Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Conjuring the Dead

Director: Andrew Jones
Writer: Andrew Jones
Producer: Andrew Jones
Cast: Rachel Howells, Alison Lenihan, Lee Bane
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.facebook.com/NorthBankEntertainment

It’s been a few years since I watched an Andrew Jones movie. Back in 2007 I reviewed his second feature The Feral Generation, a bleak drama about homelessness. At the time he was attached to a mooted remake of Driller Killer, and he wrote an unproduced remake of Beyond the Door for Ovidio Assonitis. He then teamed up with James Plumb to make three new entries in public domain franchises: Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection and Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming (both directed by James) and The Amityville Asylum (directed by Andrew).

In the past two years, Jones’ production company North Bank Entertainment has become a veritable film factory, pumping out a new low-budget horror every few months. And because Andrew is a reliable source of material, he’s having no problem finding distribution. In 2013 he shot The Midnight Horror Show (aka Theatre of Fear) in October and Valley of the Witch in November. In 2014 he shot The Last House on Cemetery Lane in April, Poltergeist Activity in September and A Haunting at the Rectory in November. All five of these are now available on DVD. Already this year, Andrew has shot Robert the Doll in February (out on DVD next month as just Robert), thriller Kill Kane in April and The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund in June!

Conjuring the Dead is actually a retitling of Valley of the Witch for its VOD release through the ever-reliable TheHorrorShow.tv. Announced for an October 2014 DVD release through 4Digital Media under its original title, that disc was evidently pulled, retitled and rescheduled for early August, making this July VOD release the film’s UK debut. (Hanover House released it in the States in January.)

Anyway…

Rachel Howells (who was in Jones’ first film, Teenage Wasteland) stars as recently divorced Londoner Kristen Matthews who takes the opportunity of inheriting a house from her aunt to leave the city and move to the small Welsh town of Cwmgwrach. This is a real place, whose name translates as 'Valley of the Witch' and which has assorted legends attached, although I can’t find any record online of the historical part of this film’s plot. Incidentally, Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard was born in Cwmgwrach – although her PR people generally claim she’s from Barry!

Kristen befriends her neighbour Barbara (Alison Lenihan, variously a radio presenter, a cabaret artiste and a Cher tribute act) although she’s slightly freaked out to discover that Barb is a practising Wiccan who belongs to a small coven of white witches. Although Rachel is nominally the film’s central character, the picture’s heart lies in a magnificently subtle performance by North Bank regular Lee Bane (who has been in all of the company’s films since NOTLD: Resurrection) as Jim Eckhart, the local plod. Three suicides in swift succession, apparently unconnected and all allegedly happy individuals, suggests something strange is going on.

Among a succession of flashbacks, dream sequences and other interstitial elements which help to pad the slender story out to feature length – some of them featuring colour distortion effects of an intensity rarely seen outside of 1970s Top of the Pops – we learn of how three witches were crucified and burned in 1614. The leader of the three cursed the village in the traditional manner of horror movie witches – and evidently this relates to what is happening now.

Kristen is attacked in her own home by a maniac in a hood and manages to stab him – but when PC Jim arrives, the body has disappeared and there’s not even any sign of a struggle. Truth be told, the ‘spooky’ things which happen throughout the film are somewhat random and don’t fit together in any way, leaving assorted flapping plot strands, not least the suicides which don’t seem to relate to anything else.

It is all, as one might expect, connected to the 17th century witch burning and certain people being direct descendants of certain other people. A family tree website is used to identify people’s ancestors although that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. All we see on each occasion is a name and a late 16th century birthdate, but only one of those names has any obvious meaning. More to the point, even at a conservative estimate of, say 33 years per generation, at a remove of four centuries each of us has about 4,000 direct ancestors. It’s unlikely they’d all be listed on a family tree website, but nevertheless characters do seem to somehow go straight to a specific name and we are left to infer that this particular ancestor was involved in some way in the witch burning.

Nor could it truthfully be said that the film’s final scene makes total sense; it’s unclear why this is happening and why the person doing it is doing it. On the plus side this scene, which is shot silent and in slow motion so that we see – but don’t hear – people shouting and screaming, is extraordinarily effective. Solid evidence, if any were needed, of how confident Andrew Jones is in his craft and his niche.

