Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Interrogation

Director: Ian David Diaz
Writer: Ian David Diaz
Producers: Ian David Diaz, Angela Banfill
Cast: Oliver Young, Richard Banks, Giles Ward
Country: UK
Year of release: 1996
Reviewed from: VHS tape

In 1999, a low-budget British thriller called The Killing Zone was released straight to VHS.  Directed by Ian David Diaz, it was produced by ‘The Seventh Twelfth Collective’, which was Diaz, Julian Boote and their pals, The same gang made ultra-obscure horror anthology Dead Room (only ever released in Greece and Thailand!), Anglo-Canadian horror Fallen Angels and two American thrillers, Bad Day and Darkly Dreaming Billy Ward.

It’s a lo-o-ong, long time since I’ve seen The Killing Room, but a little digging reveals that it is about a cool, calm underworld assassin named Matthew Palmer. Viewing the world from behind large, thick-framed glasses, Palmer’s name is a tip of the hat to Harry of that ilk and there are other Michael Caine references scattered throughout the three stories which together make up the 65-minute feature.
The first story concerns a couple of small-time crooks who are believed to have stolen some cocaine. Tied to chairs in a warehouse, they are interrogated by a sadistic gangster while Palmer stands implacably by. This story is a remake of a short film which Diaz shot in 1996 called The Interrogation.

The point of all this is that, 20 years on, I found The Interrogation among a pile of VHS tapes I was taking to the skip so decided to give it one last watch before it becomes landfill. It’s a smartly-directed, tightly written, generally well-acted little thriller. Much of the film is experienced crook Fenton (Richard Banks) and first-timer Finn (Oliver Young) tied up and questioned by ‘Mad Dog’ McCann (Giles Ward), a tall, pony-tailed, dinner-jacketed sadist who wants to get this all over and done with so he can make it to a dinner party on time.

Fenton takes his impending death in his stride. Finn is scared shitless. Both are adamant that the contacts they were due to meet were already dead – and without any cocaine – when they got there. McCann doesn’t believe them. While McCann knocks the two around and reveals how much homework he has done on them – he knows their motives, their backgrounds, their needs – Palmer just stands motionless in the background in trench coat and spoddy glasses. But he’s not window dressing, he will become very relevant towards the end of the story.

The reason why all this is of interest to me is the casting. Banks, Young and Ward all reprised their roles when the film was remade as part of The Killing Zone, which starred Padraig Casey as Palmer. But in this short film, Martin Palmer is played by none other than Kevin Howarth.

Kevin’s page on the Inaccurate Movie Database lists his first film as a thriller called Cash in Hand, then relationship drama The Big Swap, both listed as ‘1998’ along with Razor Blade Smile. In fact The Big Swap was his debut, filmed in 1996, followed by RBS then Cash in Hand (filmed as The Find). So this short apparently just predates The Big Swap. By the time that Diaz was shooting the feature version, Kevin already had several films on his CV and either didn’t need to do The Killing Zone or was simply too busy.

Subsequently of course Kevin has become a familiar face to fans of British horror with roles in The Last Horror Movie, Summer Scars, Cold and Dark, Gallowwalkers and The Seasoning House.

If I hadn’t know this was Kevin Howarth, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him. Maybe it’s just the hair, glasses and make-up but he looks somewhat rounder of face, less gaunt than he appears in later films. Once he speaks, however, the voice is unmistakable. Kevin has always been particularly good at portraying largely emotionless characters (much harder than it sounds) and Palmer is about as emotionless as they come. But he’s threatening, in the same way that a gun on a table is threatening.

Although most of the cast of this film disappeared after making this and Dead Room, a few names in the credits have, like young Mr Howarth, gone on to greater things. Co-producer and editor Piotr Szkopiak is now an experienced soap editor, with many episodes of EastEnders, Emmerdale and Corrie to his name. And composer Guy (son of Cliff) Michelmore is now – how cool is this? – the regular composer for animated Marvel projects, including series based on Thor, Hulk, Avengers, Dr Strange and Iron Man.

It’s not quite true to say that there’s no record of The Interrogation anywhere as it has a page on the BFI website, but that’s all. So now it has a review too. It’s a crisply directed, enjoyable short but, unless Ian David Diaz decides to post it online, your chances of ever seeing it are effectively nil. On the other hand, a DVD of The Killing Zone can be picked up easily and cheaply so the story’s there if you want to check it out. Just not with Kevin Howarth.

MJS rating: B+

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Weaverfish

Director: Harrison Wall
Writers: Harrison Wall, Mark Maltby
Producer: Mark Maltby
Cast: Shane O’Meara, Lucy-Jane Quinlan, Ripeka Templeton
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Website: www.weaverfishmovie.co.uk

Weaverfish is a pleasant surprise. It is largely unknown, probably because it has only been released as VOD, and is basic premise is hardly inspiring. A group of horny teenagers go somewhere remote to spend the night partying, drinking, smoking and perhaps getting lucky. Many, many horror films have started out that way and the vast majority of them have turned out to be awful.

The secret lies in the characters. Normally the young people in these films are just awful. Self-entitled millennials or sweary, lary chavs. In far too many films the viewer can identify with no-one on screen and basically wants them all to die as soon (and as painfully) as possible.

The six main characters in Weaverfish are all believable and mostly sympathetic. Reece (Shane O’Meara: Waterloo Road) is a sensitive, introspective guy with a camera around his neck. He takes a bit of persuading to let his hair down and party, but he’s up for a drink when offered so he’s not some stick-up-the-arse buzzkill. Matt (Josh Ockenden: The Underwater Realm, Arthur and Merlin) was his best mate at school although they’re not quite as close now. Matt can be a bit of a prick but he’s not a bad lad. He is dating the very cute Charlotte (Lucy-Jane Quinlan: The Cutting Room) for whom Reece has long carried a torch. Quinlan gives a particularly fine performance, balancing Charlotte on a fine line between vulnerability and resilience.

Abi (Jessie Morrell) is Charlotte’s blousy pal. Shannon (Ripeka Templeton) is Reece’s younger sister who is more keen on partying than her brother. Rounding up the sextet is Mike (John Doughty: The Hounds) a slightly older guy with white dreadlocks who is in a band. He could potentially be an arsehole but actually comes across, once we get to know him, like the others, as a rounded, believable, sympathetic character. All of these are people you could quite happily spend some time with. None of them ever do anything inexcusably dumb.

Do you see, other film-makers? It is possible.

The set-up is that there is an area of water, Fountainhead Creek, which has been sealed off both landwards and riverwards since a small child went missing there several years earlier. There is a disused oil refinery behind the fence. Mike and his bandmate Chris (Dusty Rhodes) – who is either bi or just uses that as a way of getting laid – have discovered a gap in the fence across the mouth of the creek through which they squeeze a small inflatable, twice. As well as those mentioned, there are four or five other teenagers, plus plenty of booze, a few pills, some tents and some music equipment.

Among a litany of strong points, Weaverfish’s big weakness is that we spend a long, long time getting to know the characters. They are well-defined, both in themselves and their relationships, but we signed up for a horror movie not a teen drama. The 95-minute film is nearly halfway through before anything unnerving happens, by which time it’s the morning after the night before and people are waking up. There’s a great deal of puking, but that can be put down to last night’s pills and Pilsner – or can it? When half the group disappear along with the boat, presumably ferried back to the town by Chris, the poorly state of Abi and Shannon persuades the remaining six to set off across land, hoping to find a stretch of fence with a road alongside which might allow them to contact someone who can alert the police and call an ambulance. (There is the traditional, brief hold-up-the-phone-got-no-signal scene.)

As it happens, these six are the most clearly developed characters from the original dozen but we didn’t know that until now so we’ve been trying to become familiar with more characters than we needed to. A shorter first act, with fewer secondary characters, would definitely have benefitted the film. It’s good that we have got to know these characters so well and can fully sympathise and empathise with them. It’s good that we can see the Matt/Charlotte relationship coming apart as he surreptitiously targets Shannon, and that we can see that Charlotte really should be with Reese (plus we can see a relationship developing between Abi and Mike). But Act One could have been tightened up without losing that, I think.

So, the problem they face is that Shannon and Abi, as well as feeling sick, have each developed a large patch of distorted skin on their torsos. An attempt to clean this results in a quite startling and disturbing effects shot which is really where the horror kicks in. Once Mike and Matt also admit to having this symptom, it becomes clear that it has been caused by yesterday afternoon’s dip in the creek, which Reece and Charlotte both passed up. Something from that old oil refinery is still floating about in the water, and it’s not good. (Someone comments that they’ve seen no fish. There is also a complete absence of ducks, swans, gulls, herons or any other sort of aquatic wildlife.)

