Friday, 31 October 2014

Allies

Director: Dominic Burns
Writers: Jeremy Sheldon, Dominic Burns
Producers: Andy Thompson, Tim Major, Tom George, Dominic Burns
Cast: Julian Ovenden, Chris Reilly, Frank Laboeuf
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener

There aren’t many proper war films made nowadays. Sure, there’s the occasional one but it’s hardly a genre the way it used to be. All through the 1950s and 1960s and into the early 1970s, war films were big business. Mainly because there was so much hardware left over from World War II that enormous production value could be had pretty much at the drop of a tin hat. But eventually that resource dried up, the average movie-goer was too young to remember the War, and everyone became interested in robots and aliens and spaceships and shit.

Nowadays, a new war movie is a bit of an event, a new British war movie even more so. A new low-budget independent British war movie – almost unheard of. There have been a handful of war-themed entries in the British horror revival: The Bunker, and Stuart Brennan’s The Lost and I suppose Nazi Zombie Death Tales, but those were all horror movies with a WW2 setting. That’s something different.

Dominic Burns has his own share of horror/sci-fi credits including Cut, Airborne and UFO, as well as acting gigs in The Reverend, Kill Keith, Strippers vs Werewolves and Cockneys vs Zombies, plus a producer credit on Devil’s Tower. But put all thoughts of escapist fantasy aside because with Allies Burns shows that he doesn’t need aliens or psychos or monsters to prop up his movies. This is an honest-to-goodness, completely serious, down-the-line war movie: a great British war movie of the sort that they simply don’t make them like any more.

In 1944, as the Germans gather their forces to counter-attack in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, a close-knit team of four British Commandos are sent behind enemy lines, under the command of an American Officer. Their mission: capture some vital German maps and get back behind Allied lines. How they get back – and how many of them get back – is the plot in a nutshell. To say more would be to spoil a wonderful, powerful film.

Julian Ovenden (Foyle’s War, Downton Abbey) is the Yank, despite being British; Chris Reilly (Suspects) is McBain, the gruff, Scottish Sergeant who takes an instant dislike to him. Matt Willis (from Busted!), Edmund (son of Sir Ben) Kingsley and Leon Vickers (Reverb) make up the rest of the squad. All are excellent in their roles and there is a real sense of camaraderie among the British, complemented by distrust and antagonism (to varying degrees) towards their new American CO.

The strength of Burns’ script and film lies in the way that it successfully combines powerful, war-is-hell, human drama with Boy’s Own sock-it-to-the-Nazis excitement. Characters we care about do get killed, and there are unflinching images of both British and Germans agonisingly injured during the fight scenes. This is no cheesy glorification of war, yet for all that, it’s still a rollicking adventure. That is the dichotomy of war that the best war films capture and reflect. The Germans here are vicious, sadistic brutes – except the ones that aren’t. The French Resistance are brave freedom fighters, but also callous and cold-blooded. The British are chipper and loyal, but that’s no protection against a bullet.

Shot on an obviously low budget, Allies nevertheless punches vastly above its weight in terms of on-screen production value. Judicious use of re-enactor groups to provide extras, costumes, props and vehicles (up to and including at least one tank) means that we are never distracted by the film-making itself. I’m no military history nerd (well, I am – just not a massive nerd) but this all looks right to me. The haircuts look right, the dialogue sounds right. The Derbyshire countryside does a great job of standing in for France and I didn’t spot any TV aerials or burglar alarms anywhere; some combination of careful framing and/or digital removal keeps all the buildings looking like rural Europe in the 1940s.

If there’s a misstep, it’s the ending and the resolution of a sub-plot, back in Blighty, about a traitor. The revelation of the traitor’s identity simply isn’t believable at all and I would have preferred a bleaker, more open-ended resolution in which we simply never find out who it is so our protagonists have no way to know if such treachery will happen again. The above notwithstanding, the film as a whole is so well-constructed and presented that the plot is carried across this brief lack of credibility and anyway we’re soon back in France with one of our heroes racing across the fields on a motorbike.

A fine cast includes Erich Redman, who has made a career out of playing German soldiers in films like U-571, Charlotte Gray, Two Men Went to War and Captain America: The First Avenger. He was also in Elisar Cabrera’s Demonsoul, if anyone’s keeping score. Werner Daehn, by contrast has mostly worked in his native Germany although that hasn’t prevented him from racking up a number of war credits including not only Valkyrie but also a 2004 TV movie on exactly the same subject, Operation Valkyrie. Other Germans are played by Allistair McNab (Green Street 3, Devil’s Tower, The Last Showing), Jason Thomas Brown (Wasteland) and Dean William (Soul Searcher, Left for Dead, The Silencer). Recognisable faces/voices on the British side include Thomas the Tank Engine narrator Mark Moraghan, The Bill’s Steven Hartley and busy character actor Paul Ridley whose credits stretch back to Blake’s 7, The Tripods and, ironically, two bit-parts as Germans in Secret Army. Jessica Messenger (Dark Watchers: The Women in Black) pops up as a nurse at the end.

The Resistance cell is led by former Chelsea/France centre back Frank Laboeuf and the love interest is provided by Emmanuelle Bouaziz from Chante, a sort of contemporary French version of Fame marketed internationally as Studio 24. David Sterne, who plays her grandfather, is a veteran actor with five decades of great credits including Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Talos the Mummy, A Knight’s Tale, Harry Potter 4, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and the Jack Black Gulliver’s Travels, as well as BHR entries Blood Moon, Dorian Gray and Truth or Dare.

Burns co-wrote the script with Jeremy Sheldon, a former script-reader for Miramax and others who now teaches screenwriting at Birkbeck. The two share story credit with James Crow whose own debut feature The Witching Tree is currently in post. My old mate Jake West directed Second Unit and Tower Block helmer James Nunn was 1st AD on some pick-up shots. Emma Biggins, producer of The Harsh Light of Day, served as production manager. DP Luke Bryant (Kill Keith, UFO) and colourist David Tatchell (Feed the Devil) do a grand job, draining much of the colour and muting the tones to the sort of grey-ish, dull-ish, brown-ish feel that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with the period. Tatchell also provided more than a hundred VFX shots including a parachute drop from a Dakota.

Even more crucial to making us believe this is 1944 France is the production design of Richard Touch whose credits are mostly historical documentaries, including Nazi Megastructures. (Has this been broadcast? How have I not seen this?) He is supported by his regular art director Stuart Chambers and costume designer Georgina Napier (Kill Keith, Look Around You and, in the dim and distant past, wardrobe assistant on Long Time Dead and Kannibal). Binding everything together is a suitably sweeping orchestral score by London-based French composer Philippe Jakko.

A belter of a film, Allies ably demonstrates that the independent film scene in the UK is capable of moving beyond the exploitable horrors, thrillers and action films which comprise the bulk of its output and into serious, powerful dramas. Without losing the excitement, tension and audience-pleasing edge that marks out the indie sector from the often so tiresome bombast of ‘mainstream’ British cinema. Does this mark the start of the British War Film Revival? Perhaps…

MJS rating: A-

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wandering Rose

Director: Coz Greenop
Writer: Coz Greenop
Producer: Coz Greenop
Cast: Carina Burrell, David Wayman, Cameron Jack
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener

It seems like every other week I’m being sent a link through to a screener of an unknown, brand new British horror movie that turns out to be a simply magnificent piece of film-making. And here’s another one.

Wandering Rose combines a fine, taut script with a trio of superb performances and strong, confident direction to create a powerful, gripping story populated by three fully rounded, fascinating characters. There is a steadily growing sense of dread, some genuine effective scares and a satisfyingly bleak and enigmatic resolution. Top the whole thing off with stunning photography that shows off the beautiful Cairngorm locations to full effect and you have an almost perfect horror film.

The worst thing I can say is that there’s a continuity error with a bicycle about seven minutes in. That is seriously the only criticism I can make of Wandering Rose.

But what I really love most about this film, all the above notwithstanding, is its ambiguity. This is one of those movies which can be interpreted with equal justification as either supernatural or psychological. One of the characters is haunted, but is she actually ‘Haunted’ haunted, or just ‘sort of haunted’ haunted? Is what we see what she sees, and if so is she really seeing it? That’s for the post-screening debate in the bar. And I love, love, love ambiguous films like this.

