Saturday 23 March 2013

Dead Cert

Director: Steve Lawson
Writer: Ben Shillito
Producers: Jonathan Sothcott, Steve Lawson, Billy Murray
Cast: Craig Fairbrass, Lisa McAllister, Billy Murray
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: screener
Website: several official links point to but there’s nowt there

The first half of the film is a crime drama, the second half is a vampire picture and most of the action is set in a nightclub. It’s difficult to write about Dead Cert without noting the obvious (albeit superficial) similarities to From Dusk Till Dawn. I was never a huge fan of that Tarantino-Rodriguez collaboration but there’s no doubt that Dead Cert would have benefited enormously from some Tarantino-style (or even sub-Tarantino) dialogue or the directorial flourishes of a Robert Rodriguez (or even a Rodriguez wannabe).

There are far worse vampire pictures out there and certainly far worse British gangster films. So it’s not that it’s a bad movie - it’s an hour and a half of action and blood - but it could have been so much better. Initial reaction to the premiere at Frightfest 2010 was not great but then the audience had already been sat on their bums for four hours, half of which was spent watching the surefire crowd-pleaser that is Adam Green’s Hatchet 2. Dead Cert didn’t stand much of a chance in that situation (although an unbilled cameo in the epilogue reportedly got a great cheer).

But for its target audience, the punters at home with their DVDs, booze and pizza, this is an undemanding and respectable entry in the British vampire, erm... stakes.

Craig Fairbrass (Darklands, Rise of the Footsoldier) is Freddie Frankham, who has supposedly given up a life of crime to open a lapdancing club although the whole ‘life of crime’ thing is a bit vague about what he did and what he does now. He is an item with Jen Christian (Pumpkinhead 3’s Lisa McAllister, recently seen in Sherlock and here once again proving her range in a role that takes her from attractively elegant to terrifyingly vulnerable) who is trying to get pregnant, although that seems to have little if any relevance to the plot. Jen has two brothers: Dennis (Danny Midwinter: From Hell, Rise of the Footsoldier, Anacondas 4) is a bare-knuckle fighter while Eddie (Dexter Fletcher: Lock Stock, Pandaemonium, Doom, Stardust, Jack Falls, Bugsy Malone!) is still a professional villain - and a bad’un at that. Eddie has no qualms about casually killing those who cross him and also any bystanders who might have witnessed too much. And for him, every day is a bad hair day.

There are various others in Freddie’s circle of friends of which the main two are Magoo (Perry Benson: You Rang M’Lord?, Oh Doctor Beeching, Alien Autopsy, Mum and Dad) who is short, fat, bespectacled and businesslike, and Chinnery (Roland Manookian: The Football Factory, Rise of the Footsoldier). Manookian doesn’t have the tittish beard and spectacles that he sported as director Harlan Noble in Just for the Record but he does wear a tittish hat in this one.

Not-Nice-Guy Eddie has got mixed up with some Romanian gangsters - the script is at pains to point out that they’re Romanian, not Romany - led by Billy Murray (Rise of the Footsoldier, Doghouse) in a bravura performance as their leader Dante Livenko. In a cast where most of the fellas are, to put it mildly, big and angry, Livenko stands out as a short, calm, enormously threatening and powerful figure. Fairbrass’ Frankham comes across as a bloke who doesn’t think too deeply about things. You couldn’t imagine him actually, you know, reading a book. Murray’s Livenko on the other hand seems like the sort of man who would not only attend the opera but enjoy it and understand it. But he might have you stabbed if you coughed during his favourite aria.

There are various other assorted meatheads on both sides.

Livenko and Eddie are involved in the importation and sale of a drug called ‘Bliss’, the effects of which are never really specified and the significance of which is never explained. The fact that Frankham and his friends are involved in a meeting to discuss this rather gives the lie to the idea that Frankham has given up crime to go straight with his classy gentleman’s club, but then that whole ‘going straight’ angle is emphasised more in the film’s publicity than actually on screen. As far as the audience is concerned, Frankham is a geezer gangster, surrounded by other geezer gangsters. He’s clearly not as nasty as Livenko or Eddie, but you still wouldn’t want to go for a drink with the bloke. Unless he asked you, in which case it might be advisable to agree.

