Monday, 25 May 2015

Killer/Saurus

Director: Steve Lawson
Writer: Steve Lawson
Producer: Steve Lawson
Cast: Helen Crevel, Steve Dolton, Julian Boote
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screener disc
Website: www.creativ-studios.com

It wouldn’t surprise me if Killer/Saurus sets some sort of new record for the lowest-budgeted film ever to feature a dinosaur. Consider the vast financial gulf between Jurassic Park and Carnosaur. Now take a second step down that ladder - or continue that line on the graph, if you prefer - and you’ll land somewhere around the level of Killer/Saurus, the latest opus from Leicestershire-based Creativ Studios.

But of course, as budgets come down over time, so the bang/buck ratio improves. While this movie has been shot on a shoestring, it has been shot with an eye for what a shoestring can do and how a shoestring can be used. A few coloured gels, a couple of cheap hazmat suits, a garage door and a smoke machine. In the right hands, and with the right approach, these can create an epic tale of science meddling with things that man was not meant to know. With a T rex in it.

Furthermore – and this is really important – this is an actual T rex. Well, not an actual one (though there is one just up the road from Creativ in the Geology Department at Leicester University) but an actual T rex prop. For everyone fed up with crappy CGI creature features, Killer/Saurus is a treat. Not a computer effect in sight. Just a good, old-fashioned puppet made to look a lot bigger and fiercer than it actually is. For such small mercies, the true dinofilm fan is always grateful.

That said, it should come as no surprise that, the DVD sleeve and associated publicity materials notwithstanding, you don’t actually see much of the dinosaur itself. But it is there.

Killer/Saurus reteams director Steve Lawson with actor Helen Crevel who impressed so much with her role in Survival Instinct. Here she is Kayleigh Ma, a scientist in the employ of a somewhat shady company doing unethical developments in bio-printing. This is a real thing, although nowhere as advanced as in this film (that said, a brief glimpse of a blog suggests this is set in the mid-2020s!). Essentially, bio-printing is similar to common or garden 3D printing except that it uses cells rather than plastic. The technology currently exists to manufacture undifferentiated tissue samples, but the ultimate goal is to be able to ‘print’ entire new organs or limbs for transplant.

This particular dodgy company however (which I don’t think is ever named) has got somehow sidetracked into using bio-printing to generate an entire living creature from scratch. And if you thought you might be able to create a living creature, what sort would you go for? Well, something small and simple to start with, probably. An earthworm, for example. Then maybe a fruit fly. Let’s say you have mastered invertebrates and want to try a higher form of life. You might try to create a frog, or a mouse.

Or you could just say the hell with it, cut out all those tedious incremental stages and go straight for tonight’s star prize: a fully grown Tyrannosaurus rex.

Remember that graph we were plotting of the budgets of Jurassic Park, Carnosaur and Killer/Saurus? I think a very similar line could be plotted for the loopiness of the three films’ plots. Killer/Saurus has a narrative which would make Roger Corman say, “Well, that seems a tad far-fetched and slightly insane.” But it is what it is.

In an epic ten-minute prologue, the 3D-laser-bio-printer-thing is set running behind a metal roller door, which then obviously has to be opened to see if the experiment worked. Not thought that through, have you Mr so-called Scientist? Kayleigh’s colleague Amy (a smashing performance from Vicki Glover, who previously encountered dinos in Ken Barker’s Bikini Girls vs Dinosaurs; she’s also in Cleaver, Gabriel Cushing and a Tuck Bushman short) volunteers to take a peek – and quickly regrets doing so. The door is closed and the whole project closed down. Sort of.

Kayleigh and Amy’s boss is Professor Peterson (Steven Dolton: Zombie Undead, Devil’s Tower, Nocturnal Activity) who has personal, non-dino-related reasons for wanting to develop this technology. He’s actually working for the mysterious Andrews (Dead Room alumnus Julian Boote, also in May I Kill U?, Deadtime and Evil Souls) whose ultimate goal is to progress beyond a T rex to something called a ‘Tier 2’ creation. What the hell is the next stage up from a T rex, you might wonder. You’ll get to see that right at the end of the film.

After the credits, the main plot kicks in three months later when Kayleigh returns to the research facility with her American journalist boyfriend Jed. (Kenton Hall, who plays Jed, is actually Canadian but has a quite extraordinary accent that sounds like he grew up in a little village on the Ireland/New Zealand border. Plus he has facial hair that looks like he couldn’t really decide whether he wanted a beard or not. His BHR credits include Amityville Asylum, Theatre of Fear and Valley of the Witch.)

Professor Peterson is still sitting in the same chair in the same office (and indeed wearing the same outfit), overseeing a now empty facility from a position of empty futility, like Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island. There ensues a great deal of talking between the three, which bogs the film down somewhat, until we finally get a decent look at the T rex at about 45 minutes (the whole film runs a commendably taut 75 minutes, including about four minutes of end credits/blooper reel). Andrews himself subsequently turns up, accompanied by an armed ex-squaddie, simply credited as ‘Sergeant’ (Adam Collins, a genuine ex-squaddie whose stunt credits include Batman Begins and Allies). There’s yet more talking, the 3D-laser-bio-printer-thing is set running again and we finally get to see the ‘Tier 2’ creature, which is actually a commercially available horror mask bought (and licensed) from Illinois-based Zagone Studios.

In the end, the T rex is loose and, as is traditional, the whole place blows up. Well no, actually it doesn’t. I was expecting it to – but the film just sorts of ends, rather suddenly. Not having the budget to blow anything up, and not wanting to matte in a bunch of crappy CGI explosions, Steve has presumably left all that to our imagination. In the process, of course, he has left the way open for Killer/Saurus 2, should the market demand such a thing.

It should be obvious that Killer/Saurus is most certainly not a dino-on-the-rampage actionfest. Point of fact, it’s very talkie and it really could have done with something – anything – happening in the middle of the film that wasn’t just shot/reverse-shot of people talking under a blue light. Even if it was just some interstitial shots of the metal roller door shaking as something hurls itself against the other side, that would have served to keep things ticking over. (I say ‘middle of the film’ rather than ‘act 2’ deliberately. It’s difficult to identify a three-act structure when nearly 15% of your film is prologue. A clearer three-act structure might also have been beneficial.)

Thematically, in featuring the creation of a living creature – in toto, from scratch – this is a borderline Frankenstein film, and there is some brief discussion of how the creature has just appeared fully formed without birth or upbringing, though little is made of that. (Ooh, ooh, I just thought: Dinostein! That’s not been done. No, wait. Frankendino. No, Frankensaur. Oh well, something like that anyway. It’s bound to turn up sooner or later. Maybe I’ll write it if I get a moment. Shouldn’t take long. Anyway…)

Despite the lack of puppet-on-the-loose action, Killer/Saurus is a fun little sci-fi/horror picture with some appealing performances from its cast and a solid awareness of its limitations. It’s played completely straight when many such microbudget fancies would descend into silliness or spoofery. It is ridiculously over-ambitious and yet somehow manages to just about achieve those ambitions – and for that it is to be both commended and recommended.

The minimal crew was basically Creativ head honcho Steve Lawson with production assistants Lars Zivanovic (who previously worked with Steve on The Silencer) and Grace Coxall. Marc Hamill, director of The Wrong Floor, is one of the background techies in the prologue and also supplied some locations (specifically the staircases, Creativ Studios itself being a distinctly one-storey affair). Alex Young (Survival Instinct) supplied the original score, which is all pounding rhythms and approaching menace. Helen Crevel pulled double duty as the woman with her hand up inside Rexy the dinopuppet. Young Mr Lawson does an audio-Hitchcock as a telephone voice.

Shot in early 2015, Killer/Saurus is at time of writing pencilled in for a 6th July 2015 UK release through 88 Films (who get a thank you at the end, but didn’t fund the picture). Amazon currently lists the title as the oblique-free KillerSaurus but we shall see what it actually says on the sleeve when that’s made available.

MJS rating: B-

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Last Road

Director: John Wheeler
Writer: John Wheeler
Producer: Laurence Williams
Cast: Aaron Long, Sarah Jane, Simon Sokolowski-Betts
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Website: www.lakeedgeproductions.co.uk
Reviewed from: online screener

The Last Road is a stunning-looking film which struggles manfully to overcome fundamental problems of character and narrative. The end result is not displeasing, but the experience of watching this ambitious movie is a somewhat hollow one. The film washed over me but left no mark. It provoked no thoughts, it provided no insight, it generated no feelings. Which is a shame.

