Saturday, 24 June 2017

Cage

Director: Warren Dudley
Writer: Warren Dudley
Producer: Warren Dudley
Cast: Lucy-Jane Quinlan, Patrick Bergin, Jake Unsworth
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD
Website: www.cage-movie.com

Cage is not the first British horror film to have a single on-screen actor. For accuracy’s sake, it’s worth noting that there was Cam Girl: The Movie and Lady of the Dark: Genesis of the Serpent Vampire. However, they were both Philip Gardiner joints. Despite Cam Girl being an early, atypically not completely terrible effort, neither is what you could call good. Or adequate.

Warren Dudley’s Cage on the other hand, starring Lucy-Jane Quinlan, is pretty damn brilliant. An impulse buy in Morrisons, where it is currently on sale for a princely three quid, why wouldn’t I take a chance on this? The boy is at his drama club, the wife is at her mother’s, I have a couple of hours to myself. Hell yeah, let’s pick up a bargain-priced new British horror about which I know little more than that I plugged the Amazon release on Twitter and added it to my master list recently.

The premise is simple. Gracie Blake is a 27-year-old in Seattle, earning a crust as a chat-line girl. It’s 2001, before the technology existed for cam girls to be a thing (even YouTube was still a few years away). Back in those days, it was all done over the telephone. Or so I’m told.

Unwisely, Gracie agrees to meet a client named Peter (voice of Patrick Bergin). She knows she shouldn’t, but he offers her a lot of money. When she wakes up, she’s in, well, a cage. Stout wooden two-by-fours. Whole thing about ten by ten by ten feet so room to stand up and walk about a bit. Five-digit combination lock on the door. Chain on her ankle. There’s a camp bed, a bucket and a week’s worth of food, water and bog roll. Plus Gracie’s bag, containing her cellphone.

The reason this needs to be set 16 years ago is because it enables Gracie to talk with Peter, and other folk, but she has no other communication (except texting). If she had a smartphone, she could pinpoint her location, she could email, she could take photos, all sorts of plot-inconvenient convenience. Plus: dumbphones – and I speak as the proud owner of a phone that cost me £2.99 from Tesco – have batteries that last for ever. I charge my phone about once a month.

Other film-makers would do well to notice how this benefits the plot. Perhaps we’ll start to see a rash of horror films set in the early noughties, recent enough to not worry too much about clothes, cars and hairstyles but just before the personal communication event horizon when everyone suddenly decided they had to be in constant contact with everyone else all the time.

Except me.

Sheeple.

Any road, Gracie is a prisoner. The cage is inside some sort of warehouse and her only clue to the location is the occasional sound of an aeroplane, so she’s somewhere quite near an airport. But there are a lot of airports in the US. Is she even still in Seattle?

She receives occasional phone calls from Peter (number withheld of course) who warns her not to call the police. She also sends and receives calls from her mum (voice of Sharon Drain) and her boyfriend Eddy (voice of Jake Unsworth: Eden Lodge, The Awakening). The former she has to lie to, because explaining her situation would mean explaining how she earns money by talking dirty to men whacking themselves off. The latter knows about her income stream so she can tell him. He does call the police, but Gracie counts as a ‘missing person’, and then only after 48 hours. People go missing in America all the time. It’s not a priority. Gracie, who is on some sort of medication, also has a young daughter from a previous relationship, currently in foster care.

After the initial ineffective screaming and yelling, she becomes resigned to her fate. Peter tells her he’s flying around the country and he will visit her soon, before her supplies run out. We never really find out anything about Peter, and that’s a strength of the film. Bergin plays him as a calm, rational, organised man. No creepy voice, no bouts of anger. He won’t say why he’s locked Gracie up but he assures her it’s not sexual. The fact that he’s not an obvious nutter makes him far more scary and disturbing than he might have been if he was frothing at the mouth.

Things take a turn for the worse when Gracie’s father (voice of Andy Costello) has to go into hospital. At this point she does call the cops, but then wakes up to find her food, water and phone outside the cage as a punishment.

And then, an hour into this eighty-minute feature, as Act Two turns into Act Three, there is the most audacious plot twist I have encountered for a very, very long time. A real ‘shout at the screen’ game changer that will leave your jaw on the floor. I’m not even going to give you a hint what it is. Some other reviewers have, which I think is unfair.

