Thursday, 19 September 2013

Venus Drowning

Director: Andrew Parkinson
Writer: Andrew Parkinson
Producer: Andrew Parkinson
Cast: Jodi Jameson, Bart Ruspoli, Frida Show
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (FFF 06)

It’s an odd thing to say about a film which opens with a young woman slitting her wrists, but Venus Drowning is not nearly as bleak or depressing as the director’s previous films.

Andy Parkinson is the fellow who brought us the brilliant I, Zombie - George Romero meets Ken Loach - and followed it with a partner piece, Dead Creatures, which was about a group of women where the first film had been about a single bloke. But there’s no zombies on show here, just a very, very weird thing lying on a beach.

Jodi Jameson stars as Dawn who, after her failed suicide attempt, is recommended by her psychiatrist (Brendan Gregory: Dr Reece in Dead Creatures) to spend sometime away from London, preferably at a location which has happy memories for her. She heads to the (out of season) seaside and takes up residence in an old family flat where she spent childhood holidays. Some of her toys and drawings are still there. Although she doesn’t know anyone in the town, she strikes up a friendship with local taxi driver John (Bart Ruspoli: Christian in Dead Creatures, later writer/producer of Devil's Playground) which looks promising.

She also finds a small, weird, limbless, faceless creature on the beach and, for some reason, decides to take it home and care for it. It’s alive, but what is it? We never find out and, frankly, that’s not what matters.

What matters is that the the creature somehow feeds on orgasmic energy - something that Dawn discovers after her visiting friend Milla (Frida Show, who subsequently played the title role in a biopic of Warhol starlet Nico) beds John one night - and it excretes an addictive slime which Dawn tastes - as you do. From this oddball scenario there develops a relationship between Dawn and the creature which is at one and the same time maternal and sexual, something which would obviously be creepy even if one of the participants wasn’t a squidgy creature from the tideline.

The idea of something which feeds on sexual energy is not completely original; the bonkers 1980s sci-fi film Liquid Sky (which Parkinson says he hasn’t seen) used a similar premise, but with tiny aliens in a flying saucer instead of a miniature marine monstrosity. The beastie grows in size and extends a tendril which makes its search for energy dangerous, even fatal, and although Dawn is not the direct cause of this, the film stands thematic comparison with Penetration Angst and Evil Clutch as well as the aforementioned Liquid Sky.

But the most obvious comparison is the work of David Cronenberg, most specifically The Brood - and this is an influence to which the director does admit. The precise nature of the creature isn’t important, no more than it was in The Brood or Shivers. What matters is how people react to it. (Parkinson describes it as “an alien baby mermaid with a mouth like a vagina.”)

Venus Drowning is a very weird film: part psychological introspection, part B-movie creature feature. It’s a movie which raises lots of questions but provides few answers and I like that. Fans of Parkinson’s work will lap this up and the absence of zombies proves that he’s no one-trick pony. That said, those people who hated I, Zombie because it wasn’t full of staggering cadavers moaning “Bwains!” will be equally confused and disappointed by Venus Drowning. Andrew Parkinson makes thinky films; if you don’t want to think, there’s a whole world of other films out there you can go watch.

Filmed in Cromer on the Norfolk coast in early 2004, Venus Drowning started playing festivals in 2006 and I caught it at the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester where, despite a midnight slot, it was warmly received by a good crowd who not only stayed to hear the director speak but insisted that he did so. Cinematographer Jason Shepherd, who has worked on concert videos for the likes of Snow Patrol and the White Stripes, continues his association with Parkinson, expertly shooting here on a mixture of Super-16, Super-8, Digibeta, Beta SP and DVcam, depending on what the scene demanded in terms of the main character’s psychological state.

The stars of I, Zombie, Dean Sipling and Ellen Softley, helped with casting the film and Softley also appears briefly as Dawn’s mother. Parkinson himself makes an uncredited Hitchcock-ian cameo as a man with a metal detector. Mike Tucker, well-known for his effects work on Red Dwarf and Doctor Who, created the ‘thing’.

One day, somebody is going to write a great , and possibly quite pretentious, thesis about the work of Andrew Parkinson because each of his films gives so much opportunity to discuss, debate and argue: what is going on and what does it mean?

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 13th November 2006

Friday, 13 September 2013

Hell Asylum

Director: Danny Draven
Writer: Trent Haaga
Producer: Tammi Sutton
Cast: Debra Mayer, Tanya Dempsey, Sunny Lombardo
Year of release: 2002
Country: USA
Reviewed from: US DVD (Tempe)

The ghastly phenomenon that was ‘reality TV’ - surely the least entertaining ‘entertainment’ idea ever - did at least spawn a tiny sub-sub-subgenre of movies taking the idea to the sort of level that it deserved, something where the self-obsessed fools who ‘starred’ in these shows, and the mindless executive morons who ran them, got what they deserved. To the likes of Series 7: The Contenders, Halloween: Resurrection and My Little Eye let us welcome Danny Draven’s Hell Asylum.