Aaron Long stars as Toby Thwaite, an angry young man whose life consist of (a) abusing his bed-ridden mother (executive producer Dorothy Wheeler), (b) long walks across the Wiltshire countryside with his scruffy dog Prince, and (c) bare-knuckle fights in the back of a local pub. After one such fight goes a wee bit too far, Toby dies and finds himself in an afterlife which mirrors the real world except for being drained of much of its colour and only sparsely populated.

Returning to his mother’s house, Toby finds he can’t see her – but can see and interact with the previous (deceased) resident who throws him out on his ear. This was my favourite scene in the whole film. Irina Fisher’s cameo is an awesome, invective-filled, abusive monologue, complete with low-level violence, as years of pent-up frustration at having to share space in ‘her’ house is finally given vent.

After this however, Toby sets off to wander disconsolately around the empty countryside and frankly does little else for the rest of the (very long) movie. He meets an afterlife administrator, Edith, who drives a Mini and has a report on Toby’s life which determines what happens to him next. What happens is: he gets out of the Mini and does some more disconsolate wandering.

Over the course of his wandering he encounters various lost souls but they provide no revelation or insight – to him or to us – and on each occasion, after a while, Toby sets off again on his aimless quest. He meets Prince, whose presence in the afterlife is due to having been killed by a local small-time gangster as punishment for Toby failing to throw a fight. Prince joins the wander, his upbeat canine cheer counterpointing, to some extent, Toby’s disconsolatenessitude.

Eventually Toby achieves a degree of stability in a ‘camp’ made from junk with a man named Richardson (Simon Sokolowski-Betts) and two women whose names aren’t made clear (Laura Marklew and Becki Silcox). When Richardson disposes of one of the women and then steals Edith’s Mini, Toby and the other woman set off in pursuit, assisted by a large gang of bikers (who presumably all died in a giant motorway pile-up). Toby is briefly distracted by a group of lost souls chanting in front of a Christian cross but the unnamed woman pulls him away.

The above sort-of-synopsis will, I think, demonstrate that this is a picaresque tale of an incidental journey. The problem is that none of the incidents on that journey are very interesting. The various characters are so wafer-thin that most of them don’t even have names. Much of the film is dialogue-free, and what little dialogue does exist is uninspiring.

To its credit, the film avoids pretentious cod-Biblical pronouncements. Explanation about what’s going on is largely delivered by Edith, a cracking performance from Sarah-Jane Williams (credited as just ‘Sarah Jane’, also responsible for make-up, hair and costumes) who delivers her lines with a no-nonsense approach and a slightly world-weary tone. This really gives Edith a depth of character that many of the other lost souls lack. There are also some flashbacks to Toby’s childhood (Mackenzie Arnold Williams plays him as a child), mostly involving a small music box. Producer Laurence Williams plays his angry father in one scene.

The big problem with The Last Road – apart from the fact that it doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything – is that Toby Thwaite himself is not in any way a sympathetic character. He’s a deeply unpleasant, violent idiot who bullies his own mother and apparently earns his living by kicking the shit out of people who are in turn kicking the shit out of him, for the amusement of other deeply unpleasant, violent idiots and the profit of small-time gangsters. The fact that he loves his dog, and sometimes prays in an empty church, isn’t enough for us to feel any empathy with him in the first half hour while he’s still alive. Nor is it sufficient for us to care what happens to him after he dies. He’s already dead, so even if we liked him there’s no way we can root for him to survive to the end of the film, which is really the baseline of empathy required of any movie character.

The end of the film, incidentally, is a long way off. The Last Road runs a massive 113 minutes which is at least half an hour too long. Big Hollywood blockbusters run two hours because they’re full of things exploding and/or complex character dynamics. An indie film about a man wandering through the afterlife with his dog shouldn’t run more than 80 minutes or so. There’s no particular scene or sequence that needs removing – the narrative is so shallow that no one bit stands out – it’s the film as a whole that needs multiple small trims to get that run-time down. The nub of the problem is this: not much happens, there are long gaps of nothing between the things that do happen, and when they eventually happen they’re very slow and drawn-out. This is a laconic, almost lethargic film. Which is quite an achievement in itself: very few films that feature two violent bare-knuckle bouts, a mass biker rally, a fatal stabbing and a woman dancing in nothing but body paint could be described as ‘lethargic’.

On the plus side – and there is a plus side – this is a beautifully photographed movie. Visually, it’s terrific. Wheeler’s camera-work is very impressive. As director he has a penchant for constant cutting, with most shots lasting no more than a second or two: long shot, close-up, medium shot, two-shot, cut, cut, cut. It’s a distinctive style, despite which – or possibly because of which – the rare shots held at length really stand out. These are mostly long shots of Toby which really show off the local countryside. The draining of colour from the afterlife is subtle but effective, and the interior scenes in the first act are also well-lit and well-framed. On top of which, the sound is excellent, both the recording and the mix. Mark Standing provided the effective music.

John Wheeler is represented numerous times throughout the credits, though he’s not quite a one-man band. Lead actor Long is credited as ‘stunt co’ordinator (sic)/fight choreographer’ and there are numerous uses of the term ‘feral’/’ferel’ in the credits which I have no idea what they are referring to (or mean).

On a technical and artistic level, The Last Road succeeds, but a feature film is a three-legged stool and the narrative leg is broken on this one. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been pretentious or preachy or clichéd but it’s none of these. It’s not even dull or tedious, despite the vast running time. Frankly, if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a fondness for metaphysical afterlife fantasies, then I would recommend you check this out.

But does it work? Does it achieve its aims? Does it make the viewer think – about death, about morality, about redemption, about anything? Hand on heart, no it doesn’t. Sorry. I think the most clear indication of the film's lack of success in this respect concerns its attitude towards religion - which is that this attitude is unclear. For all his thuggery and general unpleasantness, Toby Thwaite evidently retains a stump of Christian upbringing and has no qualms about talking to God. Once he's dead, he is completely accepting of - and unsurprised by - the situation. There is talk in the film of Heaven and Hell. But... is this a Christian film? Has John Wheeler and/or Laurence Williams made it from a Christian perspective? Or does the movie simply use Christian tropes as allegory to make some greater point about existance and the human condition? Or is it even damning organised religion, showing that Toby's Christian beliefs haven't been enough to save him from eternity in a bleached-out Wiltshire? Who knows?

Don't get me wrong. I'm genuinely pleased that The Last Road avoids both the simplistic Biblical dogma of stuff like The Omega Code and also the infantile anti-religious dialectic found in pictures like Sacred Flesh or Hellraiser III. There is a middle ground, but that doesn't seem to be here either. I suppose we could put our own individual interpretations on the movie, but that's always a creative cop-out and I don't think that was the film-makers' intention. The trouble is: I don't know what their intention actually was.

Shot over 17 months in and around the town of Westbury, The Last Road was picked up by New York sales agency Striped Entertainment (who also have David Hutchison's Graders on their books) and was released through Vimeo VOD in June 2014 (with a 2012 copyright date). Although the nominal festival premiere was at the Eastern North Carolina Film Festival in September 2014, there was actually a version screened three years before that at the Portobello Film Festival in London in September 2011. Interestingly, the 2011 cut ran only 46 minutes which, in all honesty, is probably a more realistic run-time for this kind of movie.

MJS rating: B-

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats

Director: Nathan Smith
Writers: Nathan Smith, Bryan Allen
Producer: Clifford A Miles
Cast: Ken Sansom, R Chase O’Neil, C Brock Holman
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Porchlight)

Who doesn’t love a good monsterfest, a film that gathers together a whole bunch of classic monsters in one story? This specific subgenre can trace its origins back to the final three films in Universal’s Frankenstein series in the 1940s. House of Frankenstein went one better on the previous Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man by tossing Dracula into the mix. This formula was repeated in House of Dracula then spoofed in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which also threw a Vincent Price-voiced Invisible Man in as a final gag.

The other two well-known monsterfests are The Munsters (in all its many variants) and Fred Dekker’s wonderful The Monster Squad. Van Helsing falls into the category too as does a 1990s TV mini-series which appropriated the House of Frankenstein title. And then there are the animated monsterfests. Series such as The Drak Pack, The Groovy Ghoulies and Gravedale High took advantage of the freedom which animation offered, where a monster character costs no more than a human one. But probably the two best animated monsterfests are the brace that were produced by the famous Rankin-Bass Studio: the stop-motion Mad Monster Party? (with its completely inexplicable titular question mark) and the lesser-known, cel-animated Mad Mad Mad Monsters.