Scottish Rose (Carina Birrell: Jack Said, The Unfathomable Mr Jones) and English Theo (BHR regular David Wayman: Battlefield Death Tales, After Death, The Dead Inside; he played a young Harold Shipman on TV!) are a young, unmarried couple driving their camper van up to the Cairngorms for a romantic (and if Theo has his way, somewhat sexy) weekend away. Rose is pensive and distracted because she is about three months pregnant; not enough to show. This could be their last fling as a couple before they become a family. The plan is for a bit of hiking, a bit of mountain biking, a rented canoe and glorious views – although Rose would rather be at a proper campsite where the less stunning view is offset by a decent shower block.

The third character, who features intermittently (but crucially) is Constable Thwaites, played by Cameron Jack (who was one of Bane’s henchmen in The Dark Knight Rises). In a lesser actor’s hands, Thwaites would simply have been a local McPlod providing exposition, or he could have been a ‘Ye’re noo from aroond here laddie’ antagonist, a narrative counterbalance to the young city couple. Jack however imbues every line with character, creating a fascinating, enigmatic, unnerving portrait of a Highland Policeman whose professional attitude treads a fine line between vaguely threatening and paternally supportive. It’s an absolute belter of a performance, one of those stand-out roles that you find occasionally in a movie like this. (And yet Thwaites never overshadows the principal relationship which is of course Rose and Theo.)

The actual story starts deceptively simply: Rose occasionally sees a ghostly figure. Who is that? Is she real? What does she want? How does this apparition relate to momentary flashbacks of Rose in pain? But that nutshell doesn’t describe the actual film which is so much more than a ghost story, perhaps not even a ghost story at all. Theo and Rose’s happy relationship is threatened by the baby and what it means for them. Are they (well, is Theo) getting too excited too soon? Lots of things could go wrong, as Rose explains. Gradually the relationship starts to, if not crumble exactly, certainly waver. Not helped by Rose’s distrust of ‘Constable Thwaites’, if that is indeed who he is. In this sort of rural isolation, people are very, very few and far between. Help is far away if needed.

Ironically, it is in the third act, when Rose and Theo finally move to a proper campsite, that things actually get worse. And worse, and worse, and worse. The ratchetting-up of the tension, fear and mystery is expertly handled by first time feature director Corrie 'Coz' Greenop. It would spoil the film if I were to say too much, but since the main story is a giant flashback, we already know from the brief prologue that things won’t end well.

The doctor in that prologue is Lee Phillips who, with Coz and Coz’s dad (executive producer Mark Greenop) is a partner in MGA Ltd, a 'learning solutions' company based in Flockton Moor, West Yorkshire. The only other character, a couple of hospital extras notwithstanding, is a second doctor in flashbacks played by Emmerdale’s Bhasker Patel (who was an extra in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Kyrano in the live-action Thunderbirds movie!).

Much of the film's look can be credited to DP/editor James Fuller (assisted by Coz on both counts) who does wonders with the mountains, forests and lochs, deftly assisted by the aerial photography of Robert Coles and Neil Willis and their tame quadricopter which gives the film a ton of extra production value.

Fuller also gets credits as VFX supervisor, colourist, 'additional directing' and music supervisor, although no composer is credited. Jennifer Maiquez handled 'make-up, hair design and prosthetics' (which involved more blood than most of her bridal/fashion gigs) while Patrick Boyle did the sound. There are no credits for production designer, costumes etc so we can assume that Coz and/or James were responsible there.

Just 70 minutes long, Wandering Rose is a real gem of a film. Shot between August and October 2013, the movie premiered at a screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in August 2014. I reckon it could be on a few 'top ten' lists in years to come.

MJS rating: A

[Update. The film was released in the USA in June 2015 as Demon Baby with a completely inappropriate and misleading sleeve image. In June 2016 it was released in the UK as Little Devil with a different completely inappropriate and misleading sleeve image. - MJS]

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cold in July

Director: Jim Mickle
Writers: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Producers: Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, Marie Savare
Cast: Michael C Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard
Country: USA
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: screener

Joe R Lansdale is one of my absolute favourite authors, and has been for many years. He started out writing horror novels and short stories – he wrote zombie westerns long before it became a thing – and weird science fiction. Over time, his work gradually leaned more towards crime thrillers, but still with horror elements and a darkness that marked the stories as more than just detective fiction.

Like many successful authors, Lansdale’s books have been optioned many times over the years (providing, I imagine, a tidy income) without any progressing beyond development. It was only in 2002 that Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame brought Lansdale’s work to the big screen with the awesome Bubba Ho-Tep. Which was somewhat ironic because a tale of a geriatric Elvis impersonator defeating a mummy was far more technically complex – and far less obviously commercial – than much of Lansdale’s more mainstream work. His short story ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road’ was adapted, again by Coscarelli, as an episode of Masters of Horror. Now comes Cold in July.

Published in 1989, this was a direct and immediate pre-cursor to Lansdale’s most iconic series of novels, the Hap and Leonard books. It’s about ordinary folk getting mixed up in something big and unpleasant and having to step up to the bat to fix it because it’s wrong and somebody’s got to do something about it. There’s a real sense of morality to this story, as there is in the Hap and Leonard books: a sense of right and wrong which transcends the violence, the bad actions, the criminal activity, the lies and deceit. A Lansdale crime thriller is the literary equivalent of somebody stepping in to stop a fight between strangers. It has to be done because walking on by would be the wrong thing to do and there’s no-one else round here gonna do it if you don’t.

The catalyst for Cold in July is the semi-accidental shooting of a burglar. Michael C Hall from Six Feet Under and Dexter stars as Richard Dane, whose occupation we first see typed onto a police report as ‘FRAMER’, leading us to assume he’s a farmer until we find out he actually runs a picture-framing business. He has an elementary school teacher wife (Vinessa Shaw: Stag Night) and a little boy (Brogan Hall) so when he hears an intruder one night, he takes out an old revolver to defend himself. Confronted with a torch, his finger slips, and house-breaker brains are splattered all across his living room.

Nick Damici, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Jim Mickle, plays Ray Price, a cop who assures Dane that everything will be all right. Dane is an upstanding citizen with a clean record, the perp was Freddy Russell, a well-known low-life with a string of convictions, and the whole thing counts as self-defence. The fly in the ointment is Freddy’s ex-con father Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) who wants revenge for the death of his son. Dane’s family are threatened, Price puts them under protection, Russell gets arrested eventually.

But things take an odd turn when Dane sees an old picture of Freddy Russell and realises that this is not the man he killed. Price assures Dane he’s mistaken. In a nice line that makes his profession relevant to the plot, Dane points out that he’s good at recognising faces because he spends all day looking at photographs of people. A further odd incident, which I won’t specify for spoiler reasons, sees Dane team up with the taciturn, brutal Russell, to find out who actually was killed in that living room, what has happened to Freddy Russell, and why the cops are deliberately conflating the two.

If there’s a problem with the generally excellent film, it’s that it takes rather too long to get to the point, misleading us into thinking that this will be a film about Dane trying to protect his family from the threat of Russell’s revenge. That would be a perfectly serviceable thriller if that was the plot, but it wouldn’t be a Joe R Lansdale thriller and it’s not the meat of the story. This delay and distraction also means we’re about halfway through the film before we meet the third of our protagonists, retired private detective Jim Bob Luke, played by Don Johnson with very obvious relish.

The biggest joy of reading Lansdale, even more than his clever plots and rich, rewarding characters, is his way with words. His dialogue (and first person narrative) is a laconic East Texas drawl, laced with wry, jet-black, cynicism. In Cold in July, Jim Bob Luke fulfils this role.

Lansdale is Texan. Very Texan. And he writes about Texas (mainly East Texas, in and around Nacogdoches). Now I’ve never been to Texas but I’ve also never been to 1930s England. And I get the impression that Lansdale’s Texas is just slightly exaggerated, or at least highlighted, in the same way that PG Wodehouse’s world was. Jim Bob Luke epitomises his own time and place the same way that Bertie Wooster did – which is probably not a comparison made very often.

Jim Bob Luke drives a bright red convertible with a personalised number plate and bull horns on the front. He wears sequined cowboy shirts and a big white Stetson without a hint of irony. “That’s for my car!” he tells a seven-foot thug after a minor collision, accompanied by a good kick, having first incapacitated the giant with a deft boot to the groin. Then, after the briefest of pauses to consider priorities and collateral damage from the preceding altercation, with another solid kick: “And that’s for my hat!”

If you’re ever asked to sum up the literary oeuvre of Joe R Lansdale in less than five seconds, that’s your clip right there.