Tim Muskatell (The Ghouls, Unspeakable) plays Max, a TV executive who dreams up The Chill Challenge: fill a spooky old house with hidden cameras, put five hot chicks in there and prey on their worst fears - whoever survives till morning wins a million dollars. It should be stressed that this is not a Seduction Cinema movie like Naked Survivor, where any young ladies in peril will, de facto, turn out to be horny lesbians. Hell Asylum stars five very good actresses, playing five well-rounded, if clearly delineated, characters, and there is no nudity whatsoever.

Of course, the whole set-up is rigged - Max doesn’t want to shell out the million bucks - but things go wrong when it transpires that the building actually is haunted. By some very nasty, cowled, cannibalistic ghouls, one of whom, incredibly, is the gorgeous Brinke Stevens (The Naked Monster etc) under a ton of blue make-up. People start to die in particularly gruesome ways, a situation not helped by accidents and mistakes brought on by the confusion between the supernatural reality and the ‘reality’ created for the cameras.

From what is really a very simple premise, the screenplay by Trent Haaga (Terror Firmer, Citizen Toxie) develops nicely, avoiding the pitfalls of repetition and unoriginality into which it could so easily have slipped. It doesn’t actually explain who/what the supernatural ghouls are or why they’re on a killing spree, but hey, you can’t have everything. A top notch cast includes Debra Mayer (Decadent Evil, Voodoo Academy, The Gingerdead Man) and Tanya Dempsey (Deathbed, Witchouse 3)

Director Draven’s video diary is tremendously telling: the film spent nine days in pre-production and nine days shooting. To come up with something this impressive on such a tight schedule (and commensurably tiny budget) is remarkable. Admittedly it is a little short (without the lengthy end credits sequence, the movie is just over an hour) and all the innards on show do seem to resemble spaghetti more than any known human internal organ, but those are quibbles. Hell Asylum is a funny, scary, well-acted, well-made low-budget horror and thoroughly recommended. And it’s got Joe Estevez in a cameo as Max’s boss - star of Return of the Roller Blade Seven, Beach Babes from Beyond, Minds of Terror, Deathbed and about a million other classics - what more could you ask for?

Tempe’s Limited Special Edition DVD is unsurprisingly packed with extras (take note, Mr Big Studio DVD packager): a commentary by director Draven and composer Josephine Soegijanty (now Mrs Draven), the aforementioned video diary, cast and crew interviews, a separate mini-interview with President Bartlett (whoops - I mean, Mr Estevez), bloopers and out-takes, stills, trailers - and a whole other film! In this case, it’s Low Budget Pictures’ Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, complete with commentary and special intro by the cast of Filthy McNasty. (The regular DVD has Prison of the Dead instead of Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker.)

The British DVD, which I have never seen in any shop, has only a trailer and touts itself as a 'Charles Band Classic'!

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 13th March 2005


Director: Ross Shepherd
Writer: Ross Shepherd
Producer: Ross Shepherd
Cast: Tom Rudd, Amber Coombs, Thomas J Grube
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener

Here is the first feature from Ross Shepherd (The Kingdom of Shadows) and it’s a good’un. Shot in artistic-but-not-artsy black and white, Heathen is a dramatic thriller with interesting characters, excellent acting, assured direction, an original story, imaginative editing and excellent sound. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Although it’s not a convoluted plot, it does involve a certain amount of mystery, suspense and, in the final act, revelation and so I’m only going to give a vague, generic description of what goes on. Tom Rudd (See it Through, Missing Connection) is excellent as William, an ordinary bloke whose brother David (Steve Lorrigan) went missing nearly twelve months ago. William works for Network Rail and lives in a poky flat, he has few friends and no lovelife. Until the enigmatic Chloe moves in downstairs.

Played with an impressive French accent by Amber Coombs (Aborted Matrimony, The Deepest Sea), Chloe is an artist and takes a shine to William so that his outlook brightens up considerably. But as the anniversary of David’s disappearance approaches, odd things start happening. There is a dedication on the radio to David, purportedly from William. A calendar page arrives in the post with the anniversary marked on it. And a mysterious man (LAMDA-trained New Yorker Thomas J Grube) seems to be following William around.

Was David mixed up in something dodgy? Is he still alive? Who is this man and what does he know?