Comparatively little actually happens in the second act, apart from the group moving forward and people feeling worse, so it is tremendously to the credit of film-makers Harrison Wall and Mark Matlby – and their talented cast – that we remain gripped as the film inches inexorably into horror territory before finally tipping over into a full-on sci-fi conspiracy thriller in the short third act. Commendably, the film ends at exactly the right point, a denouement which is both enjoyably bleak and satisfyingly vague. The (partial) revelation of what is going on is utterly startling, but in a jaw-dropping way, not a jump-out-of-your-seat way.

That’s actually another feather in the film’s cap; it never goes for a cat-scare or other cheap horror gags. Everything here is characterisation and narrative.

Wall and Maltby came out of university and went into TV post-production where they saved their salaries in order to fund this £10,000 production. Wall has done editorial gigs on the likes of Dickensian, Humans and Poirot, while Maltby has worked on The Fades, South Riding and Whitechapel. Wall previously directed two shorts on which Maltby provided special effects: sci-fi musical CyberBeat and a horror called The Snatching which has some similarities to Weaverfish. More recently, Maltby has worked as a colourist on features including Blood Moon, Howl and The Haunting of Radcliffe House. Their script was based on an idea (initially much more of an action/sci-fi story) by their friend Thomas Shawcroft who was DP on Weaverfish and whose various camera operator gigs have included Community, Doctor Who and Galavant (meaning he could potentially have worked with Weird Al!).

Shot near Southampton over 15 days in June 2011, the film premiered at the Bootleg Film Festival in Toronto in May 2012 where it picked up the Audience Award and Quinlan won Best Actor (Female). That version ran 100 minutes and although five of those have subsequently been cut, it could stand to lose another ten or so from that first act. There was a private UK screening for cast and crew the following month at the Prince Charles Cinema and the film also screened in Luxembourg in September that year as part of a 'British and Irish' season. Weaverfish was released in this country through Vimeo on Demand in October 2013 while Continuum Motion Pictures (whose other UK titles include Any Minute Now, Survivors and Bikini Girls vs Dinosaurs) handled the American VOD release in September 2014.

I was really genuinely impressed by Weaverfish. It’s not perfect but as a first feature from two young film-makers shot for tuppence ha’penny it’s a very fine piece of work indeed and a step above many comparable indie horrors. It has good casting and acting, good direction, good production values, good technical values and above all a fine script that prioritises characterisation over cheap exploitation. Well done, all involved. I hope this gets a proper DVD release so more people can discover it.

MJS rating: B+

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Gallowwalkers

Director: Andrew Goth
Writers: Andrew Goth, Joanne Reay
Producers: Brandon Burrows, Courtney Lauren Penn
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kevin Howarth, Riley Smith
Country: UK/USA
Year of release: 2013 (eventually…)
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Gallowwalkers does not come with a good reputation. Eleven per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Average 3.6/10 on IMDB. Average 2.5 stars on Amazon. Most people who have expressed an opinion on it seemed to have been pretty negative. Received opinion is that the film is a clunker.

Well, I’m here to fly in the face of received opinion. I’ve watched Gallowwalkers and while even I hesitate to say it’s great, nevertheless it has undeniable elements of greatness. It also has undeniable flaws – what those are and why they exist I’ll come to in due course – but they are more than compensated for by the film’s positive aspects. I enjoyed it enormously.

Bear in mind that I also appreciated Andrew Goth and Joanne Reay’s previous film, Cold and Dark, which I described in Urban Terrors as “a curious but not unenjoyable melding of police procedural with weird horror.” That film has also been poorly regarded by most critics and punters. Maybe I’m just in tune with what these guys are trying to do.

Gallowwalkers has been described as a ‘zombie western’ but that’s misleading. Films like Cowboys and Zombies and Devil’s Crossing simply place a standard zombie scenario into a Wild West setting. Gallowwalkers is set in something approaching the 19th century American frontier and features characters who return to life, but there any similarities end. This isn’t just a horror film, certainly not just a western. It’s a mystical film, playing on the tropes of the more extreme end of the western genre, beyond Sergio Leone, beyond the old Django movies. Where some westerns are defined simply by iconography – Stetsons, six-shooters, steers and saloons – the real heart of the western genre lies in the themes it explores. Divorced from both the urban and the rural, divorced from both history and modernity, the best westerns are about isolation, struggle, identity, a quest for something undefined, perhaps even unreachable. Great westerns use the frontier of civilisation as a metaphor for the frontiers inside the protagonist’s mind and soul. All great westerns have a mystical element to them, however low it may be in the mix.

Occasionally a western comes along which ramps up the mystical element to eleven. The most famous example of that – and the most obvious comparison for Gallowwalkers, just in terms of its startling imagery and adamant non-realism – would be El Topo. Like Jodorowsky, Andrew Goth uses the western genre and some of its tropes to explore bigger, weirder, stranger ideas – just as he used the police procedural genre in Cold and Dark.

Does it always work? We’ll come to that.

So here’s the surprisingly straightforward plot, as eventually revealed through assorted flashbacks and revelations. Yer man Wesley Snipes is Aman (“a man” = everyman?), who swore revenge on the bastards who raped and murdered the girl he loved. He tracked them down to a jail and shot them in their cells but, in escaping, was himself shot by one of the jailers. His adopted mother called on the Devil to save her son and was granted her wish. But in returning Aman to life, the Devil decreed that those he killed would also return to life.

So those particular bastards are once again walking and talking, led by the thoroughly amoral Kansa (my old mate Kevin Howarth: The Last Horror Movie, The Seasoning House). Or at least, most of them are. Kansa doesn’t know how or why he and his men were reanimated, and hence he doesn’t know why his son wasn’t. Aman is on a quest to kill Kansa and his men, aiming to make sure they stay dead by ripping their fucking heads off. Kansa meanwhile is on a quest to find some mystical nuns whom he believes will be able to restore his son to life.

That’s it in a nutshell but there are all sorts of excursions to the plot, not all of which go anywhere in particular. What matters, more than the plot, are the individual scenes and the truly extraordinary imagery within those scenes. A combination of Goth’s direction, Goth and Reay’s screenplay, Henner Hofmann’s cinematography, Laurence Borman’s production design, Pierre Viening’s costumes and a make-up department overseen by the hugely experienced Jackie Fowler (with designs by the legendary Paul Hyett) – all of this creates a film for which the phrase ‘visually stunning’ would seem a tad half-hearted. Gallowwalkers will blow your mind visually. Christ alone knows what this would be like if watched on drugs. You’d never come down.

Snipes has dreadlocks, a dab of grew in his beard, a black hat and flared trousers. Kansa, whom we initially meet bereft of skin like Hellraiser’s Uncle Frank, takes the face and hair of an albino man and then favours a long, purple coat. One of his men wears a sack on his head, another has a heavy metal helmet covered in spikes, a third prefers grafting lizards’ skins onto his head. His dead son is carried everywhere, swaddled in a wickerwork crucifix. As a child, Aman lived in an orphanage until sent out into the world aged 12, whereupon he was adopted by a lady who singlehandedly runs a slaughterhouse. That woman’s daughter was the lover who was raped and murdered. The slaughterhouse and its owner are still there, with a new child apprentice, also an albino. In fact there is a whole community of albinos…

There are a lot of extreme long-shots in this film, emphasising the emptiness of the desert within which this all takes place. There are no ‘western streets’, no saloons and undertakers. Buildings stand in isolation, and sometimes individual figures do too. In an early scene, a long, straight, single-track, narrow-gauge railway leads from nowhere to nowhere. Three static figures dressed in red (looking distractingly like any one of them could shout “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) approach from far, far away on a hand-trolley powered by a single Chinese coolie. They take a while to arrive, to even become identifiable for what they are. It’s very David Lean.

The closest that Gallowwalkers gets to a town is that small settlement of albinos, though it’s little more than a few randomly arranged huts and a large, newly built gallows where a row of criminals are collectively hanged with a single pull of a lever. There are tall, somewhat wobbly, horse-drawn prison carts. There are cages on the sand. Everything in this film is ‘real’ in the sense of being raw, wooden, hand-built – but equally unreal in seeming a little arch, a tad deliberate, and deliberately so. These sets, these props, these costumes, this make-up – everything has been designed and created for visual effect and the ideas it provokes, artistically designed for both reality and unreality but certainly not for realism. Therein lies much of the film’s power.

