Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Harmony’s Requiem

Director: Mark McDermott
Writer: Mark McDermott
Producers: Mark McDermott, Paul Smith
Cast: Mark McDermott, Rosie Tratt, Christopher McAleer
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: Online

I really didn’t think I’d ever see Harmony’s Requiem. It was released online in 2011 but disappeared almost immediately, together with any trace of its creator Mark McDermott, including his Facebook page and his website. There was an IMDB page for the film, a British Council page and a trailer on YouTube but after that every mention was just those fake sites which claim to have free-to-view illegal copies of any movie you stick into Google.

The premise sounded intriguing. Here’s the British Council synopsis:

The peace of a City is shattered and fear spreads when the population becomes preyed upon at random. People begin searching for the rogue responsible as the intensity of the menace escalates, but the disturbing threat remains anonymous, creating widespread paranoia and panic. Can one person bring society to its knees?

And here’s the IMDB plot summary:

A reclusive composer struggling to arrange the most poignant score of his life emerges from his home in search of inspiration. However, his naive curiosity drives him to begin preying on unsuspecting people and tormented with inner turmoil he swings between right and wrong with increasing intensity. Can he find redemption before he goes too far?

All well and good but where was the film? Here’s what I wrote in issue 37 of Scream in 2016 in Part 8 of my ‘21st Century Frights’ series of articles:

Good luck seeking out Harmony’s Requiem, a film which seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Directed by Mark McDermott in 2010 as Silent Terror, this Oxford-set chiller involves a composer who seeks inspiration in serial murder – and more than that I cannot tell you. It was available through Amazon Prime at one point but not any longer. McDermott made no further films and is nowhere to be found. His Facebook account has been deleted. No-one ever reviewed this movie when it was available. Aside from an IMDB page and a trailer on YouTube there is no evidence that it ever existed. Yet we are talking about a movie released only five years ago! This is why it is so important to document these movies now – because in the digital world reality is fleeting. If anyone ever saw Harmony’s Requiem, or knows how I might get to see it, please please get in touch.

I didn’t really expect anything to come of this plea but a little while later I received an email from a kind-hearted, observant Scream reader named Karen Van Dahlen with a link to an online version of the film on the Amazon Studios website. I think I had actually already checked this out but thought it contained only the trailer. I hadn’t realised that by clicking on ‘Show all work’ and then on ‘Video 1 – Director’s Original’ I could access the full 90-minute movie.

That very evening I sat down to watch Harmony’s Requiem. I was probably the first person to watch this ultra-obscure feature film in the past five years and almost certainly the only person to watch it who didn’t know a member of the cast or crew personally. And here is what I found.

Harmony’s Requiem is simply brilliant. It is a powerful, disturbing, frightening, gripping, intriguing, thought-provoking, genuinely clever and original slice of modern British horror. It is a lost treasure, an undiscovered gem. The sort of discovery that makes this passion of mine all worthwhile. Bear in mind that in recent weeks, as part of the research for my next book, I have sat through a cascade of cinematic shite-ola that includes The Coven, Crying Wolf, Exorcism, Fantacide, The Hike, Knife Edge, The Quiet Ones, The Reeds, Temptation, Voodoo Lagoon and more Philip Gardiner movies than I care to name. But I would sit through all that crap again if at the end of it I could discover another unknown feature of the quality of Harmony’s Requiem.

This movie has instantly marked out for itself a place in my top ten British horror movies of the 21st century. I haven’t stopped thinking about it for 24 hours. I really, really want more people to see this movie. It may be that other people will look at Harmony’s Requiem and think, well that was crap. Simpson up to his usual hyperbolic bollocks again. You can’t win them all.

But I am genuinely excited by this film. By both the movie itself and the fact that it has finally come to light and I have a chance to share it with others.

So what is Harmony’s Requiem actually about? Well, my summation that it is an “Oxford-set chiller [which] involves a composer who seeks inspiration in serial murder” was wide of the mark. I think only two people get killed in this film, both towards the end, off-screen and almost incidentally. The main character is not a serial killer, though he is an aspiring composer and the film is set in Oxford.

We’ll call the main character K. We do eventually find out his name, though it has no special significance. The reason why I’m assigning him a code-name is because he never speaks throughout the film. He grunts and occasionally roars or screams or whimpers but even when interacting directly with other people he has no dialogue. We’re never told whether he actually can speak. We also never see his face.

K lives in a flat with modern décor that has recently gone to seed. Some of his doors have been crudely boarded up and he is reduced to eating cold baked beans directly off the kitchen counter, among rotting food. When we first meet K he is attempting to create music on his electronic keyboard but it is awful and discordant and he knows it. He smashes a small toy piano and then, still furious with himself, smashes an actual upright piano. Then he storms outside where he walks the streets and parks, watching other people from a distance.