Shepherd knows just when to use conventional techniques and when to use something a but more unusual, such as speeded up footage or snappy editing. He tells a story, he tells it well and crucially he tells it cinematically.

My one criticism of the film concerns the ending. Now, it took me three goes to watch the ending. The first disc that Ross sent me, I watched half one night and planned to watch the other half the following night. But in the meantime, Mrs S took the disc out of the machine so that TF could watch Fireman Sam and left it unprotected. TF then accidentally knocked the disc on the floor so that when I tried to watch it, it was scratched to buggery.

Ross very kindly sent me a replacement disc and I watch the second half but, about 15 minutes from the end, the thing started skipping. Although I could sort of follow what was going on - there’s a lengthy flashback, showing what happened to David - I lost most of the dialogue which tops and tails the flashback. Undaunted, Ross sent me a third disc, which worked. The upshot of this is that I watched the last 15 minutes very carefully.

We do find out who the mysterious man is but we don’t really get an explanation of why he has been doing all these obtuse things like the calendar page and the radio dedication. There is some dialogue about how he doesn’t want to be implicated in what happened to David but look, either he wants to contact William or not. We also find out some things about Chloe but again, there are gaps in our understanding of her actions and the motivations for those actions.

But my main beef is that the finale of this story revolves around an accident. The characters at the end are where they are, know what they know and have the power or lack of power that they have - because of an accident. The situation is not corny. It’s not some deus ex machina plot twist - Ross Shepherd wouldn’t do anything that cheap. But as the credits roll, things have worked out well for one character, badly for another. And the one for whom things have worked out well, although they worked to a plan, could not have incorporated into that plan the accident which brings everything to a head.

Which leaves the viewer wondering what that character would have done without this fortuitous turn of events. Where was their plan going before it changed direction. It’s frustrating and distracting which is a shame because that’s the only thing wrong with the film, and it’s fairly minor.

There is nothing wrong with incorporating an accident into a plot, but it should be at the start of a film, to set the plot in motion. So that if any viewer says “Well, what if that had never happened?” other viewers can say, “Well, then there wouldn’t have been a story and they wouldn’t have made a film about it.”

But an accident at the end, even when it’s not deus ex machina, cheats the viewer. Once a plot starts up, everything should follow naturally from everything else. Even if things seem to come out of left-field, they should subsequently be rationalised by our understanding of what really happened.

This is a minor criticism of Heathen but I believe it’s a valid one and it stops the film being quite as good as it could be. But it is still excellent, a very fine slice of independent cinema. It is serious, it is dramatic, the characters are believable and sympathetic. Production, direction, acting and editing (by Shepherd) are all top notch, as are cinematography (also by Shepherd) and sound. Someone named Wilx, who has scored shorts such as Red Letter Day and Ella’s Dream, provides an atmospheric, often quite minimalist score. The sound design and mixing was done by Byron Bullock whose other credits include the commentary track on the recent Redemption DVD of Hunter’s Moon.

The small cast also includes John Hoye (who was in an episode of Allo Allo and a stage production of RUR) as William’s friend Josh, Steve Lorrigan, Grant Tulley, Paul Gravett and Charlotte Mead plus co-producer Jamie Tighe and Shepherd himself in cameo roles. Tom Rudd shares ‘story’ credit with Shepherd. And that is pretty much the sum total of the credits.

I was very impressed with Heathen, just as I was with The Kingdom of Shadows. I hope this gets lots of festival play and leads onto bigger and better things for Ross

MJS rating: A-

review originally posted 14th February 2009

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


Director: Bob Keen
Writers: Vlady Pildysh, Warren P Sonoda
Producers: Kate Harrison, Lewin Webb
Cast: Meredith Henderson, Nathan Stephenson, Robert Englund
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

On a stormy night, two high school students find themselves in hospital. The white, female one, Sarah Wexler (Meredith Henderson, who starred in The Adventures of Shirley Holmes ten years ago and recently played Shania Twain(!) in a TV movie) was injured trying to commit suicide by standing in front of traffic; the black, male one, Walter (Nathan Stephenson), has stab wounds which he is keen to point out are not gang-related.

Also in the hospital is Sheriff Berger (horror legend Robert Englund: A Nightmare on Elm Street and, erm, Mind Breakers) who has brought the recently fried body of convicted serial killer Chambers (stuntman John Binkley, who had a bit part in Land of the Dead) for autopsy. But Chambers is not dead; he has supernatural abilities and he is searching for Sarah Wexler. And there ain’t no-one or nothing going to get in his way.