The film’s ending, which obviously I’m not going to spoil for you, is commendably ambiguous. The disc also includes an ‘alternate ending’ which doesn’t contradict the existing one but puts an entire new spin on the whole story, a final narrative jab in the guts that works brilliantly as a coda to the main film. (I recommend avoiding the movie’s IMDB page before watching as that gives a clue about what you’ll see.)

Cage is very good indeed, thanks to a fine script and adroit direction by Mr Dudley and an absolute belter of a performance by Ms Quinlan. Warren Dudley’s first feature was The Cutting Room which, entirely coincidentally, I watched last week. And it’s a measure of the difference between these two films that, when I checked his filmography and spotted that title, I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it. It is a thoroughly generic and forgettable found footage, and it’s genericity and forgettableness were literally all I could remember. Fortunately, I wrote a capsule review (for the next book) so could read what my week-ago self thought.

It has three students – one played by the busy Lucy-Jane Q – making a documentary about cyber-bullying for their A-level media studies. They talk to the father and ex-boyfriend of a local missing girl and then somehow end up in an abandoned army barracks where a masked psycho spends the final acting chasing them up and down dark corridors. The film’s only notable moment is the final reveal of the killer’s identity which is well-handled (albeit completely obvious).

I guess The Cutting Room is the sort of movie that a young film-maker has to get out of their system before progressing to better things. Rest assured that Cage is definitely better things. Obviously the budget has been kept very, very low. One location. One costume. One actor. Patrick Bergin’s a name but it doesn’t cost much to get even a name actor into an audio studio near their house for a day. When actors play a ‘phone voice’, sometimes they can even literally do the role over the phone.

Despite the constraints of the set and minimalist cast, Dudley never lets the film feel static or repetitive. He uses the geometry of the cage and its shadows to create impressive effects, including a stand-out spinning shot where the bars behind Quinlan whizz past like a zoetrope.

Of Lucy-Jane Quinlan, the first thing to note is that for an actor to take on a role like this, alone on screen for 80 minutes, takes extraordinary confidence and courage. LJQ steps up to the bat magnificently, imbuing Gracie with real humanity and with a range of credible emotions from determination to despair and all points inbetween. I first encountered Quinlan when I watched and reviewed Weaverfish. I see that my comment was “Quinlan gives a particularly fine performance, balancing Charlotte on a fine line between vulnerability and resilience.” So (a) I’m slightly proud to have spotted this talent early and seen my critical assessment confirmed with Cage, and (b) I think we’ll see a lot more of this actress.

Quinlan has an extensive IMDB page already, with lots of short films, some of them fantasy/scifi/horror. She is in mega-anthology 60 Seconds to Die (but then, who isn’t?) and she has an ‘additional voices’ credit for Anthony Woodley’s virus-on-a-plane feature The Carrier. We’ll see her soon in the remake of Unhinged and in Warren Dudley-scripted football comedy The Bromley Boys. She is also attached to Kindred, an upcoming horror feature from David Bryant (Dead Wood) alongside Jane Asher and Mark ‘cast MJ Simpson if he’s unavailable’ Benton.

A quick aside on the old Inaccurate Movie Database folks. First, it’s clear that Warren Dudley has really, really pissed off someone because the User Reviews page for Cage has a series of one-star reviews, mostly by people who have never reviewed anything else, and most of them with suspiciously similar style, language and tone. I surmise that Dudley has made an enemy of someone whose childish idea of revenge is to troll his film with bad reviews. In terms of user rating, Cage is 4.0 from 149 votes while The Cutting Room is 3.9 from 310 votes, which just shows that such things are arbitrary and not reflective of actual quality. Apparently a couple of months ago the IMDB nerks managed to delete Cage from the system entirely, which hasn’t helped matters, wiping out early positive votes from festival audiences. Good grief.

More to the point, at time of writing, the IMDB lists the current state of Cage (which played a festival in Toronto in November 2016 and is currently on sale in UK supermarkets, remember) as ‘post-production’. Meanwhile on Patrick Bergin’s page, When the Devil Rides Out is also listed as ‘post-production’ while Grindhouse 2wo is apparently ‘completed’ – despite neither of them existing outside the fevered imagination of Richard Driscoll. Bergin has been in a lot of stuff over the years (including Driscoll’s magnum opus Eldorado) but to me he will always be Victor in the early 1990s David Wickes version of Frankenstein.