Most (but not all) of this is shot POV but it’s only a little way in, when an angry man challenges him, that we realise K is actually carrying a camera everywhere and filming what he sees. So yes, this is found footage but it is a rare example of how to use that most over-used of filming styles in a positive, effective way. This is not some stupid, lazily-constructed, cut-price movie about putting cameras everywhere in a haunted house or going camping and filming every single moment of the trip. K’s use of his camera is intrinsic to who he is and to the story we will see unfold. Mentally challenged, painfully shy, socially inept, his camera with its zoom feature is the only way he can interact – covertly and at a distance – with the world and with other people.

Back at home, K uploads his secretly filmed videos of strangers to YouTube (here called iTubeU to avoid any copyright problems). This aspect of the story fades away as the film progresses but is nevertheless important to the plot. Produced just five years after YouTube was invented, McDermott’s film is a remarkably astute take on the idea and its potential for unpleasant or unethical usage. When K follows a young woman (Victoria Tyrrell, now Victoria Fitz-Gerald) who has left her friends and is obviously angry and upset, he thinks she is about to jump off a bridge so grabs her. His POV footage of this incident ends up on his iTubeU channel but the woman discovers the clip and uploads her own clip talking to camera about how angry she is with this weirdo.

K continues to secretly film people around him, from a distance, often from behind foliage or a fence. Though there is nothing overtly sexual about his voyeurism, he does focus mostly on young women. It’s clear that his driver is idealised, lonely romanticism rather than lust or masturbatory fantasy – although that’s not going to change the views of those women who spot him (or their boyfriends). At intermittent points in the narrative we are reminded that K is also driven by his desire to compose music. Mark McDermott himself is K but in the scenes where K actually plays the keyboard it's Olly Hamilton, a professional pianist who does music arrangements for BBC religious programmes and has accompanied the likes of Lesley Garrett and Katherine Jenkins.

After a while, K starts to concentrate on a girl he first spots jogging. Jane (Rosie Tratt) lives in a smart mews house and unwisely keeps her front door key under a plant pot. After leaving some flowers on her doorstep, K returns and enters the house. His POV exploration of Jane’s home is genuinely disturbing, an invasion of privacy that can’t help but make us wonder if anyone has been in our own homes. But when K realises – and we realise with him – that Jane is not out jogging, she’s in, she’s upstairs, she’s in the bath, she’s completely oblivious to the stranger in her house, that’s when the film really starts to unnerve.

This scene (and others) reminded me of the home invasion sequences in The Last Horror Movie, but with the tension ramped up to eleven. We at least knew what Max Parry was going to do. We at least knew who he was, what he wanted. We knew he was sane and lucid if amoral. We really don’t know anything about K except that he is mad enough (and strong enough) to smash up an entire piano and has absolutely no idea how to relate to other people. We’re genuinely afraid for what he might do in this situation.

A great strength of Harmony’s Requiem, which stems from the POV/found footage approach, is that we empathise with K. Don’t go in there. Don’t go up there. She’ll see you. She’ll hear you. We’re worried about what will happen. Worried for naïve, innocent, mentally disturbed K as much as for Jane. Other films may place us in the position of the voyeur but McDermott places us inside the voyeur’s head, to the extent that for much of the film it’s easy to forget that we’re seeing the world through a camera. K is not a bad man. He surely doesn’t even realise that what he is doing is wrong. Though he does, I think, appreciate the potential consequences of his actions, which is that Jane’s boyfriend Mike (Christopher McAleer, also in time-travel fantasy Waiting for Dawn) is going to kick seven shades of shit out of the intruder if/when he finds him. But we feel sorry for K, a lost, lonely soul who just wants some human companionship and has no idea how to go about finding it.

We certainly don’t feel sorry for Mike, a manipulative arsehole. The film’s sole, perfectly judged, audacious moment of humour comes when Mike, angling to persuade Jane to move in with him, creates evidence of a second ‘intrusion’. When K, who has understandably taken a dislike to Mike, realises what is happening he sneaks into the house and confounds the boyfriend’s plan by tidying everything up!

But a subsequent intrusion convinces K that his pathetic devotion to Jane is unfounded (of course it is, although we never expected the evidence to be quite as shocking as what he finds). This sends K off the deep end, actively chasing women. Around this time I was thinking of Harmony’s Requiem as a modern take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the lonely social reject, pathetically fixating on a woman unaware of his existence. Then suddenly I found myself watching a modern take on a different classic horror tale of lost love as the bridge girl from earlier and two friends (James Portway and Ashley Harvey, now Ashley Bowden) spot K and give chase, hunting down the weirdo, seeking to unmask the ‘hooded loner’. Suddenly I was watching The Phantom of the Opera

In another audacious plot development, while K escapes injury and unmasking, his pursuers steal his camera and for the next 15 minutes or so of the movie they film each other discussing the hooded loner. K has disappeared from his own POV story but at the same time he is still present in a way because if we are K and we are the camera then the camera is K. This is still his story. We don’t know how he copes without his technological comfort blanket but he eventually regains it – and by this point the film is starting to become nasty as well as creepy.

Yet we also take a step back into mundane reality. K’s visit to his GP (Ruth Curtis: Tormented) to obtain a replacement inhaler reminds us that he is, or at least was at one time, a normal member of society. His reclusive nature is a relatively recent development – and the revelation of what has caused, or at least contributed to, that personality change is one of the film’s simplest but most shocking ideas.