To be honest, it’s not even clear if we’re actually mean to be in the Old West; there’s certainly no reference to any real locations in the dialogue. Gallowwalkers was filmed in Namibia (specifically just outside Swakopmund) where there are great expanses of desert that don’t really look like the southern USA. Huge sweeping dunes are an African thing more than an American one and, after El Topo, the next most obvious visual reference is probably Dust Devil. The one cow we ever see in the slaughterhouse – pretty much the only animal on screen apart from horses and a few goats – is very obviously an African zebu, not a North American steer. There is even a brief cutaway shot of a sidewinder at one point, and you certainly don’t get those in Nevada! Such inclusion of anomalous fauna must be deliberate and serves, like the famous armadillo in the 1931 Dracula, to emphasise the otherworldliness of the setting. Dracula couldn’t actually be set in Europe, despite all the evidence, and Gallowwalkers can’t actually be set in North America.

There’s also maybe something of a Japanese influence in the film. Characters spend a lot of time standing still, eventually moving suddenly, like in the best samurai films. Parallels between the western genre and the samurai genre are legion, so perhaps this sort of comparison is almost inevitable in a film this stylised. While we’re at it, Kansa and his cohorts will put you in mind of the Mad Max films. So that’s an Australian influence too. All this in a British film with an American star shot in a former German colony in southern Africa. Gallowwalkers really is set everywhere and nowhere.

In respect of all the above Andrew Goth’s third feature is a truly cinematic experience. Some people, suckered in by the ‘zombie western’ idea, might understandably have been disappointed to find that this isn’t just Dawn of the Dead with spurs. That’s fair enough. But what surprised me the most when leafing through online reviews and comments was how many people complained that they couldn’t follow what was going on. Some people apparently didn’t realise that the scenes of Aman killing Kansa and his gang in jail are flashbacks. Even though Snipes looks completely different (no dreads, no beard, no hair, with tribal markings painted on his face) and the cinematography is notably different too.

This really isn’t a hard film to follow. As evidence of that: I can follow it, and I’m not renowned for grasping the intricacies of multi-level plots. Yes, there are flashbacks. Yes, the story is revealed to us piecemeal instead of in a linear, chronological fashion (or a walloping infodump). That’s cinema folks. If you can’t follow this, good luck with Memento or Pulp Fiction

More justifiable are complaints from some who have seen this that chunks of the film don’t seem to make sense, serve a purpose or connect to anything else. It’s full of dead ends and unexplained introductions (not necessarily in that order). As criticisms go, this is entirely justified.

For example, there’s a group of prisoners whose guards are shot. Aman takes one young man on as a sidekick. But among the other prisoners are a feisty showgirl/thief and a presumably corrupt priest. These two make other appearances but don’t seem to tie in to the main narrative in any significant way. It’s like they’re meant to be major characters, but aren’t. The opening scenes with the railway, the three guys in red and a guy with a distinctive neck-brace, don’t really make much sense, even after we discover much later that the three ‘cardinals’ are part of Kansa’s gang and Neck-brace was the guard who shot Aman. Did I mention that the lead cardinal has his lips sewn together, but is somehow still able to talk? I suspect some of the ADR on this film may not match with what the characters were originally saying (or attempting to say)…

In fact, if there is one thing that is abundantly clear when watching this film, it’s that the movie has had some serious changes made in post-production. Numerous reviewers have complained that the ‘script’ doesn’t make sense but this is so obviously not what was originally written. Full disclosure: from previous correspondence with Joanne Reay I am aware that the finished film is not what Goth and Reay intended and they’re not exactly happy with what was released. But Jesus, even if I didn’t have that email, I’d be able to work it out. Even allowing for the hallucinatory, trippy nature of the story, settings and characters, there are so many anomalies here – so many things missing and so many things present but in the wrong order – that this simply can’t have been what was intended. Like Strippers vs Werewolves, like The Haunting of Ellie Rose, what you see when you sit down to watch Gallowwalkers is very definitely not the director’s cut.

Yet, while this is evident (to anyone reasonably awake who has seen more than three films in their life), it doesn’t matter as much as some reviewers (and possibly the film-makers) believe. The nature of the film, the stylish, stylistic and symbolic, the mystical, metaphorical and metaphysical, the non-realistic, non-linear but non-arbitrary nature of the artwork that pins our eyes open (and ears: music by Stephen Warbeck and Adrian Glen) is sufficiently ‘out there’ that these lacunae and non-sequiturs blend right in. We don’t really need an explanation for the albino colony any more than we need justification for the anomalous snake and cow. This is a film that wants you to free your mind.

The quality of a really good movie can shine through a lesser cut. Even the shortest edit of The Wicker Man is still a classic. The imposition of narration on Blade Runner didn’t stop it from being instantly recognised by many people as a brilliant film. Even the BBFC-trimmed version of Curse of the Werewolf can be seen for the superior Hammer chiller that it is. The fact that the censors chopped so much out of the ending doesn’t lessen the quality of what precedes that butchery, and the fact that it is externally mandated butchery of the film is screamingly obvious. One would be a fool to blame Terence Fisher or Anthony Hinds for the sudden, arbitrary ending of that cut of Werewolf, just as one would be foolish to blame Anthony Shaffer or Robin Hardy for apparently not establishing Sgt Howie’s character with some sort of prologue. (Or indeed lambasting David Peoples, Hampton Fancher or Ridley Scott – or even Philip K Dick! – for relying too much on the crutch of film noir-style narration and tacking on a happy ending.) Christopher Lee always maintained there was a much better version of The Wicker Man in landfill under a motorway somewhere. Maybe there is, but it must be bloody fantastic because what we have is pretty damn good to start with.

How far does the released version of Gallowwalkers deviate from what Goth and Reay wrote and set out to make?  We just don’t know. They have been understandably reluctant to discuss the film. Does a finished version of what we might term ‘The Director’s Cut’ actually exist? Might we ever see it and make a comparison? To be honest, that seems unlikely. People clamoured for a more artistically true, less obviously commercial version of Blade Runner and The Wicker Man, creating a market for revisions and reversions. I’d love to watch Goth’s prefered cut of Gallowwalkers but not many people have seen the film in the first place and I suspect very few of those are hankering to see it again. Which is a shame.

Gallowwalkers wasn’t always called Gallowwalkers. It started life as a script called The Wretched which was set to star Chow Yun-Fat of all people! Which is interesting because the use of a Chinese protagonist in a Wild West setting harks back to – no, not Shanghai Noon! – back to 1970s TV series Kung Fu. You recall: David Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a shaolin warrior travelling through the Wild West, back in the days when you could cast a Caucasian actor as an Asian character and nobody batted an eyelid  (except all the Asian actors who couldn’t get decent parts). In terms of the ‘mystical western’ subgenre, Kung Fu is definitely the original text and its (indirect) influence on Gallowwalkers is clear.

On the subject of race, it’s interesting that absolutely no reference is made in the film to Aman being black. It’s immaterial. That in itself contributes to the non-realism and other-worldliness of the setting. For a more historically accurate depiction of how race was viewed in that time and place, try watching Blazing Saddles. (Aside from Snipes and the actor playing young Aman in flashbacks, there is one other black actor in the film although he is so heavily made-up that you probably won’t recognise him. Mosca, the guy working for Kansa who prefers to cover his head with lizard skin, is played by the living legend that is Derek Griffiths! He’s come a long way since Play School…)

The promotional website for The Wretched still exists, including a detailed synopsis. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is named Rellik and the sidekick he takes on (called Fabulos in the finished film, played by Riley Smith: Voodoo Academy) is named Twenty-One. (Although not stated in the synopsis, this is because he has six fingers on one hand.) Remember what I said about how difficult I find it to follow complex storylines? Well, the synopsis for The Wretched has me beat. I’ve no idea what’s going on. What is obvious, however, is that not only is it very, very different to the released version of Gallowwalkers, it’s so utterly different that it must also be very different to Andrew Goth’s intended cut of the film. There are a handful of recognisable moments/elements and one consistent character name (Skullbucket, the guy with the big metal helmet) but apart from the basic premise – gunman hunts down resurrected dead bad guys in the Old West – The Wretched and Gallowwalkers are essentially different films.

Under the shooting title Gallowwalker (singular) the film was shot in the Namib Desert in October 2006 with an announced budget of $14 million. Snipes was a big star at the time, just a couple of years on from Blade: Trinity, so it was quite a shock when he was charged with tax evasion. The production had to be put on hold for a while so that he could fly back to the States and arrange his bail. The film wrapped just before Christmas and all the props and costumes were sold off. Somebody in Namibia got Kevin Howarth’s awesome purple coat.