Cinematography and editing are credited to Lucas Tucknott, who should take significant credit for his contribution to the film’s success. His other genre gigs include Cruel Summer, kid-friendly cryptozoology flick Young Hunters: The Beast of Bevendean and unreleased horror oddity 301 Troop: Arawn Rising (which the IMDB confidently describes as ‘announced’ even though it was at least partly shot back in 2013). Also important is the make-up job which convinces us that Gracie has spent two weeks stuck in one place without washing. Full marks to Sophie Brown (Blood Moon, World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen, The Carrier) and Ruby Lonsdale (Carnivore: Werewolf of London) for that.

If I’m going to pick a hole with Cage (because no film is perfect) it seems a little unlikely that Gracie doesn’t put more effort into attempting to escape. The cage is solid (not ‘flimsy’ as that IMDB troll would have us believe) but nevertheless it is wooden, and wood can be chipped. If I was her I would have been at one of the bars with a fork, picking away. But to be fair, she’s in a bad place mentally, not helped by missing her meds. Who can say what any of us would really do in such a situation? We can only say what we would like to think we would do.

Shot in November 2015, Cage was released on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms in April 2017 and came out on DVD the following month. There was a one-off screening (with director and star Q&A) in Seaford (East Sussex, apparently) in March 2017 to raise funds for a local theatre.

A gripping, clever horror-thriller with a bravura central performance, Cage is a fine film that deserves more attention than it has received. Get yourself down to Morrisons or Asda (or Amazon) and grab yourself a copy now.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grave Tales

Director: Don Fearney
Writers: John Hamilton, Mike Murphy
Producer: Don Fearney
Cast: Brian Murphy, Edward de Souza, Damien Thomas
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: DVD

“This British, feature-length, anthology horror film is the first one of its kind in over twenty years” says the DVD blurb of this exercise in cinematic nostalgia, which obviously isn’t true. Shot in 2011, copyrighted 2012, released (sort of) in 2013, this was preceded (albeit not by much admittedly) by Bordello Death Tales, Nazi Zombie Death Tales and Little Deaths. Even if Don Fearney wasn’t aware of those movies, and assuming that he had no knowledge of the work of Jason Impey, Kemal Yildirim or Tom Rutter (not many folk do, to be fair) he has still contrived to pretend that Cradle of Fear doesn’t exist.

What this tells us is that this is a film made by – and for – people whose knowledge of British horror movies kind of peters out after To the Devil a Daughter. Which is fair enough, I suppose. Know your audience and all that. But it does contrive to make Grave Tales a curiously anachronistic film of very limited appeal.

There are four stories, plus a linking tale in which a young woman (Heather Darcy: Till Sunset) exploring a graveyard meets an aged gravedigger (or is he? da-da-dum!) played by the somehow still living legend that is George Roper, the one and only Brian Murphy. Murphy was 79 when he made this and he shows no sign of slowing down. His actual horror credits are pretty much limited to a small role in The Devils and, um, this… although the feature film version of Man About the House was a Hammer production of course (and remains one of the most enjoyable sitcom spin-off features of the 1970s). More recently Murphy was in the brilliant, long-gestating Room 36, which shares several cast and crew with this film. He is a national institution and we love him and why isn’t he at least an OBE?

Anyway, the gravedigger tells the young woman the stories behind four nearby graves. The first of these, 'One Man’s Meat', stars the sadly missed Frank Scantori (Witchcraft X, Kill Keith, May I Kill U?, Room 36) at his oleaginous best. He plays Norman Elliot, an alcoholic butcher who accidentally murders a homeless girl (Johanna Stanton: Nightmare Box). Riven with guilt, he disposes of the body in the obvious way, putting down to the booze the vampire fangs which seem to appear briefly in the girl’s mouth as he chops her up.

A family who bought this meat – who seem to be his only ever customers – come back for more, but they have become infected and want something a little rarer. Miles Gallant (who does a one-man show about Stan Laurel), Darby Hawker (Stardust, Room 36) and Chloe Ann Withey play the family, and Clifford Allison (Landis’ Burke and Hare) is a doctor from a local institution who comes looking for the girl, an escaped patient who believed she was a vampire.

