Thursday, 24 January 2013

Bordello Death Tales

Directors: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins
Writers: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins
Producers: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins and their respective partners
Cast:
Eleanor James, Cy Henty, Danielle Laws
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: cast and crew screening
Websites:
www.jinxmedia.co.uk/www.amberpictures.co.uk
Watch now - see end of review for Distrify link

The British anthology horror feature has a long and honourable history. It all started with Dead of Night, of course, after which there were oddities like Gilbert Harding Speaks of Murder. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Amicus Productions defined the genre with a string of hits such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt. The Americans dabbled in the genre in the 1980s with stuff like Creepshow and still produce occasional cut-price DTV anthologies like Blood of the Werewolf or LovecraCked!, often by bolting together a number of pre-existing shorts.

The last proper British horror anthology was probably Alex Chandon’s Cradle of Fear but that was a full decade ago so it’s time for another. Here it is - and it’s a cracker. An ambitious and impressive recreation of the golden age of Amicus. It is: Bordello Death Tales.

Three of the best film-makers working in British indie horror have teamed up for this project. Pat Higgins is the auteur behind TrashHouse, KillerKiller, HellBride and The Devil’s Music; Jim Eaves is the man who brought us The Witches Hammer and Bane; Alan Ronald is Pat’s regular DP who made his directorial debut with the existential western Jesus vs the Messiah. Talk about a trilogy of terror. (Ooh yes, there’s one I forgot. Anyway...)

Although written and produced separately, all three tales here were conceived as part of a single project and are linked by a location and character: the titular high-class whorehouse of Madame Raven, played with gothic insouciance by Natalie Milner (HellBride) with an accent which can best be described as ‘European’. (The poster says ‘Madam Raven presents’ but its spelled with an E in the credits.)

Nick Rendell also appears in two of the stories as the brothel’s bouncer Mitchell, clearly implied as being the same character he played in A Day of Violence. (I like this. Sharing characters between films is always terrific, nerdy fun. Reminds me of the cameo by Onkey and Doody from Freak Out in Evil Aliens. More of this please, indie producers. Perhaps I should create an incidental character and get myself a few more acting gigs. I could reuse Police Sergeant Moore from Insiders. I could become the British Kelton the Cop. Yeah!)

Anyway...

James Eaves provides the first story, 'The Ripper', which stars Stuart Gregory as stone bonker psycho Graham. Living on his own in suburban anonymity, Graham likes nothing more than to visit a gentleman’s establishment and procure the services of a young lady, then drug her, take her home, strap her to a bench in his garage and let loose with a selection of power tools.

He picks up pole dancer Sharon (the increasingly busy - and justifiably so - Tina Barnes: Bane, A Day of Violence, F) in an effective sequence which sees the two of them suddenly the only occupants of a bustling club. His subsequent torture of the young woman is gleefully OTT; this isn’t Saw-style torture-porn although Barnes does a great job of conveying Sharon’s absolute terror.

Some time later, Graham calls at Madame Raven’s and takes home Lily (Fay Baker) who, to no-one’s surprise except his, turns the tables on our semi-detached suburban driller killer. But what could have been a simple I Spit on Your Grave-style revenge story is given an epic, supernatural twist which addresses - albeit lightly - the very nature of ‘the oldest profession.’

'The Ripper' gives the punters what they want: blood and boobs. But it throws in a few surprises too, not least some semi-animated flashbacks drawn by Sam Smith. It gets the film off to a great start.

Al Ronald is at the helm for 'Stitchgirl', which was always going to be my favourite of the three tales because it is a Bride of Frankenstein homage. Much lighter in tone than its book-ending neighbours, Al’s tale is what anthology geeks would call ‘the golfing story’, a wryly comedic respite from the (admittedly not overly serious) horror of 'The Ripper'.

Eleanor James plays the title role in a performance which can only be described as ‘Burton-esque’, a living, breathing creature exactly halfway inbetween the Corpse Bride and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Eleanor is quite possibly the busiest actress in indie UK horror with a dozen or so features just in the last three or four years including Braincell, Dead Cert, Backslasher and Forest of the Damned 2. Al of course worked with her when he DP-ed The Devil’s Music and HellBride.

Wide-eyed (she blinks once in the entire film) and as naively uncoordinated as Pinocchio, Stitchgirl is a terrific performance of a marvellous character. And though the character’s only ‘dialogue’ is a handful of high-pitched back-of-the-throat squeaks, this is more than made up for by Julian Lamoral-Roberts as suave, old-school charmer Dr Whale. The actor’s cultured, rich, urbane voice is as warm and comforting as butter melting on a crumpet. To my mind, he seemed to be channelling ‘Legs’ Larry Smith and I half expected him to break into ‘Look at Me, I’m Wonderful’ at any moment although the gist of his monologue-dialogue was angled more towards Flanders and Swann’s ‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear’. (Lamoral-Roberts played Thanatos, Lord of Darkness in Nightscape, an obscure feature-length fantasy horror made by two Plymouth postgrads. He also essayed woodwork teacher Gary - and provided narration - in a pre-production rehearsed reading of Johannes Roberts’ F. And he does a lot of voice-work, of course, including on-air trailers for Classic FM.)