…which was slightly inconvenient because in May 2009 the production restarted for pick-ups and some reshoots in America (either Mexico or the southern USA). Snipes was trying to cram all his various acting commitments into a limited time before heading off to pokey for three years so there was only a couple of weeks to get everything together. Fortunately production manager Carol Muller was able to track down all the required props and costumes and either buy them back or rent them.

I would imagine that these reshoots are where the film diverged from Goth and Reay’s original vision as the press report I’ve seen doesn’t mention Goth at all. So it’s entirely possible he didn’t even direct these bits (whatever they are). Interestingly, this press story is also the only mention I’ve come across of Gallowwalker(s) being conceived as the first part of a trilogy. Although Rudolf Buttendach is the credited editor, Peter Hollywood (Elfie Hopkins) gets an 'Additional Editor' credit which looks suspiciously like an acknowledgement that he was hired to cut together the new version, especially as on his FilmandTVPro page he cites the production company as Boundless Pictures. (Boundless, headed by Brandon Burrows and Courtney Lauren Penn is credited prodco on the film, although the credit block just reads 'Jack Bowyer presents...'.)

Before these reshoots there had been talk of a 2008 release, with Tim Bradstreet allegedly creating a prequel comic-book. A trailer was released in 2008 using comic-book-style graphics to link images. I think all the trailer footage is in the finished film but the lips-sewn-together guy definitely has a different voice. Note that the credited prodcos are not Boundless or Jack Bowyer but Sheer Films (Goth and Reay's own company) and Intandem Films. The absence of Intandem's Gary Smith from the final list of executive producers on the film is quite telling.)

Eventually, six years after it was made, Gallowwalkers finally - and very suddenly - appeared. Its world premiere was on 6th October 2012 at Grimmfest in Manchester (not Frightfest as the Inaccurate Movie Database claims, although it was screened as part of a Frightfest all-nighter in October 2014). I’d like to quote the Grimmfest synopsis here because this guy hits the nail right on the head and should have been plastered all over the DVD sleeve:

The Bastard Love Child Of… BLADE and DUSTDEVIL
Achieving a degree of infamy as the film Wesley Snipes was shooting when he was busted for Tax Evasion, this startling, surreal, supernatural Spaghetti Western combines the visual panache of Sergios Leone and Corbucci with a wild, weird and woolly narrative that plays like something Garth Ennis, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Joe R. Lansdale might dream up between them over several bottles of mescal. Part violent revenge drama, part metaphysical quest, with its tongue partly in its cheek, a morbid quip on its lips and a gun always at the ready, this is destined to become a massive cult favourite. And you saw it here first.

The first home release was the US DVD from Lions Gate in August 2013, followed by discs in Germany (August 2013), the UK (May 2014), then France, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Brazil and maybe some other territories too. What looked like it might become a ‘lost film’ is now widely available.

But people look at this movie and think well gee, if it took six or seven years to get released straight to DVD then it must be terrible. Especially if the star got arrested halfway through production. So viewers are prejudiced before they even put the disc in the machine. They don’t know what to expect, they don’t know the background or the context. Hopefully this review will go a little way towards re-evaluating Gallowwalkers in the perception of horror fans.

Alongside those actors already mentioned, the cast includes Tanit Phoenix (no relation to River) as Aman’s lover, Patrick Bergin as a lawman, Steven Elder (also in Cold and Dark) as the priest, Simona Behlikova (also in werewolf-free British werewolf picture Lycanthropy) as Kansa’s woman, wrestler ‘Diamond' Dallas Page as Skullbucket and hell yeah, Derek Griffiths. DG is The Man as far as I’m concerned. Give him an honorary Bafta right now.

Goth and Reay followed this with the science fiction movie DxM (previously Deus Ex Machina) which likewise premiered at Grimmfest. After finishing his sentence for tax evasion, Snipes set about picking up his acting career including a gig on The Expendables 3.

I’ll wrap up with the only words I can find from Andrew Goth about his film, which were quoted on a poster that said the film was in post (so presumably 2007):

“With Gallowwalker [sic] we are creating a new hero in a mythic western world. Like the best of the spaghetti westerns, Aman’s story is one of blood and vengeance, but his nemesis is unlike any that we have seen before. Kansa was a bad man when he was alive and now he’s back from the dead and relishing his supernatural prowess. Their story plays out against vast desert landscapes that underscore the epic state of their battle. We shot on 2-perf, as Sergio Leone did, which gives  super-wide scope. This retro feel is being enhanced by the latest digital capabilities, which allows us to colour the film in a surreal way and creates a graphic novel feel.” – Andrew Goth, director

MJS rating: A-

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Snaker

Director: Mr Fai Samang
Writers: Mr Fai Sam Ang, Mrs Mao Samnang
Producer: Mr Thunya Nilklang
Cast: Mr Vinal Kraybotr (Winai Kraibutr), Miss Pich Chan Barmey, Mr Tep Rindaro, Mrs Om Portevy
Year of release: 2001
Country: Cambodia/Thailand
Reviewed from: Hong Kong VCD (Winson Entertainment)

Now this is a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while, the first Cambodian feature film for years (even if it is a co-production with a Thai company) and a premier example of the prolific snake-woman genre.

Nhi (Om Portevy aka Ampor Tevy, star of a popular TV soap) lives in the forest with her boorish, alcoholic husband Manop and their about-twelve-year-old daughter Ed. One day Nhi and Ed encounter a giant, talking snake in the forest while looking for bamboo shoots - they have lost their spade and the snake agrees to let them have it back if Nhi will love him and be his wife. Mohap is away in the city (where he sells jewellery) so that night the giant snake crawls into Nhi’s bed and transforms into a handsome man who makes love to her. Afterwards, Nhi is frequently seen by her daughter stroking the snake and talking lovingly to it.

I tell you, folks, this thing is a Freudian’s dream!

In the city we meet rich art dealer Wiphak and his wife Buppha, who is pregnant. When their friends Pokia and Mora discover this, Mora decides to become pregnant too and goes to a local witch for a potion which will make Pokia subservient to her, and therefore compliable.

Back in the forest, Mopak returns and notices Nhi’s bump, the result of her tryst with the Snake King (he’s not actually named as such, but one of the alternative English language titles of this film is The Snake King’s Daughter). Mopak accuses his wife of being unfaithful because they haven’t had sex for months, but she points out that no-one else lives within miles of them and claims that he was drunk at the time.

Ed tells her father about the snake but begs him not to hurt her mother. He follows his daughter to where the snake lives and cuts its head off. This is very clearly a genuine shot of a live snake being cut in two with a machete, and though it’s brief it’s a bit disturbing. He also makes Nhi eat the cooked snake meat. Then he takes her to the river, ostensibly to bathe, where he kills her for being unfaithful by slicing open her swollen belly. Out pours plenty of blood and a dozen or so small snakes which Manop kills (again for real). One tiny snake escapes and as Manop goes after it he slips on a rock and falls on his own sword. Ed finds her dead parents and also slips on a rock, cracks her head open and dies.

But a passing holy man finds the surviving snakelet and sees it transform into a baby as the sun rises. He takes the child home, naming it Soraya after the sun.

Scoot forward ten years or so and Soraya is a girl, rebellious but not disrespectful, living in a cave with her ‘grandfather’. But she is not any girl, for her head is a mass of writhing snakes!

This is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. Famously, when Hammer Films made The Gorgon in 1964, actress Barbara Shelley offered to play the title role wearing a headpiece with some live grass snakes attached (provided that the RSPCA were happy with the set-up). Unfortunately, the producers decided instead to depict the transmogrified version of Shelley’s character using a different actress (Prudence Hyman) with a headpiece that looked fine in stills but was obviously a bunch of rubber snakes when seen on screen.

Snakes are supposed to move. They writhe, they wriggle. And these ones do!

Because the makers of Snaker have used that very same technique: most of the snakes are actually still rubber but there are enough live ones attached to provide sufficient movement that it genuinely does look like a writhing mass of snakes on the actress’ head. It was astounding enough when Nhi lay down with the giant snake - a huge python (I think) which must have been twelve feet long if it was an inch. And it was disturbing enough when we had that real snake-beheading shot. But here we have live snakes not just stuck on somebody’s head but stuck on the head of a thirteen-year-old girl!