There is simply too much crammed into these 20 minutes for the story to work, despite Frank’s sterling performance. It would have been better without the doctor, who delivers no useful info and basically just bleats on the same “Have you seen her?” schtick for five minutes. But Frank is great because Frank was Frank, and the neck wound after the first cleaver chop is an impressive prosthetic.

The second story (and they’re none of them particularly memorable so it’s a good job I made notes) is called 'Callistro’s Mirror'. Damien Thomas (Twins of Evil, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) stars as Mr Baxter, a collector who spots a mirror in an antique shop, instantly identifying it as having once belonged to a notable sorcerer, four centuries earlier. It’s not for sale so he kills the shopkeeper (Edward de Souza: The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Vampire) and sneaks back to his flat where he discovers – quelle surprise – that he can see something in the mirror.

What he sees is a bald guy (Ric Truman) being pawed by two topless lovelies (Katie Langford and blogger/poet Jade Moira Lawrence). Baxter is pulled into the mirror and, after some tussle, the previous incumbent escapes, taking over Baxter’s body, leaving the poor bloke to face centuries of torment at the hands of the two young ladies (who are vampires, apparently, possibly because there were some spare teeth left over from the first story).

It’s another pretty obvious and basic story, which is at least in keeping with the Amicus tradition towards which Grave Tales aspires. There’s some irrelevant stuff about Baxter’s late wife, and Don Fearney himself plays a tramp outside the shop. The highlight of this story – and arguably the whole film – is Kiki Kendrick (Sanitarium, The Stomach) having a ball as Baxter’s blousy landlady. It’s a rare moment of enjoyable characterisation in a film which is for the most part pedestrian and prosaic. More Kiki Kendrick in stuff, that’s what we need.

Tale number three, 'The Hand', is slightly shorter than the others, giving the whole film a running time of 75 minutes. Porn actor Mark Sloan (who also played a barman in the first story) is Stanton, a prisoner on the run who has legged it while handcuffed to another jailbird, Duggan (composer/pianist Marc Forde). Peter Irving (moderator of the Kiss of the Vampire DVD commentary) is a nightwatchman – though it’s not clear what he’s actually nightwatching – among whose equipment Stanton finds an axe. And when the handcuffs prove impermeable to the axe blade, an alternative solution presents itself.

Stanton heads off through some woods and hides in a small lake, for some reason. Four police officers (one of whom looks about 12) spot him from a summer house, but he goes underwater and doesn’t come up. Subsequent investigation by a police frogman finds Stanton’s drowned body chained to Duggan’s hand. Is it gripping that underwater branch, or just wedged? (It’s gripping the branch. There’s nothing subtle here.) For the record, the coppers are played by Marcus Taylor, Russell Barnett (Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit?), Adrian Annis  (Dark Rage, Survivors, My Guardian Angel) and Josh Parris; the frogman is Ross Ericson (writer of The Unknown Soldier, a play which was a  big hit at Edinburgh in 2016).

The final segment is 'Dead Kittens', starring British horror favourite Marysia Kay (who gets an ‘And…’ in the opening credits). She plays Vicky, who is (without explanation) selected to be the new lead singer of pop trio the Dead Kittens. Louise Houghton (Wilby Park) and Nieve Hearity (whose name is spelled wrong in the credits) are the other two. Celia Carron (who sidelines as a Pilates coach) is record producer Sadie and Aubrey Wakeling (apparently now in the States making things like Jurassic Wars(?)) is Mr Varley, the talent scout – or manager or something – who finds Vicky.

After a quick bash in the recording studio, they all head off to Varley’s massive country house to shoot a pop video, directed by none other than dear old Norman J Warren, helmer of Satan’s Slave, Prey etc. Rhiannon Ellison Sayer (who had a bit part in Burton’s Sweeney Todd) is Varley’s posh daughter, who tries to warn Vicky that something is up. The video involves Vicky lying down on a stone altar while everyone else pretends to be Satanists. Wait a minute…

A coda suggests it was all a plot to sell more records because dead pop stars shift units. Which doesn’t make sense because Vicky hasn’t had a chance to become a pop star, has she? Marysia turns in her usual reliable performance but, like most of the actors in this movie, she doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with. Scripter John Hamilton is one of the Satanists, along with George Hilton (Beyond the Rave, Cockneys vs Zombies), Moyb Ullah and Tom Levin.

