Thursday 4 April 2013

Devil's Playground

Director: Mark McQueen
Writer: Bart Ruspoli
Producers: Jonathan Sothcott, Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Cast: Craig Fairbrass, Danny Dyer, Lisa McAllister
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: Festival screening (Day of the Undead 2010)

A few weeks, when ago I reviewed Dead Cert, a vampire movie starring Craig Fairbrass, Danny Dyer and Lisa McAllister, produced by Jonathan Sothcott, I observed that one of the film’s biggest failings was the lack of character conflict.

Well now here comes Devil’s Playground, a zombie movie starring Craig Fairbrass, Danny Dyer and Lisa McAllister, produced by Jonathan Sothcott. It’s better then Dead Cert and one reason is because it has absolutely lashings of character conflict. Good show.

This is a film of two halves and I definitely preferred the second. which is corking stuff. The first half seemed chaotic and confused and was much less satisfying. I think that’s because the first half is about where the zombies come from and also spends a lot of time introducing us to the various characters. And this is not what most great zombie films do.

The Romero-esque zombie plague is so enshrined in not just cinema but broader popular culture that we absolutely don’t need to know what’s causing it. Right back as far as the original Night of the Living Dead, the actual reason why the dead were rising and walking and looking to eat the living was simply glossed over - and of course in Dawn, Day and all the other sequels and spin-offs and remakes it’s simply been taken as read (whatever retconned explanations may be offered).

28 Days Later blamed the rage virus, released by animal rights idiots, but that was just a brief prologue. Just like vampires and werewolves and other iconic monsters, zombies don’t need an explanation, they just need the rules established. How fast can they move? How can they be killed? These matter. Where they came from or what caused all this is something that should concern us as little as it usually concerns the characters, especially as, after a very short time, the place where most of them came from is: they were bitten by other zombies.

And Devil’s Playground does have, it must be said, a strong contender for the dumbest premise of any zombie film ever made. A new drug called RAK-295 has been developed for ... something. And by way of a clinical trial it has been injected into exactly 30,000 people in Britain who have then been left to go about their ordinary lives for two months. Yep, I can see you getting ethical approval for that from the Medical Research Council.

But wait, it gets better. 29,999 of the test subjects have been located (the number is stated specifically) and have shown extreme adverse reactions to RAK-295 but subject number 00001 cannot be found. This is Angela (MyAnna Buring: The Descent, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Kill List) and unless I missed something it’s not entirely clear why she can’t be found. She’s hardly disappeared into the wilderness, she’s living in a house in London with her friend Kate (Lisa McAllister: Pumpkinhead 3). She has a boyfriend Joe (the ubiquitous Danny Dyer) and a brother Matt (screenwriter Bart Ruspoli) who is a river cop.

The always debonair Colin Salmon (three Bond films and two episodes of Doctor Who) is Peter White, CEO of the company responsible, called Nu-Gen in the dialogue but with a logo that just says N-Gen. He’s worried about the extreme adverse reactions, which include little things like turning into hyperactive, ravenous, cannibalistic zombies with big blue veins all over the place. But he is even more worried about the disappearance of Angela and sets his Head of Security, Cole, to find her.

Cole is played by Craig Fairbrass (Darklands etc) in, it must be said, one of his best roles. It’s a role that is just right for Fairbrass, who functions well as the nominal lead within a very good ensemble cast (in that the film is book-ended by a scene of Cole talking to a webcam). It’s certainly better than his geezer gangster role in Dead Cert which had no depth and traded on obvious stereotypes. Cole isn’t a geezer gangster. He’s a hard man, yes, but he has a depth that Freddie Frankham would never have had, no matter who played him.

That said, it does make me smile, the idea that any sort of corporation would have a Head of Security who looks anything like Craig Fairbrass. Heads of Security aren’t hard men, they’re old, miserable blokes with beer bellies, receding hairlines, inferiority complexes and jobsworth attitudes. They’re little Hitlers with petty obsessions whose only shred of joy is in saying no to people: “Can’t do that. ... Just not possible. ... Health and safety, you see.”