With Luke’s help, Dane and Russell uncover what’s going on, peeling back the layers to find that this is not simple police corruption. In fact, it could be argued that the cops are doing the right thing, albeit not in the right way, and with the caveat that what they are doing is, unbeknown to them, allowing something much worse to happen. And to say more would be to ruin the twists and turns of a plot that constantly makes us re-evaluate characters and their actions. Suffice to note that the finale is significantly more violent than anything that has gone before.

There are themes to Cold in July, not least the theme of Fatherhood. Russell loses his son, threatens to take Dane’s, then finds out he hasn’t lost his son after all. This is a film about manhood, about fatherhood, about responsibility. It’s a film which is as thought-provoking as it is gripping, as tense as it is enjoyable. Perhaps this will introduce more people to the work of Joe R Lansdale. Perhaps this will usher in those long-awaited Hap and Leonard adaptations.

Mickle, like Lansdale, comes to dark crime thriller via remarkable horror tales, having previously helmed Mulberry Street, Stake Land and the remake of We Are What We Are. According to the old IMDB, his next project will be a TV series called… Hap and Leonard! Awesome!

One final note. Mickle has very sensibly kept the story in 1989. Updating this to a world of cellphones and internet (Jim Bob has a clunky car phone which he shows off with pride) would never work. The story would need to be changed so much in order to maintain the plot points about who knows what and how people find things, that it wouldn’t be the book any more. Kudos to production designer Russell Barnes (Oculus), art director Annie Simeone, set decorator Daniel R Kersting and costume designer Elisabeth Vastola (The Innkeepers, V/H/S) for making the film look believable.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Blood + Roses

Director: Simon Aitken
Writer: Ben Woodiwiss
Producer: Simon Aitken
Cast: Marysia Kay, Kane John Scott, Benjamin Green
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: YouTube
Website: www.bloodandrosesmovie.com

Blood + Roses is a serious, thought-provoking, meaningful vampire movie which benefits hugely from an intelligent, literate script by Ben Woodiwiss and a belter of a central performance by Marysia Kay. Its biggest problem lies in the establishment of the situation which takes quite some time to become clear, and even then not completely so.

Jane (BHR regular Kay) and Martin (Kane John Scott) are a young married couple who drive to a large, country house. It’s a converted 17th century farmhouse by the looks of things, richly appointed and tastefully decorated (check out the awesome carved wood bedstead!). As the suitcases are unloaded from the car, the audience’s natural assumption is that Jane and Martin are on holiday, renting this place which a couple their age could not normally afford.

Jane is, we eventually learn, a model although she hasn’t worked for six months after an unspecified trauma which may become specified later although the two things are not implicitly linked. We are never told what Martin’s job is, if indeed he has one. Since the couple treat this fabulous, huge house in the country as their own home – or at least as their second home – and since their friends live nearby, we must eventually assume that Jane’s modelling career is (or was) so massively successful that they can afford this place. But there’s no other evidence of these two being hugely wealthy (they don’t drive a Porsche…) and the precise nature of their relationship with the location remains distractingly unclear.

Martin is a bit of a prick and there are clear cracks in the relationship. Then Jane notices – and is noticed by – a suave, handsome, mysterious, charismatic stranger. This is Seth (Benjamin Green) whom we know from a London-set prologue to be a vampire looking for a companion. Turned by Seth, Jane initially falls ill but then finds her strength returning, only more so, and alongside it her determination to do something about her prick of a husband.

Like Woodiwiss’ subsequent Benny Loves Killing (and his intermediate shorts), this is a story of female identity and empowerment; it would be labelled ‘feminist’ if written or directed by a woman. Although of course it takes a man (or at least, a male character) to ‘rescue’ Jane from herself and her situation. But that’s for film theorists to argue about. What we’re more concerned with is: how does this stack up as a vampire film?

Pretty damn good is how it stacks up. Frankly it’s surprising that the now-retired Kay didn’t play more vampires in her decade-long career. She’s sort of vampiric in Forest of the Damned but technically she’s a fallen angel in that one and she’s a threat, ‘the monstrous other’, rather than a protagonist. With the right make-up (or lack thereof), Marysia can do that pure Scottish takes-me-a-week-of-tanning-to-get-white thing. A fantastic make-up job by Helen Gant (Surviving Evil) and Sophie Liddiard (Chemical Wedding, Book of Blood) transforms Jane over the course of 78 minutes from a wan, pale shell to a confident, powerful, strong woman who match the devilishly handsome Seth in the glamour, ahem, stakes.

Blood + Roses is quite sensual in places, with some passionate scenes that are ambiguous about whether they are reality, fantasy or flashback. There is a reasonable amount of blood, including a slit throat near the end which will satisfy the gore-hounds. And there is a vase of roses in the third act, for the pedants. Particularly impressive is Simon Aitken’s skill, as both director and editor, in showing us how Jane’s senses and reactions become enhanced by her new state. There’s a lot more to it than just putting curtains up over the windows. The cinematography of Richard J Wood (Stag Night of the Dead; also credited as second unit director) and sound design of Marcelo Fossá (Benny Loves Killing) also contribute to this.

The leads are all strong, some of the supporting performances less so. Jane and Martin’s friends are Alice (Pamela Flanagan) and Ted (6’6” Adam Bambrough who towers over Marysia and has to bend down to get through doorways). Also on screen are Elizabeth Knight (who starred alongside Marysia in White Admiral) and Ravenswood director Marq English – and I was absolutely delighted to see Soulmate director Axelle Carolyn in the prologue. Many of the cast and crew worked with Simon Aitken on his earlier shorts.

Stephanie Odu (Jack Says) handled production design and Eleanor Wdowski does a cracking job on the costumes front. I don’t know where Seth’s shirt came from but I want one. The make-up effects were provided by Brendan Lonergan who has worked in various capacities on Resident Evil, The Mummy Returns, Death Machine and Alien3. Lee Akehurst (director of Dark Rage, producer of Exorcism) helped with the camera-work. Jon H Orten (Benny Loves Killing) provided the score. Also a special shout-out to colourist Rob Wickings whose credits include Dracula 3000, The Notebooks of Cornelius Crow and Last of the Summer Wine!

One of the most interesting aspects of Blood + Roses, which only occurred to me while typing this review, is that it’s that relatively rare thing, a vampire movie with no vampire hunter. No-one fights back against Seth or Jane, no-one even really acknowledges that they are vampires. It’s not the first vampire picture to eschew use of the V-word but that is definitely a good idea here where any dialogue along the lines of “You… you’re a vampire!” would have been cheesy, inappropriate and ultimately deleterious.

Shot over three weeks in November 2007 – plus a second shoot eight months later for the prologue – the film premiered at the 2009 Frightfest. Simon Aitken self-released the picture on US DVD in February 2011 through his Independent Runnings company, and it appeared on VOD in December of that year. In October 2014, Aitken made the film available on YouTube for one month, and also released to YouTube the DVD commentary (Aitken, Woodiwiss and Green) over a slideshow of stills. At the time he was raising funds for his projected second feature, a rom-com anthology called Modern Love.

As a modern, serious, British vampire feature, Blood + Roses falls into a subgenre that also includes Night Junkies and The Harsh Light of Day. Among all the ghosts, psychos and zombies of the British Horror Revival, it’s good to touch base once more with the undead.

MJS rating: B+

Thursday, 16 October 2014

interview: Conor Timmis

When Conor Timmis sent me a screener copy of his marvellous monster homage Kreating Karloff, I knew that I needed to find out more about this ambitious and talented young man and his remarkable film. This e-mail interview was done in February 2007.

How long have you been a Karloff fan and what is it about him that particularly fascinates you?
“I have been a Karloff fan since childhood thanks to my father. He rented The Mummy from the local library one night saying it was his favourite scary movie as a kid. Karloff's amazing performance as Ardath Bey inspired me to become an actor. What particularly fascinates me about Boris is his spirit and almost superhuman perseverance. This was a guy who came to Canada at age 21 without a cent in his pocket, doing backbreaking manual labour and bit parts in silent films and theatrical productions until getting his big break at age 44 with Frankenstein. Over 20 years of starving and struggle. Any other actor would have thrown in the towel long before then! Boris really was the ‘American Dream’, the self made man so to speak. Whenever I’m feeling down about the progress of my own acting career, I just remember what Boris went through and think, ‘Shit, I got it easy!’”

