Thursday, 8 May 2014

Razor Blade Smile

Director: Jake West
Writer: Jake West
Producers: Jake West, Rob Mercer
Cast: Eileen Daly, Christopher Adamson, Jonathan Coote
Country: UK
Year of release: 1998
Reviewed from: UK 2-disc special edition
Website: www.razorbladesmile.com

Ten years ago I saw Razor Blade Smile on the big screen, writing rave reviews for SFX and Total Film - both of which are quoted on this DVD. You all know that I’m very supportive of indie British cinema so I was deliberately more generous than I should have been, knowing that most of the mainstream press would tear this little, low-budget action/horror picture to pieces and wanting to provide some sort of counterpoint.

Over the ensuing decade, some people have loved Razor Blade Smile, some have hated it and I have always wondered whether I was unduly positive in my published reviews. So, ten years on, I sat down to watch the DVD, expecting a cheap’n’cheerful piece of low-budget silliness.

But you know what? Razor Blade Smile stands up - and stands up well. This was a film shot on 16mm just on the cusp of a revolution in low-budget film-making. In 1998, ‘digital’ still meant something you operated with your finger. And this was also one of the last British horror films made in the doldrums of the 1990s before the ‘British Horror Revival’ was kick-started by the triple whammy of three great, gritty, British frightfilms: Darklands, Urban Ghost Story and I, Zombie. Suddenly, around 1998-99, British horror cinema exploded, a boom period which is still going on ten years later.

RBS was the last of the old guard and as such it’s a fascinating time capsule of a swiftly forgotten style of film-making. It’s not unlike watching a science fiction film made just before Star Wars. Yet in the same way that George Lucas’ masterpiece, for all its slick polish and technical whizzbangery, somehow lost the heart and soul that permeated the few SF movies made in the first half of the 1970s (think Silent Running, think Rollerball, think Soylent Green, think Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), so there seems, in retrospect, to have been a deadening, a flattening out of British indie horror in the past ten years. Sturgeon’s law says that 90 per cent of everything is crap; when the means becomes more accessible and the process more popular, the product becomes more prevalent and the average quality decreases.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been some fantastic horror movies made in Britain between then (1998) and now (2008). But one of the reasons Razor Blade Smile still impresses so much today is because Jake West and his team really had to work hard to make this film. There were no short cuts, no home computers, no web-based tools. This was real film-making and because of this, Jake can truthfully claim to be a real film-maker.

RBS is the story of a vampire named Lilith Silver, played by - who else? - Eileen Daly. There was a period in the history of British horror films when you pretty much weren’t allowed to make one without Eileen. Between 1997 and 2001 she appeared in Alex Chandon’s Pervirella, Elisar Cabrera’s Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft, Tony Luke’s Archangel Thunderbird, Razor Blade Smile, Sacred Flesh (for her partner Nigel Wingrove), Tricky Dicky Driscoll's Kannibal and then Cradle of Fear (for Alex again). That’s seven horror films (albeit Archangel Thunderbird is a half-hour short) in five years.

Lilith Silver is a professional hitwoman: Queen of the Damned meets Day of the Jackal with a side order of Emma Peel. Squeezed into rubber catsuits or squeezing out of black lace basques, Eileen was perfectly suited to the role and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else even being considered. Long black hair, alabaster pale skin, ruby red lips and the voice that Marilyn Monroe might have had if she was born in Catford. Eileen is Lilith is Eileen.

All that said, Eileen’s never going to win an Oscar and she’s better in the scenes without dialogue (and without occasional, unnecessary narration). But she has something more than great acting skill, she’s got charm and an undeniable chemistry with the camera.

Though less iconic, Christopher Adamson is also something of a British indie horror regular. As well as his role here as lead vampire Sethane Blake, he starred as the satanic Magus in Jake’s graduation film Club Death, he was one of the mad Welsh brothers in Jake’s second feature, Evil Aliens, he was the psycho in Simon Hunter’s Lighthouse, a randy priest in Sacred Flesh, a hitman in Whacked (the short film that Jake made inbetween RBS and Evil Aliens) and he was a psycho again in the prologue of The Last Horror Movie. But Adamson also has a career in more respectable - or at least, bigger-budgeted - movies including Judge Dredd (as Mean Machine Angel) and all three Pirates of the Caribbean pictures (as Jimmy Legs). He has also worked with Simon Hunter again in Mutant Chronicles.

So anyway, Razor Blade Smile. A black and white prologue set in the early 18th century sees Sethane vampirising Lilith after she gets involved in a duel he was fighting. Actually it’s a black, white and red prologue with Jake colouring in the blood, of which there is a great deal. Visual effects by Cinesite go a long way towards making this film look vastly more expensive than it was and are also evident in the James Bond pastiche title sequence.