It takes a while for the central group to meet up as London gradually falls apart under the advancing hordes of zombies who have, I suppose, all escaped from Nu-Gen’s labs, or something. To be honest, none of this grabbed my attention. I don’t care where the zombies come from, nor do I care how they take over the world. The interest starts when most of the world has been taken over and our survivors have to, well, survive.

One of the problems that Angela and Kate face is traffic gridlock caused by people trying to get away from zombies (or get away from something anyway) but there’s really no way that a traffic jam can be interesting. Not in a zombie film. Move on. Stick our characters in a building and let the zombies lay siege to it.

Eventually our characters get stuck in a building and the zombies lay siege to it. It’s some sort of workshop in the middle of some large patch of waste ground. In the middle of London. I don’t know London that well, I’m sorry. Joe arrives there with his mate Steve (Craig Conway: Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, Hogfather) and eventually Kate and Angela make it, but so does Cole. And so do two city types: Geoffrey (Shane Taylor: Band of Brothers, Day of the Triffids remake - with a very believable American accent) and Lavinia (Jaime Murray: The Deaths of Ian Stone, Warehouse 13).

Frankly it was these last two which really grabbed me as characters because they exhibit a wonderful moral ambiguity. All of the others have some sort of connection or loyalty, even Cole whose primary objective is to keep Angela alive. Of course, Joe wants to keep Angela alive too, but for different reasons, especially when she reveals that she is pregnant. That makes Joe even more determined to keep her not only alive but away from Cole whose primary mission is to get Angela somewhere that she can be examined so that the reason for her immunity can be determined.

And Kate is Angela’s friend and Steve is Joe’s friend. But Geoffrey and Lavinia are just two strangers who came across the same shed and begged to be let in. They don’t know anyone and they don’t trust anyone and they’re bubbling over with both character conflict and internal conflict. Should they stay? Should they go? Should they do what they’re told?

Cole is absolutely adamant that they should do precisely what he says, but there’s no real reason to follow Cole. Okay, there’s a practical reason in that he’s a big, angry bloke with a big, angry gun. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that he is a natural leader, that he knows what’s going on more than anyone else or that he is wise and will make sound decisions based on good judgement and clear foresight.

No, he’s just a bloke with a gun.

The escape plan involves a helicopter which is parked on another piece of waste ground further along the Thames. Matt and his partner can fly it and they have their own little B-story, rowing along the Thames, their motorboat having been taken by another river cop who is played by Sean Pertwee (Mutant Chronicles etc) in a cameo as tiny and inconsequential as the dab of glue holding his dodgy false moustache on his upper lip.

So if everyone can liaise at the chopper, they can make it out of London, albeit in groups because it can only hold four people. This is the cause of much of the resentment. Geoffrey and Lavinia see no reason why the others should come back for them. And all the while there’s the threat of zombie danger within their midst as certain characters have been bitten and could turn any time. Not to mention the salient fact that, just because Angela has displayed no symptoms yet, doesn’t mean she won’t go the same way as the other 29,999 patients.

There is an enormous discrepancy in how long it takes bitten people to turn zombie. Some go almost instantly, others last for ages, but that creates tension of course (and to be fair most medical conditions can take a varying length of time to become active). And this works on two levels: not just suspicion and caution as the story unfolds but also the fear that, if someone turns zombie in the helicopter, the other occupants are all doomed. Cole actually has a small supply of antidote which he uses to keep himself human although that’s a plot angle that is never explored, either in terms of what it means for Cole as an individual or the implications it has for the story overall.

I’m not going to go into any details of who does what and who says what and what happens when in Devil’s Playground, partly because these developments are the meat of this terrific second half of the film, and partly because it gets quite complicated. Not difficult to follow - actions are logical, characters are consistent - but I didn’t take detailed notes so I can’t recall most of the specifics. But trust me: it’s the sort of shifting alliances and revision of relationships that makes for a great zombie film.