Where did the idea for Kreating Karloff come from, and how has the project changed on the route from the initial idea to the finished film?
“As an actor I've always dreamed of playing Karloff in a biopic. Pitching a Karloff biopic was something I thought I’d do if I ever ‘made it’ as an actor. In fact, when I interviewed/tested at Warner Brothers for the role of Superman/Clark Kent in Superman Returns, the main thing on my mind besides the extreme excitement and nervousness was: ‘If I land this role, I’m gonna use the fame and money to jump start a Karloff biopic.’ That would have been a bizarre turn in retrospect, had I got the part, to go from Superman to Karloff. It's quite good for a laugh!

“The actual idea for pitching a Karloff biopic came from watching a documentary about the making of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Director Rob Cohen sold Universal on his idea of doing a Lee bio-film by showing them an elaborate screen test he made. The test looked like a scene from The Chinese Connection or Enter the Dragon: full costumes and a cool set, looked just like a movie. I thought to myself: ‘That's it! Why not do the same thing for Boris, recreating scenes from The Mummy and Frankenstein with full make-up, costumes and classic horror film sets?’ Since Universal is only gonna give a damn about the monsters - particularly two of their biggest franchise characters - I thought that was the best way to go. I had also wanted to do a straight Karloff make-up, making me look like Boris in his mid-thirties for a mock interview scene, but I just didn't have the money. It's my only real regret.

“Originally the plan was to shoot all the Mummy scenes in Yale University's Ancient Egypt exhibit. Yale was excited by the idea and very helpful. Unfortunately they gave me the ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ treatment with the cost estimate and I had to look elsewhere. The initial plan for Frankenstein was to recreate the famous scene of the monster tossing Maria into the lake. With the unpredictable Connecticut weather and the various problems of shooting outdoors I had to scrub that idea.

“The biggest influence on my own acting style besides Boris is Patrick McGoohan. Another dream of mine was to play opposite McGoohan in a film or theatre production. I thought and still think he would make a tremendous Dr Muller in the Mummy scenes I wanted to recreate. A complete long shot, but what the hell. So anyways, I left him a rambling voice mail begging him to come out of retirement for my little film, not expecting him to ever call back mind you! So two weeks later I’m driving home and an LA area number calls my cell phone. I say hello and McGoohan’s unmistakable voice says in a slight Irish brogue, ‘Is Conor there?’ I almost drove off the road! I was stunned, speechless. I never expected him to return my phone call.

“He said, ‘How can I help you son?’, I then proceeded to babble incoherently about a Boris Karloff screen test, Yale, him playing opposite my Ardath Bey, mummies, monsters etc. - it must have sounded like total bullshit to him! He was then completely silent for about 10 seconds. I thought oh no, he's gonna unleash a Number Six-style tirade on me for wasting his time! Instead he laughed really hard and said, ‘Conor, I don't do that stuff anymore, I've been retired for six years!’ He told me to keep at it, never give up and to ‘Stick with it Baby!’ I thanked him for his time and that was it. It’s a really good memory that will last a lifetime. I actually called him two weeks ago to get coffee since I’m living in LA now, but he is sadly not in good health. He did say when he felt better we'd meet up. It would be awesome to meet him. I do realise I’m a lucky bastard to even speak with him on the phone.

“I found Dr Muller in Ed Wilhelms. Ed is a very accomplished stage actor and played my father in a community theatre production of Come Blow Your Horn. I said to him, ‘Hey, McGoohan said no - so I think you’re the next best choice.’ He laughed hard and agreed to take on the role despite having to say cheesy lines from The Mummy. Our first rehearsal was a hoot, it’s kinda hard keeping a straight face exchanging dialogue from The Mummy without make-up and costumes.”

Why did you select those particular scenes from Frankenstein and The Mummy?
“I wanted scenes that would be simple to set up and would be inexpensive to recreate on my tiny budget. To firmly establish in this screen test that I could speak and sound like Karloff, I chose scenes from The Mummy that were dialogue heavy with very little motion: the confrontation between Ardath Bey and Dr Muller, Ardath and Helen's conversation by the Mummy's psychic pool etc. The Mummy's lair was able to double for Sir Joseph Whemple's living room with a few props. I could only afford to have two sets built, one set for The Mummy and one dungeon set for Frankenstein.”

How did you go about assembling your cast and crew?
“Well, to begin with... I only had $4,000. By taking on crushing, unsecured personal loans I was able to bring the budget up to $20,000. It was a miracle really, to get a Hollywood cast/crew, studio rental and the best equipment money can buy on a very humble budget. I was working at Starbucks at the time, mind you. The project started and became a reality thanks to make-up effects master Norman Bryn. I knew starting off that in order to make the film I would need the best make-up artist in the world. Amazingly he lived only an hour away in Cos Cob, Connecticut. Norman Bryn is not only a Hollywood and Saturday Night Live make-up ace, he is also the world's foremost expert on the likeness of Boris Karloff.  He is also an expert on Jack Pierce and one of Sara Karloff's most trusted friends. In a word... perfect.

“I just called him up and said I have a dream to make an elaborate Karloff screen test and hopefully pitch a biopic someday and you are the only man for the job. I completely expected him to hang up and say ‘sorry kid’. Instead he expressed great interest and boom, we were in pre-production. Had he said no, my film would have never have gotten beyond a daydream. Having Norm involved brought enormous credibility to my project and made getting other professionals on board a lot easier. Norm brought onboard his childhood friend and acclaimed cinematographer Scott Sniffen, who shot the B&W scenes on his Sony Cinealta F-900 camera. Sniffen was also kind enough to bring along union gaffers and grips to assist him at a very small cost to me.

“The next big score was involving actress Liesl Ehardt. I was surfing the web one night; I think I typed ‘mummy 1932’ into Google or something like that. One of the first sites that popped up was a Zita Johann tribute page. Scrolling down the page, I saw a cool picture morph of a beautiful, young, blonde woman ‘morphing’ seamlessly into Zita Johann. Reading on, I learned this young woman was the webmaster, an actress, and a cousin of Zita Johann! I said to myself, I must get her for Kreating Karloff. How cool would it be for the fans to see a cousin and dead-ringer of Zita Johann playing opposite my Ardath Bey? I e-mailed her and she was thrilled to have the opportunity to portray a legendary family member she idolised as an actress. She did an amazing job! I really think she's gonna be a star.

“To help me produce and organise this behemoth I needed someone I could trust who had a great love for classic monsters. I was introduced to a teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, Connecticut who teaches a ‘Universal monsters’ unit to his 7th graders every year. He shows them all the classics: Mummy, Frank, Drac etc. The kids then write essays and enthusiastic letters to Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi Jr and Ron Chaney. Rick Broderick is a good friend of Sara's and has her visit the school almost every year to talk to younger generations about her father. It's really a big hit, the kids love Sara. At the time I needed someone to play Sir Joseph Whemple so I offered him the role and he gladly accepted the chance to recreate scenes from The Mummy. He became my point man throughout the production, driving actors and crew around, keeping Sara constantly updated, providing his posters and sideshow toys for props in the film, and most importantly, being a trusted friend I could rely on.

“The hardest job of all fell on my best friend, filmmaker Vatche Arabian: to try and make my eccentric Karloff project into an entertaining and coherent documentary. I met Vatche back in 2004 when he directed me as the infamous John Wilkes Booth in a short student film called Booth which was a depiction of the final hours of the pursuit and capture of JWB. Considering he was 19 years old, working with only $5,000, he did a damn good job. After Booth his editing/directing skills exploded. A jump in talent I've never seen before. He started an IPTV website called itsmyremote.com featuring his weekly Truman Show-style podcast Hello Simon. Developing quite a following, he started adding short films and podcasts from young filmmakers all over New England. I wanted the person who directed Kreating Karloff to have ambition, fire and a drive to make a film that young people would dig and long time fans would enjoy. It was a neat thing to have two film crews on set: hungry young filmmakers shooting the interviews and behind the scenes, with Sniffen's crack union crew shooting the B&W monster scenes. They had enormous respect and admiration for each other.

“I had the immense honour and good fortune of having the writing talents of Steve Vertlieb and Scott Allen Nollen on this film. Whether it was drafting mini Karloff bios, writing press releases or providing commentary, they really added tremendous credibility and passion to the project.”

To what extent is this a call to arms for Hollywood to make a Karloff biopic and to what extent is this a calling card for your own talents and skills?
“The main goal is to someday pitch a Karloff biopic in which I would play Boris. I do have a treatment written by Karloff's premier biographer, Scott Allen Nollen. Vatche Arabian is also writing one. All of this is a huge long shot, but it’s great fun.

