Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Addicted

Director: Sean J Vincent
Writer: Sean J Vincent
Producers: Sean J Vincent
Cast: Sean J Vincent, Jenny Gayner, Tim Parker
Year of release: 2014
Country: UK
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.seanjvincent.com

I had fairly high hopes for The Addicted. It had a neat trailer and a cool poster. I happily accepted a screener. And then I watched it.

The Addicted is awful. A bigger heap of clichéed nonsense I haven’t seen for ages. It starts off bad and then goes downhill.

I rarely make notes when watching a film for review, but it rapidly became apparent that The Addicted was so irretrievably bad in so many respects that I was going to have to keep score. And some time after that, round about 30 minutes into this 90-minute movie, I realised that if I kept note-taking at the rate I was going, this would end up as a 10,000-word epic, which I really haven’t got time for, even if you have. So I’ll give you a flavour of the first third of the film and you can take it as read that the remaining 67% is more of the same.

Rest assured that I did sit through the whole thing. It was hard work but I was determined to give the picture a fair crack of the whip, as I always do. When it comes to movies I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy and I’ve seen more than one bad film rescued from total awfulness by one stand-out scene or a late-introduced character. However, in this case let me reassure you that nothing like that will happen here. If anything, the last 60 minutes is even worse than the first 30.

After an unnecessarily d-r-a-w-n-n-n-n o-u-t-t-t-t title sequence where each actor we’ve never heard of is listed individually – which must have been great for their mums at the cast and crew screening – we’re treated to a prologue during which four teenagers break into an abandoned building in order to play with a Ouija board. Already my heart was sinking, as no doubt is yours, and it sank a little more when one of the gang found a generator with the key in the lock, one click of which caused the whole place to light up. Barely have these stupid kids uttered a few lines of inane dialogue than they are dragged away one by one to be brutally slaughtered while light-bulbs pop around them. And that’s the last we’ll see of them. The whole thing is pure splash-panel.

Here’s what director-writer-producer-actor-editor-DP-ADRguy Sean J Vincent evidently doesn’t understand about splash-panel prologues. They’re meant to be exciting, to grab our attention. The prologue is there to dupe us into thinking that the whole movie is going to be great like that, or at least will get that good at a later point, thereby encouraging us to sit through the dull-but-narratively-important talkie plot scenes at the start of the actual story. What’s the point in having a prologue so awful, so hackneyed and boring that it’s likely to make any casual viewer switch off? Teenagers? Empty building? Fucking Ouija board for Christ’s sake…

Now we meet Nicole (Jenny Gayner, who played the title role in Gillian Taylforth: The Trial!), a vacuous blonde who is mid-job interview. Her prospective employer has been watching something on a screen and tells her it’s just not good enough, sorry. I held out momentary hope that Nicole was an aspiring horror film-maker and that the prologue was some test footage she was showing a producer, thereby justifying why it was so crap. Glass half full. But no, it seems she actually wants to be a TV news reporter, which means the prologue actually happened and, in cinematic terms, actually was just crap.

Nicole sets off home and we are introduced to a third set of characters before the 15-minute mark is upon us. A bloke is starting work as a security guard on an old building, presumably the same one from the prologue. His new employer tells him that these rumours of people disappearing are just gossip, that the builders will be around during the day, and that all the security guard (Simon Naylor, who was a bouncer in Corrie and another security guard in Primeval) has to do is wander around all night. Which he does, before being attacked by some unseen assailant while once again light-bulbs pop. We won’t see him again either.

No, it’s Nicole who is our central character. She is at home working on her laptop when her boyfriend Adam (Sean J Vincent, who should stick to directing other actors rather than trying to be one himself) comes in and shows her a website by plonking his laptop on top of hers. Hang on – did he log onto his wi-fi while outside, find that website, close the laptop and put it in his bag, then take it inside, take it out of the bag and stick it in his girlfriend’s face? Don’t try to get your head round it; far more nonsensical stuff is still to come.

Adam has found a news website with the headline ‘Security guard goes missing’. Well, I’m sure there will be a huge police investigation. All these people continually disappearing in the same place. Or…  maybe there won’t be. Adam’s bright idea is that Nicole should get some footage from this old building (rather than something which might impress a prospective employer, like an investigative report into whatever dodgy company owns the place). We should spend the night there, he tells Nicole. It will be fun, he tells her. We could take Mike and Liz.

We’re then treated to a couple of minutes of a completely inappropriate pop song over a terrible montage of Adam, Nicole and their two friends (Dan Peters, and Thea Knight: Jack Said) knocking back copious quantities of vodka shots. Because nothing impresses prospective employers more than work you did when you were drunk. (Not that it matters because in no subsequent scene does anyone act drunk, despite the four of them having demolished an entire bottle of vodka.)

What’s the point of this montage? Is this supposed to make us like these four morons? Are we supposed to be impressed? Supposed to empathise? Fuck them. They’re idiots. They’re going to break into a potentially dangerous old building (just from the age and condition, never mind any supernatural shenanigans) in the dead of night, on a whim, while under the influence of alcohol and without any suitable equipment or clothes. I repeat: fuck them.

So: what Mr Vincent has given us, after a prologue about four stupid, unlikeable teens breaking into an old building, is a film about four stupid, unlikeable adults breaking into the same building. Oh, and inbetween we’re treated to an aside about a security guard. So does this place have security patrols or not? Did the owners try that whole ‘security’ schtick once but the guy was ripped to pieces by a vengeful dead spirit on his first night so they’re not going to bother again? The stupid – it burns…

The background to all this is that the building, despite very obviously being a large Victorian factory/warehouse, used to be a ‘drug rehab clinic’ in the late 1980s. In scattered flashback scenes we learn that Nicole’s dad (Tim Parker, who was Henry VIII in Bloody Tales of the Tower) was the Clinical Director there who not only began an affair with the wife of one of the patients, but also provided that patient (Paul Cooper) with plenty of heroin so that he would sink deeper into addiction and eventually kill himself (shown in a brief scene so ineptly directed that it looks like he runs up the ladder and throws himself into the noose). “This place was closed down after a patient hung himself,” Nicole tells her friends, thereby demonstrating the one essential trait which all TV news reporters need: ignorance of the English language. It’s ‘hanged’, you dozy bint. Curtains are hung, criminals and suicides are hanged. Jesus, what do kids learn in schools these days? And anyway, isn’t it more likely that the place was closed down because the patients were allowed to sit around in comfy chairs shooting up?

So the wife divorced the junkie, married the Director and they had a daughter (or he already had a daughter) who grew up to be Nicole, but the wife and junkie already had a son, seen very briefly in one flashback. I wonder if that will become important?

In the grotty old factory, which has been lit up using that same easy-to-locate generator with the same key in the same lock, Nicole sets up her equipment: a video camera on a tripod and a couple of DSLRs gaffer-taped to stuff. They are all set running, pointing at nothing. Occasionally the film cuts to a shot through one or other of these cameras, sometimes of ghostly activity which cannot be seen by the human eye. Presumably these cameras are the same low-grade make as those used in Dark Vision and Hungerford because they do exactly the same thing with the shaking image and the BZZZT! noise. Come on, low-budget film-makers! You use cameras like this all day long! Have you not noticed that they don’t do this? Ever.

Also, anyone who has been on a low-budget location shoot knows that the biggest problem is batteries running out, but Nicole apparently has magic camera batteries that will last the whole night through.

Since no-one is watching the view-finder, no-one sees the ghost of the junkie, but they hear a voice say, “No-one leaves” and then another one of those damn light-bulbs goes pop (must have been a defective batch). Understandably unnerved, they decide to go to a different part of the building. Then they come back again. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing around the building in this film but most of it is for no purpose and to no effect.

It transpires that all the exterior doors are locked, somehow, so Adam proposes going up to the top floor where there’s a fire escape. “I’ll go on my own – it will be quicker,” he says. Well, no it won’t because if the fire escape does present an opportunity of egress, you’ll have to come all the way downstairs again to get the others, then all go back up again. After Adam leaves, Mike – who has already been dragged off across the floor by supernatural forces once but seems none the worse for it – follows him because he wants to bum a cigarette off his mate. That’s the level of motivation which these one-dimensional non-characters exhibit.

Of course, the real reason why Mike goes looking for Adam is so that the film can get him on his own and have something hideous happen to him. Long story short, there are two threats in the building tonight. There’s the psychotic ghost of the noose-jumping junkie who was cuckolded by Nicole’s dad, and there is the psychotic son of the junkie whose hobby is dressing up in an orange boiler suit and a grinning mask then attacking people with a nail-gun and/or hypodermic needles full of smack. I can’t imagine who this masked killer could be. I mean, there’s only two male characters and he’s torturing Mike so… you know… it’s a Gorgon-level mystery, really.

