Sunday, 30 November 2014


Director: “Martin Tate”
Writer: "Benjamin Carr"
Producer: Kirk Edward Hansen
Cast: Marissa Tait, Jason Faunt, Tyler Anderson
Year of release: 1999
Country: USA
Reviewed from: R1 DVD

Totem has three sets: the inside of a cabin, the outside of a cabin and a very tiny cemetery. It has six young, largely unknown actors. And it runs a grand total of 57 minutes (or 68 if you include the opening and closing credits). This is a small film in every sense.

The basic premise is brilliantly simple and surprisingly reminiscent of The Exterminating Angel in places. Six youngsters who don’t know each other find themselves in an isolated cabin. Each has the same story to tell: they felt a sudden, inexplicable compulsion to stop whatever they were doing (lunch, sex, automobile repairs) and get to the cabin by any means possible. None of them know where they are, none of them have told anyone where they were going (because they didn’t know, obviously) and each of them knew that there would be six people in total.

Alma (The Bold and the Beautiful star Marissa Tait) is the last to arrive. Paul (Jason Faunt, a sort of low-rent Brad Pitt who was the Red Ranger in Power Rangers Time Force) takes it upon himself to introduce the others: Len (Eric W Edwards), Robert (Tyler Anderson: Microscopic Boy), Tina (Alicia Lagano: All About Us) and Roz (Sacha Spencer: Spy High). Len makes sexist comments about the girls and Robert is brooding and mysterious but that’s about as far as the detailed characterisation goes.

The five kids already present have each made an attempt to leave the cabin and found that they can’t - they just can’t get further than about a hundred feet before grinding to a halt. This is described as a ”magical, invisible wall” but it’s not like a force field, it’s just that their movements slow down and stop, like walking through mud. Alma has a try anyway and discovers that there is one path away from the cabin, down through the woods to a mysterious (and very small) cemetery, replete with mysterious (and very small) gravestones and wooden crosses.

And here they find the ‘totem’ of the title, except that it’s not like any totem pole that I, or they, (or anyone) has ever seen. It’s basically a stone column, square in cross section and about two meters high. In one side are three box-like recesses which house three very European-looking statues, each about 18 inches to two feet in height. The four-minute opening title sequence included numerous shots of these things moving slightly or their eyes glowing so it should come as no surprise that they somehow become animated later in the picture.

After all, this is a Full Moon movie, executive produced by Charles Band, and what would a Charlie Band film be without some killer dolls?

Tina is the first of the group to die, killed by something mysterious while she and Paul are alone in the fog-enshrouded cemetery. When her corpse, laid out on a table back at the cabin, starts spouting some ancient Native American language, Robert is somehow able to translate it - he can’t explain how - and from this the nature of the curse which has fallen on the youngsters is decoded. (Robert is supposedly Native American, and recognisably so, giving rise to an argument with Paul in which he makes it clear that, despite his heritage, he knows nothing about any tribe other than his own and he knows almost nothing about that one. It’s an interesting angle on a stereotypical situation which is let down by only a couple of points: Tyler Anderson looks about as Native American as I do, and he plays this role with an accent which most closely resembles Swedish...)

The basic premise of Totem, as here presented, is actually a pretty neat set-up: three of these people are destined to kill the other three but there is no indication of who may be victim or (unwitting) killer and the only way to ensure one does not become the former is to take action and become the latter. That’s a really interesting psychological/supernatural concept which could be milked for real tension on a low budget, especially as the cabin where the sextet are imprisoned is devoid of food (although it does have a 19th century Bible which holds some clues).

Unfortunately, this subplot gets mixed up with the other one that we were all expecting as the three mini-statues come to life and attack. It’s never entirely clear - not to the characters and certainly not to the audience - whether the statues are implicit in the murders or whether the murders are bringing the statues to life after the fact. There is a curious couple of minutes late in the film when an uncredited male voice recites a load of vague and incomprehensible stuff about the origin of the totem, playing over a montage of clips from old Viking movies (no one film in particular, the footage all comes from a compilation of public domain trailers). This does rather look like padding, suggesting the original cut of the film was even shorter than this one.

Then, shortly before the end of the movie, there is a surprisingly clever bit of plotting which turns the whole story (the curse one, not the killer dolls one) on its head. Unfortunately, this is followed by the inexplicable and unnecessary appearance of a couple of dodgy-looking zombies which rather deflate things.

I really, really don’t know what to make of Totem. The movie is competently directed by a pseudonymous David DeCoteau and photographed by the prolific Howard Wexler (a DeCoteau regular whose lengthy CV includes Phoenix 2, Legend of the Mummy 2, Voodoo Academy, Leather Jacket Love Story and second unit on Puppet Master II, Spiders II and Revenant). But the script by Neal Marshall Stevens (Hellraiser: Deader, Thir13en Ghosts) under his regular Full Moon pseudonym 'Benjamin Carr' (Frankenstein Reborn!, Zarkorr! The Invader, Kraa! The Sea Monster, Hideous! - and a number of films without exclamation marks in their titles) from a story by Band just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some of the individual scenes are actually pretty good and effective, including those exploring the mysterious inability of the occupants to depart which could so easily have been a laughably transparent piece of convenient plotting, but they never begin to gel into a cohesive plot. And with less than an hour of actual running time, they are never given the chance.

The cast all perform adequately. Tait and Faunt seem to be the nominal leads; they are the only two of the six with more than a handful of ultra-obscure credits and had previously worked together for DeCoteau on the first Witchouse film. Producer Kirk Edward Hansen has made about three dozen pictures for Band, from 1992’s Seed People through to 2001’s Train Quest (The Dead Hate the Living was, curiously, dedicated to his memory the year before). He seems to have started out as assistant to Band’s own gloriously named assistant, Bennah Burton-Burtt, and progressed through production assistant, production manager, co-producer and line-producer until eventually becoming a full-blown producer. Most of his credits seem to overlap with Benjamin Carr’s, including Frankenstein Reborn! and Voodoo Academy.

The music is provided by Richard Kosinski whose genre credits include vampire pictures (the Subspecies series), Celtic kid-fantasy (Leapin’ Leprechauns! I and II), Italian shorts (Langliena) and sasquatch movies (erm, Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw). Production design is by Helen Harwell (Hybrid, The Dentist 2) and the costume designer - not that there are too many costumes to design - is Edward Hibbs (The Brotherhood I and II, Final Stab, Leeches!). The most notable monicker in the credits however is post-production supervisor Eric Cartman (also credited as accountant on Hell Asylum) who is either an unsubtle pseudonym or a very unfortunately named individual who probably loathes South Park with a vengeance.

Special effects duties are shared between Christopher Bergschneider (Vampire Journals, The Halfway House, Decadent Evil) and Jeffrey S Farley (Scanner Cop II, Babylon 5, Deep Freeze). The usual 15-minute Videozone ‘making of’ (directed, I believe, by an uncredited Dave Parker) shows some behind-the-scenes shots which give much clearer views of the three killer statues than there are in the film. This is our only chance to see that the puppets had some limited degree of movement (rod and cable controlled) as their attacks in the film are so frenetically edited as to eradicate any chance of seeing the inanimate become animate. Such editing may well be to disguise the puppets’ limitations, I suspect.

Totem is available on its own and also on a double-bill disc paired with Jigsaw, which is the version that I watched. There is also a trailer for the film on this disc, including a full-frontal shot of a zombie which we never see clearly in the actual film. The Videozone featurette kicks off with Charles Band plugging Retro Puppet Master and promising that the following year (2000) would bring not only Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys (eventually produced by the Sci-Fi Channel in 2004 with Band unattached and receiving only a courtesy credit) but also Subspecies V (still unproduced).

MJS rating: C

Reign in Darkness

Directors: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Writers: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Producers: Kel Dolen, David Allen
Cast: Kel Dolen, David Allen, David No
Country: Australia
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Screen Entertainment)

You may have heard the phrase 'Show, don’t tell.' If you have, you’re probably not David W Allen or Kel Dolen, the guys who made this dull Australian vampire film, set (for no apparent reason) in South Africa. That’s the bit of South Africa where everyone has a strong Aussie accent, apparently.

