Monday, 31 August 2015

Awaiting

Director: Mark Murphy
Writer: Mark Murphy
Producer: Alan Latham
Cast: Tony Curran, Rupert Hill, Diana Vickers
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.facebook.com/awaitingmovie

Awaiting is a brutal, powerful, agonising horror-thriller which offers a well-crafted take on some established themes. It is completely gripping and, though it slightly trips over its own feet right at the end, by then it’s been so good that you don’t really care.

Rupert Hill (Cameron from Family Affairs, Jamie from Corrie) is Jake, a young lawyer driving across Yorkshire who wakes to find he’s been in a car accident. Though not injured (beyond, presumably, a little light concussion), he has been taken in by a creepy father and daughter. Morris (Tony Curran - Vincent Van Gogh in Doctor Who -  giving an awesomely disturbing performance that you won’t soon forget) lives ten miles from the nearest town, earning a living in some unspecified way which we soon discover involves selling other people’s cars for scrap.

His 20-year-old, willowy daughter Lauren (former X-Factor contestant Diana Vickers) has not only never been kissed, she’s barely been further than the end of the lane. The duo have no landline and there is no mobile signal to be had so Jake is stuck there until the jovially aggressive Morris either drives him into town or gives him back his car keys. (That actually was the one major flaw in the plot. Ten miles is about three hour’s walk – even assuming no traffic passes which could provide a lift. It’s eminently manageable for any reasonably fit person. To be fair, by the time Jake realises that Morris is completely nutzoid, he’s no longer completely fit.)

Morris will confirm every prejudice you hold about people from Yorkshire, a beautiful county inhabited by England’s second most unpleasant population (after Essex, obviously). But this isn’t the gleeful insanity found in something comparable on a basic level like Inbred. This is that disturbing, deeply uncomfortable, going-to-kill-you, just-a-joke-mate fake bonhomie that makes acquiescence the best strategy to avoid causing offence and possible conflict. Jake goes through a series of emotions and ideas as the situation becomes inexorably worse. Should he have just rudely walked out that first morning? Perhaps. But would Morris, a man often seen toting either an axe or a shotgun, have let him get to the end of the lane? Probably not.

The key to the film’s successful take on admittedly well-worn themes is Lauren, raised in almost complete isolation by her dad - though they have a television so she’s aware of the outside world. She just doesn’t realise that her situation is not normal. Her mother evidently left the scene quite a few years ago and now Lauren is the home-maker. But she is also a young woman, no longer Daddy’s little girl and, although there’s no suggestion of actual incest, her creepy replacement of her mother’s role is one of the first clues Jake has that all is not well. That, and the fact that the family are celebrating Christmas in September (an idiosyncrasy never fully explained, but which makes for some memorable imagery).

One of the things which most impresses about Mark Murphy’s second feature, which runs just over 90 minutes, is the economy of storytelling. Among the opening shots is a drawer full of watches, a single image which tells us what some other storytellers would take five minutes of expository dialogue to convey. A few moments later, when Lauren first sees the unconscious Jake, she asks her father, “But Daddy, what if he doesn’t like me?” “Then the pigs can have him,” replies Morris, leaving us in absolutely no doubt about what sort of man he is and what sort of set-up is going on here.

Lauren is attracted to Jake, which Jake is uncomfortable with until he realises how crazy her father is, at which point he resolves to not only escape but to take Lauren with him. And eventually, if he can’t escape, to at least show the daughter what her father is and does and thereby split the family asunder. Morris is a contemporary, rural Dr Frankenstein. He has created his daughter, but she has grown up and now wonders: did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me? In his heart (he does have one, even if it’s withered and twisted), Morris always knew that his day would come, but his denial of its impending arrival is just one more facet of his general denial that what he is doing, both with Lauren and with unlucky passing travelers and their vehicles, is wrong.

There are several moments in Awaiting which will make you wince in pain and possibly cry out loud. There’s one at 30 minutes, one at 40 minutes, again at 43 and 49 minutes and after that I lost count. There’s a really excruciating one near the end involving a guitar. But this certainly isn’t torture porn and the violence is far from gratuitous; it’s intrinsic to the story and the characters.

I mentioned that there’s a couple of mis-steps right at the end, which I’ll elaborate on without spoilers. After the story ends there is a final twist – and then another one. The second isn’t needed. It slightly devalues the effect of the first and, truth be told, is not only unnecessary but also somewhat clichéd (and doesn't, strictly speaking, make sense). The film would be stronger if it ended about 30 seconds earlier. The other problem, and it’s really unfortunate, is in the choice of music. One bloody sequence right near the end is shown in slow motion, without diegetic sound, accompanied by a hauntingly powerful song entitled ‘Outro’ by a French band called M83. If, like me, you have never heard of M83, you will nevertheless recognise this as ‘that song from the Persil advert’. The one where a little girl in a white dress gets splatted with different coloured paint. In slow motion. It means that when we should be thinking “Dear God, how can one person do that to another? How must it feel to receive treatment like that?” at the back of our head another voice is chipping in with “Those blood stains will come out, even at 40 degrees.”

I guess that in the long term, and internationally, this won’t matter. But it’s a real shame which comes perilously close to spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

Murphy’s script and direction are both whip-smart. Awesomely named cinematographer Hong Manley, whose credits include the Ken Russell segment of 1996 anthology Tales of Erotica, does a cracking job here, balancing out the interiors, the surrounding woodland and the occasional diversions into town so that the film remains atmospheric without ever tipping over into cartoon horror. Romanian editor Dragos Teglas also does sterling work; he’s another X-Factor alumnus, having served as editor on his home country’s version of that show.

The excellent production design is courtesy of Tony Noble, who also worked on the silly Gnaw, a feature with a not dissimilar plot that serves only to highlight how good Awaiting is by contrast. He also designed Michael Bartlett’s feature Treehouse and Giles Alderson’s short Awake. Simon Webb, most of whose credits are TV light entertainment, composed the score. It’s a real shame that he didn’t provide an additional cue to replace the washing powder music. David Christopher Brown (Siren Song, Last Days on Mars) designed the gruesome make-up effects.

The small, effective supporting cast includes Peter Woodward (whose many voice credits include Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Megazone 23 and Postman Pat: The Movie) as a local plod, Sophie Lovell Anderson (stripper Candy in Stag Night of the Dead) as Jake’s girlfriend, Adrian Bouchet (The Seasoning House, Alien vs Predator and cracking fanfilm Predator: Dark Ages) as a scrap dealer, and Charley McDougall (Christmas Slay, Invasion of the Not Quite Dead) as a van driver. Some of the cast and crew also worked on Mark Murphy’s first feature The Crypt aka The Convent which remains frustratingly unreleased (outside of France).

Awaiting was shot over four weeks near York in June/July 2014, test screened locally in September and premiered at Fantasporto in March 2015, with a second screening at the Horrorant Festival in Greece later that same month (where it picked up three awards). The UK DVD was released in September 2015, a few days after its UK premiere at Frightfest.

MJS rating: A-

Fallen Soldiers

Director: Bill Thomas
Writers: Bill Thomas, Ian Thomas
Producers: Bill Thomas, Jason Emery
Cast: Matthew Neal, Eve Pearson, Jon Lee Pellet
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: http://fallensoldiers.savagemedia.co.uk

Fallen Soldiers managed to get all the way through development, production and post-production without appearing on my radar so that the first I knew about it was when I spotted it on Amazon. I posted a piece about the film on my British Horror Revival blog which was spotted by a colleague at work – who said she knew the film-makers (and indeed, her other half is actually in the film). By this unexpected route I was able to get my hands on a screener

The subgenre of ‘historical zombie films’ is very small. If we remove the two sub-subgenres of ‘historical zombie films set during World War II’ and ‘historical zombie films set in the Wild West’ we’re left with very few indeed. Off the top of my head there’s this feature and two shorts: Mathew Butler’s E’gad, Zombies! and Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead. The big advantage of historical zombie pictures, of course, is that the characters come to the zombie threat without any baggage. In a contemporary zombie film, either the characters have to work out which established zombie tropes apply to these particular living dead, or else you have to set the story in some sort of alternative universe where the post-Romero cinematic zombie simply doesn’t exist. But in anything set before 1968, the whole thing simply becomes ‘a disease’ – which is how it is referred to here.