“But yeah, it’s obviously a great reel/calling card for me as an actor moving to LA. I’m really excited to start mailing it to casting directors and agents. Let’s face it, the average actor has some pretty boy, soap opera shit on his reel. To have an acting reel with recreated scenes from The Mummy and Frankenstein is cool.”

What’s next for you?
“In October 2006 I did a spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton in 9:04 am, an indie comedy shot in West Palm Beach, Florida directed by Heath McKnight.  This week I played James Bond/Danger Man in a music video called ‘Dragon Fly’ produced by Scott Essman. [Essman recreated Frankenstein and The Mummy himself in his 2002 documentary/stage production Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters - MJS] It will be on-line in a month or two. You will be able to watch it on YouTube and other websites. This summer I will play one of the Jack Pierce-style, silver-skinned, black-eyed robots in Humanoids, Scott Essman’s big remake of the intelligent sci-fi classic Creation of the Humanoids. If Mr Essman gets the ‘greenlight’ from Universal, I will reprise my role as the Karloff Ardath Bey - and possibly Imhotep - for The Mummy 75th bonus disc DVD. The studio has put Mummy 75th on hold right now, so we shall see. To quickly highlight some of the bonus content planned:

“1. A proper Boris Karloff documentary.
2. A proper Jack Pierce documentary.
3. A salute to the influence of the original Mummy.
4. Re-creations of ‘lost’ flashback scenes from the film using actress Liesl Ehardt to portray her cousin Zita Johann.
5. A recreation of Imhotep coming to life and scaring the hell out of Bramwell Fletcher.
6. A partial restoration of the film to achieve maximum quality.

“I’ve contacted Mark Redfield and will hopefully have the honour of acting with him in his next two films, The Madness of Frankenstein and The Crimes of Sherlock Holmes. I will have a role in the film 3 Geeks, a popular graphic novel/comic book shooting in South Florida in spring 2008, directed by Heath McKnight. Kreating Karloff is online for free download on itsmyremote.com and has been nominated for a 2007 Rondo Award. I did a brief interview for SFX magazine which will appear in the March 2007 issue.

“Otherwise, I’m still paying my dues working at a coffee shop, and looking for the next acting gig.”

interview: Bobby A Suarez

I never got to interview Filipino film-maker Bobby A Suarez, worse luck. I was hoping to contact him after I had complete my review of The Return of the Bionic Boy, only to discover that he had passed away only a few months earlier. So, by way of both replacement and tribute, here is the e-mail I received from him after he read my review of Female Big Boss. It goes a reasonable way towards explaining his ideas, views, history and (unrealised) ambitions. The photo shows Bobby with Aussie cult movies expert Andrew Leavold, who did get to interview him.

December 26, 2007

Hi MJ:

This is Bobby A. Suarez, the Filipino producer and director who has a good international track record and who after more than 8 years of hibernation and self-imposed sabbatical leave, (to help my wife take care of our youngest and only daughter who was diagnosed as "autistic") I am back again with my first love – making commercial international movies.

For your further information, I was the one who produced and directed "5 cult-classic movies " entitled – "The BIONIC BOY" (El Nino Bionico), which introduced an unknown Singaporean sensation, JOHNSON YAP, in the lead role; "THEY CALL HER CLEOPATRA WONG" (La Mujer Maravilla), which launched the international movie career of another Singaporean superstar, Ms. Doris Young whom I gave the screen name - MARRIE LEE. The Cleopatra Wong cult character so impressed director Quentin Tarrantino that it became the inspiration for his "Kill Bill" movies; "DYNAMITE JOHNSON", (El Nino Bionico-II and Cleopatra Wong-II) , the movie which teamed the two Singaporeans - Marrie Lee and Johnson Yap; "DEVIL'S ANGELS" (Cleopatra Wong-III) with Marrie Lee again playing the lead role. "ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER" (El Verdugo Manco) , the movie that introduced a Filipino actor, Chito Guerrero (whom I had given the screen name - FRANCO GUERERRO) to international audiences. "One-Armed Executioner" played opposite "Heaven's Gate" and landed No. 12 in the top 50  money-making  movies in North America.

I just sold the TELEVISION & HOME-VIDEO-DVD-INTERNET "re-issue rights" of the  above 5-cult-classic movies for NORTH AMERICA to include PUERTO RICO and MEXICO to Messrs. MPI GROUP/DARK SKY FILMS of Illinois. The said 5 movie titles (together with more than a dozen movies which I directed/produced) are at present being aired in The UNITED KINGDOM, IRELAND, ISLE OF MAN, AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND via Firecracker Television of London.

I am at present discussing with my good friend, Pete of London my come back movie projects entitled:

1.) The AMBASSADOR:

A "different" love-story-drama about a former British Ambassador to the Philippines who in his twilight years, returns to paradise to write his memoirs and to find peace and tranquility. Instead, he finds deceit, betrayal and unbridled passion.

My good friend, Mr. JOHN PHILLIP LAW agreed and is very happy and to play the lead role opposite a young, beautiful and talented Filipina actress.

2.) IRON FISTS OF JUSTICE:

An action-packed martial-arts police drama, with my good British (Hollywood-based) actor-friend, MR. GARY DANIELS to play the lead role and to be supported by both American and British martial-arts exponents. Ms. MARRIE LEE of the Cleopatra Wong movie series' fame will play a special role.

I guess that's it for now and if you need more information from me, then please do not hesitate to contact me at the address shown below.

Attached herewith are informative data for your reading pleasure.

Thank you and wishing you and your family a MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Sincerely yours,

BOBBY A. SUAREZ
President, Producer & Director
B.A.S. FILM PRODUCTIONS, INC.

Twister Kicker

Director: Hon Bo Chang
Writer: Mo Hung Ki
Producer: Ku Che Chin
Cast: Yang Oi Hwa, Ding Hwa Sun, Yee Hung
Country: Hong Kong
Year of release: 1984
Reviewed from: UK VHS

'Cover photo/image may not be from this film' says the small print on the back of the video sleeve and they're dead right on this occasion as the photo is from some historical chop-socky feature and this movie is very definitely set in the present day. However the photo on the back is from the film and the synopsis is, unusually for this sort of movie, spot on.

A guy called Chao Ming discovers that he has cancer and only has a month or so to live. At the same time, the orphanage where his girlfriend, Su-An Fang, works needs money for some reason and his godfather, Mr Ho (whom we never see) is in trouble with the law, accused of drug-smuggling. Actually, the Mr Ho subplot is never really followed up and seems completely pointless.

Su-An takes an evening job at a nightclub while Chao starts teaching martial arts at a local gym. Wanting to maximise his income while he can, he takes on a job for a local gangster which involves threatening another local gangster and telling him to clear out of town.

And, um, that's about it. Chao orders his own coffin and funeral clothes and oversees the digging of his own grave as a sort of comic subplot. There are a few lacklustre fights and eventually it transpires, to no-one's surprise, that the doctor was wrong and Chao doesn't have cancer after all. There's some sort of subplot involving another woman named Anna, and Chao lives with a comic relief friend, but that's all incidental to the fighting.

Sadly, the fighting isn't anything to write home about. There's a brief bit of interest when Chao is fighting the gangster's goons around the guy's villa after delivering his initial threat. Some nice overhead shots and creative use of a balcony mark this fight out as vaguely interesting but the other punch-ups, including one in an undertaker's shop and a final one involving students from the gym, are frankly soporific.

Despite the title there is no distinctive fighting style on display here involving either twisting or kicking. Nevertheless this is the original title, seen in a lengthy credit sequence which plays out over completely unrelated polarised footage of a guy doing gymnastics.

Not one of the cast or crew names turns up a single hit on Google, but for what it's worth the film 'stars' Yang Oi Hwa, Ding Hwa Sun, Lam Ying and Wang Hoi with Yee Hung credited as 'guest star'. the other actors listed are Sun Yat, Wang Lan, Chan Kuen and Ng Tung Chiu, the last of whom may or may not be the same as the Ng Tung Chue who is credited as 'martial arts director'.

Other credited crew are: supervisor Wu Se Yee, assistant director Chung Fok Man, cameraman Tao Tung Sang, lighting technician Ng Lung Chin and production manager Sung Yee Hung. Yang Che Kin is credited with 'planning', Hon Hoi Lee was the make-up artist and the continuty (sic) clerk was Chu Qua Fat. The movie was produced by the Dachin Film Co Ltd and distributed by L&T Film Corporation Ltd.

