Thursday, 24 November 2016


Director: Mark Garvey
Writer: Mark Garvey
Producers: Mark Garvey, Jasmine Knight
Cast: Jasmine Knight, Mark Garvey, Paul Woodcock
Year of release: 2017
Country: UK
Reviewed from: online screener

The multi-story films which we commonly refer to as anthologies were once given a different name, one that has largely fallen into disrepute. A picture like Dead of Night or Gilbert Harding Speaks of Murder was known as ‘a portmanteau film’.

The word ‘portmanteau’ has two other meanings. Originally it was a type of suitcase or travelling trunk which was divided into compartments, the earliest known use being 1579. Three hundred years later, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty explain to Alice that some of the odd words in Jabberwocky – like ‘slithy’ meaning ‘slimy and lithe’ – were “like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Hence comes the more common usage, applied to any word coined by bashing two other words together so hard that bits of them fly off. Smog, brunch and banoffee are all portmanteau words. I’m not sure when the film usage was first coined or indeed whether it comes from the Carrollian term or directly from the French luggage.

Mmmm, banoffee...

All of which brings me to Portmanteau, a smartly directed and very enjoyable multi-part horror film written, directed, produced, shot and cut by the (to me) previously unknown Mark Garvey. There are eight tales in the 85 minutes and while there’s no framing story, what we have instead is a loose narrative thread, in the sense that each story features a character from the previous one. There are no titles given for the segments on screen or in the credits (but see later).

After some smartly designed opening titles, we kick off with a photographer (Simon Cleary) who receives an unexpected roll of film in the post. Developing the images in his dark-room, he finds something he would rather not see. The actual horror here - and in some of the other segments- is somewhat random and unexplained but I didn’t really mind that. These aren’t simplistically gruesome morality tales in the EC Comics mould, rather they’re just little slices of unpleasantness presented in a darkly entertaining way.

The delivery guy who brought the parcel sets off in his van along a country lane. He’s played by Paul Woodcock and apparently this is a sort of running gag in Mark Garvey’s work, Woodcock having played the same character in three previous shorts and one previous feature. (It's Kelton the Cop all over again.) What happens here is that he reverses up and pulls into the side to allow a car coming the other way to get past. But the other driver (John Harper) also reverses and pulls in. Both cars move forward, then politely reverse again. And so it goes on, progressing from embarrassingly British politeness to irritation to road rage and ultimately something worse than road rage.

I would really, really like to think that this is an homage to the ‘Pride’ segment of another portmanteau movie, the 1971 comedy classic The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. In this Galton and Simpson scripted vignette (originally made for TV as a Comedy Playhouse), Ian Carmichael and Alfie Bass are two drivers from different social classes, neither of whom will yield to the other on a narrow lane, creating an insoluble impasse. This is probably not an homage to that, but it would be nice if it was.

Our third tale concerns a young couple (Stuart O’Connor and co-producer Jasmine Knight) who are painting their flat. The fella is distracted by what he can see through the front door peep-hole: their neighbour (Madonna Norgrove) carrying heavy things out of her flat in plastic sacks. Surely she’s got parts of dead bodies in there. Or has she?

This leads into the weirdest segment, starring Mark Garvey himself as a birdwatcher, living in a remote (but nicely appointed) cabin in the woods. He shares this accommodation with his girlfriend, a blow-up doll whom he treats exactly like a human being. There’s a bizarrely hallucinogenic aspect to this tale of mental breakdown, not least a scene where the birder ‘conducts’ a (digitally created) starling roost plus – uniquely in a British horror film – stock footage of somebody handling a hawfinch. I’ve never seen a hawfinch. It’s been on my would-love-to-see list for 40 years but I’ve never yet spotted one. Outside of this film, anyway.

Story number five has an undeniable air of Berberian Sound Studio about it, concerning as it does a foley artist (this film’s composer Kyle Booth) hacking up vegetables to create the soundtrack for a horror film. Initially working alone on Zombiepocalypsegeddon, he is reassigned to work under a bossy supervising sound editor (Louise Blay) on a rediscovered lost classic, The Werewolf vs the Merman. And we are of course treated to the cheesy fake trailer for this epic monsterfest. A particularly fun sequence, which epitomises the creativity and innovation on display here, is a little musical number constructed from overlaying snippets of the sounds being recorded, visualised on screen in pop-up windows. It’s a rhythmic, percussive tune that comes across like Stomp on a table-top.

From Berberian Sound Studio we move to Joe’s Apartment as a writer (Kelli Watson) sits alone in her flat working on a script for the bossy producer from the previous segment (Victoria Markham). Constantly distracted by a seemingly invincible cockroach, she eventually snaps before suffering a genuinely ironic and awful fate.

Our penultimate story has a guy in a rabbit costume (Stuart Offord) watching two other men, in the distance, constantly getting in and out of a car. It’s very perplexing until we switch perspective and watch the story from the point of view of the other two men (Callum Oakaby-Wright and Jorden Harvey) who are trying to bury a dead body, with limited success. This then feeds into a final tale which features the girlfriend from the painting-the-flat story and, not unexpectedly, the original photographer. And thus the narrative comes full circle, not unlike Jack Rosenthal’s classic portmanteau film The Chain, or the film which inspired that, Max Ophuls’ La Ronde.

