Sunday 8 February 2015

A Girl

Director: Simon Black
Writer: Simon Black
Producer: Nigel Wingrove
Cast: Hannah Short, Mark Blackwell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Are you sexually aroused by launderettes, Rubik’s cubes and Alphabetti Spaghetti? Then here is the film you’ve been waiting for. An avant-garde, black and white, surreal, arty, erotic horror about one young woman’s descent into madness. (Or something.)

There was a time, many years ago, when I might have poured scorn on such a film, calling it ‘pretentious’ and mocking individual elements. But we’re all more mature than we were, and though A Girl undoubtedly does exhibit pretentions I don’t think that makes it a bad thing or worthy of mockery. It’s trying to do something new, something different, something outside of the mainstream pablum that passes for entertainment, even within the field of indie horror cinema, and I think it’s achieving what it sets out to do. With an uncritical critical eye, one can certainly judge that director Simon Black knows what he’s doing. The cinematographic conceits – monochrome imagery, extreme close-ups, lengthy sequences of inaction – are deliberate choices. The man knows how to photograph an actor on a set and how to construct a feature-length picture from that photography – and he does it very well.

But, you know, don’t come here if you’re looking for a scary thrill ride. Or indeed, if you’re looking for sexy fun time.

A Girl is bleak, highly artistic, challenging and only ‘erotic’ if you have very specialised, unconventional tastes. So welcome back to Redemption Films and the extraordinary cinematic oeuvre of Mr Nigel Wingrove!

Redemption is of course best known as a distributor. Launched in 1993, the company’s VHS (and later, DVD) sleeves used arty, black and white photographs in place of traditional, lurid, exploitation artwork, instantly marking out Redemption as a cut above its competitors. (Many of those sleeve photos featured Wingrove’s then-girlfriend, Eileen Daly, and a couple of them are actually Emily Booth.)

Less well-known are the company’s (and Wingrove’s) forays into original production. Before launching Redemption, Nigel made three arty short films in the late 1980s: Axel, Visions of Ecstacy and Faustine. The first had a soundtrack by Danielle Dax and the other two featured music by sometime Banshee Steve Severin, who later scored Nature Morte and London Voodoo and is currently working on Borley Rectory for Ashley Thorpe.  Of course, it was Visions which achieved notoriety when the BBFC banned it on the unique grounds of ‘blasphemy’ (a move which has lately been rescinded).

Ten years later, with Redemption riding high as part of the Salvation Group of companies/labels, Wingrove had a crack at a proper, feature-length horror movie and the result was Sacred Flesh. No-one (who knows such things) could deny that the film is historically interesting, perhaps even important, but it would be a stretch to call it ‘good’ or even ‘watchable’. Nigel had plans for a whole slate of features (I deal with this in some detail in Urban Terrors) but none ever happened.

In the 21st century, Nigel Wingrove’s willingness to embrace the unconventional, avant-garde and ‘not obviously commercial’ has seen him distribute some of the most interesting films of the British horror revival, including Penetration Angst, Nature Morte and Dominator, as well as overseas titles like Aquarium and The Shunned House. In 2004, being an astute entrepreneur who knows his niche market, he came up with the idea of the ‘Satanic Sluts’, a loose collective of fetish models/performers who were featured in three subsequent videos and a coffee table book (a description I use in a purely objective sense to mean ‘large, and full of glossy photos’ as I suspect most of the book’s readers are not the sort of people who own coffee tables).

With the best will in the world, I really can’t include those three original Satanic Sluts videos in the master list of the BHR because they’re not really ‘films’ as such. The first, The Black Order Cometh, is (I understand – I haven’t watched these things, dear God!) a collection of performance vignettes interspersed with short interviews with the young ladies in question. This was followed by The Black Masses which was a documentary record of live performances given by the Sluts at some goth/fetish gathering.

Then, in October 2008, Wingrove had a stroke of luck when Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand managed to get themselves into trouble by telling Andrew Sachs that Brand had fucked his grand-daughter. The tabloids pretty quickly discovered that said grand-daughter, Georgina Baillie, was also known as Voluptua, a member of the Satanic Sluts (which, let’s face it, was a brand name that could only ever have been invented with a view to baiting the tabloids anyway). Suddenly far, far more people had heard of the Sluts than could ever have been reached by Redemption’s own marketing.

