Monday, 26 December 2016

Onus

Director: George Clarke
Writer: George Clarke
Producer: George Clarke
Cast: Robert Render, Anthony Boyle, Vivian Jamison, Caroline Burns Cooke
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: DVD screener
Website: www.yellowfeverproductions.com

Just over a year ago I watched George Clarke’s 2009 debut feature Battle of the Bone and his newly released The Blood Harvest. Since then I have watched (for my next book), but not reviewed here, all of Clarke’s other feature – and now comes Onus, actually shot before The Blood Harvest but released eleven months later. So here’s a quick run-down of the career of Northern Ireland’s busiest independent film-maker.

Battle of the Bone is impressive: a distinctively regional zombie romp in which three young people try to make it across Belfast, avoiding undead hordes and religio-political gangs, all culminating in one of the most breathtakingly imaginative visual sequences I’ve ever seen in a zombie picture. Sadly Clarke’s follow-up, The Knackery, is rubbish: a plotless nonsense about a game show where participants fight each other while running away from zombies. Not worth your time.

The Last Light: An Irish Ghost Story, in 2012, was better though still not big on plot. A workman gets trapped inside an old, haunted building that he’s boarding up while his wife and sister-in-law come looking for him. It’s atmospheric but deathly slow. This was followed by 2014’s Splash Area: Night of the Freaks in which three teens out on Halloween chase some never-explained psycho clowns into a mental asylum and spend the rest of the film running away from them. All three of these movies had scenes which could have been shown in any order; truth be told, even Battle of the Bone is light on actual plot but makes up for it with likeable characters and that amazing ending.

The Blood Harvest and Onus represent a new phase of George Clarke’s career as he finally stops making films about someone being randomly chased by something. Harvest has a real plot; in fact it has two. Acts one and two are an intriguing police procedural as coppers hunt down a bizarre serial killer – then act three gives us a silly and not entirely satisfying sci-fi explanation for everything.

Onus has the same model but even more explicitly so as there is a ‘Chapter 1’ caption at the start and a ‘Chapter 2’ caption 40 minutes in, at the point when you have completely forgotten the first caption (plus, inexplicably, a lonely ‘Thursday’ caption partway through the second half). It seems like Clarke, who undoubtedly knows his way round a director’s chair, just can’t work out how to tell a story that runs for about 70-90 minutes. He either pads out the running time with endless variations on the same chase concept that carry no coherent through-narrative, or he writes two sub-feature scripts and bolts them together. He needs better scripts (or at least a decent co-writer) if he is going to fulfil his potential as one of the UK’s most interesting indie horror directors.

So to Onus. The first half, shot in Norway for no obvious reason, starts with an intriguing premise. Teenager Kieran (Anthony Boyle, currently playing Draco Malfoy’s son in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and soon to be seen on screen as a young Ian Paisley) and middle-aged Bob Andrews (Robert Render, a Clarke regular with numerous bit-part credits including FreakDog) awake in the middle of nowhere with about two metres of chain linking their wrists. In his free hand, each has an automatic pistol held firmly in place with swathes of gaffer tape. A post-it note on a nearby tree says they have one bullet each and only one of them can survive. They already know each other slightly: Andrews is a science teacher and school counsellor; Kieran was a bullied pupil who visited him on numerous occasions.

This is a startling, intriguing, original set-up and if the whole film was about these two it could have been awesome. What’s going on? Where are they? How did they get there? Who has done this and why? Is someone watching them? (I’ll tell you now: no, despite some misleading POV cheat-shots.) What I was looking forward to was an exploration of the characters, their relationship and their unlikely, uncomfortable situation, with some plot twists or revelations at key points that made me completely revise what had gone before. To be fair, we do get two major, revelatory developments at about 20 minutes and about 40 minutes, shortly after which we suddenly switch to Chapter 2 “one month later”.

This far less interesting 50 minutes centres on Kieran’s mother Joan (Clarke regular Vivian Jamison) and her counsellor Liz (Caroline Burns Cooke: The Spiritualist). Joan is determined to find out what happened to her son but the answer is closer to home than she expects. The psychological horror of the first half is ditched in favour of a less-than-thrilling thriller driven by coincidence and leaps of logic. For example, an absolutely crucial moment is when Joan sees someone with a length of chain – but there’s a thousand reasons why someone would have a chain. It’s just regular chain like you can buy from Homebase.

One of the characters says, on more than one occasion, “It was meant to be simple” but the plan that is revealed, which evidently went wrong but may now be repeated, was pointlessly complex and liable to go wrong in any of several different ways.

There is nothing to suggest that the first story takes place anywhere except the locality in which these characters live so why it was filmed in Norway is beyond me. At one point the two encounter a Norwegian-speaking man (Kenny Thompson) in a Scandinavian-looking forest cabin outside which graze a herd of goats. It couldn’t be more Norwegian if there was Grieg on the soundtrack and a sign saying “This way to the fjord.” Yet what we subsequently learn makes it impossible to believe that this could have happened in another country.

Onus is a frustrating film (as was The Blood Harvest). I really, really like what George Clarke does on a broad scale, building up a Northern Irish indie genre film culture (including his annual Yellow Fever International Film Festival) and supporting homegrown talent on both sides of the camera. He has achieved some impressive things, including DVD releases on both sides of the Atlantic and even limited domestic theatrical runs. But the simple fact is that his scripts let him down so that, aside from his brazenly ambitious debut, his movies to date have fallen flat.

The Norwegian half of Onus was shot in June 2012, with Render and Boyle earning ‘additional material’ credits for improvising much of their dialogue. The domestic home-stretch was shot one year later and the film premiered at Clarke’s YFIFF event in September 2013 with further festival play in Belfast and Florida. The DVD/VOD release via Left Films was on Boxing Day 2016, by which times Clarke had not only shot and released The Blood Harvest, he was already making a start on his seventh feature Mindy Must Die. I retain a hope, as I have with each of his previous films, that this will be his breakthrough title, the movie where he finally demonstrates his undoubted talent without a weak script hobbling him.

The DVD includes a commentary, Making Of, bloopers and trailers.

MJS rating: C+

Saturday, 24 December 2016

In a Lonely Place

Director: Davide Montecchi
Writers: Davide Montecchi, Elisa Giardini
Producer: Meclimone
Cast: Lucrezia Frenquellucci, Luigi Busignani
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: Facebook

Within the first couple of minutes of my viewing of this film, one thing became clear to me. In a Lonely Place has absolutely the best cinematography of any independent film that I have ever seen in my entire life. Shot after shot after shot is drop-dead gorgeous. Long shots, two-shots, close-ups, static shots, panning shots: you could take a hi-res frame-grab from almost any moment in this film, blow it up, frame it and hang it in a gallery.

The light, the shadow, the colours and oh so many reflections. Mirrors make extra work for cinematographers, obviously, but In a Lonely Place is packed with mirrors. Mirrors on walls, mirrors on the floor, mirrors in front of someone, mirrors behind someone, shattered mirrors, multiple mirrors in one shot. Holy cow, this is visually the most amazing thing you’ll see all year.

Fabrizio Pasqualetto is the man responsible, and if there isn’t an Oscar somewhere in that man’s future, I’ll eat my hat. He paints with light.

A tip of the hat also to camera operator Lino Hermaus, focus puller Matteo Franca and digital image technician Guido Zamagni. Between them these four gentlemen have crafted something stunningly beautiful.

This could be the first film review in history to mention the focus puller before the director but that’s just because I wanted to acknowledge the camera crew up front. The whole film is the vision of Davide Montecchi, and what a vision it is. There are only two actors and, to be honest, not a vast amount of dialogue when you consider that the film runs only 80 minutes (plus credits) and numerous lines are repeated over and over again. But that just leaves more room for the film to be ‘a film’, exploring the possibilities of cinema.