The actress who plays young Soraya, it must be said, is very good anyway (so was the girl playing Ed, to be fair) but for her to be able to act while live snakes hang in front of her face is surely worthy of some sort of award. (According to a piece about this film in the New York Times, young Soraya is played by Ms Danh Monica, although there is no name like that in the credits.)

Anyway, down at the river Soraya - with her head covered - meets three children of about her age (ten or eleven). These are Veha, son of the kindly Wiphak and Buppha (who died in childbirth), and Kiri and Reena, son and daughter of the snobbish Pokia and Mora. Veha and Reena are devoted to each other, according to their parents at least. Soraya asks to join their game of hide and seek, and though Veha is welcoming, Reena is rude and asks her brother to get rid of the new girl. He pulls the wrap from Soraya’s head - and the three children understandably run away screaming, while Soraya returns, tearfully to her grandfather.

A caption tells us it’s ten years later, so of course by now all four kids are young men and women. Returning to the river, kind-hearted Veha (Vinal Kraybotr: Nang Nak, Krai Thong, Kaew Kon Lek) gets into a fight with aggressive Kiri, who pushes him over a waterfall. Kiri and his sister head back to town and tell a distraught Wiphak that his son fell accidentally and, though they searched, there was no sign of him.

But of course, Veha isn’t dead - he is found and nursed back to health by Soraya, now played by Pich Chan Barmey (aka Pich Chanboramey). He’s handsome, she’s beautiful; his name means sky, hers means sun; they both have good hearts - so of course they start to fall for each other, especially as Grandfather has given Soraya a magic ring which transforms her snakes into beautiful long hair.

Veha and Soraya return to his overjoyed father, where Reena is understandably jealous of the new arrival because she and Veha have technically been engaged since they were children. Mora and Reena go to see the old witch who gives them some more of the bewitching potion that worked twenty years earlier on Pokia; they put it in Veha’s goblet at dinner but Soraya’s magic ring warns her and she knocks it from the table.

The witch works out that Soraya is a snake - not a reincarnation of a snake but the real thing - but that her magic powers will be lost if she loses her virginity. So Kiri sneaks into Wiphak’s house and tries to rape Soraya, but her hair turns back into snakes, one of which falls off and bites Kiri, killing him instantly.

There then follows one of the most unsubtle tourism product placements you are ever likely to see, although as Snaker was the first Cambodian feature film to receive international distribution for many years, it is perhaps allowable. Veha and Soraya spend several minutes wandering around the magnificent ruins of Ankor Wat, and Veha tells her that his love for her is as strong and everlasting as the temple walls.

Eventually, the two young lovers do sleep together, and while Veha sleeps, Soraya finds patches of snake skin on her arms. She runs back to her grandfather, but Mora and Reena appear with the old witch, who battles the holy man in a pretty cool magic fight, which leaves both of them dead. Mora and Reena run away but are bitten by a snake, as Kiri was. The Snake King reappears, along with the magically revived grandfather, and they use their combined power to make Soraya fully, permanently human - just as Veha appears to sweep her off her feet and carry her home.

What a great film! It’s got romance, action, intrigue, fantasy, and even a travelogue in the middle. It does have at least one snake deliberately and unpleasantly killed in the name of entertainment, which may be okay in Cambodia but is not a terribly bright idea for a potential export. But given how out of step with global popular culture the Cambodians were during - and in the wake of - the Khmer Rouge regime, again this is sort of allowable.

Pol Pot and his secret police outlawed all forms of popular entertainment including cinemas, so making a Cambodian film was a bit of a gamble as far as domestic distribution goes. It was apparently shown drive-in style at various outside venues. It must be said that, for a country with effectively no cinema industry, this is a fine-looking film. The cinematography is excellent (Mr Saray Chat is credited as cameraman) and the production values are well above the B-movie level that one might expect given the film’s origins. There is no actual special effects credit, but Mr Chhun Achom was responsible for the make-up, which may or may not include getting actresses to wear snakes on their heads!

Translating from the Thai alphabet into English is always a matter of debate and creates different spellings, so the actor credited on screen as ‘Mr Vinal Kraybotr’ is also listed on various websites as Vinai Kraybotr, Winai Kraibutr and Winai Kraibutra. And the writer/director’s name is spelled differently in each of his on-screen credits! The packaging calls the film Snaker although the on-screen English title is Snakers. The original title is generally given as something like Kuon Pus Keng Kang which everyone seems to agree means ‘The Snake King’s Child’ although apparently it was filmed as just Pus Keng Kang (or Pos Kairng Korng or whatever) which was the title used for the first of four Cambodian versions of this much-filmed story (the second was called Neang Lavear Haik and the third was Neang Preay Sork Pos). I have also found the film listed as Snaker: Ghost Wife 2 which is a translation of the Chinese title which markets the film as a fake sequel to Ghost Wife (ie. Nang Nak). Having seen this and Ngoo Keng Kong I definitely want to see more snake-woman films - this is my new mission!

This VCD is not a terribly good transfer, though it is widescreen. Perhaps it’s just my copy, but neither disc loaded straight off and both, when cleaned enough to load properly, jammed every 10-15 seconds for the first five minutes. In addition, the sound on disc 2 was way, way quieter than on disc 1. However, reviews of the DVD (also from Winson) say that the quality is not much better on that and there are no extras, so I can’t really complain. The subtitles are full of mistakes; I’m sure whoever did them speaks much better English than my Thai (or Cambodian or Chinese), but I can never understand why they don’t check with a native English speaker before putting the subs on the disc....

The disc also includes a trailer for the Jean-Claude Van Damme SF actioner Replicant (Van Damme fighting himself - blimey, there’s an idea that has only been done about eight times before).

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 27th November 2007.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Ryan for Congress

Director: Jake Shaw
Writer: James Smith
Producer: Jake Shaw
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: World premiere, Nottingham, 30th April 2005

Documentaries are hot right now. The week that Ryan for Congress received its first public screening also saw the UK terrestrial premiere of Super Size Me, one week after the UK terrestrial premiere of Spellbound. In the wake of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, actuality footage on the big screen is more popular than it has ever been since people stopped filming workers leaving factory gates and trains arriving at stations.

This first feature from Jake Shaw, who has been responsible for the featurettes on the DVD releases of several cult films, is an open, honest and wryly amusing look at an election in Ohio in 2002. The incumbent congressman, James Traficant (Democrat) had been found guilty of massive corruption and sentenced to jail, where he was still constitutionally able to contest his old seat as an independent. The Democrats chose as their replacement 29-year-old Tim Ryan, a thoroughly likeable chap but very young and relatively inexperienced. The Republicans put up a frankly scary-looking woman from out of town named Anne Benjamin.

Shaw and his camera followed Ryan and his band of helpers - many of them as fresh to big-stakes politics as the candidate himself, a few of them grizzled old veterans - while also keeping an eye on the Republican camp. Vox pops with supporters of all three candidates pepper the film along with interviews that cover subjects such as the importance of religion in US politics and the introduction in some polling stations of electronic voting systems.

Irrespective of one’s politics, it is impossible not to like Ryan, who comes across as genuinely... well, genuine, and refuses to indulge in negative campaigning, even while the Republicans are urging people to avoid him because as a student he once tried to get in somewhere using his older brother’s ID. It is also very difficult not to dislike the hatchet-faced Benjamin. Ryan’s supporters - and indeed Ryan himself - spend a large part of their campaigning simply standing on street corners (in the cold and the rain - Ohio is not a state renowned for its balmy climate) holding large ‘Ryan for Congress’ signs and waving at passing vehicles. It’s an utterly extraordinary thing to see and, like much of the movie, benefits from being viewed through British eyes. One simply could never imagine any UK politician doing such a thing.

Like many of the current crop of documentary movies, there is a lot of humour here; partly the easy jocularity of the Ryan camp but mostly the battery of eccentrics who pop up in front of Shaw’s camera to offer their honest opinions. And frankly, from a British perspective, the American electoral system just seems bewilderingly amusing. We are given just a glimpse at the 15 pages of candidates and laws that people are expected to vote on, mostly using bizarrely complex hole-punching devices, sometimes using bizarrely complex electronic devices. It would have been nice to see that aspect of the whole process in a bit more detail, contrasting it with the ‘one cross in one box, that’s yer lot’ system in the UK, and possibly speculating about whether it might contribute to the amazingly low turnouts that even well-supported US elections manage.