Bill Thomas’ debut feature, co-written with his brother Ian, is set in Belgium just a few days before the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon, escaped from exile on Elba, has marched North through France, gathering his army about him. The British and the Prussians are racing to try and stop him.

Matthew Neal (who played ‘Freeway Killer’ Randy Steven Kraft in a TV docudrama directed by Thomas) stars as John Cross, a British soldier who hitches a ride in the carriage of Belgian noblewoman Celine (Eve Pearson). Most of the film is a sequence of flashbacks as Cross explains where he has come from and why he needs to get back through the French lines to Wellington’s army.

The story he tells is of how he and a colleague, Hardy (Jon Lee Pellet) unsuccessfully tried to rescue some British hostages from French prison wagons. Instead, the pair find themselves locked up in one of the wagons with Cross’ friend Piper (Zachary Street). When they are given the last rites and a savage, animalistic peasant girl is thrown into the confined space, snapping and scratching at them, they realise that they are more than just prisoners of war.

Long story short, the Froggies have somehow got their hands on a zombie virus. Their grand plan is to use it to reanimate the ‘Old Guard’ elite who died on the retreat from Moscow. This is a great idea but… it basically just remains an idea. It doesn’t fully explain why they are infecting Belgian peasants and British prisoners. And of course reanimating frozen corpses that died three years ago isn’t the same as simply spreading a contagion. The plan seems to be: once a prisoner/patient is infected, their blood is collected and can be used to reanimate an Old Guard soldier. But if that’s so, why all the complications? If you want to reanimate 200 Old Guard, why not just round up 200 Belgian peasants and slaughter them? It’s not like Napoleon ever had any qualms about that sort of thing. The man was a monster.

Matters are additionally complicated by the introduction of another British prisoner whom Cross recognises and who, confusingly, looks like the now-deceased (?) Hardy. It took me a while to work out what was happening. There are secondary flashbacks – within the main flashbacks from Cross and Celine in the carriage – explaining where the zombie virus came from and how it got to Europe. In the third act Cross finally makes it to British lines where we meet a new character who proves very significant and some of the things we’ve only just managed to work out are pulled away from under us as characters reveal different intentions and motivations to the previously established ones.

It all gets a bit confusing, to be honest, a situation not helped by this particular zombie virus have a very significant difference from what we normally expect, which renders it both more and less of a threat.

There’s a lot to commend in Fallen Soldiers. The acting is generally good (barring a few Allo Allo accents), so is the production design. The camera-work is excellent, combining with top-notch sound mixing to really put us into the heat of the action – and effectively disguising any corners cut when shooting a historical on a tight budget. I have to assume that the uniforms and arms are accurate for 1815, and unlike Soldiers of the Damned these clothes at least look lived in. There are a couple of unfortunate anachronisms in the dialogue, both of them in an early scene where Celine’s carriage is stopped at a check-point. A character lets slip the 20th century term ‘okay’ and there is also a reference to ‘saboteurs’. Despite the popular belief that the term comes from French Luddites hurling their clogs or ‘sabots’ into machinery, in fact that word is not recorded until the 1920s (the root ‘sabotage’ dates from the 1890s). Yes, I’m being picky, but these things are worth checking.

More problematic is the very limited number of zombies. We only ever encounter one at a time, and in a confined space usually. Thus there’s no sense of approaching danger, no attempt at evasion. I once described all zombie films as “either a siege or a chase (which is a siege with a vector)”. But Fallen Soldiers is neither of those. It’s a sequence of flashback scenes, some of which involve close combat with a zombie: either a recognisably human one like the peasant girl introduced to the prison wagon, or a barely human reanimated corpse. The very limited nature of these attacks means that the setting becomes largely irrelevant. Any of those scenes could happen in a contemporary zombie tale and all that would change is the clothes.

What we don’t get is what the DVD sleeve promises, which is the living dead in military uniforms. There are no military battles in Fallen Soldiers, no massed ranks, and certainly no zombies in redcoats. Now, to be fair, this is far from being the first or only horror film to grossly exaggerate its content in its marketing to the point of downright deception. That sort of thing goes with the territory, I guess. It is nevertheless disappointing that in a film (actually the only film) about zombies set during the Napoleonic Wars, where most of the characters are military personnel, there’s not a single actual ‘zombie soldier’ (apart from one reanimated Old Guard whose uniform is in no better condition than his skin) and no actual warfare (beyond an artillery bombardment from unseen cannon). There are a number of French soldiers wearing iron face masks which render them conveniently anonymous but they’re just armed goons, like Napoleonic Imperial Stormtroopers. We don’t see them in action.

I must commend Bill Thomas not only on his imagination and originality but also on his ability to use re-enactors and their materiel to create a realistic early 19th century setting. However, I do think he’s been overly ambitious, creating a story which must perforce be largely told in flashbacks and where the really impressive spectacle happens off-screen or only hypothetically. Fallen Soldiers is very, very talkie, especially the climax where characters endlessly explain things to each other. There’s a bit of a fist-fight near the end, but you couldn’t call it an action-packed third act.

More problematical is the way that Thomas has played with the basic core ideas of the zombie genre. It would have been quite enough to set this tale in this previously unexplored place and time. There was no need to add a unique aspect to this particular zombie contagion which makes it actually a completely different thing from what we are familiar with (and which doesn’t, in all honestly, tie in particularly well with the underlying ‘reanimating the Old Guard’ plot).

As the credits rolled and I started thinking about what I had just watched, I can’t say I was disappointed, but I did feel curiously unsatisfied. Fallen Soldiers doesn’t seem to make anything out of its setting. Yes, the eve-of-Waterloo scenario informs the basic premise that is eventually revealed to us, and yes it creates interesting window-dressing in the sets and costumes. But on the level between those two – the actual, you know, story – there’s not much to gets one’s teeth into. After some rumination, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a single memorable image in the film. Just one glimpse of a massed rank of British or French zombie-soldiers lurching across a battlefield, unfazed by musketry hurtling around them, would have been a money-shot par excellence, even if it was just a dream. But there’s nothing like that – or any other sort of arresting and startling visual spectacle. (Frustratingly, the film has been graded throughout to almost monotone, so that even Cross' scarlet jacket is rendered colourless and dull, however bright it may appear in publicity shots.)

Bill Thomas’ day-job is providing props and models for blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Clash of the Titans, The Force Awakens and assorted Harry Potters. Back in 2009 he directed a short called Butchers Blossom (sic) about a plague in Victorian times but it’s not clear whether that was also a zombie picture.

Fallen Soldiers was shot over ten days in July 2011 as Grist for the Mill (with a few pick-ups later in the year). After lengthy post-production, there was a one-off screening in February 2014 and the film finally made it to DVD in July 2015.

MJS rating: B

interview: Ross Shepherd and Charles Henry Joslain

I interviewed Ross Shepherd, director of The Kingdom of Shadows, at the 2005 Festival of Fantastic Films where it won the award for Best Short Amateur Film. With Ross at the festival was his friend Charles Henry Joslain who worked on the film as assistant director.

Was this film a student project?
RS: "Yes, this was our graduation film from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design. It was our third year piece.”

What sort of instructions or limitations did you have?
RS: "It was quite open really. We were asked to make a maximum of twelve minutes film - obviously ours went over that already. The criteria is to make a 12-minute short film which can be fiction or non-fiction. The tutors are looking for the film to have a social context of some kind.”

What 'social context' does your film have?
RS: "It’s all about escapism. The idea was taking the Lumiere films and the reaction that those films would have created in the public when they first came out, the sense of awe and wonder of cinema, and mixing that with a childlike curiosity and anticipation and loneliness that comes from the relationship between the boy and his mother which is obviously a bad one. He’s isolated in his life and the escapism comes when he discovers this kingdom which is his own. No-one believes him.