At this meeting to discuss the Bliss deal, a bet is made (for some reason) on a fight between Dennis and a Romanian man-mountain (Dave Legeno: Rise of the Footsoldier, The Cottage, Centurion and Fenrir Greyback in the final three Harry Potter films). Livenko is prepared to stake a couple of million quid and in return he wants Frankham to stake his club, Paradise, even though it’s only been open about 24 hours. Frankham isn’t keen on the idea of losing his club but is (somehow) persuaded.

Well, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the British lose the fight so the club, including the girls who work there, becomes the property of the Eastern European contingent who rename it Inferno (though you have to be paying close attention to spot that). To be honest there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference once it’s ‘under new management’.

But Freddie becomes convinced that something was dodgy about the fight. That the bet was legitimate but the fight wasn’t. We saw him turning down the suggestion that Dennis spike himself up with, presumably, some sort of drug. Which shows what a decent, honest, honourable sort of bloke Freddie Frankham is. When you’re arranging an illegal, underground, no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle fight between your own brother-in-law and the mountainous representative of a gang of foreign drug dealers, it’s important to play by the rules.

Discussing the matter with his associates, Freddie comes swiftly to the conclusion that there is only one way to resolve this situation: “We’ll ‘ave to kill ‘em.”

Christ, he’s so half-hearted and conciliatory!

Frankham’s brilliantly subtle plan is to barge into the club one night, when it’s full of punters, armed with stout sticks, knives and shooters, and just blindly and savagely attack everyone who looks Romanian. That sounds foolproof. What could possibly go wrong?

What goes wrong is that the Romanians turn out, of course, to be vampires. Most of the girls are too. And presumably the clients are because there’s no panicked stampede for the door when it all kicks off.

This is about 50 minutes into the film and there’s a whole load of fighting all over the place before Frankham and a few others manage to escape... into the basement. You would think, would you not, that there are plenty of ways to get out of the club. It must have fire exits. Even if Frankham isn’t bothered about planning permission and health and safety regulations and has some bent Councillor on the Local Authority who lets him get away with stuff, we know that he installed a working sprinkler system - this will become relevant later - so it would be bizarre if there weren’t the requisite number of fire exits.

But no, Freddie and chums escape into the basement from where there is no possible exit except back through the club. Not the sharpest tools on the workbench, this lot. Fortunately, the Romanians appear to be just as dim because they could have simply blocked the basement door and left the Londoners to starve to death down there. Or they could at least have posted a couple of fanged thugs on guard by the door in case the former owners of the club decided to attempt a breakout.

But the bloodsuckers are evidently not playing with a full deck either because Frankham and co are able to burst out of the basement for another round of it-all-kicking-off.

Alongside all this, Steven Berkoff is miscast and completely wasted as Kenneth Mason, an old guy in a duffel coat who spouts cryptic warnings to Frankham that only really become relevant and understood once it’s almost too late. Mason is evidently supposed to be the Van Helsing character in all this, to an almost literal extent as the Black and Blue Films website actually describes the film as “an all-action modern interpretation on Bram Stoker’s horror classic Dracula.” Which is an odd way to describe the film because the only connection I can see with Stoker’s novel is that both feature a Romanian vampire buying a property in London.

Regardless of how closely (if at all) Kenneth Mason is meant to parallel Abraham Van Helsing, the character just doesn’t work. Van Helsing is the hero of Dracula, he is an educated, knowledgeable man who takes command of the situation. For all that the younger male characters believe themselves to be capable (not least the Texan Quincey), they are impotent in the face of Dracula’s evil and can only defeat the monster under the steady, calm, reliable tutelage of the Dutch professor.

Mason has none of that, he’s just a sad old bloke who tries to warn Frankham about stuff in a pointlessly esoteric way and he could have been played by anyone. I commented in my review of Just for the Record that Berkoff in his old folk’s home scenes reminded me of Bernard Cribbins in Doctor Who and actually Cribbins would have been good as Mason, a daft-old-git role which just doesn’t suit Berkoff’s acting style at all. Which is all actually a crying shame because, thinking about it, Steven Berkoff could be a completely brilliant Van Helsing, giving the character an element of danger and intense, borderline fanaticism with which it has rarely if ever been blessed and potentially positing Van Helsing as a mirror image of Dracula in the way that Batman mirrors the Joker. Oh man, I really want to see that now. Somebody needs to cast Berkoff as Van Helsing. Please.

