Thursday, 1 May 2014

Hacked Off

Director: Andrew Weild
Writers: Andrew Weild, Fraser Barsby
Producer: Fraser Barsby
Cast: Ross Maxwell, Liam Browne, Layla Anna-Lee
Country: UK
Year: 2004
Reviewed from: DVD

Well, here it is at last. One of the rarest and most obscure British horror films of the naughties. A movie so poorly documented that I didn’t even find out it had had a release until after Urban Terrors was published: Andrew Weild’s 2004 teen slasher Hacked Off. I finally tracked down a copy on eBay and got the chance to watch it.

It’s not great, certainly, but it’s not quite as terrible as the handful of contemporary reviews suggest. And its problems are not those which contemporary reviewers identified (apart from the poor sound, which is really bad).

2004 was a good year for British horror. In that year we got Shaun of the Dead, The Last Horror Movie, Dead Man’s Shoes and London Voodoo. Mind you, we also got The Porcelain Man, Nine Lives, Dust and LD50. While Hacked Off doesn’t approach the quality of the former group, I’d still watch it before sitting through any of the latter quartet (to be fair, I’ve still not tracked down a copy of Dust, but its reputation precedes it).

Hacked Off starts with a caption – ‘Northern France, Autumn 1992’ – and then launches straight into a seven-minute prologue which consists of subtitled conversations between someone on the ground and someone in a light aircraft, searching for a patient who has escaped from an asylum. I say subtitled but what we don’t actually get is the original French dialogue, probably because that would have involved actually finding someone French to translate it and speak it.

Now on the one hand, kudos to the production for finding and using an actual aeroplane. No stock footage this. A gent named Barry Colvin, credited as ‘police pilot’, provided and flew the plane. There is footage of the plane shot from the ground and there is aerial footage shot from the plane, which adds enormously to the perceived production value. Only two things trouble me, well three. If this patient is, as we learn, massively dangerous, shouldn’t there be a more widespread search with, you know, dogs and stuff? Also, in the final conversation between ground and air, the pilot says there’s no sign of the escapee in the area he’s looking at and it’s now too dark to see anything. Well hold on, monsieur le pilot, but if it’s too dark to see, how do you know the guy’s not right underneath you?

But the most troublesome thing is the darkness. This prologue, like much of the rest of the film, is shot day-for-night with a blue filter and it’s simply way, way too dark. Often, all we can see are dark blue shapes moving about among even darker blue shapes. One of these shapes is a telecoms engineer (played by producer Fraser Barsby) who is killed – in some manner that is too dark to see – by our escaped lunatic.

Now we launch into our title sequence, which plays over a load of stuff about some students meeting up, driving a minibus onto a ferry, having fun on the boat, then driving through France, stopping off at a market, eventually arriving at the 17th century farmhouse, converted into a luxury holiday home, which is their destination. While on the ferry they meet a Dutch guy and invite him along. This sequence is presumably supposed to introduce us to our main characters but it singularly fails to do that because by the end of it we don’t know any of their names or any of their relationships. The only good thing is that by counting how many people got out of the minibus, I discovered there were eight of them (including the Dutch guy). By the end of the film, we still won’t know all their names or their relationships, although a couple of them are lesbians apparently.

The above, like the prologue, lasts for a full seven minutes. Given that the entire feature only runs 70 minutes, that means we are fully 20% of the way into the film before eventually getting past the ‘Directed by Andrew Weild’ caption.

Apart from the hot lezzas and the Dutch guy who turns out to be a skilled chef, the only distinguishable character is the ostensible leader of the group, a tall, foul-mouthed, bullying, deeply unpleasant Scouser called… no, even after watching this all the way through I have no idea what the character’s name is. Barsby and Weild’s script is not only short on characterisation, it doesn’t even bother identifying the various characters. Why do people do this? Do they genuinely not realise that, in presenting us with a whole bunch of people, all of similar age and dressed similarly, the one thing that might be useful is to at least know people’s names?

