Monday, 27 April 2015

The Mothman Curse

Director: Richard Mansfield
Writer: Richard Mansfield
Producers: Daniel and Richard Mansfield
Cast: Katy Vans, Rachel Dale, Darren Munn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.mansfielddark.com

Richard Mansfield continues to redefine the limits of contemporary British horror with his latest feature. Mansfield, regular readers may recall, is the creator of feature-length shadow puppet fairy tale Wolfskin (plus numerous similar shorts) and historical LGBT spook story The Secret Path. For The Mothman Curse, he has taken the idea of lo-fi film-making to extremes and shot the bulk of the film on a CCTV camera purchased for a tenner from Woolworths. It makes for a unique viewing experience.

The actual plot is, as with Mansfield’s other features, somewhat nebulous. Rachel (Rachel Dale) and Katy (Katy Vans, who voiced a couple of Richard's shadow animations) are friends who have landed a job sorting and cataloguing a massive collection of film publicity material at London’s Cinema Museum.

Now, I had not previously heard of the Cinema Museum, possibly because it’s not so much a museum as an archive. You can’t just turn up and look around, though they do hold events. It’s basically a vast collection of stuff relating to cinema and cinemas. Including not just posters and lobby cards and the like but also commissionaires’ uniforms, popcorn kiosks, no smoking signs and all manner of ephemera. There are boxes and files stacked everywhere. The chance to explore something like that would be any film fan’s dream.

Katy and Rachel are clearly not film fans per se, which is probably a good thing because otherwise they would never get any work done. Rachel knows Stephen (Stephen Glover), proprietor of the museum who lets them in and sets them to work among the filing cabinets.

A prologue and flashbacks (dream sequences?) shot on colour 8mm film show Rachel at the seaside (St Bees in Cumbria to be precise) where she found something on a beach. Possibly an antique whistle. This has brought some sort of demonic entity with it which now starts skulking around the Cinema Museum, haunting not only Rachel but increasingly Katy too.

That prĂ©cis vastly oversimplifies and massively underplays the nature of this spooky and disturbing feature film. The ‘mothman’ (played by Mansfield’s husband Daniel) is seen only as a dark, humanoid figure with glowing eyes and two points sticking up from its head like the ears on a Batman cowl. Mansfield’s skill lies in the subtle ways he inserts the mothman into the film, sometimes glimpsed by one of the women (though never both), sometimes seen only by us.

Other elements are used to gradually ramp up the spookiness, including mobile telephone rings and a mysterious knocking on the door. There are scenes at the women’s homes (with Darren Munn as Katy’s husband) and there are shots inside and outside the museum (which is based in an old Victorian workhouse where, coincidentally, young Charles Chaplin and his mother were briefly residents).

The use of the CCTV camera, with its very grainy, monochrome footage adds immeasurably to the tense atmosphere of the film. There being no viewfinder on the thing, Mansfield had to shoot the whole affair ‘blind’, trusting that he was pointing the camera in the right direction. In the night-time scenes, a single circle of light hovers in front of the lens, panning as the camera pans. The effect is extremely spooky. Sometimes Mansfield plays about a bit in post, freezing the image, zooming in – which of course only adds to the graininess.

Now at this point in the review, something may be niggling at the back of your mind. Something you read a couple of paragraphs back. Something about finding a whistle on a beach. If I tell you that The Mothman Curse was previously entitled Who is Coming, maybe that’s another clue. All right, I’ll tell you. The answer is ‘MR James’. And the question is: who or what is the biggest influence on this film?

You may recall that in ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’, a man finds a whistle on a beach, engraved with a Latin motto which translates as “Who is this who is coming?” – and indeed the phrase “who is coming” is heard quietly on the soundtrack of this film. Mansfield is a huge fan of the old BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, most of which were Jamesian adaptations, and the influence of Montague Rhodes James seeps throughout The Mothman Curse. It’s in the prosaic, very English ordinariness of the characters and their domestic lives, but it’s also in the cramped, somewhat chaotic, dusty rooms and corridors of the Cinema Museum itself, redolent of the university or church archives and libraries which so often featured in James’ stories. It’s certainly there in the don’t-look-behind-you, shivers-down-the-spine creepiness of the situation and the narrative, which is far more disturbing than a simple ghostly haunting.

The film was actually shot back in 2013, before Wolfskin or The Secret Path, as Owlman – Richard presumably later decided that a mothman was scarier – and carries a 2014 copyright date. Wild Eye Releasing put the film out on DVD/VOD in April 2015 with a sleeve that can’t in all honesty, be said to bear any resemblance whatsoever to any aspect of the film. The character of the owlman/mothman was first used by Mansfield in 2013 in his 90-second animation There’s Something at the End of My Bed which was submitted to Virgin Media Shorts and is included on the Wild Eye disc. A second short on the disc, You Suck, isn’t a vampire film but instead a shadow puppet version of the story of Suck-a-Thumb (archly narrated by Daniel under his pre-married named of Daniel Marlowe).

Bizarrely, the US disc seems to have been pipped to the post, by just a few days, by an Argentian release entitled La Maldicion del Hombre Mariposa. If this image is accurate and untampered with, the back of the sleeve features not only unrelated photos but also the credit block for the Hollywood movie Maps to the Stars! But it does have the Mothman Curse synopsis in Spanish on there too...

