Sunday 25 January 2015

The Scar Crow

Directors: Andy Thompson, Pete Benson
Writers: Andy Thompson, Pete Benson
Producer: Andy Thompson
Cast: Marysia Kay, Kevyn Connett, Anna Tolputt
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: festival screening (LIFF 2009)

One of the advantages of a clichéed story is that it is usually quite easy to follow. We know what’s happening (and often, what’s about to happen) because we’ve seen it all before.

Conversely, original tales can be harder to follow and, at the lower levels of film-making, sometimes the convolutions of the story get so wrapped up that, to be honest, it’s not clear what is going on. That doesn’t necessarily stop them from being enjoyable of course. But one of the things that a bigger budget brings you is better (and more) writers who can fashion a plot which constantly surprises while at the same time remaining coherent and consistent.

The Scar Crow is a decent little film. I caught it on the closing night of the 2009 London Independent Film Festival where it had picked up the prize for Best Sci-fi/Horror Feature. And deservedly so. I enjoyed The Scar Crow (which was preceded by the impressive short My Name is Sarah Hayward). It’s well-made and different to the majority of indie horror films being trotted out nowadays. But, thinking about it afterwards, I honestly couldn’t piece together precisely what happened and why.

The film kicks off with a 17th century prologue. A village woman is hanged as a witch (one character says she was “hung” which annoyed me because, while folks may not use the verb very much now, in those days I’m sure even peasants knew the correct past tense of ‘hang’ in this context - but I digress).

Elizabeth Tanner (Julie Barnard, on-screen for no more than a minute but earning her fee) was married to a right bastard (Andrew Bolton, who may possibly have played Winston Churchill on Japanese TV) who is glad to see the back of her, not least because it leaves him more time to have his way with his two oldest daughters, Vanessa (spooky Marysia Kay: Blood + Roses, Colour from the Dark) and Proper (buxom Gabrielle Douglas). When he tries to rape his third daughter Primrose (pixie-ish Anna Tolputt, who was in Hellraiser: Hellworld and a touring version of Fahrenheit 451), the girls turn on him - then have to figure out how to get rid of the body.

You wouldn’t have thought that was too difficult a challenge for someone living on a farm in those pre-forensic days. Tie rocks to his feet and chuck him in a lake. Chop him into pieces and feed him to the pigs. Maybe just bury him in the woods.

Or... you could tie the body to a wooden cross in the middle of a cornfield, dress it in rags, stick a sack over the head and hope that any passing folk assume it’s a scarecrow. Or a scar crow (the film’s title is never actually explained). Before their father burned all his late wife’s magical texts, Primrose purloined one and the girls now use this to put a curse of some sort on their evil dad. Which seems a bit extraneous, what with him being dead and everything.

But Father Tanner is not quite dead and with his last breath he curses them right back. They can never leave the farm unless, well, until, ah, erm, it’s not exactly clear. But they’re well and truly cursed.

Suddenly we’re thrust into the present day as a young chap named Daz (Kevyn Connett: Jesus the Curry King) wakes from a nightmare but is comforted by his fiancee Rachel (Anya Lahiri, who was part of the UK’s 1999 Eurovision entry!). The film proper starts here and is presented as one enormous flashback to what caused Daz’s recurring nightmare.

It seems that Daz, along with three slightly more laddish colleagues, was sent on a sort of outward bound, team-building course, which immediately lumps this into a sub-subgenre with the likes of Severance and Bloodmyth. Daz’s compatriots are Tonk (Tim Major: 24 Hours in London) who has agreed to be his best man, Joe (Michael Walker) and Nigel (Darren McIlroy, who played a zombie in Colin). 1st AD Iain Rogerson and Markolai Bolkonsky play the two ‘commandos’ who, having taught the lads survival skills, leave them without phones, maps or money in the middle of nowhere. Neither ‘commando’ looks like he could do an assault course without stopping for a long sit-down halfway round, to be honest.

As soon as the two organisers are gone, the lads retrieve a mobile phone and some cash from where they have secreted it about their persons and phone for a mate to come pick them up once they have worked out where they are. (That’s the essential problem with leaving people in the middle of nowhere in Britain. Unless you’re somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, it’s very difficult to be more than a few miles from a road.)