MJS rating: C-

The Ultimate Warrior

Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Robert Clouse
Producer: Fred Weintraub, Paul M Heller
Cast: Yul Brynner, Max von Sydow, William Smith, Joanna Miles
Year of release: 1975
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK TV screening

It’s not a widely held belief, but for this writer the period 1969-1977 was a golden age for SF movies, bookended of course by 2001 and Star Wars. Because relatively few science fiction films were made in the 1970s, those that did hit the screens tended to be well-crafted, well-thought out, imaginative, serious works. A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green... classics all, and now here’s another one, although The Ultimate Warrior seems to have faded into unjustified obscurity.

The film is set in a large US city (probably New York) in some sort of post-holocaust aftermath. Unless there was some sort of prologue (the old video recording I watched was missing the opening titles), then we’re left to guess at why society has broken down. But broken down it has, leaving pockets of civilisation among the lawless streets. Max von Sydow plays ‘The Baron’, leader of a peaceful society of 50 or 60 people, barricaded into a city square to keep out ‘the street people’ and violent rival groups such as the gang led by Carrot (William Smith: Hawaii 5-0, Conan the Barbarian, Hell Comes to Frogtown). They have a water supply, a few children (The Baron’s grandson is imminent) and fresh vegetables thanks to his son-in-law, horticulturalist Cal (Richard Kelton).

Yul Brynner, in a magnificent performance which is right up there with The King and I and Westworld, plays Carson, a fighter for hire who is persuaded to join The Baron’s settlement. He does his best to hold back the encroaching anarchy, but an attack by Carrot’s men and rumblings of dissent within the compound spell the end of The Baron’s dream. He sends Carson, with his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and a bag of precious seeds, into the abandoned underground railway system in the hope that they can make it to a rumoured peaceful island. Carrot and his men pursue the fighter, who stands off against them, knowing that the healthy seeds are the most valuable thing in the city.

This is a powerful, serious film which (along with Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is a very obvious precursor to both Escape from New York and Mad Max 2, the two movies generally regarded as kicking off the whole post-holocaust subgenre. The gradual collapse of civilisation within The Baron’s compound is terrifying, as is his way of keeping order: a man falsely accused of stealing a tomato from the rooftop garden is left to the mob, who tie his wrists, blindfold him and throw him outside where he is swiftly dispatched by the cannibalistic street people, who swarm up from basements like rats. The final stand-off between Carson and Carrot is brutal, savage and culminates in one of the most horrific things you’re ever likely to see.

I am amazed that this film, with a good cast and crew, remains so obscure, especially given that it reteamed the director and producers of Enter the Dragon. The Ultimate Warrior is not only a great action movie, but an excellent social drama which deserves recognition as the inspiration it so clearly was.

MJS rating: A

Monday, 13 October 2014

Elfie Hopkins

Director: Ryan Andrews
Writers: Ryan Andrews, Riyad Barmania
Producers: Jonathan Sothcott, Michael Wiggs
Cast: Jaime Winstone, Aneurin Barnard, Ray Winstone
Year of release: 2012
Country: UK
Reviewed from: Horror Channel broadcast

Elfie Hopkins is not your regular Jonathan Sothcott production. For a start, there’s no sign of his regular stock company, apart from co-producer credits for Simon Phillips and Billy Murray. Also, where most Sothcott movies are distinctly urban (Stalker aside, which was a remake), this is a rural tale, set in the sort of slightly surreal, insular, middle class village community that wouldn’t be out of place in The Avengers.

A co-production between JS’s company (as was) Black and Blue Films and Michael Wiggs’ Size 9 Productions, this is a definite highpoint in the Sothcott filmography, marketed at the time as being the first on-screen pairing of Ray and Jaime Winston. Truth be told, Ray Winstone’s role is little more than a stunt cameo but he and his daughter are actually on screen together. A few years earlier, Winstone Snr starred in a rather good (non-musical) version of Sweeney Todd for the BBC, on which Michael Wiggs, also Ray’s agent, was a producer.

Originally announced as Elfie Hopkins and the Gammons – a more intriguing title which better sums up the film’s quirky approach – this was at one stage going to be filmed in 3D, a decision which I am delighted to know was rescinded. Jaime Winstone, who already had horror previous with interesting misfire Daddy’s Girl and top-notch zombie mini-series Dead Set, was 26 at the time but still capable of playing a teenager. Elfie is a loner, a rebel, an individualist, stuck in the sort of charming commuter-belt village that grown-ups (and little kids) love but which is of no interest to adolescents. Her only friend is Dylan, played by a pre-White Queen Aneurin Barnard, also in his mid-20s at the time.

Together they like to sit in the woods and smoke dope, but child-woman Elfie retains an excitable penchant for Nancy Drew-style detective work, with Dylan applying his geeky computer skills in support. This originates from Elfie’s own refusal to accept that her mother’s death in a hunting accident wasn’t murder, although that’s not really significant to the events of the film itself, except in perhaps justifying her rebellious streak with no mother figure at home and her dad more interested in his second wife.

The story kicks off with the arrival of new neighbours, the Gammons. Mr Gammon (Rupert Evans: Fleming, Lucan) and Mrs Gammon (EastEnders’ Kate Magowan, also in A Lonely Place to Die, and the voice of Xenia Onatopp in a James Bond game!) are suave, confident, self-assured professionals who make their living by arranging expensive, bespoke international trips for just the sort of wealthy upper-middle class types who inhabit villages like this one. Their grown-up twin children Elliot (Will Payne: Fright Night 2) and kooky Ruby (Gwyneth Keyworth, who was in two episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures) are a little less conventional but in a slightly disturbing way, respectively obsessed with guns and samurai swords.

Elfie and Dylan are convinced that the Gammons are up to no good and somehow connected with a series of mysterious murders/disappearances. And indeed they are – because it turns out that the family are cannibals. Something which works best if one approaches the film as a mystery but which was rather given away by the US distributor who put the film out as Elfie Hopkins: Cannibal Hunter. As for Jaime’s dad, he plays the local butcher whom Elfie and Dylan visit with a query about knives. But there may be a little more to his character than that…

This was the feature debut of Ryan Andrews who drew together elements from some of his earlier work. He first met Jaime Winstone when he was a camera trainee on Daddy’s Girl and the two struck up a friendship after he showed her an amateur short he had made in 2003 called Fangula. Andrews then directed Jaime in an episode of a BBC 3 web pilot called Beast Hunters and also directed her dad in Jerusalem, a short film about the artist William Blake. ‘The Gammons’ was the original name of a family looking to adopt a child in Little Munchkin, a short directed by Andrews (featuring several of the Elfie cast) which screened at the 2011 Frighfest. That was co-written by Riyad Barmania who also co-wrote Elfie’s script, then wrote and directed another oddball feature, Ashens and the Quest for the Gamechild, about a collector searching for an almost mythical bit of electronic tat. Warwick Davis and Robert Llewellyn were in that and it sounds very odd. He has also produced some curious-sounding web series.

Elfie Hopkins is to some extent targeted at a teenage audience of geeks, misfits, emos and outsiders, but despite that (perhaps because of that) it’s actually a delightfully quirky and thoroughly British piece of oddball cinema. It would be a mistake to market it too much as ‘horror’ - though that is certainly what it is - simply because it’s not obviously appealing to regular horror-fans and gore-hounds. There is an indie sensibility to the film and its characters; Andrews cites Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Twin Peaks as influences and while not overt, there is a correlation there which bears inspection.

Alongside the script and the performances, much of the credit for the film’s success must go to cinematographer Tobia Sempi and production designer Tim Dickel. The former, who photographed Andrews’ short films and subsequently lit as-yet-unreleased Brit-horror Tick Tock Trick, drains much of the colour from the image, making Elfie and Dylan stand out from their surroundings. The woodland scenes have a touch of rural-horror atmosphere about them while the interiors further alienate the two twentysomething teenagers. Dickel, whose other work includes Panic Button and Skins, has an absolute ball with Elfie’s and Dylan’s bedrooms, contrasting them with the respectable middle class world of their parents and neighbours. Ever-reliable costume designer Sian Jenkins, another Panic Button alumna, dresses Elfie in a terrific selection of individualistic, grungy costumes (Winstone described the character as "a female Kurt Cobain") and really goes to town with Ruby Gammon’s eccentric Victorian doll look.