“I was looking for some way to pay homage to what the Lumieres did by discovering film. Alex’s reaction to the kingdom is supposed to pay homage to what the public experienced when they first saw a moving image. He has found a kingdom which is his own. It’s strange and it’s eerie but he escapes from mundane living. He’s a lonely child. His mother has a job and it’s obvious that she wears the trousers in that relationship. There’s probably something about modern day families in that. He’s an only child, doesn’t have brothers and sisters. He’s attention-starved maybe and he needs somewhere to escape; that comes in the form of film and film history. It was designed to link together in that way.”

Charles, did you make your own film with Ross as 1st AD? How does it work between you two?
CHJ: "I guess the first time we worked together was on Ross’ first independent project from school. Then we did a project, which I wrote and directed and he was my first AD. Then we switched back for Kingdom of Shadows. And just before last summer he wrote a project called The Man on the Stairs which I directed which was another totally independent project. So basically, it’s hard to meet people you get along with well and it’s hard to keep friends on a set. A lot of our friends say, ‘It must be great to make a film with your friends.’ No man, it’s not great. You just lose friends on a film set. So it was a great thing to work together.”

RS: "We were delegated to groups as part of the course and Charles was not officially put in my group. But we’ve always worked together from the first films we ever made to this and I knew that I wouldn’t want to make the film without him. We’ve always done everything together.”

Is it better to have that hierarchy of director and 1st AD rather than trying to be co-directors?
RS: "I believe it is.”

CHJ: "I think it’s better. If we’re co-directors we’re just going to end up arguing about things. The way we work together is: we have the same eye, although sometimes different vision. We know what works. On the other hand, sometimes with the pressure I’m going to forget about something, if I’m the director on the film, and he’s going to say ‘What about this?’ Other times, if he’s the director, I might say, “A dolly here could help...’ We’re not trying to compete against each other - that’s not the point. We’re complementary. I see it this way: we work together very well without having to compete with each other. We don’t have anything to prove. We’ve already proved that we get along well.”

RS: "We share the same taste in film, which is how we became friends. That was how we ended up working together.”

Are you fans of early silent cinema?
RS: "Yes, I was a big fan of Porter at film school: The Great Train Robbery and so on. The inspiration for this film came when I was researching for an essay on film theory and I came across the Maxim Gorky quote ‘Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows...’ which is at the end of the film. That quote sparked something inside of me and I thought: the way he described seeing that first film is such a great description, so imaginative and so powerful. That was the premise for the film.”

You shot on 16mm which is increasingly rare nowadays.
RS: "Yes, I thought that was important because we were making a film about film and if we shot that on video, something would be wrong there. We’re supposed to be paying homage to the fathers of film so we should therefore surely use that format. It proved to be a great expense, shooting on 16mm, and there were quite a few frantic calls to Kodak when we were running out of stock each day. And getting the final bill for the telecine was not pleasant.”

You were using reel ends, were you?
RS: "No, they did us a student discount on buying the stock. When it came to the telecine, first of all they offered us a one-light pass but James the DOP was adamant that we were going to get the best light and it was graded. I’m so glad we did. It was expensive but I think it was very much worth it. We had a students end-of-term screening at the NFT and on that screen you could really tell video from film. It looked so lush, it was really worth it, it was a good decision. Plus I’d never had the opportunity to work with prime lenses before as a director. I think that’s very important. James, as DOP, growing and learning about the format, he was keen to work with an array of lenses and we could really take the time to feel the scene and find the correct set-up. And you need to have that. If you’ve just got a zoom lens then you can’t do that.”

Was the black and white stuff shot on monochrome stock or digitally graded?
RS: "The whole film was shot in colour. When we came to shoot the Lumiere sequences we used a different filter. So we did some colour corrections in camera but yes, all the black and white was done in post.”

You’ve got some interesting old actors in there.
RS: "Dennis Chinnery lives local to where the film school is, near Guildford in Surrey. I was aware of him from another student project that he’d done the previous year and I thought he was fantastic in that. I spoke to the producer of that film and he gave me his details and I had a chat with Dennis, then sent him the script. He was so enthusiastic and supportive of young film-making. There was no ego or any mention of a fee or anything like that. He was a pleasure to work with and a fascinating character.”

Have you shown this film anywhere else yet?
RS: "No, only the NFT which was part of the student screening. Apparently it’s going to be shown on a Sky digital channel called Propeller Television. They e-mailed me recently. It’s a new channel which they’re planning to launch with Lottery arts funding to promote new filmmakers and the new film industry. I sent it along there and a producer there named John Offord seemed very enthusiastic about it. They’re having the launch in September so I’m not sure when it should get a screening - which will be amazing.”

Having graduated, what are the two of you going to do?
RS: "Basically the plan is to keep working, keep making short films. Whether it’s extremely short ones or slightly longer. We’ve just shot another film called The Man on the Stairs which I wrote and Charles directed. And to try and work the festival circuit as much as possible, to try and get noticed, try and get our work on TV if we can, and start sending our stuff to agents and try to get work in the industry.”

What about you, Charles?
CHJ: "Well, actually he graduated. I was officially a second year student. There’s a long story which won’t be interesting to you but basically I nicked an essay off the internet because I had other things to do, important things like making films! I forgot to write an essay, I nicked it off the web, they found out, they said it was plagiarism. Yes it was plagiarism, I’ve never denied it - big fucking deal! So anyway, now this year I will be a third year student officially so I have two projects, one which is a group project and another one which is an independent project. I wrote both scripts and they went through so I got a crew for my group project, I will get one for the independent project, hopefully Ross might be a part of both of them! Both projects will take place in France hopefully - which is where I’m from, even though I don’t sound like it. Both will be expensive I guess; 16mm again. I’m very keen on digital. You can get very impressive results with very good digital grading and digital technology nowadays, but celluloid kicks ass.”

What do you want to do ultimately? What’s your dream project?
CHJ: "Replacing Spielberg and Lucas, I guess.”

RS: "Feature film is my ultimate goal.”

Do you want to direct shorts until someone gives you a feature or will you go in at a much lower level and work your way up?
RS: "Well, I’ve considered this highly and although obviously going in at the lower level is a tried and tested way of doing it, nowadays there’s so much competition and there’s so many runners and gophers and assistant everythings - it’s the fastest growing industry in the UK right now - it doesn’t seem like that much of a plausible plan to me, especially financially because often people don’t even get paid for being runners. So I’m going to just try to keep making shorts until they let me make a feature, until we get an offer of funding or until we can do what we want.”

CHJ: "I have nothing to add to that. I did the same analysis and the higher you aim, the higher you can land. That’s my way of thinking.”

Interview originally posted 23rd January 2006

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Girl in the Woods

Director: Tofiq Rzayev
Writers: Tofiq Rzayev, Erdogan Ulgur
Producer: Tofiq Rzayev
Cast: Deniz Aslim, Gizem Aybike Sahin, Cevahir Gasgir
Year of release: 2015
Country: Azerbaijan. No, seriously: Azerbaijan
Reviewed from: online screener

I have films on here from nearly 20 different countries. I have ghost stories from Thailand and giallo from Ireland, cartoons from Russia and superheroes from India, martial arts from Chile and vampires from France. But this is something new. The Girl in the Woods is the first film I have ever been sent from Azerbaijan.

Running about 24 minutes, this is a simply told, well-made, gripping mystery with a satisfyingly horrific conclusion. Gizem Aybike Sahin plays Ceren, whose fiancé Ali has disappeared. He left no message, no indication of where he might have gone or why. The only clue is a text message to their friend Mert (Deniz Aslim) saying simply ‘Find me.’ With another friend Cem (Mehmet Samer), they set to searching for Ali.

Mert takes a look in the woods, which Ali was last seen heading towards. There he meets a mysterious, seductive girl (Cevahir Gasgir) who hasn’t seen Ali but is interested in seeing more of Mert. Does she know more than she’s telling?