Jones does a good job overall in capturing the spirit of the small town, with its local copper, local priest and local shop for local people. Furthermore the film is remarkably well cast. Jared Morgan plays the priest. (God almighty – it’s the guy who was ‘interviewed’ by Uri Geller in the footage Jo Roberts and Jim Eaves shot when they turned Diagnosis into Sanitarium! Also in Footsteps and an obscure 2004 semi-documentary version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.) Rachael Jones, Patricia Ford and Jessica Ann Bonner (Devil’s Tower, Serial Kaller, Christmas Slay) are the three witches, and the legend that is Kenton Hall (A Dozen Summers, KillerSaurus) clearly has a ball in his brief appearance as the Witchfinder General.

DP Ryan Owen Eddleston also shot Theatre of Fear and The Last House on Cemetery Lane for Jones and is currently prepping his own documentary entitled I am Dracula. Make-up effects are by Harriet Rogers who also worked on Amityville Asylum and SJ Evans' Dead of the Nite. In fact most of the crew have multiple North Bank Entertainment credits and/or have worked on other features and shorts produced as part of the 21st century Welsh horror boom.

Under either title, Valley/Conjuring is a solidly crafted, very watchable slice of serious low-budget horror that hits its targets. Many film-makers have talked in the past of establishing their own film factory to produce a catalogue of horror films, often citing some mythical version of Hammer as their model. In today’s marketplace, it looks like that’s a real possibility and Andrew Jones’ North Bank Entertainment has achieved something like that. I really should watch some more of his pictures…

MJS rating: B+

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Fluid Boy

Directors: Jason Impey, Wade Radford
Writers: Jason Impey, Wade Radford
Producers: Jason Impey, Wade Radford
Cast: Jason Impey, ‘Dylan Jake-Price’, Samantha Keller
Country:UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: http://jasonimpey.co.uk

Even by Jason Impey’s standards, Fluid Boy is a nasty piece of work: a brutal, unpleasant, unbelievably misogynist film which is as simple and stark as it is violent and revolting. But… it’s not gratuitous. It raises questions. It makes a point. It’s well-made. It’s worth watching. It bolsters Impey’s position as an important name in the British Horror Revival.

The story here is very, very simple. Impey plays indie film-maker Joe Newton who has hired a hall to audition an actress for a role in his planned zombie film The Orgasmic Dead. With him is Maximilian, the film’s leading actor and co-producer. Joe hates Max – and with justification. While Joe is trying to be professional, Max is just an arsehole, utterly disinterested in the audition process and given to manic, high-pitched laughter at things that aren’t funny. Max is played by regular Impey collaborator Wade Radford under the nom-de-screen ‘Dylan Jake-Price’ for some reason. The aspiring actress, Julie, is played by Samantha Keller who also worked with Jason in his segment of the Grindsploitation anthology.

Julie gamely tries to audition, confused by the relationship between Joe and Max, but eventually decides to leave, freaked out by the whole thing. At which point Max knocks her senseless, ties her up, and spends the rest of this 62-minute film abusing and humiliating her in increasingly unpleasant ways while Joe films everything with the view to distributing the footage as a snuff movie.

A lesser film-maker would have concentrated on the abuse, treating the story as simple torture porn for sick bastards who get off on seeing women hurt. But Jason Impey doesn’t do that sort of thing; he’s more interested in human nature and the boundaries (or lack thereof) of acceptable behaviour. Which is not to say that there aren’t sick bastards out there who would get off on a transgressive film like this; the question of whether a film like Fluid Boy should be made is one for sociologists  and moral philosophers, not farty old-school film reviewers with a blog.

The reason why Fluid Boy is somehow watchable - even for a guy like me who really, really wants to just see a nice, cuddly monster rip somebody’s head off – is because of the relationship between Max and Joe. Max is a nutter, and quite possible coked up. Constantly prowling around, never still for more than a few seconds, grinning and giggling, he has ‘sociopath’ written through him like a stick of rock.

Joe on the other hand takes no part in the abuse and humiliation at all, simply recording it with a handheld video camera, a Go-Pro on his chest and assorted static cameras around the room, which is empty except for a table and a couple of chairs. A door leads through to toilets and a shower. And, in a piece of chilling mise-en-scene, a serving hatch through to a kitchen remains open, the occasional background glimpses of prosaic domesticity serving to underline the unreality of the violence and abuse meted out to the increasingly cowed Julie.

Joe argues frequently with Max, but his complaints are about mishandling of expensive equipment, the failure of the promised ’snuff’ film to deliver the goods, or just his colleague’s unprofessional, infantile behaviour. Joe makes no effort to help or save Julie or alleviate her suffering in any way, even during the times when Max is out of the room. “It’s not up to me,” he tells her, gnomically.

A film that was just about Max hurting Julie would be not just unpleasant and misogynist but boring as well. It’s the inclusion of Joe, the third wheel, that raises Fluid Boy above thematically comparable pictures.

