Monday, 17 June 2013

Gnaw

Director: Gregory Mandry
Writers: Michael Bell, Max Waller
Producers: Rob Weston, Simon Sharp
Cast: Hiram Bleetman, Sara Dylan, Gary Faulkner
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener (4Digital Media)


I’m sure even the people who made Gnaw wouldn't deny that it is, at heart, yet another Texas Chainsaw Massacre clone, with the action transplanted to darkest Suffolk (although it was shot in Surrey).

Six young people go away for a weekend, staying on a farm where the friendly old farmer’s wife cooks them a whole range of delicious food. There’s no sign of the farmer, but there is somebody creeping around, watching them (though they’re unaware of this) who turns out to be the old lady’s hulking, silent son. And it’s his job to butcher visitors with assorted farmyard tools before stuffing them into the meatgrinder.

An opening montage of newspaper cuttings about missing people and a caption telling us how many missing person reports are filed each year provides a supposedly chilling context to the story and ultimately leads to an obvious sting about one minute into the seven-minute end credits (without which the film runs a commendably taught 70 minutes, though various sources list 85 or even 90). But really, none of that holds up, and in fact this is another one of those films, like The Scar Crow, where the supposedly unexplained disappearances would spark a massive police operation and murder enquiry.

A group of people going missing on the back roads of Texas is credible. Texas is a big, empty place and neither they nor anyone else knew precisely where they were. A group of friends who fail to return from a weekend away at a B&B in Suffolk, however far it is from the nearest village, would be very, very obvious. In fact, the dialogue makes it clear that at least one of the group has told his mum precisely where they’re going.

And the implication is that this happens on a regular basis, that a whole succession of holidaying young people have ended up in the meatgrinder. I don’t know the Suffolk Constabulary personally but I’m sure they’re not that dim: “Oo-ar, Conztable Robinzon, moy luv. That there be the zixth grooop uv them they townie kidz az haz been boooked into they Blackztock Farrrm and then dizappearrred. Oi don’t be knowin’ wutt to make uv it...”

The plot does depend in various places on people doing things which, even if they’re terrified, are pretty dumb. A prologue shows us a previous occupant of Blackstock Farm’s guest rooms (Jennifer Wren, who provided uncredited voices in WAZ and recently appeared on stage as Mary Shelley) trying to escape, running along a grassy country lane, clad only in a blood- and mud-caked white shift, while a landrover trundles along menacingly behind her. I’d certainly be interested to know if anyone has watched this without thinking - or possibly even shouting at the screen - “Run through the trees, you stupid bitch!”

Anyway, our principal sextet follow the usual rules of a happy couple, an unhappy couple and two singletons. Ed (Hiram Bleetman: Zombie Diaries I and II, Jack Said, Habeas Corpus) and Hannah (actress/model/ballet dancer/choreographer Julia Vandoorne) are the nauseatingly all-over-each-other couple, taking every possible opportunity for a quick shag, venturing into slightly kinky territory with blindfolds and so on. It’s a remarkably effective blindfold in that it somehow prevents Hannah from noticing when the ‘boyfriend’ she’s snogging is about a foot taller and about ten times more muscular with huge, calloused farm-worker’s hands and an unshaven chin (instead of a silly little goatee and moustache which suggests he’s uncertain whether to model himself on Captain Jack Sparrow or Jamiroquai and has hedged his bets).

Jack (New York-trained Nigel Croft Adams) and Jill (Rachel Mitchem, who trained as an opera singer and was in half-hour short Horrorshow and two episodes of EastEnders) have a more tense relationship, as rammed home unsubtly in a game where people have to describe each other. Jack is full of himself while Jill has something of a pole up her arse. They’re not actually at loggerheads but they would be if Jill ever discovers that Jack is carrying on behind her back with morose borderline-emo Lorrie (Sara Dylan: Peridot, Storm). Making up the numbers is slightly drippy Matt (Oliver Lee Squires, who started as a child actor in a Ken Russell film) who has a slight crush on Lorrie but stands no chance.