Kel Dolen himself stars as Michael Dorn (an homage to the Star Trek actor?) who is part of a “small team of molecular biologists” researching a possible cure for HIV. In fact there are only two biologists in this team: Dorn and Scottie (Scott Tyack), plus one bureaucrat, Alex (co-writer, co-director David Allen who has subsequently added his middle initial to his screen name, presumably to distinguish himself from the legendary special effects artist who directed Puppet Master II) and a gun-toting heavy called Lance (Chris Kerrison) who has a Southern United States accent and sometimes wears a Confederate flag bandana. Because, you know, molecular biology research programmes often require firepower.

Reign in Darkness has three big problems (well, four if you count the fact that it all takes place in bright sunshine). It’s boring, it’s packed with inconsistencies and stuff that just doesn’t fit together in any conceivable way - and it’s narrated to death. For most of the movie, wooden actor Dolen drones on in a flat, lifeless monotone, explaining what his character is feeling, what he’s thinking, what he has just done, what he plans to do next and occasionally what he is actually doing while we’re watching him doing it. This is not some sort of film noir-style narration that a (good) film might get away with, it’s just somebody reading out a (fairly rubbish) story while we see it acted.

Dorn and his three colleagues are studying a virus called K-17 (which an opening caption tells us is believed to genuinely exist...) only their version is called RVK-17 for some reason. They’re not sure who they’re working for and their test subjects are tramps and hobos, whom they inject with the latest batch of RVK-17 to see what happens.

Dorn and Lance drag a tramp out of his cardboard home and inject him, instantly turning the ‘gentleman of the road’ into a maniac who attacks Dorn. Meanwhile narrator-Dorn tells us that these people are “like lab rats”. Well, no, not really. Lab rats are usually found in the controlled environment of, you know, a lab. They’re not just wild rats picked up on the street and injected with stuff. As Dorn tries to fight off the tramp, Lance saves him by blasting several shots from his automatic pistol into the man - while he is lying on top of the struggling Dorn!

Now here’s a tricky one: which of these is dumber? The idea that you can shoot someone (at point blank range) and the bullets will not continue through their body into the poor sod lying directly underneath them. Or the experimental procedure of Dorn’s team which is to find a homeless person, inject them with a virus which causes them to turn into a maniac (this is already known, it’s no surprise), do so without any way of restraining the person and then shoot them before they can be studied, thus rendering the whole thing pointless. This scene is typical of the film in having ideas that might sound good, might even work in isolation, but simply don’t make anything approaching sense when put together.

Despite miraculously escaping Lance’s bullets, Dorn has been stabbed by his own hypodermic needle which apparently still contained some RVK-17 and this turns him into a vampire. For some reason and in some way. Not a maniacal vampire who wants to kill and eat the first person he sees, but a haemavore nonetheless. Why the virus should affect him differently to the tramp is never explained. But he runs off, uses his new vampire superstrength to kill some anonymous goons sent to catch him and resigns himself to life as a fugitive. Oh, and there’s some back story about how one of the earlier test subjects went renegade and killed Dorn’s wife, back at the start of the project.

Now, Lance has some unseen masters with whom he converses while standing in a fuzzy spotlight surrounded by darkness (they call him ‘bounty hunter’ although we have already established that he is no such thing). These masters (actually it’s just one voice which not only is even more flat and lifeless than the narration but which constantly fades in and out of audibility) tell Lance that he must track down Dorn, helped by someone called Gage.

This turns out to be a tall guy with short hair died a sort of greenish-yellow and it must be said that Korean-Australian David No stands out not so much by his distinctive barnet, more by virtue of being the only person in the cast who can act. Lance and Gage can’t stand each other but have to work together to hunt Dorn. Gage is called a ‘half-breed’ but this is never explained and makes no sense if this form of vampirism is caused by a virus (not that the film-makers seem to have much clue what a virus actually is...) No’s other work includes Subterano, The Matrix Reloaded and Mr Nice Guy, in which he fought one-on-one with Jackie Chan.

Much of the film then consists of these two tracking down Dorn who returns to his flat (which has a Metropolis poster on the wall - the sure sign of a film-maker using his own home) where everything has been turned over by someone searching for something. They didn’t find his gun because he cleverly hid it under his CD player but they have taken his sword. Dorn also retrieves a photo of himself and the late Mrs Dorn. He sets himself up in some shed or room or building or I don’t know, it’s never explained, where he makes himself some kevlar body armour and a long trench coat lined with kevlar. Again, we have a choice. Is the dumbest thing here the idea that one person, without any specialist knowledge or equipment, could run up state of the art bullet-proof clothing in a dingy room virtually overnight? Or is it that bullet-proof body armour is completely superfluous for a character who has already discovered that he has amazing healing powers. Make him able to survive being shot or give him bullet-proof clothes, but why do both?

While rarely bad enough to be entertaining (or even interesting), Reign in Darkness does occasionally provide some unintentional laughs, mostly in scenes where someone blasts away at someone else at point blank range while the other person simply runs away unscathed. There is also the world’s least exciting car-chase in which two expensive sports cars are driven at reasonable speeds because they must be returned unscratched to the dealer who lent them after filming wraps. Although credit where credit is due, the film-makers do make the red car look like it has crashed by tilting it to one side, popping the bonnet open and sticking a smoke machine under it.

There are good moments in this film - there is for example an almost Kubrickian shot of a guy blasted in the head while framed in a doorway - but they are few and far between and fail to compensate for the ludicrous plot, terrible dialogue, lousy acting and relentless bloody narration. It all ends with a confrontation between Dorn and a sort of master vampire called Raphael Ravenscroft, one of the people who were commanding Lance. Apparently there indeed are real vampires and the development of RVK-17 really was an attempt to cure AIDS but only to ensure a plentiful supply of uncontaminated blood for the vampires. Or something. This goes on forever. I mean, I didn’t time it but I would estimate 10-15 minutes of just two people talking. The whole structure of the film is out of whack with what seems like a climax about halfway through. It’s only 90 minutes but it drags and drags and drags. It took me three evenings to sit through it all because I kept falling asleep.

Anyway, Dorn despatches Ravenscroft and his shadowy, hooded cohorts with a gun that they initially scorn until he announces that it is loaded with silver bullets.

Silver bullets? Dude, that’s werewolves not vampires.

Dorn then blows up some building and drives off.

On their website, Dolen and Allen explain that they had no training or experience in film-making when they shot Reign in Darkness. They’re actually marketing executives who decided that the tricky part of film-making is selling the thing so they applied themselves to raising the money and then, it seems, made the film itself almost as an afterthought. It shows, it really does. Despite their claims to have read some books on the subject, this is what a film looks like when it’s made by people whose only knowledge of films comes from watching the things. I mean, all credit to them for creating something from nothing, for getting up off their backsides and actually making a feature-length film. But it didn’t have to be this poor.

At heart, Reign in Darkness is a very cheap Blade knock-off and its emphasis on ‘genetically created vampires’ puts it in the same sub-subgenre as The Witches Hammer but the Aussie film has none of the charm of the British one, none of the fun, none of the excitement. It’s just a heavy slog through illogical, over-narrated drama, devoid of anything that could reasonably be called thrills, horror or action. It doesn’t help that, aside from David No, pretty much nobody in the cast has any acting experience. In fact the only other person with any sort of credits to speak of is stunt co-ordinator George Novak whose career goes right back to Mad Max. He is credited as ‘Bum’ so he may be the guy who gets shot while lying on top of Dorn, but somebody else is credited as ‘Homeless man’ so who knows (or indeed, cares)?

Actually there is one funny thing in the credits (two if you include the misspelling of ‘criminal’ in the copyright notice). There are separate credits for the people who animated the thoroughly over-the-top ‘RapidFire Productions’ logo - even though this is only used on the trailer, not the film itself.

Also on the R2 Screen Entertainment DVD are original trailers for I Spit on Your Grave and Don’t Mess with My Sister, both more interesting than the main feature. There is also a trailer for Andreas Schnaas’ Demonium, a very short teaser trailer for Nutbag and a trailer for Bangkok Hell which is in Thai and unsubtitled!