In the meantime, this is a tale where the men threatened by the vampires - Frankham, Chinnery, Magoo etc - who are therefore analogous to Quincey, Seward and Holmwood, remain supremely self-confident that they can defeat the monsters with guns, knives and fists. Although, to be fair, Mason does eventually give them the means to really defeat the vampires through a trap he has set - which is bizarrely improbable but at least original - and this is actually quite cleverly alluded to in an earlier scene.

The back story to all this - which touches on both Jack the Ripper and the Great Fire of London! - is that the club has been built on some land that is, in some way, important to the Romanian vampires whose convoluted plan has always been to persuade Frankham to build a club there then win that building from him in a bet on a fixed fight. Quite why they didn’t just buy the land themselves isn’t touched on. Mason, who was said to have been squatting on the land before the club was built, is apparently the last of a long line of guardians who oversaw the place. Or something.

None of which is helped by the fact that the club itself, which was filmed inside a Dagenham warehouse, doesn’t look like a brand new building, either inside or out.

Okay, here’s where I think Dead Cert goes wrong. It exhibits two factors, two fundamental aspects of the film, either of which on their own would be fine but which should rarely if ever be combined. On the one hand, it takes itself extremely seriously - as so many modern British gangster films do. One of the reasons why Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels stood out head and shoulders above the geezer gangster genre both before and since is that it had a lightness of touch that other film-makers in this genre don’t seem to even aim for. No-one smiles in these films and certainly no-one smiles in this film (the creepy satisfaction on Livenko’s face notwithstanding). Everyone is very serious and, to be honest, quite grumpy.

But there’s nothing wrong with a film that takes itself seriously as a drama. In fact, far too many films nowadays - especially horror films - feel the need to be comedic but are actually spoiled by the intrusion of unfunny wisecracks and crappy sight gags. Classic movies from Citizen Kane to Psycho and beyond have told their stories powerfully and dramatically without feeling the need to lighten the tone.

The second half of Dead Cert’s two-part problem is that the plot makes no real sense. Apart from all the stuff described above, there’s an unexplained attack on an unexplained character called Chelsea Steve (Jason Flemyng: Jack Falls, The Bunker, Quatermass Experiment remake) which really just seems to be there in order to inject some element of vampire horror into the first act. Although this makes no sense unless the vampires can fly, something of which there is no other suggestion, and even then it still makes no sense really. Also, one of the female vampires attacks Jen Christian in her home but there’s no explanation of why. In fact the scene’s randomness is emphasised by the dialogue: “What do you want?” “What makes you think I want anything?” (Despite the putative Dracula inspiration, there is no aspect of the vampire seeking his lost love or anything like that.) There are plenty of other unexplained bits of business and flapping plot threads as well as actually quite important character information that is never revealed, like the fact that Dennis is (according to the DVD commentary) zoned out on Bliss.

Now, as above, let me stress that there is nothing wrong with a film having a silly plot that makes no sense if you stop to think about it. Good grief, this site is full of reviews of such movies, many of them quite laudatory. But here’s the rub. A film can take itself seriously if it has a coherent plot. And a film can play fast and loose with reality, causality and common sense if it does so with a knowing wink and a sense of fun.

But when a picture is fundamentally daft in its story and yet is grimly morose and serious in its approach to that story, then problems arise. Even then, some films manage to get away with this combination of traits (I’m looking at you, Mr Argento) by just being superbly stylish. But, with all due respect to production designer Matthew Button (Rise of the Footsoldier, Doghouse, The Reeds) and the rest of the movie’s art department, there’s nothing really stylish about Dead Cert. There are very few memorable images here. There’s the attack on Chelsea Steve I suppose and a scene of Lisa McAllister licking Craig Fairbrass’ ear, although the latter is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

James Friend, rapidly establishing himself as one of the UK indie scene’s leading cinematographers (Man Who Sold the World, Stalker, Jack Falls), does a sterling job, especially in the big second-act fight scene, assisted by Jason de Vyea’s (Stalker) top-notch editing. But that’s not enough to give Dead Cert the air of impressive style which might have been able to triumph over the sometimes inadequate substance. And in all honesty, Friend does go a bit over the top with the coloured gels in some of the scenes inside the club.