Crisply directed by Tofiq Rzayev, the script was originally written by Rzayev in English then adapted and translated by Rzajev and Erdogan Ulgur. There is a good mixture of location shots, both rural and urban, giving a distinctive regional feel to the picture, plus tight dialogue scenes emphasising the solid acting of the cast.

Rzayev has been making short films since 2010, with the IMDB listing a dozen or so titles. I can’t claim to be an expert on Azerbaijani cinema but apparently film-making started in the country as far back as 1898. Obviously during the years that Azerbaijan was part of the USSR domestic movie production was generally limited to serious dramas and historicals, but since independence in the 1990s the local cinema industry has evidently been expanding.

The Girl in the Woods is the first evidence I have seen (though admittedly I haven’t been looking) of an independent cinema movement in this particular nation.

With subtitles that are mostly accurate, The Girl in the Woods is easily accessible to international audiences and would be a fine addition to festivals looking for something unusual to show.

MJS rating: B+

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Soldiers of the Damned

Director: Mark Nuttall
Writer: Nigel Horne
Producers: Stephen Rigg, Nigel Horne
Cast: Gil Darnell, Miriam Cooke, Lucas Hansen
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.soldiersofthedamned.com

Any British movie where the majority of characters are not English-speakers faces a three-way choice. Do you do the whole thing in the characters’ real language(s), subtitled? Do you have the actors speak English with the appropriate accent? Or do you just have the actors use their regular accents? Obviously the first option is artistically preferable, but it requires actors fluent in that language and it can be a tricky sell to both distributors and audiences. So we’re left with two alternatives. Every character in this film is German (except for a small number of Russian soldiers): should they use German accents or not?

As a film-maker, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m firmly in the pro-accents camp. I can believe that they’re German better if they at least sound German and not like they’re from Hampstead or Barnsley. But I know there are other people who hold the opposite view: that if the words aren’t German it’s ridiculous to use a German accent. I think it perhaps boils down to the quality of the actor. It takes skill to provide enough of an accent that we believe the character’s nationality without sounding like a comedy routine.

Bizarrely, one of the actors in Soldiers of the Damned does use a German accent (he’s not actually German – I checked). Also odd is that the actors playing Russian soldiers do use Russian accents when speaking English (which is presumably supposed to be German), while their Russian dialogue is actually in Russian but subtitled. Which I suppose does at least let us know when they’re speaking which language. But still consistent use of accents would have benefitted this movie.

But that’s not the film’s big problem.

Historical accuracy is hard, and gets harder the smaller your budget. I’m not a military history nerd and I can’t tell you whether the uniforms and weapons in this film are accurate for a group of German soldiers in Romania in 1944. I did spot one thing. An SS Officer who has an almost obsessive pride in the importance of the SS uniform wears his hat wrong. He wears his dress cap jauntily on the back of his head. The whole point of the low peak on a hat like that is that it comes down in front of your eyes and forces you to hold your head stiffly upright if you want to see anything. It was an idea developed by the Germans in the 1930s and, like so many sartorial/practical aspects of Nazi military uniform, is widely copied today around the world. Any SS soldier wearing his hat like this guy would have been given a serious dressing down, no matter his seniority.

There are some other oddities that I noticed. At one point a character writes a message on his forearm. But… how? You can’t write on your skin with a pencil or a fountain pen. The ball-point pen was only invented in 1938 and was an expensive, specialised piece of equipment. RAF bomber crews carried them because the ink wouldn’t freeze at high altitude, but an ordinary German soldier wouldn’t have anything like that.

The film begins with an entirely unnecessary – and frankly inane – narration over a map of Europe: "World War II was in its fifth vicious year of conflict. The German war machine, controlled by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, had a stranglehold over much of Europe, from the Atlantic coast of France to the Russian Urals. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was head of an armed Division called the Waffen SS.”

Leaving aside the fact that the SS was actually a wing of the army consisting of 38 Divisions, do we really need to be told that Adolf Hitler was in charge of Germany? While we hear this, a blood red stain spreads from Germany across Europe, including neutral countries like Spain and Switzerland. Although I only noticed that inaccuracy second time around as I was initially distracted by the presence on this map of countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic which didn’t exist until the 1990s. Talk about spoiling the ship for a hap’orth of tar. How difficult could it be to get a public domain 1940s map of Europe? Wikipedia’s crawling with ‘em!

The main purpose of the narration is to (a) imply that regular German soldiers weren’t Nazis and hated the SS, which is a gross over-simplification, and (b) explain that Himmler oversaw an organisation called the Ahnenerbe which investigated occult ideas. But the plot of this film is a squad being sent on a mysterious mission without explanation, so that could have waited until much later in the film when one character tells another what the Ahnenerbe is.

What might have been worth narration is a description of the situation in Romania in early 1944 which certainly wasn’t as simple as the Russians advancing and the Germans retreating. Romania was a Nazi ally whose troops had been instrumental in the invasion of the Soviet Union. By 1944, with the RAF bombing their previously untouched cities and the Red Army advancing across the countryside, the Romanian population were turning against their Fascist leader Antonescu and were ready to switch sides, which they did in August 1944 after King Michael staged a royalist coup.

So in the spring of that year, there was little enthusiasm for fighting from the Romanian troops but the Germans were using every power and threat they had to keep the Romanians fighting. Because Germany desperately needed the Romanian oil fields; as soon as they were lost, the war was effectively over because there would be no fuel for tanks and planes. However, in spring 1944, with the Atlantic wall unbreached and the Allied forces in Italy bogged down at Monte Casino, there was still every expectation of German victory. The weary desire among German troops that the war would just be over soon, espoused by one of the characters in this film, was still some months off.

Okay, so maybe I am a bit of a military history nerd.

Fascinating as the situation in Romania in spring 1944 was, it’s not actually germane to this story. We neither see nor hear mention of any Romanian troops and there’s nothing about the oil fields or anything like that. So, to be honest, the film could have skipped its anachronistic map and patronising narration and just started with a caption reading ‘Romania, 1944’.

But that’s not the film’s big problem either.

There are in fact three quite big problems with this film, and one really big problem. But first, let me tell you what it’s about.

A small squad of German soldiers, accompanied by two SS Officers, are charged with escorting a female academic into a forest, some 20 miles or so behind enemy lines. They are told only that they have to get her to a certain place, then get her out of there. These orders come direct from Himmler.

A common problem with films about soldiers is distinguishing between the characters, and it was quite some time before enough of the squad had been killed that I could actually identify all the remaining individuals. The CO is Major Kurt Fleischer (Gil Darnell: Blood Moon) who (in)conveniently is a former lover of their charge, Professor Anna Kappel (model turned archaeologist turned TV presenter turned actress Miriam Cooke). With Fleischer are Lieutenant Eric Fuchs (Tom Sawyer: FestEvil, Little Deaths) who carries a Native American throwing axe around with him for reasons that are explained towards the end, and Private Dieter Baum (Jason Kennedy, who was in a Morrison’s ad), who is initially presented as a bit mentally challenged although that is fairly swiftly forgotten.

Lucas Hansen (Bloodlust, Psoro, The Human Centipede II) is Major Heinrich Metzger, the SS Officer assigned to accompany them, along with another SS soldier, Lieutenant Sven Jung (Nicholas Keith, who was in a couple of episodes of the 2013 Dracula TV series). Metzger (the one who wears his hat wrong) is like a slightly less camp Herr Flick while Jung is a psycho. There are some other soldiers but they made even less impression on me than the main players. Mark Fountain, Matthew John Morley (Victor Frankenstein) and Nicky Bell (When the Lights Went Out) round out the squad. The cast also includes Alan French (Before Dawn), Andrea Zayats (Frankenstein’s Army), Stuart Adams (Hobgoblyn, Zombie Women of Satan 2), Sam Hampson (Dense Fear Bloodline) and onetime X-Factor contestant Craig Davies.

After sneaking past literally the Red Army’s worst sentry ever (he stands with his back to the view and can’t hear a dozen people passing about five feet away from him), the Krauts spend the rest of the film walking through deciduous woodland. But there’s no sense of a journey. There are no landmarks in this forest and no-one ever consults a map or a compass.

