to make a low budget film. When I say ‘low budget’, I made it with my salary from Silent Cry. I wanted to control it completely, to produce it through my own company and therefore not only to benefit from the front end in terms of getting a director’s fee but also from the back end in terms of being a producer and a businessman within the film distributors."

Did this come from dissatisfaction on Darklands?
"Oh, I got screwed on Darklands big time! So yes, it did. The only way to survive in this business as an artist is to become businesswise and streetwise, to control. It’s not just a business thing, it’s an artistic thing too. Because you’re continually having to make compromises when you’re not in control, and walk around for five years making excuse about why the film isn’t as good as it could have been."

Isn’t there a flipside that having a separate producer gives you a useful, different point of view, stops you from becoming too self-indulgent?
"Yes, that’s true, but it depends on the structure in which you work. What I tend to do as a producer now is I’ll start the process going and then employ people - good producers, creative producers - to come on board and produce my film for me. They’ll tell me what I can and can’t do within a proper creative context. So the first thing I did with The Last Horror Movie was I got a pretty talented graduate from the National Film School, Zorana Piggott, to come on board and produce the film for me. She wasn’t just somebody who did the nuts and bolts of putting the production together, she also brought onto it an objective eye and a creative eye in terms of just keeping an eye on what I was doing. It was a good collaboration."

Where did The Idea come from?
"The idea came from a combination of sources. First of all, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer; the little video that Henry and Otis made. You combine that with Man Bites Dog and you also combine it with the current vogue there is for reality TV and reality cinema - and you combine that with Dogme. All of those were influences on me, post September 11th, disillusioned with fiction. I’m not affected by fiction now when I see it; reality is much more intense and effective, especially within the horror genre. You could put Blair Witch into that mix as well. So I thought: I can do something on a low budget that’s going to work within that context.

"A cousin of mine, four or five years ago, made a video diary for the BBC. It was actually a documentary that I was looking to do myself but we couldn’t get any support for it. So I presented it to the BBC video diaries; it was called Showboy: The Naked Truth, about a male stripper, which my cousin was at the time. Obviously I couldn’t be involved with that because it’s up to the subject to make the film himself, using a small, handheld camera. When I saw the results that he got, I thought, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t it be fantastic if a serial killer did the same thing?’ It’s kind of doing what Man Bites Dog did but taking it a step further. Because Man Bites Dog was essentially about a film crew that makes a documentary about a serial killer and finds themselves getting involved in the process. They cross the line and the audience cross it with them. With The Last Horror Movie, this is very much the serial killer one-on-one with the audience.

"Now, in terms of me being slightly disillusioned with the horror genre, one of the problems is the films just aren’t scary any more. I thought: well, how could I really scare the audience? Watching a horror film is a very safe experience because you’re in the comfort of your living room or the auditorium of the cinema and you know that you’re going to go through all these threatening experiences and then at the end the credits are going to roll and you’re going to feel pretty safe and you’re going to go home pretty unaffected. So I thought: what if what was happening on the screen spilled out into real life, and suddenly there was a question mark as to whether what you were watching was fiction or reality. Also if you tied it in with Ring. I actually thought up this idea before Ring and I can remember when I phoned up my manager in LA and told him about it he said, ‘Oh, they just finished shooting something like that in Japan.’ When he told me the story, I thought: well, it’s similar but its not the same."

It’s just the video cassette as horror item.
"That’s right. In Ring, it’s the characters in the story who get threatened by the horror cassette, in The Last Horror Movie it’s the audience themselves. So that for me was bursting out of the dimension where horror exists into a third dimension if you like, which is putting the audience in what could be a very threatening situation."

The film stands or falls on its lead actor. How did you cast Max?
"We were going for reality and we really did want to present our audience with something that they actually couldn’t see the cracks and the seams; what they see is very much real. So we couldn’t get a known actor. We couldn’t get a star, we couldn’t get somebody from TV, we couldn’t get somebody who had been in commercials because it would have blown our cover.