I strongly suspect that not one of the films I’ve referenced in this review had any influence on Mark Garvey at all, and it is indeed quite possible that he has never seen or even heard of some of them. But I enjoy drawing unlikely cinematic comparisons so sue me.

As so often with motion picture portmanteaux that have more than three segments, Portmanteau fair gallops along. If you’re not keen on the story you’re watching, hang on for ten minutes and something else will pop up. But astoundingly I did actually enjoy everything that I was watching. Sure, some of the acting won’t be winning a Bafta anytime soon, and a few segments are stretched just to the limit of acceptable repetition, but there isn’t actually a duff story here. Moreover, there’s tremendous variety in terms of realism, humour, approach and execution. It’s a real smorgasmord of horror vignettes; every one is a little cracker in its own way and the links that build to a circular narrative provide a cohesion that makes the whole film – unlike so many anthologies – greater than the sum of its parts.

I mentioned at the top that Mark Garvey was an unknown name to me but he’s not new to the film-making game. His IMDB page lists shorts back to 2003, although many more within the last three to four years. In fact, on closer inspection eight of the listed shorts are the segments of Portmanteau, respectively titled Exposure, Courtesy, Proxemics, Murmuration (told you the starlings were important!), Substantiation, Scuttle, Patience and Double Exposure. Any one of these tales certainly could stand alone as a short, but the linking factors show that this project has been conceived as a feature from the start and isn’t just a mash-up.

This is Mark Garvey’s third feature-length work following 874 Miles, a drama about cycling from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, and Postscript, a post-apocalyptic anthology. All of the cast have worked on previous Garvey films but none of them seem to have worked on anything else. It’s quite the rep company he’s got there.

At time of writing, Portmanteau is being submitted to festivals. Catch it if you can.

MJS rating: A

Monday, 14 November 2016

Plan Z

Director: Stuart Brennan
Writer: Stuart Brennan
Producers: Stuart Brennan, David Izatt, Mark Paul Wake
Cast: Stuart Brennan, Mark Paul Wake, Eugene Horan
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: Festival screening

I believe that I have mentioned elsewhere my predilection for depressing zombie films. For anything in this subgenre that isn’t intended as a comedy (ie. a non-com-zom) I’m looking for something bleak, something soul-crushingly nihilistic, something offering no shred of hope for humanity. The sort of film that starts with the whole world going to shit and then shows how things just get progressively, laboriously, will-sappingly worse. The end.

Maybe it was something in my childhood. I dunno.

Stuart Brennan has been making feature films for ten years now, mostly as producer, often acting in them as well. These include The Feral Generation and The Reverend, plus he was an executive producer on The Zombie King. In the mid-noughties he directed an obscure ghost story called The Lost (which I dealt with in Urban Terrors: I can't honestly recommend it to you) and since then his only credit from the folding chair being an acclaimed boxing biopic, Risen. Now he’s finally back in that chair (well, doubt if he sat down much as he also plays the lead character here) for Plan Z, a powerfully bleak and immensely watchable zombie feature which received its European Premiere at the 10th Festival of Zombie Culture here in Leicester.

Brennan plays Craig, a freelance photographer who habitually prepares for the worst just in case. Receiving a tip-off from a Civil Service insider (Thomas Coombes: Scar Tissue) that a rapidly spreading infection is going to go big, Craig stocks up his flat with food, water, candles etc. And indeed, not long afterwards the world goes to hell in a handcart as everyone starts eating each other.

Much of the first act is a solo performance, with Brennan both on screen and narrating. Then comes a phone call from his old friend Bill (Mark Paul Wake: Masterpiece, also a producer) who has spent the last few days inside a restaurant toilet, a rather unexpected end to an otherwise pleasant dinner date with his girlfriend (Natalia Celino: DerangedUmbrage: The First Vampire). (Coincidentally, this was followed at the Leicester event with the awesome Korean zombie action flick Train to Busan – which also features people hiding in toilets. Of course, the archetype of this sub-sub-genre is Stalled.) Craig makes it to the restaurant and gets Bill back to the flat, where they survive a little longer thanks to Craig’s plan.

Now that we have two people on screen, we can get some character conflict. Craig is absolutely pragmatic and rational to the point of heartlessness, because he believes it’s the only way to survive. Bill is more prone to emotion and sympathy. The contrast is particularly effective in a sequence which revolves around a young woman (Isabella Caley) trapped inside a parked car.

Craig’s long-term plan is to head for the Isle of Skye which he thinks should be remote enough that a stand can be made against the zombie apocalypse. (The Z-word does get a few outings here. Often zombie films avoid it, effectively setting themselves in a parallel universe where fictional zombies are not a thing. This is the first serious zombie film I’ve seen set in a world where people know and understand the zombie concept but it’s not a real thing – until it suddenly is.) So anyway Bill and Craig pack their supplies – Craig has a bag already because he has a plan – and evade the local zombies well enough to make it to a car and head out.