Well, now here’s another one. Produced in 2007 and released onto DVD in time for Halloween 2008, this is a half-hour stop-motion film so packed with classic monsters that it’s difficult to find a subgenre that it doesn’t tread on. It’s not a great film in terms of script or characters but TF seems to like it and he’s the target audience much more than an old monster-geek like me.

Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats concerns two children out trick-or-treating. Makean looks to be about seven or eight and is wearing a quite good vampire costume, which just about shoves this into the vampire subgenre because, oddly, that’s the one type of classic monster which is not included. Makean’s name is pronounced ‘Mac -KEE -an’. His sister Katie is about twelve and is dressed as a cat, complete with ears, tail, furry cuffs and ankles and a wide, 1960s-style belt that puts one unavoidably in mind of the very different (or maybe not so different) cat-suits worn by Emma Peel.

After Makean is scared by a mouse and a scarecrow in a cornfield (the mouse is wearing a puritan outfit for some reason), he and his sister walk into the village where they meet an elderly fellow called the Candleman. He has a wide-brimmed hat covered with lit candles and also a pet fish called Brunswick which floats in the air and is towing a small cart along the ground.

Here’s what you need to understand this film. Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats is the second in a projected series of seven such tales under the banner Evergreen Holiday Classics. The first film in the series was called The Light Before Christmas and there is a trailer for both that one and this on the Spooky Bats DVD. This is why we are neither introduced to Katie and Makean (which is no real narrative problem as they’re generic kids) nor to the Candleman himself. This latter situation is a problem because the Candleman is entirely an invented character with no basis in legend or fiction so we have no references. Katie and Makean evidently know him but how, and who the jiminy is he? And, er, why does he have a pet fish that can fly? Presumably there is some background in The Light Before Christmas but the film-makers have forgotten that people who buy this disc won’t necessarily have seen the previous one (which is still available in the UK but seems to have been deleted in the States).

Also important to know is that the characters and settings are based on the work of James C Christensen, a Hugo- and Chesley-winning artist whose speciality is heavily-clothed figures in whimsical settings, often with a spiritual or religious element. And whose trademark is a fish, swimming through the air. I didn’t know any of this when I watched the DVD.

The Candleman asks the two children if they will deliver some invitations to his Halloween party, to which they agree, hoping to collect some candy along the way. And this is where all the monsters come in...

Among the recipients of invitations are a mummy (inside an Egyptian tomb), a werewolf, a plant-creature who is to all intents and purposes Swamp Thing, a zombie (we only see the cadaverous arm reaching from the grave), a family of ghosts, some giant carnivorous plants, the Grim Reaper, an old witch and finally ‘Frank’ - and we can all guess who that turns out to be. Along the way, the sceptical Katie who doesn’t believe in ‘spooks’ (the M-word is never used) comes round to her more paranoid brother’s way of thinking. The quest ends at the home of the ‘fire-headed pumpkin demon’ (or somesuch) with a selection of the ghouls advancing towards the two terrified children.

But... it turns out that this is actually the Candleman’s home and the ghouls are of course his friends, come for the party. So is the message that we should conquer our fears or that there is nothing to be afraid of? Is the message that spooks and monsters are real but friendly or that they’re not real? This isn’t the first animated special I’ve come across where, despite a general moral tone, the actual moral itself is rather fuzzy.

There are some very nice touches. In handing the invitation to the mummy, Katie accidentally rips his arm off and he picks this up to wave bye-bye (or rather “Bmm-bmm” - there’s a lovely gag at the end where Frankenstein complains to the werewolf that he can’t understand a word that the mummy says). Also, the scene with the ghosts has Katie repeatedly trying to hand over the invitation only for it to fall through the recipient's non-corporeal hand.

Where the film falls down is in its own uncertainty about whether it’s set in the real world or some magical fairyland. Katie and Makean’s costumes suggest that they are contemporary characters, especially as they collect their treats in plastic, pumpkin-shaped baskets. Their speech is contemporary too, as is the older sibling’s dismissive attitude towards her brother’s childish belief in the supernatural which is finally dispelled when the witch lends them two flying broomsticks to carry them to ‘Frank’s place’.

But the village that we see is straight out of the Brothers Grimm via Hollywood, a mittel-European-influenced, 18th century hamlet. There is even a brief glimpse of the lower half of a giant, also out trick-or-treating. When the Candleman (who is very obviously a magical character, even before we notice his fish) sends the kids off on their errand, he summons an old-fashioned carriage without horses or driver, of which Katie blithely comments, “This must be one of those new steam-powered carriages.”

You see the problem? The film’s core is the acceptance by modern, cynical Katie that magic and the supernatural are real, yet she and her brother evidently already live in a quasi-historical world riven with magic and fantasy. This robs the film of its essential dichotomy. Not that five-year-olds like TF are going to mind.

The animation is very good although there is something about the alternate heads of the Candleman figure which means that his mouth movements don’t exactly match his words. I don’t know if this is a problem with the bar-sheeting (see, I know my technical animation terms!) or whether some of the dialogue was changed after the animation had been done. Nevertheless, the designs, the sets, the costumes are all impressive and where digital effects are used they are effectively integrated into the story, such as creating the mist-covered swamp.

Another five Evergreen Holiday Classics are planned: A Cozy Valentine, Shamrocks Leprechauns and Shillelaghs (for St Patrick’s Day), Independence - What a Day! and films based around Easter and Thanksgiving. These are all summarised on the series’ website although it’s notable that the synopsis of the Halloween film is different to what we see here. In November 2008, just after Spooky Bats was released on DVD, The Light Before Christmas opened theatrically in some IMAX theatres.

The company behind the Evergreen Holiday Classics is Tandem Motion Picture Studios, a Utah-based animation studio run by brothers Chris and Nathan Smith. Nathan Smith directed Spooky Bats and wrote it in collaboration with Bryan Allen although curiously Chris Smith doesn’t seem to be credited anywhere. Allen, Smith, producer Clifford A Miles, executive producer Michael R Todd and James C Christensen share the ‘story’ credit and Christensen also gets ‘based upon characters created by’ which seems fair enough. I’m guessing that Todd uses his middle initial to differentiate himself from the Barnsley-born animator who was technical director on Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Wall-E, although I suppose that they could be the same bloke as his bio says he has also working on Disney’s aborted Snow Queen feature (as well as Shark Tale, Reign of Fire and Spider-Man).

Cliff Miles, who also handled voice direction, has worked on a wide range of other projects include the world’s largest dinosaur museum (very rich in fossils, Utah). And in that vein it looks like Tandem’s next film isn’t another Candleman short but a feature called Pangea which will be the first film ever to mix dinosaurs with elves! It’s all about a ‘water elf’ called Nemonie who teams up with a dinosaur called Gobi to search for treasure on the prehistoric supercontinent (Nemonie is also the title used on a trailer on the Tandem Studios website).

Argentinean production designer Nebel Luccion was responsible for translating Christensen’s distinctive style into 3D with the assistance of wardrobe designer Patricia Walton. Visual effects supervisor Mathew Judd has worked on the likes of Lake Placid, Deep Blue Sea, The World is Not Enough, Minority Report and Mission: Impossible II as well as a large number of games and some military training simulation programmes.

Leading the voice cast is Ken Sansom as the Candleman. He has been the voice of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh films and TV series since the late 1980s; his other credits include Herbie Rides Again, 1983 TV pilot The Invisible Woman and the voice of Hound in the Transformers TV series. R Chase O’Neil (Katie) was born in March 1993 (not October as the IMDB has it) and started her career in 2000 with a small part in a TV movie based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, progressing to war drama Saints and Soldiers and ice skating film Go Figure. C Brock Holman (Makean) was in a 2003 production called A Pioneer Miracle which was directed by cinematographer TC Christensen (I don’t know if he’s related to James C).

The werewolf, the witch and Frankenstein are voiced respectively by Joel Bishop (who was also in Saints and Soldiers and that JonBenet telemovie as well as Stalking Santa and Cyber Sleuths), Mary Parker Williams (Don’t Look Under the Bed, Firestarter 2) and Christopher Miller (who could be one of several actors of that name).

The other element of note is the music by Lisle Moore, who has previously scored trailers such as The Missing, Haunted Mansion and Cold Mountain as well as various Playstation games. Specifically, there is a song midway through the film as Katie and Makean fly on the broomsticks which is an utterly shameless rip-off of The Nightmare Before Christmas (complete with “Halloween! Halloween!” chorus). The aping of Danny Elfman’s music is so blatant that it frankly spoils and cheapens the production as a whole, which is a shame.