I suppose he could, theoretically be the briefly-seen TV news boss (Rich Keeble: scAIRcrows, Eva’s Diamond, Survivors) or the guy who sent the security guard off to his nocturnal doom (John Cusworth). The irony is that both of those gents, despite neither having more than a minute or two of screen time, demonstrated more actual characterisation than any of our main quartet.

And so it goes on. Quite late in the film, we’re told that no-one’s mobile is working, for no apparent reason. Then near the end we find that the old sofa they’ve been sitting on is right next to a wall-mounted telephone which nobody even bothered trying. It is also, apparently, right next to a pile of builders’ tools which includes a hammer and a hand-held circular saw. A freaking heavy-duty electric saw, running off the mains power supplied by that oh-so-handy generator. Our lone survivor finds this literally right where she has spent the whole film, uses it to try and cut through a bolt on a door, then gives up and we’ll say no more about it.

Eventually [spoiler protection on] a mobile phone starts working again, for no reason, as Nicole receives a call from her dad. She explains that she’s in the old rehab clinic, that Mike and Liz are dead and that Adam is trying to kill her. So does her dad (who now has a beard but otherwise looks no older than he did in the ’25 years earlier’ flashbacks) call the cops and turn up with heavily armed peelers? No, the only person he brings with him is Nicole’s previously unmentioned younger sister (Charlie Cameron, who has done voices for Angelina Ballerina). Because when a psycho with a nail gun and a heroin fixation is on the loose, the person you really need with you is a worried teenage girl.

The whole thing seems to have been some sort of revenge plan designed to bring Nicole’s dad to the former clinic. But it makes not a lick of sense. If Nicole’s dad is the target, why did Adam savagely murder Mike and Liz (and if his plan was to murder Mike, why do it so theatrically when the only witness wouldn’t be able to tell anyone?). And if Adam’s dad’s ghost is seeking revenge on the man who stole his wife and drove him to suicide, why has he been killing security guards and Ouija board-toting teenagers? Furthermore, what’s the relationship between Nicole and Adam? If his mum divorced his dad (or was widowed when he jumped into the noose) and subsequently married Nicole’s dad, then the two are step-siblings. Dude, you’re dating your stepsister – WTF? But since we’re not told the characters’ ages, if Nicole is meant to be less than 25 then they’re actually half-siblings – dude, that’s even worse! Either way, it’s inconceivable that they haven’t known each other most of their lives, yet we’re expected to believe that Nicole doesn’t know her boyfriend’s background. A long, boring epilogue ends (eventually) in a ‘shock’ [spoiler protection off] that is, if anything, even more predictable than the preceding 90 minutes.

Sometimes when people watch a crappy film they ask: “How did this get made?” But with The Addicted, the question is surely: why did this get made? Did Sean J Vincent look at the current range of DTV horror titles on Netflix or Lovefilm and think: What the world really needs is a low-budget film about random spooky and violent things happening to a group of unlikeable, undefined morons who go somewhere they shouldn’t be for no really good reason without any planning or forethought. Yes, that’s what horror fans will want to watch. Because nobody has made a film like that since, well, let’s see, what time is it now?

There really is nothing commendable about The Addicted, which was shot in September 2011 and first screened at a cinema in Letchworth in November 2012 (hence the 2012 copyright date). Fair play to Vincent, he got himself a distribution deal: Revolver put the film out in the States in June 2014 with a UK disc from Safecracker two months later, which was briefly retitled Rehab before hitting shelves as The Clinic, with a sleeve design that ditched the killer's mask for an image unrelated to anything in the actual movie. (Ironic, isn’t it? The film has had three titles and none of them shows the slightest spark of originality or wit, thereby perfectly summing up this waste of an hour and a half.) So Revolver and Safecracker both believe there are enough undiscriminating horror fans that they can turn a profit on this. Maybe there are. They’re not the people who read this blog.

For everyone else, this is just risibly bad. Some bad films are boring but at numerous points throughout this film I was genuinely crying with laughter as my naïve belief that it couldn’t get any more clichéed or nonsensical was repeatedly shattered. I could forgive the bad acting (no-one here is likely to win any awards); I could forgive the cheap visual effects; I could forgive the hamfisted direction, lousy music, half-hearted production design. Heck, I could even forgive Vincent’s cinematography which is hopelessly misguided, everything being lit for atmosphere and effect, not credibility (let’s have some back-lit smoke machine spooky mist here because – why not?). What I can’t forgive is the towering stack of horror-by-the-numbers clichés; the unsympathetic, characterless ‘characters’; the who-cares-if-it-makes-sense ‘plot’; the bland, stale dialogue; or, most egregiously, the fact that in the middle of a new golden age of low-budget British horror, when film-makers with similar micro-budgets are producing so many great horror movies - interesting and/or entertaining and/or powerful, thought-provoking horror movies – The Addicted is an off-the-shelf, limp throwback to the sort of formulaic crap the British Horror Revival is reacting against.

The last time I saw anything this uninspired and flaccid was when I forced myself to sit through dross like Spirit Trap and Credo in order to write them up for my book. Except those at least had some token pop star name value. I really can’t see the point of The Addicted. Who could possibly enjoy this? Is the target audience people who have never, ever seen a low-budget horror film before? And yes, a lot of hard work went into the movie but people aren’t paying to watch hard work, are they? Heck, think of the amount of hard work that goes into making the Transformers films, and that doesn’t stop them all from being huge cinematic turds.

This is actually Sean J Vincent’s second feature following a non-horror movie called Shoot the DJ. (His day-job is in the music industry as a sound engineer – and now I come to think about it, the sound mix on The Addicted is pretty good, probably the best thing here. But like the saying goes, you don’t walk out of the theatre whistling the sound mix. Well, I suppose in a way you do…) He has followed this up with a second horror movie, Seven Cases, starring Page 3 stunna turned lezza pop-warbler Samantha Fox and former Republica vocalist Saffron. Two pop stars? Maybe he has indeed been taking inspiration from Spirit Trap and Credo. Also in the cast is Stephen Berkoff, previously seen in Strippers vs Werewolves, Dead Cert and Just for the Record. My God, considering he’s one of Britain’s finest stage actors, he hasn’t half been in some shit films!

Perhaps Sean J Vincent will get past this stage of his career and go on to better things. It has happened before. Adam Mason’s first two features were utter cack (just ask Adam!) but he then made the sublime Devil’s Chair and the slick-but-nasty Broken; now he’s in Hollywood. Or look at Johannes Roberts: from daft rubbish like Sanitarium and Hellbreeder to the powerful drama of F and slickly commercial, star-driven theatrical releases like Storage 24. It can happen. Stick at it, Mr V. Well, don’t stick at this. Stick at making real films, films that have something to say (even if it’s just wooo, ghosts are scary). Make films that matter, that matter to you, not this tedious paint-by-numbers crap. Films with characters, films with plots, films with dialogue, films that repay your audience and leave them happy, or relieved, or spooked out, but never, ever bored.

A quick round-up of other credits now. The three producers are Vincent, Gayner (who was also casting director) and composer/sound designer Jon Atkinson (who allegedly provided some of the music for the 2005 remake of Roobarb and Custard!). Someone called Lawrence TW Alderman stumped up the budget and got exec prod credit (plus a cameo as a rehab centre worker), and has done likewise on Seven Cases. Special FX are credited to Ian Holmes (also listed as ‘gaffa’), a lighting designer by trade who has worked with the likes of Steve Hackett, Kim Wilde and Kajagoogoo, and who presumably knows Sean Vincent through his music industry connections. Natalie Cherrett (Ill Manors, Never Mind the Buzzcocks) handled the hair and make-up.

The four twentysomething ‘teens’ in the prologue are Samantha Spurgin (who was in a stage production of The Dunwich Horror), Brooke Burfitt (also in Martin Gooch’s Death and Stuart Brennan’s Plan Z), Jos Slovick (the big budget Les Mis film and Tales of the City on Radio 4) and busy stage actor Paul Giles. And then there’s Taryn Kay, who plays the junkie’s unfaithful wife in a couple of flashbacks. The best actor on screen here by a country mile, her credits include Michael Winner’s notorious all-star comedy Parting Shots, a spell as a professional cheerleader, music videos for Beardyman, Will Young and Jedward (as the twins’ mum!) and well, quite a lot of ‘mum’ characters. She is credited here as ‘Adam’s Mum’ (is that a spoiler, ah fuck it). But her most impressive credit is that she was the lift girl in several episodes of Are You Being Served? All together now: “Ground floor: perfumery, stationary and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food. Going up…” Taryn Kay, we salute you! What are you doing in cobblers like this?