One thing missing, one piece of subgenre iconography that I missed, was squaddies. Almost all great British horror films (and some of the less great ones) feature the British army in some way, from The Quatermass Xperiment to Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later. While the army doesn’t appear, the Royal Navy does, at least off-screen, when a radio message reveals that a British destroyer is moored in the Thames estuary and is encouraging everyone who hears to get into boats and travel down the Thames for rescue. I really liked this, it’s a very sound plan.

Production values are solid; the budget didn’t stretch to actually showing the warship (not a problem) but they were able to spring for a real helicopter (sort of). Among a generally very fine cast the only weak point is lead Nu-Gen scientist Dr Brooke played by Del Henney who was Charlie Venner in Straw Dogs. I can’t tell if the problem is poor acting or rotten lines of dialogue and I suspect it’s both, although thankfully Dr Brooke dies fairly early on and the average on both counts improves considerably thereafter.

Also in the cast are Martin Butler (Killer Bitch, Jack Falls), Victoria Pritchard (Holby City, Emmerdale), Michael Eaves (who has had supporting roles in episodes of Chucklevision!) and Nick Cavaliere (Gladiatress). The zombies are mostly portrayed by parkour free-runners, making this the second British horror film to pick up on the potential of this sport, but it is not nearly as effective here as it was in F. The quasi-supernatural hoodies of Johannes Roberts’ film displayed an agility that was spooky, unnerving and belied their killer-chav appearance. They had a grace which was at odds with the evidence of their extreme violence and this dichotomy added greatly to the sense of dread which they exuded.

The zombies in Devil’s Playground run around very fast; well, we’re used to that since 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. There’s the occasional shot of a zombie jumping onto a wall or vaulting through an open car window but these seem arbitrary and token. The zombies’ athleticism doesn’t add anything to the danger they represent. Without the parkour moves, the ‘chav-ghouls’ in F would just be, well, chavs and the movie would just be Eden Lake in a school, but the gymnastics add to our fear because we know that, although people can do those things, slacker kids high on miaow-miaow and alcopops certainly can’t. Whereas it’s no surprise that zombies can jump onto walls because, well, they’re zombies. Who knows what they’re capable of.

Paul Corkery, founder of the Urban Freeflow organisation, is credited as ‘free-running co-ordinator’ with Dani Biernat as stunt co-ordinator. Biernat was Renee Zellweger’s stunt double for Bridget Jones’ Diary, was stunt co-ordinator on Dead Cert, Malice in Wonderland and Bulla and has done stunts for many cool productions from The Phantom Menace to Doctor Who and Life on Mars. But more than that, she played purple-gowned, red-haired vampire Nemesis in Anglo-Greek ultra-obscurity Sentinels of Darkness!

In the increasingly complex web of specific effects credits that follows every modern fantasy film, the ‘senior creature effects technician’ was Peter Hawkins (The New Adventures of Pinocchio, Boy Eats Girl, Wild Country, Inkheart, Skellig, Dead Cert) while the ‘senior special effects technician’ was Graham Hills (Virtual Sexuality, Doomwatch TV movie, The Dark, Battle for Haditha, Doomsday, The Expendables) and the ‘visual effects supervisor’ was Jonathan Cheetham (Chemical Wedding, Book of Blood, Surviving Evil and the agonisingly disappointing puppet movie Jackboots on Whitehall).

Natalie Wickens (Stalker, Jack Falls) and My Alehammar (Doghouse, Beacon77, The Reeds) are credited as ‘key make-up artists’; both also worked on Dead Cert, Just for the Record and Bulla. First Assistant Director Alison B Matthews has ADed on various soaps and dramas but her crowning achievement must surely be her work on one of the best kids’ shows of recent years, the sublimely hilarious Little Howard’s Big Question. Second unit director Tiffany Ballou could be one to watch; although her CV is mostly factual stuff like The Gadget Show and How to Look Good Naked, she clearly has a love for the fantastique and has produced a seven-minute trailer for a proposed series called Monsters (written by Steve Turnbull, directed by Chris Payne),