Describing the ‘plot’ of In a Lonely Place would be like synopsising a poem. It would completely miss the point and belittle the work. (“A guy gets freaked because a raven flies into his library while he’s having a nap, and it causes him to think about his dead girlfriend…”) Lucrezia Frenquellucci is Theresa, a young woman who has been invited to visit an empty hotel. Luigi Busignani is Thomas, the man who invited her there, an obsessive, mentally disturbed stalker.

We open with Theresa tied to a chair, and then follow two narratives. In the main story Thomas abuses and tortures Theresa, both physically and mentally. Interspersed with this are flashbacks of earlier in the evening as they share a meal, she dresses in one of the hotel rooms, and then he takes some photographs of her. One story leads up to that opening shot, one leads away from it.

I did say that summing up the story would belittle the film. The above paragraph makes In a Lonely Place sound like trashy (if good-looking) torture porn. There are hundreds of micro-budget, misogynist ‘horror’ films that have basically the same ‘plot’ (a few, a very few, are actually worth watching). But you know, the world is also full of representations of ‘a beautiful man with an amazing physique flashing his cock’: 99.999% of those are gay porn, and then there’s Michelangelo’s David. I’m not belittling the gay porn industry – I know some great guys who make gay porn films – I’m just demonstrating how a very simple, essential concept can, in the right hands, treated and viewed in a special way, become something with not just genuine artistic merit but the sort of work that transcends conventional concepts of art to become iconic.

Through a combination of Montecchi’s direction, Pasqualetto’s photography and two excellent actors (working in a foreign language) – plus the many other crew who contributed, of course – this movie takes something which could be (and often is) tawdry and cheap and turns it into a work of art. I’m not saying it is actually as ‘good’, on some impossible, hypothetical scale of artistic quality, as David because, bloody hell, Michelangelo. I just want people to understand that the narrative content of the film, which is limited in the first place and will be naturally brief in descriptions, short reviews, film festival catalogues or DVD sleeves, is not a fair summation of the cinematic experience here.

Adding to all of this is the amazing location: a huge, empty, modern hotel. A landscape shot shows nothing nearby except a power station (though that may have been digitally altered of course). The interiors, whether they are genuinely part of that building or studio creations, are amazing. The main room where the primary story takes place has been carefully arranged so that every square centimetre contributes to the film’s look and feel. This hotel is disused but not derelict. It is in a mysterious, transitory state between a vibrant, busy place and an empty ruin, which places the limited story and the two characters in a sort of limbo, divorced from the real, outside world.

Ivana Alessandrini was the set designer and has done an amazing job which Montecchi and Pasqualetto have then taken and turned into magic. (Tip of the hat also to set decorator Diana Fazi and set dresser Annalena Piri.) If you ever wondered what ‘mise-en-scene’ actually means, take a look here.

One more striking visual is Luigi Busignani himself who has a fascinating, angular face that you won’t soon forget. He speaks with a strong accent: stressing, each, word, separately. Sometimes he whispers, sometimes he shouts, but he never tips over into being a cartoon psychopath. Lucrezia Frenquellucci’s performance is one of confusion and vulnerability but with determination below the surface. Her character is, apparently, a model/actress so it makes sense that she is beautiful, but in an interesting, human way, not an airbrushed, formulaic, magazine sort of way. Theresa’s voice has been looped by Barbara Sirotti; perhaps Frenquellucci has too strong an accent.

There is some violence and injury on screen, with special make-up effects provided by Mauro Fabrizcky. Be warned that there is also a disturbing (but entirely fake) moment of animal cruelty.

I don’t know what else I can tell you about In a Lonely Place. It is an extraordinary film. A true cinematic experience. Take the opportunity to watch it if you can.

MJS rating: A+

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Shattering

Director: Jason Boritz
Writer: Ward Parry
Producers: Pietro Dioni, Malee Nerenhausen, Alex Splendore
Cast: Ben Fritz, Elizabeth Weisbaum, Holly Burns
Country: USA
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: TubiTV

The Shattering is an attempt to make a werewolf film with no werewolves in it. Not in a 13hrs sort of way, where there is a quasi-human transforming monster though it’s not strictly a werewolf. And not in a Lycanthropy sort of way where you’re meant to think there’s werewolves but it turns out there’s not. No, this very definitely features werewolves – characters freely use the W-word – but apart from some momentary POV attack shots, the werewolves themselves are not actually present on screen.

That shouldn’t be a problem. What you don’t see can be very frightening. Implication is all. There are no ghosts on screen in The Haunting but it’s still one of the scariest ghost movies ever made.

What hamstrings The Shattering (meaningless title by the way) is not the lack of actual hairy, toothy wolf-people. Nor is there a major problem with the acting or the photography. It all looks very slick and well-made.

But the script is bobbins. Which is a shame. And the direction doesn’t help.

We know we’re off to a bad start when we have a group of friends driving along in the middle of nowhere at night and one decides to ask where they’re going and why. What, were you drunk or asleep when they bundled you into the car, and you’ve just woken/sobered up? This is just lazy, convenient exposition, and it happens again and again in this film.

There’s a particularly awful bit where one character suddenly decides, out of nowhere, that a particular bit of wall is hollow and kicks it in. She then asks for a light and reaches inside because of course there’s something in there. Another character holds up a cigarette lighter which (a) does nothing to illuminate the hole in the wall because it’s a tiny flame about two feet away and (b) wouldn’t make any difference anyway because the person reaching into the hole isn’t looking into it. From the hole is extracted a locked metal box. Shortly thereafter this same girl appears holding a key, saying it’s what she was looking for, despite not having tried it in the lock. Quelle surprise, it does fit and from the tin she extracts a battered diary – which someone immediately opens to a relevant page – and a VHS cassette.

Despite being filmed (and presumably set) in 2013, there is a TV/VHS combi in the room and the tape plays exactly what they need to see, a moment of found footage nonsense wherein someone keeps filming as they are running away from something attacking their family. Said person then presumably rewound the tape, wrote up a few more diary entries, locked the tape and book inside a metal tin, put the key somewhere else in the house where it would be easily findable, knocked a hole in a wall, put the tin inside the cavity, then plastered and painted over the hole.

As you do.

That whole sequence is a masterclass in how not to progress your story through exposition and infodumps, convenience and coincidence. It’s just awful. Did no-one actually read through this script before making it? Because this sort of stuff is so, so obvious.

The initial set-up, which I’ll grant you is original, is that one of these friends has cancer and her boyfriend is taking them to a ‘healer’ out in the woods. Although that has its own problems because it immediately marks out all these characters as idiots. Drugs can cure cancer (sometimes). Chemotherapy can cure cancer (sometimes). A good diet and exercise can reduce your risk of getting cancer in the first place. But a ‘healer’ cannot cure cancer; all they can do is take your money.

There are some hunters in the woods who put a stinger on the road that gives the car a blow-out and when the driver gets out to change the wheel, he is dragged off into the darkness by something.

Now, whatever did that could be a wolf, a bear, a mountain lion or a particularly angry and strong skunk. Whatever it is, it’s out there. And there could be a pack of them. So what would be the best course of action? Would it be (a) Holy crap, there’s a dangerous wild animal on the loose! Close the doors! Lock the doors! Wind up the windows! Whatever you do, stay inside the car! Or would it be (b) Holy crap, there’s a dangerous wild animal on the loose! Everyone out of the car and let’s all run off randomly into these woods that we don’t know at all in ones and twos!