One final point to note is the running time which according to the DVD sleeve is 65 minutes. In fact, Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats runs only half an hour, the rest being padded out with the two trailers, a short (but surprisingly good) look behind the scenes of the production... and half a dozen public domain Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons. That’s a bit naughty, although we should blame the distributor, not the producers.

While it has its faults, mainly in the story department, Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats is a nicely produced little special which has enough fun for its target audience and enough monsters gathered in one place to get adult fans excited.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 7th December 2008.

The Realm of Never: Moratorium

Director: Christopher Del Gaudio
Writer: Christopher Del Gaudio
Producers: Christopher Del Gaudio, Vernon Gravdal, Loretta Mirabella
Cast: Darren O’Hare, Jason Murphy, Jacqueline Muro
Country: USA
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: screener disc

I don’t half get sent some odd stuff to review on this site. I mean, I love it, but boy, sometimes I really have to work hard to work out what to say. Not with the bad stuff. Really bad movies are easy - and fun - to review. And really good stuff gives me plenty to get my teeth into. But then there’s the stuff that’s not like anything else.

Moratorium is a half-hour episode of an anthology series called The Realm of Never which airs on public access TV in the States. Now, we don’t have public access TV in this country and, truth be told, I don’t really understand the concept, my only real knowledge of it coming from repeated viewings of Wayne’s World.

Most public access TV is, I gather, of the Wayne and Garth variety which is why The Realm of Never is so unusual. Not only is it drama, but it is shot live, using three cameras, in a deliberately retro style (and black and white). This, combined with the ‘set’ being not much more than a curtain and a couple of bits of furniture, gives the series (it seems, based on this one episode) a threadbare, archaic appearance which is, I have to assume, completely intentional.

Moratorium is basically a four-hander. Myles Goddard (Darren O’Hare) is a political intern who has been exposed to some sort of virus that grants him omniscience and thereby allows him to understand what is really going on in world politics. Medical expert Dr Beverly Mathias (Jacqueline Muro) and military advisor (or something) Wyndham (Jason Murphy) are interrogating him to find out what he really knows, much to the consternation of his aunt Amanda (Joannne Antonucci, wearing heavier make-up than I have ever seen on any human being). In the second half of the half-hour there is a military guard standing to the side who says a couple of lines (in Russian, I think) but otherwise seems to have no bearing on the matter.

Myles’ viral-induced omniscience reveals to him that our world is being run by shape-shifting aliens. I think. I mean, he never actually comes out and says this but it seems to be what he is alluding to for the best part of thirty minutes. Whether this state of affairs is a good or bad thing, whether Myles’ knowing about it is good or bad, whether other people know or not - sorry, I couldn’t pick up on any of this. There’s lots and lots of dialogue but it’s all very obtuse. There’s also a fair share of pauses and a disconcerting number of times when characters paraphrase what someone else has just said, prefaced with, “So you’re saying...”

I realise that the budget is about twenty bucks, the studio is the size of a telephone kiosk and the whole thing is done live, but my biggest frustration was that no-one does anything. This is the most static, non-visual thing I have ever seen on a TV screen. It’s basically a radio programme; although the Realm of Never website understandably claims comparison with The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90, it felt more like Dimension X or X Minus One.

But maybe that’s the intention, maybe that’s writer/director/producer Christopher Del Gaudio using his limitations. I find it very, very difficult to review Moratorium out of context as a stand-alone short film because I just don’t know what allowances to make for it. The cast are pretty stiff - but is that deliberate homage to the wooden acting that was more common on TV in the 1950s? There is also a colour epilogue, a Dennis Potter-style twist on what has gone before which raises still further the question of how one should view the preceding twenty-odd minutes.

I think the only coherent criticism I can make of The Realm of Never is this. It seems from the website that Del Gaudio writes and directs all the episodes, but the best anthologies work because of the range of writers and directors they use. Obviously The Realm of Never is not going to attract writers of the calibre of Richard Matheson or Harlan Ellison, but the script is almost always the weakest part of any low-budget production. The plot of Moratorium, inasmuch as it is discernible through the obfuscatory dialogue, seems to be a standard paranoid conspiracy theory which can’t help but make one think of David Icke and similar loonies. There didn’t seem to be any questioning of whether Myles’ ideas were merely drug-induced fantasies. The central idea was discussed to death but not really explored and it came across as a load of new age, crystal-gazing hippy hooha, which I don’t think was the intention.

I always review films on the basis of how well they achieve what they set out to do with what they have available, but I don’t have enough cultural experience of 1950s American live television to evaluate the former and I don’t have enough grasp of public access TV to judge the latter. I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt, because Del Gaudio seems to know what he’s doing, but I can’t say this was really my cup of tea. Still, full credit to the guy (and his crew and rep company of actors) for doing something different and evidently doing it successfully.

MJS rating: B
Review originally posted 21st December 2006.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Demonsoul

Director: Elisar Cabrera as ‘Elisar C Kennedy’
Writer: ‘Elisar C Kennedy’
Producer: ‘Elisar C Kennedy’, Daniel Figuero
Cast: Kerry Norton, Eileen Daly, Daniel Jordan
Country: UK
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: US DVD (Brentwood)

I suspect most horror fans would agree that the Golden Age of British Horror started in 1957 with the release of Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein (fortuitously synchronous, across the Atlantic, with AIP’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the release of the Shock Theatre package of old Universal movies to TV, and the launch of Famous Monsters of Filmland). That said, there is an argument for dating the Golden Age back a couple of years to The Quatermass Xperiment. If Curse marked the first page in the story – not just of Hammer but of classic British horror – then the first couple of Quatermasses (and, I guess, X the Unknown) are clearly a prologue of some sort.

By a similar token…

In Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema 1997-2008 I made it quite clear that, in my view, the British Horror Revival started in 1997 with Darklands, followed swiftly by Urban Ghost Story and I, Zombie. But there is an argument for dating this – shall we say? – Silver Age, back a couple of years. And the equivalent of The Quatermass Xperiment here would be Elisar Cabrera’s 1995 picture Demonsoul. Which, after only twenty years, I have finally got round to watching. Look, I’ve been busy, okay?

Demonsoul was not the only British horror film made in the mid-1990s, though there were certainly very few. And it doesn’t have the gritty social realism which would come to characterise the BHR (or at least, the early days thereof). What it does have is a solidly British aesthetic (despite its US funding, which we’ll come to) and a serious approach which marks it out from the more obviously commercial larks of near-contemporaries like Revenge of Billy the Kid or Funny Man. Largely unheralded at the time, Demonsoul showed that a serious horror film could be shot in the UK, on a tiny budget, with professional actors. It just took people a while to notice this.

Probably most importantly, this was shot on video for a straight-to-video release at a time when the prevalent attitude among both film-makers and fans was that all films were still expected to play cinemas, even if it was only one or two. If you've read Urban Terrors (come on, somebody must have...) you'll know that much of the text concerns changes in distribution models, and how those changes allowed the BHR to happen. Back in the 1990s ‘shot on video’ was synonymous with amateur, backyard shenanigans, certainly in this country. But Elisar’s adroit awareness of the US market - largely unknown to most Britons because the web was still so new, small and basic - was as prescient as it was innovative. In its own small way, Demonsoul was actually quite groundbreaking.

All the above notwithstanding, the film’s biggest significance in retrospect, certainly for most horror fans, is as the feature debut of Dame Eileen Daly, soon to establish herself as the Queen of Low Budget British Horror (and, as I type this, ensconced in the Big Brother House).

I also must be honest and say that, although few would argue that Demonsoul is a classic, it is nevertheless a well-made little picture and I have seen many, many subsequent films which were far, far worse. This is more than just a historical curio. I actually quite enjoyed watching it.

Kerry Norton stars as Erica Steele, a young woman with a cute ‘80s-style short-back-and-sides, who has been having recurring nightmares about a mysterious, long-haired woman named Selena (our Eileen). Norton is actually a real, respected actress now (which is not to imply anything against Eileen, whom we love). A former gymnast, she was also in Elisar-produced anthology Virtual Terror and oil rig horror The Devil’s Tattoo/Ghost Rig, which is presumably where she met hubby Jamie Bamber. He went on to play Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica remake, in which Norton also had a recurring role as a medic. More impressively for this reviewer, she was also in The Weird Al Show. Anyone who has been touched by the hand of Al is a legend in my book.

