Writers: Drew Casson, Jesse Cleverly, Sarah Perugia, ‘The Cast’
Producers: Miles Bullough, Jesse Cleverly
Cast: Drew Casson, Georgia Bradley, Tom Scarlett, Sam Carter
Reviewed from: online screener
I made two notes while watching Hungerford. At about 32 minutes into this 79-minute feature I observed (and wrote down), “Well, I wasn’t expecting that.” At about 52 minutes I exclaimed (and wrote down), “Ooh, that’s nasty.” I think we can consider those points the act breaks.
Hungerford is a decent little horror-sci-fi movie made by a startlingly talented and capable young man, with some fine acting and good production values. Storywise, it’s hardly the most original or groundbeaking slice of cinematic entertainment but it’s not the story that makes this interesting. Small town, alien invasion takes over the populace, handful of survivors try to work out what’s going on and avoid the threat. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Dawn of the Dead, a scenario which has played out in endless movies, scores of novels and about three or four episodes per season of Goosebumps. There's a nice twist in the use of deodorant as a weapon, but that's about it as far as originality goes. No matter.
Writer-director Drew Casson stars as Cowen, a BTEC Media Studies student living with his best mate Adam (Tom Scarlett) and Adam’s sister Phil (Georgia Bradley); another mate Kip (Sam Carter) completes the household. Casson has Robert Plant hair but is only 19 meaning he’s not actually old enough to even remember the Page and Plant Unledded album, let alone any of the original Led Zep stuff. I bet he’s Googling this now to find out who Robert Plant is so that he can Twitter it on his iPhone to a Facebook Playstation meme LOL smiley face, ack!, haemorrhage!
Just pause the review for a bit while I go and have a lie down.
And we’re back.
As part of his college course, Cowen has to produce some sort of video diary so he sets about filming himself and his housemates. Adam is a bit of a loose cannon, prone to getting into fights and, we learn later, on probation for some unspecified offence. Phil is tolerant and supportive and, in a nicely subtle bit of characterisation, carries a torch for Cowen but is forced to keep it hidden as she lives deep in the friendzone. And Kip is a bit of a nerd who looks and sounds like Stephen Merchant.
Following a weird storm over the town, odd things start happening. During a party thrown by Cowen's crush Janine (Kitty Speed) at her parents’ house, a girl being chatted up by Adam starts throwing up blood. And Cowen spots Janine’s dad (Colin Stark) repeatedly knocking his bloody head against a window. All this is captured by Cowen on his camera.
The tipping point is an attack by an alien-possessed postman, and here’s where the film loses itself a bit as, having killed the man in self-defence, the panicked quartet debate what to do with the body, eventually deciding to hoick it downstairs and leave it in a handy skip. Adam’s probation aside, it’s not clear why they can’t call the police, especially as local plod Terry (Nigel Morgan) is a good mate of theirs. More importantly, why the jiminy heck would they film themselves disposing of the body? The dropped camera conveniently records the fight but then they actually video themselves debating the next move, wrapping the corpse in a blanket and disposing of it to hide the evidence, thereby actually creating more damning evidence than they had when there was just a dead postal worker in their flat. That’s the point at which the found footage conceit breaks down and when I realised that not only was it not adding anything to the film, it was actually creating problems. And that’s before we get to the traditional found footage clichés like blood spattering onto the lens or hanging onto the camera while running from someone/thing trying to kill you.
While certainly not enough to spoil what is a very watchable film (and a staggeringly impressive debut feature by a director barely old enough to get served in a pub), I just found myself wishing that Casson had demonstrated his undeniable film-making talent with a more conventionally formatted movie. Sometimes the conceit works, sometimes it doesn’t – but in the sequences in this film (and many like it) where it works, there is no reason why that could not have simply been shot as POV. That, I think, is what people sometimes forget. Standard cinematic techniques do not preclude placing a camera where a character is standing to show us what they are looking at. Quite the contrary, it’s a very, very common technique, and it has the advantage that you don’t have to find some narrative reason for the person to actually be pointing a camera at everything.
The other thing that occurred to me – and I fully appreciate that I might not think of this if I had recently been attacked by a Royal Mail employee under the control of an evil alien brain slug – is that however well one disposes of the body, it would take the police about half a morning to find out who killed Postie by simply following his delivery route, seeing who the last person was to receive a letter, then knocking next door with the handcuffs ready. In the event, of course, this is moot what with the alien invasion and the brain slugs and all, but nevertheless.
Casson’s script also ducks the matter of how the authorities might respond to the goings-on in Hungerford, with no cops on view apart from Terry, who does say much later in the film that all his colleagues are dead and that ‘special forces’ sent to deal with the situation had also disappeared. Realistically, vast numbers of uniformed forces – police and army – would be deployed, not to mention all the media who would circle. And this brings us, sort of, to the one thing that genuinely does disturb me about Hungerford – and that’s the title. To the generation before Casson’s (ie. me) the name ‘Hungerford’ has one, and only one connotation. It refers to the 1987 incident in which Michael Ryan went on a killing spree throughout the town, armed with several automatic weapons, randomly gunning down strangers before taking his own life.