So is there anything good to say about this movie? Any hope? Yes, just a faint glimmer. There is one possible escape plan for The Addicted. One genuine reason why some-one might watch it. One definable audience who will take something positive away from this film. And that is aspiring low-budget horror film-makers. Because this really is a master-class in what not to do.

Fucking Ouija board, man. Honestly…

MJS rating: D

Saturday, 28 June 2014

interview: Lou Vockell

Lou Vockell, director of Stalking Hand: A Scary Movie, kindly answered some e-mail questions in July 2006.

Where did the inspiration for Stalking Hand come from?
“Well, I was watching television and the image of a very attractive person flashed on the screen. Within seconds a certain part of my male anatomy began to involuntarily react, as though it had a mind of its own. This got me thinking about body parts having a consciousness completely separate from their host organism. Since the idea of making a movie about an angry, disembodied penis seemed a bit much (even for me) I decided to make a film about an angry, disembodied hand.

“Okay, that's not really true. Actually a severed hand seemed like an inexpensive and fun subject for a horror movie. A monster that didn't require a lot of make-up, but could still wreak a lot of humorous, heinous havoc on people.”

Why did you decide to move away from the sexy movies you had previously made, and what was the biggest difference in making this sort of film?
"I wanted to prove to myself I could make a movie that didn't depend primarily on naked girls! Not that there's anything wrong with naked girls, but I was beginning to feel the T&A was becoming a creative crutch. The biggest difference between making this movie and one of our erotics was the shear amount of scripting required. Instead of being able to depend on nudity and simulated sex scenes to bulk up the action, I had to write the whole movie! This movie had like 80 pages of dialogue instead of the usual 40 or so.”

Despite calling yourself a ‘one-man film industry’, you still need a cast and crew: where did you find them?
“Local bars, the homeless shelter, mental hospitals, the dog pound, jail. Actually we have a stock company of people who have been working with us since our first film Killer Sex Queens from Cyberspace. We also did a conventional casting call for Stalking Hand. We had a phenomenal response and were able to use a lot of great, motivated people. Some genuine show business professionals, some talented amateurs. We were able to greatly expand the scope of our talent pool and we plan on working with many of these same people on subsequent projects.

“The ‘one-man film industry’ title was bestowed on us by Joe Bob Briggs (the journalist, actor, comedian and most prominent B-movie critic in the universe). Truth is I actually wear a lot of hats when it comes to getting the work done, but no one is really a one man band. Getting a movie finished and to market requires the efforts of a lot of people.”

What constraints of time, money, equipment, effects etc did you have when making Stalking Hand, and how did you overcome them?
“We don't even try to overcome our limits. We work with them. I honestly believe it's our ability to effectively exploit what relatively little we have that makes our shows entertaining.

“You never have enough time or money. We do have excellent professional grade equipment, although in limited quantity. We have always shot our movies in professional quality formats (Betacam SP and digital) and have non-linear post production gear that can and does produce a broadcast quality end product.

“On Stalking Hand we had a great guy handling the physical effects. We did the CGI ourselves. Making movies like ours is all about using whatever you have to its most entertaining effect. In spite of the obvious limits under which we function, I believe we have never failed to entertain in any of our movies.”

Why did you include all the cartoon sound effects?
“It's a serious character defect. Perhaps the influence of watching way too many cartoons. Animations are rife with sound effects designed to counterpoint the action. Also, using sound effects is like munching potato chips, once you start you just can't stop!”

Which aspects of the film worked out how you wanted, and which ones didn’t?
“That's a kind of personal question, isn't it? Listen, in every show there is stuff that works and stuff that doesn't. Stuff sometimes works on paper, but not when you roll the camera. You solve those problems on the spot. I use nearly all of what I shoot. I have very strong post production skills and I can usually finesse even borderline takes into a usable condition.

Stalking Hand had no re-shooting, but we did end up going back and shooting one additional scene that helped set up the story. I will admit to having a little trouble with pacing in the first edit. I managed to pick up the tempo of the film by cutting scenes that were designed to run consecutively and cutting them together concurrently. This gave the impression a number of events in the film were happening at the same time and really helped keep things moving.”

What has the response to the movie been like from people who have seen it?
Stalking Hand: A Scary Movie is a horror/comedy. When you're dealing with humour the audience is never ambivalent. They get the jokes or they don't. So far the response has been 100% positive. Most people seem to think the humour and the horror work well together, and not at the expense of one or the other. The only criticism has been constructive and instructional. I would suggest all your readers buy a copy of the film when it becomes available (very soon!) and make up their own minds.”

Where does the one man film industry go from here?
“Well, I've already directed another film for a company called OTR Productions titled Vagrant. It's an ultra-violent horror outing that's still in post production limbo. It's an absolute mayhem ballet and the first movie I made that I didn't own. Right now our erotic label, Hotmovies2000, is releasing like 40 new erotic titles on DVD. Stuff we licensed from another company.

“It looks like the next movie we produce ourselves will be an erotic comedy. I'm doing another nudie because I know it's a perennial crowd pleaser that I can currently afford to produce myself. Stalking Hand has gotten good buzz and looks like a winner, but that kind of film requires a much larger budget. So if there's anybody out there who wants to finance a horror/comedy just mail me.”

website: www.onemanfilmindustry.com

Stalking Hand

Director: Lou Vockell
Writer: Lou Vockell
Producer: Lou Vockell
Cast: Dustin Gilroy, Lori Morsch, Leslie Levine
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD
Website: www.onemanfilmindustry.com

Two things you should know, right off the bat. Although subtitled A Scary Movie, Stalking Hand is an out and out comedy and not actually scary at all. That is, I suppose, the joke. Also, the extraordinary and quite unique image on the front of the DVD sleeve is actually in the movie. It doesn’t make any sense but it’s a very cool make-up effect which has certainly never before been done so the hell with story and the laws of physics, let’s stick it in there.

A prologue finds two young folks making out in a car. Johnny (Bill Randolph: not the guy from Friday the 13th Part 2) wants a “just a kiss” (yeah, right) but uptight minister’s daughter Mary Joe (Emily Arner) doesn’t want to be touched. When he accidentally rips open her blouse, she runs home to Daddy. From this, we cut to a crime scene where the cops are investigating three dead bodies: the young man died from loss of blood after his hand was cut off, the young woman and her father were both strangled. And the odd thing is that the hand in question is missing...

But never mind all that because it’s time to meet our main characters: dumb jocks Derek and Kenneth (Kevin King and Chris Jenkins) and their girlfriends, cynical brunette Cassandra (Lori Morsch) and blonde bimbo Kiki (Danielle Krull). Bored with watching the guys play basketball, the girls demand that they do something special and a plan is hatched to hold a Halloween party. Part of the deal is that Derek and Kenneth will find a date for Cassandra’s spooky goth chick cousin (Leslie Levine) who calls herself Morgana and speaks with a dubbed, bass voice. The guys pick local spod Charles Drelman (Dustin Gilroy) but warn him that he and the goth must keep out of their way.

To get the girls ‘in the mood’, Drelman is persuaded to recount the story of Johnny and Mary Joe which happened exactly one year ago. A lengthy flashback sequence begins with a repeat of the two-minute prologue (which probably wasn’t necessary) and then the subsequent events. Mary Joe (who isn’t wearing a bra and never bothers to refasten her blouse) runs to her daddy (Doug Palmer) who gets a chainsaw, much to the consternation of his wife (Lena Miller). The mad minister is determined to take revenge on the boy for daring to lay his hands on Mary Joe so he revs up the saw and cuts Johnny’s hand off, resulting in copious quantities of fake blood squirting everywhere.

As the ‘party’ progresses, Drelman and Morgana find themselves locked out of the way in the basement. However, Morgana has only to make a call to Satan on her cellphone to conjure up the ... dah, dah, dah! ... stalking hand, which proceeds to wreak bloody vengeance on the cool kids upstairs. This includes a bathtub electrocution and a hilarious death-by-cigarette-lighter.

The situation is resolved by the arrival of two cops whom we have previously met, one of whom (played by Russ Hurley) looks vaguely like Elvis and tells everyone who will listen that he is the only true son of the King of rock’n’roll. The Elvis connection becomes more significant at the film’s climax. (The other cop is played by Levine’s father Art, while the make-up effects are handled by her brother David.)