Somehow they all make it to an empty, unlocked house where the lights are on. Which is convenient. The hunters take occasional pot shots at them while falling prey one by one to the POV werewolf. Most of the middle act is just dull soap opera stuff about one of the girls discovering that her boyfriend is cheating on her with one of the other girls. Completely irrelevant to the plot.

Eventually there are only three people left in the house, and they’ve read the diary and watched the found footage VHS tape and realised that they are being used as werewolf bait (and that one of their friends may be the kid on the tape). The hunters have chucked a walkie talkie in there so there’s some communication. This one hunter says they should all run out of the house to draw the werewolf so that he can shoot it.

There’s no instruction of which door they should run out of, or which direction they should run, which would seem fairly crucial decisions if their goal is to lead the prowling werewolf in front of the hunter’s gun (they don’t know where the hunter is). There’s some final twist which doesn’t really make sense. And then it all mercifully ends. It’s all ultimately something to do with werewolf saliva having curative properties, or something.

None of the young people in the house are very interesting and I can’t remember any of their names. But at least they’re not as sketchily drawn as the hunters. At no point does it become clear how many hunters there actually are, or whether they are all working together, or who’s in charge, or where they are in relation to the house, or indeed anything at all. Some of the hunters have names in the end credits, some are just called ‘Hunter 1’ etc. What’s the difference? Damdifino.

I would have liked to have enjoyed The Shattering. I’m a sucker for a good low-budget werewolf movie, me. The cast are all competent and the production has been made within its limits. But the script and direction are so poor that, despite my best efforts to like this, I couldn’t. It’s just terrible. It's such a shame.

This is the only narrative feature from director Jason Boritz, whose other films are all documentaries, including bio-docs of Paul McCartney, Amy Winehouse, Taylor Swift and Steve Jobs. The surprisingly Brit-heavy cast includes Yorkshire-born Jaz Martin (who has managed to be in both NCIS: LA and Emmerdale!), Northern Irishman Liam McMahon (’71) and Dorset-born Chris Jarvis (The Bill’s PC Casper, also in BHR entry Dark Rage).

For werewolf completists only, I fear.

MJS rating: C

Saturday, 10 December 2016

It Came for Friendship, But Found Food

Director: Guy Gilray
Writer: Guy Gilray
Producer: Guy Gilray
Cast: John Varesio, Catherine Johnson, Angelo Varesio
Country:USA
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: Cult Movies app

I recently invested in an Amazon Firestick – and it has opened up a whole new world of watching for me. As I sit in my man-cave, while Mrs S watches Great British Menu in the living room and TF Simpson watches Cinema Sins on YouTube in his bedroom, I was previously reliant on watching things on my laptop, except for DVDs which got viewed through the TV.

Well, now I have the Firestick, which means when I want to watch shows on catch-up, like Pointless, University Challenge and… well, that’s about it, to be honest; I don’t watch much telly… I can view them on my TV. But there’s so much more. I’m not bothered about Amazon Prime or Netflix or any of that bollocks. I’m not bloody paying to watch television, bugger off. No, it’s all the free apps that are on there which excite me.

For instance, I have found a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop shark channel. Nothing but shark documentaries, all the time, for ever, for free. Tell me why, in a world where this exists, does anybody ever bother to watch anything else at all? Close down the BBC. Tell Sky to pull the plug. There are 24-hour shark docus available at the touch of a button.

Or, if and when I ever do get bored of watching programmes about sharks, how about a channel which broadcasts nothing but music videos and comedy clips by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic? It’s a thing. All Weird Al, all the time. I take back everything I have said about the modern world. Life is great and it’s going to be a happy Xmas after all. Plus there is an app that has a massive archive of old 1950s US TV shows. Despite not actually being either (a) American or (b) from the 1950s, this is like manna for me. I’m actually watching Jack Benny and Burns and Allen and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and even You Bet Your Life. Some of these even have the adverts in them. LSMFT: Lucky Strike means fine tobacco!

As well as sharks and Weird Al and Jack Benny, there are also apps with free access to all manner of weird and wonderful (and sometimes deeply crap) movies. Indie stuff, public domain staples, borderline cases. Just so many movies to watch. And I started with this very, very strange indie sci-fi effort from just a few years ago.

Paul (John Varesio) is a middle-aged, unemployed guy who lives with his wife Svina (Catherine Johnson: Gabby’s Wish, Purple Mind) and grown-up son Kenny (Angelo Varesio, who has notably different coloured skin to the actors playing his parents). When Paul receives a parcel addressed to the house’s previous occupant, Tim Brown, he opens it and finds a bunch of oak leaves and a cocoon. Overnight, something breaks out of the cocoon: a weird creature like a cross between a beetle and a snail. Paul corners this and traps it in a glass jar in his garage, after which the thing starts communicating with him telepathically.

Svina and Kenny have been away up till now, visiting Paul’s mother. There is a whole load of stuff about how Paul was given up for adoption as a baby and only traced his real mother when he was 24, none of which seem to have any bearing on either character or plot. Once his family are back home, Paul keeps the door to the garage locked, claiming he’s working on a secret project.

What his family don’t know is that he has, on the instructions of the alien insect thing, been to the woods where he met a humanoid alien (called ‘Shelia’ although it sounds like ‘Sheila’!) that we previously saw in an unconnected splash-panel prologue. This addressed him as ‘Tim Brown’ (intended recipient of the parcel) and that is the alias Paul now adopts in finding victims for the aliens.

Initially he picks up a hooker (Vicky Anderson: Deep Dark); later he poses as a film producer, persuading two stoners to accompany him to a film shoot that needs extras. Where he’s actually taking these people is to a ‘hive’, a huge termite-mound-like structure in the depths of the forest where six-foot versions of the snail-beetle thing fly around (without wings) and prey on unwary humans. Later Paul takes Kenny fishing and returns home alone, telling Svina he dropped their son off at a friend’s.

Here’s where it starts to get really strange. Svina has become suspicious so has smashed the padlock on the garage door. However she doesn’t find the alien bug. Instead she finds a fairly large rock (about the size of a football) which she takes into the forest and throws from a bridge. Paul is furious when he discovers this because that rock was in some way special to him. Suddenly the two of them are magically in the clearing beside the hive where Svina is attacked and Paul runs away, bumping into a young hiker. We previously saw this lad and his girlfriend on a trek through the trees, discovering a giant cocoon which, when sliced open, disgorged a bloodied human corpse. The boy was so shocked that he fell over a log and hurt his back; the girl went for help.

There’s no real conclusion to ICFFBFF. It just sorts of ends while the viewer is wondering what all that bollocks about a rock was in aid of. An epilogue has Kenny returning home – seems Paul did indeed drop him at a friend’s house rather than offering up his only son with a cry of, “I for one welcome our alien overlords.” The family cat Cloudy, who has featured in a surprisingly large number of cutaway shot over the past 95 minutes, has got into the garage, knocked over the glass jar and partially eaten the bug within, which Kenny then flushes down the toilet. To what extent that might stop the giant bugs and their bipedal herald from taking over the world isn’t clear.

It Came... is tosh. Ambitious, sincere tosh, but tosh nonetheless. Surprisingly, neither the one-dimensional characters nor the rambling, unsatisfactory plot constitutes the film’s biggest problem. Nor indeed is the budget CGI used to create the aliens a stumbling block. No, the biggest problem here is that the film has absolutely no idea what decade it’s set in.

This seems to be the 1950s. It’s all shot in black and white. Paul drives a classic car. No-one has a mobile phone. The phone in the house is a traditional Bakelite, rotary dial model and the TV set (on which both Paul and Svina separately watch a movie called It Came for Friendship, But Found Food) is a small cathode ray tube television. When we first meet Paul he is typing up his memoirs, using a reel-to-reel audio recorder and a manual typewriter.