‘Crikey, I’m being stalked by that bloke off the lawnmower ad!’
"Exactly! So what I did was I used a great little organisation in the UK called PCR. It’s a little bit like The Stage newspaper, where you can advertise and you get sackloads of aspiring actors sending you their CVs. And I really mean sackloads. There was a special delivery to my flat in London every morning with about five hundred envelopes. So I waded my way through all these envelopes and shortlisted maybe about sixty or seventy actors to play Max. I auditioned about twenty of them, maybe thirty. When Kevin Howarth walked in I didn’t really notice him because I was videoing the interview and I was just snowblind with actors coming in and out of my flat. It wasn’t until I looked at the recordings I’d made, afterwards, and saw his presence on the screen and his charisma, that I realised that I’d found my man.

"This film lives or dies by its casting, which is something I’ve always believed in: a film is only as good as its worst performance. But this film in particular is only as good as its worst performance. The other thing which is interesting is that I decided not to write The Last Horror Movie. I came up with the idea but I thought: I know somebody who’s going to be better equipped to write this than I am. A friend of mine who hasn’t written a script before but he’s got a PhD in philosophy and he’s really quite an expert on serial killers. So I got him to write it. I gave him a ten-page outline. I knew what my beginning was, I knew what my end was and I knew the kind of character I wanted. We collaborated, and James Handel who wrote the script, brought a lot of really interesting ideas and intelligent ides to the whole process. But what he also brought was humour, satire, black comedy - which I didn’t expect.

"I think my original vision was to be as dark and as gritty as Henry. James brought to it a certain kind of levity which I think the film benefits from. Because obviously if you’re going to sit in a room for one and a half hours and watch something as intense as The Last Horror Movie, occasionally you need some light relief. That level of humour though, in James’ original script, went far beyond what I wanted and at times became farce, which again drew a parallel with Man Bites Dog. So one of the big aspects of how we collaborated and especially how the film was cut was we dropped quite a few scenes that I felt were a bit too comical, a bit too funny, ie. it’s not real, it’s contrived. I didn’t want to make people laugh for the sake of making them laugh. I wanted the humour in there to be real humour.

"There’s a tendency in films, especially horror films like this, to play the serial killer as a drab, lonely, working class guy - your typical Henry. If you have a look at Cassavetes films for example, some of his characters in Husbands or A Woman Under the Influence, are eccentric, slightly mad. they say things that are very funny. Human beings generally act in that eccentric way - that is reality. So I was trying to find the balance between what the writer was doing and what I wanted, and we eventually struck that balance in the cut. So when he says, ‘Is this a joke or is it real?’ - you don’t know. It’s kind of funny but pretty sick as well and very convincing."

Are you trying to make the audience feel any sympathy for Max? What he does is loathsome, but on a personal level, he’s quite pleasant.
"We knew that in order to keep our audience with the story, because Max is taking us through it in such personal way, that he would have to be likeable in some ways. I have had people in the audience, especially women, saying, ‘God, it’s a kind of weird film because we like Max. He;s attractive, he’s charismatic.’ And I thought about Count Dracula in that context, especially Terence Fisher’s film: that scene where Christopher Lee appears out of the shadows and you’re expecting this monster and instead you get this tall, dark, handsome stranger. So that’s what I was going for.

"Plus I think that there’s a certain side of dilettante, slightly anarchic side to Max. He’s carping from the sidelines where he always feels slightly disaffected from normal life that we can all relate to. He lives very much in a middle class world; the film is in many ways an attack on middle class suburban life. He’s not convinced by his sister’s marriage, he doesn’t like his brother-in-law. The jobs and careers that a lot of his victims have, he can’t relate to either. There’s a side to Max that represents the disaffection and disillusionment with everyday life that we can all relate to."

How closely scripted was the film, and how much was improvised?
"To be honest, the original script was very dialogue heavy and overstated some of the points and issues. So when I rehearsed with the actors, we script-edited and improvised it, reduced everything down to its core point. We did a couple of days of rehearsals, doing that, that’s where a lot of the improvisation took place. So that on the day we were shooting very much what was on the page. So yes, most of it is written, even though it gives the impression that it’s improvised. But that was very much to do with the way we filmed it as well. Because I wanted to set myself a bit of a directorial challenge.