According to the RapidFire website, Reign in Darkness was shot for A$49,000, sold to 27 territories and “won numerous awards.” Dolen and Allen have also made The Industry, a black comedy about the Australian film industry plus two short films, Snap and Time II Die. Their most recent work is a Star Wars fan film called Wrath of the Mandalorian (dear Lord...) and they have a feature called The Gates of Hell in post-production. Perhaps they have learned about film-making since they made Reign in Darkness. Hopefully, they have at least learned the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell.’

I know I’m being very down on this film and really it’s not terrible, I’ll admit that, but it is massively Not Very Good.

MJS rating: D+

Queen Kong

Director: Frank Agrama
Writer: Frank Agrama, Ron Dobrin
Producer: Keith Cavele
Cast: Robin Askwith, Rula Lenska, Valerie Leon
Year of release: 1976, no 1977, well 2001 actually
Country: UK/Italy
Reviewed from: R1 DVD (Retromedia)

Lost films. There’s always the danger that they won’t live up to expectations. For example, those few people who ever saw London After Midnight reckon that it’s not as good as the stills promise. It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to announce that Queen Kong, resurfaced after a quarter of a century on the shelf, is everything we’d hoped for. This is a consistently hilarious film: sometimes genuinely funny, sometimes unintentionally amusing, but never, ever boring.

This is, very simply, a spoof of King Kong with the sex roles reversed. Robin Askwith is drippy hippy Ray Fay, picked by stern film director Luce Habit (Rula Lenska) to star in her new film. (Bruce Cabot - Luce Habit - oh, please yourselves...) In a nice nod to the source material, Habit spots Fay stealing an apple - a toffee apple. But the theft he actually gets in trouble for is nicking an ‘original reproduction’ poster of the 1933 King Kong. You know, just in case you hadn’t twigged yet...

Habit has a crew of saucy young ladies, all kitted out in bikinis or in halter-tops and hot pants, who stow equipment aboard their ship, the Liberated Lady (one of them is future Allo Allo star Vicki Michelle, also in Virgin Witch). In one of several genuinely witty gags, the first four crates are stencilled ‘guns’, ‘gas’, ‘and’ and ‘tranquillisers’! Eventually they reach their location - Lazanga Where They Do The Konga - and explore the jungle, which switches constantly from deciduous woodland to lush tropics due to the use of extensive and obvious stock footage. On the way they pass a bundle of sub-Carry On sight gags like a billboard exhorting ‘Drink Konga Kola’ (the uncredited girl on the board is Marianne Morris from Vampyres).

In a clearing they find a matriarchal tribe, ruled over by a bikini-clad high priestess (Hammer chick Valerie Leon, whose lines are all of the “Unga bunga wonga” variety), who grab Fay and stick him inside a birthday cake atop a giant picnic table. Queen Kong appears - a woman in a suit no worse than the one Rick Baker won an Oscar for, and mixed in via some reasonable CSO and back projection - and takes Fay back into the jungle. Along the way, this ‘liberated female gorilla’ battles a tyrannosaur which is daft-looking but, to be fair, better than the dinos in many 1950s movies, and subsequently fights an equally silly pterodactyl. Habit and her girls rescue Fay, are chased by Kong, and subdue her with gas bombs.

The giant gorilla is shipped back to London (actually a ‘model village’ tourist attraction in Hampshire!) amid a montage of newspaper headlines and sound snippets; you can clearly hear a voice say “Godzilla” at one point. She is put on display at a grand fete, in front of HM the Queen (Jeanette Charles of course!) but forced to cover herself up with a chain-mail bikini. Irritated by this, and jealous of Luce Habit’s dancing with Ray Fay, the giant ape breaks loose and goes on the rampage.

After taking Fay away from the unwelcome gropings of Habit, Queen Kong climbs Big Ben (not the Post Office Tower as usually reported; incredibly, even the normally reliable Ten Years of Terror makes this mistake) where she is attacked by the RAF. In an astonishing display of cheap film-making (or is this deliberate?) the planes are Vulcan bombers in the stock footage of them taking off and the Red Arrows in the stock footage of them in flight! By the time they reach Big Ben, they’re model helicopters!

As a bungling Chief Constable (Stanley Platts: The Womaneater) calls for Queen Kong’s destruction, Fay uses a helicopter’s PA system to call for the female population to rise up and liberate themselves, and to take Queen Kong as their inspiration. Scores of women march through the streets carrying banners saying ‘QK rules OK’ and ‘Queen Kong is groovy’, and eventually the Chief Constable gives in and orders the gorilla to be shipped back home safely, where she lives in jungle happiness with Ray Fay - and Luce Habit ponders, “I wonder if they’d consider a threesome...”!

What a gloriously silly film this is. Askwith plays the whole thing like a Christmas panto and it will certainly appeal to fans of The Benny Hill Show or the Confessions of... films. It’s self-consciously cheap, even indulging in Holy Grail-esque gags like Askwith wondering what strange land the boat is nearing and Lenska commenting, “Brighton.” There are visual jokes about Jaws, The Exorcist and Airport, with Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw) as a singing nun on a 747 knocked out of the sky by the gorilla. (“I wish that nun would shut up,” comments one passenger. “She even sang through the in-flight movie.”) There are also some astounding shots which are real Ed Wood-style, one-take-will-do corner-cutters, as actors trip over their lines: one minor character - played by 73-year-old comedy veteran Harold Berens (What a Whopper!, Straight on till Morning) - consistently says “sixty foot four gorilla” instead of “sixty-four foot gorilla.” Everyone involved seems to know this is awful and deliberately cheesy but even they can’t have imagined how cheesy it would turn out.

So why was this a lost film? Well, it was made in 1976 to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Dino De Laurentiis’ awful remake. De Laurentiis and RKO, as makers of the remake and the original King Kong, claimed copyright infringement and eventually settled out of court with Agrama (director of Dawn of the Mummy, often cited as an Italian but actually an Egyptian Jew). Agrama agreed not to distribute the film and it remained unseen until bootleg tapes started circulating in 2001. (One thing that is probably completely lost by now is a dream sequence, mentioned in Askwith’s autobiography, in which Queen Kong wishes she was the same size as Ray Fay and performs a dance routine around a house and garden.)

Queen Kong was released in Japan (theatrically!) in 2001 and is now available on R1 DVD from Fred Olen Ray’s releasing outfit Retromedia, including a trailer and a commentary of Ray interviewing Agrama. While the trailer is interesting and the widescreen transfer is better than an nth generation, full-screen bootleg tape, sad to report that the commentary is one of the worst I’ve heard. Agrama hasn’t seen the film in over 25 years and can recall little - which is understandable - but Ray hasn’t done his homework on the film and so is unable to prompt him. There are no anecdotes from shooting, and Agrama’s discussion of the film’s legal problems is swift and shallow, though he does claim - and this seems to be accurate - that the film was theatrically released in Italy in 1977.

Neither Ray nor Agrama can identify any of the actors apart from Askwith, Lenska and Leon, and neither of them knows what any of them did before or since. Agrama even makes the ludicrous claim that Lenska, a jobbing actor on stage and screen since the early 1970s and star of the 1976 smash hit series Rock Follies, was “basically a fashion model” when he cast her! Ray misidentifies Linda Hayden as Scars of Dracula’s Jenny Hanley and this mistake is repeated on the packaging which also cites Askwith as a Hammer star - though he never made a Hammer film in his life.

It’s disappointing to find that there is absolutely no background information on cast and crew and almost no information on the film, with most of the comments simply describing what is happening on screen, what is about to happen or what has just happened (the track seems to be lagging about a second behind the picture). And after about halfway the two men simply run out of things to say and very large sections of the film have no commentary at all; worse still the soundtrack level is not raised in these sections so one is left effectively watching the film with the sound turned down (though some might argue that’s the best way).

The only interesting points made are: the woman in the seat in front of Linda Hayden is Agrama’s wife; for some audience shots at ‘The Queen Kong Show’ the numbers were doubled by shooting split screen, with the same people on both sides (this is just about visible when it’s pointed out); and Agrama - who is, frankly, full of it - believes the film was shot in 1970-72. Ray sounds surprised but accepts this until ten minutes later when the film reaches the Jaws spoof and he tactfully points out that that film wasn’t released until 1975.

Disappointing commentary aside, the R1 DVD is the only legitimate way to see this amazing film (unless you can get your hands on the Japanese disc of course) and is therefore indispensable. Full marks to Fred Olen Ray for releasing this, but could-do-better on the commentary.