To my surprise, Stitchgirl isn’t the creation of Dr Whale (who is not only named after the director of Bride of Frankenstein but also enunciates some choice quotes: “They are my only weakness.”). Instead, she is hastily assembled by Madame Raven from several girls in the bordello’s basement, one of whom (logically enough) is played by Eleanor James. The others are actresses Michelle Roberts (who starred alongside Eleanor in White Admiral) and Roberta Zuric, fetish models Vespers Angel (latex and corsetry) and Laura Bondage (BDSM and food!) and playwright Deborah Espect.

Artfully lensed in black and white, the story flips into colour briefly halfway through for a bizarre (but entertaining) pop video sequence featuring Danny Idollor Jr (Jesus vs the Messiah, Jack Says) as a voodoo-faced ringmaster leading several 1960s go-go dancers (portrayed by retro go-go dance troupe The Actionettes). Amid all the bopping and jiving and the Ready-Steady-Go camerawork, Stitchgirl herself merely wobbles and stares uncomprehendingly. It’s one of those completely-out-of-left-field moments that can take a good film and make it unforgettable.

No walruses in this one though.

Oblivious to the waif-like woman’s origins and charmed by her mute oblivion, Whale falls madly in love and proposes to take Stitchgirl away from the bordello. But ah, tragedy. True love never did run smooth, especially not one as oddball as this. In the end, pathos is all that is left to Dr Whale. It is, clearly, his only weakness.

And finally, young Mr Higgins enthrals us with 'Vice Day', the most serious of the three tales although not without a few intentional laughs in the dialogue. Cy Henty stars, as he always does in Pat Higgins films, possibly because of certain compromising photos of the director which he owns. (Henty and Alan Ronald, incidentally, are a Bonzos-influenced comedy double act called the Electric Head. There’s a showreel of their stuff on YouTube. Warning - does include a very brief shot of Al Ronald’s naked bum.)

Henty is Daniel Cain, a high-flying politician who, once a year, takes a break from his enforced decorum and respectability to indulge, privately, in pleasures of the nostril and other unsavouriness. Danielle Laws (so memorable from KillerKiller and recently spotted as both a zombird in Doghouse and a ‘buxom wench’ in Lesbian Vampire Killers) is Destiny, a webcamgirl within Madame Raven’s employ. For those unfamiliar with the concept of webcamgirls, the idea is that the punter pays to talk with the girl, whom he can see on webcam, and she complies with his requests to, ah, do things. The option is there for the girl to see the punter if he switches on his webcam, which Cain does, unfazed by Destiny’s recognition of who he is.

Interesting, these two are the only characters in the entire movie who are shown to have any sort of life outside of the client-girl financial relationship. And Destiny, seen talking to her mother about her ill father while the webcam is offline, is the one and only character with any sort of family.

There is a touch of Jekyll and Hyde about Cain’s annual orgy of abandon, balancing out 364 days of carefully being whiter than white (not very realistic for a politician of course, but this is a fantasy film). 'Vice Day' contains the one genuinely scary shot in the film, a momentary discrepancy so brief that the audience isn’t even sure they’ve seen it until Destiny mentions it a few seconds later. It’s a brilliantly understated, hugely effective conceit which - without being overdone - resurfaces, as the story progresses, in worse and worse ways. Truth be told though, I’m not entirely convinced by the ending of this segment - and a brief epilogue with Madame Raven is over so quickly that it’s difficult to figure out what point it’s making.

But I’m being picky. There’s a definite EC Comics vibe to this film - as indeed one would expect - with a streak of black humour running, to a greater or lesser degree, through all three segments. The nature of the horror anthology is short, sharp shocks, not complex, emotionally satisfying narratives.

'Vice Day' is the most powerful of the three stories and is smartly directed, especially given that it basically consists of two people, each sitting alone in a room. All that Pat has to use is shots of Destiny, shots of Cain and the two webcam images - but the film never seems limited.

In fact, all three tales are, at heart, two-handers. One client, one sex worker. And each of the stories explores that relationship in a different way by giving the client a different driving force. In 'The Ripper', Graham is motivated by a lust for violence, obviously. In 'Stitchgirl', Whale is motivated by romance and an old-fashioned courtly love. In 'Vice Day', Cain is motivated by drug-fuelled hedonism.

In other words, the three men are respectively immoral, moral and amoral.