On the way to the farm, Ed and Hannah accidentally run over a cat which they somehow correctly deduce must belong to Blackstock Farm itself. Instead of simply slinging the corpse into a ditch or indeed just leaving it on the road for the crows and foxes to eat, they decide for some inexplicable reason to put it into a plastic carrier bag and take it with them, with the intention of somehow disposing of it the following day. Hannah actually says “Let’s put it in the boot” although they’re driving a pick-up truck so (a) the vehicle doesn’t have a boot and (b) the bag full of rotting, mangled cat corpse will be very obvious to anyone walking past the truck while it’s parked at the farm.

Interesting fact: if you run over and kill a dog, you are legally required to report it to the police. If you knock down a cat, no-one cares. Cats are everywhere, and feline life is cheap. Anyway, there are a couple of follow-ups later on which suggest that the farm family have found this dead cat, but it’s clearly not motivation because they were evidently planning to butcher the kids in any case.

Carrie Cohen (Hellbreeder) is Mrs Obadiah, landlady of Blackstock Farm, and looks like she’s having a whale of a time in the climactic moments when she goes into full-on, Sheila-Keith, insane old woman mode. Gary Faulkner nicely underplays her son, credited only as ‘The Slaughterman’ (although Faulkner’s CastingCallPro page gives the character’s name as ‘Judd’). Faulkner has subsequently appeared in several public sector corporate promos for Gnaw director Gregory Mandry and was also in a stage production directed by Jennifer Wren. There’s no sign or mention of Mr Obadiah; and I don’t think it’s unkind to assume that the two farm residents are not only mother and son but probably related in several other ways as well. This is Suffolk after all, a part of the country where a posh wedding is any one where the bride’s and groom’s relatives can be sufficiently distinguished to sit on different sides of the church.

There’s some misdirection early on with Matt’s suggestion that the spooky old farmhouse is haunted. There are some stupid practical jokes played by people on other people which are basically just cat-scares. There’s a ballet dancer music box which, in defiance of cliché, has not been left in the untouched bedroom of a dead child. And there’s an unwanted pregnancy subplot which may actually be something new and different in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre clone. But as I haven’t seen every single one I couldn’t swear to that. There is one genuinely effective and chilling moment when Hannah and Ed are so busy sticking their tongues down each other’s throats that neither notices the Slaughterman standing silently in the corner of the room, illuminated for the audience in occasional flashes of light.

Which brings me to my main gripe with Gnaw: the lighting, or lack thereof. This film is incredibly dark. I know a lot of it takes place at night but a lot of the time we just can’t see what is happening. Much of what looks like good production design is thrown away by the camera-work. The skill of night-time cinematography is letting the audience see just enough but Gnaw falls down just the other side of that fine line. I don’t think it’s atmosphere - well, obviously it’s partly about atmosphere - there really do seem to be things that we’re being shown but can’t actually see.

Most notably, the Slaughterman sometimes wears some sort of mask (in fact there’s one scene where he removes it in front of a terrified victim) but we never get a good enough look at it. Is it made of human skin? Is it made from a dead cat? Is he just wearing a hood. We should see this clearly at least once, otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.

For all its generic nature (genericity?) and minor flaws, Gnaw - which premiered at Frighfest 2008 and hit US shelves in 2009 but has taken three years to make it to UK DVD - is a confident and reasonably exciting slice of cannibalistic rural horror. The characters are believable and mostly likeable, even pompous, unfaithful Jack. The acting is generally very good apart from, oddly, occasional individual flat line-readings by various characters, which suggests to me that the problem might lie with Gregory Mandry’s direction rather than the cast, most of whom have very impressive stage-training backgrounds.

The script by Michael Bell and Max Waller gives the impression that this was intended as a black comedy but it hasn’t ended up that way and the occasional humorous line therefore sticks out like a chopped-off thumb rather than being part of a consistent whole. Bell was a production designer (including The Zombie Diaries) and award-winning pop video director while Waller produced operas(!) but they are now concentrating on their work as a scriptwriting partnership. The duo share story credit with producer Rob Weston (another Zombie Diaries alumnus - he was line producer). The other producer, Simon Sharp, was also 1st AD. Bell and Marc Seery (the Newcastle-based marketing guy?) are credited as executive producers.