Here’s what I assume is happening. The way I read this, there are only two people in this room. Max is a projection of Joe. In Freudian terms, Max is Joe’s id, unfettered by any sort of super-ego, while Joe’s fucked-up ego stays behind the camera. Jekyll and Hyde basically, but existing simultaneously. Fight Club without the Hollywood gloss. The opening scene is Joe in his car, tmetically swearing like a trooper to himself about how much he hates Maxi-fucking-milian, which only bolsters my theory that the two personalities inhabit the same head. Once I realised this, my opinion of the film dropped slightly in expectation of a cheesy ‘twist’ ending that I could see coming a mile off.  (And can I just add that, as a writer, the fact that watching and reviewing Fluid Boy has given me the chance to use the adverbs ‘gnomically’ and ‘tmetically’ – ie. pertaining to tmesis – is justification enough for the time that I spent viewing the film and the time it has taken me to write all this. Anyway…)

Here’s what’s interesting. Jason never gives us that twist. The film just ends as the violence reaches a climax, with a brief single credit screen naming the three people involved. And that absence of a cheesy twist actually lifts the film back up in my judgement. It doesn’t detract from the Fight Club explanation of what is going on: who these two men are and why each is behaving the way he is. But it also raises the alternative prospect that everything we see, within the reality of the film, is ‘real’ and not some psychological projection. That Joe and Max are both sick in their own way, rather than Joe being sick enough for both of them.

That’s what I mean about how this film, precisely because it’s a Jason Impey joint, raising questions and provoking thoughts. If there wasn’t space for the psychological interpretation this would just be lowest-common-denominator torture porn and I would have switched off after ten minutes and you would be reading my review of something fun with zombies in it. I honestly don’t know whether Jason and Wade made this with the Fight Club scenario in mind or whether that explanation is an accidental result of my take on their take on something intended as just misogyny for misogyny’s sake. I’d very much like to think the former. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Jason Impey is a natural film-maker (albeit one who chooses to pursue a transgressive oeuvre below the radar of all but the most committed ‘cult’ fans) and as such he can’t help but make films that are interesting, in the same way that a natural artist doodling on a notepad can’t help but create interesting drawings, or a natural musician can’t help but whistle interesting tunes in the shower.

In film-making terms, the skill here is in Jason’s editing of the multiple cameras to create a smoothly flowing narrative. The picture unfolds in almost real time (there’s a brief jump at about 32 minutes and another at about 51 minutes) but it clearly wasn’t shot in 62 minutes.  Fluid Boy draws us in through established cinematic conventions – the wide-shot, the close-up – without the film-makers relying on cinematic set-up of shots and angles, but rather through the selection of shots and angles in post-production.  This is Jason Impey’s 428th film (or seems like it) and his experience shows.

Radford has acted for Impey in films like Sex, Lies and Depravity (which he wrote) and Lustful Desires and the two have collaborated on stuff like Twink and the Boys Behind Bars trilogy; films which, with all due respect to Jason and Wade, you’re never going to see reviewed on this site. He’s chillingly good as the unfettered id: violent, sexual and scatological (seriously: this is a film for those of you who thought The Human Centipede was a little reserved and tame). Impey, playing yet another variant of his much-used indie film-maker character, provides the vital pedestrian counterpoint to Max’s manic antics. Joe is mostly behind the camera, or cut off at the neck, or hidden behind Max. When we do see him, he’s hunkered over an eye-piece so that we almost never view Jason/Joe’s face, while Max/Wade has more than his share of close-ups.

But the bravura performance here is Samantha Keller. It’s incredibly brave of an actress to film something like this, skirting so close to reality. Clearly she’s not really struck in the face, not really tied up and that’s melted chocolate not faeces, but nevertheless it’s a strong-minded, strong-willed (strong-stomached) woman who can handle something like this. Playing a believable victim in any violent film is always a challenge and Keller turns in a hugely impressive performance. Although how much of this extremely NSFW film she could include in her acting reel is a tricky question…

Bizarrely, the IMDB lists Radford and Keller as the same characters in a forthcoming feature called Allusion, directed by somone named Tony Newton who would appear to be a real person and not just another Impey pseudonym. Whether that is a remake of this film, or reuse of this footage, or something else entirely, is a revelation we will find out in due course. Or not, as the situation may be.

Fluid Boy is one of Jason Impey’s best works (of the comparatively few I’ve watched) and Impey fans (they do exist, I’m sure) will have no hesitation in watching it when the film appears on DVD. Should other people give it a try? Only if they know what they’re letting themselves in for. I have done my best to describe and analyse the movie. Like most of Jason’s work it’s most definitely not for everyone. But if you have an interest in transgressive cinema, and in particular in zero-budget films that push the envelope, then this will be worth your time.