Stalking Hand (which dropped The from the title somewhere during production) is good, harmless fun. It has been shot cheaply on video and the effects are distinctly budget-priced, with the ‘severed hand’ mostly represented by simply framing it so that we can’t see beyond the wrist. However, there are a few shots where the hand’s owner has been removed by green-screen or some other technique and these are surprisingly effective. The cast are mostly good and the weaker ones get away with it because of the broad burlesque nature of the script. Characters are fairly simplistic but there is a nice gag in understated homo-eroticism of the relationship between Kenny and Derek. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain, but it’s leaning that way... There is also a truly weird interlude with a couple next door to the party house, the wife being an uncredited actor in drag with huge balloon fake bosoms.

Cheap and cheerful, the movie doesn’t outstay its welcome and never becomes self-indulgent. Lou Vockell, self-styled ‘one man film industry’ has previously produced and directed softcore erotica with SF/horror leanings, including Killer Sex Queens from Cyberspace, Hookers in a Haunted House and Planet of the Erotic Ape. Stalking Hand is his first attempt at making an actual horror movie without any T&A.

However, the oddest thing about Stalking Hand is the sound effects. I was surprised to find (although you won’t be, having read this review), that Vockell has peppered the entire film with cartoon-like foley work. Almost every movement is accompanied by a rattle, gurgle, squeak or similar noise. It’s a bit like watching the film with a couple of friends who stopped off on the way to the cinema at The Swannee Whistle Shop and Snare Drums R Us. This is a little overdone, to be fair, but it never becomes distracting and it certainly leaves one under no illusions about how seriously this ‘scary movie’ should be taken.

MJS rating: B+

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Village of Doom

Director: Noboru Tanaka
Writer: Takuya Nishioka
Cast: Masato Furuoya, Izumi Hara, Misako Tanaka
Year of release: 1983
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: screener DVD (Artsmagic)

This has to be one of the most obscure films that Artsmagic has so far released - and I should know because as usual I compiled bio-filmographies of director and cast for the film. Well, I found out about the individual people, but a thorough search of my own files, the internet and the BFI library turned up absolutely nothing on the film itself.

So I sat down to watch the screener disc with absolutely no preconceptions whatsoever. What sort of film is this? A horror movie, an action flick, a drama? It’s a bit of all of them I suppose. It’s a revenge movie is what it is, but unlike that most high profile of recent revenge flicks Kill Bill - which is pretty much non-stop revenge from start to finish with the occasional flashback for justification - Village of Doom (Ushimitsu no Mura) is 75 per cent justification and only kicks into full-on revenge mode in the last half-hour or so.

Masato Furuoya, more recently seen in spooky TV series such as Juni Inagawa’s House of Horror and Tengoku e no Kaidan, stars as Tsugio Inumaru in this WW2-set tale. While other young men go off to fight in Manchuria, sensitive, intelligent Tsugio is left in the village because he’s not fit enough for the army. This has its apparent advantages - with so many husbands away, it’s not long before he loses his virginity to an older woman - but all that Tsugio feels is shame.

He lives with his grandmother Han (Izumi Hara: The Magic Serpent) and the two of them are soft touches who frequently lend money to others, unlikely to ever see it back. The isolated village, whose only link with the rest of the world is a rickety railway line, is an insular little place where cousins marry cousins and strangers aren’t tolerated.

Struggling to retain his honour, Tsugio finds that those around him have none. He is tortured by guilt over his occasional flings with other men’s wives and pain at his inability to relate to girls his own age, and a desperate attempt to pass the army physical leaves him feeling even worse. So he goes to the city and buys a gun. And when the village policeman finds and confiscates it, he goes back and buys lots of guns. And swords. And knives. And combat gear of all sorts.

And at the 83-minute mark, the tension which has been slowly building bursts and Tsugio makes his way around the village, coolly and brutally killing almost everyone he meets in a flurry of bullets and blades.

Director Noboru Tanaka (Watcher in the Attic, A Woman Called Sada Abe) worked under Kurosawa on films like Yojimbo before becoming a leading director of ‘roman porno’ soft porn films in the 1970s. Star Furuoya committed suicide in March 2003. The other cast members include Isao Natsuyagi (Tidal Wave, Virus, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge), Renji Ishibashi (Roningai, Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, Tetsuo the Iron Man and stacks of Kinji Fukasaku and Takashi Miike films), Misako Tanaka (Gonza the Spearman) and Shino Ikenami (Evil Dead Trap 2).

Fascinating and intense, Village of Doom is a look inside the psyche of a troubled teen entirely unfettered by modern western concerns. It’s beautifully shot and elegantly written, but may just be too slow-moving for many potential viewers, because until that 83-minute point, it’s entirely unclear where this is going.

MJS rating: B

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Haunting of Baylock Residence

Director: Anthony M Winson
Writer: Anthony M Winson
Producer: Anthony M Winson
Cast: Stacey Devonport, Fiona Shore, Michelle Darkin Price
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: YouTube (link at bottom of review)
Website: http://mrstitchfilms.wix.com/mrstitchfilms

Baylock is not a common name. Wikipedia doesn’t bother having a ‘Baylock disambiguation’ page because there’s only one person of that name who has their own page - American jazz composer Alan Baylock (b.1967). I can find references elsewhere to baseball coach turned commentator Andy Baylock, Sydney University academic Brandi Baylock and an artist named Paul Baylock. But it is in no way a common name.

So it is a truly bizarre coincidence that spring 2014 saw the appearance of two British ghost films in which the principle deceased character was named Baylock. On the one hand, we have Darren Flaxstone’s Dark Vision, about TV ghost-hunters investigating the caves beneath ‘Baylock’s Folly’, named after medieval plague doctor 'William Baylock'. And on the other we have Anthony M Winson’s The Haunting of Baylock Residence, in which a much more recently deceased character is named 'Susanna Baylock'. What are the chances?

The only guess I can make is that both names were inspired by the character of Mrs Baylock in The Omen, the housekeeper who was played by Billie Whitelaw in the original and Mia Farrow in the remake. Still, it’s remarkable synchronicity given that more than 500 British horror features have been made in the last 15 years and, to the best of my knowledge, the name Baylock doesn’t appear in any of the others. (There is also a supposedly haunted house in Pasadena called the 'Blaylock Residence' - I don't know whether that may also have been an influence.)

In this film, Susanna Baylock (Lindsey Parr) lives in a three-storey Victorian villa with Annabel Blair (Fiona Ahore) who is described as her maid but is arguably a housekeeper, if we’re being precise. Susanna starts the film by falling downstairs and breaking her neck, prompting the arrival a short time later of her estranged sister Patricia Woodhouse (stage actress Stacey Devonport making her feature debut).

The set-up here is, let’s make no bones about it, unbelievable. Patricia is said to be Susanna’s only living relative, yet she was evidently not informed immediately of the death, not invited to the funeral, and hasn’t even been told how her sister died. Yet she has somehow inherited the eponymous ‘Baylock Residence’. None of this makes a lick of sense but fortunately ‘set-up’ is all this is, and before long we progress to the good stuff – the haunting.

Winson does a great job of wringing real spookiness and fear out of very simple things. There are no digital effects anywhere in the film except for a couple of ghostly fade-aways. Everything else is done by suggestive noises off or simple physical tricks: a door closing by itself, a book knocked off a shelf, someone or something not being where we (or Patricia) think it is. At first, Annabel dismisses Patricia’s claims of supernatural phenomena but then she starts to witness them too. Patricia does some research at a local college and determines that the problem is not a ghost or a poltergeist but an ‘entity’, which is explained in some detail.

All of this is shot, for no obvious reason, in black and white. And here’s what puzzled me: I couldn’t work out whether this story was taking place in the present day or Victorian times. Annabel’s hair-bun and shawl for example make her look distinctly 19th century (and who has a 'maid' now?), but some aspects of the film were very obviously contemporary. Then, about half an hour in, Patricia visits Susanna’s grave and we discover that she died in – and therefore presumably the story is set in - 1971!

With that information, I started to appreciate a little more the impressive effort that has gone into the production design of this fiver-and-change motion picture. Patricia’s dress is suitably old-fashioned, without being stereotypically seventies. There are no DVDs on the shelves, there’s no TV and the radios on display are suitably vintage. Much of the house is decorated in a Victorian style but that’s okay. What people often forget is that, in any decade, much of the décor hails from earlier decades. There were certainly plenty of quasi-Victorian homes around when I was growing up (I was three in 1971), especially family homes because of course the older generation in those days actually were Victorians.

So in all fairness to Winson and his ‘Mr Stitch Films’ team, they have made a sterling effort to provide a 1970s ambience and for that are to be commended. Of course, there are always going to be little anachronisms which cannot be avoided without building a set from scratch. All the light-switches, for example, are of the modern ‘rocker’ type rather than historically accurate ‘toggles’. There is no disguising the smoke alarm on the ceiling, or the design of the ‘fire exit’ signs in the college, and a brief shot of Patricia on a train is very, very obviously a 21st century carriage. (There is also, for some inexplicable reason, a framed issue of Spider-Man Weekly in the bathroom, which is completely out of whack with the rest of the house’s largely post-Victorian furnishings. As any fool knows, this journal of renown did not begin publication until February 1973, thereby completely destroying any credibility that this story takes place in 1971. What were they thinking?)