So anyway: seeking answers, Erica visits hypnotherapist Dr Bucher (sic – not ‘Butcher’ or 'Booker' as widely mislisted around the web) played by Daniel Jordan (later in Bane), who has thick lips and hair like a hat but, despite what the IMDB thinks, was definitely not born in Cuba in 1923! Bucher is actually a creep who likes to fondle his hypnotised patients, but he gets a surprise when Erica’s ‘past life’ turns out to be a vampire named Dana. Bucher tries to bargain with Dana – who sprouts fangs when she’s in control of Erica’s body – hoping to gain some of her supernatural power. I don't want to write spoilers but come on, that’s not likely to end up as a good thing, is it?

Meanwhile, Erica’s boyfriend Alex (Drew Rhys-Williams, also credited as fight co-ordinator, who went on to assorted theatre work but did crop up on screen again briefly in 28 Weeks Later) and her friend/colleague Rosemary (South Africa-born stage actress Janine Ulfane whose occasional mentions in Tatler etc indicate she has palatial homes on both sides of the Atlantic) are racing to try and save her - but some undead monks are trying to stop them.

It all culminates in an old church, on the steps of which Erica first met Selena when the former was a little girl (shown in sepia flashbacks). Inside this vast old building, Selena – who calls Dana ‘Mistress’ – and her acolytes plan to force Erica to drink blood from a sacrificial victim (Johnny Vercoutre, also credited as production manager and ‘additional make-up’) with a pentagon carved into his chest. A quartet of vampire babes in torn underwear show up to also feast on this lucky fella, and to feature in the marketing materials despite having neither character names nor any other plot function. A ‘twist’ epilogue features Dark Side editor Allan Bryce (credited as 'Allen') as a doctor and Canadian RJ Bell (Octopussy, Superman III, Morons from Outer Space, Haunted Honeymoon) as Erica’s father. (Johnny Vercoutre incidentally is a grand British eccentric who subsequently established a 1940s retro café in Shoreditch which was used as a location by numerous film and TV shows.)

None of this is played for laughs, despite the inherent cheesiness of such a storyline, and I think that is very much to the film’s credit. Elisar took the work seriously, and so did his cast and crew. That in itself was a departure for UK horror of the era. Also innovative is the fetish/sexual angle, exemplified in the scene of the four hot chicks in ripped black stockings orgasmically licking blood off a guy wearing only a leather posing pouch. And then there’s the sheer Britishness of it. With the exception of RJ Bell, most of the cast are British, using their own accents. The opening titles play over footage of UK iconography: double decker buses and red telephone boxes, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. American horror fans who bought this when it was released were under no illusions that what they were looking at was an import. And this was at a time when the few genre productions happening in the UK – for companies like Metrodome or Peakviewing Transatlantic – were desperate to try and pretend that they were American.

For all of these reasons and more, Demonsoul marked a watershed in the history of British horror: a complete break with the past. There is absolutely no discernible link from this back to Hammer or Amicus or Tigon or Pete Walker or Norman J Warren or anybody or anything. This was something completely new, something literally ahead of its time.

So no, it may not be the best British vampire film ever made, but it’s far from the worst and it is actually watchable: quite exciting in places, well-paced, with a cracking performance from Eileen and generally solid support. Yes, it has the flat image that was an unavoidable side-effect of shooting on 1990s-era video (specifically Hi-8) but Elisar, who was just 23 at the time, directed with skill and a professional eye. DoP Alvin Leong (who also shot parts of Breathe Safely; apparently now a professional photographer in Malaysia with his own photo academy) lit the interiors and exteriors well; there are no sodium-green skin shades here. The only real technical problem is the sound which is quite muffled in places, obscuring some of the dialogue. This is a shame as Elisar's script is well-written, reserving its most portentous, cod-religious lines for Eileen, one of the few actresses who can carry off that sort of thing,

Eileen had been acting for quite a few years when she made Demonsoul, though it was her first feature film. She had done a number of, ahem, adult videos - in fact, her first such works were distributed as 8mm 'loops' - but had also done a considerable amount of theatre as well as corporates and music videos (most famously Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' for her boyfriend Tim Pope). In the early 1990s she was an item with Nigel Wingrove when he founded Redemption Video. Eileen posed for the company logo and also many of the early VHS sleeves, which eschewed garish original artwork in favour of a distinctive, black and white goth/fetish design. Eileen met Elisar on the set of a student film that both were helping out on, and a couple of years later he approached her to play Selena in his debut feature. (It's worth noting that Eileen wasn't proud of the film at the time and probably hasn't changed her view of it over the years. Personally I think she's underselling herself there: she's actually very good in this.)

As partly noted already, 'Elisar C Kennedy' assembled a remarkable cast around Eileen and Kerry Norton. For example Suzanne Ballantyne, senior programmer at the Raindance Film Festival, plays Erica’s psychiatrist (Raindance founder Elliot Grove can be spotted in the ‘special thanks’ list). The undead monks were Gavin Barnard (now director of something called Digital Entertainment Media), Ric Scadorwa and Mark Braby, who also plays a would-be rapist and now promotes experimental new music through a venue/organisation called The Orchestra Pit.

The closest that the film gets to light relief is Sue Scadding as Bucher’s secretary Marilyn, convinced that in her past life she was a certain famous actress. Former Playboy Bunny Scadding was also in Elisar’s second feature, Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft, then disappeared for a decade or so before reappearing in the noughties with roles in Jonathan Glendening’s 13hrs, Alex de la Iglesia’s Oxford Murders and a number of commercials.

Erich Redman, recently seen as a German general in Dominic Burns’ Allies and also in numerous other WW2 pictures (including Captain America: The First Avenger) is a colleague of Bucher’s. Russell Calbert (‘vision and sound engineer’ in the titles, ‘stills photographer’ and ‘ADR recording’ in the credits) is a customer in a comic shop which is, I think, Fantastic Store on Portobello Road. Erica goes into the shop because Alex works upstairs from it. One scene show an archway into a backroom sculpted like a giant set of vampire fangs, a spot of opportunistic mise-en-scene surprisingly underused by Elisar (or maybe he thought it was too obvious…).

The four vampire babes are Katherine Blick, Nikita Blum, Kira Hansen and Hepzibah Sessa. The first two ladies have left no trace but Sessa will be a recognisable name to some as she played keyboards and violin for classical/goth band Miranda Sex Garden. She married Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode and then collaborated with him on his Recoil project. I suspect Kira Hansen may be Danish film director Kira Richards Hansen as she was living in London in the 1990s taking part in ‘performance work’.

And it doesn’t stop there. The little girl playing young Erica in the flashbacks is Pixie Roscoe, now all grown up as author PJ Roscoe. And her two friends? Isabella ‘Izzy’ Hyams went on to be a production assistant on blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Prince of Persia following a spell as casting assistant on The Omen, Hannibal Rising and other big studio productions. Her brother Luke Hyams meanwhile wrote, produced and directed various web series before making his own British horror film with X Moor (on which his sister shot second unit). And he’s not the only future horror director in the cast; Erica and Rosemary’s boss is none other than Graham Fletcher-Cook, 20 years before he made Blood and Carpet.

Crikey!

Behind the camera we find Caroline Barnes handling hair and make-up; nowadays she makes up folk like Kylie, Cheryl Cole and David Beckham for photoshoots in magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. ‘Special make-up FX’ are credited to Matt Rowe who now makes weapon props for Marvel blockbusters.

Someone named ‘D Kenrick’ is listed as editor, sound editor and ‘titles and optical effects’, a rather pointless semi-pseudonym as the ‘special thanks’ list clearly identifies him as Diggory Kenrick, who is probably the world’s only reggae flautist (seriously!). The actual score for Demonsoul is credited, according to the IMDB, to ‘Thomas Hamilton (as Thomas Frenzi)’ but in fact the on-screen credit is ‘Thomas Docherty’, though I think it’s the same guy. There’s also a couple of songs by a band called The Earth Babies. Alongside Kenrick, the other editor was Stuart Lansdowne, who now runs a web design company.