Daniel Mansfield’s gay vampire film Drink Me (produced by Richard, and with Darren Munn in the cast) was released around the same time as The Mothman Curse, and another feature Video Killer (also with Munn) is in post. Meanwhile, at time of writing, the ever busy Mr Mansfield is currently working with shadow puppets again, adapting MR James’ story ‘Count Magnus’.

The Mothman Curse won’t be to everybody’s taste, and is almost certainly going to generate some negative reviews from disappointed punters suckered in by Wild Eye’s packaging, but for MR James fans and anyone else who appreciates something genuinely spooky, it’s very much worth tracking down.

MJS rating: B+

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Sons of the Sea

Director: Maurice Elvey
Writers: D William Woolf, George Barraud, Reginald Long
Producer: KC Alexander
Cast: Leslie Banks, Mackenzie Ward, Kay Walsh
Country: UK
Year of release: 1939
Reviewed from: UK TV broadcast

Some reference sources describe this as a tale of naval espionage and while that's not completely untrue it is really just a whodunnit murder mystery set in a naval training establishment. It also has one of the least satisfying endings I have ever seen with a resolution for which 'half-hearted' would seem to be hyperbolic praise. Nevertheless I was very excited to catch this film when the BBC broadcast it in 2005 and I strongly recommend it to you, should the chance to see it ever come your way. We will get to the whys and wherefores later.

The story is set in and around the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, filmed on location with large numbers of Naval cadets as extras. When the base's captain, Captain Arthurs, fails to show for the regular inspection parade, he is discovered murdered. The only clues are a few drops of blood on a windowsill and some footprints in a flowerbed. As it happens, Arthurs was about to retire and his successor, Captain Hyde (Leslie Banks: The Tunnel, The Man Who Knew Too Much, perhaps best known to genre fans as Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game), arrives that same day from Singapore to prepare for transferal of duty.

No-one can imagine why someone would want to off a nice old duffer like Arthurs, but it seems that a newspaper had wrongly reported Hyde as already being in command so the murderer might have thought his victim was Hyde - who has some information on 'secret minefields' laid by the enemy. Produced in 1939 before the outbreak of war, the script studiously avoids mentioning Germany but there is an assumption that the murderer must be 'a foreigner' and there are, interestingly, several references to what will happen "during the war", demonstrating that hostilities were now considered a fait accompli.

Arriving at the base just as the gates are locked, Hyde's taxi nearly knocks down a rather louche young chap named Newton Howells (Mackenzie Ward: the 1948 Monkey's Paw and an uncredited role in The Two Face of Dr Jekyll) whose presence is explained by flashing papers which identify him, we eventually learn, as an agent of the British Secret Service.

Spying on all those from an astronomical observatory on the hills above the base is Alison Deaver, played by Kay Walsh who was Nancy in David Lean's Oliver Twist and was also in Stage Fright, Vice Versa, Gilbert Harding Speaks of Murder and, later, A Study in Terror and Hammer's The Witches. Alison uses her father's telescopes to watch the strapping young cadets and officers, especially Lieutenant Street (Peter Shaw, who allegedly played the tiny devil created by Dr Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein!), a handsome but humourless young man with whom Alison is stepping out. Professor Deaver (the great Kynaston Reeves: the 1932 version of The Lodger, Four-sided Triangle, Fiend Without a Face, Uncle Nicholas in The Forsyte Saga) is a typical movie scientist, buried in a notebook and paying only vague attention to what is going on around him. Since his wife died, he and Alison have been looked after by Margaret Howells - played as slightly potty comic relief by Ellen Pollock (Non-Stop New York, Spare a Copper and, much later, in Horror Hospital) - who hasn't seen her brother for 25 years. When Newton arrives, Alison is quite taken by him and the attraction seems to be mutual. Also in the mix is Captain Hyde's son Philip (Simon Lack, who was in Nigel Kneale's The Creature and much later faced another creature in Trog), a cadet at the college, who breaks the news to his father that he wants to leave the Navy and go into business.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on Captain Hyde asking Philip to borrow a car and pick him up from nearby Churston railway station. Philip drives his father down to Churston Cove where a small boat takes the Captain out to a Royal Navy launch. His suspicions of 'secret minefields' have proved correct. There are lots of mines attached to the sea-bed (we see a deep sea diver's costume onboard the launch) which are linked by an electrical system. If British ships moor in the cove, a 'foreigner' can press a single button somewhere which will cause all these mines to float to the surface which will either destroy or blockade the British fleet; I'm not sure on that point, but whatever, it's bad news.

This technological-military innovation is barely even a McGuffin here. I don't know how credible such a device would have been in 1939 but it's not really enough to tip the film into borderline science-fiction, unlike the engine-destroying ray in the same year's Q Planes or the radio-controlled tank in Walter Forde's 1929 feature Would You Believe It?