MJS rating: B+

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Rise of the Zombie

Directors: Devaki Singh, Luke Kenny
Writers: Devaki Singh
Producers: Devaki Singh, Luke Kenny, Reshma Mehta, Abhijit Mehta, Om Sawant
Cast: Luke Kenny, Kirti Kulhari, Ashwin Mushran
Country: India
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: online version

Now here’s something utterly bizarre.

Indian films sometimes copy the plots of western films. I’m not talking about shameless, copyright-busting cheapo clones like the old Turkish stuff. Just a tendency for Bollywood producers to use the plots of successful American (and sometimes European) films with an Indian setting and an Indian spin. There are Indian versions of When Harry Met Sally and My Best Friend’s Wedding and Hitch and Clueless.

Anjaane: The Unknown is an Indian version of The Others. The first half of Koi... Mil Gaya is an Indian version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the second half is an Indian version of ET. Why bother coming up with an original storyline when there are proven plots out there which can be easily reworked to make them attractive to a huge domestic audience?

The thing is: the source material for these films is usually well-known, successful movies – not obscure little British indies. Yet here we have Rise of the Zombie – an unofficial, unacknowledged Indian remake of Andrew Parkinson’s 1998 indie feature I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain!

Luke Kenny (Indian born to Irish and Italian parents) stars as wildlife photographer Neil Parker who splits up with his girlfriend Vinny (Kirti Kulhari: Shaitan, Jal) and seeks solace in a trek into the woods. He hires a tent and has a local man bring him hot food every day. He cycles around the mountains and sometimes goes down into a local town for provisions.

Things start to go wrong when he is bitten by a strange bug. The bite on his arm spreads, the flesh rotting away, and his body starts to reject cooked food. Instead he takes to eating bugs, and then lizards and birds, ripping the raw meat from the bones. Unkempt and bloodied, he staggers around the woods, increasingly unaware of what is going on. Eventually he starts attacking people that he meets, ripping into them and eating their flesh. Meanwhile Vinny is worried about Neil and teams up with his best friend Anish (Ashwin Mushran, who was in supernatural comedy Hum Tum Aur Ghost) to try and find what has happened to him. Benjamin Gilani (Alaap, Mirch Masala) plays Neil’s father, a hospital consultant with the very un-Indian name of Dave Parker.

There are a lot of differences from I, Zombie, obviously. A bug bite rather than a crazy lady. The couple split up before he disappears. He’s a wildlife photographer rather than a biology student. The setting is rural rather than urban. And he doesn’t kill himself at the end with chloroform. (Nor does he have a wank over a photo of the girlfriend he can never see again.)

But… I could come up with a similar list of differences between The Others and Anjaane. So what? The derivation is obvious. The basic story here is clearly modelled on I, Zombie. A young man, isolated from his previous life, becoming more and more ill from an infectious bite which rots his flesh and gives him a desperate hunger for human flesh - cannibalistic necrosis – while his family and friends are concerned about, and mystified by, his disappearance. Andy Parkinson’s film is completely distinct and utterly unlike any other zombie picture (even Colin, which shares the basic concept of a zombie as the central character but is otherwise utterly dissimilar). Somehow Luke Kenny - or more likely, writer/co-director Devaki Singh - has seen a copy of Parkinson’s film, or maybe just read a review of it, and decided to make an Indian version.

I’m not criticising. Unofficial remakes happen. Julian Richards took the basic concept of The Wicker Man and turned it into Darklands. Jason Impey took Andreas Schnaas’ Violent Shit and turned it into Sick Bastard. Even if this was a clone, there are enough differences to make it worthwhile: not just the geographical switch but the passage of 20 years (no digital cameras or Blackberries in the 1990s). I bet the budget for Rise of the Zombie was not dissimilar to what Andy P spent on I, Zombie but that much money buys you a lot more nowadays – in India or England – in terms of technology. No grainy 16mm here; just crisp, clean digital video.

Ritu Jhanjani has the main make-up credit and was cited in publicity as responsible for the zombie make-up, although Saved Ismaile gets the actual credit for ‘prosthetic make-up’. Whoever did it, I’d be lying if I said it was particularly good. Pranab Lahkar is credited as ‘Creative VFX Supervisor’; his previous credits include Dhoom-2, Rocket Singh and even 28 Weeks Later.