And I haven’t even mentioned the songs: “Burn your bra, burn your panties! Call your ma, call your aunties! Step aboard - the Liberated Lady!” Unbelievable...

MJS rating: A-

Friday, 28 November 2014

interview: Richard Mansfield

After reviewing Richard Mansfield's shadow animation Wolfskin and his live action feature The Secret Path, I approached him for an interview in November 2014 and he kindly supplied these answers.

Daniel (L) and Richard (R)
What films or stories have influenced your work?
"So many, but one of the most influential is Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls and the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas. Fantasy and fairy tales have played a big part in the silhouette films and for my live-action work I’ve been inspired by ghost-story authors like EF Benson and MR James."

Can you describe the process you use to make your shadow puppet films?
"The puppets are all created with black card; they can be jointed with moving parts and moved with wires and levers. The puppets are filmed against a shadow screen with a projected backdrop. I also add more foreground cut-outs between the screen and camera to enhance the illusion of depth."

Why did you decide to progress from shorts to a feature, and what challenges did Wolfskin present?
"I’d had a silhouette feature film in mind for ages before I started Wolfskin. I wanted to explore the more abstract aspects of storytelling to create a more dreamlike experience rather than having to wrap a story up in ten minutes. After years of making shorts I also wanted a change and a feature seemed the natural thing to do. I felt a loose anthology would suit the fairy tales I was adapting, meaning I could give them a classic aesthetic in a modern setting."

What were your aims when making The Secret Path, and to what extent do you feel you achieved them?
"I wanted to create something in LGBT cinema that I felt didn’t exist; rather than wait for someone else to do it, I thought I’d like to give it a go. I love period drama and ghost stories. I wanted to create a minimalist snapshot of what it could be like for a couple to find themselves alone in their own world. A lot of LGBT films I have seen over the years I haven’t felt they spoke about my experience about being gay. They focused often on negative attitudes of others, shame or focused on youth, beauty and taking drugs.

"Throughout history there are recorded instances of gay couples able to live together and have fulfilling relationships, I felt that the solitude of the forest would be the setting where Frank and Theo are able to fully be themselves away from the dangers of their former lives. Any problems that they would face would be external and have nothing to do with their sexuality. That was my main objective and I felt I achieved it.

"I didn’t want to over-discuss what being gay meant or give it a context, only that in that moment they were free to live as they chose. If I were to do something similar again I would do it differently, I like to try something different with every film and improve my ways of working."

In your opinion, is ‘gay horror’ a subgenre or are films like The Secret Path just horror films that happen to feature gay relationships?
"I think there is definitely a Gay-horror sub-genre but I’m not sure if The Secret Path falls into that category. The film is much more experimental than I realised at the time. I think of it more as a vérité period-drama romance with some horror thrown in."

What can you tell me about The Mothman Curse and Drink Me? When can we see them?
"Technically The Mothman Curse is my first live-action feature; it’s just taken longer to get a release. The film is coming out in the US around March in 2015 from Wild Eye Releasing. It’s about a couple of friends working on a temp job at The Cinema Museum in South London. One of the friends accidentally unleashed the Mothman whilst on holiday in the Lakes and it has followed her back to the museum where it haunts them both. I filmed on a small pinhole black and white CCTV camera. It gives really low-resolution but dreamlike images. I had no monitor for the camera so a lot of it is filmed ‘blind’.

"Drink Me is my husband Daniel’s film. It’s about a couple who take in a sinister vampire lodger when one of them loses his job and it breaks their family apart. Drink Me has been picked up for distribution by TLA for release in early 2015. I also have another horror feature in production VHS: Killer about a series of haunted tapes. I’m hoping to release this late 2015/early 2016. Other than that I’m keen to make some more short silhouette films and experiment some more. I’d love to adapt some of MR James’ ghost stories and do an anthology film but that could take years. Daniel is also planning Drink Me 2."


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Star Crystal

Director: Lance Lindsay
Writer: Lance Lindsay
Producer: Eric Woster
Cast: C Jutson Campbell, Faye Bolt, John W Smith
Country: USA
Year of release: 1985
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Words cannot begin to describe how awful Star Crystal is. Not hilariously bad, not shoddily amateur, just compulsively, mindblowingly terrible at every level and in almost every respect. It beggars belief that a large number of people could have worked on this film without realising what they were making or that the people ultimately responsible could have had any attitude except complete and utter cynicism, a belief (apparently justified) that in the mid-1980s anything more than 80 minutes long with a spaceship in it would sell to video distributors around the world and turn a profit.

In a way, this reminds me of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. No, wait, hear me out on this one. Stravinsky wrote that piece as an attempt at jazz music - except that, living in Russia as he did, he had never heard any jazz. He had met people who had heard jazz, he had read descriptions of it, so he had a go at emulating what he thought jazz was - and he ended up with something that is nothing at all like jazz. Well, Star Crystal is what one might get if people who had never, ever seen a sci-fi movie set out to make a sci-fi movie, based only on what they had heard and read about sci-fi movies. It has some of the recognisable iconography - spaceship, alien, talking computer - but none of it fits together the right way. More to the point, this movie makes no sense whatsoever and despite that it still manages to contradict itself at every opportunity.

Oh, I should just point out the one big difference between The Rite of Spring and Star Crystal. Stravinsky’s work is good, Star Crystal is shit. I wouldn’t want anyone to labour under a misapprehension.

We open with a couple of guys in spacesuits wandering across the surface of Mars in the year 2032 (not 2035 as the sleeve claims). This is shot using a red filter, the spacesuits aren’t too bad, it’s even slightly overcranked to make them move slowly. It’s a promising start. For no apparent reason, they dig at a particular spot and excavate a rock about the size of a beachball, which they take away with them.

As the shuttlecraft SC-37 blasts away from the Red Planet, the two unnamed guys show the rock to the ship’s doctor (for some reason) and assure him that their equipment indicates that it’s full of electronic circuitry. When the three men leave the room, the rock cracks open to reveal a large crystal and a small amount of goop which drips onto the floor and starts to move slightly.

So no circuitry at all then.

Next thing we know, the ship’s computer is announcing that the oxygen supply has run out and we have a panning shot of various dead crew members.

Two months later the drifting ship is somehow picked up and docked with the L-5 space station (I assume it’s just a snappy name and not an indication that the station is orbiting the L5 Lagrange point). There’s a tall ‘Colonel’ - a youngish chap with a moustache, a bouffant hairdo and an eye for the ladies - who has to attend a meeting which, we are told from a computer read-out, is to discuss why the ‘nuetron reactors’ are malfunctioning. I would expect spelling mistakes in the I’ve-got-an-Amstrad-and-I’m-gonna-use-it computer displays if this had been made in Japan or Italy, but this is an American movie. That’s just monstrously sloppy.

Oh, and a secondary reason for the meeting is to consider why the entire crew of the SC-37 died. But that’s just an aside, really.

This meeting, between four men, is held in a dark room, around a small illuminated table. In other words, the production has saved money on a set by simply not having one. Meanwhile a computer operator named Campbell (C Jutson Campbell, usually misspelt ‘Juston’ in listings and just called ‘Jutson Campbell’ on the UK VHS sleeve) is trying to get the shuttlecraft’s computer to work while trading banter with a black guy (John Smith, credited as ‘John W Smith’ on the original poster but nowhere else) whose name - Cal - is mentioned I think once in the entire movie. Suddenly, the station and the ship are both rocked by an (unseen) explosion and there are a few shots of people running around, several of which are rather obviously in an office building rather than a space station. Two young women run onto the bridge of SC-37 and Campbell talks on the intercom to Billy, a previously unmentioned frizzy-haired, acerbic, female engineer in the ship’s engine room who successfully blasts the shuttlecraft away from L-5.

The two fellas and the two ladies in the control room sit and watch on the screen as L5 - eventually - blows up in possibly the worst thing-blowing-up-in-space model shot I have ever witnessed.