One of the strengths of 21st century British horror is its diversity and the scope for every sort of movie, however unlikely. So I suppose it’s only fair that there should be a movie which tries to recreate the days of old. But that’s the film’s biggest problem: it is a recreation. It’s not an old 1970s Amicus anthology, just a pastiche of one. Technically it’s competent, though the sound recording (also credited to John Hamilton) isn’t consistently brilliant. But there’s nothing special here, nothing celebratory, nothing to impress (unless you’re enough of an oldtime Brit horror fanboy to just get wet at the thought of a new Edward de Souza movie – there are people like that). Grave Tales is the cinematic equivalent of a pub band playing 1960s covers, featuring a guy who used to be in Herman’s Hermits.

Don Fearney, the motive force behind this film (as well as producing and directing, he is also credited as production designer) is a name in Hammer fan circles. He has organised numerous fan events and also produced several DVD documentaries, often narrated by de Souza. The script is jointly credited to Mike Murphy (editor of the excellent Dark Terrors Hammer fanzine back in the 1990s) and John Hamilton, author of such hugely impressive horror history tomes as Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Films of Tony Tenser and X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film 1951-1970. Murphy wrote the first tale, Hamilton wrote the other three plus the framing story.

Except that’s not strictly true, is it?

'One Man’s Meat', 'Callistro’s Mirror' and 'The Hand' all started life as Van Helsing’s Terror Tales, the back-up comic strip that ran in most issues of House of Hammer magazine in the 1970s, a fact which goes completely unacknowledged in the credits of Grave Tales. Which is odd, because the very specific audience this is aimed at – ageing Hammer fanboys – are precisely the sort of people likely to own old copies of House of Hammer, and quite possibly have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the magazine’s content. If you don’t have any old copies of House of Hammer lying around, fear not. You can find digitised versions of all 30 issues on archive.org. 'One Man’s Meat', written and drawn by Martin Asbury, was published in issue 5. 'Malvoisin’s Mirror', written by Chris Lowder, art by Brian Lewis, was in issue 6. 'The Hand of Fate', written by Parkhouse, art by Goudenzi, was in issue 22. The settings and other details are different, but the basic stories are identical.

Whatever else one might say about the strengths or shortcomings of this film, for Fearney, Murphy and Hamilton (all of whom I believe to be honest gents) to simply lift someone else’s creative work wholesale and base their own on it without any hint of acknowledgement is reprehensible.

Martin Asbury drew strips for TV Century 21, Countdown, Look-In and TV Comic, and took over Garth in the Daily Mirror after Frank Bellamy died in 1976, drawing and occasionally writing that strip until it ended in 1997 (the current version, running since 2012, is a reprint of Asbury’s strips). Nowadays he is one of the UK’s top storyboarders with credits that include Bonds, Potters and Batmans. I wonder whether he has any idea that his IMDB page should also list a ‘story by’ credit on this obscure indie flick.

Chris Lowder wrote for Action, Tornado, Starlord and 2000AD under various pseudonyms. He also edited several anthologies of dark fiction and even wrote some Sexton Blake stories. Nowadays he’s a freelance editor/writer/bibliographer and seems happy pottering about in amateur theatricals and running his local parish council. Again, I wonder if he knows anything about this film and his uncredited contribution to it.

Parkhouse is Steve Parkhouse, another prolific name in British comics with extensive credits in 2000AD and Doctor Who Comic, for whom he wrote Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctor adventures. He has also worked for Marvel and, slightly bizarrely, wrote a graphic novel about the Sex Pistols. It’s probably safe to assume he is likewise in the dark about one of his old stories having been adapted for film.

Given the minuscule budget of Grave Tales and the nature of British comics – which, historically, paid writers and artists a flat fee with no rights and fuck you – I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of the above three writers have been ripped off and should have been recompensed. Who knows who owns the rights to the original comic-strip content from House of Hammer? If indeed anyone does. But it does seem very remiss not to acknowledge the source material and the original writers. (Slightly complicating matters, there was a short-lived horror anthology comic called Grave Tales in the early 1990s, published by Hamilton Comics. However that was Bruce Hamilton, not John, and has no connection with this film.)