More pertinently, Ben Shillito’s script, to be blunt, doesn’t cut it. There are far too many clunky exposition scenes in which characters sit around and say things like “Tell me that again.” or “So what you’re saying is...” The numerous male characters are almost interchangeable, a bunch of hulking hardman geezer gangsters who don’t know any swear words longer than one syllable and are all somewhere on a spectrum between Craig Fairbrass’ character and, well, any other Craig Fairbrass character. The only two that stand out at all are Magoo, who is also the closest that the film gets to a sense of fun with his spoddy specs and Maurice Micklewhite voice, and Chinnery, who doesn’t have a stand-out character but at least looks different with his receding hairline and his poncy hat.

The Other Steve Lawson’s direction, while it’s an improvement on his debut, Just for the Record, still seems workmanlike and prosaic, lacking the flair that a high-concept film like this demands. There are no wow-moments in Dead Cert, no punch-the-air moments when the audience can be expected to jump from their seats and holler with delight (except, potentially, Danny Dyer’s cameo which is successful casting rather good direction). There isn’t a single zinger line in the script, so far as I can tell: I can barely recall any dialogue beyond the brief examples quoted above. And there’s no real character conflict.

Character conflict (or rather, the lack thereof) is something I’ve moaned about before so maybe I should explain in a little more detail what I mean and what’s involved. Because it’s really very simple. Character conflict is what makes a film interesting, it’s what drives forward the narrative, it’s what develops characters and develops the relationships between characters.

But here’s what character conflict isn’t. It’s not our nominal heroes fighting the bad guys. It’s not protagonist vs antagonist. So it’s not Frankham vs Livenko and it’s not even Frankham vs his conniving, untrustworthy brother-in-law. And it’s certainly not Frankham’s other brother-in-law having seven shades of East End shit kicked out of him by a seven-foot-tall Romanian aurochs. All of those are just ‘conflict’.

Character conflict, in its simplest, purest form, is two sympathetic characters having a go at each other. It’s protagonist vs other protagonist or protagonist vs protagonist’s best buddy or protagonist vs love interest. It’s Leia telling Han “I’d just as soon kiss a wookiee,” or Threepio telling Artoo “Well, you can go that way if you like. I’m not going that way.” It’s Laurel vs Hardy, it’s Steptoe vs Son. It’s any two or more people who can only survive by working together not working together but screaming at each other because they have different ideas about how they might be able to escape from a monster.

And I don’t see it here, sadly, and its absence is profound. Because really, when you’re trapped in a basement and your only way out is to fight your way through a warehouse full of armed, amoral, Eastern European haemovore bastards, there should be one hell of a lot of character conflict.

Character conflict is what makes characters interesting. And the characters in Dead Cert just aren’t very interesting (Billy Murray’s study in placid, implicit evil aside) so we don’t really care very much what happens to them. And we’ve got to care. We’ve got to empathise.

On a technical level, the actual vampire make-up is understated and all the better for that (no silly Buffy foreheads here) except at the end when an injured Livenko turns, inexplicably and rather pointlessly, into some sort of animal-man. There’s no dwelling on injuries but what we see of the blood and gore is well-handled. The fight choreography is terrific, in both the two bare-knuckle bouts (there’s one at the start) and the general off-it-all-kicks geezers-vs-bloodsuckers melĂ©es.

The main technical problem, alas, is the sound. Some of the dialogue is difficult to distinguish; Fairbrass in particular has a tendency to whisper in quiet scenes which sometimes leaves his actual words lost in the mix. It also must be said, quite unequivocally, that the decision to digitally alter Billy Murray’s voice once he sprouts his actual fangs in the climactic scene was abjectly wrong on every conceivable level and is utterly indefensible. It takes the best character in the whole film and turns him into a cartoon. The poor man sounds like he’s wearing one of those Cyberman voice-changer helmets.