So now we have our main cast: Campbell, who assumes command of the ship; classy brunette Dr Adrienne Kimberley (Faye Bolt) whose antipathetic attitude towards Campbell ensures that they will eventually get together; blonde Sherrie Stevens (Taylor Kingsley), constantly referred to as Debbie despite the name-patch on her loosely buttoned jumpsuit, which incidentally identifies her as a nutritionist - so she is assigned to cooking duties; misanthropic Billy (Marcia Linn), who seems to be loosely modelled on Carla in Cheers; and funky, hip Cal, who has his eye on Sherrie. More to the point, we are only ten minutes into the film and we have already killed off two complete sets of characters.

There’s no attempt to explain why SC-37 was fuelled up and ready to leave at the drop of a hat, or why these two women ran on board (and nobody else did) or why L-5 blew up (those pesky ‘nuetron reactors’ I suppose). We also have to accept that since SC-37 was recovered, nobody has actually bothered having a look round to see if there is anything odd on board. You know, like a large crystal or some alien goop which is gradually growing into a sort of monster thing.

A word now about the layout and design of the SC-37, which from outside is a fairly straightforward, square-ish, roughly hammer-shaped vessel. In the fairly large control room, along with lots of control panels, a few computer screens and some chairs, is a device for showing where everyone is on the ship. Given that there are only five rooms and they’re all linked, plus they all have wall-mounted intercom telephone things, you do wonder why this machine is necessary.

The map of the ship on the screen shows four corridors fanning out from the bridge to four smaller rooms, which are labelled (using sticky tape!) as ‘Science lab’, ‘Sleeping quarters’, ‘Supply room’ and ‘Engine room.’ Halfway along each corridor is a junction with a fifth corridor, connecting them. Despite the map showing these corridors as short, straight and with a junction halfway along, the corridors that we see on screen are long, curving and junctionless. But the biggest problem is that they are not proper corridors at all (I slightly misled you, dear reader), they are dimly lit cylindrical tubes about three feet in diameter. So anyone passing along them has to go on hands and knees on a curved floor.

Remember: these are not ventilation ducts, they’re not emergency access tunnels, they are the main corridors linking the only five rooms on the ship. Unfortunately, the design of each room has a door which is rectangular, albeit about four feet high so still requiring even the relatively petite Sherrie/Debbie to stoop. This means that at the end of each tunnel is some sort of weird, pointless vestibule where the tiny round ‘corridor’ ends before the not-so-tiny rectangular entrance to the room.

Opening and closing the sliding door on the four-foot entrance in each room seems to be automatic but it can be locked, from inside only, by pressing some large, coloured buttons and turning a small wheel. This is clearly modeled on the wheels used to lock hatches in seafaring ships, except that it is on the wall, not the door itself. No-one ever turns it more than about ten degrees and when the crew want to be completely safe, keeping out any beastie that might be aboard, they tie the wheel up with a bit of string.

Are you starting to comprehend quite how mindboggling this film is now? Buckle up, because it gets worse.

The five survivors of the L-5 disaster make no attempt to call for help or investigate whether any other ships escaped the explosion or anything like that. They just swiftly calculate that it will take a year (or 18 months, depending on which character is talking) to reach Earth. This is because SC-37 is just a short-range shuttle-craft, not a long-range ship. Unfortunately they only have five months (or possibly two weeks) of food on board. However, there are two supply depots between their present position (presumably somewhere near Mars) and Earth, the nearest being Alpha 7 which can be reached in five days. So away they go. With an alien onboard.

To the film’s credit, for most of the movie we never get a good look at the alien. Instead we get close-ups of gelatinous stuff, close-ups of a large, blinking eye or shots of very long, snake-thin tendrils whizzing across the floor, occasionally ending in a three-fingered claw but usually not.

The first person to encounter the alien is Billy, down in the engine room (the ‘engine’ seems to consist of two laser beams, between two small devices about a metre apart). Billy finds some goop on the floor, goes behind the ‘engine’ to investigate and... well, that’s where it all gets confusing. We get a close-up of Billy’s arm, raising a spanner then whacking it down on something unseen, then there’s a shot of blood splattering up the wall, then the alien’s tendrils winding round Billy’s feet and hands (presumably shot in reverse). Billy is seen lying down but making no attempt to struggle, with tendrils around her head and body, then she is dragged away.

Was she hitting the alien with a spanner? Whose blood was that? I actually replayed the sequence to see if it made any sense but nope.

Sherrie/Debbie discovers Billy’s body, which is now a shriveled corpse and she runs off to Adrienne in the ship’s science lab. Or at least, she runs as far as the engine room door, climbs through it, runs a couple more steps to the tube and then crawls along it until she reaches the science lab.

Campbell and Cal, up on the bridge, have been drinking - and who can blame them? If I was on a spaceship that I had never flown before, trying to reach one small supply depot floating in the vastness of space somewhere between Martian and Earth orbits, with very limited amounts of food and drink on board, I think I would hit the bottle too. This drinking has no bearing on the characters or the plot and is forgotten pretty quickly. Like most things in this embarrassingly pisspoor movie, it’s an idea that somebody had which was never developed or followed up.

At this point I should mention Bernice, the computer. Like all computers in crappy sci-fi movies, this one talks. It also has a read-out screen although this is only ever seen in close-ups and there’s no actual sign of it on the set. The screen is mostly used for transmitting warnings about things like dangerously low oxygen which would seem to be more helpful if transmitted verbally. Oh, and Campbell has programmed the computer to only respond to his voice. There is no reason for him to have done this and there is every reason for him, given their current parlous situation, to reprogram Bernice to respond to his four colleagues (well, three now that Billy’s dead). But he doesn’t.

Adrienne also has a computer terminal in her lab (this one does have a screen, in fact it looks remarkably like an Amstrad PCW) into which she puts a sample of the goop from the engine room, which she removes from Sherrie/Debbie’s clothes. Bernice announces that the goop comes from an “unknown life form - its molecular structure does not require oxygen to live.” Wow, just from this slug trail-like discharge, the computer can say conclusively that the organism that produced the goop respires anaerobically. Nothing else can be determined, just the method of respiration. Intriguing.

Cal and Debbie die next although I can’t recall in what order. The map-of-the-ship doodad is used to show each of the victims being stalked by the alien, which shows up as a different coloured spot because it has a different heat signature, apparently. Odd how nobody noticed that there were originally six lifeforms on board. Debbie tips a beaker of acid on the alien before it gets her, a gloriously unmatched pair of shots showing the tentacles around her feet as she lies on her back, then dragging her away as she lies on her front. As with Billy’s death, the tentacles do not in any way match the goopy alien seen in close-up.

That leaves Campbell and Adrienne alone on the bridge, where they have slowly, one by one, closed the four doors. For the rest of the film they completely fail to generate any sexual tension despite being all alone together. They spend the night in a sleeping compartment leading directly off the bridge, which leaves one wondering what the previously identified ‘sleeping quarters’ were for. When the oxygen supply to the ship is cut off, Bernice does her usual trick of announcing this vital warning silently on a computer screen somewhere.

Having restored the supply, the two survivors find a ‘video laser’ recording of what happened when SC-37 visited Mars. This turns out to be footage of the two spacemen from the start of the film. I mean, it’s actual footage of them on the desolate surface of the Red Planet - so who filmed this? When Adrienne notices that there is 25 hours of this stuff to sit through, they speed up the tape and the resulting high-speed footage is accompanied, incredibly, by comedy ‘silent movie’ piano music!

While trying to get my head around how any film-maker could expect any viewer to watch this nonsensical farrago... another shuttle-craft appears. That’s right. Although they’re stranded out in deep space in a slow-moving short-range shuttle with no human constructions in range except the Alpha-7 supply depot and the smoking remains of the L-5 space station, nevertheless they are briefly accompanied on their journey by the SC-45 (which of course looks exactly like the SC-37, although I suppose that’s fair). Just as the ‘video laser’ recording of the Martian surface was footage that could not possibly exist unless a third person was present, so we now see on the SC-37’s screen footage of both shuttle-craft flying together - which obviously could not exist unless a third craft was present.

We’re not told where SC-45 is going or where it has come from. It’s just there because it’s expedient. Inconveniently, the SC-37’s radio can receive but not transmit so they can’t tell SC-45 their situation. The pilot of the other shuttle, realising that there may be communication problems, asks them to make a 30 degree turn if they’re okay. By now, that sneaky alien - whose crystal, Campbell and Adrienne decide, is both a computer and a power supply - is controlling the ship and executes this manoeuvre, so SC-45 goes off on its merry way.