And what of the three girls? Well, if there is a recurring theme in the trilogy it is pretence. Because pretence is the very nature of sexual business, whether it is prostitution or pole-dancing. The girl pretends to have an interest in the man - and the man pretends that he can ignore his awareness that she is only pretending. He tries to fool himself that she is really fooling herself and not just pretending to fool herself. All is artifice. Everything is a masquerade.

And what we see in Bordello Death Tales is three variants on the theme of what happens when the girl removes her mask. In 'The Ripper', Lily removes her mask to reveal that she is a nightmare - the monstrous feminine. In 'Stitchgirl', when the mask falls away there is nothing behind it. Stitchgirl doesn’t really exist. She is a construct, both literally and metaphorically. And in 'Vice Day', when Destiny finally removes her mask... there is another mask behind it.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Jim, Al and Pat sat down and worked out these contrasting approaches like this. Of course not. But by simply taking different angles on a very basic set-up, they have explored different (but related) ideas in different (but related) ways. And that contributes hugely to the success of Bordello Death Tales - for a success it assuredly is and a success it assuredly will be. This is a fascinating (intriguing ideas explored) and entertaining (blood! boobs! more blood!) triptych about the artificiality of woman, and the pathetic self-deception of man. If one was feeling pretentious one might almost subtitle it Variations on a Theme of Rappacini.

But that would just be arse, wouldn’t it?

The film is well-constructed. None of these stories would justify a feature but nor do any of them feel stretched at 25-30 minutes. The three directors debated on which order to show the segments and, after much discussion and thought, went for their original choice. Which was undeniably correct.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the work of the three gentlemen: 'The Ripper' is a typical James Eaves picture, exploring a relatively simple, straightforward idea, albeit with ramifications beyond the point of normality, and giving it some bloody horror trappings; inasmuch as 'Stitchgirl' is only Alan Ronald’s second film (as director) one can see a synergy with Jesus vs the Messiah in its defiance of convention, its offbeat sensibility that treads the fine middle ground between quirky and surreal, its unable-to-label constant threat to topple over into full-on bizarro; and 'Vice Day' is a Pat Higgins joint through and through, a natural continuation of the path which has developed from the overambitious TrashHouse, through the back-to-back, double whammy consolidation of KillerKiller and HellBride to the assured and slick Devil’s Music, examining the darker, deeper side of human nature, teasing away the edge of reality just enough for us to realise how much we fear what lies beneath the surface, inside ourselves.

I like to think that, even if I hadn’t known who directed which segment, I could have worked it out. There is a three-act structure to the directorial styles as much as there is to the action on screen or the contrasting characters of the equivalent pro- and antagonists. An original spin on a conventional theme, then a wildly unconventional ride, then a visit to a dark place somewhere inbetween those two. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

But for all their differences, the three directors and their segments of Bordello Death Tales all have one thing in common. They were all produced by the directors’ other halves: Laura Eaves, Debbie Attwell and Pippa Higgins. Steve Barnes, who was a producer on Bane and The Witches Hammer, pitches in again on 'The Ripper'. Pat and Al handled their own cinematography while Jim’s is credited to the mysterious ‘Peter Flatcock’ who also plays one of the punters in the opening sex club scene.

A familiar name to regular readers of this site, Harold Gasnier (The Demon Within), doesn’t actually appear on screen but did build the frequently seen (and very good) miniature of the bordello building as well as supplying ‘weapons’ for 'The Ripper'. However Gasnier does appear in one of three Grindhouse-style fake trailers which preceded the film’s premiere screening and which may conceivably end up on the DVD, perhaps as Easter eggs.

In full costume and make-up (and swearing like a trouper), Gasnier takes the lead role in Jim’s Clown Assassin. Meanwhile Pat gives us the trailer for Squid Slayer, a film seen on TV in HellBride; like me, Pat believes that there simply aren’t enough squid films out there (incidentally, the 491 Gallery in Leytonstone which hosted the screening had a large model of a squid hanging from the roof). As for Al’s trailer, the barrage of visual gags in Teddy Bear’s Picnic presented a serious threat that the previews would overwhelm the main feature.

Elsewhere in the credits, Glen Yard (Ten Dead Men, Freak Out, Small Town Folk), was supervising sound editor on 'The Ripper'; Sam Dacombe, dismembered by the Clown Assassin in the trailers, was production assistant on 'Stitchgirl'; Beverley Chorlton (KillerKiller, HellBride) provided make-up and hair for 'Vice Day'; and Dave Hodder steals the entire show as ‘Dr Whale’s thumb double’.

There is a huge amount to enjoy in Bordello Death Tales. This was a fun film to make and you can tell that from everything that is on screen. It flies the flag for the venerable subgenre of British horror anthology films and does so with panache, verve, a warped sense of humour, a dose of gore and a splash of sex. If it wasn’t a film, I’d probably marry it.

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 31st March 2010

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