Though it’s not perfect, Shaw’s documentary (two and a half years in the making, edited down from 40 hours of raw footage) is a snappy, informative picture - as well-paced as it is well-constructed. Obviously we are rooting for Ryan but the film never feels like propaganda - and again that is the benefit of viewing the whole process from across a large ocean. We learn a little about American politics at grass roots level, a little about Northern Ohio (the sort of place that people come from but nobody goes to) and a whole lot about ‘real’ America, a place never shown in any Hollywood movie and rarely mentioned in international news.

Being picky, it’s a little odd that, after explaining about Traficant and his unique situation in the first five minutes, he and his supporters then disappear for more than half an hour, making the contest seem like a two-horse race. Traficant is used as a hook but barely features in the film itself and even a couple of enthusiastic vox pops from his supporters offer no insight into the man, beyond the evident fact that he is a convicted crook. Nor is there any comment on how rare a three-horse race such as this must presumably be in a country so rigidly fixed into a two-party system. It also seems odd that Ryan himself is first introduced to us in a Republican TV commercial listing his heinous teenage ‘fake ID’ occurrence. At that point we don’t know anything about Ryan and it’s not clear what message (or meta-message) we should be deriving from this commercial.

If this is pedantry it’s because I can’t otherwise fault the movie. Shaw proves himself an able interviewer, an observant fly-on-the-wall cameraman and an enthusiastic, diligent narrator, as well as a hugely talented documentarian who really needs to break out of corporate videos and ‘behind-the-scenes’ DVD supplements.

Which brings me to the most curious aspect of Ryan for Congress (apart from uncertainty over the title which may in fact be Tim Ryan for Congress) and that’s the running time. Sixty minutes is okay for BBC or PBS broadcast but too long for a one-hour slot on any commercial channel and too short for theatrical distribution - which in today’s cinematic climate is a definite possibility for a film like this. If Shaw and his team can salvage another 15-20 minutes of usable material out of all that raw footage - or even shoot some new background material about the history or geography of their subject - then Ryan for Congress becomes a film that should knock ‘em dead at festivals and stands a chance of being picked up by a distributor. This is not to suggest that the film should be padded; it is very tightly edited and all the better for that. But the construction is so tight, the editing so snappy, that another quarter-hour could be fitted in somewhere without seriously harming the pace or flow of the story at all.

MJS rating: A
Review originally published 1st May 2005

Seventh Victim

Director: Andrew Kutzer
Writer: Russell Devlin
Producer: Russell Devlin
Cast: Darren Maxwell, Audrey Lamont, Geoff Tilley
Country: Australia
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener disc

I’m not normally a one for watching completely amateur (in a non-judgemental sense) movies - fanfilms in other words. They’re all very well and good for those who like them, but I have enough films to watch already, thank you very kindly. But I’ll make an exception for this 17-minute Aussie short, partly because it’s not a fanboy love poem to some big-budget cinematic franchise, but mostly because it has been written and produced by my old mate Russell.

‘The Seventh Victim’ is a famous short story by one of the great SF writers, Robert Sheckley, who sadly passed away last December. He tended to write SF that bordered on, or toppled over into, satire. (Sheckley’s influence on the works of Douglas Adams was something that Adams himself tended to gloss over.)

‘The Seventh Victim’ itself has quite a history. First published in Galaxy magazine in 1953, it was filmed in Italy in 1965 as The Tenth Victim, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress (the title possibly changed to avoid confusion with the 1943 Val Lewton picture). There was allegedly an Italian TV version in 1979 too and there was a radio dramatisation in 1957 as part of the series X Minus One. Sheckley himself novelised the 1965 film and wrote two lacklustre sequels to it in the late 1980s, by which time his copious and rather notorious consumption of certain substances had severely dulled his literary edge. A new version, also called The Tenth Victim, was was announced in 2001, allegedly to star Catherine Zeta Jones; Brendan Fraser was reported to be aboard the project two years later. Although this never came to anything, when I interviewed producer Ed Pressman last month on the set of Mutant Chronicles, The Tenth Victim was still very much part of his portfolio of in-development projects.

The actual plot is relatively simple; most of the science fictional aspects are in the setting. In the future, war and crime have been eradicated by the introduction of legalised murder, co-ordinated by the Emotional Catharsis Bureau (ECB) which pairs up killers and victims. About one third of the population take part, but very few killers make it into ‘the tens’ - kills in double figures. There are also gladiatorial combats and ‘death races’ to entertain the populace.

Stanton Frelaine (Darren Maxwell, director of Alone and The Psychology of Killing) is assigned his seventh victim and is shocked to discover that it’s a woman, Janet Patzig (Audrey Lamont). He can’t back down or refuse the assignment. Well, actually he can but that would mean that he would be reclassified as a victim. (We learn at this point, as an aside, that killing innocent bystanders, even accidentally, carries the death penalty).

Frelaine has a ‘spotter’, Ed Morrow (Geoff Tilley), who tracks down his victims for him and the two are soon parked in a car watching Patzig drink tea at a cafe table, seemingly oblivious to her status as a victim. Unable to carry out the hit for both practical and emotional reasons, Frelaine instead approaches Patzig and the two strike up a nascent romance. But when they go back to her flat, Stanton finds out that this ‘unsuccessful actress’ is not all she says.

It’s a fairly corny plot with a twist ending that can be spotted miles away but it was probably fresh and original in 1953. Russell Devlin’s script does a good job of sticking to Sheckley’s story, embellishing it with TV clips including a show which interviews successful killers and a TV debate in which one of the pundits is played by director Andrew Kutzer (who also provide an announcer’s voice). The script's weak point is towards the end, when Frelaine is momentarily left alone and indulges in an entirely unnecessary voice-over monologue in which he voices his contradictory feelings towards Patzig. We are told about the character’s predicament instead of being shown it. Actually, we are shown it as well, in the form of a montage, and the scene would work perfectly well with just images and music. (The film’s music is variously lifted from episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits plus Holst’s Planets Suite.)

Devlin worked hard on this short, racking up credits as not only writer and producer but also DP, props, sound, lighting gaffer and title sequence. He shot the film on video and it shows, and some of the interior scenes suffer from bad sound, as so often with this level of film-making. There is not really anything by way of special effects. The acting is surprisingly good, especially from Maxwell whose character undergoes a complete transformation during the film’s short running time.

Sheckley’s works were the basis of several other films and TV shows, notably Freejack and Condorman, and towards the end of his life he wrote spin-off novels based on Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and Aliens as well as an unpublished (allegedly unpublishable) novelisation of the computer game Starship Titanic. Back at the start of his career he wrote episodes of Captain Video! Ideas from ’The Seventh Victim’ can be seen in the excellent Series 7: The Contenders but it can be argued that the subgenre extends all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game.

Russell sent me two discs, one with the director’s version, one with the producer’s version. There is relatively little difference, just a couple of bits of dialogue and some different takes in certain shots. I slightly preferred the former but that may just be because I watched it first. Also on the discs was a trailer, a stills gallery (which include innumerable posters, one of which announces that ‘nobody will be admitted after the first 17 minutes’), a spoof music video, various out-takes and a half-hour ‘scrapbook’ of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes footage in lieu of a proper Making Of. Also included is the (public domain) X Minus One radio version, the opening announcement of which forms the start of this film.

Seventh Victim is not an authorised adaptation. It was produced shortly before Sheckley died but he was not aware of it (mind you, he probably wasn’t aware of his slippers for most of his last decade). It has been screened at a couple of festivals/conventions to considerable acclaim and the team behind it are now working on larger and more ambitious projects.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 6th July 2006

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

interview: Mark Redfield

After I saw Mark Redfield’s superb version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Manchester in 2002 I knew that I had to find out more about this film and the people behind it. Mark kindly obliged with this phone interview in January 2003 and subsequently asked me to write some insert notes for the DVD release of the film, which I was delighted to do, incorporating some of the quotes from this chat.

Can you give me some background on Redfield Arts?
"Basically I decided to stop messing around with the theatre here on the East Coast and get down to the serious business of trying to make some movies. So I found some space in Baltimore where I have an edit suite and a scene shop and a place to store costumes and that kind of thing. I have some stage space; I found a warehouse. And I decided to concentrate on that. I started Redfield Arts about four years ago and got the space about three years ago. It took about a year to a year and a half and that’s when we started to bear down on Jekyll and Hyde.

“Now we’re selling Jekyll and Hyde, we’re in post-production with a drama called Cold Harbor about four brothers coming to grips with the suicide of their father, and a kids’ fantasy film called The Sorcerer of Stonehenge School. That’s in post-production, and hopefully that will be finished in May or June. We’re doing effects and editing, and we’re developing the next couple of projects for 2003 now that we’re in the new year."