In the third act, after finding himself once again a hunted quarry but fighting back, K wanders far from home, trying to make sense of his fractured, lonely life. An act of kindness leads him into a situation where, through a combination of naivety, social awkwardness and moral confusion we witness him committing a crime potentially far, far worse than what has happened so far. Fist in mouth, we scream “Don’t do that!” but he does it anyway and our genuine fear for the repercussions of K’s action, an action which places him utterly outside of acceptable society, twists our guts as we watch events unfold.

I don’t want to go into any more detail. I’ve said enough already to hopefully intrigue you without spoiling the plot. There is a lot more to the story than what I have described above, and a great deal more to the character despite his faceless, inarticulate nature. K is both simple and complex, and neither good nor bad. He is a classic horror icon unable to cope with the world around him: as innocent and naïve as Frankenstein’s monster, as cruelly mistreated and unjustly feared as King Kong.

Rare indeed is the film which grips me like Harmony’s Requiem did. At first I had my doubts: was this going to be 90 minutes of a screaming man smashing a piano? But very swiftly I fell into an understanding of what this film was trying to achieve. I was carried along by the skilfully constructed story and the razor-sharp direction (and, it has to be said, quite excellent acting from the supporting cast caught by K’s lens). I felt myself bound up in K’s life, equally horrified by his transgressions of social acceptability and by the threatened consequences of society’s reaction to his faux pas. I can’t remember the last time I genuinely enjoyed a horror film this much: the twists and turns of the plot mirroring the way my stomach was twisting and turning as each revelation came to light, as each new event diverted in unexpected, unwelcome directions.

Wow.

So here’s what I know about Mark McDermott and Harmony’s Requiem.

The film was shot in Oxford between April and June 2010 with post-production completed in August of that year. Some of the cast have no other credits but one notable name is Helen Holman (as ‘Woman walking to church’), an experienced actress whose other British horror gigs include Jacob’s Hammer, Aggressive Behaviour and Spirital Phantoma. Max Van De Banks (Soul Searcher, The Dead 1 and 2, Siren Song) provided the make-up while the visual effects were by David Laird (UFO, Kill Keith, The Scar Crow, The Crypt).

Mark McDermott became interested in film-making while studying at Lancaster University where he made his first two short horror films, No Fear and Screaming Out Silently. After a few more shorts his first feature-length work was a drama called The Jigsaw of Life. Next was a short film called Perception, shot in one day in June 2009, starring the aforementioned Helen Holman and Paul Smith, who shares producer credit on Harmony’s Requiem. (Smith also shares a 'story by' credit with Mark and Victoria McDermott.) Perception premiered at the London Independent Film Festival in 2010 and a few weeks later McDermott started work on this, his masterpiece. The shooting title was Silent Terror which is misleadingly exploitative and anyway Harmony’s Requiem makes sense at the end of the film in a totally unexpected way.

McDermott’s next project was going to be a comedy, Inspector Dackery Investigates Zetland Street (which hopefully would also have undergone a title change) but this never appeared; he was also developing something called The Human Condition. He was very active on the Oxford film-making scene, running the local branch of Shooting People – but somewhere around 2011 Mark McDermott packed it all in. Possibly because of the two great bugbears of any creative person who also has to pay the rent – day-job and family. (The fact that his wife Victoria plays 'Pregnant woman in surgery' could be a clue!)

For a short while McDermott ran his own corporate video company then in 2007 he started work at Oxford University where he has remained ever since. He now works in the University’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Clinical Health, which sounds like a pretty cool place to earn a living (certainly a bit more impressive than the Leicester University Marketing Division!). There are numerous people called Mark McDermott around the UK, but a little flexing of my journalistic investigation muscles has confirmed to me that this is definitely the guy who made Harmony’s Requiem, despite the complete absence of any reference to film-making in his current digital footprint. (And not just because of the Oxford connection.)

Harmony’s Requiem had a single cinema screening for cast and crew in Oxford in October 2010. In March 2011 it was made available online through the now defunct mcdermottmovies.com website, along with a director's video diary. The version on Amazon Studios was uploaded in June 2011. And has sat there, unseen and unknown, ever since. (Despite what I said in Scream, I don't think it was on Amazon Prime. I may have been getting my Prime and Studios mixed up.)

It really looks to me like no-one outside of Mark McDermott’s social/professional circle ever saw this film. Presumably he was planning to submit it to festivals and distributors before real life overtook him, as it overtakes so many of us. Harmony’s Requiem was orphaned and forgotten.

Well no more. I’m here to rescue this brilliant, hugely enjoyable British horror film from obscurity. Please take the time to watch it, discuss it, review it. If you agree with me that this is an absolute belter of a film, let’s make it better known. Programming a festival? Maybe we can get this screened. Maybe we can find a distributor. Harmony’s Requiem deserves to be seen and appreciated by anyone with a fondness for modern British horror.

I just totally, totally dug this film. I really, really hope you will too.

MJS rating: A+

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