I’d love it if this all took place in the 1950s, the era of You Bet Your Life and The Jack Benny Program. But… the dialogue includes references to Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio, and to something that happened “back in the seventies”. (Plus Svina drives a modern car.)

Before we see Paul typing his memoirs we have a brief scene of him looking at a bridge, dictating into the reel-to-reel recorder a note that his grandfather died in an accident while constructing the bridge in 1912. Let’s work out how that could be true if this 2010 film is set in 2010. Paul has a grown son so he’s probably about 45-50. For his grandfather to have died in 1912, even if the intermediate parent was a newborn at the time, said parent would have had to be about 50 when Paul was born. Which is possible but unlikely. A date of late 1950s or early 1960s makes much more sense.

This could well have been shot over a period of months or even years, but as the creation of a single film-maker, you would think that it would at least have been consistent in its setting. Either you’re making a retro, historical picture or you’re telling a story in the present day. Make up your mind.

That one-man-band film-maker is Oregon-based Guy Gilray, whose only other movie is 2006 feature Scream of the Sasquatch (which shares several cast with this). He’s primarily a painter, having exhibited with some success at galleries in Portland in the 1990s. Specialising in ‘nocturnal urban landscapes’, he eventually got fed up of painting the same thing so turned his talents in other directions, thus: “First I made two independent feature films, losing about $17,000 in the process and eliciting many negative comments from the people who have actually seen them.” This was followed by an attempt to create digital illustrations for science fiction book covers and six CDs of instrumental music, neither of which projects could be accurately described as ‘successful’. Now he’s back painting again. I admire both his tenacity and his honesty.

Produced in 2010, It Came… was posted onto Archive.com in October 2014 and has had 18,000 views to date. Two years later it was posted on a YouTube channel called Watch Public Domain Movies; this has been watched about 320 times so far. There are two other versions on YouTube which between them have generated 40 views. Which is not great but still 38 more people than bought the poor bloke’s CDs.

MJS rating: C-

Friday, 9 December 2016

Zombie Women of Satan 2

Directors: Warren Speed, Chris Greenwood
Writers: Warren Speed, Chris Greenwood
Producers: Warren Speed, Chris Greenwood
Cast: Warren Speed, Pete Bennett, Caroline Elyssia
Year of release: 2016
Country: UK
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.growlingclown.com

I am under no illusion – and I suspect Warren Speed and his colleagues are similarly unencumbered – that some people really didn’t like the first Zombie Women of Satan film. Some folk hated it for being puerile and childish; some found it offensive and vulgar; others decried its sexism and misogyny. If you are among that section of society, then I have some good news for you. If you really didn’t like the first Zombie Women of Satan, you’ll pigging hate the sequel.

It’s just as puerile, no less vulgar and equally sexist. I bloody loved it.

Just like its predecessor, Zombie Women of Satan 2 is a sort of three-way bastard stepchild of Rocky Horror, Dawn of the Dead and Viz comic. It takes no prisoners, doesn’t give a wet slap what people think, and has no truck with concepts such as good taste or restraint. But at the same time, it has well-drawn, sympathetic characters, a coherent and well-structured plot and a solid awareness of its own limitations and how to work within them.

I love the ZWoS films, me. And I really love Pervo the Clown, a magnificent and surprisingly subtly nuanced character fully inhabited by young Mr Speed. Pervo is vain, childish, bombastic, arrogant, selfish, over-confidant, na├»ve, dependent, loyal, disloyal. He actually reminds me a little of Zaphod Beeblebrox, and I’ll explain why.

In my previous life as the world’s leading authority on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (my book Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams is available from all good charity shops) I came across a quote from Adams describing part of the inspiration for Zaphod. It was a Cambridge room-mate named Johnny Simpson (no relation) who put a great deal of effort into appearing really relaxed and chilled. In Hitchhiker's Guide that aspect of Zaphod is perfectly encapsulated in the scene when he realises one of the people being led up to the Heart of Gold bridge by Marvin is his semi-cousin Ford Prefect. Looking around the room, Zaphod ponders out loud: “Which is the most nonchalant chair to be discovered in?” (This is also, incidentally, a beautiful example of the Wodehouse-ian transposed adjective.)

In a similar vein, Pervo has a deep, many-layered personality, most of which is put to use deliberately making himself appear as shallow as possible at all times. Pervo is a character played by Sydney Smallcock (played by Warren Speed). When he puts on the face-paint and the nose, he becomes Pervo. He never removes the face-paint (and you don’t touch the nose). Pervo is an artificial construct, created to mask Sydney’s existence, and below the surface Sydney’s metaphorical duck’s feet are paddling frantically to maintain the consistent illusion of the egotistical, sex-mad rock-star clown. He puts a lot of effort into giving the impression that he never lifts a finger. He cares passionately about convincing people that he doesn’t care. It’s entirely possible that Sydney Smallcock no longer actually exists. Peter Sellers sometimes admitted to interviewers that he had played so many characters, inhabiting them so fully and making them so real – from Bluebottle to Inspector Clouseau and beyond – that he was no longer certain who he, Peter Sellers, actually was. One of the early biographies of Sellers was called The Mask Behind the Mask. I see very definite parallels with Pervo the Clown.

So what is Pervo up to this time? After the events of the first film, he became something of a media celebrity, feted by the trashier tabloids for his part in rescuing people from a zombie massacre. There’s a nice bit of recursive intertextuality in comments about a film, called Zombie Women of Satan, which dramatised these events and in which Pervo played himself. Or with himself.

But the black-nosed one’s penchant for the baser things in life – drugs, booze, prostitutes, boozy prostitutes, snorting drugs off prostitutes who are drinking booze – has left him bankrupt. Between them his long-suffering PA Kat Meyer (Nadia Wilde: Mark Macready and the Archangel Murders) and his moustachioed bodyguard Boris Tinkler (“as himself” although the IMDb identifies him as this film’s stunt choreographer Ian Brown) keep Pervo’s life on approximately the right track. Kat is just a day away from ending her contract, while Boris is unaware that Pervo carries a bromantic, Brokeback torch for him. Actually Pervo is also unaware of this gay devotion, not because he’s repressing it but because his life is so chaotic and packed with sexual urges that one more just doesn’t register.

Salvation for Pervo comes in the form of Bertie Dumble, an eccentric millionaire nightclub owner who wants to throw our hero an enormous, boobs-filled party. Dumble is played with undisguised glee by Pete Bennett (credited as Pete Alexander Bennett) whom you may recall as that bloke on Big Brother who had Tourette’s and who is now a bona fide British horror regular. He’s in all three of John Williams’ features: The Slayers, The Mothertown and the forthcoming Crispy’s Curse. He’s in David VG Davies’ eagerly awaited zomcom Meet the Cadavers. And he’s in three Warren Speed gigs: this, Clown Syndrome and All Clowns Must Die (featured in a post-credits teaser here under its original title of Coulrophobia).

Anyway, what Pervo neither knows nor cares about is Bertie Dumble’s ulterior motive. Dumble is in a bizarre, fetishistic relationship with Octavia Zander (sometime ‘Satanic Slut’ Caroline Elyssia), surviving sister/daughter of the family who were killed in the first film. Out for revenge, she is working with mad Bertie, insane Cuthbert ‘Uncle’ Zander (Colin Cuthbert: Thugs, Mugs and Dogs) and pathetically loopy Florence ‘Mother’ Zander (Kathy Paul, reprising her role) who doesn’t want anyone to harm her “sexy clown man”. Octavia’s plan is to lure Pervo to the nightclub with the promise of a whole gaggle of ‘Pervettes’ then turn everyone into zombies with drugged punch. An anti-zombie spray will keep the Zander clan safe.