In the present day, Lilith earns her living as a contract killer, explaining hypothetically to some weekend goths in a nightclub called Transilvania that this is what she thinks a vampire would do. You’re immortal, you need to not only stop yourself from being bored but also earn money so that you can pass for normal. Contract killing is the perfect job and also takes away the problem of who to kill and eat. Lilith’s technique is to blast the victim in the neck afterwards with her twin automatic pistols to obliterate the bite marks.

This is the crux of Razor Blade Smile: it’s a film based on the potential practicalities of vampiredom, clearly derived from young Mr West sitting down with a sheet of paper and an HB pencil and thinking: “Right, what would a vampire actually do?”

Lilith doesn’t deal directly with her clients. She works through a middle-man named Platinum who has no idea about her supernatural background. And damn me, behind the goatee beard and the floppy hair is a young-looking Kevin Howarth, five years before he became a horror icon as Max Parry in The Last Horror Movie. Between those two roles he was in Whacked, family fantasy The Ghost of Greville Lodge and an obscure horror-thriller called Don’t Look Back! and since then he has turned up in Summer Scars (for Julian Richards again), Cold and Dark (with Luke Goss) and the as-yet-unreleased Gallowwalker (with Wesley Snipes, who was arrested for tax fraud during production), both of those last two directed by the appropriately named Andrew Goth. Here Kevin has a few (tasteful) sex scenes with Eileen, as Lilith and Platinum fail to keep their professional and personal lives separate, plus an ironically prophetic torture scene while tied to a chair.

Tracking down this mysterious ‘hitman’, nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’, is Detective Inspector Price (Jonathan Coote: The Last Horror Movie, The 13th Sign), assisted in one brief scene by David Warbeck in his final role. In the late 1990s Warbeck became a great supporter of British indie cinema with roles in Pervirella, Sudden Fury and this film (albeit this particular copper, known only as ‘the Horror Movie Man’ was originally written with Christopher Lee in mind). Warbeck died in July 1997, aged only 55, from cancer and the UK indie scene lost a great friend.

Lilith is hired to take out some sort of mob boss named Leonard Arnold (Georgio Serafini: Five Children and It) and also kills his minders while she’s there but misses his Missus (Jennifer Guy, who back in the 1970s was in Don Chaffey’s Persecution and infamous Douglas Adams/Graham Chapman pilot Out of the Trees). She puts Price onto the idea that the killer was a vampire and he hires a student photographer (Grahame Wood, who is now over in North America making glamorous TV dramas like Beautiful People and Falcon Beach) to take snaps of the clientele in Transilvania, from which Arnold’s widow identifies Lilith.

But Price has an interest in the case entirely unrelated to his police work. He is a member of a secret Illuminati sect headed by Sethane Blake who all wear distinctive rings. The Angel of Death, who has apparently been responsible for murders dating back a century or more, is being hired by someone to take out the members of this sect. In what may be the first appearance of the internet in a British film, Lilith talks via webcam with a guy called ‘the Chill Pilgrim’ who identifies the ring design for her. Brad Lavelle, who played this role, was also in Nightbreed, Judge Dredd, Hellraiser II and Alien Autopsy and narrated one of the three versions of The Last Dragon. He dropped dead of a heart attack a week before his 49th birthday in 2007.

At this point I’d like to say that you can always tell a film directed by an editor. I’d like to, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true, although I think it’s inarguable that the three main types of directors - former editors, former cinematographers and those who go straight into directing - tend to make films in distinctively different ways. Jake frames his images with the confidence that comes from having already cut the film together in his head while he was writing it. He’s not afraid to play with form; not just flashbacks but little expressionistic fantasy inserts. Sometimes generically expressionistic - Lilith towering above London while Sethane calls to her from some sort of glowing starburst - and sometimes literally Expressionistic as in a couple of faux silent movie clips of Eileen turning into a bat and a mist.

If there’s a weakness in the film (some dodgy day-for-night scenes aside) it’s probably the climax, an extended chase around some rocks which goes on too long with the final twist, though internally consistent, slightly too pat to be completely satisfying.

Also in a respectable cast are Isabel Brook (who went on to appear in Brian Yuzna’s embarrassingly bombastic Faust), Peter Godwin (Sentinels of Darkness, Pervirella), the stunning Louisa Moore (who, as Louise Edwards, was Lady Death in Club Death) and Glenn Wrage (Thunderpants, Octane) as the other duellist in the prologue. Among the various crew members moonlighting as extras are production designer Neil Jenkins (Evil Aliens, Broken, The Devil’s Chair), composer Richard Wells (Evil Aliens, Mutant Chronicles and the UK release of Ong-Bak!), costume designer Dena Costello (Sacred Flesh, Warrior Sisters) and Quentin Reynolds (executive producer of Evil Aliens). Simon Hunter is a voice on a police radio, a favour which Jake repaid a couple of years later by providing a radio voice for Lighthouse.