Why did you start with Jekyll and Hyde?
"I’m not really sure, in some ways. We did it as a play about ten or eleven years ago. My producer and writing partner, Stuart Voytilla, he’s based in San Diego; when he was here in Baltimore and we were working together, we were doing a number of things. I had a couple of theatre companies, one of which was called New Century Theatre. We did a gamut of things: we did Clifford Onett’s Golden Boy, we did some Ionesco, we did some Shakespeare, we did The Tempest, The Front Page. We did a typical American rep kind of thing where you just do a little bit of everything-in-the-world theatre. It was sort of an actor-manager company, much like Redfield Arts is now: I’m out there raising the money and spending the money and I’m also the actor-director, so some things in some ways haven’t really changed.

“So I said: you know, it would be kind of fun to do something where I could show off, something I could sink my teeth into. We thought about it and said: no-one’s done a Jekyll and Hyde for a while. People would want to come and see it because people are going to ask, ‘How are they going to do that?’ It’s like Ben Hur. If you do Ben Hur, you’d better have a chariot race on stage and people are going to ask, ‘How are they going to do that?’ In some stage productions they’ll cast two actors - which is always kind of a cheat. So I thought: let’s do this because we could have a lot of fun with it.

“We wrote this play, we adapted it, and created a lot of new stuff on our own. I sort of stole some ideas from what I had read about an Orson Welles production, where the set was primarily black velvet - so you didn’t have to have a lot of scenery. You let the audience’s imagination work and that way we can more very cinematically through a number of scenes. We can be in alleys, we can be in the hospital, we can be in Jekyll’s house. So the initial adaptation of the play was in some ways cinematic. Then when we got around to turning it into a movie, we threw the play out in a lot of ways because it wasn’t working. We invented new material but kept the spirit of the thing and kept the thrust of Stevenson and the play - then it became this whole new animal.

“There was all kinds of new invention that we put into it because we could. I felt we could have some fun with Jekyll and Hyde and I wanted to keep doing fantasy pictures; maybe that was the other reason to do the film. I looked around and said, ‘Even though there’s a hundred Jekyll and Hydes, including The Nutty Professor, there really isn’t one right now on video or television.’ This is no scientific polling, but I would turn on the cable stations here and you would always get the ‘32 Fredric March or the ‘41 Spencer Tracy. I would go to the local blockbuster and you would have all the recent Draculas and Frankensteins. There really isn’t a Jekyll and Hyde out there so maybe we could take a cheeky attempt to get one out on the shelves and have people see it.

“Then there was the other thing that we had experienced. People in the beginning, when we were raising the money: ‘Why do you want to do Jekyll and Hyde? It’s been done.’ Then I would ask them: ‘Do you know the story?’ and people would say, ‘Well... he turns into this bad guy, doesn’t he?’ So they really didn’t know it. Of course the fans did, but by and large people really didn’t know it. So I said let’s take the risk, on such a low budget, and let’s try to do something. So that’s how Jekyll and Hyde came about."

What impressed me was that, apart from the last half-hour, your script is the first version to be filmed like the book.
"We really think it’s in the spirit of Stevenson. It may not exactly be the letter of the law. There are no women in Stevenson, there’s a lot of other invention woven through - and of course we made everybody younger which typically you do anyway. But that struck me as true too. There are recent adaptations - that I don’t want to help publicise! - in the last couple of years. There’s one with one of the Baldwin brothers that is a modern retelling where he and his wife go to Hong Kong and she is somehow murdered. This is all based on a synopsis I read somewhere. He goes to this old Chinese gentleman and gets this mystery drug and somehow he starts to take it, I don’t know what happens in this thing. And it’s called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! So there are a lot of versions. And as much as I love Cushing and Lee, I, Monster doesn’t quite do it in some ways.

“So we really tried to stay with the spirit of Stevenson, using Utterson as the detective, and that fed into some other things. People say ‘I know the story’; well, they know a lot of stories. They know James Bond’s going to win. It’s always the ‘how’ - how are you going to get there? If the themes that you can withdraw from something still excite you, then it’s worth hearing it again. So hopefully we have done something that is entertaining. And what seems to be sometimes so obvious is to look at the original source material and there are things that people are missing. You hear this about Frankenstein! There are wonderful things in the Kenneth Branagh Frankenstein - and then there’s wonderful things that are still missing. I’m finding that out: we’re researching now a project now - I don’t want to get into too much detail - a project about Captain Nemo. And there are marvellous things in Jules Verne! Great as the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is, and there are wonderful things in the Harryhausen Mysterious Island - but they’re miles away from who Nemo really is."

Apart from anything else, he’s Indian.
"Absolutely, which is a fascinating thing. I’ve just discovered that there is a French television version from the 1970s with Omar Shariff, very hard to find. But anyway it’s one of many projects that we’re very far from, we’re not anywhere near production. But I am definitely staying in fantasy. Two out of the three projects that we’re talking about tend to be fantasy/horror orientated. Not so much science fiction, I don’t know why, but they tend to be towards horror or fantasy. Maybe I find more leeway there to talk about people and find stories that I like. You tend to do things that you liked as a kid. You tend to come around to that.

“The reality is, I think, and this is kind of self-conscious in some ways too, is that I’m really in love with the Hammer pictures. And that I think was a very, very obvious conscious influence. Hammer, because of their budgets, are very compact. They’re very rich and they’re dense in their design. The Universal pictures had height! I think the screen was squarer. From Frankenstein to even the lesser-budgeted ones, they had height to the sets. Whereas what you get in the Hammers - or the Corman Poe pictures maybe - is you get a bit of density. That art direction - maybe those were heavy influences."

Given that your background was theatre, how did you assemble film-making people?
"For me, the eye has always been on movies, from the beginning of time that I can remember. I fell in love with movies, I wanted to make movies. I’m old enough just to remember having super-8 film, playing with animation and stop-motion as a teenager. like a lot of people I knew that I wanted to do that, even from childhood when I was playing and my first acting classes that I had when I was a kid. But the theatre was accessible. You could walk in the door, in the town that you lived in - here in Baltimore for instance. You could get involved and then, my God, you’ve got everything. You just go crazy.

“So very early I was acting, very early I was into design, very early into directing. But all along it was ‘but I want to be making films.’ And there have been some false starts over the years: projects that I think are still good scripts that I tried to raise money for. It’s difficult, just incredibly difficult to raise private money when you haven’t done anything. You have some good theatre credits behind you but people look at you and they somehow can’t make the imaginative leap. It takes a little bit of time. So in some ways the film-maker in me was always there. It’s just that I also love the theatre. It was easier and cheaper to get into. By the time I got round to producing my own plays it was certainly a lot less expensive than producing anything on any kind of film. So it took me a little while and there were a couple of false starts along the way."

Where did you find the investment for Jekyll and Hyde?
"It’s still what I’m doing in some ways, although I am talking now, pitching some much larger budgeted scripts - as a matter of fact just a couple of days ago - to producers who are attached to larger, familiar Hollywood companies. I had some meetings in New York. So it has slowly cracked the door open, to be able to talk to some people. But basically I just went to rich people, I kept knocking on doors until somebody sat down long enough to say, ‘I think you’ve got something and I’ll take a risk with you. I’ll get involved.’ In some ways, maybe compared to some other film-makers, we were a little luckier there because it really didn’t take so long.

“We had the original Jekyll and Hyde investor pull out a month before shooting began. And this was devastating because when you’re working on such a tight budget, we planned it, like my theatre background, I just planned everything. The company had a little bit of money and the first stuff that was shot was the stuff in the Carew house. I had a little bit of money and I said: ‘If we delay we’re going to lose the momentum. We’re going to lose the actors that we’ve put together here at this stage, and we’ve booked the locations.’ We shot some of it in a museum and I said, ‘We’re going to lose this.’

“So I had a little bit of money and I found the investor that came through within a matter of three weeks. So the first investor took the better part of a year to find, talking to many people - and it was one person, interestingly enough, too. Some movies you have many people putting money in. But I’ve been lucky in the pictures so far that we have found people to come on board. So we found a guy, Terry Woods, who’s the executive producer, who said, ‘I see something great here.’ We had shot for a week actually! Because I had just enough money to begin shooting that August. We were shooting the location stuff because in Baltimore here on the East Coast we have a heat situation where it can get kind of brutal, and I wanted to make sure that we got the location stuff done first before we moved into the sets in the studio. Then we were very lucky, because within three weeks of meeting with Terry he said, ‘I’m in with you’ - and then we were able to do it."