Cinematographer Jason Shepherd was DP on two much earlier UK zombie movies, I, Zombie and Dead Creatures and has since carved out a solid career in filming music concerts, having worked with Paul McCartney, the White Stripes, Take That, Kaiser Chiefs, McFly and many others. Australian born editor Rob Hall has worked in the cutting room on Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Minotaur and a bizarre-looking Anglo-Kiwi short called Night of the Hell Hamsters! Production designer Sophie Wyatt’s credits include Cut, Jack Said and Just for the Record. She also designed the recent British horror short Get Well Soon aka The Bath. Art director Lee Whiteman worked on Eitan Arrusi’s Reverb and costume designer Millie Sloan is working on the The Zombie Diaries 2.

Screenwriter (and producer) Bart Ruspoli, who is UK-born of Italian descent, is primarily an actor whose previous work includes EastEnders, 2.4 Children, Band of Brothers and two Andrew Parkinson features - Dead Creatures and Venus Drowning. Along with Ruspoli and young Mr Sothcott, the third producer is Freddie Hutton-Mills, partner with Ruspoli in HMR Films, whose writing credits include 160 editions of bonkers Japanese mayhem Takeshi’s Castle! The executive producers include Jeremy Burdek, Adrian Politowski and Nadia Khamlichi of uMedia Family who have previously backed several other horror pictures including The Pack, Vampire Party and Book of Blood - as well as numerous other (mostly French) films.

Although it’s not been widely publicised, Devil’s Playground is actually an expanded version of a 2002 short written and produced by Ruspoli called The Long Night, which was directed by Isabelle Defaut (who had a small role in Just for the Record - see how it all fits together?). In the short, Ruspoli played Joe, Naomi Martin played Angela and Treva Sely was Steve. Lavinia and Geoffrey were played by Catherine Siggins (who was in the Sothcott-produced short Kharma Magnet) and William Villiers while Ben Shafik (who has a small role here as Cooper, although I’m not sure who that is) was ‘Mickey’ which may be the equivalent of the Cole character. There have been a lot of short films called The Long Night (including at least one other zombie film) but I can’t find any information anywhere on screenings of the Defaut/Ruspoli short. Presumably The Long Night is, in essence, the middle act of Devil’s Playground and presumably that explains why the film is so much stronger after the opening act. It’s a shame it couldn’t have been included on the Devil’s Playground DVD.

Early posters describe Devil’s Playground as ‘A Bart Ruspoli Film’ so he may have had the intention of directing it as well as writing and producing. The directing gig was actually offered to Scott Mann whose debut feature The Tournament has won good reviews as a fine British actioner. But when Mann was offered a different gig elsewhere he suggested The Tournament’s second unit director Mark McQueen whose petrolhead career has included directing stuff for Men and Motors and Fifth Gear plus the title sequence for coverage of the Red Bull X-Games and the Making Of for Jeremy Clarkson’s excellent documentary about the St Nazaire raid.

Ruspoli’s dialogue is excellent (Dr Brooke aside) and his plotting strong, especially after the first act. McQueen directs with a deft touch, integrating action scenes and character stuff seamlessly to create a coherent (and thoroughly enjoyable) whole. It’s snowing in some scenes (real I assume) and not in others but I never caught the weather changing from shot to shot and it’s actually quite nice to have a zombie film that happens somewhere damp, miserable and cold.

In the relatively limited (but ever-expanding) pantheon of UK zombie films, Devil’s Playground is a very respectable entry indeed. What it gets right - understanding that the infighting between characters is at least as important as the bits where folk get eaten - more than makes up for what it doesn’t get right: basically too much time spent explaining the zombies’ origins. Towards the end of the film, there are a couple of real punch-the-air moments (one of which is pure Butch-and-Sundance) and by then Devil’s Playground has you thoroughly on its side, really caring about these characters and really concerned for their fate.

Like all good zombie films, this is not about how the characters can survive zombies, it’s about how the characters can survive each other in the face of a zombie attack.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 21st November 2010

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