Luke Kenny, who considers himself thoroughly Indian despite his parentage, came to prominence in the 1990s as a VJ on a video music channel. He now fronts a rock band (called Luke Kenny LIVE) and DJs as well as making films. Since Rise of the Zombie he has shot a short film called Stephen King, I am Your Biggest Fan. Devaki Singh, who was described in publicity as the first woman to direct a zombie film (hmm, possibly...) is an artist whose first exhibition was in 2009.

In 2013 three films vied to be ‘India’s first zombie film’: Kenny and Singh’s angst-ridden drama; Goa Goa Gone (a fun action-horror-comedy which screened in Leicester last year); and Rock the Shaadi, a rom-zom-com set at a Punjabi-zombie wedding(!). Kenny’s film was originally going to just be called Zombie but the makers of Rock the Shaadi had registered that title so he went for Rise… instead and somehow avoided confusion with the contemporary Danny Trejo picture Rise of the Zombies. Ironically, Rock the Shaadi hit problems during post-production and looks unlikely to ever be finished.

Rise of the Zombie was originally announced for release to cinemas on 22nd February 2013, a date which appeared on a number of posters including one that was produced for PETA promoting vegetarianism. Despite having a clear opportunity to steal a march over Goa Goa Gone, Rise… was bumped to 5 April meaning that both films were released on the same day. So theoretically either can claim to be the country’s first zombie picture. What is more Murzy Pagdiwala, who was DP and executive producer on this film, also DP-ed the second unit on Goa Goa Gone!

V One Entertainment picked up the film for international distribution and there is an English-subtitled version on Amazon Prime. The version I watched was on the VOneEnt channel of DailyMotion which is free but has adverts every few minutes. That wasn't subtitled but there's really very little dialogue in the film and half of that is in English anyway.

The end of Rise of the Zombie promises a sequel in 2014, Land of the Zombie, and includes shots of numerous zombies shuffling around, implying that the virus has spread beyond its initial host. Kenny had plans for a trilogy but Land… has not yet appeared.

Truth be told, Rise of the Zombie isn’t a bad movie. Kenny gives a spirited performance and Pagdiwala’s camera-work captures both urban and rural locations well. The film runs 86 minutes and has a few songs on the soundtrack (but no dance numbers). What’s missing is the bleak nihilism of the original, and there’s not really anything to replace it. Instead of cutaway talking heads of the people he left behind, the film simply lurches into Vinny and Anish’s story in the third act, which goes nowhere. Instead of social comment or character development, we’re treated to lots of fast-edited flashbacks and dream sequences which look flashy but don’t give the movie any substance.

Nevertheless, one must grudgingly admire Kenny for taking such a non-commercial tack on his zombie film. It would have been easy to just go for a standard zombie siege and throw in a few culturally specific gags. The story of one man’s lonely descent into a zombie state was radical when Andrew Parkinson made it nearly 20 years ago and it’s still pretty radical now.

In March 2013, when promoting the film, Luke Kenny was interviewed by Bollywood Life. This is what he told them: “If we were telling a zombie survival story, there are 40 years of zombie survival films to see who did what, and what we could try to do differently. ... In this case, there was no precedent; there has been no zombie origin film ever been made. There is no story that has ever been written that tells you the story of this one human being and what happens.” Now, that’s not strictly true, is it?

MJS rating: B-

[Update. Devaki Singh may be the first woman to direct a zombie feature, but Isabelle Defaut directed The Long Night, the 2002 short which inspired Devil's Playground. - MJS] 
[Update 2: I just realised that Kerry Anne Mullaney directed The Dead Outside in March 2008. So Devaki Singh's claim falls to piece. - MJS[

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Dead 2: India

Director: Howard J Ford
Producer: Howard J Ford
Writers: Howard J Ford, Jon Ford
Cast: Joseph Millson, Anand Gopal, Meenu
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: screener

I saw The Dead at the Fifth UK Festival of Zombie Culture in Leicester back in November 2011, and it blew me away. I’m not sure why I didn’t review it – sometimes I’m just too busy with other stuff. Nevertheless, since then I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the very best zombie films ever made.

Zombie films should be scary – that’s a given.  They can be action-packed, or funny, or intense and broody. Or just bleak and depressing – that’s my favourite sort. The genre’s ur-text, Night of the Living Dead, is bleak and depressing. It is also riven with social and political subtext, and for me that’s the icing on the cake of any zombie film. The Dead has social and political subtext in spades. It can’t help having subtext. I don’t know to what extent the Ford Brothers wanted to explore ideas of racism, colonialism and globalism – but that’s what the film is about. You simply cannot show a white guy shooting a succession of shuffling, blank-eyed black folk without there being some sort of racial subtext.