The film’s title, incidentally, has no significance. Publicity calls Fairbrass’ character ‘Freddie “Dead Cert” Frankham’ but I don’t think anyone uses that nickname during the actual film. And the fight on which Frankham wagers his livelihood is clearly a long way from being a dead cert. It’s more just a cool phrase with ‘dead’ in it that hasn’t previously been used for a horror movie (although there was that Dick Francis thriller and its cinematic adaptation). The film’s ending sets up a putative sequel, concentrating on a character named Roger Kipling who has been referred to numerous times but taken no direct role in the story. Perhaps in Dead Cert 2 we’ll find out how he manages to bake those exceedingly good cakes...

Craig Fairbrass has had an interesting career, hasn’t he? Back in the mid-1990s he signed a three-picture deal with Paul Brooks whose Metrodome was at that time a UK production company. Those three movies were two John Brosnan adaptations - Proteus and Beyond Bedlam - plus Julian Richards’ debut Darklands (aka The Wicker Man goes to Newport). The second half of the 1990s being pretty much the nadir of genre film production in this country (which ironically coincided with my time on SFX magazine) these three films stood out and made Fairbrass, by default, something of a homegrown horror icon. Roles in Neil Marshall-scripted British action thriller Killing Time and William Mesa’s Bridget Nielsen-starring sci-fi hoopla Terminal Force (aka Galaxis) - not to mention a supporting gig alongside Stallone in Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger - confirmed Fairbrass’ cinematic credentials. But then he seemed to disappear back into the TV-land from whence he had emerged, via featured roles in stuff like Prime Suspect and London’s Burning. He was on EastEnders for a couple of years and was in other odds and sods but the average genre fan would be forgiven for thinking, two or three years ago: whatever happened to Craig Fairbrass?

I know you can’t judge a person’s career from the Inaccurate Movie Database and many are the actors who have actually been very busy (and sometimes even made loads of money) doing radio, theatre, voice-overs or corporates during periods when their IMDB presence has been sparse. Nevertheless, Fairbrass’ re-emergence seems to stem from 2007 when he was in White Noise 2, an episode of Stargate SG-1 and, almost inevitably, Rise of the Footsoldier, a film which seems to have been a jumping off point for a new iteration of the British film industry. A voice gig on top-selling console game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare can’t have hurt his reputation either.

Now Fairbrass is ensconced as a major player in Jonathan Sothcott’s Black and Blue Films stock company with major roles in Just for the Record (er, yes), this film and the upcoming Devil’s Playground. Fairbrass also stars (with Billy Murray and Danny Midwinter) in Freight, a welcome return to the director’s chair for an old mate I haven’t seen in a while, stunt co-ordinator Stuart St Paul (The Usual Children, Devil’s Gate). And he is attached to The Maddening, the first feature from UXB, a new production company set up by - what goes around, comes around - Julian Richards.

So basically Craig Fairbrass, as far as film fans are concerned, has had two careers with a gap of about ten years in the middle. Good luck to the fellow I say. He’s not your obvious leading man - and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that he’s actually better in solid support roles - but he must be doing something right if he’s still starring in action and horror pictures (and if he gets to film scenes where Lisa McAllister licks his ear).

Fairbrass, Murray, McAllister, Dyer and Manookian were also all in Just for the Record, of course, directed by Lawson and part-scripted by Shillito who has a working relationship with the director. To save time when compiling the imminent ‘the cast also includes’ paragraph, I’m just going to put JR for anyone who was involved with that film. Look out , here it comes.