So the lads walk and find a farm occupied by three comely young country lasses who welcome them, offer shelter in the barn and provide directions to the nearest pub, where the locals warn them to stay away from the farm because it’s haunted.

Staggering back across the fields, late at night, the first casualty is Joe who stops for a piss. And because men must always piss against something upright (it’s a tradition or an old charter or something) he urinates against a handy scarecrow ... which flexes its fingers then reaches down and rips the man’s dick off. Which is rather startling because that’s the sort of thing you expect in a Troma film and this is not, for the most part, aspiring to be Tromatic. Presumably Joe's mates are too far away and/or drunk to hear his screams across the quiet countryside night.

Back at the farm, Nigel and Tonk get amorous with Vanessa and Proper but Daz and Prim are uncomfortable and would rather just talk. After those two leave, Proper informs Tonk that a shag is out of the question as Arsenal are playing at home so he leaves, disappointed. Meanwhile, Vanessa is seducing Nigel in a bedroom. When Proper enters and both get their baps out, Nigel can’t believe his luck and allows them to blindfold him and tie him to the bed for some kinky stuff. Which is, you know, never a good idea. I think you can all see where that’s going...

After a drunken disagreement, Daz and Tonk crash out in their sleeping bags, waking the next morning to find that neither Nigel nor Joe is anywhere to be seen. This is where the film picks up considerably, not least through some smart editing between the blood-spattered bedroom and the pristine sheets that the girls show the lads. The discovery of their friends’ bodies convinces Daz and Tonk that a psycho is on the loose and actually that’s a smartly handled, original idea. Far too often, characters in films accept unquestioningly that the danger they face is supernatural or paranormal in some way rather than the more likely (but equally appalling) suggestion that multiple deaths are due to a serial killer.

The downside of this third act is that it becomes increasingly difficult to work out why the girls and their scarecrow/father are doing what they are doing. There is a mention of them needing five people to lift the curse although they actually have six as the pub landlord gets eviscerated and so does Mike (actor not credited), the mate who is driving over to collect the boys. I think - and this is only a vague guess - that the girls have to construct a new human scarecrow from parts of five men, which is why they initially strap a torso to the wooden cross and later add a head. I guess the other three bodies provide the arms, the legs and the heart. Or something. And this will lift the curse on their father who will then lift the curse on the girls. Or something.

Oh, there is also a really bizarre bit somewhere in there where Prim gives Daz a dreamcatcher. Eh? Isn't that a Native American artefact? What's that doing in rural England, in the hands of a 300-year-old ghost?

The scarecrow is by now a full-on perambulatory monster and there is an effective but underused effect of bits of straw appearing before he does, so that when Mike is driving along the first indication that we have that something is up is straw blowing in through the air-vent. But why did the girls have to wait 300 years for four men to turn up (we are told that other people have tried to work the ‘cursed’ farm until fairly recently), especially given that their family’s influence can evidently reach as far as the pub, where there must have frequently been enough potential victims.

Eventually we cut back to the framing story of Daz and Rachel in bed. Truth be told, only at this point does it become evident that it’s a framing story. The early scene of Daz waking up was from a nightmare about Elizabeth Tanner’s hanging and it really wasn’t clear, when we cut to the four colleagues being trained by the two fat blokes, that this was related to Daz’s nightmares rather than a few days later. That’s an example of film-makers thinking that something is obvious when it’s not. There is at first no apparent connection between the 17th century lynching and the 21st century survival course so the audience, not having read the script, aren’t clued in that what happens to Daz in the field is before the bedroom scene.

But beyond that, the framing story creates its own, frankly enormous problem, which is this. Rachel tries to convince Daz that his nightmares are just that: bad dreams. That this didn’t really happen. But hang on: what about Daz’s friend Tonk? You remember, he was going to be Best Man at your wedding. Even if his bloody corpse hasn’t been found, aren’t you wondering where he has disappeared to? And Daz’s other two colleagues.