Considering that they are well behind enemy lines and there are Russian patrols in the forest (which they occasionally encounter) the Germans seem surprisingly unbothered about caution: letting off guns, shouting to each other, at one point being surprised by a lone loony who attacks them. Sometimes they walk as a group, at other times two of them are alone. Which serves a narrative purpose, because the script wants to include a duologue, but leaves the question of why the group has split up and how they could possibly find each other again. No thought has been given to the practicalities of a long-range mission in enemy-occupied territory; it’s just a set-up for the plot.

The plot, such as it is, is that this forest is haunted or ‘possessed’ in some way. Well, in several ways actually. Like so many horror scriptwriters before him, Nigel Horne has simple included a range of ‘spooky and creepy things’ without any overarching structure or coherent rationale. Sometimes people glimpse glowing faerie-folk running among the trees. Sometimes characters encounter white-faced, black-eyed children who may possibly be the ghosts of Jewish victims of SS atrocities. Or possibly not. There are various instances of, or references to, people being many years older than they could possibly be, and also people and things falling from an improbably great height. Some people hear voices, others don’t. None of this fits together in any satisfying way.

Also people burn up in seconds, leaving small piles of white ash. Eventually we discover that when this happens the person who has burned up finds himself in another part of the wood (or possibly the same part at a different time – there are all sorts of random time-loop ideas thrown into the mix too). Now alone, the person then meets a nasty end; an idea not dissimilar to what happens in KillerKiller (and also reminiscent of The Devil’s Chair). The problem is: we don’t really care about any of this. We don’t care when the person burns up, once we realise they’ll still be alive somewhere else – and we don’t care when they finally meet their end because they are effectively already dead.

Underlying all this random spookiness is the idea that these woods are inhabited by some sort of mythical ‘godmen’ who are the ancestors of the Aryan race (or something). The McGuffin for which Professor Kappel is searching is a device that will allow contact with these godmen, represented by an unseen glowing item in a rucksack, unavoidably reminiscent of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the car boot in Repo Man. Eventually the remains of the expedition reach some sort of ancient stone temple where matters resolve themselves to some extent.

I would be lying if I said that Soldiers of the Damned kept my attention. I frequently paused the screener to make a cup of tea, or go to the loo, or check the weather on the BBC website, or a number of other reasons. At no point was I engrossed in the film. And this – yes, this – is the film’s big problem. Its really big problem (I’ll come to the three other less big problems in a moment). I never at any time felt involved. I really didn’t care about any of the characters. Horne’s script tries to give them personalities but there’s no real depth to any of them. They’re on a mission that most of them don’t know any details of, in a featureless woodland, occasionally jumping backwards and forwards in time, or something, while a mixed buffet of weirdness happens to them, around them, or in anecdotes which they tell each other.

Yes, there’s antipathy between the SS and the regulars. Yes there’s a romantic history between Fleischer and Kappel. So what? I never cared what happened to anyone. I wasn’t worried about what might happen; I didn’t feel any emotion once we found out what had happened; and often it was entirely unclear what was actually happening – while it was actually happening. Mark Nuttall’s direction is competent, but there’s nothing to work with here.

Possibly the root problem is that there simply isn’t a clear antagonist. Except for a few brief occasions, our protagonists are not actually being shot at by Russians. They are in denial of the spookiness they encounter until very near the end of the film. The tensions within the group are never explored in any depth. What exactly are they meant to be up against? Who or what are they trying to overcome?

The acting is distinctly variable. Although, to be fair to the cast, most of whom do seem to be very good actors at some point or other in the film, I think this is a problem with the script, not the performances. You could cast this film entirely with players from the RSC and parts of it would still sound wooden. You can write this stuff, George, but you sure can’t say it. Ironically, I think this is a problem which could have been alleviated by the use of German accents. With an accent, the mannered, almost leaden dialogue would seem less stilted and artificial.

The script is one of the three not quite so big problems. The others are the photography and the production design.

My beef with the photography is this. Despite all the talk of the forest being a creepy, spooky, ‘possessed’ place, it never seems even slightly unnerving – because almost the entire movie is shot in bright daylight. In purely practical terms, if the squad was behind enemy lines wouldn’t they move mostly at night? I bloody would! At one point we have the always cheesy line: “It will be dark in a couple of hours.” No it won’t! We can see the sun beating down almost vertically on you from a cloudless sky! Jeez, if you must have a line that clichéd, at least wait until the end of the day to get that shot.

There is one day-for-night scene of the squad bedding down which is as unrealistic and unbelievable as every single other day-for-night scene ever shot in the entire history of motion pictures. I think this may have been the same scene where, alarmed by spooky voices, the squad run away a short distance and then, collecting themselves, set off into the forest again – without bothering to return for their blankets (which there is no sign of them carrying in other scenes anyway). James Martin is clearly a competent cinematographer and has photographed a lot of short films over the past few years, but he completely fails to instil any atmosphere or invoke any sense of dread, fear or even apprehension. The soldiers look like they’re going on a nature hike.

And then there’s the production design. Seriously, I’m not enough of a military history nerd to spot the wrong mark of machine gun or say, “That type of tank wasn’t deployed in Romania.” Maps and pens aside, there’s nothing obviously anachronistic or wrong here, and I’ll leave it to the real nerds to point out any pedantic mistakes. The film has as its ‘military advisor’ a gentleman named Ronnie Papaleo who has been involved in lots of big budget war productions, mostly credited as vehicles co-ordinator or similar. To judge from the site for his own in-development feature The Ice Cream Man, he actually is a serious military history nerd himself. Good for him.

Papaleo evidently has, or at least has access to, large amounts of original or authentically recreated materiel: uniforms, helmets, weapons, vehicles etc. Nowadays, a combination of re-enactment groups and CGI make it eminently possible to create a very believable wartime setting for a film, even on a low budget (as was recently proven by Allies). But here’s the problem. Everything is simply too clean. Re-enactors, collectors and costumiers like to keep their uniforms in good condition, but in the real world, in wartime, soldiers wear the same clothes for weeks at a time without ever washing them. Clothes and other personal items get covered in mud and blood, get ripped and patched. Fleischer and his men look like they’ve just stepped off the parade ground, even after spending several days and nights in the forest. I could maybe accept the SS duo starting off smart and clean, but even they are sleeping rough.

What gore effects exist in Soldiers of the Damned are largely kept away from clothes, while bullet hits and knives send cascades of CGI blood spurting into the digital realm. But throughout, the uniforms remain clean and neat. (Rebecca Hall is credited with the SFX make-up. Her other BHR gigs include The Eschatrilogy, Devil Makes Work, The Sleeping Room, The Vicious Dead, Ibiza Undead and Dark Signal. Shrewd Ape was the VFX company.) Also, despite walking for several days, all the men remain completely clean-shaven. Which to my mind is even spookier than black-eyed ghost children.

Thus we find that, despite the undoubted sincerity and hard work of the cast and crew, a perfect storm of problems – some of them, frankly, avoidable – combine to make Soldiers of the Damned a joyless, dull, poorly executed picture. It’s precisely because the film is dull – characters we don’t care about on a mission they don’t know about with no clearly defined antagonist to defeat – that the other problems are so noticeable. A killer script and taut direction might have distracted from pristine uniforms, clean-shaven chins, sunny forest days, and maps that are out by half a century. In fact pretty much the only time I enjoyed the film was when I shouldn’t have, in that a few scenes are so bad they’re actually funny. If you don’t laugh out loud when the tank appears, you’re made of stronger stuff than me (they show it twice, and it’s even funnier when you know what’s coming!). But I don’t think any part of this film is intended as comedy.

What a shame. Soldiers of the Damned had a lot of potential and I was really looking forward to it. But ultimately it joins the ranks of unsuccessful British war-horror crossovers, alongside Deathwatch, The Lost and Nazi Zombie Death Tales. Only The Bunker came anywhere close to succeeding in this subgenre. Basically, these sort of films would all like to be The Keep (Soldiers… even casts one of The Keep’s actors, Renny Krupinski, as the Colonel who gives Fleischer his orders). But The Keep has already been made. Make something new.