And then it comes back, just long enough to warn SC-37 that there is “a meteor storm at twelve o’clock”. I tried to work out whether this meant time or direction and then realised that either concept was meaningless in space so it was equally stupid either way. But wait, the alien creates a force field around SC-37 and the meteors just bounce off. Maybe it’s not so bad after all.

‘Two days later’ says a caption but Campbell still only has about twelve hours of stubble so either beards grow slowly in outer space or he’s finding the time to shave regularly. Adrienne’s hair, of course, still looks gorgeous.

What happens next is, even by the plungingly low standards of this film, spectacularly stupid. Hold onto your seats, ladies and gentlemen, because you will not believe this bit.

The alien starts accessing the computer, leading to numerous close-ups of that Amstrad screen. ‘Evolution of the Human Race, Parts 1-20’ is the name of the series of files it investigates, starting (as one does) with ‘Part 5 - 15,000BC to 500AD’. Hmm, I don’t believe there has actually been much evolution in homo sapiens within the last 17,000 years. Really, this is more the history of the human race then, isn’t it? Within this time frame, the file has a menu (as we would now call it) of several directories (as we would now call them), each covering a different part of the globe. Quite brilliantly, one of these is ‘Antarctica’ because of course there was just so much human activity in Antarctica between those dates.

Working through the menus ( as we would now call them), the alien selects ‘Middle East’, then ‘Beliefs and Religions’ then ‘Christianity’. And then the computer reads out two specific verses from the New Testament, about doing unto others and so on. Yes, it’s true, I’m not making this up. The alien reads The Bible! The alien discovers religion!

Maybe, just maybe, if the alien had somehow absorbed the entirety of human knowledge (or at least as much as is routinely stored in the databanks of short-range shuttlecraft) and had noticed the teachings of Jesus in among all the other stuff, there might be some sense in this. But no, the extraterrestrial beastie which somehow has control of this computer zooms straight in to the New Testament.

I wracked my brains at this point (and indeed, after the movie - thankfully - finished), looking for any other element of religion within this motion picture. And I found none. This one solitary moment seems like it would fit neatly into a film with an intended Christian subtext - but it’s an isolated incident which sits so uncomfortably among the rest of this cut-price, sub-Alien rip-off that I’m amazed it doesn’t just stand up and walk away. Was this just an idea in passing which was never developed (like most of the film) or was it the intention of the picture, except that it took this long to appear and then is instantly forgotten? It’s just one of the weirdest, most out-of-context things I have ever come across in the plot of a piece-of-crap, third-rate, amateur hour sci-fi movie.

For some reason, Campbell now goes to the engine room, crawling through the tubes with a home-made flame thrower held dangerously in front of him. Adrienne stays on the bridge and urges caution, apparently able to be heard through some previously unmentioned communications system which doesn’t require the wall-mounted handsets previously used for this purpose. And ultimately, somehow, Campell befriends the alien, which looks like a slug with the head of ET, is about the size of a large dog and has No Tentacles Whatsoever! (It is also completely devoid of teeth, despite what the poster shows.)

A lengthy montage shows the two humans and the alien - which can now talk and is called ‘Gar’ - living together and having fun. Eventually they make it to the supply depot which Gar says he can convert into a spaceship to get him home. And that, apart from an insipid song called ‘Crystal of a Star’, is pretty much it. Just to put the final nail of unbelievability into this film’s coffin, the singer/lyricist, credited as ‘Stefani Christopherson (aka Indira)’ was the original voice of Daphne in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?!

Dear Christ in Heaven, I have seen some shit. I have sat through The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Rock’n’Roll Musical, Incubus, Belcebu - Take Me, I’m Your Whore from Hell, Hellgate, The Pumpkin Karver and two Camp Blood films. But I’ve never seen anything like Star Crystal.

So come on, own up. Where did this rubbish come from? Writer-director Lance Lindsay has one other credit, a few years later - an action picture called Real Bullets about a group of stuntmen who take on a criminal gang. Marcia Linn and C Jutson Campbell were both in that too, along with - good gravy! - Martin Landau. Apart from that, I can find nothing on the guy whatsoever. Producer Eric Woster, who shares a story credit with Lindsay - as well as directing the second unit, editing the picture and doing some of the make-up effects - was also far from prolific, although he has an excuse. According to the Inaccurate Movie Database (and believe me, I’ve looked everywhere else) he wrote, directed and starred in a 1992 horror film called Sandman, with Dedee Pfeiffer in the cast. He seems to have been a pal of Tommy Chong, working as a production assistant on three early ‘80s Cheech and Chong movies and as DP on Far Out Man. He also allegedly lit another ultra-cheapie scifi embarrassment, Space Chase. According to some non-IMDB sources, Woster died on the set of Sandman, just before completing the film, from a congenital heart condition. He was in his early thirties. Poor bastard.

There are three Associate Producers and two Executive Producers. Apart from one who produced Sandman and another who worked on Far Out Man, none of them seem to have bothered with the film industry before or since.

Of the cast, none of whom were ever going to trouble the Oscars and most of whom never stepped in front of a camera before or after this (at least, not using these names), the only one with credits is somebody called Emily Longstreth. There’s no credited cast list on screen so she’s either the voice of Bernice or a female officer who has one line in the prologue. She was in Hardbodies, Pretty in Pink, The Big Picture and Booby Trap. Our five main actors are all bad but, as so often, the worst ones play the survivors. Billy, Debbie/Sherrie and Cal at least had some degree of characterisation - angry chick, bimbo and skirt-chaser respectively - but Campbell and Adrienne are bland non-characters, a situation exacerbated by the wooden acting of C Jutson Campbell and Faye Bolt. For a leading man, Campbell has no charisma or discernible personality whatsoever - and it’s fortunate that actor and character share the same name so I don’t have to type that twice, it being equally applicable to both of ‘em.

One thing that really stands out when watching Star Crystal is the number of reaction shots. Every time something happens - like a space station exploding or a dead body being discovered - the people in question just stare blankly while the cruel, cruel camera refuses to cut away. I’ve never seen so many reaction shots featuring actors who either don’t know how to react or weren’t told what they were reacting to (or both).

On the technical side - dear Lord, this just gets better and better - cinematographer Robert Carameco worked on Spawn of the Slithis, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Blackenstein, Octaman, Journey to the Centre of Time, The Cremators, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?, Boss Nigga and Orgy of the Dead! He passed away in 1997 aged 64 but boy, what a career. (Oh, and his surname was Camarico so this film manages to spell his name wrong...)

A special mention now for composer Doug Katsaros who gets himself an ‘All sound effects programmed and synthesized by’ credit. He’s a big name on Broadway (or possibly just off it) having orchestrated The Rocky Horror Show, arranged Footloose and written shows based on Moby Dick and Great Expectations. He also wrote the music for the animated version of The Tick. Unfortunately Star Crystal seems to have been one of his early credits and it must be said that his tuneless, electronic doodlings never bloody stop. Action scenes, tense moments, effects shots, over dialogue - it sounds like the man is tuning up his synthesiser for 90 minutes. (Trivia fans should note that Katsaros and the Daphne-voice woman were both members of an improv comedy troupe in the late 1980s called Noo Yawk Tawk.)

Production designer Steve Sardanis (who is also dead - what, is there a ‘Curse of Star Crystal’?) was assistant art director on The Towering Inferno and art director on Snowbeast. Costume designer MaryAnn Bozek seems to have gone into hiding after this film but recently resurfaced on Reno 911! and Balls of Fury. Script supervisor Nancy Hansen worked on Invasion of the Bee Girls, The Toolbox Murders, Airplane!, Back to the Future, Turner and Hooch and Lethal Weapon 2. Sound mixer Clyde Sorensen did his schtick on episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers.