Among those whose contributions do get acknowledged on screen are editor Jim Groom (director of Revenge of Billy the Kid, Room 36 and various Hammer DVD extras), composer Scott Benzie (Room 36, Soul Searcher, Ten Dead Men, Fear Eats the Seoul) and DP Jon Nash. Make-up is credited to Gemma Sutton, now one of the top wedding make-up artists in the UK, with ‘special FX make-up’ by Ben Brown. Richard Dudley and Don Fearney are listed as executive producers in the credit block but only Dudley gets name-checked on screen.

Grave Tales was first screened at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington just before Halloween 2010 and had an official festival premiere at Southend-on-Sea the following April. At both those screenings, there was a clip of Christopher Lee (as himself) included in 'Dead Kittens' but this was removed before the film appeared on (uncertificated) DVD.

In June 2013 Grave Tales was made available from Hemlock Books, where I was employed as a monthly blogger. I bought a copy with part of my pay-cheque but have only just got round to watching it.

It’s just a curio really, of principal interest for its ageing cast list (and a nice role for the late Mr Scantori), but loses a point for not crediting Asbury, Lowder, Parkhouse and House of Hammer.

MJS rating: B-

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Ian B Goldberg, Richard Naing
Producers: Rory Aitken, Fred Berger, Eric Garcia, Ben Pugh
Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Kelly
Country: UK/USA
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: DVD screener

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was directed by a Norwegian and is set in the USA, but most sources – including the US distributor – list it as a British film. The IMDb disagrees and says it’s a UK/US co-production, while Wikipedia describes it as fully American (as do, interestingly, the BBFC).

It is a joint gig between two production companies. The minimalist and Adamsian 42 is certainly a British company, based in London, comprised of producers Eric Garcia and Ben Pugh. They were also involved in the production of Monsters: Dark Continent and The Other Side of the Door. Impostor Pictures is based in LA so yes, this is an Anglo-American feature. Should I include it in my British horror master list? Well, I think it feels more British than American – possibly because of the European director – so I’ll consider it a British film made with some American investment rather than the other way round. Plus it was shot over here and it stars veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox. Sold!

With all that malarkey out of the way, what is it about?

Tommy Tindell (Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a family crematorium/morgue/autopsy service from the converted basement of their house. Is this a thing? Are there places like this in America? Over here, any autopsy is going to be done in an NHS hospital and crematoria are usually managed by the church. But apparently in the States the two are combined in a business that runs effectively out of somebody’s parlour.

The local Sheriff (Irish actor Michael McElhatton: The Hallow, Ripper Street) brings in an unidentified body. She was found naked, half-buried in the basement of a house, the occupants of which have died in gruesome ways, with no sign of forced entry. Bereft of distinguishing features and with no fingerprint match, this Jane Doe body is the best clue as to what happened, and the Sheriff would like cause of death determined tonight so that he can face the press tomorrow (a premise which doesn’t exactly sound believable; murder investigations take as long as they take).

So autopsy technician pere et fils set to examining the body, taking us through the four stages of clinical autopsy: external examination; heart and lungs; digestive system; brain. What they find makes no sense. The woman hasn’t a scratch on her, yet she has some horrific and bizarre internal injuries, as well as certain foreign bodies inserted into her.

While they’re doing this, spooky things start happening. Which get spookier and scarier and more violent and dangerous and swiftly pass the point where they can be dismissed as anything other than supernatural. These phenomena must relate in some way to the mysterious dead body, but how and why? I won’t go into any detail, just say that the revelation of what is happening is quite clever and original, albeit kind of a spin on a very old horror trope.

Though I enjoyed the film, I have a problem with it, which is this. All the spooky, scary stuff is kind of random. There are indistinct figures in reflections, doors open by themselves, strange noises. There’s no pattern and it’s all just general spooky weirdness which doesn’t specifically relate to anything either on screen or subsequently resolved. In short, it’s impossible to tell from what’s going on… what’s going on. It’s all done a lot better than, say, The Haunting of Radcliffe House which was just daft. But I would have liked to have seen a pattern, something which gave us and/or the Tindells a clue as to what is actually happening.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the Tindells do eventually work out what’s actually happening, although I’m not sure there wasn’t something of a leap of logic there. Plus some of their actions are less than logical. At one stage they start a fire. This gets quite scary because of the supernatural stuff that happens to the flames but there didn’t seem to be any justification for starting the fire in the first place. When you’re in an enclosed, underground environment, a fire is the last thing you want.

