Sunday 22 December 2013

The Reverend

Director: Neil Jones
Writer: Neil Jones
Producers: Neil Jones, Stuart Brennan
Cast: Stuart Brennan, Emily Booth, Tamer Hassan
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener

Making your action hero a priest is always interesting. There is, by definition, an intriguing moral complexity to someone who preaches the word of God while taking violent revenge on sinners. The central character of one of my favourite movies, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder (no, honestly) is a gun-toting priest battling the forces of evil. One of the very few comic-books I’ve ever collected was Garth Ennis’ superb Preacher. And several years back, when I was studying for my Masters in Scriptwriting, I wrote a pilot for a proposed drama called Padre, about a defrocked priest in the 1920s who travels the land as a vigilante because he believes that World War 1 proved God was dead. I still think that was a corker.

So along comes Neil Jones’ The Reverend. That’s the Neil Jones who directed The Lost, produced The Feral Generation and executive produced Masterpiece, not the one who made Stag Night of the Dead. Jones wrote, directed and edited this and shared the producer job with Stuart Brennan, who stars as a never-named young vicar. Brennan and Tamer Hassan (The Hike, Beyond the Rave, The Ferryman) have their names above the title but Rutger Hauer is the main selling point and the focus of the sleeve design.

But don’t be fooled. Hauer only appears in a brief prologue with Giovanni Lombardo Radice (thankfully without the silly fake beard he wore in A Day of Violence) and the indefatigable Doug Bradley (last seen in Umbrage: The First Vampire). Hauer’s black-clad character (credited as ‘Withstander’) and Radice’s white-clad pseudo-Pontif (‘Almighty’) have some sort of bet over the soul of a good man. Or something. Neither is ever seen or mentioned again although Bradley, who is some sort of Bishop, pops up in a couple of later scenes.

The problem with this prologue is, unfortunately, the sound. Actually, there are sound problems elsewhere, to the extent that I stopped the disc and checked it hadn’t defaulted to 5.1 or some similar nonsense. The large room here is echoey and, let’s be honest, Hauer’s whispered Dutch-American voice is just not clear. About half his (brief) dialogue is inaudible. But what was director Jones to do? How do you tell Rutger Hauer - Rutger freaking Hauer! - that he needs to adjust his acting? “Excuse me, Mr Hauer sir, but could you perhaps do it with less of a mumble?”

And so we are introduced to ‘the Reverend’, newly installed in “a small, low-maintenance chapel based in the idyllic setting of a quiet country village”. What the synopsis doesn’t mention is that this is one of those quiet country villages which is right next door to an inner city sink estate. And although the film is set in Wales (there’s a Welsh map on the vicarage wall), motherly organist Mrs Jenkins is the only person with a Welsh accent and all the other characters talks like East End geezers. Helen Griffin, who was in a couple of Doctor Who cybermen episodes, gives a nice performance as Mrs Jenkins whose constant “Excuse my French” mild swearing is the closest the film comes to comic relief.

The Reverend’s first sermon in what is variously referred to as a church or a chapel (we never see the exterior) plays to a handful of people but while you might assume it’s Sunday morning, the parishioners exit into a dark and stormy night, and a few minutes later the Reverend finds a young woman in a skimpy dress standing, distressed, on the church doorstep as the rain lashes down from the pitch black sky. While not even a vicar has enough cache to change the weather, one has to ask: why is he giving his first service so late at night? No wonder he’s got no congregation! A later pub scene displays a similarly curious attitude to diurnal continuity with Brennan entering in bright daylight and leaving about 20 minutes later into the Bible-black night.

Anyway, the young woman (Marcia Do Vales, writer-producer of Jones’ follow-up feature Deranged) bites the Rev’s neck and turns him into a vampire, which sets up the main plot in which he uses his new-found strength, invulnerability and thirst for blood to despatch the various pimps, pushers and other lowlifes who bedevil ‘the Estate’.

There are no pointed teeth here and there’s no aversion to sunlight. The Rev visits an internet cafe (do they even still have those?) to research vampires and, while the fake websites seen on screen at least look real, this would have played better in a library with a stack of books. You might think that a character who was both priest and vampire (it’s been done before, in High Stakes) would create fascinating contradictions but, despite this research, nothing is made of the potential problems. A brief scene of the Rev using this research to test his new state - experimenting with garlic, crucifixes and Holy water - is sorely missing. He also seems unfazed by the atypical way that everyone he bites promptly disappears in a flash of spontaneous combustion, leaving neither remains nor scorch marks.

The lack of scorch marks is one of those things that betrays the production’s low budget, just as the Rev’s initial recovery from the girls’ attack sees him coated with blood but not a drop on the floor. Like so many other movies at this level, The Reverend has spent its money elsewhere leaving odd lacunae in the production design. Other examples include a ‘bus stop’ with no pole, sign or timetable, and a pub described as being an appallingly rough dive but which actually looks quite charming.

In this pub, the Rev meets Tracy, a goth prostitute played by the always delightful Emily Booth (who was four months pregnant at the time). It’s nice to see Bouff given a serious character with a bit more meat than she normally gets although there’s sadly little complexity to Tracy, a fairly standard ‘tart with a heart’. Rather bizarrely, the Rev meets her when he calls in towards the end of a weekly meeting of the local film club, who gather every Saturday in the aforementioned ‘rough’ pub to watch 16mm prints of old horror movies in the back room, introduced by Tracy.

There is no indication of why the Rev would have any interest in this, and he turns up just in time for the credits anyway, then he asks Tracy for a drink. But hang on: really? Are there really crack whores out there who have extensive collections of old cine film and enough spare time to organise film clubs? This whole sequence smacks of self-indulgence, playing on Emily’s cult status, rather than making any sense. Especially as her pimp then turns up, furious with her for spending ten minutes talking with a vicar when she should be out giving blow-jobs. But apparently not minding her taking a couple of hours off the game every weekend to show Bela Lugosi features to nerds.