But that’s not the only danger facing Pervo. Fan-fave Dani Thompson (Banjo, Three’s a Shroud etc.) is Zara, leader of a squad of kick-ass, PVC-clad call-girls called the Bad Habits, hunting down a certain clown who owes them money for ‘services rendered’. It goes without saying that about halfway through, all hell is let loose – not to mention an entire coachload of sexy zombie women. The film does a grand job of whittling down the survivors in its action-packed second half, with people we care about and expect to survive falling prey to the topless gut-munchers.

ZWoS2 is a hoot, a sexy, silly, subversive panorama of blood, boobs and over-the-top acting that will have fans of the first film grinning from ear to ear. It’s technically well-made with cinematography by David Mordey (The Making of Soul Searcher) and editing by Ben Davison Cannings and Chris Greenwood who shares writing, directing and producing duties with Speed this time round, the first film’s co-director Steve O’Brien restricting himself to an executive producer role.

The cast includes Kookie Katana, Moon Blake and Laura Jayne Carson (‘Laura Pandora’ in the titles, ‘Laura Carson’ in the credits) as the other 75% of the Bad Habits. Katana and Carson are scheduled to reprise their roles (or at least, do something similar) in a picture called Katana being prepped by Action Film and Photo, the company who provided this movie’s weaponry. Tammy Nowell plays actress Dahlia Von Rose, part of Pervo’s entourage, while Ash Robertson is Pervo’s nemesis, rock star Dikki Lixx. Stuart Adams (Soldiers of the Damned) is a psychiatrist; ‘alternative horror-streaked glam punk’ band Spit Like This perform a song at the party; Martin Palmer in his drag persona as ‘Crystal Meth’ is a TV show host; and one of the 50 or so zombies is Faye Ormston from Flowerman.

The Mighty Boosh’s Mike ‘Not Noel’ Fielding has a bit part as a Satanic high priest. Despite what the IMDB claims, Victoria Broom and Victoria Hopkins from the first movie are not in this one, although they did film scenes for it (included in the DVD extras) and are listed among the thank-yous. Rebecca Hall (Dark Signal, Ibiza Undead, Cruel Summer) was lead make-up artist.

Originally shot (at various locations around the North-East) in July 2012, the initial cut of ZWoS2 was reworked with new scenes filmed in August 2013, plus some final pick-ups in January 2014. It was eventually released on DVD in October 2016, initially available exclusively from Speed’s Growling Clown Entertainment website, with a festival premiere in January 2017 at Horror-on-Sea. A US release through Chemical Burn Entertainment is scheduled for February 2017, retitled Female Zombie Riot. The first film was released in Japan and I'm sure they'll go for the sequel too.

In a world where so many zombie or slasher films seem to be cut from the same cloth, Speed/Pervo provides a welcome and distinctive respite. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, though I do appreciate that some people will hate it. Fuck ’em.

MJS rating: A-

Monday, 5 December 2016

Bakerman

Director: David Noel Bourke
Writer: David Noel Bourke
Producer: David Noel Bourke
Cast: Mikkel Vadsholt, Siir Tilif, Mia Lerdam
Country: Denmark
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.facebook.com/officialbakermanfilm

Some film-makers pump out their movies like there’s no tomorrow: two, three or more every year. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Danish film-maker David Noel Bourke is more of an artisan. There was a six-year gap between his first two films, Last Exit and No Right Turn. Seven years further on, here comes his third movie, Bakerman.

It’s a drama with thriller elements. It’s not as bleak as the Scandinavian drama you see on TV, but it’s not a comedy. Serious but not grim. It’s very good. Not obviously commercial, but good and definitely worth watching if you like a movie that makes you think.

Mikkel Vadsholt is Jens, a middle-aged, overweight, balding man who lives alone in a cottage in the woods and works in a small bakery in the city. Once a week he referees amateur football. He occasionally goes out drinking with his younger colleague Brian (Brian Hjulman) who is a bit racist, a bit sexist and not unsuccessful with the ladies. Jens’ sister Anna (Mia Lerdam) runs a bicycle shop – very Danish that – although (unless I missed something) we only find out about halfway through that she’s his sister.

One day, Jens finds his car vandalised. When it happens again, he confronts three cocky youths who were fairly obviously responsible. Two walk away, sneering. The third stays and Jens, who’s quite a big fellow, despite his beer-gut, kills the guy with a tyre-iron.

Emboldened, and having taken the youth’s phone, he tracks down one of the others and kills him too. By now, Jens has something of a purpose in his life: he’s a vigilante. When he sees a man attacking a young woman, he punches the guy and rescues her. She is Mozan (Siir Tilif), who has neither family nor friends so ends up living with Jens in his cottage. Mozan tidies up for him; he shows her how to make bread. A friendship develops. Eventually he feels bold enough to take her to Anna’s birthday party, which may just be too much.

Apart from a couple of moments of violence, and a little tension as Brian explains how the police have been round asking questions about a local murder, there’s nothing obviously gripping here. But this is nevertheless a thought-provoking, thoroughly engaging film. And like many of the best films, it has a subtext.

At first glance, that could be a subtext about immigration and racism. The youths are immigrants, so is Mozan. The bakery has recently been taken over by a middle-eastern guy (Pejman Khorsand-Jamal) who has reduced the quality of the ingredients, caring only about profit margins not baking skill or customer satisfaction. Jens doesn't like him and he doesn't like Jens.

But no, the underlying theme here is heroism. Bakerman is a meditation on the nature of heroes and heroism. Jens feels like a hero when he starts taking out the city’s lowlifes, and especially when he rescues Mozan. Anna calls him a hero just for giving her a lift in his car. At Anna’s fancy dress party, Jens wears a generic superhero outfit. Even the film’s title is an allusion to heroics: he’s not Superman or Batman or Iron Man or Spider-Man, he’s Bakerman, Eventually Jens realises that life’s not about being a hero, it’s just about decency, understanding and caring. We don’t need heroes, we just need decent human beings. Opening yourself up to someone and letting them into your life – and letting them let you into their life – is heroic enough.

That, at least, is what I took away from this fine motion picture. It’s a serious, thoughtful, dramatic - in places, very touching - take on an aspect of the human condition. Vadsholt is excellent in the lead role, the supporting cast are all very good too, and Bourke both writes and directs with a deft hand and an observant eye. The film is in Danish (obviously) with word-perfect English subtitles. Since Mozan doesn't speak Danish, conversations between her and Jens are in English.

As produced, Bakerman is very different from the original concept, which was called White Pig and touted as 'Nordic noir'. Back in 2013, the synopsis for that read: "White Pig is the story of a series of grisly murders that shakes up a whole country. Told through the eyes of both the bad guy, Jens, who is the murderer and the good guy/girl, Mia, who is the police officer and how they both end up dangerously crossing each other and ultimately how they alter each others fate forever..." There are no police officers in Bakerman and the murders that Jens commits (for, like it or not, he is technically a murderer) don't shake up Denmark. It's interesting how films change during developmen. On the basis of Last Exit and No Right Turn, White Pig would probably have been a cracking 'Nordic noir' crime thriller. But I'm glad that David explored a different direction for the character and the story, creating something unique and fascinating.

David Noel Bourke movies are rare things and only come along very occasionally. But they are worth waiting for. You will enjoy and appreciate Bakerman.