A cast and crew like that really underlines what a historically fascinating document this film is. But at the time its significance for Elisar was simply that he got to make a feature film (albeit under a partial pseudonym). He had spent a few years in LA, working his way up from being a runner to helping with production. Jerry Feifer of Vista Street Entertainment therefore knew Elisar and agreed to let him shoot a production for Vista Street in England, on a grand budget of $1,500! (Back in the 1970s Feifer had been Head of Television Research at 20th Century Fox; his sons were mates with a local kid named JJ Abrams!) Vista Street specialised in dirt-cheap ‘erotic horror’ films: a bit of action, a bit of blood and plenty of boobs. But hey, they at least got things made, and Elisar was savvy enough to spot an opportunity. Feifer shares story credit with Elisar and is one of two credited executive producers, the other being Matt Devlen (producer of such classics as The Invisible Maniac and Ozone! Attack of the Redneck Mutants). Elisar’s interview with Devlen from his short-lived trash cinema fanzine Bubblegum can be found online if you look.

After directing Witchcraft X and producing Virtual Terror, Elisar went on to a succession of jobs across all aspects of the film business, but away from any actual cameras: development and sales and that sort of thing, the stuff that doesn’t show up on the IMDB. Nowadays he’s a big name in web serials, and he’s involved with Raindance and MCM London Comic Con and suchlike. Last year he produced the documentary feature Who’s Changing and he’s currently producing Ibiza Undead through Capital City Film, the company he runs with his wife Lisa Gifford. He’s also developing a feature called Suckers, which has Owen Tooth (Devil’s Tower) attached to direct from a screenplay by James Moran (Cockneys vs Zombies, Severance).

The final credit to note is Elisar’s fellow producer Daniel Figuero, a reclusive but relevant name. Figuero produced Demonsoul the same year that he produced Edgar Wright’s first film, micro-budget British western A Fistful of Fingers. He then produced The Scarlet Tunic, arguably the world’s first crowd-funded movie. Though he hasn’t troubled the IMDB for over a decade, Figuero is still out there somewhere making deals.

The version of Demonsoul that I watched was part of a ten-film, five-disc box set released in July 2004 by Brentwood Entertainment called Scared Stiff, also featuring Evil Sister, Hellspawn, Stigma, Colinsville, Nightcrawler, The Screaming, Blood Revenge, Bloodbath and Malibu Beach Vampires. The film was also released in April 2008 in a box called Demons and Witches, alongside Witchcraft X, XI and XII, The Strangers and Crystal Force II, plus Bloodbath, Hellspawn, The Screaming and Evil Sister again. Before either of those there was a four-film pack entitled Too Hot for Hell in October 2003 which combined this film with Crystal Force II, Evil Sister and Bloodbath. Of course, when this first came out in February 1996 it was on VHS... (Demonsoul was also shown twice on the big(ish) screen: a cast and crew screening and - I'm fairly sure - a screening at the 1995 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester. That's two more screenings than most Vista Street titles ever managed.)

I very much doubt that Elisar gets a cent from the sale of Demonsoul in any format but I’ve known him for 20 years and he can rest assured that, next time our paths cross, I shall buy him a drink as payment for a fascinating 80 minutes of viewing and an even more fascinating evening of research.

Demonsoul is a genuinely important film, yet almost nothing has been written about it. Harvey Fenton reviewed it at the time in Flesh and Blood (he hated it, mainly because it was shot on video, but was happy to put a photo of the vampire babes on the back cover). Michael J Weldon gave it a short, largely descriptive review in Psychotronic Video. Brycey's involvement suggests there was probably coverage in The Dark Side but evidently I don't have that issue as it's not in my index. Jonathan Rigby completely ignored it when he wrote English Gothic (presumably because he didn’t count DTV releases as real films). Online there’s a review on Taliesin Meets the Vampires, a couple of reviews on other sites which take some digging in Google to find plus a handful of user comments on Amazon and IMDB. (Oh, and it has a page on the Internet Movie Car Database with framegrabs of some of the 1980s/1990s vehicles on display. Wow, and I thought I didn't get out much...) I’m afraid that even in Urban Terrors Elisar's film only gets a passing mention: in the section on Razor Blade Smile, as an early Eileen Daly credit. I reckon the 3,300 words or so in this review is more than all the other coverage the film has had over the past two decades put together. Should I ever find myself writing a second edition of Urban Terrors, rest assured that I shall give Demonsoul more prominence and explain its historical importance.

I can't blame anyone for not noticing Demonsoul at the time. Jeez, it's taken me two decades. But I think it is significant: a break with the old and a pointer towards the new. It certainly didn't precipitate a seismic shift in British horror cinema the way that Darklands or The Curse of Frankenstein did. But then neither did The Quatermass Xperiment four decades before. In both cases, film historians can look back before the zero point - 1957 and 1997 - and find a precedent, unheralded at the time for its significance. That's the fun of cinematic research.

Which just leaves the question of a rating. For what it was, and what it did, and when it was made, and what it led to, and most especially for what it successfully cast aside - the cloying traditionalism and small-minded parochialism of British horror cinema (while at the same time, ironically, asserting a distinctive, proudly British identity) – then I’ve got to be reasonably generous. So:

MJS rating: B+

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Darkest Day

Director: Dan Rickard
Writers: Dan Rickard, Will Martin
Director: Simon Drake
Cast: Dan Rickard, Samantha Bolter, Chris Wandell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.darkestday.co.uk

Looked at objectively, on an absolute scale, Darkest Day is a run of the mill zombie feature. Since 2000 there have been more than 80 feature-length zombie films made and released in this country (plus hundreds of others around the globe). Do we really need another?

Yes. Yes, we probably do when it’s this good and this interesting. Darkest Day is a labour of love that reflects every ounce of time and effort – and the few hundred quid – that has gone into it. Brilliantly integrated CGI effects make it look like it cost a hundred times its actual meagre budget.

There isn’t, it must be admitted, a great deal of story. Nor is there a great deal of depth to the characters. Let me qualify that: they’re not sketchily drawn stereotypes. We just don’t get to know them very well. What there is – and this matters to this reviewer at least – is a bleak, depressing atmosphere throughout the film. When I sit down to watch a zombie picture, I expect it to be stark and cheerless. Unless you’re actually making a zom-com, like Shaun of the Dead or Stalled, then an effective zombie picture needs to serve up nihilism, despair and a hopeless vision for the (non)future of the human race. That’s what I enjoy watching.

Oh, and squaddies. You’ve got to have squaddies. It’s a tradition or an old charter or something.

Writer-director Dan Rickard stars as Dan, a young man who wakes up on Brighton beach with no memory of anything, not even the recent zombie apocalypse. He is taken in – with varying degrees of warmth/caution – by a group of twentysomethings who have, for reasons that are never clear, decided to stay in their house when absolutely everyone else has been evacuated to ‘safety camps’.

I can’t say I particularly warmed to this group, who look, behave and live like students. When deadly, fast-moving, ravenous ghouls are roaming the streets, spending your evenings drinking beer and larking about doesn’t strike me as terribly sensible behaviour. I’m not actually quite sure how many people there are in the house, although in the film’s favour the ones with least character/presence are generally the ones that get killed first and the ones we get to spend time with and bother about later in the film are more clearly defined.

As for the zombies in this movie, they are very much post-28 Days Later. They are ‘infected’ rather than reanimated, and they run very fast, with little co-ordination, desperate to munch down on any living thing. And there’s a lot of them - up to 50 or so in some scenes.

As well as avoiding the zombies, Dan and his mates have to avoid being caught by roving squads of soldiers in full camo and gas masks. While the army do seem to be on the look-out for the gang in the house, they’re really looking for Dan of course. With the film being shot and set in Brighton this put me very much in mind of Project Assassin, but since no-one’s ever seen that film and most of this lot were still at nursery when it was made, any resemblance is entirely coincidental.

There’s really not much to the story, as I say, but this is a film where you metaphorically leave the cinema whistling the post-production. An enjoyable and informative half-hour Making Of gives some insight into the film which started life as a short, then a remake of the short, then a feature, shot in fits and starts over about four years. Most of the dialogue is improvised, which is not really a problem as there’s not much narrative to drive; in fact there’s a sense that parts of the story were pretty much made up as the team went along.

Rickard has done an absolutely magnificent job of turning his locations into a deserted, broken down city. To be fair, he was starting with 21st century Brighton so was already closer to a derelict, inhospitable wasteland than he would have been in many nicer towns. Nevertheless, the visual effects here are stunning. Smashed windows, abandoned cars, rubbish and fires. All applied to footage shot on the fly, early in the morning or just in gaps between the traffic. When you think of what Danny Boyle and his crew were able to do with umpteen million quid a decade or so ago, and now what one guy can do literally in his bedroom, it's astounding.