Once we know the story’s date, things become, if not clearer, certainly less distracting and we are able to concentrate on the plot and characters. I am mystified why there is no opening caption identifying the year (the more so, in having seen this just a few weeks after Hacked Off, which managed to have a caption which was out by ten years, causing problems all of its own). The 1970s setting explains, I think, the monochrome photography since it is easier to hide the colour saturation of the 21st century than try to disguise or excuse it. What isn’t explained is why the story is actually set in 1971; I have wracked my brains and honestly cannot think of any changes which would be required were the film to be set in 2014…

The plot to which we return, but which I don’t want to delineate in detail for spoiler reasons, involves Susanna’s husband Victor (David ‘dwyz’ Wayman, director of numerous shorts, music videos and fan-films) who was responsible in some way for the estrangement of the sisters and who apparently disappeared without explanation a few years ago. There are a number of ghosts seen in the house, including a little boy and a woman with a noose around her neck. In desperation, Patricia brings in Lilly (Michelle Darkin Price), the sort of spooky hippy who would have been a goth if we were not, in narrative terms, still 14 years away from the first Sisters of Mercy album. Lilly is genuinely psychic, it seems, but then the house is evidently genuinely haunted.

Together, Lilly, Annabel and Patricia uncover the house’s dark secret and find out (sort of) what happened to Victor. As so often, I’m not 100% convinced that it all fits together and makes coherent sense, but it’s a reasonably satisfying ending because some enjoyably bleak narrative strands are resolved (or otherwise), thereby adding to the overall air of British suburban supernatural miserablism.

Nottingham-based Winson has made several horror shorts over the past few years, gradually increasing in length, complexity and ambition. Apparently work on this film actually started several years ago, when it was entitled The Diary of Patricia Woodhouse, but all the footage was lost in an unfortunate computer error. Winson then concentrated on his shorts before returning to Baylock Residence in 2013. This picture, which had a premiere screening in February 2014 and was released onto YouTube two months later, is the first Mr Stitch movie to reach the magical (if arbitrary) 70-minute mark that still defines a feature, even in these post-Blockbuster days. A second feature film, Ominous aka House of Afflictions, is currently in post.

As is often the case in situations like this, he has built up a little rep company and many of the cast have been in one or more of his other productions; several were also in Zombie Hood. As is also often the case, this means that the director has cast based on the people he knows, rather than widening the net to find new, perhaps more suitable (or better) actors. In all honestly, some of the acting is really not up to scratch, while some is okay but won’t win awards. What really carries the film however is Devonport. She is terrific in the lead role, conveying real fear as the supernatural takes hold around her. In one scene she is even required to throw herself about on a bed as Patricia is physically assailed by an invisible force; this sort of thing is extraordinarily difficult to carry off without looking ridiculous, but through some combination of Winson’s direction and Devonport’s performance, the scene works, and works well.

Ghosts seem to be increasingly in vogue in British indie horror nowadays, with films like The Library, Dark Vision and Any Minute Now tipping their hats more towards Algernon Blackwood than George Romero. Perhaps this is a response to the success of NuHammer, a melding of traditional MR James-ian gothic ghost tales with a contemporary (or at least, non-gothic) setting. However, I for one much prefer something like this, made with real care, passion and affection for the genre, to the risible pomposity and by-the-numbers fake Gothicism of the over-rated Woman in Black.

MJS rating: B+



Sunday, 15 June 2014

Dark Vision

Director: Darren Flaxstone
Writers: Darren Flaxstone, Bernie Hodges
Producers: Darren Flaxstone, Bernie Hodges, Chris Broughton
Cast: Bernie Hodges, Suzie Latham, Judith Haley
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.darkvision-movie.com

A combination of good acting, fine cinematography and interesting characters marks out Dark Vision as one of the better British horror indies of recent years. Admittedly, the premise is hardly original for a modern British fright-flick: a TV show about the paranormal reporting live from a supposedly haunted location. See also Steve Stone’s The Entity, Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett’s Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, Steven M Smith’s Haunted and Simon Pearce’s Judas Ghost, to name just a few. But the characterisation and presentation on show in Dark Vision make up for the somewhat hackneyed plot.

Producer/co-writer Bernie Hodges (recently in Andy Bourne’s sci-fi short Two Extra Days) stars as Spencer Knights, the vain, self-important, oleaginous host of a paranormal TV show who turns up in his van, with a small crew, at an isolated building called Baylock’s Folly. His principal help is sensible, pragmatic Jo (Suzie Latham), who is reteaming with Knights for the first time in three years, although it is never made clear why they split up their professional partnership or why she is back helping him. The camera is touted by a young lad named Kev who is played by… Simon Pearce, director of that very same aforementioned Judas Ghost! There is also techie Xan (Oliver Park) who has already set up multiple cameras around their chosen location and, for reasons that remain obtuse, hypnotised actress/model Marva (Alicia Ancel: Kebab Killer).

Baylock’s Folly is an 18th/19th century castellated building, home to an enigmatic old lady named Clem (a belter of a performance from Judith Haley, also in Amityville Asylum) who has a taste for the sauce and layers of insight that will be peeled back as the story progresses. ‘William Baylock’ himself clearly didn’t construct the building named after him as he was, we are told, a plague doctor in the time of the Black Death. Most of the action takes place in caves beneath (and accessible via) the folly where Baylock is said to have conducted Satanic rituals involving child sacrifice. Or something. (I can’t find anything about Baylock online and so assume he’s purely fictional, which makes it a bizarre coincidence that this film was produced at exactly the same time as Anthony M Winson used the unusual name in his ghost feature The Haunting of Baylock Residence.)

One of Dark Vision’s strengths is that it does not rely on the ‘found footage’ tropes that other similarly themed films have used. Some shots are presented POV from Xan’s webcams, Kev’s video camera or little cameras held/worn by various people, but these are used sparingly within a conventionally shot and structured narrative film. That said, since some shots clearly are ‘TV footage’ it would have been helpful to have distinguished those in some way; a change in picture quality perhaps, or just a little red dot. As it stands, we don’t know whether what we’re seeing is viewed through a Xan-cam or just the director’s vision, although the lighting always seem to imply the latter, even when the angle/view implies the former. It’s ironic that, although the film has great photography (by Mark Whatmore, whose previous credits are documentaries on Simon Callow, Jacques Tati and lions) the overall movie might have improved a tadge if the photography had actually been (or had appeared to be) less impressive.

Parts of Dark Vision are overly talky, but not excessively so. Once it gets going, however, it’s suitably spooky with Baylock appearing in his plague doctor guise - or is that Kev in a costume provided by Spencer? Quite what Spencer is trying to do, and why, is never entirely clear. He constructs a pentagram of flames, having evidently carried vast numbers of tea-lights down to the caverns. We all know how fiddly it can be to light just one of those fuckers – it must have taken him ages to set this up. Jo keeps finding tiny, antique dolls, the significance of which is not clear but it must relate to the children that Baylock killed. And Clem comes into her own as Spencer starts to realise quite how out of his depth he has got.

Interspersed with all this are some captions from something called the ‘Dark Vision Hub’ which seem to indicate that Spencer’s show is one of five competing for some sort of prize, the sequential captions telling us as each rival show is knocked out of the competition. This is referenced once in the dialogue, but it’s really a distraction (and quite a confusing one). It adds nothing to the plot, is not necessary to provide a reason for Spencer and co. to be where they are, doing what they’re doing, and never gives any indication of how/why these various rival TV shows are eliminated (or why Spencer’s survives). The whole ‘Dark Vision Hub’ thing has the feel of something which was significant in an early draft of the script but has been whittled away to a stump of an idea which now serves no real narrative purpose.

Two other aspects of Dark Vision which were unnecessary and could have been dispensed with are a post-production video effect and the music. The generally good and atmospheric score by Al Lethbridge (whose many TV documentary credits include Marcus de Sautoy’s BBC4 series Precision: The Measure of All Things and the 2009 Children in Need Around the World in 80 Days challenge) makes the common mistake of thinking that something spooky on screen is made spookier by a music sting, whereas in fact the opposite is true. For example, there’s one shot where a wine bottle, untouched by human hand, moves across a table. And the music goes, “Brahm!” as this happens. If the bottle moved silently, unacknowledged by the score, the audience response would be: “Oh my God! Did I just see that? Did that just happen?” With the addition of the music sting, the audience is hammered over the head: “Look! Look at this spooky thing! Watch it happening! Make sure you don’t miss it!”

