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-