Editor Peter Hollywood (no, really) stitched together such fascinating pictures as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a 1979 adaptation of The Riddle of the Sands and a 1981 version of Sredni Vashtar which was nominated for a ‘Best Short Film’ Oscar. He also cut a version of Gallowwalkers but I don’t know if that’s the one that got released.

Julian Lewis Jones (in episodes of Jekyll and Torchwood) and Amanda Drew (Dr Wright in EastEnders) are Elfie’s father and stepmother. Also in the cast are Kimberley Nixon (Fresh Meat, Black Death), Claire Cage (episodes of Wizards vs Aliens and Torchwood), Richard Harrington (the screwed-up psychiatrist who fell for Jaime’s screwed-up teenager in Daddy’s Girl), Alastair Cumming (The Wolves of Kromer, Beyond Bedlam), Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords, Underworld sequels and the 1989 TV version of The Woman in Black) and Brit-horror regular Sule Rimi (Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming, NOTLD Resurrection, The Machine, Panic Button, Vampire Guitar) as the local plod who, naturally, doesn’t believe any of this. Also, one of the unnamed villagers is Dean Andrews – DC Ray Carling from Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes!

A teaser trailer of Jaime Winstone in character was shot and released to the web in Summer 2009 (you can still find it on Daily Motion) when the plan was still to shoot in 3D and Vertigo Films were attached to the project, with principal photography scheduled for that winter. The film was eventually shot in March 2011 around Ryan Andrews’ childhood haunts in Wales, Elfie Hopkins was given a comparatively swish premiere in April 2012 – not many BHR films are featured in Tatler! - just ahead of a brief theatrical jaunt. The DVD was released in August and the US disc in March 2013. Since then the film has built up something of a cult following, and deservedly so.

We await Ryan Andrews’ second feature, but in the meantime his shorts are on his website. Fangula is two and a half minutes of pretentious art student bollocks with Andrews himself as a vampire. Beast Hunters is a self-consciously wacky seven-minute short about three young people who hunt monsters, with Robert Llewellyn as their mentor and James Corden (Lesbian Vampire Killers) as some sort of small, blue genie or something.

Little Munchkin, however, is absolutely magnificent. Harrington and Nia Roberts (The Facility) play Mr and Mrs Jones. a stiff, politically incorrect couple clearly modelled (albeit perhaps subconsciously) on the ‘Peter and Jennifer Wells’ characters in Absolutely. Keyworth (aged 20) just about gets away with playing the ‘little girl’ they adopt, by virtue of a gloriously pixie-esque performance. Rebecca Harries and Clare Cage are the nuns managing the orphanage, the former a study in comic efficiency, the latter without dialogue but with a distinctive facial tick. Sule Rimi turns in the expected cracking performance as the babysitter. Most of the crew are names from the Elfie Hopkins credits.

More recently Andrews has been shooting music videos for Charlie XCX, but one can only hope that he will before too long give us another film as wonderfully individualistic and entertaining as Little Munchkin or Elfie Hopkins.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Stalker

Director: Martin Kemp
Writer: Martin Kemp
Producer: Jonathan Sothcott
Cast: Anna Brecon, Linda Hayden, Jane March
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener

Confession time: I have never seen Exposé. Sorry. I never claimed to be an authority on 1970s British horror films. Look, you can’t see everything, okay? (Especially when, like me, you only really get into horror quite late in life.) I can watch all the classics, or I can watch all the new and interesting and esoteric stuff, but I only have so many hours in a day.

If I tried to catch up on all the well-known films I’ve never seen (or seen so long ago that I can’t recall much about them) you’d never hear from me again. I would rather watch and review something that few if any people have seen than something that everyone (else) has seen. Which is, in a roundabout sort of way, one of the reasons why I’m reviewing this pre-release screener of Stalker, the film which was originally announced as a remake of Exposé.

In a sense I’m in a good position to watch the film since it is now considerably distanced from the 1970s picture. I can view it without prejudice. After watching, I checked Harvey Fenton’s piece on Exposé in Ten Years of Terror and spotted some parallels but also it’s evident that the main plot here is different, albeit spinning off from an equivalent premise. So we’ll hear no more about that old film and get on with reviewing this one.

...Which is a psychological horror of the old school, for good or bad. There are none of the social realist themes which characterise the best modern British horror here. The characters are divorced from reality and the setting is a spooky old 16th century farmhouse: the story is about the individuals, not their world (and certainly not ours).

Anna Brecon (who was a fairy in Fairytale: A True Story!) plays Paula Martin, whose debut novel was a massive success but who now feels under immense pressure to produce a follow-up. Her agent Sara (Jennifer Matter: Dead Cert) suggests getting away from That London and finding a quiet spot in the country so Paula heads out of town.

The luxurious house, we discover, belongs to her absent uncle who is off jaunting round the world and leaves the place in the care of housekeeper Mrs Brown and gardener Josh. Linda Hayden (from, erm, Exposé) plays Mrs Brown but it’s not much of a character and Hayden, now in her mid-fifties, seems unsure how to play her, coming across (largely thanks to an unflattering and old-fashioned costume) like a half-hearted attempt to be Mrs Overall without the laughs. Corrie’s Danny Young as Josh only has a few lines.

After accidentally spiking her hand on a nail, Paula can’t even type properly but fortunately a PA appears, sent by Sara, to provide assistance. This is raven-haired hottie Linda (Jane March: Tarzan and the Lost City, Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula) who couldn’t look more like a rapacious lesbian if she casually sported a jaunty strap-on. At first the two women get on but gradually the relationship reverses until Linda is writing the novel and demanding coffee from Paula. To be honest, the switch, while not abrupt, isn’t as gradual as it could have been. The film only runs about 77 minutes and there seems something of a lacuna in the middle, as if part of the slow build has been excised in order to get to the nasty stuff quicker.

Two of producer Jonathan Sothcott’s regular repertory company are featured: Billy Murray (who is a partner in Black and Blue Films, along with director Martin Kemp) and the always-super-suave Colin Salmon. Murray gives another terrific performance as Robert Gainer, a magazine journalist keen to interview Paula and find out the truth behind the rumours that she had a nervous breakdown. Salmon is typically smooth as Leo, Paula’s psychiatrist, although it’s quite late in the film before this is clear so for much of his screentime he’s a bit of an enigma (deliberately or not - I can’t say). I initially assumed he was a manager or accountant or publicist or ex-boyfriend or... anyway, he’s her shrink.

The expected violence and madness does arrive in the second half of the film, with good prosthetic effects supplied by Mindflesh’s Sangeet Prabhaker, who also worked on Kemp’s debut short Karma Magnet. The screenplay is credited to Kemp with ‘screen story’ shared between Kemp, Sothcott and Philip Barron (although you should put all thoughts of the execrable Just for the Record out of your mind). There are a number of red herrings which are ultimately meaningless and the twist is, to be brutally honest, obvious from fairly early on. Which is not to take away from a skilfully handled climactic confrontation which does credited to Kemp’s directorial skills, the actresses involved and also make-up artists Natalie Wickens (Devil’s Playground, Jack Falls, Zombie Diaries 2) and Pippa Woods (Doghouse, The Reeds, Umbrage).

Most of the dialogue is very good which is why it’s a shame that the twist is revealed in a clumsy, unsubtle info-dump conversation about ten minutes before the end. There is also an odd inconsistency when Gainer’s magazine changes title from Book Review to The Book. More significantly Leo is horrified to discover that Sara gave the journalist Paula’s address (for ‘publicity purposes’) even though, as far as we can tell, it was Leo himself who consented to supply the address (some sort of bribery/blackmail thing - it’s not entirely clear) and Sara has spent much of her screentime making it clear to Gainer that she doesn’t need or want him or his magazine. There is also a pay-off final shot which is a cheap gag that the story neither needs nor deserves.

That said, on the whole Stalker works very well in what it sets out to do, which is to explore a broken mind and document the broken bodies that result from same, within a stylishly gothic ambience. The characters are generally believable even if none of them are particularly likeable. An unobtrusive score by Neil Chaney (Tracker, Jerome’s Weakness) and fine cinematography by the ever-reliable James Friend (Man Who Sold the World, The Hike) give the film the professional sheen which it requires. This is no gritty urban drama, it’s a story of posh publishing folks who drink red wine in expensive restaurants. Proper, old-fashioned British horror of the sort that doesn’t get made much any more, certainly at this level of quality.

