Sunday 24 March 2013

The Eschatrilogy

Director: Damian Morter
Writer: Damian Morter
Producer: Nicola Morter
Cast: Tim McGill-Grieveson, Paul Collin-Thomas, Sarah-Jane Honeywell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener

In recent years Britain has produced some stunningly good zombie films: Colin, Zomblies, The Dead to name just a few. Also a certain amount of generic silliness of course; this is a subgenre which lends itself to genericness (genericity?). Now say hello to The Eschatrilogy, a film which definitely sits in the former category. This is a thoughtful, imaginative, moving, finely-crafted zombie movie with something to say, and it is very definitely deserving of your attention.

Which is slightly odd because the actual zombies here depicted are about as generic as they get. Dozens of locally recruited extras in old clothes with pale faces, staring eyes, dribbling mouths, outstretched arms and shuffling feet. They do everything you expect, except moan “Bwaaaiiins!” But here’s where the husband and wife team of Damian and Nicola Morter have got it right. They clearly know that zombie films aren’t about zombies (unless it’s something odd like Colin or I, Zombie). No, zombie films are about people. The zombie hoards are a force, like a storm or a tidal wave or an earthquake. It’s the people that matter: how they are affected, how they react, how they cope.

The Eschatrilogy reminded me a little of The Zombie Diaries, not in stylistic terms - no camcorder footage here - but in the way that it tells three stories which illustrate three stages of a zombie outbreak. Our first tale ‘Dead Inside’ (the titles are in the publicity but not on screen, not even in the credits) concerns a painter-and-decorator who goes off to do one last job and gets bitten by a freshly turned zombie. His wife and young daughter are alone in their house when the exponentially growing undead hoards come calling - including Daddy. Is he a threat? Is he a monster? Does a spark of humanity still burn within him? Will he recognise his daughter and understand what she once meant to him?

‘Dead Inside’ is a story about family, about parents and children, about love and responsibility. And what surprised me as I watched The Eschatrilogy is that these themes are in fact at the core of all three tales. Being a parent of a young tyke myself, I have a certain attitude towards this approach which might not be so overt in someone without offspring. I don’t know if the Morters have any kids themselves*, but on the basis of this film they would probably be great parents. And how cool would that be in the playground? “What does your dad do?” “He writes and directs horror movies.” “Flippin’ 'eck, what does your mum do?” “She produces the horror movies for my dad.”

Anyway, the second story is ‘The Dying Breed’ and takes a different approach to the subject. Where ‘Dead Inside’ questioned the extent to which the zombies are like us, ‘The Dying Breed’ asks how similar we might become to the zombies. A young man named Alex is forced to kill his girlfriend. Baseball bat in hand, he sets out through the rubbish-strewn, deserted streets (tremendous art direction, although weirdly there seems to be no credited art director or production designer). When Alex sees a father trying to protect his little boy from the undead, he refuses to get involved. His humanity expended, is Alex now a monster? He searches out his mother, finds his sister and discovers his nephew - more family relationships torn apart by the apocalypse - before facing his nightmares. Is this vengeance, justice or irony?

The first tale told of the start of the zombie plague, in story two it was already established. Our third tale, ‘A Father for the Dead’, is set later still, when there are only a few survivors, desperately searching the countryside for non-existent help. Another father with a young son; this time the child has been bitten but has not yet transformed. It will happen; it’s just a matter of time.

Pausing for a rest at an isolated building, they encounter two people with differing views on what should be done with the boy and also another ‘father’ - a priest with his own strange ideas about what is happening to the world. As with The Zombie Diaries, the greatest threat to humanity in a world over-run by zombies is not the undead, it’s other survivors. (This story was originally shot as a short film; then, when the Morters decided to expand the idea into a feature, they worked backwards, asking where the zombies in this tale originated. The feature was then shot in 2011/12, including a remade version of ‘A Father for the Dead’.)

These simplistic plot descriptions only touch the surface of three stories which, despite each only being 20-30 minutes long, are character-led, thought-provoking pieces. Some of the acting in the first story is a little wooden, which is a shame as the script is clearly well-written with naturalistic dialogue, but things rapidly pick up in that area and in fact most of the performances are top-notch. In particular, Paul Collin-Thomas (also in the Morters’ first feature Bicycle Day) is magnificent as Alex in the middle-story, carrying the first part of the tale with no dialogue at all and then powerfully presenting the moral and ethical chaos of an ordinary bloke caught up in a nightmare, torn between personal survival, family values and the honourable option of helping strangers.

David Frampton (who was in Steve Balderson’s UK-set comedy caper Culture Shock) also impresses as the dad in the third story, a middle-class parent who contrasts with the predominantly working class characters featured in most of the film. Flynn Allen, who does a grand job as the infected son, was also in Scar Tissue. (Young talent props also to Francesca Turton, the daughter in the first story.)

If The Eschatrilogy was just a straightforward portmanteau film, it would be a good movie. What raises it to the level of a great movie is the framing story, set at a later date still. Tim McGill-Grieveson (a production assistant on Bicycle Day who gets a 2nd AD credit here) plays Matthew, a young man who has built himself a forest camp and keeps himself sane, in his far-from-splendid isolation, by collecting and burning bodies. A long (but not overly long), atmospheric title sequence introduces us to Matthew’s post-apocalyptic life. Then, staggering into his camp, comes a gaunt stranger, played by the director. There is a brief - but gloriously succinct - exchange of dialogue before the stranger collapses. Matthew ties him up, just to be on the safe side, then find a thick hardback book in the stranger’s bag.