That said, the script (by two guys who wrote episodes of The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Once Upon a Time) and direction (by the guy who made Troll Hunter) are both pretty good. The father and son relationship is well-handled by both script and the two actors, although an early bit about Austin talking with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond: Guardians of the Galaxy) about wanting to leave home rather than continue the business goes precisely nowhere and has no effect on the narrative. I spy the stump of an excised subplot.

Brian Cox is very good, as one would expect. His genre CV goes all the way back to The Year of the Sex Olympics and takes in Hammer House of Horror, The Ring, X-Men 2, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Trick ‘r Treat, the 2009 Day of the Triffids, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pixels and of course the original Hannibal Lecktor (sic) in Manhunter. He played Sydney Newman in Doctor Who drama An Adventure in Space and Time, he narrated The Colour of Magic, and he was Daphne’s father in a couple of episodes of Frasier.

Emile Hirsch starred in the swiftly forgotten 2008 Speed Racer movie and has been in a bunch of other stuff including, at the start of his career, episodes of Kindred: The Embraced, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Third Rock from the Sun. Video game voice artist Jane Perry and Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent) play supporting cop roles.

But the break-out star, as it were, is Irish actress Olwen Kelly who plays the naked body on the table, remaining utterly motionless throughout every shot. Apparently she drew on her experience of yoga and meditation. She is now making Dom Lenoir’s serial killer thriller Winter Ridge. As the autopsy progresses, a mixture of astute camera angles and superb prosthetics by special effects supervisor Scott McIntyre (Tank 432, Estranged, White Settlers, The Quiet Ones... Pudsey the Dog: The Movie), presumably assisted  by some digital doodaddery from VFX supervisor Stephen Coren (Ghost Machine, 28 Weeks Later), enables us to see Ms Kelly opened up on the table.

With production design by Matt Gant (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes) and cinematography by Roman Osin (The Rezort).

After a premiere at Toronto in September 2016, The Autopsy of Jane Doe was theatrically released in the States (and Latvia, apparently!) in December. In March 2017 there was a one-night only UK release co-ordinated by Frightfest. DVDs appeared on both sides of the Atlantic three months later.

I enjoyed the film but possibly the effusive praise it received from festival screenings may have raised my hopes too high. As for some of the comments warning of how visceral and gory this is, one does have to wonder whether some critics have seen any horror films before. Nevertheless this is an original and enjoyable 80-odd minutes of supernatural horror, worth a watch.

MJS rating: B+

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Demonic Tapes

Director: Richard Mansfield
Writer: Richard Mansfield
Producers: Richard Mansfield, Daniel Mansfield
Cast: Darren Munn, Alice Keedwell, Daniel Mansfield
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.mansfielddark.com

The title, the brief POV prologue and the logline (“In 2007 a series of tapes were found in the basement of a London home”) all suggest this could be more found footage rubbish but, Jove be praised, it’s not. What it is instead is a genuinely terrifying ghost story in the true James-ian tradition. Which should come as no surprise because this is the latest feature from Richard Mansfield, card-carrying MR James fan and one of the UK’s most consistently impressive horror film-makers.

Darren Munn gives a largely solo, largely wordless, completely engrossing performance as the unnamed lead (we’ll call him The Man), spending Christmas alone in an old Victorian townhouse. His two flatmates have headed off for Chrimbo so there’s just him and the cat. There are a few one-sided phone conversations and a brief scene about an hour into the 72-minute feature with a visitor, but for the most part this is Munn on his tod, reacting to things. Subtle reactions to subtle things.

The titular tapes are a box of microcassettes, plus a Dictaphone, which The Man finds in the cellar and listens to out of interest. What he finds are recordings of a medium visiting the house in 2003 in response to the then tenant’s request for help. So in a sense the story largely plays out as an audio drama, except that creepy things start happening on screen. A door opens. A shrouded figure appears briefly.

The tapes include both the medium’s comments and occasional distorted horror voices, on the cusp of intelligibility. Sometimes the tape audio is diegetic, as The Man listens to what we hear, but often it’s a counterpoint, visual story and audio story perfectly complementing each other as Mansfield uses his impeccable understanding of cinematic horror pacing to incrementally ramp up the terror.