(As an aside, I once met Andrew Sachs at a radio show recording. A thoroughly nice and decent bloke, who I think managed to come out of ‘Sachsgate’ with his dignity intact. The closest I have been to meeting Jonathan Ross was being at the British Comics Awards when he was host. I think the SFX crew went on stage at one point to receive or present something, but that part of the evening was being compered by Paul Gambaccini.  Ross is of course a huge comics fan (as indeed is Gambaccini) and a devotee of trashy horror films, even having his own British horror credit with a cameo in Pervirella. Plus his wife Jane Goldman wrote the hugely successful (and hugely awful) The Woman in Black for NuHammer. I’ve never been in the same room as Russell Brand, have never watched, heard or read anything he has done, have no particular desire to do so, and as far as I am concerned his only genuine contribution to the world was in briefly distracting Katy Perry from singing.)

Anyway, it’s an ill wind etc and Nigel Wingrove took advantage of the free publicity to release a third Satanic Sluts video, Scandalized. Like the first, it was a loose collection of goth/fetish/S&M vignettes, linked by the concept of Voluptua dreaming about media scandals. I’m sure it appealed to its target audience. For horror completists, one of the segments features “crazed vampire witches and weird Ouija games turning girls mad” – but that’s still not enough for me to consider it as a legitimate entry in the BHR.

Well, now the Satanic Sluts are back, and Redemption have a staggering list of 19 future titles in various stages of production/development, some of which have allegedly already been released in the Netherlands. The difference is that at least some of these ‘Satanic Sluts Second Generation’ DVDs are actual feature-length narrative movies, although on the basis of A Girl the term ‘narrative’ should be interpreted loosely. Wingrove is producing the films but not directing all of them.

Volumes 4 and 5 are going to be called Sexterminate and The Sluttification of Alice, with A Girl released first but numerically postdating them as vol.6. Simon Black is also working on vol.10, The Girl with the Orange Nails, about a witch who creates magic nail varnish that turns good girls into sex-crazed nymphos, also starring Hannah Short. Before that will arrive Red Kiss, She Comes in Colours and Dawn of the Slut (which is just a three-disc repackaging of the original vids). I don’t know anything yet about those other titles and I’m not expecting them to be horror films (although I suspect Sexterminate may have some sci-fi elements…). However, some of the later titles definitely will be horror (if they get made) including Ghoul Girls, The Black House (a loose adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher) and, seriously, I was a Frankenstein Nymphomaniac Girl.

Having watched A Girl (and it is curiously, compellingly watchable – feel free to put that on the sleeve, Nige!) I’m inclined to consider it a British horror film because the story, loose though that is, concerns a descent into madness and self-destruction. Combine that with the Redemption marketing and it’s enough to meet my personal criteria (though either factor alone wouldn’t necessarily be sufficient).

Hannah Short stars as ‘Pearl’ in what is almost a solo performance. We meet her in a launderette where she is washing a single, dark item of clothing. This sequence takes up a full ten per cent of the movie’s 75 minute running time but, as evidence of Black’s directorial skill, it is more interesting (certainly less tedious) than many other opening sequences of similar length films that don’t have this one’s artistic ambitions.

Pearl favours old-fashioned, demure dresses but has a pierced septum. All we can see at this stage is the nose ring, but we shall later discover further piercings and at least three large tattoos. Oh, these modern girls. (Although curiously she doesn’t wear ear-rings, not even studs.)

After returning to her sparsely furnished but scrupulously clean flat, Pearl calls her bank on the phone, one of the few pieces of dialogue in a soundtrack which mostly consists of discordant electronica and ‘found sound’ (generally pre-war recordings, intended to contrast with the visuals, including a couple of songs in the distinctive, fabulous tones of the great Sophie Tucker).

Well, google her and learn something.

Pearl is evidently on her uppers financially, although one can’t help thinking that if money is tight she shouldn’t be going to the launderette to wash a single item. Especially as we can see she has a washing machine at home. Maybe she gets off in a launderette atmosphere, although she doesn’t lean or sit on the washing machine and let’s face it, launderette machines tend to be well bolted down and so don’t provide the same vibratory thrill.

Pearl is a good girl, although not so good that she hasn’t had the piercings and tatts done. She has no obvious source of income (hence the financial straits in which she finds herself) although we do later find out that she has in the past written and painted. She’s in the middle of doing some washing up when a voice addresses her through a small radio, claiming to be Jesus. The voice encourages her to be more assertive, more sexual and ultimately more debased and degraded. And thus begins her descent into madness. Or erotica, depending on your own perspective.