On the way to Skye (which is connected to the mainland by a road bridge, in case you were wondering) they pick up a companion, an Irish guy named Ronan (executive producer Eugene Horan: Ghostwood). By the time they reach the island, Ronan is no longer with them but there are two women in the back seat, Seren (Victoria Morrison) and Kate (Brooke Burfitt: After Death, The Addicted). Where some films would have concentrated on the potential romantic/sexual angle, Brennan ignores that in favour of exploring how these characters cope with the world around them and the future they face, rather than soap opera relationships.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to Plan Z, which is fine because this sort of depressing lament for humanity works best as a slow burn. What separates this film from so many others is that the main character does have a plan of what to do, he’s not just winging it. Brennan’s acting style tends towards the stiffly understated rather than wildly dramatic, consequently the character of Craig suits him (or, if you like, he suits the character) better than his role as a vigilante vampire vicar in The Reverend. Craig just gets on with stuff. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching bit of dialogue in which he dispassionately describes to Bill how he saw a four-year-old boy ripped part. It will grab your stomach in a way that seeing someone ripped apart will never do, no matter how good the effects.

Speaking of ripping people apart, there really aren’t a huge amount of zombies in this film. There are some scenes of zombie crowds – indeed one such scene attracted calls for police and ambulance from confused onlookers – but these are almost entirely confined to the first act which is set (and was shot) in Dumfermline. After that, the only serious zombie action comes from our first introduction to Seren and Kate, a scene which is also used in part as a splash panel prologue. In a bold move, several scenes leading up to this – the only time the film really turns into a horrific, balls-to-the-wall zombie actioner – are simply not shown.

There’s a deliberate lacuna in the storytelling so that we suddenly jump into an intense sequence we don’t initially understand – but do recognise. Perhaps Stu Brennan planned this from the start, maybe these scenes were dropped from an early draft of the script, or maybe he was going to shoot them but time and money got in the way. Whatever the reason, it’s a brave and in my view successful move which really wakes the film up and reminds the viewer that, however much this may be a slowly churning character study, it nevertheless features the wholesale reinvention of humanity as deadly packs of flesh-eating ghouls, just like all good zombie flicks.

Cinematographer David Izatt (also a producer and appearing briefly on screen as a zombie) shoots everything close-up and hand-held, occasionally tipping the film over into excessive shakycam, but he is also able to capture some lovely countryside shots, including drone footage, once they’re out of Dunfermline and on the road to Skye. Sarah McCracken of Sarah’s Scars provided the make-up effects.

There are some little nods to other British zombie films – a caption that alludes to 28 Days Later, a cricket bat for the Shaun of the Dead fans – but there’s no attempt here to be clever and certainly nothing humorous. This is as dour and unforgiving as a Scotsman’s postcard: everything is terrible, life is empty and hopeless, almost everything we know has gone, the rest of our days will be a struggle for existence, if we’re lucky it may be short, weather fine, how are you?

In other words, a fantastically bleak view of the apocalypse and a great addition to the UK zombie scene.

Shot in March 2014, with a few days’ extra shooting in Verona, Italy for some flashbacks, Plan Z was test screened in Sunderland in October 2015. The world premiere was at the HorrorHound Weekend in the Cincinatti on 19th March 2016 where Stu won Best Director and was nominated for Best Actor. The film was also shown at the September HorrorHound bash in Indianapolis where it was made available to punters in two special collector’s editions: an early DVD that included a black and white version of the movie as a bonus – and a VHS tape.

Invincible Pictures released the regular US DVD in October 2016. A British disc was expected to follow shortly afterwards but the stars aligned nicely for the movie and that was put back to early 2017 in favour of a theatrical release through Cineworld in November.

Since shooting Plan Z Stuart Brennan has been a busy man. He wrote, produced and starred in a contemporary reworking of A Christmas Carol, directed by Izatt and with Morrison, Wake and Horan in the cast. Then came Tomorrow, a drama about a soldier returned from Afghanistan. Again Stu wrote, produced and acted; Martha Pinson directed that one; the cast also includes Stephen Fry, Paul Kaye and warbler Joss Stone. Most recently – so recent that it’s not even on the IMDb as I write this, Stu put his directing hat on again for Necromancer, a Napoleonic horror tale shot among the beautiful landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway.

Some years back, Brennan did actually shoot (part of) another zombie film, Zombies of the Night with Eleanor James in the cast. It was never completed (the IMDb lists it as a short called ZotN) and isn’t likely to ever be now, let’s face it. But that’s fine because we have Plan Z which I strongly recommend to you if you like grim, dark, thankless tales of the zombie apocalypse.

One final thing I haven’t mentioned is the film’s token name value. Improbably, it's Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary! He’s an old friend of Stu’s and gamely agreed to play a shopkeeper.

MJS rating: A-