Now, we all have our bugbears when it comes to movie mistakes. For some folks it’s sound in space, for others it’s people holding guns sideways. Here’s one of mine. Local coroner Doctor Hitchens (Michael Cram, who was in two episodes of the 1990s Outer Limits) takes Chambers’ body into a laboratory clearly labelled ‘pathology’ where he lays him out on an autopsy table and proceeds to slice him open - until Chambers, to nobody’s surprise except Doctor Hitchens’, sits up and rips the other man’s heart out.

Folks, I have worked in a hospital pathology lab - four years spent sweating over a hot auto-analyser - and let me assure you that pathology has Nothing At All To Do With Dead People. Pathology is the study of chemical pathways inside living people. The path lab is where your blood, urine and stool samples go to be analysed so the doctors can work out what is wrong with you. If you’re dead, most of those chemical pathways shut down fairly swiftly and it’s extremely bloody obvious what’s wrong with you on account of the lack of heartbeats.

There is something called ‘forensic pathology’, which involves studying the chemical mishmash inside dead folks but that is an entirely different science. Unfortunately, lots of people think that it’s the second word in that phrase which means ‘dead folks’ when in fact it’s the term ‘forensic’ which refers to the deceased. To sum up: medical autopsies are performed in hospital morgues. Anyone lugging a dead body into a path lab and slicing it open would be asked to leave.

That Hitchens is not asked to leave may be due to the fact that there are no pathologists in evidence. In actual fact, this entire hospital seems to survive on a staff of six (or seven if you include Hitchens): two nurses, one doctor, one janitor and a couple of guys who are presumably porters. All of these except for Nurse Grafton (Laura DeCarteret, who had a small role in the Dawn of the Dead remake) are despatched fairly swiftly by the supernatural killer. But there seem to be no other medical staff, no support staff, no admin staff, not even a receptionist. There are also no patients, apparently, apart from Sarah and Walter plus the victims of a traffic accident who also disappear from the story very quickly. Sarah’s mother (Lori Hallier: My Bloody Valentine, Thomas and the Magic Railroad) completes the roster of bodies.

What we end up with, fairly swiftly, is Sarah, Walter and Grafton hiding from Chambers, who has some sort of psychic link to the girl and needs her body to host whatever demonic entity possesses him because she is “the one in a million”. Apparently. A moving scorpion tattoo transferred itself from Chambers’ arm to Sarah’s when they shared an ambulance but this is never explained and barely features.

Disappointingly, there is little of the chase in this film. Chambers seems most concerned with wheeling the bodies of his victims around on a trolley for some reason and the others have only to keep out of his way. Only one sequence generates real tension and thrills, with Sarah purloining plasma from a blood bank (which looks about as realistic as the path lab) only to be cornered by Chambers.

The blood is needed because Walter suddenly, without explanation, starts losing a great deal of blood from his stab wounds. Nurse Grafton, who must have the worst bedside manner in the Northern hemisphere, repeatedly tells the young man that he is going to bleed to death but Sarah saves the day with an impromptu, and remarkably easy, transfusion.

Around this time, I realised what was wrong with Heartstopper. It’s a film set in a hospital written by someone who has only the most rudimentary idea of what goes on in hospitals. If characters didn’t keep using the word ‘hospital’, there would be almost nothing to indicate that this is where the film takes place. It is mentioned at one point that the building is a former insane asylum although this has no bearing on the story whatsoever and seems to be merely some sort of funding requirement for this sort of movie.

There are also no fire exits, so once the front door is locked (presumably by Chambers) there is no way out. A phone rings at one point but we don’t find out if there’s anyone on the line. Nobody attempts to ring out for help and nobody, apparently, has a mobile.

Getting back to lack of medical knowledge (as it were), the film’s title refers to Chambers’ preferred method of killing people: yanking their hearts out. The thing is, he yanks the hearts (or, I suspect, the same heart each time) straight out, in a move which would require him to plunge his hand straight through the other person’s sternum, one of the toughest bones in the human body (for various reasons, not least to stop people yanking your heart straight out). One can be generous and say well, he’s a supernatural demon-thing and so he must be able to punch through a breastbone or perhaps melt it in some way, but realistically this has all the hallmarks of an idea concocted by writers who thought it sounded cool without caring whether it sounded possible.

This is Bob Keen’s first feature as director since The Lost World eight years ago. In the meantime he has provided effects for films such as Wild Country, Dog Soldiers and On Edge as well as lots of videos, ads etc. His previous features include Proteus and To Catch a Yeti and he is currently attached to a remake of The House on Straw Hill aka Exposé. Naturally a gore-heavy film like this is well-suited to Keen and he handles the direction skillfully enough although his tendency to rely on flash cuts wears out its welcome quite rapidly and the endless flashing of lights (which may be lightning or may be electrical problems due to a storm) is a similar pain for the eyes. (At one point a character comments that the back-up generators will come on soon, even though there are clearly working lights in the room.)