The post-production effect is essentially the same thing that irritated me about Hungerford, which is the extraordinary idea that video cameras, when switched on or off, go “Bzzzzt!” and make the image break up and shake about. I’m no technie but I’m pretty damn sure that cameras don’t do this in 2014, if indeed they ever did. I think this idea stems from a pre-digital age, back when video meant analogue tape. Film-makers imagining what video footage might look like in the future applied Quantel effects to make it look a bit different and futuristic. Well, the future's here and digital video cameras work just fine, thank you. Or the other place this might have come from is the idea of video transmission; this sort of audio/video break-up has been used many times as a form of interference, implying that a video feed from someone (usually on an alien planet or aboard a doomed spaceship) is only just able to make contact through the galactic static. But that simply doesn’t apply to modern technology – although, to be fair, a couple of channels on our Virgin Media package do go like that when someone answers the phone…

The above minor distractions notwithstanding, Dark Vision is a solid and enjoyable little horror movie. It doesn’t quite know when to finish and there are several endings, but most of them are genuinely creepy and scary. I enjoyed the film, which is well acted, well directed, well produced and glosses over its sometimes obtuse story in favour of style, spookiness and very effective characterisation.

Glenn Lewis and Olaus Roe are credited with the visual effects, which are very good, and Debbie Hampson (who was a trainee on The Hollow Crown) provided the effective and sometimes gory make-up. This is Darren Flaxstone’s third feature after Release, a drama about a priest accused of paedophilia, and Buffering, a “raunchy” sex comedy. By trade he is an editor (he cut Dark Vision himself) with a stack of credits including Ocean Odyssey, The Unseen Alistair Cooke and Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero. Dark Vision is an impressive first stab at horror and I’m keen to see what else Flaxstone, Hodges and co. can bring us in the future.

Shot in 2013, the film carries a 2013 copyright date and was first screened in Bristol in October that year although the official premiere was at the Coventry Film Festival in June 2014.

MJS rating: B+

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Vespers

Director: David Lilley, Stephen Gray
Writer: David Lilley
Producer: David Lilley
Cast: Kevin Norcross, Georgia Blake
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.loonatikanddrinks.com

Vespers is a lovely little film. At just short of six minutes, it’s brief but not as brief as other Loonatik and Drinks shorts starring Mr McKinley or Lucy Spook. It’s not silent and not entirely wordless but you couldn’t really say there’s any dialogue. What there is - and it’s what we’ve come to expect from Messrs Lilley and Gray - is a stylish film with some superb visual effects that demonstrate what can be done for tuppence ha’penny on a home PC now.

Set in Bristol in 1880, this is a Victorian post-apocalyptic tale, something which I’ve certainly never seen before. In this sort of 19th century I am Legend, a solitary man (Kevin Norcross, normally employed as a graphic artist) wanders through the deserted city. Jackdaws and rats congregate around corpses in houses and in the streets, victims of a virulent plague which has wiped out humanity.

As the man searches for life, calling out in the desperate hope that he is not, in fact, the last man on Earth, he finds himself at the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The towers stand, the cable hangs between them and part of the span sticks out above the River Avon - but this is an engineering project never to be completed. This is a marvellous effect, shown from different angles in several shots, and is only marred slightly by the fact that the bridge was built in 1864.

Then - miracle - he sees a woman. They run to each other and both become victims, in their own way, of the cruellest of ironies. To say more would be to give away the brief plot.

Jointly directed and edited by Steve and Dave, Vespers looks simply magnificent, every angle chosen - and, where necessary, manipulated - to create a thoroughly believable deserted Victorian Bristol. Mr Lilley wrote and produced while Mr Gray handled photography - assisted by camera operator Simon Fretwell (DP on Close Your Eyes) - and visual effects. Together they have created a thing of beauty.

While it’s more than the single-gag 'plots' of the Mr McKinley or Lucy Spook shorts, the ‘story’ of Vespers is just a moment, albeit a crucial one. Actually, that’s not fair. The plot is just a moment but it’s constructed in such a way that the story is obviously much greater. In that respect it also scores over L&D’s last short, The Hand. But the frustrating thing about Loonatik and Drinks films to date is that they are so brief. I like to think that this is the guys practising their skills, ready for something meatier. Adaptations of Conan Doyle’s ‘The Horror of the Heights’ and Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ are promised and with such source material a more cohesive and satisfying plot is surely assured.

Georgia Blake plays the woman, credited only as ‘victim’ although Georgia’s CV reveals that the character’s name is Helen Winshaw! Rachel McWha (“creator of designer corsetry, costume and bridal couture”) was responsible for the costumes while the fantastically named Nikki Galan-Bamfield (Loyalty, The Return) handled hair and make-up. Kubilay Uner (The Hand) composed the music and Barry Parsons was the sound designer.

Vespers is an impressive, original, visually enthralling slice of retro-fantasy. More than that, it’s that rarest of things: a Victorian-set science fiction film which is neither a pastiche nor steampunk. All credit to those involved; now bring on the Conan Doyle and the Poe.

MJS rating: A-

Virgin Witch

Director: Ray Austin
Writer: ‘Klaus Vogel’
Producer: Ralph Solomons
Cast: Vicki Michelle, Anne Michelle, Patricia Haines
Year of release: 1971
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Salvation)

Real life sisters Vicki and Anne Michelle play screen sisters Betty and Christine in this entry in the ‘home counties witchcraft’ subgenre which flourished in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The early entries into the field, such as The Sorcerers, had diversified into superior historicals (Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw) and rather tacky contemporary pictures such as this one.

Betty and Christine, innocents both, travel to London with a view to finding modelling work, accepting a lift from passing motorist Johnny (Keith Buckley: Dr Phibes Rises Again, Excalibur), who falls for the younger Betty while Christine is ‘auditioning’ at the offices of lesbian agent Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines). Sybil whisks Christine off to Wychwold, the country estate of her friend Dr Gerald Amberley (Neil Hallett: X the Unknown, Ghost Squad), ostensibly to shoot an ad campaign for cider, with Betty along as chaperone. (It is only when we see the name written down quite some time later that we realise people haven’t been talking about some satanic amusement park called Witchworld.)

The house and grounds are home to some creepy people, but photographer Peter (James Chase) seems nice enough. In fact, the whole thing is a front for a coven of witches, into which Christine is initiated at night, waking up the next morning in bed with Sybil and subsequently acting much more self-confident and mature. Revelling in the release of her latent magical powers, she plans to oust Sybil as High Priestess of the coven during Betty’s initiation the following night, but Johnny is on his way down to Wychwold to rescue Betty.

What starts off as a pretty crappy movie picks up towards the end, leaning more towards - though never reaching - the sort of unnerving, slightly too serious atmosphere of menace that characterised the best witchcraft films (The Devil Rides Out, for example). The idea of a modelling agency recruiting young girls for supernatural purposes is a tad too close to the nonsensical story in the second half of The Night Caller (in which Patricia Haines was the victim, not the abductor) although it seems slightly more credible as a witch’s plan than that of an alien from a moon of Jupiter. Nevertheless, once the movie settles down to a battle of psychic wills between Christine and Sybil, it becomes much more watchable and a lot more tense.

The script, bizarrely, is by producer Beryl Vertue (under a pseudonym) who went on to produce The House in Nightmare Park but is best known now as the matriarchal figure behind such hit sitcoms as Men Behaving Badly and Coupling (written by her son-in-law Steven Moffat). Vertue was an agent for Associated London Scripts (Galton and Simpson, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes) but this script (and her own novelisation of it) seem to be her only professional writing credits - and she keeps very quiet about them!

However the major selling point for the film back in the 1970s was the copious amount of full nudity from Vicki and especially from Anne. In fact, pretty much everybody gets naked in the climactic ritual, including some older members of the cast who undoubtedly add authenticity to the scene but dampen the sexual allure. The nudity in earlier scenes, such as Christine’s ‘audition’ for Sybil during which the older women touches her up under the pretence of taking her measurements, is often tacky, but in the scenes of black magic it is not only relevant but actually adds to the air of menace.

Vicki Michelle, two years older than her sister but here playing on her fresh-faced appearance as the younger sibling, went on to appear in Queen Kong and an episode of Space: 1999 before finding fame as Yvette in Allo Allo in the 1980s. Ann (credited on-screen as Anne Michelle) actually acquired a bunch of genre credits including Psychomania, House of Whipcord and the 1979 US production Haunted - in which she played, of all things, a native American - before disappearing from the screen to concentrate on stage work.