The Dead also did what most zombie films fail to do, which is take the genre in a new direction. In one sense, that was as high concept as ‘zombies in Africa’ but it was much more than that. It was taking the standard global zombie apocalypse out of its traditional urban environment and placing it in a desolate, empty landscape. The sort of place where you can see the zombies when they’re still a mile away.

These are traditional, shuffling, shambling zombies – killed by existing zombies then reanimating themselves. There’s no running, no moaning for “Bwains!” They’re actually really easy to avoid, provided that you don’t let yourself get surrounded or trapped in a corner. But there’s just so many of them, and they’re everywhere, and all they have to do is get one bite in and you’re doomed. Much like the Terminator, they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be bargained with and they absolutely will not stop.

Hell, as someone once pointed out, is other people. As a card-carrying misanthropist, I take that as my sermon almost every day. And that’s what a fine zombie picture like The Dead uses as its underlying premise. The zombies are us. Sometimes literally: recognisable friends and family. Sometimes generically. These are not vampires or werewolves or extra-terrestrials or killer robots: not ‘the alien other’. Zombies are people. (Which is not the same as saying that a zombie is a person – though sometimes that’s true also.) It’s the anonymity of the zombie hordes that makes them so powerful and effective in exploring socio-political ideas. A shuffling crowd of zombies is a riot happening in slow motion, but happening nonetheless.

Sometimes a film gets it just right. The Dead got it just right. I remain both puzzled and disappointed that it didn’t receive more acclaim (although 72% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t bad).

The first film premiered at the 2010 Frightfest; three years later the world premiere of the sequel, which transposed the action to India, was the opening movie at the same event. It has taken a couple of years to subsequently appear on UK DVD but the wait has been worth it because this is another terrific zombie feature. It repeats the success of the first film while also doing something new – always the biggest challenge for a sequel.

British actor Joseph Millson (SNUB, Dead of the Nite, The Sarah Jane Adventures) effects a convincing accent to play American engineer Nicholas Burton, working on wind farm installations in Rajasthan. Meenu Mishra (credited as just ‘Meenu’) is Ishani, the girl he has fallen in love with. She lives with her parents (Sandip Datta Gupta and Poonham Mathur) in Mumbai, 300 miles away. Her father distrusts the American, wants his daughter to marry a good Indian boy, and isn’t likely to react well if/when he finds out she’s pregnant.

A slightly clunky scene at the start in the dockyards of Mumbai justifies the arrival of the zombie infection in the subcontinent. Before too long, violence and fear are working their way through the city streets and into the countryside. US citizens are evacuated but Burton sets off across country to find Ishani.

India is a very different place to Africa. The first film traded on the empty desolation of its locales. The Dead 2 has some open landscapes but more urban and suburban scenes, including Ishani and her family, locked inside their house, trying to stay away from the chaos outside. Where Africa was presented as simple, basic and largely featureless, India is shown to be a complex country: a mix of cultures, politics, industry and tradition. It also has a very large and well-organised army, who are swiftly deployed to deal with the situation. It’s not like there isn’t already civil strife and unrest in Indie. “It’s probably just another Hindus vs Sikhs things,” opines Burton’s voice-on-the-phone colleague Max (Holby City’s Hari Dhillon).

Where the first film dwelt on themes of humanity and understanding, played out against a tapestry of historical and modern colonialism, the principal theme in The Dead 2 is parenthood. Ishani is indeed expecting Burton’s baby, and her relationship with her father has shades and tones. “He is a good man,” her sick (bitten) mother assures Ishani. “He provides for us.” Burton himself becomes an ersatz parent when he teams up with a young orphan named Javed (brilliantly played by Anand Gopal, whom the IMDB thinks is Wall Street Journal correspondent Anand Goyal!). Each needs the other to survive: ‘Mr Nicholas’ can drive, ride a motorbike and fire a gun, but Javed knows the countryside, the routes, the locations which might provide further transport or ammunition.

There are other ways that the parenthood theme emerges, including an agonisingly painful scene near a train track which I won’t spoil for you. There’s even a lovely moment when Javed and Burton’s path is crossed by a troupe of langurs, one of them carrying a baby. That’s almost certainly entirely coincidental, but that doesn’t stop it from being part of the mise-en-scene and thus worthy of critical notice.