MJS rating: A

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Slasher House II

Director: MJ Dixon
Writer: MJ Dixon
Producer: Anna McCarthy
Cast: Francesca Louise White, Sophie Portman, Luna Wolf
Year of release: 2017
Country: UK
Website: http://mycho.weebly.com
Reviewed from: online screener

The story so far. In 2010 the Mycho Pictures team of writer-director MJ Dixon and producer Anna McCarthy made Slasher House, in which Red (Eleanor James) and Nathan (Adam Dillon) woke up in a big building with three over-the-top serial killers. I called it “enjoyably non-formulaic and surprisingly watchable despite its faults.”

A few months after Slasher House was released in 2013, Anna and Mike made Legacy of Thorn, a spin-off prequel about one of those serial killers. Cheerfully homaging Friday the 13th, it is “Impressive, ambitious and largely successful, not to mention unashamedly entertaining for all gorehounds” apparently.

Then they shot two more prequels set within the same ‘Mycho Cinematic Universe’: Hollower and Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown. The former concentrates on the first picture’s Nathan and is more restrained than the previous films. I declared it to be “Stylish, spooky, slick and seriously disturbing in its finale.” The latter is an homage to Halloween, based around another of the bad guys from Slasher House. “It's certainly a cut above what the basic premise - nutter dressed as clown stalks town on Halloween - would suggest,” opined top film critic MJ Simpson.

Which brings us to Slasher House II.

This is the further adventures of Red, now called Red Angel and played by Francesca Louise White (who is absolutely terrific), Ella James having long since retired from the acting game. It’s the same character but a different role, Red Angel being very much a kick-ass protagonist hunting down serial killers rather than a victim fighting back.

She is assisted in this endeavour by cute nerdette Luse (Sophie Portman) who fulfils the sort of Nick Fury/Q/Alfred role of providing both technical and logistical support. And also by Amber (model/actress/photographer/tattooist Luna Wolf), a stripper who is simultaneously rescued and made homeless by Red Angel. Rescued when a psycho in a papier-mache panda mask wanders into the club and slaughters everyone else while Amber is out the back, before being brutally despatched by Red. Made homeless because she was sleeping in a room above the club in a building which Red torches to destroy any evidence of what happened there.

In a move typical of the hyper-reality of the Mycho universe, which makes these films almost like live-action anime, Amber’s large yellow wig is as cartoonish as Red’s scarlet barnet. I make the anime comparison deliberately, not in a pejorative sense (long-term readers may know that I love Japanese films and love animated films but hate Japanese animated films) but because Slasher House II does display an overt Japanese influence. There’s some sort of secret organisation, with squads of black-clad, gas-mask-wearing goons armed with hi-tech sci-fi guns. There’s Red Angel herself, adept in all manner of armed and unarmed combat. She and her two comrades all display that kick-ass coquette-ishness so endemic in Japanese live-action movies. On the one hand, they are designed very much for the male gaze but on the other they are presented as very much capable of holding their own against typically weak, foolish male opponents.  They are simultaneously dominant and submissive. I could write a thesis on this bollocks.

More than the characters and character design, what feels Japanese here is the sense that there is all sorts of stuff going on outside of normality and that we are (the four previous Mycho films notwithstanding) thrown into the situation without preamble. Japanese horror/sci-fi movies often don’t feel the need to explain situations or characters or organisations or histories: they just are. Here also, things just are.

The other aspect of Slasher House II which jumped out at me is that in some ways this is more of an action film than a horror movie, prioritising fights over scares. In fact, let’s be honest, although the whole focus of the Mycho Cinematic Universe is ostensibly ‘serial killers’, really these are supervillains, aren’t they? One of the bad guys here has a drill for a hand, another is an eight-foot-tall living skeleton. They may well have murdered a considerable number of people, but so has the Joker.

As with previous Mycho movies, the colour palette here is pretty extreme: mostly reds and greens with blue for some exterior graveyard scenes. The effects, both digital and physical, are pretty good and the cast give their all with varying levels of success (several were also in Legacy of Thorn, some have Philip Gardiner pictures on their CV).

The one thing I haven’t touched on, you may have spotted, is the story. And that’s where Slasher House II falls down somewhat, alas, in that I really couldn’t follow what was going on. Legacy of Thorn was set in two different times, exactly four years apart, and Dixon took the bold step of telling one of his stories backwards, showing us 2012 scenes in chronological order interspersed with 2008 scenes in reverse chronological order. It worked.

This movie attempts something similar but without the same success. It became apparent about halfway through that we were jumping around in time but it’s not clear how or why. We’re following the same characters, dressed and looking the same way, so it’s only sudden non-sequiturs and jarring disconnects between consecutive scenes that clue us in to the fact that we’re not following a single story through its beginning, middle and end. The plot is all something to do with some shadowy organisation collecting serial killers and Red’s attempt to save a hospitalised, disabled girl named Molly (Tiana Rogers, also in Cleaver) but what happens between the nightclub scene and the ‘rescuing Molly’ scene is confusing and unclear. Each individual bit of the film is fine and very enjoyable: some foolish kids get slaughtered in a graveyard by the skeleton; Amber rescues Red when the latter is left unconscious in the street; Red and Luse discuss matters in a coffee bar; and a whole bunch of other scenes I don’t want to describe because I can’t tell if they would be spoilers or not so I’m erring on the side of caution. I did like the epilogue, which works very well, and that’s all I’ll say on that.

I enjoyed Slasher House II as a viewing experience, just as I have enjoyed all of its predecessors. It’s tremendous fun, wildly imaginative and startlingly confidant. I just think it may be a tad over-confidant. I could probably follow the plot if I watched it again (with a notebook) but I very rarely watch films twice, simply because of my always-tottering TBW pile. And while some films do improve with a second viewing, you shouldn’t need to repeat the experience to ‘get’ the movie.

MJ assures me that he has the whole Mycho Universe mapped out - and I believe him. But I think it's time now to start posting that mapping online so that viewers can work out where we stand. I've been lucky enough to see all five films in order but, on account of watching many dozens of other films in among them, I can't recall enough details of previous Mycho features to spot where, when and how they all connect. My reviews, though long and detailed, generally avoid that sort of spoilery detail. So come on, Mike and Anna. A flow chart now, if you please.

All the above notwithstanding, Mycho’s journey towards global cinematic domination continues unabated (comic books are also in the works!). Mask of Thorn should be next, a prequel to Legacy. This is touted as Mycho’s seventh feature because MJ and Anna still have, somewhere on their hard drive, the semi-legendary Creepsville. Shot before Slasher House, this is part of the same universe. Mike Dixon told me recently that he’d like to get it out there eventually because he’s actually rather proud of it. That long-awaited 'meeting of the MJs' occurred at the inaugural Grindhouse Planet Film Festival in Leicester where the programme included Slaypril Fools Day V: The Last Laugh, an extended ten-minute spoof trailer for a series of horror films which can be heard on a TV in one of the SH2 scenes. Also currently doing the festival rounds as a short is If You Were Here, the Mycho contribution to as-yet-unreleased anthology Blaze of Gory.

You can actually watch the Slaypril Fools Day V short in the comfort of your own home if you have a VHS player and 25 dollars to spare as it is included in the Tony Newton-curated anthology Grindsploitation: The Movie, along with segments directed by Jason Impey (who appears briefly in SH2 as a barman), Andy Edwards (Ibiza Undead), Dan Brownlie (Serial Kaller), Donald Farmer (Chainsaw Cheerleaders), Caleb Emerson (Die You Zombie Bastards!), Todd Sheets (Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City), Robert Tinnell (Frankenstein and Me) and many, many more.

