Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Grave Matters

Director: Aimee Stephenson
Writer: Aimee Stephenson
Producers: Tim Jackson, Guy J Louthan
Cast: Kate Vernon, Steve Parrish, Tim DeZarn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: US DVD

This early entry in the BHR has been on my wants list for a while. Eventually I got round to picking up a DVD off eBay and gave it a spin. Two things struck me. First, it doesn’t feel very British. Set in the American deep south, with an American cast, if you weren’t warned in advance that this is a British film, you wouldn’t know. The only clue is some London post-production credits at the end. That’s not a problem.

The other thing that struck me is that this is actually a bloody brilliant film. It’s a beautifully scripted, slickly directed thriller with an intrinsic supernatural element. From the brief synopsis I’d read I expected it to be something of a black comedy but actually it’s played straight, albeit with a jet-black streak of wry cynicism. It reminded me very much of the sort of thing that Joe R Lansdale writes, and fuller praise I could not give.

Christine (Kate Vernon, later in Battlestar Galactica) and Mike (Steve Parrish: Scanners III) are a young married couple, living in a small house in Shitsville, in the shadow of a huge chemical plant. They were in love once but now they mostly argue. She dreams of something better, he’s a sexist, arrogant pig. But they’re both equally concerned when they discover a dead body in their yard.

Christine wants to call the cops but Mike has been in trouble with the police before so they wrap the body in bin liners and bury it out back. Before they do so, Mike checks for ID and finds none but does extract an envelope from the corpse’s pocket, containing a list of names.

A little later, as tensions heat up between Mike and Christine, something snaps inside her and she goes crazy, battering her husband to death. Repentant, shocked and frightened, Christine wraps Mike in bin liners, redigs the hole and dumps him on top of the other corpse.

…So it’s a big shock when Mike reappears, clean and uninjured. As a ghost, he is no less abusive and mean than he was in life, perhaps even more so because he is now invulnerable. He has enough corporeality to grab Christine, but can also jump from place to place or change his appearance. He is also able to [spoilers on] converse with a silent, ghostly figure that Christine has glimpsed in the yard and hence he has discovered that this (ie. the first body in the impromptu grave) is a cop that she was having an affair with. This accusation prompts Christine to admit that she killed the cop when she discovered he wasn’t a nice guy who could take her away from all this but was just a lothario cheating on his own wife.

Before Mike died, he had picked up stories from work about a detective snooping around, asking questions. This is Chief Coveleski (Tim DeZarn, who played different characters in episodes of DS9, TNG and Voyager) who now comes knocking on Christine’s door. He suspects that she might be the woman his colleague was having an affair with before disappearing. Putting two and two together, he surmises that Mike probably found out about the affair, killed the cop and then did a runner. This isn’t true of course, but would exonerate Christine of the first murder. The results of which are currently buried underneath the body of her second victim.

And that second victim, whom she can see and hear but Coveleski can’t, is distracting and unnerving her while she’s trying to concoct answers to the detective’s questions that sound plausible but aren’t either (a) true or (b) potentially incriminatory. Adding to the complexity is that Coveleski is operating outside of the law. He doesn’t want to bring the cop’s murderer to justice, he just wants to locate the corpse so he can get his hands on the envelope. (We never find out what the list of names means. It doesn’t matter. [spoilers off] It’s a MacGuffin.)

I debated whether I should spoiler protect the details of the plot, given that almost no-one has seen this film which is long out of print. And then I thought hell yes, because I really, really want you to see this film. I want people to get it off eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Ultimately it would be awesome if a distributor could pick it up and give it a really good reissue. It was only ever released in the States, Maybe a UK label could get the rights, give it a digital remaster and add a producer commentary and whatever extras they can generate. (All the US disc has is trailers for this and a couple of unrelated films.)

Throughout Grave Matters there’s a sense of oppressive heat, from the baking sun in the day and from the clouds of steam and smoke emanating from the chemical plant at night. This is a hot, sweaty, claustrophobic film: atmosphere in spades, pressing down on all the characters. Well, I say all, there’s really only three main ones. (Robert Firth provides a couple of phone voices.) I love the way the plot twists; I love the conflicting ideals and motives of the characters, none of whom are particularly nice; I love the integration of the supernatural with the criminal. Although it’s clear that Mike’s ghost is real, by the end of the film I found myself questioning whether it actually was real after all, or whether the whole thing is psychological in nature. That’s the sign of a good ghost story, right there.

A 1996/2001 dual copyright date suggests this was filmed (as Dead Dog Blues) in the mid-nineties and finally finished off in post five years later. There is mention of how Christine had a dog which Mike beat and kicked, and that this hound was hit and killed by a car. A cutaway later in the picture shows a dead dog by the side of the road but that is presumably just random roadkill. And in one scene two local dogs get into the yard and start digging up the grave. So it’s clear that dogs featured more prominently in an earlier version of the script, possibly even in an earlier cut of the movie.