An 'unidentified aeroplane' bombs the launch, by which I mean the Navy can't identify it and neither can I - what sorts of twin-engined monoplanes were in use with the RAF in mid-1939? Captain Hyde survives and is picked up by a fishing boat but he has completely lost his memory. The crux of the story is that Hyde swore Philip to secrecy about this brief car journey from Churston station to the cove (which, to be honest, it looks like he could have walked). Interrogated by Commander Herbert (Cecil Parker: The Man Who Changed His Mind, The Lady Vanishes, The Man in the White Suit, Circus of Fear, Oh! What a Lovely War, but probably best known as Claude in The Lady Killers), who is now acting Captain, and an officer from Naval Intelligence, Philip refuses to say anything about the lift he gave his father, even after a comedy relief station porter is brought in to attest that he saw the two of them on that day. Philip still won't say where he took his father to, but given that Captain Hyde was picked up floating in the sea near Churston it's hardly a head-scratcher. Nobody seems bothered at all about the other sailors on that ill-fated launch.

The 'mystery', if it can be called that, is how did the enemy know that Captain Hyde was on that particular launch and can Hyde's memory be retrieved in order to obtain details of these secret minefields that he discovered. Philip eventually admits to having told secret serviceman Howells who had promised to help him move to New Zealand. Lieutenant Street races over to the Deavers' house (a large Elizabethan manse with a croquet lawn, and a state-of-the-art observatory of course) to find that Margaret and her brother have traveled separately to visit Margaret's relatives in Exeter. When a taxi pulls up and disgorges Margaret who can't understand why her 'brother' failed to show, it is clear that Howells is an enemy agent on the run. He is picked up boarding a ferry and his identity revealed as 'Kapitan Mueller', the closest that the film gets to fingering Germany as the enemy. Asked how he obtained the identity papers of the real, presumably deceased, Newton Howells, Mueller simply responds, "Perhaps you can work that out using your Naval Intelligence," which is a bit of a cop-out.

Meanwhile, attempts to retrieve Captain Hyde's memory come to nothing until the sound of a biplane flying over the base causes him to relive those few moments when the other plane made repeated bombing runs across the launch (a scene achieved using remarkably good back-projection, it must be said) and when he recognises his son it's clear that his memory has returned and the Royal Navy is safe.

Alison is reunited with Lieutenant Street; Philip, who has realised that he wants to stay in the Navy after all, is sent out to rejoin the inspection parade; as the band plays the National Anthem the camera pans to a painting of King George VI on the Commander's wall; and the film finishes with a picture of Nelson and the caption, 'England expects that every man this day will do his duty.' (The opening credits play over paintings of Napoleonic naval battles and this broadcast was possibly inspired by the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar a few days earlier, although it may also have been something of a tribute to Kay Walsh, coming only six weeks after her death at age 93.)

This all makes the film sound more complicated and exciting than it is, though for the most part it's an enjoyable, jolly romp. There is also a red herring subplot in Professor Deaver's odd behaviour: he partakes of late night walks and cryptic phone conversations, and somebody points out that he is actually a foreigner. But it turns out that he is secretly planning to marry a glamourpuss named Miss Day, seen briefly on the other end of a telephone. To the film's credit, the comic relief never intrudes or seems out of place and is occasionally actually amusing. The station porter is played with a bug-eyed, moustachioed eccentricity that puts one in mind of James Finlayson and Margaret Howells has one terrific line when Lieutenant Street asks her if she is sure that the man calling himself Newton Howells really is her long-lost brother. "Oh yes," she says, "I distinctly recall there being two of us."

But the development and especially the resolution of the weak plot is just not there, as you can see. The film is of interest to Naval historians for its footage of pre-war (just) cadets parading at the Royal Naval College although it's a shame that in a film about the Royal Navy we never see a single ship. The only craft on view are the launch that gets bombed, the fishing boat that picks up Hyde and the Dartmouth estuary ferry. There are a few nice shots of a GWR locomotive and carriages and some nice old 1930s cars, plus footage shot from the ground of two planes flying over. But no ships.

So why, you are wondering, is this film of such interest? The answer is: it's in colour. Sons of the Sea was the first British feature film ever shot using a single-strip colour process, in this case a system known as 'Dufaycolor'. (The company which developed the system was a UK-US collaboration - although inventor Louis Dufay was French - hence the American spelling.) Four years previously the process had been used for two sequences in Radio Parade of 1935, but this was its first use for an entire film. Only the opening logo of 'Grand National Pictures', the film's US distributor, is in black and white.

Technicolor at this time was still a three-strip process, meaning that the image was split into its three primary colours which were recorded on three strips of negative film, later combined to create a full-colour print. This required, as you can imagine, a pretty large and cumbersome camera. Dufaycolor got round this by using special negative film that carried rows of microscopic filters, enabling all three colours to be recorded on one strip of film. This meant that Dufaycolor films could be shot using existing cameras and there is some nice fluid camera movement in this film that simply wouldn't be possible with a Technicolor camera of the same vintage.

The Centre for British Film and Television Studies at Birkbeck University in London has a rather scholarly essay on the use of Dufaycolor in non-fiction films, which is where it was mostly featured. Unfortunately the war put paid to all further development of Dufaycolor movies in the UK and although it was used for a few years afterwards, it had pretty much died out by the 1950s.

It must be said that the colour in the print shown by the BBC (which had the odd scratch and jump but was for the most part in very good nick) was outstanding. The blue of the sea, the green of the field, the yellow of Alison's dress - all amazingly vivid, albeit more muted than one might be used to from later colour films, more like a picture postcard. The beautiful West Country weather certainly must have helped matters. The colours reminded me a little of the ones you see on those Hammer publicity stills which were actually black and white photos coloured by hand.

