Sunday 15 February 2015

Scar Tissue

Director: Scott Michell
Writer: Scott Michell
Producer: Michael Riley
Cast: Danny Horn, Charity Wakefield, Imogen Bain
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: screener

Scar Tissue is a stylish, well-made movie based around an intriguing, clever premise, with a bunch of notable, talented names in the credits, which spends an hour building up mystery and atmosphere – then throws it all away in a final act which could charitably be called ‘unsatisfying’. As such, it’s one of those films which raises an interesting artistic question: should I be extra-disappointed because I was sold a dummy, or should I be thankful that I at least got 60 minutes of entertainment out of the disc?

Danny Horn - who was in episodes of Doctor Who and MI High - stars as Luke, a young man (I’m not sure we ever find out what he does) who gets mixed up in a murder case after he finds a female friend in his bathtub, her corpse brutally disfigured. Quickly going on the lam (and the police don’t really seem to put much effort into tracking him down, to be honest), Luke teams up with Sam, a suspended WPC whom he locates via mysterious footage on his mobile phone.

With her scruffy bob of dyed blonde hair, permanent angry pout and determination to stick her nose in where she’s not wanted, Sam (played by Charity Wakefield, who was a maid in the John Cusack The Raven and Anne Boleyn’s sister in Wolf Hall) is inescapably reminiscent of Elfie Hopkins. She is on suspension for being ‘unstable’ but really doesn’t come across as the sort of person who would ever have passed out of Police Training College. No matter. That’s not the film’s problem.

The set-up is this. Twenty years ago, when Sam was five, her older sister was brutally murdered by serial killer Edward Jansen (Pete Lee-Wilson in flashbacks; his eclectic CV includes Blade II and Tibor Takacs’ Spiders 3D) who was subsequently cornered and shot dead by police. Now the killer is back: not just the same MO but DNA samples from the girl in the bath tub confirm it’s him. But how could that be when Edward Jansen has been dead these past two decades? Sam’s former colleagues DI Hackman (a gritty performance from Mark Cameron, who was also a copper in a run of Corrie episodes back in 2007) and his nemesis forensic pathologist Mo (Imogen Bain – formerly Dame Edna’s daughter! – having a whale of a time) respectively pumped the killer full of lead and sliced him up on a table. Just like Jacob Marley, Jansen was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

This gripping premise is, the astute among you may have spotted, not dissimilar to the plot of Nature Morte and in fact a reference to the Marseilles Police made me wonder whether writer-director Scott Michell was tipping his hat to Paul Burrows’ film, though it may just be coincidence of course. One thing that both Scar Tissue and Nature Morte do have in common is a clear stylistic homage to giallo movies. I found myself speculating that, although parts of the film seemed to make little sense, any film using this plot which had been made in Italy in the late 1970s would be considered a minor masterpiece. Alas, horror fans tend to operate on nostalgic double standards and are often less forgiving of films which don’t tick the box marked ‘rosy glow of adolescent memories’.

So anyway, I was very much enjoying Scar Tissue. Sam and Luke discover a shared connection to a canal bridge which deepens the mystery further. DI Hackman grows more exasperated. Mo dispenses sardonic, pitch-black bon-mots. A shady figure in a hat hangs around in the background. And a severed hand turns up in a lap-dancing club, adding further layers to the mystery by carrying DNA traces of another murderer who is still in the same prison she was sent to 20 years ago.

These killers can’t possibly be operating again – one’s incarcerated, one’s dead – and yet the forensic evidence leaves no doubt that they are. It’s the sort of explanation-defying impossible mystery that wouldn’t disgrace Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple (if either had still been detecting when DNA fingerprinting was invented, about 200 yards from my current office, in 1985). If Hackman was the central character, this would be a police procedural; instead he provides a counterpoint to Sam and Luke’s investigations. Sam’s connection with all this is clear: the bastard murdered her sister so she has a personal interest in bringing him to justice (again). But what is Luke’s connection? Who put that footage onto his phone? Who is that behatted guy in the background? What the jiminy is going on?

Unfortunately, in the third act Michell explains and shows us what’s going on. The explanations are dispensed through tedious, static dialogue, interrupted occasionally by scenes that would show us stuff if it wasn’t too dark to make out who we’re looking at, what they’re doing and where they are. This latter problem particularly irked me because up to that point I had been really impressed with the cinematography by Alan Dunlop (who also lit lost 2001 British horror anthology Dead Room.)

The actual solution to the riddle turns out to be a bit of loopy sci-fi hokum that jars with the horror-thriller we’ve spent the last hour watching. Sam and three other people (whom we don’t really know or care about) are kidnapped and forced to relay messages from the killer through video links to a screen in an old hospital where they are witnessed by Luke and two other people we don’t really know or care about. The revelation of the killer’s identity is a squib so damp you could wash your face with it: basically it’s someone else we don’t really know or care about. He pulls off his mask as Luke says his name – and this viewer, for one, just stared at the screen and said, “Who?”

It’s a double whammy of disappointment: a revelation that doesn’t support the big, mysterious build-up, delivered in a way that alternates between laboriously clunky and murkily indistinct. It’s also dragged out way too long after the mask comes off whoever that is, with too many scenes of people shooting at each other in the gloom that mean nothing to the viewer because we can’t see who everyone is and in some cases still wouldn’t know who they were if the lights were on. In particular, I still have absolutely no idea whatsoever who that guy in the hat was. Seriously. Was he a cop? Who was he working with/for? What did he know? Who did he know? Where did he come from? What was he trying to do? Did he succeed? What happened to him? It was fine when he was just another level of giallo-esque mystery, but if there was any explanation, I missed it. Was there even a guy in a hat? Did I dream that bit?

