Thursday, 11 June 2015

Infestation

Director: Edward Evers-Swindell
Writers: Ross Evison, Stuart Fletcher
Producers: Sian Williams, Stuart Fletcher
Cast: Ross Evison, Susan Riley, Paul Sutherland
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from:UK DVD (Blackhorse Entertainment)

To really enjoy Ed Evers-Swindell’s debut feature Infestation, one should have both a tolerance for ultra-low budget film-making and a fondness for generic British zombie films. Who has both of those qualities in spades, also two thumbs and speaks French?

C’est moi!

Under normal circumstances, this would be a routine and unexceptional entry in the British Horror Revival (and its wholly owned subsidiary the British Zombie Boom), distinguishable only by its impressively early production date – shooting began in late 2000 – and a sci-fi first act which gives every impression of being a completely different movie. But circumstances are not normal, because of the possible appearance on this disc of a very unexpected individual – and I’m not talking about the trailer for obscure gangster drama Rulers and Dealers which features (“And introducing…”) a pre-Tardis Freema Agyeman.

Fact: of all the NuWho companions, Martha Jones was easily (a) the best, and (b) the hottest. Challenge this assertion at your peril. The other unskippable trailers here include Ross Boyask’s Left for Dead (a film on which Ed Evers-Swindell gets a ‘thank you’ credit, apparently) and The Silencer, directed by and starring an absurdly young-looking Steve Lawson. Anyway…

Infestation starts with some captions explaining that a deadly virus epidemic broke out in 2009 (you may recall that – it was in all the papers) and that two years later the surviving human race retreated to a vast underground city, Subtropolis. Now it’s 2034 and a terrorist group is causing trouble - for reasons that are unclear. Our main characters are two Subtropolis security guards, Loki (co-writer Ross Evison, now a freelance trailer editor in New York) and Sash (Susan Riley), who are on patrol when they surprise a squad of terrorists up to no good. Much violence ensues, both fist- and firearm-based, in a sequence which is cut together too fast to see what is actually happening (a common mistake, even in many big budget productions). This was filmed in the ventilation system of the Mersey Tunnel, an impressive, suitably industrial-looking location but one which the film-makers were unable to sully with fake blood. Hence we have the somewhat ridiculous sight of a person being riddled with bullets while standing in front of a white-tiled wall which remains pristine throughout.

One of the terrorists escapes, Loki gives chase and they both jump into flying machines which look like stubby X-wings, only without the wings. These two cheap CGI vehicles hurtle at speed through a cheap CGI city. Underground.

Let’s just pause the tape there, because the whole Subtropolis thing is nonsensical with a capital daft. Quite apart from having been constructed in just two years, this is an ‘underground city’ not in the sensible way of being a vast network of tunnels, but in the sense of being a single, vast cavern full of tower-blocks. Hence people travel everywhere in flying cars, as we shall all assuredly do in two decades’ time. There’s no suggestion of how Subtropolis functions as a city, except that it is ruled by a militaristic individual ironically named Commander Freeman (Malcom Raeburn: lots of TV work since the 1970s including Juliet Bravo, Corrie, Fairly Secret Army, The Bill etc; used to mostly play policemen, now mostly plays doctors and vicars ). Little things like how any such underground society would actually produce food are simply scooted over.

But not to worry because, by the end of Act 1, the city and the flying cars and the terrorist group will all have vanished from the story. Basically, the terrorist crashes and kills a load of people; Loki takes the blame and resigns. Six months later, Commander Freeman asks Sash (for some reason) to go on a mission to the surface and she agrees on the condition that she can also take Loki, who is by now a sad sack sanitation worker. The duo join a squad consisting of efficient Sergeant Svelder (Pete Farrar, later a contestant on reality TV series Survivor), hulking ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox (executive producer Paul Sutherland), spiky Gibson (Perveen Hussain, now a jobbing actress with bit parts in the likes of Shameless and Corrie) and techie geek Cole (Evers-Swindell’s brother William). They are blasted up to the surface in a rocket-powered capsule travelling through a never-explained ventilation shaft (hang on, haven’t we already established that the air up there is potentially deadly because of the virus?). Some arbitrary tension is generated by the ventilation shaft having a door that opens and closes at set times, unchangeable by the techies down in Subtropolis control. Will they make it in time, even with a malfunctioning booster? Well, if they don’t it’s going to be a short movie.

Up top, after a quick trek across a quarry on Anglesey which also featured in a Mortal Kombat film, the six squaddies arrive at a collection of derelict buildings. This is (or was) Tower Beach Prestatyn, the only holiday camp ever built and run by Thomas Cook Ltd. Pontins took over the place in the 1970s and it closed in 1985, after which it was used by the police for riot training (hence, presumably, the large number of smashed windows). A number of other productions shot there, notably 1990s post-apocalypse TV series The Last Train, before Ed and his merry band arrived. Principal photography on Infestation ran for two weeks in February 2001, literally finishing a few days before the camp was demolished (it’s now a housing estate).