It is in this book that Matthew reads the stories which make up the main parts of the film. But how have they been written? Did the stranger write them himself? Are they fact, fiction, or something inbetween? And what about the mysterious figure referred to as being the cause of the zombie plague?

This tall, brooding, faceless, silent figure (on the poster/DVD sleeve) provides a distinctive and intriguing mystical angle to what might otherwise have been an off-the-shelf zombie apocalypse. He causes the first dead to rise, he directs them in their mission of destruction and death. Is he in fact Death himself? A fallen angel? With long hair, a big, long coat and a leather cowboy hat, he could be mistaken for the lead singer of Fields of the Nephilim. Or Alan Ronald. Whoever and whatever he is, and whether or not he exists or is just part of the stranger’s fictional world, or even if he is just a metaphor on the part of someone, somewhere, at some level of reality, the simple fact is that his presence in the story elevates The Eschatrilogy to the level of something special.

Rather wonderfully, the film weaves little clues and asides into the script which indicate links between all four stories. Characters from one tale appear briefly in others. This is an enigmatic, fascinating film which doesn’t provide all the answers but gives us plenty to discuss and debate. In other words, the sort of film I love.

Dean Hinchcliffe’s digital photography is absolutely fabulous throughout the movie, in both day and night scenes, complemented by Damian Morter’s own fine editing. And the Carpenter-esque score by Rob Wingfield will have soundtrack fans grinning with delight. A small army of credited make-up artists, marshalled by Anne Derbyshire, provided the ghouls’ pasty faces and all the injuries. And a tip o’the hat to stills photographer Oliver Kershaw whose publicity photos are a level above what one usually sees with low-budget productions like this.

Among the featured cast are Stuart Wolfenden (Dead Man’s Shoes), stunt co-ordinator Sam Cullingworth (Silent Cradle, Freight), Clay Whitter (The Turing Enigma), Neil Adams (Tash Force), Anna Batho (who was in Philip Gardiner’s One Hour to Die), Chris Knight (Strippers vs Werewolves, Cockneys vs Zombies), George Newton (Dead Man’s Shoes, Inbred), Val Monk (Philip Gardiner’s Dark Watchers: The Women in Black), Clare Roters (Wraith), Kris Sommerville (Cockneys vs Zombies, Jack Falls, The Warning) and Eirian Cohen (a Gardiner regular, in Dark Watchers, Awesome Killer Audition and Exorcist Chronicles, also Twisted: The Devil in her Mind).

But the stand-out bit of casting for me, being a dad with a kid of a certain age, is Sarah-Jane Honeywell as one of a group who arrive at Matthew’s compound in an epilogue. For a few years, Sarah-Jane was in the Simpson household every day on CBeebies, presenting Tikkabilla or Higgledy House (great slapstick show!) or just the interstitial bits between programmes. I recall seeing Sarah-Jane and the legend that is Justin Fletcher hosting the first ever CBeebies tour in Nottingham. Tweenies, Bob the Builder, Pingu, Postman Pat - my god, it was like the Live Aid of pre-school television. Now, Chris and Pui are okay, and Justin is a comedy god, but there was always something about Sarah-Jane Honeywell. She came across as a minx, an imp; you found yourself adopting a Yoda voice and musing “Hmm, feisty one, this presenter is.” Or was that just me?

Last year, Honeywell got some tabloid publicity for some slightly risqué photos, confirming her status as one of those female kids TV presenters - like Konnie Huq on Blue Peter, Maggie Philbin on Swap Shop or Jenny Hanley on Magpie - with definite dad-appeal over and above her actual televisual talents. She obviously has an acting background, and now here she is, faced caked in mud, traipsing through a post-apocalyptic woodland and telling one of her companions that if he touches her she’ll “rip his fucking balls off.” You go, girl! (In fact SJH has two horror credits as she is also in Chris Clark and Richard Dutton’s as-yet-unreleased supernatural chiller Shadows of a Stranger, which I’m very much looking forward to.)

So anyway, that’s The Eschatrilogy. It’s great and I have no doubt it will go down a storm at festivals and find distribution. My one concern is... the title. I assume it’s a sort of pun on ‘eschatology’, which the OED defines as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things’: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.” Yes, that sort of sums up the film. But I honestly can’t see a distributor, or at least a UK distributor, sticking with that title. Distributors don’t like titles that don’t actually mean something. Or ones that look hard to spell and pronounce. And they really, really like zombie films to have the word ‘zombie’ in the title. Or at least ‘undead’. That’s why Horrors of War was released here as Zombies of War; why Battlefield Death Tales was released as Nazi Zombie Death Tales; and why Zombie Undead sailed through the whole distribution minefield with no problem.

Truth be told, I’m not sold on ‘The Eschatrilogy’ either, despite its Google-friendly distinctiveness. I don’t know what else the film might be called. But whatever it’s called, it’s a belter. I can often judge what a film will be like, ten minutes in (though not always), by what I’m saying to the television. Of the last couple of indie features I watched, which I didn’t review, one had me telling the TV: “This is just boring. I’m bored.” The other prompted constant comments along the lines of: “I have absolutely no idea what is going on here.” At the end of each, I was still respectively bored and mystified.

But when I watched The Eschatrilogy a few nights back, ten minutes in I told the television: “This is really good. This is terrific.” And I wasn’t wrong.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 25th August 2012
*I have subsequently learned that they have five.

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