Shot intermittently between November 2015 and July 2016 with the help of Indiegogo funding, Slasher House II had a cast and screw screening in October 2016 and willenta haven premieredlish (depending on when you read this) at Horror-on-Sea in January 2017. No-one hits the target bull's eye every time, but the great thing about Mycho productions is that, even when they don't work completely, they're still enormously watchable and very enjoyable.

MJS rating: B

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Portmanteau

Director: Mark Garvey
Writer: Mark Garvey
Producers: Mark Garvey, Jasmine Knight
Cast: Jasmine Knight, Mark Garvey, Paul Woodcock
Year of release: 2017
Country: UK
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.markgarvey.co.uk

The multi-story films which we commonly refer to as anthologies were once given a different name, one that has largely fallen into disrepute. A picture like Dead of Night or Gilbert Harding Speaks of Murder was known as ‘a portmanteau film’.

The word ‘portmanteau’ has two other meanings. Originally it was a type of suitcase or travelling trunk which was divided into compartments, the earliest known use being 1579. Three hundred years later, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty explain to Alice that some of the odd words in Jabberwocky – like ‘slithy’ meaning ‘slimy and lithe’ – were “like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Hence comes the more common usage, applied to any word coined by bashing two other words together so hard that bits of them fly off. Smog, brunch and banoffee are all portmanteau words. I’m not sure when the film usage was first coined or indeed whether it comes from the Carrollian term or directly from the French luggage.

Mmmm, banoffee...

All of which brings me to Portmanteau, a smartly directed and very enjoyable multi-part horror film written, directed, produced, shot and cut by the (to me) previously unknown Mark Garvey. There are eight tales in the 85 minutes and while there’s no framing story, what we have instead is a loose narrative thread, in the sense that each story features a character from the previous one. There are no titles given for the segments on screen or in the credits (but see later).

After some smartly designed opening titles, we kick off with a photographer (Simon Cleary) who receives an unexpected roll of film in the post. Developing the images in his dark-room, he finds something he would rather not see. The actual horror here - and in some of the other segments- is somewhat random and unexplained but I didn’t really mind that. These aren’t simplistically gruesome morality tales in the EC Comics mould, rather they’re just little slices of unpleasantness presented in a darkly entertaining way.

The delivery guy who brought the parcel sets off in his van along a country lane. He’s played by Paul Woodcock and apparently this is a sort of running gag in Mark Garvey’s work, Woodcock having played the same character in three previous shorts and one previous feature. (It's Kelton the Cop all over again.) What happens here is that he reverses up and pulls into the side to allow a car coming the other way to get past. But the other driver (John Harper) also reverses and pulls in. Both cars move forward, then politely reverse again. And so it goes on, progressing from embarrassingly British politeness to irritation to road rage and ultimately something worse than road rage.

I would really, really like to think that this is an homage to the ‘Pride’ segment of another portmanteau movie, the 1971 comedy classic The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. In this Galton and Simpson scripted vignette (originally made for TV as a Comedy Playhouse), Ian Carmichael and Alfie Bass are two drivers from different social classes, neither of whom will yield to the other on a narrow lane, creating an insoluble impasse. This is probably not an homage to that, but it would be nice if it was.

Our third tale concerns a young couple (Stuart O’Connor and co-producer Jasmine Knight) who are painting their flat. The fella is distracted by what he can see through the front door peep-hole: their neighbour (Madonna Norgrove) carrying heavy things out of her flat in plastic sacks. Surely she’s got parts of dead bodies in there. Or has she?

This leads into the weirdest segment, starring Mark Garvey himself as a birdwatcher, living in a remote (but nicely appointed) cabin in the woods. He shares this accommodation with his girlfriend, a blow-up doll whom he treats exactly like a human being. There’s a bizarrely hallucinogenic aspect to this tale of mental breakdown, not least a scene where the birder ‘conducts’ a (digitally created) starling roost plus – uniquely in a British horror film – stock footage of somebody handling a hawfinch. I’ve never seen a hawfinch. It’s been on my would-love-to-see list for 40 years but I’ve never yet spotted one. Outside of this film, anyway.

Story number five has an undeniable air of Berberian Sound Studio about it, concerning as it does a foley artist (this film’s composer Kyle Booth) hacking up vegetables to create the soundtrack for a horror film. Initially working alone on Zombiepocalypsegeddon, he is reassigned to work under a bossy supervising sound editor (Louise Blay) on a rediscovered lost classic, The Werewolf vs the Merman. And we are of course treated to the cheesy fake trailer for this epic monsterfest. A particularly fun sequence, which epitomises the creativity and innovation on display here, is a little musical number constructed from overlaying snippets of the sounds being recorded, visualised on screen in pop-up windows. It’s a rhythmic, percussive tune that comes across like Stomp on a table-top.

From Berberian Sound Studio we move to Joe’s Apartment as a writer (Kelli Watson) sits alone in her flat working on a script for the bossy producer from the previous segment (Victoria Markham). Constantly distracted by a seemingly invincible cockroach, she eventually snaps before suffering a genuinely ironic and awful fate.

Our penultimate story has a guy in a rabbit costume (Stuart Offord) watching two other men, in the distance, constantly getting in and out of a car. It’s very perplexing until we switch perspective and watch the story from the point of view of the other two men (Callum Oakaby-Wright and Jorden Harvey) who are trying to bury a dead body, with limited success. This then feeds into a final tale which features the girlfriend from the painting-the-flat story and, not unexpectedly, the original photographer. And thus the narrative comes full circle, not unlike Jack Rosenthal’s classic portmanteau film The Chain, or the film which inspired that, Max Ophuls’ La Ronde.

I strongly suspect that not one of the films I’ve referenced in this review had any influence on Mark Garvey at all, and it is indeed quite possible that he has never seen or even heard of some of them. But I enjoy drawing unlikely cinematic comparisons so sue me.

As so often with motion picture portmanteaux that have more than three segments, Portmanteau fair gallops along. If you’re not keen on the story you’re watching, hang on for ten minutes and something else will pop up. But astoundingly I did actually enjoy everything that I was watching. Sure, some of the acting won’t be winning a Bafta anytime soon, and a few segments are stretched just to the limit of acceptable repetition, but there isn’t actually a duff story here. Moreover, there’s tremendous variety in terms of realism, humour, approach and execution. It’s a real smorgasmord of horror vignettes; every one is a little cracker in its own way and the links that build to a circular narrative provide a cohesion that makes the whole film – unlike so many anthologies – greater than the sum of its parts.

I mentioned at the top that Mark Garvey was an unknown name to me but he’s not new to the film-making game. His IMDB page lists shorts back to 2003, although many more within the last three to four years. In fact, on closer inspection eight of the listed shorts are the segments of Portmanteau, respectively titled Exposure, Courtesy, Proxemics, Murmuration (told you the starlings were important!), Substantiation, Scuttle, Patience and Double Exposure. Any one of these tales certainly could stand alone as a short, but the linking factors show that this project has been conceived as a feature from the start and isn’t just a mash-up.

This is Mark Garvey’s third feature-length work following 874 Miles, a drama about cycling from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, and Postscript, a post-apocalyptic anthology. All of the cast have worked on previous Garvey films but none of them seem to have worked on anything else. It’s quite the rep company he’s got there.

At time of writing, Portmanteau is being submitted to festivals. Catch it if you can.