There is no attempt here to foreground the colour process or to let it dominate the story. In fact there is a lot of black and white; the Naval cadet uniforms of this era are black jackets with white trousers and white caps, and Howells is first seen wearing an all-white suit. There is very little contrast within the blacks, but there is some surprisingly effective day-for-night photography. Because of the nature of the process, almost a sort of primitive digitisation, the picture is not terribly sharp or crisp, but the colours make up for any softness in the image. There may not be much of a plot but this is a wonderful film to watch, a real feast for the eyes.

The rather charming directorial credit is 'Sole direction: Maurice Elvey' (High Treason, The Lodger, The Tunnel) but the writing credits are typically complex for the age. This British Consolidated Pictures Production is ‘by’ Gerald Elliott (The Frog, Return of the Frog) and Maurice Elvey, but the ‘scenario’ is credited to D William Woolf and George Barraud (also an actor - he was in Charlie Chan in London) while Reginald Long (who wrote, and starred in, the 1936 borderline horror The Avenging Hand) is credited with ‘dialogue’. I wonder whether the film might actually be based on a stage play as it’s awfully talky and if you conflated the Devears’ observatory and sitting room into one set, then used a cover-all office for every room in the college, you could do it on stage fairly easily. This would explain why parts make little sense or seem utterly perfunctory (for example, the Miss Day subplot), if chunks of the story were cut out in order to make room for all the parade footage and other exterior shots, while keeping the running time under 80 minutes. There are two Doctor Watsons in the cast: a very young Nigel Stock (The Dambusters, The Lost Continent) plays Philip’s chum Rudd and would later star in the 1960s TV version of Sherlock Holmes opposite Peter Cushing, while Ian Fleming (not the James Bond author!) had already played Watson in The Sleeping Cardinal, The Missing Rembrandt, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes and Silver Blaze. Also credited on screen are Charles Eaton and Robert Field.

Cinematographer Eric Cross also lit The Mystery of the Marie Celeste and handled the underwater photography on little-seen 1934 British monster movie The Secret of the Loch; editor Dug (sic) Myers went on to cut Blood of the Vampire; sound recordist Leo Wilkins worked on The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, The Cruel Sea and The Lady Killers; ‘interior settings’ (ie. art direction) is by Jack Maxted (Diamonds are Forever, Jason and the Argonauts, Warlords of Atlantis); make-up artist HF Fletcher is presumably Harry Fletcher (Curse of the Fly, The Earth Does Screaming). The other credited crew are production manager Louis London and assistant director Fred V Merrick (Elvey’s younger brother) who is miscredited as FW Merrick.

‘For Dufaycolor’, says the credits: ‘Adrian Klein, John New, Joan Bridge’. Klein (who is incorrectly listed as ‘Adrian Clyne’ on the Inaccurate Movie Database and elsewhere) worked for an even more obscure process, Gasparcolor, for whom he made several short animated films and one short documentary, before becoming official spokesman for Dufraycolor. A former Army Major, he published an extraordinary book called Coloured Light: An Art Medium in 1926 (reprinted as Colour Music: The Art of Light eleven years later) which suggested that music and colour should be inextricably linked in performance; he also wrote one of the first books on colour cinematography in 1936. Joan Bridge defected to Technicolor after the war, working on Blithe Spirit, A Matter of Life and Death, Genevieve and Ben Hur, eventually putting her colour skills to use as costume designer on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Half a Sixpence and other pictures. I can’t find anything on John New.

Possibly the most fascinating career that encompases this film is that of South African cameraman Ted Moore. After serving in the RAF film crew he working on such high profile movies as The African Queen and Genevieve before making the natural progression from camera operator to cinematographer in the mid-1950s and racking up a CV which includes Cockleshell Heroes, The Gamma People, The Day of the Triffids, Dr No (and six other Bonds), Psychomania, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Clash of the Titans, A Man for All Seasons (for which he won an Oscar), Orca - Killer Whale and The Martian Chronicles!

For the film itself, MJS rating: D+
For the technical aspects: MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 4th June 2005.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

interview: Sabina Sattar

I interviewed Sabina Sattar, producer of Summer Scars, when I visited the set in August 2006.

Was this something that Julian Richards brought to you? How do you know him?
“This is something Julian brought to me. I’ve never worked with him before; I’ve produced short films before. I met up with Julian, he was looking for a new independent producer, had a chat with him, got on really well - and a few months later he said, ‘Would you like to produce?’ So here I am.”

Had you seen his earlier films?
“I saw The Last Horror Movie which was really good, really cool. It had some really dark moments and Kevin is a really cool actor. So I was really looking forward to doing this. I’ve never really worked on a horror thing before. I know Julian’s reputation. He didn’t tell me anything about the script so when I read it I was pleasantly surprised. He said it was dark but you really got to know the kids in the script and you really wanted them to get out of that situation. And I’m glad it’s a happy... well, I don’t want to give it away! I felt: yeah, good for the kids!”

Where has the funding for this come from?
“It’s part-financed by the Arts Council of Wales and by several independent production companies, so half and half really.”