It was one of the worst fire-arms incidents ever in the UK and led directly to massive changes in the laws around gun ownership. It was a defining incident in late 20th century British history, law and politics. Google ‘Hungerford’ and of the top five links, two are about the town, three are about the ‘Hungerford massacre’. Casson (and most of his cast and crew) are way too young to remember this, heck they weren’t even born, but I can’t believe that anyone who lives in the town of Hungerford isn’t fully aware of that terrible event.
I don’t want to come across like a prude, but even I think that the title and setting of the film is in (hopefully unintentional) poor taste. What's the basic theme here? The movie is about ordinary members of the public in fear for their lives in a quiet English market town where something terrible, inconceivable and appallingly violent is happening. And what's the movie called? It's called Hungerford, and it's filmed on the same streets where Michael Ryan gunned down neighbours and strangers. This is basically inviting conservative film critics (are there any other sort?) to hate it. My advice would be to seriously consider a change of title and to loop any mention of the town name. Not just to avoid causing offence, but also to avoid this basically irrelevant aspect of the film swamping its many admirable qualities. Surely Casson and co want this to be discussed as “that amazing sci-fi/horror film made for a few thousand quid by a British teenager that’s better than half the crap pumped out of Hollywood”; not as “that sick attempt to sell a trashy, cheap sci-fi/horror film by capitalising on one of the worst UK crimes in living memory”. (I know it’s not an attempt to sell the film, but that’s what they’ll say it is, and that’s what people will read. If you want a precedent, some newspapers trashed the superb Mum and Dad because they got it into their heads it was based on Fred and Rose West.)
As well as writing, directing and starring, Casson also handled the edit and the visual effects, which include some reasonable exploding heads as well as the storm and some stuff right at the end. It says a lot about the sort of film this is that, where bigger movies will have endless lists of names, a little project like Hungerford has a single name but then a great long list of still photos, effects shots – even a font - which have been been provided by other people, presumably under some sort of creative commons deal. This is an increasingly common phenomenon and allows a low-budget movie like Hungerford to really kick above its weight. One of the few names in the credits to have other BHR experience is dubbing mixer Jamie Ward who worked on Dead of the Nite and Dark Vision. Post-production manager Patsy Hayden pulled a similar gig on Bill Bailey’s TV documentary about Alfred Russell Wallace!
Casson isn’t the first teenage director to make a feature movie. Michael Ferns was only 17 when he made the jaw-droppingly poetic and powerful Kirk, which sadly and swiftly disappeared into limbo due to, I think, disagreements between certain parties. William Honeyball was a similar age when he directed Spring Heeled Jack. Liam Hooper and most of his cast and crew were still at school when they made Darkwood Manor in 2011 (and, being brutally honest, it shows). And I have long championed the works of teenage trash auteurs Jason Impey and Thomas Lee Rutter, both now older but no less maverick in their film-making. Nevertheless, Hungerford is genuinely important for what it represents, not so much in the director’s prodigious talent but in the way that the project has come together.
This is the first movie from Wildseed Studios, a content development company set up by Jesse Cleverly, a former BBC script reader, and Miles Bullough who previously worked at Absolutely Productions (including on Absolutely itself, a box set I have recently been rewatching with enormous enjoyment: “It’s vid-AY-o!”) and also at Aardman. Wildseed has been set up to produce exciting new content across whatever platform is appropriate on the sort of microbudget that can produce something like Hungerford. Bullough and Cleverly (who gets a script credit) spotted Casson’s home-made shorts on YouTube and worked with him to develop Hungerford (initially titled Hunger Ford for no reason that I can discern) as a web series. It was shot over nine days in July 2013 but, in the edit suite, it dawned on everyone that it might actually work as a feature film. A couple of days of pick-ups and presto, one 80-minute feature which, it has to be said, does not betray its serial origins.
(As an aside, I know of several BHR entries which are feature-length edits of existing web serials – Vampires: Brighter in Darkness, Blood and Bone China, Helsing: A Monster of a Documentary and, of course, that brace of brushed-under-the-carpet horrors from Ben Grass and the Pure Grass Films team: Johannes Roberts’ When Evil Calls and NuHammer’s red-headed stepchild Beyond the Rave. But I don’t know of any other films which were conceived as a web serial then mutated into a feature during post.)
Wildseed are already working with some recognisable BHR names including Ryan McDermott (Mark McReady and the Archangel Murders) and Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared) which bodes well for their future output. More importantly, they represent an acknowledgement of the power and potential of micro-budget film-making and home-grown talent (Casson has never been to film school, nor has he any need so to do). In the same way that Mum and Dad represented a breakthrough with Film London and EM-Media recognising that there was justification in funding films that only cost £100,000, so Wildseed’s funding of Hungerford knocks another zero off the figure of practical, viable feature budgets (what is more, they are investing as entrepreneurs with a genuine passion for genre movies, rather than as Lottery-funded State cash machines making a token exception from a steady output of serious, meaningful, unwatchably dull crap).