So, people unpack and the Dutch guy cooks and people eat and people drink and people play Twister and my God it’s dull. Eventually there’s a knock at the door and it’s a gendarme, puzzled to see them there as the property’s owners had assured him the place would be empty (a pointless thread of a plot strand which is never mentioned again). He warns them that a crazy psycho named Jacques Sykes has escaped from the local asylum so they should stay inside and keep the doors locked. Fortunately, one of the students recognises the name of the psycho and proceeds to regale his pals at length and in detail about a series of crimes which happened near here ten years ago. Because why shouldn’t he just happen to be an expert on something which happened in a different country when he was nine?

So hang on, this all must mean that the prologue is actually taking place on the same night that the gang arrive at the farmhouse. So all the stuff on the ferry was effectively a flashback of sorts because it happened in daylight, before Sykes escaped from le nuthouse. This is all confusing because the natural assumption, when viewing a film shot in 2002, having seen a prologue captioned ‘1992’, is that the main story brings us up to the present day, especially when characters talk about something which happened ten years before. But that would mean the entire film is set in 1992 for absolutely no reason - certainly none of the clothes or hairstyles look particularly ‘90s. In fact the lad who makes the obligatory discovery that there’s no mobile coverage says he wants to check his Lottery numbers. But the National Lottery didn’t launch until 1994, and anyway in 1992 mobile phones were still rare and well out of the financial reach of students.

Here’s what I think must have happened. Weild and Barsby perhaps originally planned that the prologue with the aeroplane would be the original search for Sykes after he butchered an entire village, so they created the caption that set it ten years earlier. But they then rewrote the dialogue for the pilot and his colleague on the ground, making it a search for Sykes after he escapes. But then they forgot to remove the caption! I can see no other possible explanation. It’s quite the dumbest, crassest error I’ve seen in a film for quite some time.

Sykes, who is now togged up in the telecoms engineer’s gear, proceeds to butcher the assembled, unlikeable characters one by one. Unfortunately, the deep, dark day-for-night filming means that everything outside (and everything inside after the lights go out) is unfathomable, Added to constant poor sound recording (by Barsby) this means we can often neither see nor hear what is actually going on.

One thing we do get to see is two lesbians in bikinis making out in a swimming pool. When Dutch chef guy turns up, they invite him in for a threesome. He scurries back to his room to get changed but, in a quite amusing sequence, spends so long posing in front of the mirror as he tries to decide whether to go for, as Kevin Bacon famously put it, “shorts or budgie smugglers”, that by the time he arrives back at the pool both girls have gone into the sauna and there been savagely butchered.

Dutch guy runs back to the main house to tell people but the Scouse twat accuses him and ties him to a chair. The girls’ bodies have, it seems, swiftly disappeared from the sauna so the rest of the gang go outside looking for them, thinking they have just wandered off, which seems a bit daft given the copious quantities of blood still in the sauna.

After that, it all becomes a bit vague and it’s impossible to tell who gets killed in what order by the steadily walking, implacable, shades-wearing psycho. There was talk in the publicity of the killer assembling a “makeshift morgue” but that doesn’t come across at all through the Stygian photography. Eventually the final girl – whoever she is - runs down the killer with the minibus but a radio news report, delivered in the traditional flat monotone, tells us that the guy’s body was never found.

A brief epilogue “three months later” sees the killer still togged up as an engineer, stalking the final girl in her large, opulent flat. Needless to say, absolutely no motive is ever given.

Now here’s the thing, while Hacked Off is thoroughly generic, it’s also early enough in the history of the British Horror Revival to actually be quite innovative. Think about it: what precedents are there for British slashers? Sure there were a few movies about psychos in the mid-1970s from the likes of Pete Walker, but the modern teen slasher was invented by John Carpenter in 1978. Can you – can anyone – name me a British film before Hacked Off which used the standard slasher tropes that were established in the late 1970s. The closest I can get is Simon Hunter’s Lighthouse but the setting and characters there are more original and distinctive. This is just a bunch of obnoxious teenagers, going off somewhere away from it all, and then being stalked and brutally killed for no reason whatsoever by a dispassionate but relentless nutjob with a variety of tools.