But Keen’s direction can’t do anything with the frankly awful script or the sparse budget. Despite the lack of people in the hospital, Heartstopper has a surprisingly long cast list. However, most of those are in a flashback to Sarah being bullied in High School. If only some of that extras budget had been spent on getting people to put on white coats and run around screaming, the film’s main location might have looked at least vaguely like a hospital.

It’s not just the story, it’s the dialogue too. Chambers speaks in silly cod-biblical rhetoric which turns him from a serious danger into a sub-Freddy bogeyman. Freddy himself, Robert Englund, also has some corny lines but he gets away with them because, well, he’s Robert Englund and he’s done this sort of thing a million times before. Englund is always watchable, always fun and one of the best things about this film so it’s a shame that he’s killed off relatively early.

Also in the cast are Ted Ludzik (bit parts for Romero in Bruiser and Land of the Dead), Scott Gibson (The Skulls), John Bayliss (Terminal Justice, The Skulls III - yes, there’s three of ‘em apparently), Wayne Flemming (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), Amy Ciupak Lalonde (episodes of Mutant X and Battlestar Galactica) and Christopher Cordell (stunts on Warriors of Terra and Bulletproof Monk). Most of the cast have been in one or more episodes of the US remake of Queer as Folk. Cinematographer David Mitchell directed Nightmare City and The Killing Machine, editor Mitch Lackie was assistant editor on American Psycho and its sequel.

Producers Kate Harrison and Lewin Webb previously collaborated on Five Girls (or 5ive Girls - don’t you just hate titles like that?) which was written and directed by Warren P Sonoda, an established Canadian director of music videos. The other writer here, Vlady Pildysh, is a UCLA graduate who actually won third place in the university’s Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards with the original version of Heartstopper. Maybe that was a great script, but that was way back in 1997. Eight years later Heartstopper finally got made and clearly something went awry in the meantime because this script would be lucky to win third prize in a competition with only three entrants. (This also, of course, explains the lack of mobile phones!)

To be fair, Heartstopper makes no claims to be a masterpiece or even to originality (although it does take itself seriously - there’s precious little light relief) and thus sort of achieves what it sets out to do, I suppose, which is to pass 85 minutes and showcase a bunch of horror effects (including a gruesome electric chair sequence at the start). With a few beers, a pizza and a couple of undemanding mates who don’t mind you shouting at the TV, this could work. But it could have been considerably better with a more focussed and, frankly, better thought out script. Maybe this could pass muster in 1997 but film screenplays, unlike wine and certain women, do not improve with age.

MJS rating: C+
review originally posted 12th October 2006

The Headless Horseman

Director: Edward D Venturini
Writer: Carl Stearns Clancy
Producer: Carl Stearns Clancy
Cast: Will Rogers, Lois Meredith, Ben Hendricks Jr
Country: USA
Year of release: 1922
Reviewed from: US DVD (Alpha)

Will Rogers is one of those icons of American comedy who is pretty much unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve never seen him in anything, though he made sixty-odd films between 1918 and his death in a plane crash in 1935. In the 1920s and 1930 he was one of the biggest stars in America: a cowboy-turned-comedian-turned-writer with a top-rated radio show and the most widely read newspaper column in the country.

But fame, especially comic fame, is a very regional thing and you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the UK who has ever heard of him. Maybe his down-home, earthy American humour didn’t travel; maybe his philanthropic ‘never met a man I didn’t like’ outlook was too bland and naive for cynical British audiences.

So anyway, here he is starring in a version of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a cornerstone of American literature which is largely known in the UK from Tim Burton’s big budget version and (to a lesser extent) Disney’s animated The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. Rogers plays Ichabod Crane, a young man from ‘Niue York’ hired by the Dutch immigrant townsfolk of a little New England town. Crane is played as something of an innocent abroad, tall and straight-faced, with little comedy quirks such as his pigtail sticking straight out from the back of his head. There is also a comic aspect to the way he rides his horse, probably caused by slightly too short stirrup straps.

In the town he attracts the attention of Katrina Van Tassel (Lois Meredith), much to the annoyance of her beau, known as ‘Brom Bones’ (Ben Hendricks Jr). This is another in the great tradition of stories where we are expected to feel great empathy for the kind, beautiful, charming, intelligent female lead while also accepting that she is unable to notice that her boyfriend is an arrogant gorilla.