Jake shared the producer credit with Rob Mercer, who went on to write and produce Stagknight while Marvin Gleicher from Manga Video was one of three executive producers. Cinematographer Jim Solan also worked with Jake on Club Death, Whacked and Evil Aliens and was second unit director on Lighthouse. Jake did his own editing of course.

In the booklet which accompanies the surprisingly lavish two-disc edition, Jake makes the claim that RBS is probably the lowest-budgeted feature film ever to have a UK theatrical release and he might be right. It certainly cost a lot less than the supposedly micro-budget Blair Shit Project although here, as in every case, one must bear in mind that the cost of post-production, distribution and marketing may not be included. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing that Evil Aliens cost a factor of ten times more than this and that Pumpkinhead 3 - which is still considered ‘low budget’ - cost another factor of ten more than that. As I pointed out to Jake on the Pumpkinhead set, at this rate his fifth or sixth feature will cost more than Titanic.

As well as the rather naive version of the internet on show (which is called ‘V-net’ and is, of course, dial-up!), there are mobile phones the size of bricks and a few other odds and sods which date the film. One interesting thing is that in the ensuing ten years the focus of low-budget horror has shifted somewhat. Vampires are, if not passé, certainly no longer flavour of the month. In the 2000s the monster of choice for cut-price film-makers is the zombie.

The late 1990s was not a great time for fans of British horror movies. I know because I was working on SFX from 1995 to 1998, desperately trying to promote whatever few films came along. This makes Razor Blade Smile (or Razor Blade, as the French know it) an oddity, out of time and out of context, devoid of directly comparative films and destined forever to rattle around in the subgenre bag marked ‘other’ along with the likes of Funny Man and The Killer Tongue. It’s ironic that in the production notes Jake commented, “I'm fed up with the British looking like the most socially repressed nation in the world - it's time we regained a sense of cool sophistication,” but that cool sophistication never came along, at least not in the world of low-budget horror films. Instead the subgenre flourished by taking the gloom and angst of that very same social repression and embracing it, creating a truly British horror cinema for the early 21st century that owed as much to Ken Loach as it did to Christopher Lee.

Manga’s Special Edition double DVD has a digitally restored widescreen image that really shows up the quality of Solan’s cinematography and a commentary with Jake and Eileen. The second disc kicks off with Club Death, followed by an hour-long documentary, Slice of Life - From Club Death to Razor Blade Smile. This is built around interviews with Jake, Eileen, Chris Adamson, Jonathan Coote, Kevin Howarth, Jim Solan, Neil Jenkins and Richard Wells and even includes a brief clip from A Bizarre Short Film About Death..., a 1989 student film directed by Jake at Farnham College.

There are two subtly different versions of the theatrical trailer, one of which is an unused variant with a couple of CGI effects in it, plus about seven minutes of bloopers/out-takes and about eight minutes of alternate/deleted scenes. This last is a bit misleading because, with the exception of a variant of the lesbian seduction scored with Richard Wells’ music (in case the music clearance didn’t come through), this is a montage of short clips, not whole scenes. There’s nothing significant here except an unused shot of the goth nightclub with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo by Jakey-boy himself.

Jake and Rob flew out to Cannes in 1997 to sell the film, armed with a ten-minute promo reel and a two-minute trailer, both included here - the promo reel introduced by Richard Wells - along with four minutes of self-shot ‘video diary’ which is frustrating in its brevity. There is a ten-minute slide show of 121 on-set/promotional photos and half an hour of previews for other Manga titles (all anime, naturally). I’m not usually a one for DVD easter eggs but since the review on DVD Times mentioned them I’ll point out a couple. On disc 1 pressing left on ‘Audio set-up’ gives you a one-minute slide show of 16 different pieces of promo artwork (I seem to recall that one of these posters was banned from the tube) while on disc 2 pressing right on ‘Manga previews’ gives you four minutes of different versions of the dream sequence and has the added bonus of not showing you any dreadful anime trailers. According to the sleeve there is also a script and some storyboards on the disc somewhere if you stick it in your computer. Altogether it’s a heck of a package and something that no-one could have imagined ten years ago when VHS was king.

For a while, there was talk of Razor Blade Smile 2. Jake wrote a script for this and I remember discussing it with him, Rob Mercer and Marvin Gleicher at Cannes in 2000, the night before I was interviewed by The Big Breakfast (a whole other story...). In the end, the ‘sequel’ became a gag scene in Evil Aliens and that - given that Eileen is probably now a little, ahem, long in the tooth to revive Lilith Silver - is how it’s likely to stay.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 5th August 2008

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