Monday, 28 October 2013

High Stakes

Director: Peter Ferris, additional scenes by Dewi Griffiths
Writer: Michael Doyle, Thomas Bruce Bevan
Producer: Dewi Griffiths
Cast: Jeff Higgins, Charlie Bird, Jason Excell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

In Easter week of 2006 I took Mrs S and young TF - then aged two and a half - to the little seaside town of Penarth, just across the bay from Cardiff. It’s a lovely place with a smashing beach, a delightful short pier and plenty of charming Victorian architecture. Not overly commercialised, Penarth is a perfect place to take a little kid who enjoys the seaside. We stayed in a pleasant little hotel and had some nice meals and it was all generally rather smashing.

But I didn’t go there just for sun, sea and sand. Oh no. What drew me to Penarth was blood. Vampire blood.

Specifically my mate, producer Dewi Griffiths, was shooting his indie vampire thriller High Stakes in the town. High above the seafront, looking down on the town is a large Victorian church-cum-community centre which was free that week. Obviously it was in use every Sunday so Dewi and his team had just six days to get most of their principal photography in the can; the bulk of the film is set in a church and even some of the scenes set elsewhere were actually filmed in the church cellar which otherwise functioned as dressing room, props store and make-up salon.

Just think about this. On Easter Monday, the day on which we all celebrate our Lord conquering death to rise again from the tomb, this lot were shooting a vampire film in a real, consecrated church. Surely that’s blasphemy or at the very least it’s tremendously ironic.

Reviewing films where I visited the set is usually no different from reviewing films where I didn’t, apart from occasionally spotting a scene that I recognise. However, High Stakes is one of the few films on this site where I read the script before visiting the set. I usually like to come to a film with no preconceptions at all. If I know I’m going to review an indie picture I won’t read the synopsis beforehand and usually won’t even watch the trailer. That can come later. If what the film-makers want to say ain’t on screen, it ain’t anywhere. Uh-huh.

But that was two years ago so although I recalled the basic set-up I still had the potential to be surprised. Fact is, the script is one of High Stakes’ strengths. The acting’s pretty good too although I’m less convinced by the photography.

Jeff Higgins (who has been in a couple of Big Finish Doctor Who audios) and Charlie Bird star as Guy and Lydia, two people who independently find themselves trapped inside a church when a group of vampires lay siege to the building. There’s much more to High Stakes than that simple ‘high concept’ but the publicity angle which pitches this as a mixture of Assault on Precinct 13 and From Dusk Till Dawn is not far off the mark. What would have been neat would be to have Guy and Lydia’s paths cross inconsequentially at the start of the film when she is walking home with shopping and he is driving into town. Just a moment of eye contact at a pedestrian crossing maybe.

Actually, come to think of it, there’s not really any interaction between Lydia and Guy once they’re inside the church although they both interact with the building’s inhabitants. I did find myself wondering whether both characters were necessary to give an outsider’s view of the situation although I can see that they relate to the church in different ways: Lydia attends dance classes there and is known to the Reverend Clegg while Guy is a stranger. So their attitude and understanding of the situation is different but we don’t get to see the contrast because they barely speak to each other.

As the film opens, teenager Lydia finds a frightened, injured boy in the road outside her house and takes him in where, in a pretty groovy and gruesome opening, she leaves her father (Phil Rowlands, who was in an episode of Star Cops) to take a look at the boy while she makes a brew. Returning from the kitchen, she finds the lad crouched over her dad’s bleeding corpse. So she runs out of the house and up the hill to the church. Which makes sense.

In a parallel story, Guy and his pal Eric (Daz Kaye: Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice) visit an illegal gambling den where they find themselves up against Celano (Andreas Coshia), a suave, brutal gangster up from London with his entourage. A dispute over the money reveals Celano and his acolytes to be a bunch of bloodsuckers and Guy only escapes by the skin of his teeth after Eric is killed. Celano gets temporarily pinned with his own cane which is the sort of thing that always irritates me (see also the pool cues in Dracula 3000). There is a reason why wooden stakes have sharp points on the end; if you could spear a bit of wood through somebody’s torso without sharpening it, that would render the whole thing, ah, pointless.

Running from the vampires, Guy also seeks sanctuary in the church which is home to long-haired young vicar Reverend Clegg (a terrific performance by Jason Excell: Faintheart) and a group of young people. Characterisation is another strength that this film has, distinguishing it from more run-of-the-mill indie fair (and let’s face it, the world is not short of low budget, independent vampire movies). While the names of these characters don’t sink in, their identities do - there’s the bald one, the disabled one, the shouty one etc - and, crucially, they argue with each other. Character conflict, that’s where it’s at. It’s no good just putting your characters into a crisis and letting them try to get out while the antagonist picks them off one by one. They need to have strong, forthright - and in some cases morally ambivalent - views on what to do. The shouty one, for example, is all for chucking Guy out the door and letting the vampires have him so they’ll go away.

What we have here could have been a classic siege drama, in the manner of Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, Dog Soldiers, Zulu, The Lost Patrol and all those other classic siege dramas. ‘Could have been’ because one of the basic tenets of a siege drama is that whatever or whoever is outside should be trying to get in - ideally with amoral savagery - requiring those on the inside to fight them off. But there is no way for Celano (who has removed the cane he was stuck with) and his cohorts to enter the building. Even when they realise that it is not a consecrated church, they still can’t come in unless they are invited.