Nowadays that sort of thing is a ten-a-penny but back in the early naughties, as the BHR was getting into its stride, it was still quite a radical idea to make one of these things in Britain (or in this case, mostly France – the top/tail UK scenes were shot in King’s Lynn). So, just as it was nearly 30 years from Night of the Living Dead to the first modern British zombie film, so we can see it took the best part of a quarter of a century for the influence of Halloween and Friday the 13th to be felt over here. Of course, a couple of years later along came Bryn Hammond with The Summer of the Massacre to show us all how it should really be done…

The movie was a co-production between Elig Films and Chipboard Productions, one of which was Andrew Weild and one was Fraser Barsby. The two gents pretty much comprised the entire crew; apart from music credits, the only other names are Alexis Park (gaffer and stills) and Emma Blickem (production assistant and catering) whom I would venture to suggest were their girlfriends at the time. Weild is credited as both DP and camera operator; Barsby as production designer, sound recordist and special make-up; the two share editing, costume, sound effects and (with Blickem) casting. That’s your lot.

Neither fellow made another feature. Fraser Barsby still lives in Norfolk where he has a company that sells and customises ex-Army Land-Rovers. Andew Weild (assuming it’s the same guy) is now a portrait photographer based in the Scottish Borders.

Among the cast, only Ross Maxwell and Liam Browne seem to have pursued a subsequent acting career. The former is in Ouija Board and Sawney: Flesh of Man and a sub-feature psychological horror called Sessions of the Mind; the latter has made some non-horror indie features and starred in a couple of Stereophonics videos. Ben Tyreman, who plays the psycho, now seems to be active in Welsh theatre. But Maria Conciarro, Sarah Pavey, Adam Stride, Tori Wheatman, Mark Wright (not the TOWIE guy), Patrick Owen (who plays the gendarme) and body doubles Karl Irons and Emma Sands have simply vanished. Or have they? An actor named Emerson Peters lists this film on his agent’s website and, you know, you wouldn’t admit to that unless it’s true. I guess he must be either Stride or Wright under a new Equity stage name. The acting, by the way, is no great shakes but also not awful, except the scenes on the P&O ferry which seem to have been improvised.

All of which leaves one name in the cast list who has made something of herself and might well prefer her venture into violent horror cinema to be swept under the carpet (or maybe she’s proud of it) – credited here as Layla Stewart but now known professionally as Layla Anna-Lee. If the name doesn’t ring bells with you (thank you, Wikipedia), she is a TV presenter, mainly covering sport, particularly rugby, football and cycling in its various forms. Even if you’ve not heard of her, you’ve almost certainly heard her voice because she was one of two announcers at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. She also does awards coverage for OK! Magazine’s website and presents a children’s cooking show on ITV. Plus lots of modelling over the years, apparently.

Most of the £8,000 budget came from Fraser Barsby’s credit cards with some sort of contribution from King’s Lynn-based financial consultant Martin Crannis and Norwich advertising agency Freshly Squeezed who both receive ‘executive producer’ credit. Local indie band Vanilla Pod, who had been gigging and releasing albums since the mid-1990s, provide some songs for the soundtrack, which also credits Allan Kirk, Shane Reeve, Todd Scott, Bill Cocker and Messrs. Barsby and Weild.

Filmed over five days in November 2002, the movie carries a 2003 copyright date. I can’t find any evidence of festival play but it was actually submitted to the BBFC, receiving a 15 certificate, which must have set the boys back a few quid. Copies were sold through the now defunct website with offers of a free T-shirt or poster for the first thousand discs sold. Which seems an enormously optimistic sales projection for a no-name indie slasher only available from its own website or the undiscriminating shelves of The Cinema Store.

Screeners were sent out and the film was soundly trashed by reviewers on three websites: Eat My Brains!, The Late Doctor Lady Show and Slasherpool, a now-defunct, English language horror site based in Sweden. “Terrible low-budget slasher effort from the country that just doesn't seem to want to produce good slashers,” was the opinion of Slasherpool which seems odd because it was the people behind that site which actually released the Hacked Off DVD! (Their only other release was Swedish feature Death Academy.)

Long since consigned to history, and not even the well-documented bits of history, copies of Hacked Off now surface very occasionally on eBay.

MJS rating: C-

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