While we’re at it, the decision to cast two (possibly more?) supporting characters with actors who look superficially like the lead – same age, same build, same haircut – adds just another layer of unintentional confusion to a story which is already full of deliberate contradictions and red herrings and really doesn’t need any more. Would it have killed ya to cast a Token Black Guy? Plus… okay I’m spoiler-protecting the next paragraph.

[spoilers on] Okay, so Luke, who has just turned 21, is a clone of Edward Jansen. But if Jansen was killed 20 years ago, how did they get hold of his DNA before that? To be fair, the film's original poster design refers to Jansen being killed 22 years ago. Mind you, the website synopsis says he died 25 years ago and that Luke has just turned 22, which raises the original problem that somehow the cloning scientists got hold of Jansen before the police did. Also, the plot depends on Sam and Hackman, who both have a long-term interest in the Jansen case, failing to spot that Luke is a dead ringer for Hansen as a young man. NB. While I refer to Matthew as the unmasked killer up there (and below), that is for spoiler protection purposes. I’m aware (at least, I think I am) that Luke killed Caz. But why? How? Was he drunk at the time? Does he have blackouts? Is this a Jekyll and Hyde thing? Beats the hell out of me. And presumably therefore the severed hand discovered by the lapdancer was from someone actually killed by the lapdancer, who is also a clone (as is the assistant pathologist). Or were there two different lapdancers? Who the hell knows? [spoilers off]

I can see what Scott Michell has tried to do with Scar Tissue, and he demonstrates a solid ability to put a guy in a tree and have him fall out of it in a way that is worth watching. But when we go to see if the guy is alive or dead in act three, the film just crumbles. Michell has created a plot so complex, with so many characters on the periphery who then turn out to have some significance, that wrapping it all up just creates a tangled bird’s nest when we are looking for, if not a neat bow, at least a reasonable granny knot.

Yeah, I think I’m stretching that metaphor a bit far. Moving on.

If the third act had been kept simple, with a bleak, shocking revelation of the killer’s identity, I think the viewer would be more accepting of the frankly daft solution to the mystery. But by throwing far too much into the final 40 minutes (which really should have been about 20-25) Michell leaves the viewer confused and unsatisfied and grasping for whatever bits of plot they can actually work out, chief among which is the bonkers key revelation, standing out in stark relief against what has up till then been a dark, brooding, twisty-turny thriller.

The above notwithstanding, the leads all turn in fine performances, as do the rest of the cast which includes Daniel Fraser (from under-appreciated sitcom Lab Rats), Shaun Dingwall (Rose’s dad in Doctor Who, also in The Forgotten and Hush), Steve Campbell (The Planet), Nathalie Cox (Clash of the Titans, Exam), Tim Faraday (the cloned cleaner in Primeval, also in Harvest of the Dead), Helen George (Call the Midwife’s Trixie), Lisa McAllister (Pumpkinhead 3), Sarah Strong (Colin) and Chris Cowlin (who has played at least 40 different policemen in the last three years, including in EastEnders, Silent Witness, Lewis and Muppets Most Wanted) plus child actors Ceyda Mustafa (Tower Block), Flynn Allen (The Eschatrilogy) and Lois Ellington in a particularly challenging role. Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley, who directed his own BHR entry with Greetings) provides a certain amount of name value for cult movie fanboys.

This is Scott Michell’s second feature following (at a considerable distance) his 1996 thriller The Innocent Sleep (which he produced but didn’t write). A number of key personnel worked on both films. Scar Tissue was produced by Michael Riley of Sterling Pictures who previously brought us Vampire Diary and The Seasoning House, two tentpoles of the British Horror Revival which Scar Tissue is sadly unable to match. Another behind-the-scenes stalwart of British horror, Tim Dennison (Lighthouse, Silent Cry, Evil Aliens, Room 36) is credited as co-producer.

The ever-reliable Paul Hyett, currently busy in post on his werewolf-on-a-train picture Howl, designed the make-up effects, which are suitably bloody and nasty. The excellent score was composed by Doctor Who alumnus Mark Ayres – whom I recall once showing me the original reel of 1960s audio tape containing the actual Who theme in its earliest format (I know I try not to be a fanboy, but some things just resonate…). Production designer John-Paul Frazer, who does a cracking job on the murder scenes, was art director on The Seasoning House and Airborne, and also designed Hollow and My Name is Sarah Hayward. Matthew Strange (Kill List, The Reverend, Strippers vs Werewolves, Truth or Dare, The Zombie King) is credited with special effects, and Jason de Vyea (various gigs on Hollow, Kill Keith, Stalker, Dead Cert and Just for the Record) with the visual effects.

Shot in October/November 2011 and carrying a 2012 copyright date, Scar Tissue premiered at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in September 2013 then seemed to disappear off the radar for a bit and I can't find any other festival dates. It was announced for a UK theatrical release in July 2014 with DVD/VOD a week or two later. In the event, the brief theatrical outing was bumped slightly to August and the small screen release to February 2015 (the disc includes a trailer and a Making Of).

A fine cast and crew plus good production values, alas, will never overcome a muddled and unfocused screenplay, even when directed with undeniable skill and panache. If the illumination in the third act had been more literal and less expositional (in short: less yacking, more lighting) and if the story and characters had been pared back to basics, Scar Tissue could have been as good as the promise made by its first two acts. This is a decent film which frustrates, rather than a poor one which disappoints. But that’s still not a good thing.

MJS rating: B-

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