Bizarrely, production designer Alison Butler’s most notable previous credit was Big Cook, Little Cook. Millie Sloan (Zombie Diaries 2, Devil’s Playground) designed the costumes. Triana Terry (posh Lucy in Just for the Record) has a couple of lines as Sara’s PA and Deo Simcox (narrator of Wibbly Pig!) has no lines at all as a small scarlet fish.

Stalker is another solid horror feature from Sothcott and his mates and bodes well for the like of The Sorcerers and The Asphyx which are, at present, still being touted as remakes. There is, so far as I can spot, no acknowledgement on screen of the inspirational film apart from a ‘thank you’ to producer Brian Smedley-Aston.

MJS rating: B+

Review originally posted 9th September 2011

Quest for the Seven Cities

Director: Mark L Lester
Writer: 'Sue Donem'
Producer: Alfredo Leone
Cast: Bo Svenson, Anita Ekberg, Donald Pleasence
Year of release: 1979
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Scan Euro Video, 1987)

In today’s media world, there is no stigma to being a TV movie. Telemovies are often better than the films we see in the cinema, with top stars, excellent scripts, big budgets and talented directors. But there was a time, not so long ago, when telemovies were almost guaranteed to be pisspoor with slumming has-beens, hopeless wannabes and non-existent budgets.

One such is this late 1970s piece of nonsense, the quality of which can be accurately judged by the way that the writer has disguised his/her name with a staggeringly lame nom-de-plume. It seems that even Alan Smithee wouldn’t own up to Quest for the Seven Cities.

Originally released as Gold of the Amazon Women, the movie stars Bo Svenson (Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, Curse II, Kill Bill Vol.2 and the monster in the faithful but dull Victor Frankenstein), who looks like a sort of cut-price Rutger Hauer, as explorer Tom Jensen. On his way to the ‘Discoverers Club’ in New York, he is watched from the rooftops by two young women dressed in animal skins and carrying bows and arrows. A staggeringly wooden receptionist tells him that a man has been calling for him and this turns out to be elderly explorer Frederick Reynolds (Carl Low), believed dead in the jungles of South America. Reynolds has discovered the legendary seven cities of El Dorado but a man named Blasko plans to steal all the gold and use it to dominate the world drugs market. Or something.

Reynolds gives Jensen a map before being hit by two arrows from the young ladies, who then shoot each other as a form of double suicide.

At Reynolds’ wake, Jensen finds himself chatting with Luis Escobar (Richard Romanus: The Couch Trip and a recurring role in The Sopranos), a camping supplies store-owner who has never been further then upstate New York. “Was he really that famous?” asks Escobar, to which Jensen replies, “If Frederick Reynolds had lived in the 16th century they probably would have named a country after him. But he didn’t.” When their dining companion is poisoned by a man disguised as a waiter, Tom decides to go to South America to find the cities and Luis decides to go with him. It is never explained who the pseudo-waiter was or why he killed their companion, but then lots of things in this film are not explained.

Watching from a passing limo is Clarence Blasko, played by Donald Pleasence, who didn’t half make some crap films in among the good ones.

After the first ad break, Tom and Luis are in Brazil where a monk gives them a copy of a map because the original was stolen a few weeks ago. This suggests that Blasko stole it but then why is he (as we will discover) desperate to get Tom’s map? And why does Tom need the monk’s map when he has the one that Reynolds gave him? Never mind because in their hotel room Tom finds a ridiculously rubber snake in his suitcase, which is all that is needed for him and Luis to jump off their balcony into the shrubbery, climb into their landrover and drive off as Blasko and two leggy lovelies shoot at them.

The rest of the film takes place in the Amazon jungle although no attempt is made at continuity as the amount and type of vegetation varies from one shot to the next and it all looks about as lush and tropical as my back garden in Leicester. And for unexplored jungle, it doesn’t half have some parts that are easy to drive along.

In a native village (populated by people with remarkably varied skin colour for one isolated tribe) they dine on monkey stew and Tom dances with a fur bikini-clad young lady before getting into a fight with her strapping black boyfriend. The next morning, as they prepare to drive off, the big chap from last night climbs into the jeep to go with them. His name is Noboro, he is played by stuntman Robert Minor, and he gets killed off about ten minutes later. Specifically what happens is:

  • Blasko and his girls shoot at the jeep from a helicopter;
  • The three men jump from the jeep which then blows up;
  • They trek through the ‘jungle’ for a bit;
  • Luis gets bitten by some poisonous ants;
  • Noboro gets bitten by a deadly snake while finding an ant-antidote for Luis.

The Noboro character serves no purpose whatsoever except to fill a bit of time and it really wasn’t worth the actor turning up, especially when one considers Bob Minor’s amazing list of credits. These include a stack of blaxploitation classics - Blacula, Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown - as well as Live and Let Die, Rollerball, Escape from New York, Maniac Cop 2 and 3, National Treasure and, um, Team Knight Rider.

The next day, Tom and Luis are captured by a small tribe of ‘Amazon women’. In actual fact all the women are lovely young things in their twenties who are about as Amazonian as children’s TV presenters. They wear a variety of skimpy animal skin costumes, they carry spears and bows, they have fair skin, they speak English, they’re played by a couple of stuntwomen and a whole load of ‘actresses’ who were never in anything else - and some of them have crimped hair, which must be tricky to achieve in the jungle. The only exception to this is their Queen, 48-year-old Anita Ekberg who is the only member of the tribe to have ever visited the seven cities and who is mutton dressed as lamb in this movie, no mistake. The star of La Dolce Vita was at a real high point in her career in 1979, having recently completed that sensitive exploration of religion and mortality Killer Nun...

Tom and Luis are put in a wooden cage with an English guy, a German guy and an old man who is, we are assured, only 35. They are held prisoner by the Amazons purely to provide the tribe with (female) babies, a theory which doesn’t really hold up as the Englishman claims to have been there six years and there are clearly no children under six - or any children at all - running around the small village (which is obviously the previously seen native village redressed to save money).

Two girls fight over the new arrivals on a raft in a shallow river and when one falls in Tom rescues her from a rubber alligator, then he and Luis spend the night with the two young ladies, (Maggie Jean Smith and Bond Gideon). Blasko and his girls (who are renegade Amazons and, being both over six feet, actually look the part) arrive in their helicopter, drop gas bombs on the village, steal the map from Tom’s pocket and then torch the huts. The queen then leads her girls (and boys) through the ‘jungle’ to one of the seven cities, which fortunately is the one that Blasko is heading for too (along with a servant carrying his table, chair and picnic basket).

The ‘city’ turns out to be a really badly done forced perspective model where Blasko and the girls are warned away by a miniature man who says, “I was once normal size but I was shrunk alive by the...” - it sounds like ‘hebiles’. The three baddies are captured by a tribe of primitive men who also attack the women when they arrive. But Tom shows that the wee guy is an optical illusion (or as we sometimes call them, a bad special effect) and the men are repulsed by the women, who then take Blasko and his girls to the nearest town (it’s only 60 miles away!) to hand them over to the authorities.

Tom and Luis say goodbye to the ladies - who are apparently returning to the jungle (a) despite having no village left and (b) by bus - and fly off in a plane. There are no end credits on this video version (so nothing to tell us that the music is by Gil Melle who also composed for Night Gallery, Frankenstein: The True Story, The Ultimate Warrior, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and masses of other films and TV shows).

Quest for the Seven Cities is dreadful in every respect. It was clearly shot for about twenty dollars and no thought has been given towards how the tribes might exist in reality, yet this isn’t funny enough to be a spoof, surely? It’s light-hearted but it’s hardly a comedy. Among the cast only Pleasence stands out, but then his cultured criminal is about the only role with even a hint of characterisation.

The ‘Sue Donem’-ous script is the work of executive producer Stanley Ralph Ross, a major force behind the Wonder Woman TV series and also a writer on Batman, The Man from UNCLE and The Monkees. It’s full of bits that sound like they might work - Amazons prowling New York rooftops, a bite from a deadly snake, etc - but which are ineptly handled and which certainly don’t make a cohesive whole. There’s no reasoning behind anything, no clear plan of what any of the characters are ultimately aiming to do or how they will do it.

Director Mark L Lester scored a few hits in the early ‘80s - Commando, Firestarter, Class of 1984 - before returning to a career helming things you’ve never heard of. Italian producer Alfredo Leone had previously written, produced and directed Lisa and the Devil/House of Exorcism. And cinematographer David Quaid had actually worked on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and was a camera operator on Exorcist II, so this is only the third worst film he ever made.

MJS rating: D