The pimp is played by Shane Richie; as someone who doesn’t watch EastEnders, I can judge his performance without the weight of prejudice - and I can say that he is terrific. He is utterly believable, genuinely frightening, thoroughly unpleasant, switching almost mid-sentence between smooth-talking creep and violent bully as he forces Tracy onto another trick. Richie and Booth have a terrific, disturbing chemistry in their scenes together.

Richie is one of two highlights in the film, the other being everyone’s favourite Scandinavian psycho Mads Koudal. Regular readers will know that I’m a fully paid-up member of the Mads Koudal Appreciation Society. He was great in Footsteps, great in No Right Turn, great in The Feral Generation, great in Merantau Warrior, he’s great here. Koudal plays a dodgy Euro-creep named ‘The Viking’ who turns up to do business with local gangsters but can’t resist a bit of unlicensed bare-knuckle fighting first, just to get himself in the mood for a shady business deal.

The screen comes alive during Richie’s and Koudal’s scene as they inject some much-needed oomph into what is otherwise sometimes disappointingly pedestrian. Despite the whole ‘inner city troubles’ thing, there’s no social realism here and no moral dilemmas. The story is ostensibly based on the Book of Job and there are numerous references to ‘temptation’ but the morality is all skewed. The Reverend does give in to temptation, and pretty quickly at that. As soon as he realises he can get away with it, he starts offing people left, right and centre, merely on the basis that they are wrong’uns: a ridiculously simplistic idea that apparently divides everyone into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Where is the anguish? Where is the torment? The Bible is pretty unambiguous on the whole ‘Thou shalt not kill’ thing so why doesn’t this bother the Rev? No-one here is offered a chance of redemption. No-one is forgiven their sins. He just attacks then watches them self-combust: “Oi!” munch! woomf! - sorted.

There is inner turmoil of a sort, or at least something vaguely shaped like inner turmoil. But where we should have a pious soul wrestling with his faith, we have instead the most pointless, obtrusive and blatantly unnecessary voice-over I’ve ever heard. In Brennan’s solo scenes, there’s an utterly superfluous present-tense description of what the character is thinking. But in every single scene we could get that from the context and from Brennan’s acting. He’s a good actor. He won a Welsh Bafta for his boxing biopic Risen (Griffin and Richie were both in that too). We can see what’s going on; we don’t need to hear the thoughts of the character.

The Reverend claims to be based on a graphic novel but no such publication exists. There may be an unpublished comic-book version, perhaps the story even started life that way, and the opening titles play over comic-frames (drawn by Jaeson Finn, who worked on Evil Calls and then complained when I linked to his blog about it) but there’s no actual graphic novel of this story. However, if there was, then these solo scenes would require just such an internal monologue to play out in captions or thinks-bubbles. But that’s because in a comic all we have is a handful of still pictures. We don’t have an actor, doing that acting thing. Really, honestly, I cannot see why these voice-overs are there. I guess that’s the problem when your two producers are the writer-director and the lead actor: who is there with an independent view to make suggestions about this sort of thing?

The voice-over loses The Reverend a couple of points but not enough to make it a bad movie; it only spoils scenes, not the overall film. Overall, the overall film is okay. Overall. Not great but far from bad. Its strength lies mainly in the all-star cast. As well as those mentioned, we have Tamer Hassan as the well-to-do but dodgy proprietor of everything around (including pubs and internet cafes), the ubiquitous Simon Phillips (Jack Says) as a CID copper and Cut/Airborne director Dominic Burns as a sadistic scrapyard owner, plus professional fireman Dave Sommer (Eldorado) as the Viking’s hulking opponent, Richie Woodhall as the local bobby, Lyndon Baldock (exec producer of this, Airborne, The Seasoning House and Devil’s Tower) as the sullen barman of the rough pub, Rebekka Raynor (Evil Calls) as Tracy’s dominatrix neighbour, and boxing promoter Kevin Hayde as a postman who gives the Reverend a load of useful information for no apparent reason in his one, brief infodump scene.

The film’s two main faults are firstly, the script which just doesn't explore the situations it creates or ask the questions that these situations should prompt, and secondly Brennan himself who never convinces, either as the idealistic young vicar or the bloodthirsty vampire. It’s the casting rather than the acting that’s the problem. Brennan stars in this because he’s the producer and a frequent collaborator with Jones, not because he’s the right actor for the part. He’s much too placid. He never rages, not at himself, not at others, even when he’s tearing their throats out. Despite plenty of great supporting characters, the Reverend is actually the least interesting person in The Reverend. And that’s not good.

I also felt throughout the film that it could have benefited from a religious advisor (I didn’t spot one in the credits). I wasn’t convinced by the church aspects. I’ve certainly never been in a church service where the congregation has politely applauded the vicar’s sermon. Maybe they do things differently in Wales.

Behind the scenes, Paul Hyett designed the various gore prosthetics, the application of which was supervised by Stuart Conran; both men are British Horror Revival regulars (Conran’s name is spelled wrong in the credits). Felix Coles (UFO, The Warning) was production designer; Gemma Bedeau (The Scar Crow, Eldorado) designed the costumes; DP Alessio Valori shot on digital, including a couple of nice monochrome dream sequences; and regular Brennan composer Alan Deacon provided the score.

The project has been around for a while. It was shot in early 2011 but was originally announced for production in 2009 as The Reverend: Vigilante Vampire with Tom Savini in the cast (presumably in Hauer’s role). A rough cut was screened at the 2011 Grimmfest and the film eventually appeared on DVD in August 2012 a few days after its brief dalliance with theatres.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 7th August 2012

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