Have you been involved in assembling cast and crew?
“Yes, pretty much so. Julian had been holding casting auditions for months before I came on board. I came along at the tale end of the auditions and I saw Jonathan who plays Paul. I saw his audition and I saw Chris who plays Ben, his audition, and Ciaran who plays Bingo.”

The characters are meant to be about fourteen.
“That’s right. Ciaran who plays Bingo is eighteen but fortunately he’s got a very young-looking face and it just turned out that he was the best actor for the role. We tried, Julian especially tried looking for someone of that age to play that character. But they weren’t coming up to the quality of performance that Ciaran can give.”

There must be legal matters relating to working with a young cast.
“That’s right. You’re only allowed to work kids under sixteen for seven and a half to eight hours; there’s a bit of leeway. There’s a chaperone for those kids at all times on set and they call the shots. They can give us a little bit of leeway but usually when they say, ‘Kids go home’ - they go home.”

Having read the script, there’s a scene towards the end where the kids have to strip off. Obviously you won’t show anything but that’s going to be possibly problematical for the censor. Do you think there’s any danger of that?
“It’s dependant on how it’s shot, obviously. And it’s very sensitively shot. There’s always going to be people who say ‘You shouldn’t show this’ or whatever, but it’s an artistic expression of somebody’s work. So whilst you have to be sensitive to the issues, you’ve still got to get the film shot in the way that it was written. It’s kind of a balancing act and hopefully we’ll have achieved that and allowed the real intent of the script to come out.”

What sort of rating do you think you’ll get?
“I think 15 would be good. There’s nothing really violent or gory, there’s no drugs or anything. It’s very much a coming of age film, really, so apart from those few incidents that you mentioned, it should get away with a 15.”

So how has production been going so far? Are you on schedule?
“Are we on schedule? No is the short answer. Obviously there’s trouble when you’re filming completely on location. We’ve been unfortunate with the weather, very unfortunate. We were flooded out yesterday on the set. Fortunately we’ve managed to channel all the water away and we had other areas that we could film so we didn’t waste the day but we didn’t get to shoot all we were supposed to shoot.

“Also there’s been various sound issues. It’s always the way: when you check out a location it’s perfectly silent as a graveyard but when you come in with the cameras every Tom, Dick and Harry’s got their lawnmowers out. Construction work going on, loudly hammering. It’s one of those things and you just have to work around it. That has made us drop scenes and stuff, but we’ve got light days coming ahead so we’re hoping to pick those up, weather permitting.”

When will the film be ready for viewing?
“I think our delivery day is the end of October so hopefully by then.”

Are you hoping for a theatrical release?
“It’s part of the requirements that we provide a theatrical print. Still, obviously we don’t know yet whether it will get a theatrical release but we will be providing a theatrical print.”

Interview originally posted 18th November 2007

Saturday, 18 April 2015

interview: Shim Hyung-rae

At the 1998 AFM I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Shim Hyung-rae (aka Ray Shim), director of Yonggary. I had already reported on the film, running some behind-the-scenes photos in SFX, so I was surprised and delighted to meet Mr Shim in person. He gave me a wonderful interview (via an interpreter) and showered me with Yonggary items. I finally got to see the film two years later in Cannes. Part of this interview ran in Fangoria when the film was released in the USA as Reptilian.

Why is it the right time to make another Yonggary film?
“The reason is that Yonggary originally belonged to Korea but lots of people believe this is a Japanese film because Japanese movies have similar monster characters. So I want to let people know that the original 1967 movie - and this monster character - came from Korea.”

Is Yonggary a well-known character in Korea?
“Yes, lots of Korean people know Yonggary. When I was a young boy, I watched this film.”

Is this new film a sequel to the original, or a remake, or is it completely new?
“This is a new story and it is modernised from the original one.”

What is the storyline of the new film?
“Many years ago, a dynasty of monsters occupied and controlled Earth. After the monster dynasty was destroyed, humans controlled and occupied Earth, and after humans were gone, Yonggary controlled and occupied Earth. A document is discovered, a program which creates a space warp. Humans find this program document and the story starts to happen there. Then, when they’ve found it and operated the program, an alien being comes to earth from the stars - and Yonggary wakes up. And that’s where the story starts!”

What does Yonggary’s name mean?
“This is Yonggary’s original Korean name: ‘yong’ actually means ‘dragon’; ‘gary’ means ‘huge’. This is the monster’s original name - like ‘Gojira’.”

How important is this film within the Korean film industry?
“This is not just a Korean picture, it’s an international picture, but it’s supported by the Korean government. All the miniature work is shot in Korea. The government has contributed all the technological equipment and all the military equipment. The second unit shot in the United States to save money.”

What sort of special effects does the film have?
“The monster scenes are shot for real - miniature buildings and motion control monsters - but mixed with computer graphics. We are using the technical capabilities of forty people - two teams of twenty people each - working 24 hours a day. Each team works for 12 hours, so the production is rolling 24 hours a day, because we need this movie in five months. The budget is around 40 million. The special effects depend on the script.”

What stage of production is the film at?
“All the work on the monster is almost finished now, and all the military equipment is standing by and ready. We just have to set up the cast and prepare the schedule.”