And it’s not impossible to have weird things tormenting soldiers in a low budget horror movie. I was reminded of how effective Ivan Zuccon’s debut The Darkness Beyond is. Ivan managed it, but sadly Nutall and Horne don’t, despite undoubtedly valiant effort. Too many things don’t work. Yes, some of my comments are pedantic nitpicking. Really, does it matter how Major Metzger wears his hat? Of course not. But does it matter that the viewer feels no empathy for these characters? Does it matter that the supposedly spooky forest is devoid of atmosphere? Does it matter that characters who have been sleeping rough look like they just got dressed for parade? Does it matter that the dialogue is dull and lifeless? Yes. Yes it does matter, I’m afraid. That’s the essence of film-making. Sorry.

For the record, director Mark Nuttall is a former TV graphics guy who has directed music videos, documentaries, ads and episodes of The Chuckle Brothers. Writer-producer Nigel Horne made a comedy called The Wedding Tackle back in 2000 and is now Managing Director of Safecracker Pictures, who released Soldiers of the Damned on UK DVD in August 2015. Shot in the Lake District over five weeks in April/May 2013 (with a few pick-ups in September), the film was trade screened at the AFM in November 2014 and officially premiered at a one-off screening in Manchester a couple of weeks before the disc hit shelves.

MJS rating: C

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Crazy Bitches

Director: Jane Clark
Writer: Jane Clark
Producers: Jane Clark, John W McLoughlin, Tara Carbajal
Cast: Vicoria Profeta, Cathe DeBuono, Andy Gala
Country: USA
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.thecrazybitchesmovie.com

Crazy Bitches is an enjoyably mature and well-made take on the slasher subgenre, substituting for the traditional college airheads a bunch of friends who have settled down and grown up a bit since they were students together. It has a nice streak of dark humour and characters who are well-defined and distinctive without being caricatures or stereotypes. It does take a long time to get going, and the ending is undeniably talkie, but there’s enough here to more than justify your time.

Thus we have stable cornerstone, wife and mother Alice (Victoria Profeta); uptight virgin (still?) Taylor (Samantha Colburn); rational cancer survivor TBG Dorry (Nayo Wallace: the voice of Harmony Bear in the current incarnation of Care Bears); manly lesbian Cassie (Cathy DeBuono: dabo girl M’Pella from Deep Space Nine); prissy princess, um, Princess (Scottish born Mary Jane Wells, who reads the Downton Abbey audiobooks); Alice’s sister, dippy new age vegan Minnie (Liz McGeever); neurotic actress Belinda (Guinevere Turner: writer of American Psycho and Bloodrayne!); and communal gay friend BJ (Andy Gala). These eight have rented a vacation home on a ranch to catch up with each other.

Over the first hour we explore the various relationships: sexual, romantic and otherwise. More than one person seems to have slept with Alice’s husband Eddie (David Fumero from One Life to Live). Cassie wouldn’t say no to any of her friends, given the chance, but is constantly disappointed by responses both positive and negative. (“Straight girls!” she angrily mutters on more than one occasion.) Princess gets it on with scrawny local Gareth (Blake Berris from Days of Our Lives) who also has his eye on Taylor.

BJ has his own online TV show about spooky and mysterious stuff, as a result of which he is familiar with the story of how seven young girls were brutally murdered in this place, their murderer never found. In the first act he carries a camera around with him videoing his friends but this idea fades away.

Despite BJ’s atmospheric recounting of the location’s unpleasant history, despite a brief scene with a Ouija board (a cliché that the film really doesn’t need), indeed despite a couple of actual murders, there’s very little really happening for much of the film. It’s more relationship comedy-drama than horror. No-one is aware that anyone has been murdered, so there’s no tension. It’s all very well written, directed and acted, don’t get me wrong, but it leaves the viewer champing at the bit for more than an hour, until eventually things turn nasty and the remaining characters realise that they are in mortal danger. The final act makes up for what has gone before by having plenty of action, plenty of blood and lots of twisty-turny plot stuff as suspects are considered, accused and discounted.

The final reveal of who is killing the friends (and why) didn’t work completely for me. There seemed to be two unrelated rationales behind the killer’s behaviour, one that made sense and one that relied too heavily on flashbacks and revelations about who was who and what was what. The latter really wasn’t necessary and just muddied the waters somewhat. There’s a couple of intriguing semi-twist hints right at the end that raise questions likely to provoke much post-screening discussion, which is a good thing.

One thing that did catch me off-guard was the setting. With no working transport, the group will have to trek 20 miles to the gate. What? At one earlier point they drive into the nearest town for a meal so that must be, what, 25 or 30 miles. Just for dinner? That’s outside of my understanding. Because we don’t have ranches in the UK, I simply had no concept of how cut off they were. In any similar situation over here, the walk to the gate would be maybe a mile and half tops. Like the old saying goes: the difference between Britain and the USA is that Americans think 100 years is a long time and Britons think 100 miles is a long way.

Expanding on this transatlantic unfamiliarity, I’m uncertain whether there were any other properties on this vast ranch. Also whether Gareth and his possibly special needs brother Gardner (John W McLoughlin, also one of three producers) own this place or are just employees.  I’m not saying this should have been clearer, just highlighting the problems of culturally specific mental real estate.

On the plus side, there are llamas on the ranch. Also horses and at least one awesome pig. When the transport options ran out, I was kind of disappointed that no-one suggested trying to ride a llama, but I guess that’s a different film. Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money) appears in a splash panel prologue which seems entirely unrelated until right at the end of the film.

This is the second feature from writer-director-producer Jane Clark, following a drama called Meth Head which used several of the same actors. She is currently working on a sequel, Crazier Bitches. Clark is a former actor who was a nurse in Chicago Hope. If the IMDB is accurate, she was also in Vista Street sequel Witchcraft VI and William Mesa’s awesome Brigitte Nielsen cheese-fest Terminal Force (which I totally must track down and rewatch). On the other hand, there’s probably a lot of people out there called Jane Clark…

What I liked about Crazy Bitches was mainly the things it didn't do. I liked that it didn't fill the cast with twentysomething teenagers. I like that the characters weren't drunk, stoned or perpetually horny. I liked that they didn't play unfunny practical jokes on each other. I particularly appreciated the absence of cat scares. (A few times characters are startled by an unexpected knock at the door etc. - that's fine, that's acceptable.) I liked that the film was about characters and relationships, I just could have done with a bit more fear and fright. But on the whole, Crazy Bitches is as fine an indie slasher as you'll see this year.

MJS rating: B+

Sunday, 9 August 2015

interview: Susan Sheridan

This is a combination of two interviews that I did with Susan Sheridan – the original Trillian in Hitchhiker’s Guide on Radio 4 - posted today as a tribute to a bright and funny lady who has just left us too soon. In 1998 I did a stack of phone interviews with cast and crew for a big 20th anniversary feature in SFX. These are my notes from talking to Sue Sheridan in January that year:

How did you land the role of Trillian?
"I was hooked into doing it by Richard Whiteley and Miriam Margolyes - which is an odd combination. Like most of the cast, I suspect, I read the script and didn't understand a word of it. I was in the second episode, so everybody knew each other except me.”

Did it feel at the time like it might be something more than just another Radio 4 comedy?
“We knew it was so zany that it would either be a brilliant hit or a complete flop. I think the first time I realised how successful it was when my brother, who was a schoolboy at the time, said that all his friends in the sixth form at Gordonstoun were fans and absolutely loved it.”

Why were you not in the cast of the Original Records LP?
"I didn't do the LP because I was doing a voice for Disney at the time, for The Black Cauldron.”

Did the show help you career?
"I think Hitchhiker's was one of the big coups of my acting career. It certainly opened the door to a lot of radio, including being part of the radio rep. I went on to work with John Henderson on a series called Round the Bend - I think that was because of Trillian.