MJS rating: A

Monday, 14 November 2016

Plan Z

Director: Stuart Brennan
Writer: Stuart Brennan
Producers: Stuart Brennan, David Izatt, Mark Paul Wake
Cast: Stuart Brennan, Mark Paul Wake, Eugene Horan
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: Festival screening
Website: www.facebook.com/planzmovie

I believe that I have mentioned elsewhere my predilection for depressing zombie films. For anything in this subgenre that isn’t intended as a comedy (ie. a non-com-zom) I’m looking for something bleak, something soul-crushingly nihilistic, something offering no shred of hope for humanity. The sort of film that starts with the whole world going to shit and then shows how things just get progressively, laboriously, will-sappingly worse. The end.

Maybe it was something in my childhood. I dunno.

Stuart Brennan has been making feature films for ten years now, mostly as producer, often acting in them as well. These include The Feral Generation and The Reverend, plus he was an executive producer on The Zombie King. In the mid-noughties he directed an obscure ghost story called The Lost (which I dealt with in Urban Terrors: I can't honestly recommend it to you) and since then his only credit from the folding chair being an acclaimed boxing biopic, Risen. Now he’s finally back in that chair (well, doubt if he sat down much as he also plays the lead character here) for Plan Z, a powerfully bleak and immensely watchable zombie feature which received its European Premiere at the 10th Festival of Zombie Culture here in Leicester.

Brennan plays Craig, a freelance photographer who habitually prepares for the worst just in case. Receiving a tip-off from a Civil Service insider (Thomas Coombes: Scar Tissue) that a rapidly spreading infection is going to go big, Craig stocks up his flat with food, water, candles etc. And indeed, not long afterwards the world goes to hell in a handcart as everyone starts eating each other.

Much of the first act is a solo performance, with Brennan both on screen and narrating. Then comes a phone call from his old friend Bill (Mark Paul Wake: Masterpiece, also a producer) who has spent the last few days inside a restaurant toilet, a rather unexpected end to an otherwise pleasant dinner date with his girlfriend (Natalia Celino: DerangedUmbrage: The First Vampire). (Coincidentally, this was followed at the Leicester event with the awesome Korean zombie action flick Train to Busan – which also features people hiding in toilets. Of course, the archetype of this sub-sub-genre is Stalled.) Craig makes it to the restaurant and gets Bill back to the flat, where they survive a little longer thanks to Craig’s plan.

Now that we have two people on screen, we can get some character conflict. Craig is absolutely pragmatic and rational to the point of heartlessness, because he believes it’s the only way to survive. Bill is more prone to emotion and sympathy. The contrast is particularly effective in a sequence which revolves around a young woman (Isabella Caley) trapped inside a parked car.

Craig’s long-term plan is to head for the Isle of Skye which he thinks should be remote enough that a stand can be made against the zombie apocalypse. (The Z-word does get a few outings here. Often zombie films avoid it, effectively setting themselves in a parallel universe where fictional zombies are not a thing. This is the first serious zombie film I’ve seen set in a world where people know and understand the zombie concept but it’s not a real thing – until it suddenly is.) So anyway Bill and Craig pack their supplies – Craig has a bag already because he has a plan – and evade the local zombies well enough to make it to a car and head out.

On the way to Skye (which is connected to the mainland by a road bridge, in case you were wondering) they pick up a companion, an Irish guy named Ronan (executive producer Eugene Horan: Ghostwood). By the time they reach the island, Ronan is no longer with them but there are two women in the back seat, Seren (Victoria Morrison) and Kate (Brooke Burfitt: After Death, The Addicted). Where some films would have concentrated on the potential romantic/sexual angle, Brennan ignores that in favour of exploring how these characters cope with the world around them and the future they face, rather than soap opera relationships.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to Plan Z, which is fine because this sort of depressing lament for humanity works best as a slow burn. What separates this film from so many others is that the main character does have a plan of what to do, he’s not just winging it. Brennan’s acting style tends towards the stiffly understated rather than wildly dramatic, consequently the character of Craig suits him (or, if you like, he suits the character) better than his role as a vigilante vampire vicar in The Reverend. Craig just gets on with stuff. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching bit of dialogue in which he dispassionately describes to Bill how he saw a four-year-old boy ripped part. It will grab your stomach in a way that seeing someone ripped apart will never do, no matter how good the effects.

Speaking of ripping people apart, there really aren’t a huge amount of zombies in this film. There are some scenes of zombie crowds – indeed one such scene attracted calls for police and ambulance from confused onlookers – but these are almost entirely confined to the first act which is set (and was shot) in Dumfermline. After that, the only serious zombie action comes from our first introduction to Seren and Kate, a scene which is also used in part as a splash panel prologue. In a bold move, several scenes leading up to this – the only time the film really turns into a horrific, balls-to-the-wall zombie actioner – are simply not shown.

There’s a deliberate lacuna in the storytelling so that we suddenly jump into an intense sequence we don’t initially understand – but do recognise. Perhaps Stu Brennan planned this from the start, maybe these scenes were dropped from an early draft of the script, or maybe he was going to shoot them but time and money got in the way. Whatever the reason, it’s a brave and in my view successful move which really wakes the film up and reminds the viewer that, however much this may be a slowly churning character study, it nevertheless features the wholesale reinvention of humanity as deadly packs of flesh-eating ghouls, just like all good zombie flicks.

Cinematographer David Izatt (also a producer and appearing briefly on screen as a zombie) shoots everything close-up and hand-held, occasionally tipping the film over into excessive shakycam, but he is also able to capture some lovely countryside shots, including drone footage, once they’re out of Dunfermline and on the road to Skye. Sarah McCracken of Sarah’s Scars provided the make-up effects.

There are some little nods to other British zombie films – a caption that alludes to 28 Days Later, a cricket bat for the Shaun of the Dead fans – but there’s no attempt here to be clever and certainly nothing humorous. This is as dour and unforgiving as a Scotsman’s postcard: everything is terrible, life is empty and hopeless, almost everything we know has gone, the rest of our days will be a struggle for existence, if we’re lucky it may be short, weather fine, how are you?

In other words, a fantastically bleak view of the apocalypse and a great addition to the UK zombie scene.

Shot in March 2014, with a few days’ extra shooting in Verona, Italy for some flashbacks, Plan Z was test screened in Sunderland in October 2015. The world premiere was at the HorrorHound Weekend in the Cincinatti on 19th March 2016 where Stu won Best Director and was nominated for Best Actor. The film was also shown at the September HorrorHound bash in Indianapolis where it was made available to punters in two special collector’s editions: an early DVD that included a black and white version of the movie as a bonus – and a VHS tape.

Invincible Pictures released the regular US DVD in October 2016. A British disc was expected to follow shortly afterwards but the stars aligned nicely for the movie and that was put back to early 2017 in favour of a theatrical release through Cineworld in November.

Since shooting Plan Z Stuart Brennan has been a busy man. He wrote, produced and starred in a contemporary reworking of A Christmas Carol, directed by Izatt and with Morrison, Wake and Horan in the cast. Then came Tomorrow, a drama about a soldier returned from Afghanistan. Again Stu wrote, produced and acted; Martha Pinson directed that one; the cast also includes Stephen Fry, Paul Kaye and warbler Joss Stone. Most recently – so recent that it’s not even on the IMDb as I write this, Stu put his directing hat on again for Necromancer, a Napoleonic horror tale shot among the beautiful landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway.

Some years back, Brennan did actually shoot (part of) another zombie film, Zombies of the Night with Eleanor James in the cast. It was never completed (the IMDb lists it as a short called ZotN) and isn’t likely to ever be now, let’s face it. But that’s fine because we have Plan Z which I strongly recommend to you if you like grim, dark, thankless tales of the zombie apocalypse.

One final thing I haven’t mentioned is the film’s token name value. Improbably, it's Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary! He’s an old friend of Stu’s and gamely agreed to play a shopkeeper.

MJS rating: A-