So, leaving aside all the basically irrelevant sci-fi hokum and Sega graphics of the first act, the set-up is thus: a previous expedition to the surface are all believed to be dead, but their transponder-things show them as still moving around. Svelder’s squad inject themselves with a serum which will give them 24 hours’ resistance to the deadly airborne virus. They then have to locate the previous team and find their way to something unclear which will get them back home, except that seems unlikely and they all know this is potentially a suicide mission.

Just over halfway through, we finally get our first look at the zombies as a couple of them lurch at our heroes. This follows a tense build-up clearly modelled on the legendary three-metres-that’s-in-the-room scene from Aliens and the original intention was that the zombies would burst up from the floor. That not being possible, they just walk through a doorway which is – how to put this? – less effective. That said, when one of the characters falls prey to the zombies there is a very cool, full-on, Dawn of the Dead style gut-munching scene.

After this, it all becomes pretty much standard fare with the undead (or rather, virus-infected) hoards picking off our heroes one by one. Who will survive and what, like the man says, will become of them? Eventually, good old Loki locates an entrance to some sort of underground hangar from where he launches another cheap CGI flying machine, rescues his surviving comrades and then heads back down into the bowels of the Earth, having discovered the (frankly rather dull) truth about the virus.

You’ve seen worse zombie films than this (or at least, I have) and you’ve certainly seen better. The whole thing has a very cheap, video look with almost every scene tinted some colour or other. The acting is not bad. Evison has a slightly gormless look which effectively belies the character’s savvy and fighting ability. There’s some good character conflict, especially between Sash and Maddox, and a not unreasonable sequence of narrative events. Evers-Swindell makes the most of his locations and uses tight shots and small sets for other scenes, such as inside the aircraft. The UK disc comes with an enjoyably self-deprecating and honest commentary by the director.

Eventually completed in 2004, Infestation made its debut at the 2005 Cannes Film Market and premiered on Italian DVD in August that year (with sleeve blurb moving the events to 2080). There was a Japanese disc in February 2007 (with, as you might expect, a freaking awesome sleeve) and a UK release a few months later plus assorted releases in other territories including Portugal and Australia. Actually, I must just note my surprise that the copy I bought off eBay had ‘For rental only’ emblazoned on the sleeve. Checking Amazon I find that there was indeed a rental disc released on 12th November and a sell-through disc three weeks after. I honestly had no idea that the concept of a rental window still existed that late. What was the point? Was anyone so desperate to see this indie obscurity that they couldn’t wait for sell-through?

The only press coverage I’m aware of was a review in SFX which accused this 2001-produced film of ripping off The Core (2003) and Serenity (2005). Sigh. Also of note is that the sleeve (and hence the Amazon page) proudly displays the BBFC symbol for an ‘18’ rating when in fact Infestation was passed uncut as a 15. And frankly it probably only just scraped that, it’s more of a 12.

In historical terms, this could have been the first serious, traditional British zombie feature if it had been released swiftly, preceded only by Andrew Parkinson’s very atypical I, Zombie, the cheap splatter comedy of Zombie Toxin/Homebrew and an early, self-released effort from the indefatigable Jonathan Ash. Plus a few shorts but really not many. So although Infestation seems – heck, is – thoroughly generic and formulaic, that’s only because when it eventually emerged from post-production (that CGI may be cheap-looking but it still takes time) the genre and the formula had already established themselves in the meantime.

So why is this film interesting? It’s because of Mr Neil Marshall. There is a quote from him front and centre on the UK sleeve (reading, in full: “Awesome!”). Ed Evers-Swindell worked in the sound department on The Descent, providing all the ‘voices’ of the Crawlers, and he is also credited as ‘script consultant’ on The Descent Part 2. As I type this he is deep in post on his long-awaited second feature Dark Signal, which is being executive produced by Marshall.

The executive producer on Infestation was Paul Sutherland, the actor who played ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox. And here’s the really spooky part: he looks exactly like Neil Marshall! The bald head, the little beard, same height, same build, northern accent. Surely – I thought, as I watched the film – surely that is a young, unknown Mr N Marshall who has subsequently asked for his dual contribution to be disguised by an alias. Otherwise, we have to believe that Ed Evers-Swindell, a known associate of Neil Marshall, has made two feature films, executive produced by two different men who look like twins!

But is it really Neil Marshall? Let’s apply scientific procedure to this. What evidence do we have that it’s not Marshall? Certainly neither he nor Ed nor anyone else has ever mentioned this acting gig. But of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Slightly more concerning is that the February 2001 shoot for Infestation was literally a month before principal photography began on Dog Soldiers, when Neil Marshall should have been working all hours God sends on last-minute pre-production for his own debut feature.