We’re about halfway through this short feature before we get the first hint of anything even vaguely raunchy, a bath scene skilfully constructed by director Black using overlapping imagery. After which a freshly charged Pearl calls back the bank manager (Or does she? We have no way of knowing if there’s anyone on the other end of the line) and tells him what she thinks he wants to do to her. And I have to say here that, whether it was written by Black or improvised by Short, one of the very best lines of dialogue I have ever heard in a movie is this: “You want to fuck me like you fucked me with your overdraft charges.” Genius, I telya.

Later on we see Pearl, with lacy blouse, PVC corset and gloves, six-inch stilletos and nipple clamps, gyrating in front of a mirror. In contrast to this formal, starched and shiny attire, we also see her on a filthy mattress in a cellar, naked and smeared in blood as she cavorts with various raw meat products (including a jaw-dropping use of an uncooked chicken which I suspect may have required the poor sod at the BBFC who got this one to hit rewind and check what they had just seen). On the other hand, we also see her, again dressed in a prim and demure manner, strolling around a park after finding a briefcase on a bandstand. To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you what eventually turns out to be inside it.

There’s a scene of Pearl writing obscenities on her face, backwards, so that they are readable in her bathroom mirror (contrasting with an earlier shot of her in the same place, washing her face and cleaning her teeth). There’s a quite lengthy sequence in which a middle-aged man (Mark Blackwell) comes to see Pearl, expressing concern at her reclusiveness. It wasn’t clear whether he was a friend or relative and it was only when the end credits rolled that I discovered Blackwell plays ‘The Neighbour’. (Short is credited as ‘The Girl’.) Later Pearl walks past a church and by the film’s end she’s acrobatically cavorting on her kitchen floor with a wooden cross.

Or, as the Redemption marketing blurb puts it: “Includes a number of disturbing and erotically charged scenes in which the diminutive Hannah Short uses her body and sexuality to challenge and arouse the viewer in equal measure.” Personally I felt more challenged than aroused but then I’m not the target audience, am I?

There clearly is a target audience for this sort of thing. For all his work releasing good quality, complete versions of old horror movies, Wingrove has built much of his career around creating and packaging product for, well, the sort of people who buy Satanic Sluts videos. Simon Black has previously made a bunch of shorts under the banner ‘Eat Cake and Worship Satan Films’ which even from this distance I can see are targeting the same sort of folk. (Realistically, all the Christian, Satanic, Nazi and sexual imagery in these films comes across as a wee bit infantile though, doesn’t it? It’s not making any sort of socio-political or cultural point, it’s just sticking its pierced tongue out behind someone’s back. Actually, that’s probably why I found A Girl relatively satisfying, in that its artistic pretentions compensated for, and to some extent provided a rationale for, the non-shocking ‘shocking’ imagery and themes.)

Simon Black does seem to have made one previous feature, The Vampire Controller, in which a black magician uses two sexy female vampires to seduce a priest (played by Mark Blackwell). This was self-distributed via his blog in a limited edition in July 2014; you may still be able to pick up a copy from the director (ecaws93) on eBay.

I can’t find out anything about Hannah Short, and I don’t know who provides the voice of Radio Jesus, though I assume it’s either Black or Wingrove. The only other name in the credits is David Palser, who created the titles.

Originally slated for November 2014 and bearing a 2014 copyright date, Redemption released A Girl on UK DVD in January 2015, passed uncut 18 by the Beeby-Efsy. The double-sided sleeve features either a still from the lace top/PVC gloves mirror dance sequence or a shot that’s not in the finished film of Short/Pearl in a lacy black top with a white Lord Fauntleroy collar, caressing a dildo. The disc includes a stills gallery and a Black/Short short film from 2014 entitled Tar Rot, which I haven’t seen.

One final point which needs to be made is that Hannah Short is very, very good in this film. Aside from the conversation with the neighbour, she carries the whole thing on her own, largely without dialogue, monologue, narration or even diegetic sound. Yet we get a real feel for Pearl as a person. Short never seems to be ‘going through the motions’ in either the sexual or non-sexual scenes. It’s a fine showcase for her talent… just not one that you could necessarily show to a casting director.

MJS rating: B+

1 comment:

  1. Although this is a rather old articel, I'd like to confirm that the cover photography is from "Tarot" the short film.