"I was pretty bored with the conveyor belt, production line approach to film-making that I’d experienced on Silent Cry for example, where the director breaks down a scene into 25 shots and you go through a process from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, just doing one shot, then the next and the next. Leaving in to the editing room in order to see whether what you’ve got is any good. With The Last Horror Movie every scene is shot in one shot. Sometimes we had a six or seven minute scene, from beginning to end, where the choreography of events had to be such that the scene was never dull, never boring. So it really was an exercise in using the set, in direction really.

"Thinking about Orson Welles’ opening shot for Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s Rope, directors tend to have this debate about montage and mis-en-scene and when it’s best used. This for me was a real exercise in developing the shot. And I found that by approaching film-making in that way, it freed the actors up to talk over the top of each other, which is much more naturalistic than having to cut halfway through a scene because one actor has spoken his lines over another one. To move about as they wish and it’s up to the cameraman to follow the action, so they don’t have to hit their right marks. It’s a much more actor-friendly process and therefore I think the performances in The Last Horror Movie are by far the best performances I’ve achieved, far better than Silent Cry and Darklands. Because the process worked in that way. It’s kind of a Dogme thing too, just saying that the way we’ve made films in the past is really not conducive to what’s important about film-making. What’s important about film-making is a good script and a good cast and giving the actors the freedom and the parameters to get the best out of them."

What about the technical set-up? Did you have lights and a boom mike?
"We literally shot the film out of the boot of my car on a little handheld Sony PD150 mini-DV camera with predominantly available light. If I was filming in a location like this cafe, I wouldn’t need any lights. That’s the wonder of digital video; you’re not surrounded by the circus that turns up with their generators and their heavy lights - which allowed us to film it in 18 days. Occasionally we would have to expand ourselves: the wedding in the countryside, there were no natural light sources that we could use. Then maybe we would have to splash out on some lights, but they were usually practical lights that existed within the shot. So the film is not lit, it’s practical light sources that are controlled and manipulated to suit the mood that we’re trying to set."

Was there much to do in post?
"The only thing that we did in post-production was very much an afterthought. There’s a scene where a guy is strapped to a chair and he gets beaten with a steak tenderiser - and he knocks the camera over. I can remember that on the day the cast and crew were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to splatter the camera lens with some blood.’ We don’t see what’s going on, but if a bit of blood got on the lens it would help the suggestion. I thought: well, I’ve got so much to do on this day, to try and choreograph that and get it right - I’m not going to bother. It wasn’t until I saw the John Simpson news report from Iraq, the friendly fire incident when the BBC cameraman ended up bleeding all over the lens, that I thought: God, yes, that’s actually something that we can incorporate. So I blue-screened some blood splattering on the lens in that shot and it certainly does the job."

What about your special effects?
"Again, those were difficult to achieve because normally effects like that involve tubes with pumps and people just off-screen pressing the pumps to spray the blood. When we’ve got a three-minute developing shot, following somebody moving through a house before they eventually get killed, there’s no place for any of that. So we really had to be quite clever in terms of how we achieved that. The guy who did the effects on Andrew Parkinson’s film Dead Creatures was Paul Hyett. I saw Andrew Parkinson’s Dead Creatures at Fantasporto last year and was impressed with the effects, and I thought, ‘Paul Hyett’s my man.’"

I think he did Lighthouse as well.
"Yes, he did. So I met with Paul and we worked out how we were going to do it. One of the most effective and chilling scenes in the film is where a guy gets torched alive. The weird thing about that scene is that a lot of people have said, ‘How did you do that? Because it looks so real.’ That’s actually one of the few things where we had to use editing to switch the actor with the dummy. The dummy was actually pretty low-tech to be honest, it was like a Guy Fawkes , but it had springs on its joints and it had a full-head prosthetic - with real hair that was punched in - and hand prosthetics. So by the time the camera cuts back, you haven’t noticed that it’s been switched. Not only that; when it’s burning, it moves and the hair flicks around. It shakes and shudders and - apart from the edit - there’s no way you can tell that it’s not a human being who’s being burned there."