Mind, at 20 grand it’s still more than 400 times what Marc Price spent on Colin, and indeed well in excess of quite a few excellent British features reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the good thing is that the money is visible on screen. This is a production which can afford to break furniture during a fight, simply because a fight in a living room that doesn’t cause any damage looks stupid. And while they can’t afford an actual car crash, they can at least afford to buy a car and turn it upside-down for a post-crash scene.
Hungerford premiered at SciFi London in May 2014 and, as I write this a few weeks later, the producers are deciding what to do with it. There’s talk of a possible theatrical release and, while every film-maker dreams of such a thing, I’m not sure that’s the route to go down. It would be taking a movie that posits itself (possibly with justification) as the vanguard of a new film-making movement, and which builds (whether the film-makers know it or not) on a decade and a half of increasingly brilliant sub/urban British horror which long ago scrapped conventions and stuck two fingers up to the so-called ‘British film industry’ – and then shoe-horning that movie into an outmoded, antediluvian form of distribution which could actually damage its reputation. Cinemas are places for Hollywood blockbusters and weird foreign art-house stuff, not British indies. I know a lot of the BHR films reviewed here have had supposedly ‘theatrical releases’ but these are token screenings designed only to generate reviews and publicity for the DVD/VOD release which is where (a) most people will watch it and (b) most of the money will be made. And the downside of such a model is of course that it opens up your film to the mainstream press and their tediously predictable dislike of low-budget films (especially low-budget genre films (especially British low-budget genre films (how many brackets is that?))…one, two…). Sorted.
Freak Out, or give it a multiplatform release like A Field in England (or - though most people seem to have forgotten this, and I make no apologies for mentioning it a third time in this review - Mum and Dad). Distrify is where British cinema lives now, not the Odeon or the Showcase.
Hungerford needs to play to its strengths – cast, characters, direction, VFX, action, horror and just a soupçon of humour - and circumvent its weaknesses, chiefly the connotation of the title and the limitations of the found footage subgenre, which is so clichéed now that it automatically gets many people’s backs up and prejudices critics (pro and am) against a film. Don’t get me wrong: Hungerford plays the found footage card better than many comparable pictures, but neither the story nor the characters really justify the decision so it brings nothing to the film we haven’t seen before. Plus, and I’m being brutally honest here, Casson hasn’t quite got it right...
Too many shots are too nicely framed and too well lit to maintain the conceit of faux reality. He has taught himself too well and maybe needed to ‘unlearn’ some of what he knew about film direction. There is also a reliance on wobbly image and buzzy sound to indicate the camera being suddenly turned on or off (or something). I'm pretty sure that real cameras don't do that. Or anything like that. They're working or they're not. Plus there are a few scenes where footage is taken from a second camera, a Go-Pro strapped to someone's chest, visible in some shots. So in what way has this 'found footage' actually been found? Ironically, one of the most powerful moments in the film is 'genuine' found footage, a brief video message left on a phone by someone about to die. Although, while that's more believable than the old school method of people leaving messages on VHS tape, it still requires the finder (whose phone this isn't) to fortuitously go straight to this particular clip.
Interestingly, in a recent interview Casson said he could only name two other British found footage films but in fact it’s a prolific 21st century subgenre on these islands. Obviously there’s The Last Horror Movie, My Little Eye, Vampire Diary and The Zombie Diaries (and indeed The Zombie Diaries 2). To that list can be added Exhibit A, The Tapes, A Night in the Woods, Hollow, The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, File Box, The Borderlands (Drew Casson actually had a bit part in that, so it must be one of the two!), The Big Finish, Dark Vision, The Mirror, The Ghosts of Crowley Hall, 'untitled' and, erm, Sex Tape Horror Film. Now I haven’t seen all of these (certainly not Sex Tape Horror Film) but that’s 18, and I bet there’s a few others. I’d be amazed if Jason Impey hasn’t done at least one or two.
And while I certainly wouldn’t expect Drew Casson or Jesse Cleverly or indeed anyone on the face of God’s Earth to be familiar with all of those, or even to have heard of them (I could only compile that list by looking back through my annual British Horror Revival Round-Up blogs over on the Hemlock Books site), it demonstrates how crowded the field is and how the format in and of itself has lost whatever novelty it may once have had.
The above notwithstanding, I’m genuinely pleased to have been invited to be one of the first people to watch and review Hungerford and I am very much looking forward to seeing what Drew Casson and/or Wildseed Studios can produce next. And let me finish this review by clearing up something from earlier. I don’t have any prejudice against young people. It’s people in general I can’t stand.
MJS rating: A-