Beyond the mise-en-scene though, there’s the use of computer effects – CGI and matting – to populate the story. Rickard only had access to three army uniforms, yet there are scenes with a dozen or more squaddies, composited together from multiple takes of the same three actors (hence the gas masks!). There are military vehicles on the roads, and frequent shots of a Chinook helicopter. I was both amazed and delighted to find that some of these vehicles, including the Chinook, are not fully CGI but Airfix kits, shot against a green screen and then matted in. It’s a real joy to see practical miniature effects used – and used very effectively - in a micro-budget picture like this.

Rickard has some experience in this field as he was special effects supervisor for the Ford Brothers’ magnificent The Dead, one of the very best zombie films ever made in my humble opinion, and also its India-set sequel. He also did effects on a few shorts including Edilberto Restino’s metaphysical WW2 drama Red Letter and Andreas Ksoll’s comedy Boiler, plus cinematography on Dead Air, a sci-fi short by Darkest Day producer Simon Drake (Drake, who also appears on screen, has various low-level crew gigs on his CV including Philip Ridley’s Heartless and a brace of Mark Gatiss TV jobs, The First Men in the Moon and Crooked House.) Composer Richard ‘Wilx’ Wilkinson (who also scored Ross Shepherd’s Heathen) is also in the cast.

As an example of bedroom creativity above and beyond the call of duty, Darkest Day is unprecedented. Immediately after watching the Making Of, I was borderline considering whether I should award this an A+ for being so much better than it had any right to be. But on reflection, I couldn’t do that for a film that was so vague in terms of story and characters. Not emptily, disappointingly vague, but certainly not particularly gripping or compelling. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Darkest Day very much. But it’s not The Dead, let’s put it that way. It’s not a powerful social statement about imperialism or racism or globalism or even about Brighton. It’s just a good zombie film. And fair play to Rickard – that’s what he set out to make. And I feel really bad for criticising the film in this way. But them’s the breaks.

Completed over several years, Darkest Day had a brief theatrical release in May 2015, playing a few venues in London and Brighton, ahead of a DVD release that same month from Left Films.

MJS rating: A-

Sharktopus

Director: Declan O’Brien
Writer: Mike MacLean
Producers: Roger Corman, Julie Corman
Cast: Eric Roberts, Sara Malakul Lane, Kerem Bursin
Country: USA
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: screener (Anchor Bay)

I really wanted to enjoy Sharktopus more than I did, which was ‘not very much’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this is a bad film. Well, let me qualify that slightly. Sharktopus is indeed a bad film but it’s not an insultingly stupid, lazy and inept film. This screener turned up in the same post as Stonehenge Apocalypse and, while I confidently expect that I will never, ever watch either film again, I know which I would plump for if offered this limited choice while strapped into a chair with my eyes held open like Malcolm McDowell.

Although that is partly because, in such a situation, sleep would be difficult but I could reasonably count on Sharktopus to make me nod off, even with eyelid braces in place. I fell asleep twice while trying to sit through this film, and it’s not particularly long. It’s just not gripping at all. I didn’t at any point care what was happening or worry about what might happen next. And call me Mr Fussy-Socks but when I sit down to watch a film about a monster with rows of teeth, lots of tentacles and a list of favourite foods which starts ‘1. People standing next to hot women in bikinis. 2. Hot women in bikinis.’ then I expect to find myself taking an interest in proceedings. Is that too much to ask?

I may be speculating wildly here - actually there’s no ‘may’, this is just pure speculation - but I envisage Sharktopus as Roger Corman’s answer to The Asylum. Corman was the King of the Bs for so long; folk like Charlie Band and Uncle Lloyd established their own distinctive niches but never came close to challenging for the throne. Then those rootin’ tootin’ Asylum boys moseyed into town and swiftly staked out a claim as purveyors of finest grade, hugely enjoyable, cut-price cinematic tat.

After making their name - establishing their brand identity, if you will - with a series of insane (and sometime insanely cheeky) ‘mockbusters’, The Asylum really announced their entry into the original creature feature market with the utterly bonkers, utterly brilliant Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus.

I can just imagine Corman, sat in his office, looking at how many hits the Mega-Shark vs trailer had received on YouTube, and plotting his counter-attack. If people want a film about a shark and an octopus, how about a film about something which is both shark and octopus? An, if you will, sharktopus? Not only would this be something new and original, something unique and distinctive, but it also saves money by requiring only one piss-poor CGI creature instead of two. ‘Ker-ching’ go the dollar-signs in the producer’s eyes.

Or maybe he just had a bad dream. Or maybe he was doodling during a dull conference call and found he had sketched a shark with octopus tentacles. Who knows?

I just wish that, having conceived this absolutely insane, loopily brilliant idea, Corman and co. had done something with it. But no. It’s half-shark, half-octopus and it kills people. That’s pretty much the extent of the plot.

In the opening scene, two young women in bikinis are sunbathing on the beach at Santa Monica. Actually, before we get to them there is a good minute or two of establishing stock footage of attractive young people in beachwear doing beach things like sunbathing, swimming, playing volleyball, eating ice creams etc. This is a recurring motif throughout the film. Excepting the bits of the film which actually take place out at sea on boats, no scene is allowed to start without a chunk of bikini-packed stock beach footage.

Fred Olen Ray once famously observed that “nudity is the cheapest special effect” but actually I think that - assuming this stuff was sitting on a shelf in Corman’s offices and not specially shot by sending an intern down to the beach with a domestic camcorder - the cheapest special effect can now be officially recognised as stock footage of women in bikinis. I don’t know how long Sharktopus would be without all this padding but it might have difficulty making feature-length.

Anyway, one of these women goes swimming and is chased by the world’s least realistic shark fin in a scene which steals everything from the equivalent bit of Jaws except the music, the quality and the technical and artistic skill. Her friend screams quite half-heartedly to look out but no-one else on the beach pays attention because they are all stock footage, and there’s no-one else in the water either (except in all the establishing shots).

Just as the shark (it looks like it’s supposed to be a mako, but that’s more likely coincidence than planned detail) is about to grab the girl, it is itself grabbed by a thing which is basically the front half of a great white and the back half of an abnormally large giant pacific octopus (with some extra spiky-quill things sticking out of its gill slits because obviously just a run-of-the-mill shark/octopus hybrid wouldn’t be scary enough). Oh, and it has a sort of electronic doodad strapped to its back like the sort of frickin’ laser beam that Dr Evil insisted on attaching to his own sharks.

Except that this is not a frickin’ laser beam but some sort of control unit. For this is S11 (constantly pronounced “essleven”) a bioengineered weapon created by a company called Bluewater which consists of mad scientist Nathan Sands (the ever-reliable Eric Roberts: Sanctimony, Raptor, Endangered Species, The Shadow Men and of course the Doctor Who telemovie) and his sexy-nerdette daughter Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane, a British actress/model born and raised in Thailand, who was in a Steven Seagal film). They are, naturally, testing this highly dangerous creation not in a tank at some ocean research institute but in the surf off California’s most popular beach.

Sands is demonstrating S11 to Commander Cox (Calvin Persson) of the US Navy who seems to think that it is generally a good idea to employ tiny family businesses to somehow develop dangerous new breeds of marine life in the never-ending war against drug-runners and terrorists. Tragically, a further attempt to test S11 by nearly crashing it into some random dude’s motorboat causes the frickin’ laser beam box to get knocked off the creature’s back. And from then on it’s up to the Bluewater team to find and capture the creature as it makes its way down the coast to Mexico, where life is cheap and filming permits are cheaper.

Although the current Bluewater employee roster has only two names on it, there was a previous member of the team, Andy Flynn (Turkish-born Kerem Bursin making his feature debut after a few shorts) who helped to develop S11 but then left to put his scientific knowledge to better use by partying South of the Border. We meet him in a swimming pool, wearing a sombrero, playing drinking games with two non-speaking bit-part bimbos. Sands offers Flynn enough money to join the hunt for S11 and also gets along Flynn’s best buddy Santos (Julian Gonzalez, a prolific Spanish actor) who may or may not have previously worked for Bluewater.

Flynn was previously an item with Nicole and still fancies his chances but her heart belongs to Daddy - and to bioengineering. Santos, as a substantial supporting character with lots of dialogue but no significant character flaws, no romantic interest and no full name is instantly marked out as sharktopus-bait, though he does survive for most of the film.