Determined to get rid of the yankee interloper, whom they consider a dangerous intellectual, Brom and his cronies smash up the schoolhouse and leave a skull drawn on the blackboard, thereby (somehow) starting rumours that Crane knows witchcraft and is in league with the Devil. Brom follows this up by getting one of the young boys drunk and persuading him to claim that “Master Crane has bewitched me.” The townsfolk grab Crane, stick him in the stocks and prepare to tar and feather him but the school committee, aided by a young black lad who saw what happened, persuade the boy to admit the truth and Brom is forced to make a public apology.

Crane is later invited to a ‘quilting merriment’ at the Van Tassel home where Brom is again driven to jealousy by seeing Katrina dance with the yankee. As was legally required at the time, these dancing scenes also feature cutaway shots to all the local black kids clustering around the window, tapping their feet and grinning.

Staying late after the other revellers have left, Crane asks Katrina to marry him although it’s rather unclear from the intertitles whether she accepts or not. Riding home through the ‘dark’ (I know I always complain about day-for-night filming but I’ll make allowances for a film photographed in 1922), he encounters the local ghost, ‘the Headless Horseman’, near the bridge over the river. Terrified, he gallops away and we see that the ‘Horseman’ is Brom with his cloak tied round the top of his head. A couple of length intertitles tell us, quoting the last paragraph of the original story, that Ichabod never returned and was believed to have perished at the hands of the ghost but was later discovered to be alive and well in Niue York, although the old ladies of Sleepy Hollow prefer the first version.

Faithful to the source material this ending may be, but it feels perfunctory and unsatisfying. Released by Alpha on a double bill with Italian robot fragment The Mechanical Man, the sleeve states a running time of 51 minutes but this film actually runs for 71 minutes. The 51-minute mark comes after Crane’s rescue from the stocks so everything else seems like an addendum although it’s actually the meat of the story. Mind, we should be thankful it’s there as the first 50 minutes contains nothing about the Headless Horseman except a brief, non-narrative cutaway sequence of a double-exposure ghost to illustrate an anecdote.

Rogers made two other notable fantasy pictures: the first sound version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1931 (with Maureen O’Sullivan and Myrna Loy) and the 1922 comedy One Glorious Day, about a disembodied spirit named Ek, which famously inspired a young Forrest J Ackerman’s interest in fantasy and SF. This film’s writer/producer Carl Stearns Clancy also provided the scenario for The Adventurous Sex, a 1925 Clara Bow picture, and directed and produced a series of Will Rogers European travelogues in 1927 including the marvellously titled Hunting for Germans in Berlin with Will Rogers.

First published in 1820 (and written, I was amazed to discover, while the author was living in Birmingham, England), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been adapted numerous times. There were three silent versions - in 1908, in 1912 and this one - then an Ub Iwerks cartoon in 1934 (widely available on public domain compilations) which was the first time the story was presented in colour and sound. Disney’s take on the story followed in 1949, a Bing Crosby-narrated featurette which was paired with a version of The Wind in the Willows(!) as a feature release, then subsequently given TV and theatrical distribution on its own. Shirley Temple was the unlikely name behind the first live-action version of the sound era, a 1958 episode of her TV anthology Shirley Temple’s Storybook. Temple was thirty years old and starred as Katrina in that version with Boris Karloff as a town elder narrating the story.

Animated versions followed in 1970 (a Halloween Special with Mel Blanc and Don Messick among the voice cast) and 1972 (narrated by John Carradine). Then in 1979 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of three stories presented as a Vincent Price-hosted TV special, Once Upon a Midnight Scary. A pre-DS9 Rene Auberjonois was Ichabod Crane in that version. The following year Jeff Goldblum played Crane in another TV version with Meg Foster (They Live, Project: Shadowchaser, Space Marines) as Katrina; brilliantly named director Henning Schellerup was cinematographer on Silent Night Deadly Night, Chesty Anderson US Navy and an unrelated horror picture from 1974 called Curse of the Headless Horseman.

Brent Carver and Rachelle Lefevre (Annie Cartwright in the US remake of Life on Mars) took the lead roles in a Canadian TV version from 1999, the same year as an animated TV special The Night of the Headless Horseman. This boasted an all-star cast of William H Macy (Ichabod), Tia Carrere (Katrina), Luke Perry, Clancy Brown and Mark Hamill - and a screenplay by cyberpunk author (and occasional Blue Oyster Cult collaborator) John Shirley!

Remarkably, this makes Tim Burton’s big budget version - with Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in the leads and terrific uncredited roles for Martin Landau and Christopher Walken - the first live action, theatrically released, feature-length version of the story since Will Rogers. It also seems to be the most recent adaptation as I can’t find any others between 1999 and 2007, although there was a sort of sequel, The Hollow, in 2004 which told of Ichabod Crane’s great-great-grandson (Kevin Zegers: Komodo, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder and the Air Bud films) returning to the town in the present day. There was also Sleepy Hollow High, opportunistically directed in 2000 by Kevin Summerfield (The Adventures of Young Van Helsing), but that has no real connection with Washington Irving beyond the title.