Four young men were left in an unidentified location by a survival training company contracted by their employer and only one came back, babbling about ghosts, witches, scarecrows and how his three friends were gruesomely killed. Wouldn’t this raise some alarm bells with their employer, with the fat training commando guys, with the police? On top of which, somewhere there is Mike’s car, its interior splattered with Mike’s blood. And the regular drinkers at the village pub must surely have discovered the rotting cadaver of their partly dismembered landlord by now.

And Rachel is convinced that Daz’s story is all a dream?

If it was a dream - let’s just play Devil’s advocate here - wouldn’t Daz be the prime suspect in a series of five related murders? After a gripping and well-crafted third act, the film falls apart with this nonsensical epilogue (and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that something else happens right at the end...).

Special effects bloke Mike Peel (Dead Wood, The Zombie Diaries) does stirling work here with injuries, body parts and a particularly imaginative heart-ripping scene. He also plays the unfortunate Mein Host of the village inn. Michael Walker (he plays Joe - do try to keep up) pulls double duty inside the scarecrow costume.

Cinematographer Trevor Speed was part of the camera team on The Hills Have Eyes II, The Devil’s Chair and I Love You. The video image looked a bit flat at the festival screening where I caught this but then projecting a DVD rarely flatters decent photography. He certainly seemed to make a good job of the historical prologue. The most obvious problem is the lighting of night-time scenes: since the sisters’ candles are insufficient to provide believable light, the room is illuminated by bright lights outside the windows, filtered through ragged curtains. But it’s just way too bright and suggests that it’s the middle of the day when we know from the story that it’s supposed to be the small hours of the morning. Meanwhile, editor Jake Proctor was kept busy with a few switcheroos between levels of reality and also with occasional flashback blasts of images which don’t really work because (a) we can’t see anything clearly but, more importantly, (b) it’s unclear who, if anyone, is experiencing these flashbacks.

Soundman Stephen Taylor has an extraordinary history as an album mixer/engineer going right back to Gong’s 1976 LP Gazeuse and taking in albums by Peter Gabriel, Stomu Yamashta, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Bob Geldof, Judie Tzuke and others. As a result of hiring a bloke who knows what he’s doing, The Scar Crow has a fine sound mix, in other words one that you don’t really notice.

Production designer/art director Melanie Light has a number of interesting genre credits including I Love You, Beyond the Rave, Vivid, The Devil’s Chair, Blood River and Arthurian Asylum epic Merlin and the War of Dragons. She is also one of the zombirds in Doghouse, apparently! Costume designer Nell Knudson has worked on various short films (The Robot Man, Monica Guildheart) as well as Ed Boase’s Most Dangerous Game variant Blooded.

The Scar Crow is the feature debut of Andy Thompson and Pete Benson who shared writing and directing, with Thompson also producing and lending a hand with editing. It’s a commendable, enjoyably scary horror flick with some parts that are very good indeed and others that are less impressive but nothing that’s really bad. The cast are good, the effects are well-done and used effectively, the production values are impressive for a low-ish budgeted indie. Historical is always expensive.

In terms of genre, The Scar Crow slots neatly into the ‘unreconstructed laddish mates vs female supernatural threat’ subset of horror movies. With this film, Lesbian Vampire Killers and Doghouse all released within six months of each other, something is definitely afoot with British horror. However, the movie’s biggest problem is simply uncertainty over what it wants to be, exemplified by the every-man’s-nightmare penis-ripping and the every-man’s-dream-come-true topless sisterly threesome, both of which scenes sit awkwardly within this film but would be right at home in a trashy sub-Troma flick. Unlike LVK and Doghouse, this isn’t an actual horror-comedy but it has elements of character-based humour and it’s that tricky balance between horror and humour that doesn’t quite work.

Plus of course, there’s the inexplicable ‘curse’ plot. It is never clear to what extent the daughters are working with or against the scarecrow/father and we’re never given a clear explanation, even towards the end, of what their actual goal is that they’ve been working towards over the past three centuries.

But the operative word in the phrase “doesn’t quite work” is ‘quite’. It would be an impressive debut feature indeed that ticks all the right boxes, hits all the right buttons and gets everything right. The Scar Crow gets most things right and is worth 90 minutes of your time when it comes to DVD.

Mind, I never did work out what the title is supposed to mean.

MJS rating: B+

Review originally posted 4th May 2009

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