Did you shoot on DV?
"It is a digital picture. Most of everything that we have right now is digital. That helped us a great deal with the budget. Cold Harbor, the drama, was shot on film, so things are kind of a mix right now. What we’re planning for 2003, the horror pictures are primarily digital."

Where has Jekyll and Hyde been shown, apart from Manchester?
"We completed the picture - and this is fascinating - and we sent a rough to Gil. He responded relatively quickly - and I don’t know why that surprised, whether it was politeness or he liked it. From the moment the sound mix and the film was finally completed, it was a matter of weeks before the Manchester festival. So we got that finished just in time because he liked it and accepted it. So Manchester was first.

“Then a few weeks later - it seems that everything has been happening in four-week increments since then - it was shown in Los Angeles at another festival called Shriekfest where it also won. It won two awards there, including something they did for me called the Shriekfest Award for my hyphenate status as an actor/producer/director. They had also - and I didn’t know this until a week before Shriekfest - accepted another film that I played the lead in, a science fiction picture called Despiser which a fellow named Philip Cook made. That’ll be on video sometime in the Spring. There’s no date for that either. He went ahead and signed a contract for American and European distribution. I don’t know what else he’s got at this point but I know sometime in the Spring it’ll be out. There is no date yet for Jekyll.

“Then we did our premiere. We missed a deadline. There’s this new thing, the New York City Horror Festival, that some folks are doing. They started as film-makers. It’s funny, we missed the deadline but they e-mailed us on the day of the deadline to tell us we didn’t make the deadline, so I’m not sure what that was about. Then in November we had our Maryland premiere here in Baltimore. Everybody of course had been hearing about things and wanting to see it. Other than that, we have sneaked it at a couple of horror conventions on the East Coast and we’re continually being asked: would you show it? So we’re probably not going to do any more festivals at this point, we’re just going to wait and see what the release date on television and video will be - which will be sometime this year."

So have you got video distribution sorted out?
"We are now sorting that out. Actually just before Christmas we were presented with three offers so we’re seeing what happens now between now and February. There’s the AFM in February. Now that the holidays are over and people are getting back to business and can look at the film, we’re giving it some more time, seeing which might be the best company to go with. But how this thing works: there might be five different contracts for all the territories in the world as we work on this throughout the year."

I guess that Maryland is not a hotbed of film-making activity.
"It is and it isn’t. The internet and digital are the great levellers. Where, ten years ago, if you took a stick and threw it five miles you could hit another film-maker, well gosh, you could drop it outside your door now and there’s someone who is thinking about picking up a digital camera and doing something. There is so much going on everywhere. So there are more people working in Maryland right now - and I think that’s the same everywhere. There are friends of friends who are talking about things everywhere.

“One of the things that we do to help pay the rent at the studio is design and build props and sets for commercials or for other films or special events. There’s the whole thing of a corporation wanting to do some sort of theme party. But there are a lot of film-makers nowadays; nobody you’ve heard of yet, some of them just like me. Maybe they’re coming up and coming out and we’re just getting to know people. Obviously if you go to New York, two and half hours from me, it’s much fiercer and there’s a lot of people up there. But I’m very close to DC, only thirty minutes from DC. So all of a sudden, exponentially, you’ve got people trying to do independent film there. So it’s interesting how it has sort of exploded, certainly in the last five years.

“And in distribution, in the film world, digital has become accepted. It’s because of Lucas pushing and the fact that Rodriguez on the higher-end Sony 24fps video did Spy Kids 2, technically on video. Distributors are coming round to it. I think the festivals were the ones who tipped that over because there was a time just recently when they didn’t want to project anything on video, you had to have a print. That’s all gone, that’s all changed. So I think once the cue starts to come from the distributors and the festivals, all of a sudden people are empowered and they’re saying: ‘I’m going to make a film.’ I’m just seeing a lot more people. I’m getting calls from film-makers, saying: ‘What advice can you give me? I’ve been reading about you. What’s going on?’

“Hotbed, I don’t know - but there are more than I thought would have been in Maryland. And of course Blair Witch sort of comes out of Maryland. I think that also empowered a lot of people who maybe could put the equivalent of $5,000-$10,000 together. That might make a good demo but believe me, a lot of the films - and I’m sure you see a good number of them, and this is not trying to be cheeky because I do know where Jekyll lives on the scale - but I’m seeing a lot of terrible stuff. Because five or ten thousand dollars doesn’t really do anything. Everybody has such great ideas. Or they’re making a zombie picture which they think is manageable and it really isn’t!"

The crucial thing in any Jekyll and Hyde film is the make-up. Where did you get yours?
"I had tried to get a production off the ground called Conjuring Aurora which is in production. It’s a comedy about a guy, played by me, who’s a magician who dreams of the big time. He dreams of the Vegas thing, the television thing, the Lance Burton thing - but he’s doing children’s parties and he lives in his van. He’s at the lowest end of his tether and through a series of circumstances, helping a friend out, he runs into a woman who dumps an eleven-year-old girl on him, who claims to be his daughter. Well, this shocks him no end. And they spend the film trying to find Lucy, the mother, and are they really father and daughter?

“I had thought of this a few years ago. I had a little girl who played Tiny Tim to my Scrooge, and her mother was my attorney at that point! And this kid was fabulous, just charming. This brewed and I came up with a little story. She has since graduated from college. So I thought about it. I saw another little girl, watching a piece of theatre a few years ago, and that kind of reminded me of the story. Then along came The Sorcerer of Stonehenge School. To make a long story short, there is a sequence at the end of the script when my character is supposed to jump 40 years into the future. So I hunted around and I found Robert Yoho.

“Years ago we didn’t do Conjuring Aurora. We shot the bulk of the stuff with the little girl back in August, then when the leaves turn green again we’ll complete the picture - because I needed to get the stuff with her before she started to physically, bodily change too much. Pre-teenagers tend to suddenly shoot up! That’s when I first met Bob. I looked at his portfolio and I said, ‘I’m going to need to do a really successful age here. We’re going into Dick Smith territory here.’ This is a comedy drama where I want them to believe the characters.

“Well, when I originally set the film up of course we didn’t make it, but I had met Bob, and Bob stayed in the back of my mind. He was the first person I called and he said, ‘Of course I’m going to do it!’ On stage, I didn’t really do anything, I just changed the vocal and the physical and mussed my hair up. I had a dentist make a set of teeth and that also helped impede my speech to a degree. I played with a lot of rolling my Rs and melodramatic things with Hyde. So we got talking about him.

“The first thing that went out the window, the first thing we agreed on, Bob and myself, was to get away from the primitive primate idea. Remember that for a number of years you couldn’t see the Fredric March version. When we were growing up it was the big mystery: why did they take it off the market. But everybody saw the photographs in Famous Monsters of the ape-like make-up. That’s the first thing out the window - we just don’t even go there. Then I think in talking about him, the key for me in some ways - and it doesn’t come up too obviously - is not the idea that he drinks the potion. Like the Tweety and Sylvester, where Tweety drinks the potion and becomes this other Tweety. I think the idea is that Jekyll drinks the potion and drops his mask. That’s what’s underneath. So we said: why don’t we think of a satyr, think of the Devil, and think of the Joker? Think of the medieval image of a grinning devil. And there’s one idea of taking that to its conclusion that didn’t fully get realised. In hindsight, when you’ve lived with a picture, you say, ‘Oh, there are all these little things I would have liked to have done.’ One, for instance: in setting it in 1900 and pulling in some of the modern technology, I really, really wanted, in hindsight, to put a 1900 automobile in Jekyll’s laboratory.”

What was the make-up idea that didn’t get realised?
“Some of the sketches actually have these bony horn things that have broken through the skin. It looks like a big zit on his forehead. But if you look carefully that’s actually starting to happen; there’s this white breakthrough on the other side as the ridge begins to build up. So we pulled back and that’s as far as we got. Stage three. Because some of the sketches have this kind of horn coming out. Perhaps I was a little nervous about that. In such a rapid conclusion, in the dark, people might say: ‘What the hell is that? Is that a piece of banana stuck on his head?’ I was really worried that we wouldn’t know what it was without him suddenly getting cloven hooves or something. We pulled that back but that’s really the idea; it’s his psychological side, it’s dropping that mask and then fantasising that. Well, if it went to its extreme, he’d have horns. It’s very, very subtle. The prosthetics just help pull his face. Even when he’s grimacing I’m trying to do it while physically staying grinning, but the prosthetics help that.”

interview originally posted 4th June 2005