The Will Rogers silent version is moderately amusing, with a few wry smiles from the intertitles and a few very brief spots of physical comedy, although nothing in the film is quite as funny as the phrase ‘quilting merriment’. It doesn’t really go anywhere but that’s partly because the original story doesn’t either, which is why Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker had to invent so much new stuff for Burton’s film. The sets and costumes do a good job of recreating a small town in late 18th century America and the lives of the Dutch community who live there. Rogers’ Crane is a likeable fellow, Meredith’s Katrina is a coquette and Hendricks’ Brom is a suitably arrogant bully, while the supporting cast are remarkably restrained for such an early film.

Alpha’s print is understandably knocked about, too dark in some spots and so light in others that people’s faces disappear, but it’s still watchable, with clear intertitles, not too much actual physical damage and an accurate projection speed. There is also a version available from Grapevine Video which includes the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 5th April 2007


Director: Frank Schaeffer
Writer: 'Len Spinelli'
Producer: 'Jay Davidson'
Cast: Wayne Crawford, Kay Lenz, John Fatooh
Country: USA/South Africa
Year of release: 1989
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Headhunter doesn’t have any big name stars, it doesn’t feature an iconic monster, it emerged at the tail-end of the 1980s video boom. No wonder I’ve never heard of it. But that’s what I love - finding an old tape on a market stall and seeing what it’s like.

First off, I must give props (as the young people say) to whoever wrote the sleeve blurb: “Terror slowly grips the city of Boston...” Erm, the entire film is set in Miami, a fact which is mentioned frequently throughout the 90 minutes. Anyway...

What we have here is a police procedural. Detective Pete Giuliani (Jake Speed himself, Wayne Crawford - director of The Evil Below and Snake Island) has been thrown out by his wife (June Chadwick: Jeanine in This is Spinal Tap, Lydia in V, also in Forbidden World) in favour of her lesbian lover (Helen Kriel, who wrote the 1996 movie Kama Sutra!) and takes up residence on the couch of his police partner, Detective Kat Hall (David Cassidy’s ex-wife Kay Lenz: House, Prisoners of the Lost Universe) who is divorced and is currently an item with a tall, handsome cop named Roger (John Fatooh, a former competitive cyclist whose claim to fame is playing a prison guard in a couple of episodes of Days of Our Lives).

Giuliani and Hall are assigned to investigate a series of gruesome murders among the city’s small Nigerian community. “They’re just negroes,” says their racist boss (Steve Kanaly: Pumpkinhead II and a regular on Dallas), “and they’re not even our negroes.” They also get routinely mocked by a snide blonde cop played by Ted Le Platt (Terminator Woman, Project Shadowchaser II, The Mangler, Cyborg Cop II)

The bodies are decapitated, but there’s no sign of a struggle or forced entry. An African Shaman named Samuel Juru (Sam Williams: Shaka Zulu) seems to know what’s going on, but when Giuliani follows him into a meat-packing plant, there’s no sign of him and then something throws the detective out of a window (into a convenient skip). An answerphone message from Giuliani turns out to be a fake when it lures Hall to old railway sidings where she is chased by costumed African dancers chanting and waving flaming torches.

After Juru is also slain, the cops break into his house and find a book by a white academic expert on African mythology, Robert Sinclair (Gordon Mulholland: Cold Harvest) who tells them that dismembering the monster is the only way to defeat it. When Giuliani finds that his wife, seeking reconciliation, is actually a shape-shifting African demon, he races off to the nearest hardware store, gets there moments before the owner locks up and impulse buys the first chainsaw he can find, which conveniently has petrol in it. Then he races back to Hall’s house where she is waiting for Roger to return with a Chinese meal. Except of course it’s not Roger, it’s the demon (which has a name that I couldn’t make out).

I must pause briefly here to applaud one of the most sensible things I have ever seen anyone do with a chainsaw in a horror film. Seeking entry to Hall’s home, Giuliani attacks the locked front door. But rather than just smashing randomly or attempting to cut a hole big enough to climb through, he saws a short diagonal line above the lock, another below it to make a triangle, then kicks the door open. This is the quickest and most efficient way of opening a locked door using only a power tool. Well done sir!

The film climaxes with Hall and Giuliani hacking away at the demon in the back garden, cutting off first one arm, then another arm, resisting the urge to shout “’Tis but a scratch!” and then decapitating the beast. The racist police captain, who has all along poured scorn on the idea that they were dealing with a supernatural killer, arrives and sees precisely what has been doing the killing.