And regarding ‘blues’, there is a fine soundtrack of old Lightnin’ Hopkins numbers which I absolutely loved – and not just because they added extra layers to the atmosphere and setting.

Experienced DP Sidney Siddell lit the picture under his occasional nom-de-screen Jerry Siddell (but is credited as Sidney in the cast list; he appears in silhouette as a nosy neighbour). Producer Guy J Louthan had been working since the mid-1980s as production manager, producer and sometimes 1st AD on a range of features including Doppelganger, Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness and Fear of a Black Hat (and later, Seed of Chucky). Production designer Jordan Steinberg is a set dresser whose recent credits include Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Parks and Recreation. Costume designer Esther Lee has Hollywood costumer credits on the likes of Bridesmaids and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Film editor Jennifer Mangan (aka Jennifer Spenelli) has subsequently amassed an impressive roster of credits including the first Harry Potter, the Italian Job remake, Ghost Rider and Divergent.

The legendary Gary J Tunnicliffe provided the special effects make-up. The almost as legendary Neill Gorton provided the dead dog.

The earliest screening of this film that I know of, under its original title, was at Exofest 4 in Detroit in November 2003. My BHR masterlist has a note of an unidentified screening in November 2001 but that could be my typo. March 2004 was the date of the one and only DVD release, courtesy of York Entertainment (under the new title, with a misleading sleeve image and hyperbolic blurb). Moviehouse Entertainment, who had (perhaps still have) the distribution rights also considered selling this as The Burial. The IMDB lists it as a 2004 film which is just plain wrong, but then it also says this runs 90 minutes when it’s actually 70. And director Aimee Stephenson’s name is spelled wrong: it’s a PH, not a V.

Now I may be wrong on this, but I believe that Dead Dog Blues could be the first ever British horror film directed by a woman. So this is a significant – as well as terrific – movie. But who is Aimee Stephenson? A little journalistic searching revealed that the question should be “Who was…” as Ms Stephenson is no longer with us. And her death was as awful as it was bizarre.

Born in October 1956, Janet Aimee Stephenson started out as a model and actress before moving into film-making. Do you have the 1980 Roxy Music album Flesh and Blood in your collection? If not, no matter because here’s a jpeg of the sleeve. The nearest of the two girls is Aimee Stephenson. In the 1980s Aimee and her boyfriend Tim Jackson (producer of Dead Dog Blues) worked in the States on some Roger Corman productions although I don’t know which ones. In 1991 they teamed up with a guy called Sean Manchester who had written a non-fiction book about the so-called ‘Highgate Vampire’. The plan was to make a documentary, and possibly a narrative feature film, about the subject but it never came to anything for various reasons.

Loser was a short film directed by Tim, produced by Aimee in 2000: “On the run and escaping the past, Eddie and Alice have to confront their future together.” Aimee is apparently credited as script editor on a 2005 drama called Mouth to Mouth but that script must have been in development for a while as she was no longer with us by then.

In 2001 Aimee and Tim were in Peru, researching a book. The luggage hold of the bus they were travelling on contained some illegal fireworks which caught fire and exploded. Aimee caught the full brunt of the flames and suffered 48% third degree burns to her face, arms, legs and torso. Tim and 17 other passengers were also very badly burned. Despite her appalling injuries, the ambulance which arrived would only take Peruvians with Peruvian medical insurance. A promised second ambulance never turned up so the attending doctor drove them in his car more than a hundred miles to the nearest hospital. After a week there, Aimee was flown home (via Switzerland) to Salisbury – where she shortly passed away. I can’t imagine the pain she must have gone through, or what Tim Jackson and her other friends and family must have suffered watching her agony.

Aimee Stephenson never saw the DVD release of Grave Matters. She joins Andrew Hull (Siren) and Charly Cantor (Blood) on the short list of directors who made one British horror film then passed away absurdly young before it could be released. What Aimee left us is a brilliant, gripping, imaginative, powerfully cinematic movie that has barely been seen and never been written about. I can’t find a single review, under either title, online or among my magazine collection. There are a couple of comments on the IMDB and one on Amazon, but they’re pretty dismissive. There is precisely one still online (above, from the British Council website) and no trailer. Just like Blood (I haven’t seen Siren yet) the departed director has left a fine legacy in their single work which is waiting to be rediscovered and fully appreciated.

I honestly can’t recall the last serious film I enjoyed as much as Grave Matters. It’s an utterly brilliant movie and I wish more people knew about it. And about the woman who made it.

MJS rating: A


  1. Thank you so much for these reviews as Aimee was a dear friend of mine. We share the same birthday and I always remember the good times we had when she was alive. I have seen neither of these films but I think now is the time. Aimee got me to read Anne Rice books and we would secretly chat about our love of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Miss her.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Julie. I wish more people knew about Aimee and this brilliant film.

  2. I have just recently found out who the girls were on the front of the Roxy album "Flesh & Blood", after years of trying to find out. Did Aimee ever mention this period? It was a No.1 album at the time. So sorry to hear what happened to her, she was a beautiful looking girl.