Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Stone: No Soul Unturned

Director: Philip Gardiner
Writer: Philip Gardiner
Producer: Philip Gardiner, Nik Spencer
Cast: Andrew Gough, Craig Dalziel, Sarah Dunn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Chemical Burn Entertainment)

Who is Philip Gardiner? Looking back as I write this in December 2011, we see that one year ago Gardiner had no films to his credit, apart from documentaries. Now he has four - four! - movies available on DVD in the States, with another three in various stages of production. The man is a factory. But who is he? From whence has he sprung?

To judge from his own publicity, Gardiner is a legend among wackos. Now, I don’t really know any wackos, don’t really want to make the acquaintance of any wackos, and thus can’t judge how much of Philip Gardiner’s website - amusingly called Gardiner’s World, although I suspect Americans won’t get the joke - accurately reflects his standing in this field and how much is hyperbole. What I do know is that the fellow is incredibly prolific. He has written a bunch of books and made about 20 non-fiction DVDs.

Well, I say ‘non-fiction’ but absolutely none of this stuff is true. Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs, crop circles, freemasons, alchemy, dowsing and conspiracy theories of all stripes - there really doesn’t seem to be a looney tune that Gardiner hasn’t covered. You have to ask yourself: how come he knows this much about what’s really going on in the world, that greater forces are trying to keep secret, yet he is still not either ruling us all or dead at the bottom of the Thames? It just doesn’t add up.

Let me make it clear: I have no objection to people believing in nonsense and if someone can make a bit of money out of it by flogging them DVDs and books, good luck to them. There are all sorts of quacks, frauds and charlatans out there but just watching some dodgy DVD documentary about dowsing won’t do you any harm. I mean, it won’t help you to find water with a bent twig either, but it won’t hurt anyone.

Gardiner has also piggybacked a few pop-culture/literary phenomena, producing documentaries on Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming, Harry Potter etc., all apparently taking a mystical approach to their subject. Eventually he decided to go the whole hog and make his own narrative feature films, but again with a mystical bent. The first of these to cross my path is Gardiner’s debut picture The Stone: No Soul Unturned (onscreen title is just The Stone), kindly sent over to me by Chemical Burn Entertainment, who are releasing all of Gardiner’s works.

‘Filmed on location at Annesley Hall in Nottinghamshire, England, this film is a British paranormal thriller in true Hammer fashion,‘ sayeth the sleeve blurb. ‘Featuring real British Druids filmed on location at sacred and ancient grounds and a host of best-selling authors and musicians.’

We-e-e-l-l-l-l... f’starters, Hammer never made any ‘paranormal thrillers’. The closest they got was their brace of Dennis Wheatley Satanism movies. Even if they had made paranormal thrillers, The Stone is utterly unlike anything even remotely connected with Hammer in style, tone, approach or subject matter. It’s a British horror movie, that’s the only connection.

As for the ‘real British Druids’ presumably that refers to the long prologue of some folk in white gowns doing something in long shot that we can’t see. It could be that, even filmed this distantly, keen wackos can identify particular mystic rites going on here but to the rest of us it looks like a bunch of folks in the woods standing in a circle then walking off somewhere and standing in a circle again. My guess is that they are burying the titular stone, only because somebody later finds a stone and I can’t think what else might be going on. Another problem with this prologue is that, Druidic fashions not having changed much in the past couple of thousand years, we can’t tell if this is present day or taking place in ancient times. Not that it matters as none of it has any connection with the rest of the film.

Actually, even before the Druids we have a sort of pre-prologue in which five talking heads pontificate very briefly on the mystical significance of stones. The only one I have heard of is Nick Pope, a man who has made a healthy career out of wacko-dom, but I assume the others are similarly well-known in this field.

Nick Pope, of course, is the bloke who worked for the Ministry of Defence, supposedly ‘investigating UFOs’. Civil Service friends of mine assure me that if the stuff he has written about his time at the MoD was even slightly true, he would have been hauled over the Official Secrets Act coals; most MoD staff aren’t even allowed to divulge what biscuits are in the tea-room. The reality of Pope’s ‘UFO investigations’, as I understand it, is this. It was his job to field complaints about MoD activities, so if some irate Welsh farmer rang up to complain that low-flying jets were frightening his sheep, Pope had to record the details. One of the questions was: what type of aircraft were involved? Harriers? Jaguars? Tornados?

“I don’t bloody know, boyo! All I know is they were too bloody low and too bloody loud and they scared my bloody flock, look you!”

So the type of ‘flying object’ involved was recorded as ‘unidentified’! All of which qualifies Nick Pope to pop up at the start of dodgy B-movies talking about mystical stones, apparently.