So Nicole, Flynn and Santos set out on a small boat to track down the creature using Nicole’s laptop - somehow - while Sands Sr stays on a much larger boat, knocking back G&Ts provided by his one-man crew/staff and taking occasional video calls from Commander Cox. And now we have a succession of cameos in which we meet someone, they do something or say something - and then they get grabbed and eaten by S11. Repeat to fade. We’re never asked to care about or know these people - they’re just anonymous, one-note plot-fodder. It’s like watching a B-movie version of Casualty.

Actually the first taste of this is back in California where two guys painting the side of the Queen Mary discuss how they would prefer to die before being grabbed by CG tentacles. Then down Mexico way we have a guy on a yacht, a guy on a jet-ski... Sharktopus is an equal-opportunities carnivore and sometimes a woman gets it too. There’s a bikini-clad beachcomber whose metal detecting uncovers a massive gold medallion - moments before she is randomly grabbed and dragged into the sea, screamingly mildly. And there a bungee-jumping scene which seems to be there primarily in order to be included in the trailer.

Now, a word about the screaming. Back in the 1980s there were ladies called ‘scream queens’ - Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer et al - and throughout the 1990s the term persisted, consistently devalued as more and more actresses, further and further down the sub-Hollywood ladder, started brandishing it about. I mention this because Sharktopus really, really needs some scream queens. I’ve never before watched a film where so many women screamed so half-heartedly. Oh dear, my boyfriend is being devoured by a hideous mutant creature right in front of my eyes and in all probability I’m next. Oh goodness, oh hellup, oh my.

One of the more interesting pieces of sharktopus-bait is a pirate radio DJ named Captain Jack (Ralph Garman, who does voices for Family Guy) who broadcasts from his yacht, assisted by a lithe but stand-off-ish babe called Stephie (Shandi Finnessey, who was Miss USA 2004) who, like almost all the women in this film, wears nothing except a string bikini and sunglasses. We meet these two a couple of times as Captain Jack reports disbelievingly on breaking stories of a shark-octopus monster attacking people up and down the Mexican coast.

The closest we actually get to a real supporting character (and the only woman apart from Nicole to not wear the otherwise obligatory four triangles and a few bits of string, is TV reporter Stacy Everheart (Liv Boughn, also in Corman’s Dinoshark!) who is desperate for a report that will not only make her career but save her job and thinks she might have found it. She is accompanied everywhere by her long-suffering cameraman Bones (the unconventionally alliterative Hector Jimenez, who was in environmentalist fantasy Christmas comedy Navidad SA) and finds her information source in a world-weary drunk named Pez (Blake Lindsey, who played a serial killing Johann Sebastian Bach in a very odd 2009 short) who claims to have seen the monster in all its gory glory.

In terms of a story, what we get is Nicole, Flynn and Santos looking for (and occasionally finding) the monster; Stacy, Bones and Pez looking for (and occasionally finding) the monster; and assorted, mostly nameless bit-parts not looking for (but invariably being found by) the monster. All those scenes have been put into a multi-disc DVD player and then someone, possibly Corman himself, has pressed the ‘shuffle’ button and called it a movie.

That’s actually truer than you might think because although there is some narrative progression in both the Nicole/Flynn/Santos storyline and the Stacy/Bones/Pez B-story, the movie has a typically Corman-esque attitude to continuity which is so cavalier that it wears a big floppy hat and lots of lace while fighting a losing battle against Parliamentary forces. There’s a sequence where Nicole, Flynn and Santos are joined by two other unnamed divers so that these two extras (who might as well wear red Star Fleet uniforms for all the hope they have of surviving) can join Flynn in an underwater battle against the beast.

But about ten minutes beforehand, when there is no-one in this (really very small) boat except the three regulars, a long-shot of the vessel skimming across the waves clearly shows five people on board.

The thing is: Roger Corman doesn’t care. Roger Corman already has your money (or at least, the distributor/broadcaster’s money) and he knows that there is an exact level of crappiness to aim for: no higher, no lower. Provided a film meets a minimum requirement (and regular followers of this site will realise that this is a low, low baseline) it can be as crappy as it wants in other ways. All sorts of corners can be cut without losing sales. And every dollar saved is an extra dollar of profit. That’s the Corman way.

Certainly no unnecessary money has been spent on the CGI creature which is desperately awful, not just in the tentacles which rise from the ocean waves, but also when seen in its entirety on land. (Did I mention that S11 can climb out of the sea and crawl around on land in exactly the way that neither sharks not octopuses can? No? Neither did the film-makers. It seems to be just an idea that they had halfway through production when they realised that they might need something with the approximate shape of a third act.)

Ooh, and that reminds me of another point. Everyone in this film uses the term ‘octopi’ in an attempt to sound clever and all scientific and shit. But the plural of octopus is octopodes, as any fule kno. (Yes, some dictionaries also list ‘octopi’ but that is because dictionaries record usage, they don’t dictate it. The suffix of the word is the Greek ‘-pus’ not the Latin ‘-us’ so it doesn’t pluralise like nautili, omnibi or diplodoci.)

There’s not a lot more to say about the plot of Sharktopus and certainly nothing more to be said about its characters, apart from the revelation that Sands Sr had somehow tampered with his daughter’s bioengineering software to make S11 even more deadly than planned and this is why it is attacking innocent Americans in Mexico. And not because, you know, it is an artificially created killing machine with rows of teeth, huge tentacles (which vary in length from scene to scene and have hard stabbing points just like octopus tentacles don’t) and a voracious appetite.

At this stage in the review I would normally list other cast members and what they have been in but hardly anyone in this film has any other credits. The only notable name is Mike Gaglio, a veteran of Fred Olen Ray movies and many other DTV titles who managed, within the space of about 18 months, to appear (uncredited) in this, in Asylum sequel Mega-Shark vs Crocosaurus and in Fred’s own Super Shark. Corman himself makes a cameo as a beach bum who calmly watches the metal-detecting babe get dragged into the sea and devoured.

Let’s instead take a look at director Declan O’Brien who started out as a stage actor in New York but switched to producing and directing when he moved out to Hollywood. He seems to be contentedly carving out a career shooting these Happy Shopper horrors, having written and/or directed Snakeman, Savage Planet, Harpies, Rock Monster, Monster Ark and Corman’s Roman epic Cyclops, also starring Eric Roberts. In 2009 he made Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead and is now helming another entry in that franchise (which should really be called Wrong Turn 4: Why Don’t We Stop and Ask Someone, although it probably won’t be).

The idea for Sharktopus originated with the SyFy Channel (so my theory about Corman reacting to The Asylum is completely wrong, but who cares?). The script was written by Mike MacLean, a High School teacher in Arizona who was approached by Corman based on some of his published crime fiction. Initially asked to work on Jim Wynorski’s Dinocroc vs Supergator script, MacLean also contributed to Road Raiders, the final film by Filipino legend Cirio Santiago which Wynorski completed before it fell into rights hell. MacLean, Wynorski and Corman are, as I type, collaborating on Piranhaconda, a creature which will probably have razor sharp pincers on its fins because a run-of-the-mill piranha/anaconda hybrid just wouldn’t be scary enough.

Tom Hiel composed the score, a gig he probably got because he worked with O’Brien on Rock Monster and Cyclops, rather than because he scored the mid-1990s crime caper Swimming with Sharks (although that may have helped...). He also contributed to Scary Movie 2, Christina Ricci werewolf bomb Cursed and the second and third Rugrats movies. The Sharktopus soundtrack also features a song by a band called the Cheater Whores who are the director’s nieces.

Cinematographer Santiago Navarrete was camera operator on Mexican-shot Hollywood pictures like The Mask of Zorro and Vampires: Los Muertos and also DPed a 1980 Mexican version of Jack the Ripper. Editor Vikram Kale has a portmanteau-named-monster-heavy CV that includes Dinoshark, Dinocroc and Supergator!

The VFX are credited to Dilated Pixels, whose other work includes giant bug movie Infestation and a Lord of the Rings video game. They do their best but the budget is small and the monster is dumb. At its heart, Sharktopus is an idea in search of a plot. Films like this often rip off the plots of bigger, better films so Sharktopus is to be commended for not being a blatant clone of something. On the other hand, a ripped-off plot might have given it more structure, form and interesting content.

As mentioned, Corman has also made Dinoshark and is working on Piranhaconda. Coming soon, no doubt, will be Dinoconda, Piranhopus, Crococonda, Piranhoshark, Octoconda...

Repeat to fade.

MJS rating: C
Review originally posted 5th April 2011.