How did you feel about not being cast in the TV series?
"I knew they wouldn't use me on TV. It was an opportunity to have a glamorous blonde - which I am now but I wasn't then! Also an American voice. But I didn't mind. My career has been mostly theatre and voice-work, which is fine.”

What is your abiding memory of Hitchhiker?
"My memory is of being in the Paris Studio, where we recorded most of it, standing on stage with all these strange sound effects and bizarre music all around us. Geoffrey Perkins was in charge, and I think Douglas was there all the time.”

Was there any suggestion that Trillian might return for the second radio series?
"Was I in the second series? No, I don't think I was. I'm probably confusing it with the repeats, because they repeated it almost immediately, and kept on repeating it ad nauseum. Although that meant I kept getting paid for it - which I didn't mind at all!"

Five years later I finally got to meet Sue when Dirk Maggs reunited the original radio cast for 'The Tertiary Phase'. This interview was conducted in November 2003:

When did you first hear about this project?
“Well, we were going to do it in the 1990s and we were all prepared to have our reunion then. I can’t remember the details but I think unfortunately it was to do with there not being a script that was usable then. It was very sad for us but in a way it means that now we’ve got a better script than we would have had then.”

What did you think when Dirk contacted you and said it was back on?
“Well, of course I was delighted. Trillian has been one of the high spots of my career, it goes without saying. We enjoyed it when we first did it, to a certain extent, but we didn’t really understand it. I think I’ve told you that before! This time we understood much more of it, partly because we’d read the book! So it’s a great pleasure in doing it this time. There are certain other factors too. I wasn’t in the television version so I rather thought I’d never see any of them again, so it’s doubly nice for me and Geoff McGivern to be back in the fold once again.”

Had you stayed in contact with any of the other actors?
“I hadn’t at all. Because Simon had been in America. Stephen I’d bumped into once or twice at the BBC but we’d not really worked together. David Tate I knew very well indeed because we were worked a lot together and then of course very sadly he died. I think he might have been the first one to die of the three missing cast members.”

Now you have Bill Franklyn, Richard Griffiths and Roger Gregg in those roles.
“Indeed, and very, very well too. Very good performances. But David was the first one to die and that was terribly sad because he was far too young, not to mention far too talented. He was stunningly talented and a very nice man. As was Richard Vernon, as was Peter Jones, although we didn’t really have much to do with Peter Jones because he did the book separately in the recording whereas Richard and David were with us in the studio. Richard Vernon was terribly funny. He famously said, ‘I don’t understand a word I’m saying’! And yet, 26 years on, it’s part of the language. Computers and mobile telephones - we’re much more technically minded than we were 26 years ago, and I think in a way doing it now is probably much better than if we’d done it in the 1990s. This is the time to do it! I can’t help thinking that it’s rather timely that yesterday was 26 years to the day since we did the first episode of Hitchhiker’s Guide. 23rd November 1977. The first episode of the main series, not the pilot, because I wasn’t involved in the pilot.”

Trillian is a different sort of character in this story.
“Yes, she’s a bit more proactive. She’s got some nice lines. She didn’t have a lot of lines in the first series. She always had a lot of spunk and of course she’s got a great brain, but I think that in this one she sees sense, she sees through Zaphod and his ego.”

Trillian’s not in Book 4 but you’ll be back for Book 5.
“That’s right. We’re doing that in April. Trillian, as you will know, has a baby by Arthur Dent which is terrribly exciting so we worked towards this last week to make sure that there was a clear sign - because there wasn’t anything in the book at all, any sign of them getting together. Then she does something rather miraculous and clones herself and I understand that’s when Sandra Dickinson will be coming in to be the other Trillian. I do love the idea because I know Sandra a bit and admire her work. I think she was miscast as Trillian but I don’t think I would have been right either in the television version. So it’s interesting that now we’ll be getting together and I think it will be absolutely wonderful. She’s a lovely lady.”

RIP Sue.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Dense Fear Bloodline

Director: Tony Gardner
Writer: Tony Gardner
Producer: Tony Gardner
Cast: Tony Gardner, Geoff Dunlavey, William Bain
Country: UK
Year of release 2012
Reviewed from: YouTube
Website: http://densefear2.webs.com

Here’s an obscure entry in the small but fascinating subgenre of British werewolf features. Dense Fear Bloodline was a labour of love, shot for peanuts over six years around Gateshead by Tony Gardner and eventually ‘released’ via YouTube. And you know what, it’s pretty damn good. I think we can all name werewolf pictures considerably worse than this.

Gardner plays (sans dialogue) Paul Johnson, a tragic lycanthrope on the run after killing his psychologist. Theatrical agent, casting director and former Byker Grove bit-parter Geoff Dunlavey is Chief Inspector Ryan of Tyneside CID, charged with tracking him down. An early scene introduces us to Detective Wendy Hale (Michelle Bayly aka Louisa Hart: Zombie Women of Satan, Mirrorvael) and there’s an absolutely wonderful chemistry between the two coppers. Ryan is bitter, weary, professional but occasionally accident-prone (a later scene with a car alarm is a corker!) and his demeanour contrasts beautifully with Hale’s joyful, teasing flirtatiousness. I was really hoping that the movie would be about these two, but sadly although Ryan has further scenes, Hale only reappears once and that’s on her own. If Dunlavey, Hart and Gardner are up for it, they should certainly consider a spin-off based around those two characters.

I was also impressed by the ingenuity in the production design demonstrated by this scene. Dressing up a room to realistically look like the office of a busy senior CID officer is a hefty task. Other films have failed miserably at this (Deadly Pursuit notoriously used the changing room at a boxing club!). Gardner has simply tweaked his script to explain that Ryan is in a temporary office, hence its spartan appearance. Indie film-makers take note: this is how to do it.

Sadly, we have to leave the two plods and meet our principal ensemble, a bunch of squaddies hunting Johnson in the woods, hoping to catch him before nightfall when the full moon comes out. (As so often with werewolf films, the script ignores the rather basic fact that there’s only one full moon every four weeks. So if Johnson transformed last night and ripped his psychologist’s guts out, he can’t also be transforming tonight.)

Actually I say ‘squaddies’ because these are guys in camo with guns, but they’re not regular army, rather they’re mostly ‘ex-military’ (according to introductory captions). One is now a zoologist (there’s an interesting career path!), one’s a former royal bodyguard etc. Joining them is Layla Price (Shannon Grey), a feisty, no-bullshit MI5 operative with a talent for kickboxing. She says she’s 21 but, since I’m pretty sure you need a degree to join MI5, her field experience must be pretty limited. William Bain plays the squad leader, Marcel. Also under his command are grizzled Gulf War vet Jackson (Dave Newsome); paranormal expert Roberts (Michael McDermott); bolshy Scot Ford (Alan Clennell) and animal behaviour expert Dylan (Mark Salem).

Despite the natural difficulty in distinguishing between a bunch of men all dressed in camo, there are some lovely moments of characterisation and interpersonal relationships. The combination of ‘squaddies + werewolves’ can’t help but draw comparisons with Dog Soldiers (which must have had a thousand times this film’s budget). While the script, acting and production values on show here obviously don’t approach Neil Marshall’s film, they are respectable in their own right, given the nature of the production, and bolstered by Gardner’s adroit direction and editing.

One thing that Dense Fear Bloodline has very much in its favour is the actual werewolf (characters don’t shy away from using both the W-word and the L-word). There is a transformation scene at about the halfway point which is a master class in how to handle on-screen transmogrification. There’s no CGI, no lap-dissolves, just a succession of shots of Gardner on all fours intercut with some smart physical effects and – here’s what makes the whole thing work – a great foley track of unpleasant-sounding snaps, crackles and pops as muscles, bones, sinews, tendons, flesh, nails and hair rearrange themselves in ways that nature never intended. The mightily impressive special effects were supervised by Mark Danbury whose other gigs include Bloodlust, Coulrophobia, Wire in the Blood, Zombie Women of Satan and The League of Gentlemen.