Will you try to get some international stars in the cast?
“I am more interested in concentrating on production values. The casting is determined by the market, with meetings between the production side and the distribution side. They will come to a decision.”

How much interest is being shown around the world in the movie?
“A lot of interest. Most countries around the world are very interested. With any movie, every territory has a special interest in a particular type. Maybe the UK and Scandinavia, they don’t like action movies, but in Asia they like action. But Yonggary is a special movie, and has interested producers in the US, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia - I was surprised too! Everybody has an interest, even in territories where they don’t like action movies. But this film is not just bam-bam-bam action, it has family appeal too, so everyone can enjoy it.”

Are there plans to make more Yonggary films after this?
“Yes.”

How much time and money and effort has gone into making the Yonggary suit?
“The creation of the monster suit has taken one and a half years and a lot of money - a lot of money!”

Do the people making this film have experience of this sort of film?
“I have been working in films for maybe ten years, but I have never made a picture like this. But this is an international picture, so in each section of production we have hired the top people with the best experience.”

When do you expect the film to be finished?
“At the moment, our schedule is the end of this year.”

Interview originally posted 15th July 2007

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Exploited

Director: Jason Impey
Writer: Jason Impey
Producer: Jason Impey
Cast: Jason Impey, Kaz B, Sarah Gardner
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Jason Impey is something of a poster boy for the 21st century British Horror Revival. Self-taught, self-motivated, defiantly individualistic, Impey has built up an impressive body of work. His first two features (short film lash-ups aside) are both in my book Urban Terrors: Sick Bastard and Home Made. The latter forms the basis of this ‘new’ half-hour short, which Impey describes as the film he was aiming towards.

I put those quotes around ‘new’ advisedly. The thing is: Jason Impey’s filmography is a nightmare in terms of actually, you know, listing things in order. I believe (and I’m willing to be contradicted) that the original Home Made, shot in 2006, has been re-edited as Death on Camera and as Home Made Redux and as one third of anthology picture Killer Stories. Some form of the film was released as one of Gorezone’s cover-mounted discs and the entire 88 minute feature was posted onto YouTube, by Jason himself in September 2013.

Exploited is the latest incarnation of this tale and clearly the one with which Jason is happiest. It’s a mixture of old and new footage all starring Jason himself as Jack Hess (a clear nod to Last House on the Left). It all seems to fit together well: the fact that Jason has never, ever changed his haircut helps enormously with continuity!

The story is extremely simple and clearly reducing it down to 33 minutes is a good idea as this would be pretty tedious at feature length. Basically, Jack Hess is a guy who makes home-made horror movies – not unlike young Mr I himself – but has violent tendencies which come to the fore as he seeks sicker and more vile footage. (This is certainly not like young Mr I who is a respectable family man and a pillar of the Milton Keynes community.)

In essence then, what we have here is a series of vignettes of Jack Hess hassling, abusing and eventually killing young women, mostly viewed through his handheld camera (though this is not a found footage film). The whole thing is, on a superficial level, desperately misogynist – although to be fair, one boyfriend also ends up butchered. Eventually – somewhat predictably – one of the victims turns the tables.

The reason I describe the misogyny as ‘superficial’ is that the whole thing is obviously an homage to the sort of post-grindhouse, video nasty films that have influenced the director. This is most obvious in the music, but also the editing and camera angles and the general feeling of sleaziness which permeates the picture. This is what Impey has been working towards, in fits and starts, among all his other shorts and features, since 2006.

Does it work? Well, in the sense that it achieves what it sets out to do – yes, I suppose so. Impey is never apologetic about his cinematic oeuvre: he makes the sort of films enjoyed by the people who enjoy the sort of films he makes. He knows his market – and through Brain Damage and other distribution channels, his films have found an audience.

That said, Exploited unavoidably harkens back to Impey’s earlier work. While it was presumably cathartic for the director to finally exorcise his ghost (that’s assuming he can finally let this go, and does’t recut it into Exploited Redux next year), the film’s one-dimensional nature isn’t as satisfying as something like Lustful Desires, which seems more exploratory, less expositional. Exploited is narrated by Impey’s character (with an unexplained, and somewhat variable, American accent) but we’re not really given any insight into Jack Hess except that he vehemently hates women.

Jason Impey films are an acquired taste and I’d be lying if I said my admiration for the man’s work ethic and commitment is always matched by my appreciation of the finished result. Exploited isn’t the apotheosis of Impey’s work; a dozen titles already postdate it on his IMDB page (including his ghost-hunting horror-comedy trilogy with Eileen Daly). But it may perhaps mark a sea-change: Jason Impey moving on from that stage of his career to films more ambitious, more complex, more intriguing, possibly more mainstream, certainly more commercial - but hopefully no less iconoclastic. There’s only one Jason Impey and long may he plough his own furrow on the fringes of British horror.

MJS rating: B

Thursday, 9 April 2015

They Crawl

Director: John Allardice
Writers: Curtis Joseph, David Mason
Producer: Paul Hertzberg
Cast: Daniel Cosgrove, Tamara Davies, Dennis Boutsikaris
Year of release: 2001
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK video (Metrodome)

There are Big Bug Movies (like Them! or Spiders) and Little Bug Movies (like Phase IV or They Nest) and they are both scary in their own way. They Crawl (aka Crawlers) is a Little Bug Movie and if you don’t shout, “Oh, gross!” at your TV at least half a dozen times while watching this then you have a stronger stomach than I, my friend.