Peter Halliday (A for Andromeda, Madhouse) plays a nightclub manager while the coven members include Garth Watkins (Twins of Evil), Prudence Drage (A Clockwork Orange), Sheila Sands (Year of the Sex Olympics) and Steve Peters (Lead Roboman in Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD!). Cinematographer Gerald Moss had shot second unit on Village of the Damned, while the very effective music is by Ted Dicks, whose other horror credit is the title song to Carry On Screaming!

MJS rating: B-

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Hungerford


Director: Drew Casson
Writers: Drew Casson, Jesse Cleverly, Sarah Perugia, ‘The Cast’
Producers: Miles Bullough, Jesse Cleverly
Cast: Drew Casson, Georgia Bradley, Tom Scarlett, Sam Carter
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener
website: www.hungerfordfilm.com

I made two notes while watching Hungerford. At about 32 minutes into this 79-minute feature I observed (and wrote down), “Well, I wasn’t expecting that.” At about 52 minutes I exclaimed (and wrote down), “Ooh, that’s nasty.” I think we can consider those points the act breaks.

Hungerford is a decent little horror-sci-fi movie made by a startlingly talented and capable young man, with some fine acting and good production values. Storywise, it’s hardly the most original or groundbeaking slice of cinematic entertainment but it’s not the story that makes this interesting. Small town, alien invasion takes over the populace, handful of survivors try to work out what’s going on and avoid the threat. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Dawn of the Dead, a scenario which has played out in endless movies, scores of novels and about three or four episodes per season of Goosebumps. There's a nice twist in the use of deodorant as a weapon, but that's about it as far as originality goes. No matter.

Writer-director Drew Casson stars as Cowen, a BTEC Media Studies student living with his best mate Adam (Tom Scarlett) and Adam’s sister Phil (Georgia Bradley); another mate Kip (Sam Carter) completes the household. Casson has Robert Plant hair but is only 19 meaning he’s not actually old enough to even remember the Page and Plant Unledded album, let alone any of the original Led Zep stuff. I bet he’s Googling this now to find out who Robert Plant is so that he can Twitter it on his iPhone to a Facebook Playstation meme LOL smiley face, ack!, haemorrhage!

Sorry, it’s young people.  What’s wrong with them? They should be bitter and twisted for having been born too late for things like punk, Sapphire and Steel, Star Wars without extra bits and Opal Fruits that had the proper name on the packet. Instead they swan about making ridiculously impressive and professional looking feature films. Do you know, our Student’s Union doesn’t even have a bar? It doesn’t have a bar! It has a fucking branch of Starbucks instead! That’s what’s wrong with the world, and I blame anybody 15 or more years younger than me.

Just pause the review for a bit while I go and have a lie down.

And we’re back.

As part of his college course, Cowen has to produce some sort of video diary so he sets about filming himself and his housemates. Adam is a bit of a loose cannon, prone to getting into fights and, we learn later, on probation for some unspecified offence. Phil is tolerant and supportive and, in a nicely subtle bit of characterisation, carries a torch for Cowen but is forced to keep it hidden as she lives deep in the friendzone. And Kip is a bit of a nerd who looks and sounds like Stephen Merchant.

Following a weird storm over the town, odd things start happening. During a party thrown by Cowen's crush Janine (Kitty Speed) at her parents’ house, a girl being chatted up by Adam starts throwing up blood. And Cowen spots Janine’s dad (Colin Stark) repeatedly knocking his bloody head against a window. All this is captured by Cowen on his camera.

The tipping point is an attack by an alien-possessed postman, and here’s where the film loses itself a bit as, having killed the man in self-defence, the panicked quartet debate what to do with the body, eventually deciding to hoick it downstairs and leave it in a handy skip. Adam’s probation aside, it’s not clear why they can’t call the police, especially as local plod Terry (Nigel Morgan) is a good mate of theirs. More importantly, why the jiminy heck would they film themselves disposing of the body? The dropped camera conveniently records the fight but then they actually video themselves debating the next move, wrapping the corpse in a blanket and disposing of it to hide the evidence, thereby actually creating more damning evidence than they had when there was just a dead postal worker in their flat. That’s the point at which the found footage conceit breaks down and when I realised that not only was it not adding anything to the film, it was actually creating problems. And that’s before we get to the traditional found footage clichés like blood spattering onto the lens or hanging onto the camera while running from someone/thing trying to kill you.

While certainly not enough to spoil what is a very watchable film (and a staggeringly impressive debut feature by a director barely old enough to get served in a pub), I just found myself wishing that Casson had demonstrated his undeniable film-making talent with a more conventionally formatted movie. Sometimes the conceit works, sometimes it doesn’t – but in the sequences in this film (and many like it) where it works, there is no reason why that could not have simply been shot as POV. That, I think, is what people sometimes forget. Standard cinematic techniques do not preclude placing a camera where a character is standing to show us what they are looking at. Quite the contrary, it’s a very, very common technique, and it has the advantage that you don’t have to find some narrative reason for the person to actually be pointing a camera at everything.

The other thing that occurred to me – and I fully appreciate that I might not think of this if I had recently been attacked by a Royal Mail employee under the control of an evil alien brain slug – is that however well one disposes of the body, it would take the police about half a morning to find out who killed Postie by simply following his delivery route, seeing who the last person was to receive a letter, then knocking next door with the handcuffs ready. In the event, of course, this is moot what with the alien invasion and the brain slugs and all, but nevertheless.

Casson’s script also ducks the matter of how the authorities might respond to the goings-on in Hungerford, with no cops on view apart from Terry, who does say much later in the film that all his colleagues are dead and that ‘special forces’ sent to deal with the situation had also disappeared. Realistically, vast numbers of uniformed forces – police and army – would be deployed, not to mention all the media who would circle. And this brings us, sort of, to the one thing that genuinely does disturb me about Hungerford – and that’s the title. To the generation before Casson’s (ie. me) the name ‘Hungerford’ has one, and only one connotation. It refers to the 1987 incident in which Michael Ryan went on a killing spree throughout the town, armed with several automatic weapons, randomly gunning down strangers before taking his own life.

It was one of the worst fire-arms incidents ever in the UK and led directly to massive changes in the laws around gun ownership. It was a defining incident in late 20th century British history, law and politics. Google ‘Hungerford’ and of the top five links, two are about the town, three are about the ‘Hungerford massacre’. Casson (and most of his cast and crew) are way too young to remember this, heck they weren’t even born, but I can’t believe that anyone who lives in the town of Hungerford isn’t fully aware of that terrible event.

Yes, the movie’s shot in Hungerford (tempting to say: so were more than 30 people) but it doesn’t have to be set there. It’s not like the town is recognisable or well-known for anything except this one incident. Most people don’t know what it looks like, couldn’t find it on a map; I don’t even know what county it’s in. But people know the name. They say: do you remember Hungerford? They say: this thing that has happened, it's like Hungerford, isn't it? 'Hungerford', like 'Dunblane', is a name that everyone in the UK above a certain age knows for one, and only one, horrific reason. Attaching that name to something which is also horror, but horror as entertainment, is at best self-defeating.  It will mean nothing outside the UK, of course (until interested punters google 'hungerford+horror' - oh my God...) and to Casson's generation the horrors of that day are as remote historically as Aberfan is to those of us born in the late 1960s. But why even bring it up? This film could be set in absolutely any generic, made-up English town. In fact, I think the name Hungerford is only mentioned once, when Adam points to the weird storm and says “Welcome to Hungerford!” – which is immediately followed by a whole load of bangs that sound... like gunfire.

I don’t want to come across like a prude, but even I think that the title and setting of the film is in (hopefully unintentional) poor taste. What's the basic theme here? The movie is about ordinary members of the public in fear for their lives in a quiet English market town where something terrible, inconceivable and appallingly violent is happening. And what's the movie called? It's called Hungerford, and it's filmed on the same streets where Michael Ryan gunned down neighbours and strangers. This is basically inviting conservative film critics (are there any other sort?) to hate it. My advice would be to seriously consider a change of title and to loop any mention of the town name. Not just to avoid causing offence, but also to avoid this basically irrelevant aspect of the film swamping its many admirable qualities. Surely Casson and co want this to be discussed as “that amazing sci-fi/horror film made for a few thousand quid by a British teenager that’s better than half the crap pumped out of Hollywood”; not as “that sick attempt to sell a trashy, cheap sci-fi/horror film by capitalising on one of the worst UK crimes in living memory”. (I know it’s not an attempt to sell the film, but that’s what they’ll say it is, and that’s what people will read. If you want a precedent, some newspapers trashed the superb Mum and Dad because they got it into their heads it was based on Fred and Rose West.)