On top of which, Johnson is played for the remainder of the film by (a succession of actors in) an absolutely awesome home-made full-body werewolf suit. Shaggy fur, fearsome (movable) jaws and sharp claws exacerbate a fantastic performance of quasi-lupine body movement. Clever lighting and editing lets us get a good view of the beast while covering up any unavoidable deficiencies in the costume (such as the non-moving eyes). Pumpkinhead-style stilts in the legs raise the creature to a good seven feet tall. Low-budget UK werewolves have been poorly served over the years, from the glove puppet of Full Moon Massacre to the joke-shop fangs and fuzzy sideburns of Strippers vs Werewolves to the complete absence of lycanthropes in Lycanthropy. Gardner is a major-league werewolf fan and has constructed a terrific costume around which he has then crafted a very watchable micro-budget feature film.

Once transformed, Johnson becomes the hunter and the squaddies are the hunted, despatched with some gruesome gore effects. Watch out for the brilliantly clever but actually very simple ‘snapping the neck’ shot. In a possibly unique take on lycanthropy, victims who are severely injured but not actually killed swiftly return as second-level werewolves (with fuzzy-face’n’fangs make-up that is sensibly kept largely obscured). This requires characters to cold-bloodedly shoot injured colleagues, just as they would if the threat was zombies. Also worth noting is that Tony Gardner (who pulled additional duty as cinematographer) shot all these night-time scenes actually at night. Major kudos for that – it makes a helluva difference.

This hugely impressive five-and-change production is sometimes listed as Dense Fear II Bloodline and indeed turns out to be the sequel to a 50-minute sub-feature, Dense Fear, which Gardner shot in 2000 and finished in 2003. Certainly one doesn’t need to have seen Part 1 to understand and appreciate Part 2; there are enough references to events in the first film to get the gist of what has happened up to now. The only real mis-step is something about a hooded figure who was the original lycanthrope and now protects all werewolves (or something). This figure does turn up towards the end but it’s an unnecessary, confusing additional level of fantasy and probably could have been ditched. But it incorporates quite a groovy visual effect so, hey-ho.

The feature had a local premiere at a club in Gateshead a few days before Halloween 2012 (‘optional fancy dress’!), followed by live streaming the following night, complete with an online chatroom. Gardner then posted the whole movie onto YouTube in November. And, although I described this film at the top of the review as ‘obscure’, in less than three years that YouTube version has had more than 300,000 views (and 300+ comments). Okay, those viewers may not all have watched the entire movie from soup to nuts, but nevertheless that’s way more people than would ever see a low-budget British film in even a well-publicised theatrical release. And probably more than most micro-budget horror films manage in DVD sales. Distribution is a different world from what it was 15 years ago (ironically about the time Gardner started making the original Dense Fear).

That said, this undoubtedly is obscure because who the hell has ever heard of it? I first came across Dense Fear Bloodline when I was checking cast credits for my review of Legacy of Thorn. So far as I can tell there is not a single review anywhere online, apart from a couple of typically effusive customer reviews on the IMDB. In April 2015 Gardner updated the film’s website with a promise of “information about the DVD release very soon” so a more formal release is indeed on the way, to include a Making Of, bloopers, deleted scenes and all manner of delights. The version on YouTube, while eminently watchable, is certainly a very long way from HD, although one has to wonder to what extent that reflects (a) the budget and (b) how long ago the fellow actually shot this thing.

Also in the cast are Sam Hampson (Soldiers of the Damned), Simon Craig (The Last Zombi Hunter, Legacy of Thorn, Blaze of Gory) and William Scott Johnson (A Home for the Bullets, Feast for the Beast). Paul Palance gets a ‘special guest’ credit, perhaps on account of having played a drunk in one episode of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which probably marks him out as minor royalty in Tyneside.

I take my hat off to Tony Gardner. On a budget that wouldn’t buy a crate of Newkie Brown, he has created a genuinely enjoyable and exciting feature-length werewolf movie that stands as a significant title within the British Horror Revival. It just goes to show what gems are out there when you look.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Evil Souls

Directors: Roberto and Maurizio Del Piccolo
Writers: Roberto and Maurizio Del Piccolo
Producers: Roberto Del Piccolo, Lisa Marrs
Cast: Holli Dillon, Peter Cosgrove, Julian Boote
Country: UK/Italy
Year of release 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Evil Souls is as fine a slice of Anglo-Italian Satanic torture-porn as you are likely to encounter anywhere. The first act builds atmosphere, the second develops plot and character, and the last half-hour is an intensification which grips the viewer even as it occasionally pauses for some awesome visuals. I’m not entirely sure it makes a whole heap of sense – but when did Italian horror ever make much sense?

This is the second feature from brothers Roberto and Maurizio Del Piccolo, who previously brought us The Hounds. Shot in Italy in English, with an Anglo-Italian cast, it’s a production of their London-based company Moviedel with involvement from their Milan-based company Moviedel Italia. The IMDB lists this as a UK film but it’s clearly an international co-production.

Holli Dillon (who was in horror shorts Needles and Night of the Loving Dead) plays Jess Taylor, who comes home one evening to find her son missing and the baby-sitter very murdered indeed. Knocked unconscious, she comes around chained up in the lair of stone-cold nutjob Valentine, gloriously overacted by Peter Cosgrove (also in George Clarke’s Splash Area). With his long hair, short beard and foppish taste for 18th century frock-coats, Valentine sees himself as a disciple of the Marquis de Sade, although he actually looks like Sam Rockwell in the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie.

Also chained up, and wondering where her (somewhat delinquent) son has gone, is Susan Papworth (Paolo Maciadi). When Susan and Jess realise that they were childhood friends, they also realise that their captor is not a random sociopath but has singled them out for some reason connected with their past.

Meanwhile, two other childhood pals whose paths long ago diverged become reacquainted when Father Albert (Julian Boote: Dead Room, KillerSaurus) finds wasted whore Maddie (Lisa Holsappel-Marrs, also executive producer along with Roberto) on the steps of his church. Gradually, the pieces of the mystery start to fit together, although for every revelation there’s something else thrown into the mix that’s never explained (for example, Valentine and Jess both have visions of being in a vineyard).

Valentine takes great delight in taunting and mistreating the women, occasionally resorting to Saw-style torture devices, but actually I was being unfair at the top of the review when I called this ‘torture porn’ because Evil Souls is well beyond that past-its-sell-by-date subgenre.

Boote’s priest is the cement binding the story together as he investigates the pasts of his former friends and uncovers some sort of demonic prophecy (or something) that relates to Susan’s and Jess’ sons (in some way). It was probably not necessary to tie this into historical figures of evil (including Hitler, of course); that angle gives the story no more gravitas and slightly cheapens what is otherwise a solidly crafted and undeniably impressive low-budget horror.

The film certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore with numerous characters subjected to genuinely horrific injuries, depicted by well executed make-up effects from Nicole Rossin and Serena Caiani. The whole thing is well-photographed by Tommaso Borgstrom who also shot The Hounds; many years ago he was camera assistant on Frankenstein Unbound! The screenplay is credited to Roberto based on a story by both brothers; Maurizio cut the picture. Paolo Bernardini provided the score which effectively supports the visual horrors.

Stage actress Irina Lorandi makes a fine impression in her one brief scene as a prostitute; the cast also includes Catherine Brookes (The Hounds), Federico Rossi (who was in a 2012 post-apocalyptic feature called New Order), Sean James Sutton (Spidarlings) and Roberto di Stano (who is in an Italian Rocky Horror performance group!) as a homeless guy.

The picture was shot in the town of Muzzana del Turgnano (inbetween Udine and Trieste) in January 2014 (with pick-ups in October) and premiered at the Fantafestival in Rome in June 2015.

Is this British enough to count as part of the BHR? I think so, subject to further investigation (the poster calls it ‘A MovieDel UK Production. Associate Producer MovieDel Italy’). It seems to strike a good balance between the realism of the British Horror Revival and the fantasy of the Italian Horror Revival, and fans of either national cinema (or both) will enjoy it.

MJS rating: B+