Eventually - e-ven-tu-al-ly - we get to the main narrative, about five people who turn up at an old Manor House to look for ghosts, or something. I had quite enjoyed the Druids prologue because it was so ridiculously long and drawn out that it actually became entertaining, but ‘long and drawn out’ would be a mild way of describing the rest of the film. Most directors would show us the car sweeping up the driveway to the house, then cut to the group climbing out and looking around. But Gardiner takes about seven or eight shots to even get the car parked! Every time you think it’s parked, the driver manoeuvres it again. It’s the funniest parking sequence I’ve ever seen.

It’s followed by lots of extended, slow shots of the quintet disembarking, and then yet another drawn out sequence, this time of them putting their tents up! Throughout the film, there is just sequence after sequence that is achingly, hilariously over-extended like this, all set to music (some of which, I’ll happily admit, is quite toe-tappingly enjoyable). The movie is like a series of pop videos with the occasional line of dialogue inbetween.

Incredibly, some of these wandering-about-doing-nothing sequences are speeded up! Not quite to Benny Hill velocity but still fast - and they still drag. Gardiner clearly has no concept of economy of storytelling, possibly because there’s no real story here. And it’s not like the film needs to stretch itself out to be feature length. The sleeve (and Gardiner’s website) both reckon this runs 75 minutes but it’s actually 98 (the Inaccurate Movie Database scores a double failure by claiming it’s 89/80). All of which is odd, because normally film running times go the other way, claiming 90 minutes for things that are barely 70. The Stone could easily be trimmed of 13 minutes of nothing happening, to match its sleeve info, without affecting the film at all. In fact, it would probably still drag.

The leader of this team is Aleister (Andrew Gough, who was executive producer along with Gardiner and Chemical Burn head honcho Warren Croyle), a tall, middle-aged Yank with a foppish haircut, a double-breasted, unbuttoned dark jacket and a long white shirt he doesn’t bother to tuck into his trousers. Basically, he looks like the forgotten sixth member of Spandau Ballet. Gummo Kemp.

Aleister is clearly in this ghost-hunting lark for the chicks (on his own website, Gough describes the character as “an occultist of dubious authenticity, who is addicted to women and whisky and passes himself off as an esoteric guru”) and has two emo bimbos hanging off his arms: blonde Charlotte (Sarah Dunn) and redhead Helena (Layla Randle-Conde). Then there’s Craig (Wes Dolan), who has a silk top hat, a Jack Sparrow-esque goatee and virtually no lines. I wasn’t sure whether or not he was meant to be a stoner. The fifth member of the group, and the only interesting or sympathetic one, is Tony (Craig Dalziel, a white rapper who is credited under his stage name of ‘Dap-C’). And the reason he is interesting and sympathetic is that he can’t stand Aleister.

Tony has a small video camera and some scenes are intercut with footage shot on this, nudging The Stone to the borders of the ‘found footage’ subgenre. We can tell from Tony’s slightly surly attitude and wearied participation in the various activities that his heart isn’t in this. But what is really great is that, in the camcorder shots, whenever the camera points towards Aleister, we can hear Tony muttering under his breath “Tosspot.”

Which is just ace, because Aleister quite clearly is a tosspot of the first water. Frustratingly, however, absolutely nothing is done with this. It promises some real character conflict and character development. Will Tony have to abandon his cynical, sceptical attitude and call on Aleister’s knowledge of the occult to save himself from some supernatural threat? Or will Aleister have to firmly grasp the nettle of reality, accept that his ghosts and demons are nonsense and call on clear-minded Tony for help?

Nope, nothing like that. There’s no conflict, no development and, the above notwithstanding, no real characters. We never find out why Tony is tagging along with the others when his heart very obviously isn’t in it. He doesn’t like Aleister, he’s not on for a shag with Helena or Charlotte (though we do later see Craig and Helena sharing a sleeping bag). What’s he doing there? Possibly even more interesting: why is writer-director Gardiner, whom one would expect to empathise most with mysticism-spouting Aleister, telling us through one of the other characters that the man is a tosspot?

None of this is answered or even hinted at. Instead we get loads more interminable musical sequences of people wandering around or holding hands in a circle. It’s abundantly unclear what these five people are here to do. They’re not ghost-hunting in any conventional sense, ie. you know, hunting for ghosts. Instead, there’s some babble about helping souls to pass over to the other side. So your guess is as good as mine. Maybe that makes sense to people who have seen one of Philip Gardiner’s documentaries or read one of his books.

An amateur photographer taking pictures of the buildings appears at the window at one point and informs them that Lord Byron used to live there, which seems to surprise them even though they claim to have done their research and, guys, it’s like in the first paragraph of the hall’s Wikipedia entry. We do actually see a short (but still over-long) sequence of two people in 18th century dress walking among the buildings and evidently this is supposed to be Byron and his bit of stuff, although the actor is utterly un-Byronic. I mean, it’s not like you have to try and work out what Byron looked like, the man is his own adjective. Since this sequence has no connection with anything else, it’s unclear whether it’s a historical flashback or whether these are ghosts.