That would be a real shame and distract from some terrific aspects of this film, not least the four main characters who, in double-barrelled defiance of convention are both sympathetic and believable. It’s a real pleasure to spend 80 minutes with this lot, even as they struggle to avoid the alien brain slugs and their zombified hosts, given how many films I sit through which are populated by cardboard cut-outs I just want to punch in the eye. It’s a combination of a good script and some superb performances. I was amazed to discover on the IMDB that none of the cast seem to have any previous credits outside of Drew Casson’s earlier shorts, presumably indicating that they are not professional actors but simply Drew’s mates. ‘The cast’ as a gestalt entity, get a script co-credit which indicates a certain amount of improvisation; Sarah Perugia, who also gets script credit, is the drama coach who worked with them before shooting.

As well as writing, directing and starring, Casson also handled the edit and the visual effects, which include some reasonable exploding heads as well as the storm and some stuff right at the end. It says a lot about the sort of film this is that, where bigger movies will have endless lists of names, a little project like Hungerford has a single name but then a great long list of still photos, effects shots – even a font - which have been been provided by other people, presumably under some sort of creative commons deal. This is an increasingly common phenomenon and allows a low-budget movie like Hungerford to really kick above its weight. One of the few names in the credits to have other BHR experience is dubbing mixer Jamie Ward who worked on Dead of the Nite and Dark Vision. Post-production manager Patsy Hayden pulled a similar gig on Bill Bailey’s TV documentary about Alfred Russell Wallace!

Casson isn’t the first teenage director to make a feature movie. Michael Ferns was only 17 when he made the jaw-droppingly poetic and powerful Kirk, which sadly and swiftly disappeared into limbo due to, I think, disagreements between certain parties. William Honeyball was a similar age when he directed Spring Heeled Jack. Liam Hooper and most of his cast and crew were still at school when they made Darkwood Manor in 2011 (and, being brutally honest, it shows). And I have long championed the works of teenage trash auteurs Jason Impey and Thomas Lee Rutter, both now older but no less maverick in their film-making. Nevertheless, Hungerford is genuinely important for what it represents, not so much in the director’s prodigious talent but in the way that the project has come together.

This is the first movie from Wildseed Studios, a content development company set up by Jesse Cleverly, a former BBC script reader, and Miles Bullough who previously worked at Absolutely Productions (including on Absolutely itself, a box set I have recently been rewatching with enormous enjoyment: “It’s vid-AY-o!”) and also at Aardman. Wildseed has been set up to produce exciting new content across whatever platform is appropriate on the sort of microbudget that can produce something like Hungerford. Bullough and Cleverly (who gets a script credit) spotted Casson’s home-made shorts on YouTube and worked with him to develop Hungerford (initially titled Hunger Ford for no reason that I can discern) as a web series. It was shot over nine days in July 2013 but, in the edit suite, it dawned on everyone that it might actually work as a feature film. A couple of days of pick-ups and presto, one 80-minute feature which, it has to be said, does not betray its serial origins.

(As an aside, I know of several BHR entries which are feature-length edits of existing web serials – Vampires: Brighter in Darkness, Blood and Bone China, Helsing: A Monster of a Documentary and, of course, that brace of brushed-under-the-carpet horrors from Ben Grass and the Pure Grass Films team: Johannes Roberts’ When Evil Calls and NuHammer’s red-headed stepchild Beyond the Rave. But I don’t know of any other films which were conceived as a web serial then mutated into a feature during post.)

Wildseed are already working with some recognisable BHR names including Ryan McDermott (Mark McReady and the Archangel Murders) and Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared) which bodes well for their future output. More importantly, they represent an acknowledgement of the power and potential of micro-budget film-making and home-grown talent (Casson has never been to film school, nor has he any need so to do). In the same way that Mum and Dad represented a breakthrough with Film London and EM-Media recognising that there was justification in funding films that only cost £100,000, so Wildseed’s funding of Hungerford knocks another zero off the figure of practical, viable feature budgets (what is more, they are investing as entrepreneurs with a genuine passion for genre movies, rather than as Lottery-funded State cash machines making a token exception from a steady output of serious, meaningful, unwatchably dull crap).

Mind, at 20 grand it’s still more than 400 times what Marc Price spent on Colin, and indeed well in excess of quite a few excellent British features reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the good thing is that the money is visible on screen. This is a production which can afford to break furniture during a fight, simply because a fight in a living room that doesn’t cause any damage looks stupid. And while they can’t afford an actual car crash, they can at least afford to buy a car and turn it upside-down for a post-crash scene.

Hungerford premiered at SciFi London in May 2014 and, as I write this a few weeks later, the producers are deciding what to do with it. There’s talk of a possible theatrical release and, while every film-maker dreams of such a thing, I’m not sure that’s the route to go down.  It would be taking a movie that posits itself (possibly with justification) as the vanguard of a new film-making movement, and which builds (whether the film-makers know it or not) on a decade and a half of increasingly brilliant sub/urban British horror which long ago scrapped conventions and stuck two fingers up to the so-called ‘British film industry’ – and then shoe-horning that movie into an outmoded, antediluvian form of distribution which could actually damage its reputation. Cinemas are places for Hollywood blockbusters and weird foreign art-house stuff, not British indies. I know a lot of the BHR films reviewed here have had supposedly ‘theatrical releases’ but these are token screenings designed only to generate reviews and publicity for the DVD/VOD release which is where (a) most people will watch it and (b) most of the money will be made. And the downside of such a model is of course that it opens up your film to the mainstream press and their tediously predictable dislike of low-budget films (especially low-budget genre films (especially British low-budget genre films (how many brackets is that?))…one, two…). Sorted.

Wildseed ought to be able to do something better, something less predictable and strait-jacketed with Hungerford, though I don’t necessarily know what. Maybe roadshow it around universities like Freak Out, or give it a multiplatform release like A Field in England (or - though most people seem to have forgotten this, and I make no apologies for mentioning it a third time in this review - Mum and Dad). Distrify is where British cinema lives now, not the Odeon or the Showcase.

Hungerford needs to play to its strengths – cast, characters, direction, VFX, action, horror and just a soupçon of humour - and circumvent its weaknesses, chiefly the connotation of the title and the limitations of the found footage subgenre, which is so clichéed now that it automatically gets many people’s backs up and prejudices critics (pro and am) against a film. Don’t get me wrong: Hungerford plays the found footage card better than many comparable pictures, but neither the story nor the characters really justify the decision so it brings nothing to the film we haven’t seen before. Plus, and I’m being brutally honest here, Casson hasn’t quite got it right...

Too many shots are too nicely framed and too well lit to maintain the conceit of faux reality. He has taught himself too well and maybe needed to ‘unlearn’ some of what he knew about film direction. There is also a reliance on wobbly image and buzzy sound to indicate the camera being suddenly turned on or off (or something). I'm pretty sure that real cameras don't do that. Or anything like that. They're working or they're not. Plus there are a few scenes where footage is taken from a second camera, a Go-Pro strapped to someone's chest, visible in some shots. So in what way has this 'found footage' actually been found? Ironically, one of the most powerful moments in the film is 'genuine' found footage, a brief video message left on a phone by someone about to die. Although, while that's more believable than the old school method of people leaving messages on VHS tape, it still requires the finder (whose phone this isn't) to fortuitously go straight to this particular clip.

Interestingly, in a recent interview Casson said he could only name two other British found footage films but in fact it’s a prolific 21st century subgenre on these islands. Obviously there’s The Last Horror Movie, My Little Eye, Vampire Diary and The Zombie Diaries (and indeed The Zombie Diaries 2). To that list can be added Exhibit A, The Tapes, A Night in the Woods, Hollow, The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, File Box, The Borderlands (Drew Casson actually had a bit part in that, so it must be one of the two!), The Big Finish, Dark Vision, The Mirror, The Ghosts of Crowley Hall, 'untitled' and, erm, Sex Tape Horror Film. Now I haven’t seen all of these (certainly not Sex Tape Horror Film) but that’s 18, and I bet there’s a few others. I’d be amazed if Jason Impey hasn’t done at least one or two.

And while I certainly wouldn’t expect Drew Casson or Jesse Cleverly or indeed anyone on the face of God’s Earth to be familiar with all of those, or even to have heard of them (I could only compile that list by looking back through my annual British Horror Revival Round-Up blogs over on the Hemlock Books site), it demonstrates how crowded the field is and how the format in and of itself has lost whatever novelty it may once have had.

The above notwithstanding, I’m genuinely pleased to have been invited to be one of the first people to watch and review Hungerford and I am very much looking forward to seeing what Drew Casson and/or Wildseed Studios can produce next. And let me finish this review by clearing up something from earlier. I don’t have any prejudice against young people. It’s people in general I can’t stand.

MJS rating: A-