Daniel Cosgrove (Valentine) stars as Ted Cage, investigating the mysterious death of his younger brother Brian. The police believe Brian was just a drug dealer who accidentally burned down his apartment, but Ted finds evidence that he was involved with a sinister cult, Trillion, and also with some top secret military research. Tamara Davies (Area 52) is Gina O’Bannon, the cop who believes him, and Dennis Boutsikaris (In Dreams) is Brian’s university professor. Meanwhile, the police are investigating a series of bizarre murders, apparently carried out by the Trillion cult - but we know that roaches are somehow involved.

Director Allardice’s background is as a Visual Effects Supervisor with Foundation Imaging, so one might expect that he would let the effects swamp the story, but in fact for the most part this is a tense thriller, with just enough background weirdness to keep the viewer hooked. It’s almost like an X-Files episode - a good X-Files episode, that is, when they used to do monster-of-the-week shows.

The deadly power of the roach hordes is glimpsed once or twice before the third act, when the action starts to really build up, leading to an absolutely barnstorming denouement that is pure ‘wow!’ In fact, it’s almost a shame that this final idea is over and done with so quickly; there’s a whole other movie there (They Crawl II?).

The acting is strong from all the leads, with some effective supporting characters, notably Ken Lerner (Principal Flutie from Buffy) as a coroner and Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer from Twin Peaks) as Ted’s mother. There are cameos by Tone Loc (as a gangster), Mickey Rourke (as a cultist) and Dollman himself, the great Tim Thomerson (as a bug exterminator). Writers Joseph and Mason also wrote one of Jim Wynorski’s latest, Project VIPER. The bug effects are mostly CGI care of Foundation Imaging, as one would expect, although a Roach Wrangler is also credited. They Crawl is a surprisingly intelligent - and enjoyable - Little Bug Movie.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 11th February 2005.

They Nest

Director: Ellory Elkayem
Writer: John Claflin, Daniel Zelman
Producer: Frank Hildebrand
Cast: Thomas Calabro, Dean Stockwell, Kristen Dalton
Year of release: 2000
Country: USA
Reviewed from: Festival screening (Cannes 2000)

Ellory Elkayem must have a real love of bug movies. He first came to attention with a highly acclaimed short film about giant spiders, Larger Than Life, and is currently shooting another oversized octoped story, Arach Attack (later retitled Eight-Legged Freaks), for Devlin and Emmerich's Centropolis Entertainment. Inbetween, he made his feature debut with this smashing TV movie about killer cockroaches.

The little fellas in this case are an unpleasantly large and particularly nasty African species which turn up on an island off the coast of Maine. Not only are they killers, but they lay eggs inside their victims. Unfortunately the only person with a clue about what is going on is Dr Ben Cahill (Thomas Calabro: Chill), a man deeply distrusted by the rather inbred islanders as a 'summer home' interloper. Only the local teacher (Kristen Dalton) and the town sheriff (Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap) are prepared to trust him.

In a subgenre which might seem to have been done to death, the script by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman finds new and clever ways to scare the heck out of the audience, mixing gross-out imagery with genuine tension and fear, while Elkayem's direction is far better than one would expect on such a minor title. Among a largely unknown cast, Stockwell is his usual reliable self, and Calabro does a great job of playing an outsider battling the dual threat of ignorant locals and deadly invertebrates.

They Nest (aka Creepy Crawlers, not to be confused with They Crawl aka Crawlers) delivers scares, shocks and squirms in equal measure. It won't ever be a cult classic, but it's well above average and shows that a committed director with a good script can inject new life into hokiest of cliches. And though the film is played seriously, watch out for the scene in the hamster maze - possibly the funniest spoof of Aliens ever filmed.

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 11th February 2005.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

El Ganzo

Director: Steve Balderson
Writers: Steve Balderson, Susan Traylor, Anslem Richardson
Producers: Steve Balderson, Jennifer Dreiling
Cast: Susan Traylor, Anslem Richardson, Mark Booker
Country: USA
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.dikenga.com

Here is how to make an El Ganzo cocktail. Take one measure of Jodorowsky, one measure of Bunuel. Pour over crushed Balderson. Serve with a slice of Kubrick. And a paper umbrella.

Yes, we’re off down Mexico way for the latest feature from the indefatigable Steve Balderson, the best thing to come out of Kansas since Dorothy’s farmhouse. I actually got sent a screener of this three months ago, and normally I watch Steve’s films the moment they arrive in my in-box, bypassing whatever is in my TBW pile. On this occasion however, Steve sent me two screeners – Hell Town and El Ganzo – with a recommendation that I leave a gap twixt the two, as they are very different films. I followed that wise advice - and then a whole load of other things came along and filled the gap, leaving El Ganzo atypically unwatched.

Well, I’ve watched it now and, just like most of Steve B’s films, I absolutely Larry loved it.

It’s sort of an archetypal Balderson picture, partly in that it’s nothing at all like the previous one. But it also addresses themes which permeate much of Steve’s oeuvre: themes of identity and discovery, a journey undertaken by an individual, couple or group to find out who they are.