Here, I think, is the clincher. Infestation is a co-production between three companies. Racing Snake Films was Ed and Will Evers-Swindell’s production company. Fierce Productions was co-writer/producer Stuart Fletcher (although the name has now been adopted by an unrelated company in London). But the main prodco was ESP Pictures Ltd, and a quick check of the company details reveals that the three directors of that were Ed Evers-Swindell, Sian Williams (the other producer) and… Paul Andrew Sutherland. Hence the name: ‘ESP’ for Ed, Sian and Paul.

Which means that Paul Sutherland is a real person. So, unless ‘Neil Marshall’ is an alias, these are two different people, and my surprise at discovering a low-budget zombie film secretly starring one of the biggest names in British horror is dashed. Would have been cool, though. And the matter is slightly confused by Sutherland being credited as both (sole) producer and co-producer on the British Council’s listing for the film, and being misnamed ‘John Sutherland’ elsewhere.  And you must admit, only their mother can tell them apart.

Plus, while I was writing this review, someone alerted me to the fact that there is a British horror film with Neil Marshall on screen, acting under a fake name. So you know, it wasn’t such a crazy idea. But to be absolutely certain, I contacted Ed himself who assured me: “I can confirm that Neil Marshall and Paul Sutherland are two very different and separate people. In fact, if you get them in a room together they don't actually look very similar...but I have heard people mistake them in the past.”

Edward Evers-Swindell is part of a surprisingly extensive Evers-Swindell clan of unclear relationship to one another, spread between North Wales and New Zealand. As well as brother Will (who is composing the music for Dark Signal) there’s Nico, a jobbing actor who was in several episodes of Grimm and played Prince William in a 2011 TV movie; Laura (assorted production gigs); Katherine (hair and make-up on 2010 violent revenge thriller Dark Waters); and identical twins Georgina and Caroline (a rowing team who won Olympic Gold for New Zealand at Athens and Beijing!). Ed and Katherine were both involved (as editor and actor respectively) with Karen Bird’s Expiry Date, a BHR film so obscure it makes Infestation look like a top pick on Netflix. According to the Inaccurate Movie Database, Ed also received a ‘thank you’ on Wraith Island, an even more obscure BHR film than Expiry Date (filmed in 2009, possibly never completed and directed by either Sioned Page or Marc Brimfield, depending on your source).

The ‘special make-up FX’ on Infestation were jointly handled by Amber Smit (who later got a credit in the wardrobe department of The Phantom Menace), Wendy Couling (now a professional artist) and Cathy Griffiths. ‘Special FX supervisor’ Andrew Whitehurst has gone on to an impressive career, working at the Framestore and Double Negative, amassing credits on the likes of Skyfall, Scott Pilgrim and assorted Harry Potters. Richard Blackburn and Philip Creed are credited with ‘special gun FX’; they also shared editing duties with Ed and both subsequently played zombies in Colin! ‘Screen FX’ (which I assume means the various computer displays on show) are credited to Andy Harding of Paintbox Studios.

There’s no credited DP but Ed is listed as camera operator (the camera in question being his dad’s, purchased from Curry’s, hence the ‘home video’ look) with Stuart Fletcher responsible for lighting. Neil Ratcliffe did the titles which, in the manner of such things, are one of the best parts of the movie. Someone or something called Emissary provided the music.

Aside from the principals, the cast included Evison’s brother Simon as a survivor from the first expedition, and Matt Routledge who subsequently wrote, directed, produced and starred in legendary action comedy Mersey Cop (he also DPed Angie Bojtler’s unreleased BHR feature Jacob’s Hammer).

As for Edward Evers-Swindell himself, he started making super-8 films as a kid, set up a film-making club at school and then began serious production at university where his graduation film was a shorter version of Infestation. This feature, his magnum opus (until now), cost a whopping £5,000 all-in. In 2015 as I type he is deep in post on his second feature Dark Signal, executive produced (as noted) by Neil Marshall. Ed tells me that both Neil and Paul Sutherland were offered cameos but neither could make it, meaning we still haven’t seen the two of them in the same place at the same time…

MJS rating: C

2 comments:

  1. I think your comments are a load of horse s***, its a solid film for when it was made and what the budget was so I'd rethink your review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Katie. Thank you so much for your erudite and well-reasoned comment on my review of Infestation. You’re quite right of course, it is a load of horse-shit. All I’ve done here is track down a copy of an obscure film, watch it carefully, research its production, distribution and critical reception, correspond with the director and then use all of this as the basis for a detailed, balanced, honest 2,600-word critical analysis of the movie within its historical and cultural context. A load of horse-shit indeed. Your witty and trenchant observation has convinced me that I should indeed rethink my review. But maybe I should let you read it first, which you obviously haven’t done. I do wonder whether your passionate defence of this film might indicate that you were involved in some way. Perhaps you’re the make-up artist credited as ‘Cathy Griffiths’ whose work I go to the trouble of giving due credit to in my horse-shit review. But no, surely no-one would be pathetic enough to google their name and then make themselves look a tit by posting foul-mouthed abusive comments on reviews of their work without even bothering to read the text and work out whether the review is positive or negative. No-one could be that dumb. Wishing you all the very best – MJ Simpson

      Delete