A little diligent research on the web reveals that the medium has died but her twin sister is accessible, so The Man invites her round and offers her the box of tapes, leading to the single two-hander scene. (Both sisters are ably played by Alice Keedwell.) On two other occasions the story wisely escapes the confines of the house as The Man sets out into London for a montage of fairground rides, Christmas markets and tube trains. Otherwise, this is basically Darren Munn wandering around a house looking puzzled, and it is a testament to the man’s acting that he conveys so much credible emotion. The Man becomes unnerved, but only very slowly and slightly. Most of what we see, he doesn’t.

What really, really, really makes this work – and it’s something obvious which regular readers will know is a frequent bugbear of mine – is the soundtrack. Specifically that when something spooky appears or happens there isn’t an accompanying music sting. I’ve written before, at length (not least in my review of the otherwise generally very good The Other Side of the Door) about how a crashing chord every time a ghost appears makes things less scary. Richard Mansfield, student of the MR James School of Unnervingly Ambiguous Horror, understand this perfectly. The fact that neither the character on screen nor the film itself acknowledges what we just saw (or think we saw) makes what we saw (and what we might see next) far more terrifying than anything with a blaring, jarring ‘look at the scary thing’ leitmotif. Our attention is focused on the whole screen, not just young Mr Munn, as we scan the rooms and doorways behind him for unnaturally moving shadows or a hint of a white sheet.

This is Munn’s third collaboration with Richard Mansfield, having previously appeared in The Mothman Curse and Video Killer. He was also in two films directed by Richard Mansfield’s husband Daniel, who provides additional tape voices here. (Munn’s other horror credit is the very odd Paranormal Sex Tape which is structurally similar in featuring lots of wordless scenes. I don’t think either of the Mansfields was involved with that, although perhaps one of them could be the pseudonymous director ‘Dick Van Dark’…?) As for Alice Keedwell, making her film debut here, she is half of award-winning cabaret duo House of Blakewell. Back in 2013 Richard Mansfield used his distinctive shadow puppet style to animate a video for House of Blakewell’s morbidly witty song ‘The Truth is…’ which you can find on YouTube.

The effective soundtrack is credited to Pig7, an “experimental, improv electronics duo” whose music, according to their Facebook page “can be described as soundscape, dronescape, filmatic, ambient horror, spacerack, hambient, sconescrape, stonecrop with a hint of Cronenberg.”

Shot in late 2016, in a few days for a few hundred quid, The Demonic Tapes was given a VOD release on Amazon Prime in May 2017, making it Richard Mansfield’s fifth live-action horror feature in three years (The Secret Path and Scare Bear are the other two, plus he’s still making his shadow-puppet shorts). The working title was Fright Christmas and it was briefly known as House of Christmas Evil before Mansfield settled on a less festive but more commercial and direct title. The film is set at Christmas but that's largely incidental. Fright Christmas would still be an awesome title for something though!

A little less avant-garde than his previous movies, The Demonic Tapes shows a maturing of the director's style and an increased, well-deserved confidence. It is also – and I really should stress this point before you tootle off to Amazon and watch the movie – extremely scary. Really very, very frightening indeed. I watched it early one morning, sun shining in through the windows of my own large, Victorian house. I was seriously creeped out. Had I saved my viewing for the evening when I was alone (Madame at her mother’s, young Sir at his theatre club) I would have been crapping myself and would certainly have had great difficulty sleeping that night.

This is a dreadful film – literally. In that it is absolutely jam-packed full of dread. No fancy special effects, no stupid cat-scares (though there is a cat), no plot-hole riddled script, no big budget hype, just unexplained supernatural imagery and ideas woven into a quietly terrifying tale of a man spending Christmas alone in an old house. The implicit horror revealed by the tapes plays on The Man’s mind as it plays on the viewer’s. He doesn’t know he’s in a horror film, we know we’re not, but in both cases there’s a dread of what might be happening just beyond the mortal realm.

Powerful, gripping, expertly crafted, The Demonic Tapes is, in this viewer’s humble opinion, the scariest British haunted house film since Ghostwatch. I can give no higher praise. As I have said before in relation to other of my favourite indie film-makers, the only reason I’m not giving this A+ is because I want to see what Richard Mansfield makes next.

MJS rating: A