The only clue is that even the best stuntman isn’t going to sit there for that amount of time.
"We had two choices and we eventually went for the third, better choice. The two choices were to CGI the flames in afterwards but that’s never convincing, or the other choice was to have a stuntman in a big, asbestos, ‘Michelin Man’ costume but suddenly he’s doubled in size so I’m never convinced by that either. Plus, as you said, you can only burn for so long in asbestos suits anyway and in Last Horror you see him burning for a lot longer. In the end, this prosthetic switch that we did, I don’t think it’s been done before in film but it’s highly effective."

What was the reaction like at Cannes?
"We had a pretty interesting marketing campaign in Cannes where we put up murder posters all over Cannes, a police appeal for assistance: a serial killer’s been discovered in the UK, a body count of at least fifteen, he’s fled the UK and is now on the Cote d’Azure, and apparently all his murders were linked with people who had seen The Last Horror Movie. And The Last Horror Movie is this Hollywood slasher movie which has been released and has been withdrawn since the murders. And that really caught people’s attention. You had big Hollywood companies spending lots of money on huge posters and marketing campaigns, and there was myself and Kevin Howarth with this guerilla strategy that people stopped and read. We had two screenings - in fact we had three eventually because the first two sold out - and we actually got a UK theatrical and a US theatrical out of those screenings in Cannes. So highly successful."

When does Metro Tartan put the film out in the UK?
"That’s going to be February/March next year. And the US theatrical is through Bedford Entertainment in association with Fangoria at roughly the same time."

The film is always going to work best on video, so are you surprised at the success of your theatrical screenings and the interest from theatrical distributors?
"Yes. I was not convinced that the film had any theatrical legs at all. In fact I thought that it would do it a disservice theatrically because it would blow its cover. And there’s a part of me that still feels that way. But when we screened the film at Frightfest, I think we had an audience of four or five hundred and I saw the film ‘transgress itself’! It was extraordinary. To see Max that big on the screen, leaning right into the camera so he fills the screen. You could see the audience, when he did that, move back in their seats. So even though the twist at the end doesn’t have the immediate effect that it’s meant to have, people get the idea and have fun with the idea. I’m sure that after seeing it theatrically the first thing they’re going to want to do is go and rent it or buy it when it comes out so they can play jokes on their friends."

Watching it in Manchester, I felt the twist still works because I thought, ‘Thank Christ I’m not watching this on video’! It’s a shame you didn’t make this a few years ago when VHS rentals were at their peak, because a lot of people will see this on DVD.
"Chris Jones, who helped me in post production on this by letting me use his editing equipment, said, ‘If you’d made this ten years ago you’d be a millionaire.’ It’s probably true. I know that VHS is being phased out in many European countries now, so it’s probably the last video horror film. We thought, whilst we were shooting, that we should shoot different versions for the DVD but then how can you say ‘author’ instead of ‘record’? It just sounded a little bit too technical. And how would Max actually record over an existing DVD? You actually can’t do it. It just wouldn’t convince. At the end of the day, both theatrical and DVD have the same setback, but there’s enough going on in the film, there are enough ideas, for people to enjoy it for what it is."

Has there yet been any moral outrage?
"No, but I’m looking forward to that. We did have a couple of scenes where Max did things with copies of the Daily Mail but we cut those out because that was the humour and the farce that I decided the film could do without. The film has moral ambiguity but for me that’s just part of my interest in film-making, in being an artist in some way. It’s embracing the mutant. If I see something that is violent or sick or subversive or perverse in any way, I want to study it and analyse it and understand why, rather than brush it under the carpet and hope it doesn’t come and bite my behind. That’s just part of my agenda."

But are you prepared for ‘certain newspapers’ to say this encourages violence? ‘Ban this sick movie’?
"There’s often a reaction and people like that seek an easy answer or seek a scapegoat. I know there’s going to be that reaction and I don’t really care much about it, to be honest."