Although a journey from Rajasthan to Mumbai could have been a mere picaresque, there is much more to The Dead 2 than that. The relationship between Javed and Burton develops magnificently, both in the action scenes where they fight or escape the undead and in the more talkie bits inbetween where they tell each other about their respective pasts. At the same time, there are the familial relationships between Ishani and her parents. And behind all this we see the outbreak spreading. We don’t really see the breakdown of society as one might expect; rather the establishment of martial law as the army sets up roadblocks, calmly despatching the undead and searching for victims who have been bitten but not yet turned. Beyond a few brief phone conversations with Max, we have no real concept of the bigger picture – as nor do any of our characters.

I’ve never been to India (though I do live in Leicester: largest Indian population in the UK by percentage; biggest Diwali celebrations outside India itself; best damn curries anywhere – and of course I’m not just a fan of Bollywood films, I’ve also been in one). The Dead 2 is a long, long, lo-o-ong way from Bollywood, but my point is that I can only judge its depiction of India – the countryside, the cities, the people – on the basis of what I know at this remove. Although most of the cast and crew were local, this is perforce an outsider’s interpretation of India. But hey, so was Slumdog Millionaire and that won eight Academy Awards.

In fact there’s probably a great degree thesis to be written sometime by someone comparing Danny Boyle’s unavoidably westernised version of India with that of the Ford Brothers (or indeed with other western cinematic depictions of the country such as Sabu the Elephant Boy or – my all-time favourite film ever – The Man Who Would Be King).

There are actual Indian zombie features. Last year’s Leicester zombie fest screened Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru’s Goa Goa Gone which was tremendous fun. There’s also Devaki Singh and Luke Kenny’s Rise of the Zombie which was an unofficial remake of Andrew Parkinson's 1998 indie I, Zombie! A third movie which attempted to become ‘India’s first zombie film', Navdeep Singh’s zom-com Rock the Shaadi, fell apart during post-production and has disappeared into limbo.

Goa Goa Gone was an Indian spin on the established western zombie genre – and I suspect the other two films are too – but not actually a film about India. In that respect, it’s very, very different to The Dead 2 which is more interested in exploring its characters, its setting, and its relationships – especially the post-colonial relationship that Burton has with the country – than in simply putting new or recycled zombie gags into an Indian setting. You could actually argue that The Dead 2: India is a more Indian film than many actual Indian films. Colonialism and post-colonialism are part of India’s culture and history and the Ford Brothers explore them here in fascinating and powerful ways in this feature.

Howard J Ford is credited as producer and director (also editor), Jon Ford as DoP and co-director, with ‘Screenplay by The Ford Brothers’.  Darkest Day director Dan Rickard provided the ‘special and visual effects’, as he did for the first film, while Stuart Browne (A Day of Violence) and Max Van De Banks (The Dead, Soul Searcher, Harmony’s Requiem, Siren Song) were responsible for the ‘special make-up FX’. All are excellent. The score is once again by Imran Ahmad (whose other credits include the BBC Radio 4 version of The Martian Chronicles). The three executive producers are Brighton-based chartered accountant Amir Moallemi, plus Miles Ketley and Josephine Rose (former Head of Acquisitions and Development at Goldcrest, who recently co-produced In the Dark Half) both of media law firm Wiggin.

After its festival run, The Dead 2: India was released in the States in September 2014 as just The Dead 2. Curiously, the July 2015 UK release carries the variant title The Dead 2: In India on the sleeve, although the original title is on screen. Slightly disappointing is the absence of a Making Of, something which would have been much more interesting for this film than for many of the production-line pictures that do bother with a bland featurette. But no matter: I review films, not DVDs.

Both The Dead films are absolutely top-notch: serious, powerful, thought-provoking, thoughtful movies that really use the zombie genre instead of just playing with it. You should watch both.

MJS rating: A

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Girl with Two Masks

Director: Sam Casserly
Writer: Sam Casserly
Producer: Sam Casserly
Cast: Nick Hayles, Rachel Laboucarie, Stephen Sheridan
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.twomasks.com

The Girl with Two Masks is an interesting film. It will not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s not without its problems, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it for what it was.

The premise couldn’t be more British if it tried: a national pub chain is trying to take over independent boozers. Young Mike Parker (Nick Hayles, who also starred in director Sam Casserly’s 2012 steampunk short To Kill a Princess) is on the Acquisitions Team, led by sweaty, balding, misogynist dinosaur Harry Ashley (a blistering performance from Stephen Sheridan, who was in Casserly’s short Red Wedding and a Will Young video!). Given one last chance, Mike is despatched to The Girl with Two Masks, instructed to persuade the owner to join the chain or else.

