Saturday 12 January 2013

Art House Massacre

Director: Steve Laurence
Writer: Martin Laurence
Producers: Steve Laurence, Martin Laurence, Ben Cannell, Ben Loyd-Holmes
Cast: Martin Laurence, Emily Baxter, Lennie Blasse
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: festival (BHFF 2012)

I really enjoyed Art House Massacre, which surprised me because I was expecting a fairly bog standard slasher. But it turns out to be a well-plotted, smartly directed, intelligent film with some real scares, some great characters and a gripping story. Being honest, the film is let down by a fairly massive narrative hole which one has to studiously ignore - but if one can achieve that, this is a great little film.

Emily Baxter is Liz Richards, a part-time model who visits a respectable-looking house one evening for a photo-shoot. Unfortunately, the photographer is actually a psycho with a penchant for kidnapping, torturing and murdering young women. Doesn’t sound a very promising set-up, does it? But there’s a great deal more to Art House Massacre than this tired old cliché.

While Liz is trapped in the house, forced to watch loopily calm Philip (Ryan Elliott, who took the role at a week’s notice after the original actor dropped out) dismember his latest victim, her husband Ben (Martin Laurence) is searching for her. He’s not sure exactly where she went but when he sees a stranger driving his wife’s distinctive car, he knows something is up. This is one of many skilfully handled moments of human drama: in a split instant Ben has to decide whether to investigate the house from where the car appeared - perhaps his wife is there (she is) - or follow the car into the night.

The car is being driven by Willie (Adrian Annis: Darkness into Light, Eva’s Diamond), an associate of Philip - as maniacally crazy as his friend is calm - but something goes wrong when Ben confronts him. Fortunately, Ben has a mate, a successful medical entrepreneur named Nick (a storming performance from Robert Maloney) who offers to help him. But should Ben really trust his friend?

In a rare example of a horror movie character doing something sensible, Ben’s first action on discovering that his wife is missing, possibly in trouble, is to call 999. The police promise to send round one of the local officers but this is where Art House Massacre falls into a bit of a hole. Instead of a uniformed plod, this turns out to be trenchcoat-wearing Detective Inspector Mitchells. Lennie Blasse gives a fine performance but the character as written is simply not believable, which is a shame because all the others are so good. Mitchells calmly enters suspects’ houses without any thought of a warrant and generally behaves in a way that suits the plot but not the credibility. Art House Massacre is a terrific horror movie, but as a police procedural it unfortunately falls on its arse.

But pick it up and dust it down and pretend that never happened and what you find is a gripping, scary, sometimes violent but never gratuitously unpleasant, solid British horror film. Philip likes to paint pictures of his victims with their own blood, an idea which provides the title (I suppose - it was filmed as just Art House and was subsequently retitled Art of Darkness) but is never really explored. However, he has another reason for doing what he does, which is much, much worse and which provides a satisfying plot structure.

Among a solid cast, Maloney’s Nick really stands out as the sort of slightly extravagant, cocksure, fascinating, sardonic, multi-faceted character that we meet so rarely in - well, any film, really. It’s a combination of the actor’s performance and the whip-smart dialogue that will keep Nick in your memory. In many films a line like “You really are mental, aren’t you?” would be a feeble joke, but here it’s bang-on serious - yet still somehow blackly entertaining.

Martin Laurence’s brother Steve directed the film; the script was a three-way effort between the brothers and Ben Cannell, who also does good work on the cinematography. All three produced along with Ben Loyd-Holmes, writer/producer of The Hike (and whose acting credits include Torchwood and Skyfall). Also in the cast are David Wayman (Nazi Zombie Death Tales, Death, The Dead Inside), Caroline Elman (a dancer in Dead Cert) and Uma Dhir. The film was edited by Gabe Paris and boasts an absolutely terrific score by composer Gerry Moffett.

Shot in 2010 on an announced budget of £30,000, Art House Massacre looks impressively professional and is a definite cut above many of its BHR contemporaries.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 25th November 2012

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