Okay, what of the ‘special visual effects’? Step forward one Lewis Abernathy who also - get this - directed House IV, wrote DeepStar Six (and one of the many unproduced versions of Freddy vs Jason) and acted in Titanic. Apparently, Abernathy is a Titanic nut who met Cameron on a diving expedition and suggested to him that he should make a film about the ship. Abernathy inspired the character of Lewis Bodine, the guy in the prologue who shows the computer simulation of how the ship sank, and when Cameron couldn’t find anyone to play the part - he gave it to Abernathy. But wait, there’s more. Abernathy is also a jobbing inventor and he inspired the characters of Walter (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski and Agent Abernathy in Jason Goes to Hell. Next time you watch Titanic, just pause the DVD at that point near the start and think: ‘Twelve years earlier, that man was in charge of special effects on Star Crystal.”

There are a lot of people credited with effects on this film, considering those effects are pretty much limited to shots of the SC-37/45 flying through space and a quick look at the L-5 blowing up. I suppose there’s the crystal itself and the goop, but ‘Gar’ has his own crew with no fewer than 21 people involved in building and operating him/it. To be fair, they did have to do not only the giant slug-thing but also the tendrils that the slug-thing doesn’t have and the three-finger tendril claws that aren’t on the end of the tendrils. But 21 people? And that’s not including ‘The Gling’ who is credited with providing the creature‘s voice.

Harry Hathorne and T Lindsay built the model spacecraft; Hathorne later co-wrote a fantastic and extensive article on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Cinefantastique magazine. Model construction supervisor John Coats coincidentally worked on William Mesa’s 1995 Brigitte Nielsen-starrer Terminal Force which was released in Japan as... Star Crystal. He followed this picture with visual effects work on UHF, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Talos the Mummy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and a whole load of other movies of distinctly variable quality. Construction of the L-5 space station is specifically credited to young Mr Abernathy and Justin Segal. Could he be the LA-based illustrator/designer and author of The American Sign Language Puzzle Book? On this movie, anything is possible.

There are five visual effects assistants including Greg Huebner (now a location manager) and the distinctively named Tazzilo Baur who, as Tassilo Baur (and we have already seen how untrustworthy the spellings in these credits are) also worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street, House, Witchboard, DeepStar Six and Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Annette Buehre (now Annette Buehre-Nickerson) was in charge of ‘OPTICAM motion control photography’. Opticam was a company founded by Buehre and her husband in 1976 which provided both animation camera and optical printer services. Over the years she worked on innumerable commercials as well as TV projects such as Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos.

I can’t claim to know precisely what ‘animation touch-up’ involves but it was done by Dan Kuenster who went on to co-direct Rock-a-Doodle and All Dogs Go to Heaven and also worked on An American Tail and The Land Before Time. I’m guessing he was related to Luke Kuenster (Delta Force II) who handled second unit cinematography. Matte paintings (not that I noticed any, but there must have been at least one) were provided by Dave Goetz, later art director for Disney on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Continent. Vince Prentice (Piranha, The Capture of Bigfoot, Total Recall, Legend) gets the glorious credit ‘special effects make-up (dead bodies)’. His other claim to fame is making up Keanu Reeves for his uncredited role as Ortiz the Dogboy in Freaked.

Lou Lazzara - ‘make-up/hair’ - has worked on various instalments of the Friday, Elm Street and Halloween franchises as well as such titles as Mutant, Teen Wolf Too, Face/Off and Terminator 3, plus episodes of Angel and seaQuest and two Weird Al videos! Also credited with make-up and hair are Blake Shephard (probably the Blake Shepard who later worked on Buffy) and Kathy Tessalone, who worked in make-up for 15 years before moving into real estate and teaching; she was last heard of trying to get an animated series called The Welbys off the ground.

Overseeing all this was ‘visual effects consultant’ Chuck Comisky - yes, the same guy who wrote and directed The Evil Beneath Loch Ness. His other effects credits include Battle Beyond the Stars, Strange Invaders, The Addams Family, The Crow, Dungeons and Dragons and Blade.

Apologies if this is turning into a list of credits (hey, how do you think I feel having to italicise all these titles?) but there were just so many extraordinary people working on this, ahem, unique movie. Do we think that 1st AD Eric Weston could be the guy who, five years earlier, wrote, directed and produced Evilspeak? I wouldn’t be surprised.

When critiquing a film this bad overall it’s very easy to get carried away and claim that everything about it is The Worst Ever. But let’s give it its due. The spacecraft models aren’t bad and the motion control used to photograph them works well. The acting is poor, that’s no doubt, but I’ve seen far, far worse. The alien is actually an imaginative design (or rather, two or three imaginative designs which don’t match). What plunges this film to the bottom of the cinematic barrel where even scraping for it seems thankless is the sheer haphazard nonsense that passes for a plot, the absolutely paper-thin characterisation (although it’s still not as bad as Incubus) and the jaw-droppingly pisspoor production design.

Above all, I think it’s those tunnels that will haunt me to my grave. I know that cast and crew often refrain from criticising shoddy productions like this because, hey, it’s work. But can’t you just imagine them, in the evenings, when Lance Lindsay and Eric Woster weren’t around, saying to each other: “What’s with those tunnels, man? I mean, who would design a spaceship where you had to go from one room to another on your hands and knees? Was the ship design to be crewed by three-year-olds? Or just designed by three-year-olds? Sh! Sh! Here they come. Hi Lance, hi Eric!”

There is so much insanity and inanity in Star Crystal that I can’t do justice to it all, even in a review of more than 5,000 words. A quick google will reveal other reviews around the net, some of them based on a 2003 R1 DVD release by Anchor Bay and many of them dwelling on different details to me. It’s worth reading them all as they vie with each other to find new superlatives for how awful the movie is. Given time, I would not be surprised to find this film established as an icon of awfulness, if not to Plan 9 levels of infamy, at least up there with Troll 2. (Or, for an example of how tolerant some people can be of even the worst shite, check out some of the user comments on the IMDB.)

MJS rating: D

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Slayers: Portrait of a Dismembered Family

Director: Alex Poray
Writer: Alex Poray
Producer: Alex Poray
Cast: 'Lexray', David Poulter, Donna Beeching
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: Viewster

The Slayers has an original and intriguing premise with lots of potential, almost all of which is squandered by a combination of poor acting, lacklustre direction, threadbare production values and a script within which both plot and characterisation could be most generously described as sparse. Above all, it is hobbled by its own desperately low ambitions, apparently believing that simply ticking the boxes marked ‘violence’, ‘drugs’ and ‘satanism’ doth an effective horror film make.

The patriarch of the eponymous clan is the Rt. Hon. Stanley Slayer (David Poulter – not the organist!), whose honorific technically means he’s a serving member of the Privy Council and therefore a Peer or a current or previous MP, although no mention is made of any political allegiance or Government position and I suspect ‘Rt. Hon.’ has been used here just to make him sound posh. He has a wife and four adult sons of whom Patrick Slayer (director Alex Poray under the nom de screen ‘Lexray’) is the black sheep.

The premise is that Patrick claims his family abducted and murdered a young woman named Anna Thompson, indulging in a spot of witchcraft and cannibalism on the side, and that there have been other (unnamed, non-specific) murders since. Stanley maintains that Patrick is a drug addict with mental health issues and is consequently delusional. Apart from anything else, the police have no record of a missing person named Anna Thompson. Patrick in return maintains that his father is such a powerful man that he has been able to impose a high-level cover-up. Patrick actually has footage which he himself shot, showing his brothers kidnapping Anna (Donna Beeching) and then his father sacrificing her to Satan. Stanley says that this is a fictional horror film which the family made for a lark, at Patrick’s suggestion.

The resultant mockumentary combines Patrick’s footage with interviews with both men (but not Mrs Slayer or any of the other sons). A film like this has the potential to be thought-provoking meta-fiction, questioning the audience’s values and morality by raising the spectre of the difference between fake footage claiming to be real and real footage claiming to be fake, all within an overall cinematic package which we know (or at least, assume) to be fake even though it presents itself as real.

I’d pay to see that. But that, sadly, is not what we get here.