What’s next for you?
"Next is a difficult decision. There’s a possibility of an American remake. There’s a possibility of a follow-up with Max in America. I’ve got several scripts on the boil at the moment, including one I’ve written myself which is a romantic comedy, would you believe? There are others that other writers have written which are within the horror genre. To be honest, The Last Horror Movie’s a difficult film to follow because it sets expectations, it puts me into the Takashi Miike mode! How do I follow it up? So I think maybe a romantic comedy would be the best way to go!"

There is a British horror revival at the moment. As a  director working in the genre, do you think it has become easier to get horror films made in the UK in the past couple of years?
“I think it's more of a coincidence than a revival that the quota of UK horror production between 2001-2003 has increased. A few companies did emerge that professed to specialise in horror (The Dark, Ministry Of Fear and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse) but so far The Dark/Shine Entertainment has folded without producing a single film. Ministry Of Fear/Little Bird Films are in post-production on Trauma (directed by Marc My Little Eye Evans) and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse/Random Harvest have committed veritable Harikiri with two of the worst UK horror films to be produced in decades (Octane, LD50). There are rumours that Hammer Films will move back into production soon but I've yet to be convinced that the new owners intend to do anything more than profit off the back catalogue.

"What that leaves is a cottage industry with a few small independent film makers risking all to make a genuine contribution to the genre and whilst this is commendable, many of these films are mediocre and fail to return the sort of profit margin that will persuade the industry power brokers to invest in British horror.  On a more positive note, Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers struck an interesting chord and there are signs that the UK Film Council and Lottery funding bodies are waking up to the potential in the genre that Hammer realised in the '60s when they recieved the Queen's Award For Export. For example, Neil Marshall has development finance from the UK's Film Council to develop Outpost and Phil (Alone) Claydon has just received Welsh Lottery funding to develop Zombie Island.”

How thrilled are you that TLHM has been picked as the first theatrical Fangoria release?
“One of the contributing factors to me making a film like The Last Horror Movie is that I have been an avid Fangoria subscriber for over 25 years. Many of my thoughts and ideas have been informed and moulded by Fangoria and it is therefore most befitting that The Last Horror Movie should find a home in North American distribution under the Fangoria banner'.”

website: www.jingafilms.com

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Lock In

Director: Mark J Howard
Writer: Mark J Howard
Producers: Mark J Howard, Stephen Greenhalgh
Cast: Jessica Cunningham, Roy Basnett, Stephen Greenhalgh
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.lockinthemovie.co.uk

The publicity for Lock In calls it a ‘psychological thriller’ which is about as far from accurate as it’s possible to get without calling it a musical. It’s a slasher, pure and simple. Not a great one, not a truly terrible one either. But a slasher nonetheless. It’s about a maniac in a clown outfit who stalks through an almost empty office building one night, offing late-staying staff and security guards in a variety of brutal and potentially amusing ways. So yes, it is about a psycho. But you could never accuse it of being a logical thriller.

Jessica Cunningham (model and proprietor of the Famous Frocks website) stars as Jenny, an account executive in an advertising agency run by unsympathetic, take-no-shit owner John (radio presenter Roy Basnett, match day host of Widnes Vikings RFC). There are about half a dozen other staff, some of whom have characters, some of whom are background. The company (the name of which is never mentioned so far as I can tell) is based in a building on some anonymous business estate. Presumably other companies share the same large building.

Six months earlier, as seen in a splash panel prologue, Jenny was raped in a pub toilet by a guy in fancy dress while attending what seems to have been a ‘zombies and clowns’ night. As the story proper starts, she is late into work after her neighbour vandalised her car (something which is mentioned briefly then forgotten about). She is also fending off the unwanted attentions of creepy cleaner Jenkinson (producer Stephen Greenhalgh, who was a stuntman in Zombie Diaries 2) whose acid-scarred face and one eye have earned him the nickname Cyclops. She’s also getting bawled out by John although not without some justification. Having turned up late, the first thing she does is go back outside for a fag break...