Oh yes, these are proper old school vampires. None of your modern revisionism here. They fear the cross and holy water, they cannot tolerate sunlight and they cannot enter a building unless invited. Which ought to be fine and dandy. All that Clegg, Lydia, Guy and the others have to do is wait for morning, surely?

The complication is that the youngsters in the church aren’t just there for Bible study or dance classes, they live there. Because they too are vampires. Except that they they have found God, thanks to the Reverend Clegg. A couple of centuries ago, they built a ‘fake church’ above a little Welsh seaside village and they have lived there ever since with Clegg (and presumably his precursors) acting as their contact with the outside world. And presumably they all keep out of the way when the local teenagers come round for dance classes.

As for their need to feed on those who bleed, again Clegg helps them by promoting local blood drives. This is a neat idea which doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny: you need properly trained phlebotomists to handle blood donations, plus these vampires can’t be too hungry because the number of donations that could be gained from one small town in any year (blood donors normally donate every four months) would be pretty limited. And sooner or later someone is going to be suspicious that this is not part of the NHS Blood Service.

But let’s gloss over all that. It’s still a pretty neat idea and sets up a situation which is, I believe, unique in the annals of vampire cinema: one bunch of vampires laying siege to a building inhabited by another bunch of vampires.

Clegg, as you will no doubt have gathered, is not a vampire himself which is why it is unfortunate that he gets bitten. Dragged back into the building, his corpse is bundled down into the crypt and the door securely locked. In an hour or so he will come back and will, in the short term, exhibit ‘bloodlust’. Basically the deal is that before a vampire becomes a rational, thinking being like those on either side of the church door, he or she is an uncontrollable animal for a short time and will attack anything - including former friends.

This adds another level of danger to the proceedings and ironically it is the internal threat - once vampire Clegg gets loose in the building - which presents the bigger danger, not the haemovorous London gangsters outside. There is a great deal of running around, a certain amount of fighting and various people get killed.

Alas, here’s where the photography stifles the story (well, here and elsewhere to be honest) because everything is so dark that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s going on. Clearly someone is fighting someone else but not only is it difficult to make out what moves, weapons or defences are being used, we sometimes can’t even see who the people involved are. And this is inside the church. Outside in the darkness things are even murkier.

The whole of High Stakes is shot with lots of smoke and filters and while this makes for fabulous stills it’s not so great for watching the movie itself. I know it all takes place over one night, starting as the sun sets, but after a while you long for a bit of bright light. It’s wearing on the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not completely impenetrable (apart from one or two shots) but it does give the whole film a smoky, foggy, indistinct feeling that’s wearying after 70-odd minutes.

Nevertheless, there is a bunch of great action - and not a little gore - to be found as the character conflict previously alluded to bubbles over into violence and genuine danger. Director Peter Ferris handles the action scenes very well. It would just be nice if we could see more clearly who is biting whom and where.

Shot on a low budget with a largely neophyte cast and crew, High Stakes benefits from the experience of industry vets in more senior positions. For example, the sound crew was overseen by Dick Philip, fresh from a stint as boom-handler on the Hills Have Eyes remake. It’s a smart little indie with an undeniably original and clever premise and that’s a rare, rare thing in the vampire subgenre nowadays.

There are some ideas that are not fully explored, such as the boy at the start, Duane (Lewis Rhys Davies). It transpires that he is the oldest of the vampires - over a thousand years old in fact - and is starting to lose his marbles. Hence his trip outside to hunt for victims. One result of all this is that he speaks Middle English. It’s a neat concept - the apparently ‘youngest’ kid is actually the oldest - but you have to wonder how he’s managed to not pick up developments in English speech patterns over the centuries.

Among the cast are Bernard Latham (Erik the Viking), Sarah-Louise Tyler (Street Dreams, Watch Her, Masterpiece), Caroline Lees (who was in DTV Doctor Who spin-off Downtime!), Cristina Higuera Martin (also in Street Dreams), Alexis Tuttle (who was in a documentary about Jack the Ripper) and Kim Ryan (Darklands). Viv Mainwaring, who worked on the visual effects of notoriously obscure Welsh supernatural TV series Arachnid, was the DP; Taimur Khan (Lift, Trouble) handled editing; Nick Burnell (Love, Honour and Obey) was production designer; Chrissie Pegg (Flick) designed the costumes; Dawn Thatcher (Tracy Beaker) was in charge of make-up.

Director Peter Ferris is an experienced acting coach who has taught the likes of Martine McCutcheon and Claire Sweeney; several of the cast come from his Cardiff acting studio. I worked with producer Dewi Griffiths on an unmade adaptation of Phil Rickman’s novel December and he was also line producer on Summer Scars.

Despite its great premise and interesting, varied characters, High Stakes never really examines its central premise and actually throws too much into the mix. I’m still not convinced we need Lydia as well as Guy although the former comes to the fore at the end after the threat his been dispelled. But the dialogue is crisp, the character conflict gripping and the action/horror scenes thrilling. High Stakes does something different from most indie vampire pictures and does it well and for that reason is well worth seeking out.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 26th July 2008

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