That owner is straight-talking, tee-total, vegan tough cookie Dexi (Rachel Laboucarie: Frank Slasher, Ponder’s End), a fascinatingly complex and contradictory character – and not just because she runs a pub but doesn’t drink. Though Dexi comes across as a solid, practical woman, Laboucarie’s deceptively subtle performance gives us clues that all is not well or right here.

Well, Dexi ain’t selling, so there’s no point Mike going back because he’ll just be sacked – so she lets him stay overnight in the pub (in fact, on the floor of her bedroom) in exchange for some work around the place. The middle act is very talkie, to be honest, but these are two well-constructed characters who have enough in common and enough differences to make these talkie scenes perfectly watchable.

Gradually we find out a little more about the pub’s unique name, which commemorates an incident centuries ago in the village when a travelling circus performer was accused of witchcraft and tortured. Somehow the girl’s influence lingers in the drinking establishment which bears her name and it becomes clear (well, clear-ish) that Dexi has some kind of unwelcome connection with the girl’s spirit. Nothing supernatural or disturbing happens until quite late in the day, but the build-up is steady throughout the film which kept my attention the way that so many other films haven’t.

I would be lying if I said that the story is clear or that what we see makes complete sense, but much like many classic Italian horrors (Casserly cites Argento as an influence), it’s more about the overall impression, and in that respect the final act can be seen to work. There is blood, don’t you worry. And uncertainty about what is really happening (or not). And more blood.

But don’t come here looking for blood. This is a talkie, thinky, character-led film, the half-dozen-strong cast being bolstered by Roxi Gregory (The Séance, Dead Love, To Kill a Princess) and Lauren Mills in small roles plus Sian Denereaz as Mike’s Aunt Mary, with whom he lives and who runs an escort agency from her home. The only other credits are assistant director Jenny Pearman and three credited composers: Marilyn Bordier, Keven MacLeod and Laurie Anderson. (Presumably not the Laurie Anderson…) The film was shot – for £300 over five separate days – in late 2014 with a cast and crew screening in April 2015.

The acting is good, the direction is adroit, the camera and sound are both fine. Where the film stumbles – and it’s a frustratingly big stumble – is in the location. Because it’s abundantly obvious that, wherever this was filmed, it wasn’t in a pub. The building used for both interiors and establishing exterior shots of The Girl with Two Masks is some sort of clapperboard-built parish hall or sports club pavilion. It has fold-away tables and stackable chairs. There is sort of a bar, but it’s more of a serving hatch. When Dexi pulls a pint for Mike, a combination of under-the-counter miming by Laboucarie and a spot of foley (most of the credits are acknowledgements of creative commons sound effects) cannot disguise the fact that there’s no pump.

This is a shame because, in my personal experience, a pub is about the easiest location to source apart from your own front room. As long as you shoot in the morning and are out by opening time, most pubs are more than happy to let you film there, in return for a credit. And nothing looks like the inside of a pub quite like a pub. Scenes on a railway station were shot at Bramley near Guildford and there’s at least two pubs in that village, The Jolly Farmer and The Wheatsheaf, plus plenty more in the surrounding area.

The above notwithstanding, Sam Casserly could at least have made the location look a bit more like a pub by rounding up a few extras. We never see or hear a single customer, which only serves to reinforce how unlike a pub this ‘pub’ is. There is also a poor decision towards the end when things start to get spooky and some ghostly messages are painted on the door and walls of a bathroom. It’s very obvious that these messages are actually on sheets of paper which have been stuck up on the walls and door. I know the budget was tiny, but a bit of that £300 could have been spent on a couple of pots of paint to cover up the writing afterwards. And you know, places are even more likely to let you film there if you offer to repaint their bathroom for free as part of the arrangement.

All of this distracts from the story though it doesn’t detract from the story, which is original enough and interesting enough to carry the film for its 73 minutes running time, bolstered by fine, sometimes very intense, performances from the small cast.

The Girl with Two Masks is Casserly’s debut feature following a number of shorts, including one with the same title shot back in 2010. In the feature, the circus performer who inspired the pub’s name survived her torture but was so psychologically damaged that ever after she would laugh when upset and cry when happy, hence her use of two masks to convey her true emotions. The six-minute film is set in a mental hospital where a patient has a similar psychosis brought on by having, as a child, witnessed her father murdering her mother. There’s no other real connection between the two films. The short (which stars Lewis Saunderson from POV and TORN: A ShockYouMentary) is bloodier, tauter and – because it has a strong simple concept – less obtuse. It also has considerably more names in the credits!

Despite some curious production choices noted above, The Girl with Two Masks is a valiant attempt to do something different, which succeeds enough to make it worth a watch. It bodes well for future films from Sam Casserly.

MJS rating: B