The Slayers does not get off to a promising start with no fewer than eleven on-screen captions (“Reading,” as they say over on Cinema Sins). There are further captions throughout the film and at the end, including a few grammatical/punctuation errors. Most of the first half is Patrick responding to questions from an unseen interviewer while sitting in an armchair. For some reason he is wearing a pig mask (a motif seen also in White Settlers and Piggy – there’s a subgenre right there). Intercut with this are clips of Patrick and/or his family, including footage of Patrick performing, with a godawful rock band, a song with the melodic refrain “Kill the bitch.” Plus some home movie footage of Patrick as a child, and some candid shots of Patrick taking drugs between interview stints. There are also, rather randomly, some vox pops with members of the public saying whether they think the Slayer family are guilty or not. Some of these are costumed attendees at a Comic Con including a guy dressed as Deadpool and a girl in a terrific Tank Girl costume complete with missile-bra!

The problem is, there’s no reason at all to believe Patrick’s version of events. He’s clearly a drug addict, and the captions tell us he has an agent securing him a book deal. Then the second half of the film is Patrick’s footage in which he and his three brothers abduct, torture and humiliate Anna Thompson, who then suffers a drawn-out death as she is dismembered and disemboweled by Stanley Slayer, before the family settle down to a meal of her body parts.

We are supposed to question whether this is real or just a low-budget horror movie, but because this is a low-budget horror movie, the footage just looks like, well, a low-budget horror movie. If there was any doubt about its (fictional) verisimilitude, that is shot to pieces by scenes being filmed in multiple takes from different angles. All of which, within the narrative conceit, only gives added weight to Stanley Slayer’s version of events. Never for one moment do we doubt that this is all just a scam by a smack-addled idiot hungry for D-list celebrity status.

At no point do we get any real characterisation. Patrick, who talks with a weird, distorted voice for no obvious reason (it’s not like he’s trying to hide his identity) is a bland, unpleasant, greedy drug addict. His father is a somewhat more rounded character and to be fair to Poulter the actor does his best with his rather stilted dialogue, trying to convey genuine paternal concern for his mentally disturbed son, but there’s no more depth to Stanley Slayer than Patrick. And of course we never see the two together (except in the fake ‘murder’ footage) so there’s no opportunity for character conflict. Beeching does a good job of screaming and struggling but is called on to do little else. Kudos to her however for coping with a ‘burial alive’ scene which is really the one genuinely horrific and interesting moment in the film.

Julian Poulter, Marek Gruszczynski and Matt Lemon are Patrick’s brothers and there’s a hint of sibling conflict between them in a couple of shots but not enough to be interesting. Georgina Richmond as Olga Slayer does nothing except pull faces like an embarrassing, drunk auntie. And then there’s Alicia Newton as Monica Reed, the unseen interviewer. Whose. Wooden. Readings. Of. Her. Questions. Are. Painful. In. The. Ex. Treme.

It’s clear that Poray has aimed for ambiguity but he has missed it completely with a misfiring script of leaden, prosaic description and (in the second half) gratuitous cut-price nastiness that rapidly becomes boring. With what is presented to us on screen there is absolutely no reason to doubt that Slayer Jr is lying (and consequently that Slayer Sr is telling the truth). There’s no mystery, and without mystery why should we care?

The Slayers is feature length at 72 minutes and was brought in for under three grand. Shot in and around Barnstaple in April 2014, the film premiered in September that year on the Viewster website. Of passing interest is an interaction with police on the last day of the shoot. Some-one spotted Beeching being bundled into the back of the brothers’ vehicle (for no apparent reason, an old ambulance) and called the Old Bill. The cops flagged down the ambulance and apparently had a tactical firearms unit on the way. Cheekily, a brief shot of this incident, shot covertly from inside the director’s car, is included in the actual film. Sadly, this is about as meta as The Slayers gets.

MJS rating: D

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Devil's Vice

Director: Peter Watkins-Hughes
Writer:Peter Watkins-Hughes
Producers: Ruth Lewis, Paris Palmer
Cast: Sara Lloyd-Gregory, Gareth Jewell, Siwan Morris
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reiewed from: TV screening

The Devil has had a lot of things within the British Horror Revival. He’s had a Playground, a Harvest, a Tower, a Chair, a Bridge, a Tattoo, a Curse, some Business, a Bargain, a Backyard, an Interval, a Punch Bowl, a Primate, another Harvest and of course some Music. Not to mention a monthly helping of Porridge. Now he’s got a Vice, which should sit nicely in The Devil’s Workshop alongside The Devil’s Lathe and The Devil’s Ratchet Screwdriver.

Nah, I’m messing with ya. Actually The Devil’s Vice turns out to be a damn creepy modern ghost story which combines supernatural, psychological and social horror to impressive effect. Sara Lloyd-Gregory and Gareth Jewell give a pair of magnificent performances as Susan and Richard, a young couple living in a converted Victorian school near Abergaveny.

A terrible accident at the start of the film leaves Susan recuperating at home, where noises and moving objects very quickly demonstrate that the couple share the building with more than a few bats and mice. The evidence suggests that a former schoolmaster, noticeable in an antique photo that Richard finds in the loft, is still there. From bad dreams and self-closing doors, the manifestation of the ghost’s presence escalates to full-on physical violence against Susan. What does the ghost want? How can it be allayed? A visit by a local psychic is not only inconclusive and unhelpful, it actually makes things even more alarming.

Throughout his wife’s trials, Richard is supportive and helpful, but we can see that he has the same nagging doubts as us. Is this all in Susan’s head? Is she smashing the plates and perhaps even self-harming? Jewell’s portrayal of a supportive but confused husband perfectly complements Lloyd-Gregory’s alarmingly physical and often terrifying performance, which involves several scenes of physically throwing herself around as the ghost brutally manhandles her. Then again, does Richard know more than he’s telling? Could this be a variant on the old ‘fake haunting to drive my wife mad’ schtick?

The resolution, though undeniably powerful, is, truth be told, not unexpected, even if one hasn’t read about the film’s background (I recommend saving everything except this review until after viewing). Which is not to say that (a) it’s not the correct resolution, or (b) the film is lessened in any way. The film was produced specifically to make the point made at the end. But actually what I really liked is the fact that the resolution doesn’t explain everything we've witnessed, so maybe there is more to what is happening than we can see, which may or may not be supernatural.

Writer-director Peter Watkins-Hughes expertly handles the subtleties of a traditional British ghost tale within a modern setting, creating a believable situation predicated on a fantastical notion. There is just one curious mis-step about halfway through when Susan, leaving a library, meets her friend Helen (Siwan Morris from kid-horror Wolfblood). Susan’s lack of reaction suggests that she doesn’t recognise Helen, and for several minutes the viewer is unintentionally wrongfooted, thinking there might be more to the mystery/conspiracy behind all this than there really is.

I must also confess to being distracted by wondering how a young couple could afford such an obviously very expensive home. The school house is large and has been converted into a fantastic modern home with all mod cons. We are never told what Richard and Susan each do for a living (and they have no kids) but it still seems a disproportionately extravagant location. That said, this is Wales and a quick online check shows the house (now owned by one of the film’s producers) is worth about £300,000 give or take, which is not as much as I expected, but still a lot for a young couple who otherwise display no sign of affluence..

The supporting cast includes William Thomas and Sharon Morgan, who were Gwen’s parents in Torchwood, and Boyd Clack, whom I recognised from Andrew C Tanner's Masterpiece.

Pete Watkins-Hughes has made some previous half-hour films which took a similarly oblique approach to social issues, including Loserville, a story about homelessness featuring Matt Berry and Denise Welch, and Bloody Norah which explored self-harm and featured Gareth David-Lloyd. He also directed a little-seen comedy feature called A Bit of Tom Jones about a man who believes he's buying a (very significant) part of the Welsh singer. Many of the crew from those films also worked on The Devil's Vice including DP Ezra Byrne and editor Richard Starkey.

The film was funded and commissioned by the Gwent Independent Film Trust (GIFT), with many of the crew coming from the University of South Wales. Scenes of Susan's recuperation in Nevill Hall hospital add massively to the perceived production value.

Originally set to debut on BBC One Wales in October 2014, the broadcast was for some reason bumped back by a month. Of course, there was a time when regional TV programming like this led to forgotten obscurities, only ever seen by a handful of people. But nowadays folk throughout the UK can get BBC One Wales on cable and in any case the film then reposed on iPlayer for a month, giving everyone a chance to watch it.

Ghost stories are very much in vogue at the moment in British horror and The Devil's Vice is an excellent example of the genre, in addition to having an important social message.

MJS rating: A-