And that, apart from a prologue and brief epilogue set in Africa (without any of the main characters) is pretty much it.

Headhunter isn’t bad, truth be told. It’s different, it’s quite exciting and the central duo make likeable leads, even if there is a little too much of the soap opera stuff, especially at the start. It also scores kudos points for intercutting the final fight with the film that is showing, unwatched, on Hall’s TV: The Hideous Sun Demon. The plot is a tad fuzzy, not least in that although there is some talk of the demon having followed the Nigerian refugees to the USA, there is no indication of how it got there nor of why it was chasing them in the first place. Apart from Sinclair, most of the other victims - and the African villagers in the prologue - seem to have actually summoned the demon, so it’s sort of their own fault. Also, as this was - stock shots of Miami aside - filmed in South Africa, the black folk in the African scenes looked only slightly more Nigerian than me or you. As they carry their cowhide shields and asagais around their kraal, you can’t help adopting a mental voice like Michael Caine and thinking: “Zulus - ’undreds of ’em.”

The whole shapeshifting thing, which in retrospect explains the scene where Giuliani follows Juru into the meat warehouse, is never really explored, and we also have to wonder whether the demon they fight at the end has already killed Roger or was Roger all along. We know he killed the wife and her lover because we saw them dead, but why does the demon remain in the shapely form of June Chadwick, then shortly afterwards decide to abandon John Fatooh’s fizzog for the scary monster face depicted on the video sleeve? To add to the confusion, Fatooh is credited on screen with playing both Roger and the ‘Headhunter’. Sympathetic leads, some nice handheld camera work and a genuine sense of mystery compensate for the vague storyline, although another demerit must be counted for the demon attacks which start with a speeded-up POV rush and then tend to rely on fast cutting between static shots done at odd angles plus discordant stings on the soundtrack.

Swiss-born director Francis Schaeffer is the son of another Francis Schaeffer, who was a well-known evangelist apparently. Schaeffer Jr has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as plenty of journalism. He is also - or at least has been at one time - an artist and a documentary maker. His other films, all made between 1986 and 1991, are sci-fi actioners Rebel Storm (which also featured Crawford, Chadwick, Kriel and Mulholland) and Wired to Kill/Booby Trap plus, oddly, knockabout comedy Baby on Board.

The Inaccurate Movie Database credits the screenplay to ‘Len Spinell’ who ‘also wrote’ Quiet Thunder (which also starred Crawford and Chadwick!). In fact the credit is ‘Len Spinelli’ but I believe that to be a pseudonym - and here’s why: the credit block on the front of the video sleeve says the screenplay is by Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford. Granted, this could be written by the same person who wrote the blurb on the back about the film being set in Boston, but I certainly put more store in a video sleeve credit block than the man-in-a-pub vagaries of the IMDB.

The only company logo in the on-screen credits is Gibraltar Releasing Corporation but the credit block reads ‘Crawford/Lane Productions and Gibraltar Releasing Organization (sic) present...’ Lane and Crawford worked together on eleven films in total (twelve if we count this one) including Jake Speed, Night of the Comet and Servants of Twilight.

The credit block lists three producers: Lane, Crawford and William Fay who started off on little indies like The Supernaturals and Hollywood Vice Squad but progressed to executive producing the likes of Independence Day and Superman Returns! The on-screen credits however list only one producer: Jay Davidson (Rebel Storm), possibly another pseudonym. Both sources agree that Joel Levine was executive producer. One thing the credit block doesn’t list, oddly, is a director!

There’s also an associate producer, one Barrie Saint Claire (executive producer of Zulu Dawn) who not only doubles as production supervisor - and makes a cameo appearance as a desk sergeant - but also roped in most of his family: Sheilagh Saint Clair was production co-ordinator and Nick Saint Clair was production accountant.

Cinematographer Hans Kuhle also lit Laser Mission and Gor (and a recent South Africa-set version of Othello). The music is by Julian Laxton (The Evil Below, Quiet Thunder) and the editor is Robert Simpson (no relation) who is assuredly not the same Robert Simpson who cut South Pacific and the 1939 Basil Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles, despite what the IMDB says. Elaine Alexander and Kevin Brennan receive credit for ‘special effects make-up’; their company is called Max FX and is particularly highly regarded for their realistic ape suits, used in films such as Dunston Checks In.

I quite enjoyed Headhunter (or Head Hunter as a recent UK DVD release with completely misleading cover art incorrectly calls it). Not a classic, but a pleasant way to pass an hour and a half.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 6th December 2006