Jenny has to work late, getting a publicity pack ready for a press conference the next day relaunching a circus. Also staying after hours is the unnamed Building Supervisor (Simon Entwhistle), in an office presumably some distance from the ad agency office, who can’t leave until a replacement cleaner turns up after he fires Jenkinson. Two less-than-fit security guards, Colin (James Thompson) and George (Tim Paley: Tash Force) make a good double act and compensate for the generally unlikeable characters populating most of the rest of the cast.

Lock In’s most obvious problem is that it takes forever to get going. We are fully 35 minutes into the 80-minute picture before we actually get the first sight of the clown or indeed any other indication that there is something amiss. And while one gets the impression that we are supposed to think this is Jenkinson – whom we now know to be a violent ex-con – back for revenge, a swift count of the clown’s eyes easily eliminates him from the short list of suspects.

In fact it’s an incredibly short list, so short that the clown - assuming it is one of the other characters under that make-up - could only possibly be one person, making this the least mysterious mystery since we all had to guess who was the monster in Hammer’s The Gorgon.

Three other characters arrive at the building during the clown’s killing spree, increasing the number of potential victims, and I certainly won’t spoil the film by saying who lives or dies. The individual deaths are generally pretty good and will please the gore-hounds among you. Bizarrely, one scene takes place in a room where we see the various victims propped up, but this does not include all the victims so far and does include at least one person whom we never saw murdered and wasn’t even staying late (although, thinking about it, there is an earlier line of dialogue that ties in there, so I’ll give them that).

While the clown’s identity is obvious, his motivations are far from clear, even after the film wraps up. The basic premise is fine – clown-costumed psycho stalks late-night offices – and the individual bits are fine, if spaced somewhat too far apart. But the actual plot makes not a shred of sense and frankly doesn’t look like it’s even trying. A clichéd twist right at the end provides a get-out clause but creates its own problems – when you’ve seen it and thought about it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Low-budget slashers are not a genre renowned for good stories, rounded characters or coherent plots so for its target audience none of this should be a problem – although that target audience are apt to not even watch the film if it’s marketed as a psychological thriller! It’s no Halloween, that’s for sure, but this week I’ve also sat through Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, a salient reminder of just how barrel-scraping these things can be and an experience which has helped me appreciate Lock In for its strengths, such as they are.

Those strengths are mostly technical – generally good photography, editing and sound, and good make-up effects too. The acting is decidedly variable but works best when the dialogue leans towards humorous, and let’s leave it at that. What’s most egregiously missing is any real sense of tension. The pre-clown scene-setting/character-building goes on far too long and even once the clown starts prowling the corridors, the pace never really shifts past ‘sedate’. The whole movie could stand to lose about ten minutes, not from any particular scene but lots of little shavings here and there to get to the meat quicker and then pick up the pace once the violence begins.

Also worth noting is that at no point is anyone ever ‘locked in’. And in fact one character gets access to the building, appearing out of nowhere without explanation, who definitely should not have a swipe card for the front door.

Jeff Downs turns in a good performance as the daytime security guard while Rachel Dargie (The 9th) and Holly Chadwick are Jenny’s principal co-workers. Craig Read, Jen Walker and David Mohammadi of Funstorm Industries supplied the make-up effects for the clown, Cyclops and the various victims. Manchester band Dead Kestrels provide some songs on the soundtrack.

Lock In is a valiant attempt at a first feature by Mark J Howard whose eclectic previous career has included a stint at Cosgrove Hall animation, freelance rock photographer and managing Peter Kay’s official website. It doesn’t quite succeed but it passes a reasonable 80 minutes (and would pass an even more reasonable 70). Its root problems, as so often with micro-budget first features, lie with the script which simply wasn’t ready to be filmed. Nevertheless, British slasher fans will want to seek this out. From my point of view, on the other hand, this is most interesting as another title in the burgeoning subgenre of British corporate horror alongside the likes of Stalled, Severance and Fired.

Premiering at Horror-on-Sea in January 2014, Lock In was made available on VOD two months later through VHX – see the website at www.lockinthemovie.co.uk for details.

MJS rating: B-