In this case we have Lizzy (Susan Traylor, previously in Firecracker, Stuck! and The Casserole Club), who journeys to the El Ganzo hotel, walking the last few miles after the minibus taxi she was in breaks down. At the hotel, she meets travel photographer Guy (Anslem Richardson, who was a cop in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and the two pal up, not least because they’re the only two Americans around (apart from bellhop Billy, played by Mark Booker who also composed the wonderful score). Guy seems a normal, well-adjusted fellow, He has a boyfriend back home and constant travels have put a strain on the relationship, but on the whole he’s a personable, friendly chap.

Lizzy, on the other hand, is a bit … well, kooky. Not in an attractively eccentric sort of way, but in a distractingly not-quite-with-it sort of way. Why does she keep asking Billy to look for her suitcase when she turned up at the hotel with no luggage? Why does her claim to be a writer for the same travel magazines that guys takes snaps for seem so inauthentic? Something’s not right here

How not right, and in what way not right, is something that you will discover as the movie progresses. I found myself considering all sorts of theories. Was this a Carnival of Souls gig? Was it a Sixth Sense thing – had Guy actually interacted with any other characters? Or was I letting my imagination run away with me? Would the answer be more prosaic?

Well, nothing’s ever prosaic in a Steve Balderson film. I’ll say no more than that.

What matters is not the offbeatness of the story which, like much of Steve’s work, is a quarter-twist from ‘reality’ – no, it’s the characters. El Ganzo is a two-hander and it’s no exaggeration to say that both actors are absolutely superb, completely inhabiting their characters. Without any crass infodumps, but also without being gratuitously enigmatic, Steve B and his cast present us with two very, very real people that we feel we know (as much as they know each other) but about whom we will discover much more.

Watching Traylor and Richardson is a master class in screen acting. Look, I do the odd bit of acting but in all honesty it’s not much more than larking about in front of a camera for mates. I won’t be winning a BAFTA any time soon. Watching this film really hammered home to me how much skill is involved in acting: skill that is often in short supply in the sort of films I watch, or is present but overshadowed by more exploitable elements like blood, boobs and explosions. Real acting has a subtlety to it that can’t be put into words.

There’s one particular scene in El Ganzo which has stuck in my head. Lizzy is sitting in an empty church. Guy comes in and sits in the pew in front of her. Anslem Richardson delivers a monologue, Guy addressing Lizzy without turning round. While he speaks, Susan Traylor silently trails her finger back and forth along his arm, resting on the back of the pew, that one tiny movement telling us reams about how Lizzy is feeling, about herself and about Guy. And, it just occurred to me, Richardson’s non-acknowledgement of her touch, which Guy can surely feel – he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t glance back - tells us reams about Guy and his thoughts towards Lizzy. In its own small, subtle way, this is a magical scene, a microcosm of the film overall.

Steve, Susan and Anselm are jointly credited with the script, indicating a considerable amount of improvisation, or at least workshopping. Steve’s direction of the film is immaculate, assisted not only by magnificent performances but also the terrific cinematography of Daniel G Stephens (The Far Flung Star, Occupying Ed, Hell Town).  Of particular note is the use of the hotel itself; it’s simple, geometric architecture adroitly used to frame many of the shots. The local environs are also photographed to impressive effect: little shops and cafes; a sculpture garden of giant abstract heads; beautiful, deserted, sandy beaches.

When Steve moves away from the setting to concentrate on scenes which, in lesser hands, would be static and talky, he breaks up the sequence of events with finely judged editing, so that sometimes we see one part of a conversation while hearing a different bit. This only adds to the otherworldliness of the film. Wrapping up all the visuals is Mark Booker’s music, much of which has a sparse minimalism that put me in mind of The Blue Nile, but which also occasionally breaks into festively abrasive Mexican trumpets. It complements the imagery and the story and perfectly.

Don’t imagine for one moment, however, that El Ganzo is style over substance. Not a bit of it. This is style supporting substance. It’s just a difficult substance to sumarise and describe. This isn’t a simple boy-meets-girl story, it’s not even really a romance, it’s just a beautiful, wistful, warm, sincere tale of two people who, in finding out about each other, discover a little about themselves.

Wistful: that’s the adjective that keeps coming back to me, that I knew I would need to use in this review somewhere. This is a wistful film. It’s absolutely full of wist, Bags and bags of the stuff.

In other words, it’s about what has been, what could have been and what might be, as well as what is. And really, aren’t all our lives a bit like that? But it takes an artist of Steve Balderson’s calibre to make us think wistfully about our own lives like this, and for each of us to find out that bit more about who we are.

One final note, and then I’ll let you get on. The Hotel El Ganzo is a real place. It’s a fabulous hotel by the look of it, with a strong artistic feel running throughout both the building and the experience of staying there. I can quite see why it would appeal to young Mr Balderson. But, just a few weeks after this film was shot, a hurricane ripped through the place. The hotel is currently closed for repairs, and much of the surrounding area has been ripped up, knocked down or otherwise changed. Steve’s film captures the location as it was and preserves it, a level of wistfulness that no-one could ever have expected.

My rating of his film is almost superfluous, but once again I hold off from an A+ only because I don’t want to believe that Steve Balderson’s career has peaked.

MJS rating: A