The photographer is later killed, or something, in some other building. Some sort of ghost/demon/ghoul advances on him and the photographer shouts repeatedly “Get back! You’re not real!” So, um, why are you telling it to get back? It should also be stressed that, in all the years I’ve been reviewing crap films (and some good ones) on this site, the guy playing the photographer is probably among the five worst actors I have ever seen. And you know I’ve seen some bad, bad acting.

Some other bloke turns up, I think he’s a biker or something, and shouts obscenities at the gang. For some reason. He later seems to be the prime suspect when their tents are all mysteriously flattened while their backs are turned for about ten seconds. Later, when we see Craig and Helena together, he’s got maggots in his hair and she’s got a tarantula on her bum.

At night, when the others go to bed, Tony goes for a walk and see a bunch of folk performing some sort of Pagan/Wiccan rite inside the estate’s chapel, or something. Possibly Helena is involved in this but it’s not clear. On another occasion, Charlotte goes to use an outside (literally!) toilet but sees a strange young woman crying who then screams at her with a scary Exorcist-face before disappearing. Helena finds Charlotte weeping and clutching a doll but the sound on this scene is awful so we can’t make out most of the dialogue, which could possibly have been important.

So basically, as you can see, a bunch of weird and slightly spooky things happen but they don’t connect in any way and they are interspersed by more bloody music videos. Then for the last 30-40 minutes the weirdness and danger ramps up a level but, thanks to truly terrible camera-work, we can’t see what it is or, in some cases, who it’s happening to. This later stuff is shot day-for-night but it’s just way, way too dark (I’ve included here a couple of framegrabs from Gardiner’s website which demonstrate the problem). Tellingly, the credits list about 20 names as camera-operators - pretty much the entire cast and crew. In other words, the camera was held by whoever wasn’t on screen at the time and really, that’s no way to make a movie. There are four people you can’t do without on a movie set: a cinematographer, a sound recordist, a production designer and a first AD. If they all do their jobs well, you’ll have a good movie. Or at least, a good-looking version of a bad script.

Not that I believe The Stone had an actual script. Not a conventional screenplay as you or I understand the term. It couldn’t have. For starters, too many of the pages would just say: ‘They wander around some more. Then they do it again.’ And to maintain the one-minute-per-page rule those would need to be printed with lots of blank lines or in 144pt type. More to the point, where there is ‘dialogue’ it is obviously improvised. And I don’t mean improvised in a sort of Mike Leigh, let’s-workshop-the-characters, let’s-build-up-the-dialogue-through-improv way. I mean it really looks and sounds like the actors were just given vague direction and told to get on with it.

The problem is, not only are none of these people particularly good actors - in fact they seem to mostly be Gardiner’s mates from his previous day-job as a marketing executive - but also they have no characters. So for the most part they just keep saying the same thing over and over again until the director yells cut. It just look unutterably amateur. I’m sorry but it does.

So basically the first half of the movie is slow-moving and makes no sense but is at least entertainingly poor. For one brief, shining moment I thought we might have found a new Dicky Risk-all. But no, I think his crown is safe. And then, after the break, it still doesn’t make any sense but it’s too dark to see what’s going on anyway. I can’t even remember what happens in the end. I think they all die.

On slipping the screener disc into my machine it indicated a running time of 130 minutes, which scared me more than anything in the film. In actual fact, the last half hour or so turned out to be the extras: three actual music videos for songs featured on the soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage. Part of this is rather tedious ‘location scouting’ but part of it is stunts and other notable sequences - including Andrew Gough buried in the ground with the tarantula crawling on his face. Irrespective of anything else about the movie, props to him for that. You couldn’t pay me enough.

What strikes me most about this footage however, is how much fun Gardiner and his crew seem to be having. One might expect a bunch of solemn-faced, self-important no-laughs but actually it seems like they had a good time making the film and come across as a bunch of likeable, friendly folk larking about with cameras and boom mics. That sort of makes me feel a bit bad for trashing their movie now, but to be fair, it is awful and it would be remiss of me to say anything else.

Also included in the behind-the-scenes footage is the photo-shoot for the DVD sleeve. Two of those actresses are the ones who play Helena and Charlotte though they’re not in character. They never wear those costumes in the film nor do they pout provocatively like that. I honestly have no idea who the other bird is. Maybe she plays the scary-faced ghost-woman who frightens Charlotte on the loo. Maybe she’s Lord Byron’s bit of totty. Maybe she was a production assistant. Finally there is a trailer for Gardiner’s second feature film - Paranormal Haunting: Curse of the Blue Moon Inn - which looks in almost every way superior to The Stone.

Oh, and that black shiny thing which the three young ladies are fondling sensually on the sleeve is ‘the stone’. The team find it under some floorboards but its significance or effect is never explained. All I can tell you for certain is that no-one fondles it sensually in the movie. If you want to know more than that about the stone - or indeed The Stone - I fear you will have to ask either Philip Gardiner or Nick Pope.

MJS rating: D

Review originally posted 11th December 2011

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