Production designer Tony Noble has credits stretching right back to the early 1970s when he worked on infamous David Warbeck-starring thriller The Sex Thief and Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different. He mostly designs commercials but his other features include Whoops Apocalypse and Moon. Hayley Nebauer (Doghouse, The Reeds, Rise of the Footsoldier) designed the costumes. Unfortunately, much of their work on Gnaw is obscured by Tom Jenkins’ cinematography, which is not helped by some irritatingly shaky handheld camera-work. (Jenkins gets a second credit as one of two camera operators.)

Hair and make-up is credited to Florence May Carter whose short film work includes Walker Stalker, Corpse and the probably brilliant Hands Solo, a comedy about a deaf guy who becomes an unwitting porn star, with Vickie Ellis listed as ‘key hair and make-up artist’. Editor Mark Towns also cut slick-but-boring martial arts picture Underground and something about six years ago called The Battersea Ripper aka Manilla Envelopes, starring Danny Dyer, which is completely absent from the IMDB for some reason. Sound recordist Simon Bysshe (boom operator on the Jack Black Gulliver’s Travels, the remake of Brideshead Revisited and The Hurt Locker) interestingly dates Gnaw to 2005 in his CV, suggesting that it was a long, fragmented shoot.

Backing up this theory is the fact that, as well as an actual ‘second unit’ (directed by Michael Bell, DPed by Rupe Whiteman: Charlie Noades RIP), the credits group the crew members together into three further units defined by location. The Eastbourne Unit shot at Pekes Manor, the Dorking Unit shot at Dunley Hill Farm (the postal address for Mandry’s Big Yellow Feet production company), while the Farnham/A30 unit shot at Frensham Manor, Pitt Farm and the Snack Wagon burger van - which gets its own location credit! The identity of the DP/camera operator on the Farnham/A30 unit is hidden behind the Discworld-inspired pseudonym ‘Samuel Inigo Vimes’; the busy Michael Bell was unit production designer while Leona Wilson handled hair and make-up. James Morgan was special effects assistant on the Eastbourne Unit.

And therein lies the biggest mystery of Gnaw. Despite the wide range of stabbings, hackings and other violent, bloody acts on show (including a tongue-removal) there is no credit for special effects supervisor. James Morgan is the only named FX person, although Leona Wilson is apparently a horror movie fan and so presumably contributed some of the gore. In the end credits (which are padded out with 109 individually listed ‘thank you’s!) there are five companies listed as having provided ‘SFX/prosthetics’. Animated Effects contributed to Alien Vs Predator, LD50, Resident Evil, Dust, Shadow of the Vampire, Highlander IV, Death Machine, Mary Reilly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and oodles of other films. Breakaway Effects specialise, as the name suggests, in breakable props. I can’t find anything on Evolution Effects (unless it’s the US company of that name) and Model Supplies is likewise too generic a name to research. And SFX GB is the trading name of Neal Champion whose credits include Strange, Dead Set, Ashes to Ashes, the 2009 Day of the Triffids, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Nine Lives and Pandaemonium. But an actual FX supervisor credit? No sign of one. Does that mean whoever fulfilled that role asked for their name to be removed? Gnaw isn’t anywhere near being that bad.


One final note: composer Mark Hill scored several top ten hits in the late 1990s as The Artful Dodger and subsequently produced Craig David records, which is, it must be said, a more appalling and horrific thought than anything which crossed my mind while watching Gnaw.

[One final, final note. Selecting images for this I found two variant sleeves for the French DVD, retitled Cannibal Kitchen. One calls this 'Un film de Gregory Mandry' but a presumably earlier version has 'Un film de Frank Merle'. US director Merle did indeed make a film called Gnaw but it's a zombie short, not this one. The perils of marketing people relying on IMDB! - MJS]

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 13th February 2011

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