So... the cast also includes Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty (Cave Girl, JR), Ian Virgo (JR, Rise of the Footsoldier), Joe Egan (Jack Said, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, JR), Ciaran Griffiths (JR, Shameless), Janet Montgomery (The Hills Run Red, Wrong Turn 3), Andrew Tiernan (The Bunker, Quatermass Experiment remake, Man Who Sold the World, 300), Jennifer Matter (Stalker), Gino Picciano (Jack Falls, John Landis’ Burke and Hare), Ricky ‘Bulla’ Grover (Tony) as Dennis’ trainer, Coralie Rose (Rise of the Footsoldier) as the club manager and Dennis’ unexplored love interest , Chloe de Burgh (The Last Seven), British-horror favourite Eleanor James (HellBride, The Devil’s Music, Colour from the DarkBordello Death Tales, Harold’s Going Stiff), Pete Morgan (A Day of Violence, Kung Fu Flid, JR), Elly Fairman (who does voices for cartoon-hosted nature documentary Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies on CBeebies!), Hugo Myatt (Knightmare, Snuff-Movie) as a vicar, Victoria Broom (Zombie Women of Satan), Ewan Ross (Kung Fu Flid), Amii Grove (JR), Nick Onsloe (Jack Said, Cut, JR), Stuart Furlong (Jack Said, JR), Allen Lawson (Jack Said, JR), Ellie Stewart (JR) and Corrine Mitchell (JR).

Behind the scenes, other Just for the Record survivors include First AD Dan Mumford (Doctor Who, Doghouse), supervising sound editor Nigel Albermaniche (Stalker, Harry Potter VI) and make-up artist Natalie Wickens (Stalker, Jack Falls, Devil’s Playground). Among those who don’t have that film on their IMDB listing are special effects supervisor Scott McIntyre (Doghouse, The Reeds, Rise of the Footsoldier), digital effects supervisor Alan Marques (Strange, Lost in Space), ‘gore effects’ supervisor Peter Hawkins (Boy Eats Girl, The New Adventures of Pinocchio, Hellboy 2, Doctor Who), stunt co-ordinator Dani Biernat (Devil’s Playground) and special effects supremo Neill Gorton (Doctor Who, Being Human, Strange, From Hell, Breeders).

I’ll tell you what, when I review the next Jonathan Sothcott film I’m going to keep the review shorter by only listing people who weren’t in Just for the Record or Rise of the Footsoldier.

Now, the writing credits on Dead Cert are interesting. It was “written and co-produced” by Ben Shillito and the opening titles add that it was “based on an idea by Garry Charles and Steve Lawson.” I don’t know if this is the same Garry Charles who has written three self-published horror novels including the novelisation(!) of Summer of the Massacre. The IMDB thinks it’s the same fellow.

But the end titles, after repeating Shillito’s credit, seem to offer a revisionist take on the tale’s origins: “Story by Steve Lawson, Ben Shillito, Nick Onsloe and Jonathan Sothcott, from an original story by Garry Charles.” Frankly, I don’t really care who had what idea but I do think the two ends of the film should confer together beforehand and get their stories consistent. And while I’m complaining about the titles, the end credit roll is in a tiny font that is completely unreadable on a standard-size TV. This is not the first film where I’ve noticed this happen and it seems daft. Any movie of this size and shape is mostly going to be viewed on the small screen and its credits should be configured with that in mind.

As mentioned back there somewhere in the ‘cast also includes’ paragraph, story co-originator Nick Onsloe is an actor in the film too (he plays ‘Jonny’, whoever that is); he is also one of no fewer than twelve executive producers. Other exprod cast members are Ricky Grover, Lisa McAllister, Stuart Furlong, Dexter Fletcher and Allen Lawson (who I think is the director’s dad). There are several other exprods - Gary Campbell, Lee Connor, Mark Hall, Will Horn, Alan Worby - and then there’s Martin Kemp who is, of course, one of the partners in Black and Blue Films alongside Billy Murray, Steve Matthews (producer of Channel 5 anthology Urban Gothic) and young Mr Sothcott.

Murray and Sothcott are credited as producers of the film which is a co-production between Black and Blue and Raw Productions (London) Ltd (which has no connection with Thomas Jane’s and Tim Bradstreet’s US company Raw Entertainment). Lawson also gets a producer credit.

The DVD includes a trailer, a 30-minute Making Of which is mostly luvvies saying how marvellous other luvvies are but does have some interesting stuff about effects and stunts, and an entertaining, occasionally candid commentary by Sothcott, Fairbrass, Murray and McAllister. There is also one of those utterly unusable scene selection options where we are supposed to identify a dozen scenes from very small, completely generic close-ups of characters. It’s completely useless if you want to find anything other than the start of the end credits.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 31st August 2010

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