Wednesday 28 September 2016

Distant Shadow

Director: Howard J Ford
Writer: Mark Andrews
Producer: Mark Andrews
Cast: Rosie Fellner, Stephen Tiller, Trevor Byfield
Country: UK
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Distant Shadow is listed on the Inaccurate Movie Database as ‘Horror/Mystery/Thriller’ and the UK DVD sleeve carries the line “A gritty and relentless urban chiller.” On this basis, I added it to my master list of 21st century British horror films. The fact that it was directed by Howard J Ford, who went on to make the magnificent The Dead and its sequel added to my impression that this was an obscure, forgotten, early entry in the British Horror Revival.

Well, I’m here to let you know that Distant Shadow is not in any way, shape or form a horror film, no matter how much you stretch the genre. In 100 minutes there are precisely two moments that could be conceivably viewed as ‘horror’. A very brief dream sequence in which someone in bed is stabbed by an intruder, and a momentary hallucination when our heroine thinks she sees a recently killed person in the bathroom mirror but it’s actually her boyfriend. That’s it. There are in truth far more humorous bits than scary bits but it ain’t a comedy so it definitely ain’t a horror picture.

It’s a thriller, and an okay-ish one in a low-rent, late ‘90s, DTV sort of way. It’s not terrible but it’s unlikely anybody has ever watched it more than once and you’re not missing anything by never having seen it (or, quite possibly, ever heard of it).

Rosie Fellner (Nine Lives) stars as Michelle Wallace, a 20-year-old unemployed woman who lives in a bedsit in a somewhat dodgy boarding house owned by a somewhat dodgy landlord. Stephen Tiller (who now directs operas) is Charles Paskin, the middle-aged man who moves into the room opposite. Not that you would know this from the UK sleeve which lists (and depicts) Shane Richie as the main star with Mark Little and Trevor Byfield either side of him.

EastEnders’ Richie (also in The Reverend) plays Paul, a knobhead colleague of Michelle’s boyfriend Steve (Andrew Faulkner) who doesn’t even appear until the 40-minute mark, although he does actually become peripherally relevant to the plot later. Neighbours’ Little turns in a commendable comic relief performance as the landlord, whose only concerns are (a) getting his rent and (b) Elvis. Only Byfield (Beyond the Rave, Slayground) is a major character as John Clay, who starts out as Paskin’s boss and ends up as the main villain.

Although he claims to be a writer, Paskin is actually a secret agent working for a shady, unspecified department within the UK Government. He’s trying to track down some crucial information about a secret project from the 1980s called Magog which has been stolen. Two thing stand out about this. The first is that the documentation is somehow encoded on a microcassette, of the sort that I used to record my interviews on. On a couple of occasions, people connect a Dictaphone to a PC, across the screen of which scrolls a large amount of binary which then somehow decodes itself into a formatted text document (all in green text on black of course). This seems highly unlikely. Basically the microcassette is just a MacGuffin – which later in the film is replaced without explanation by a 3.5” diskette anyway.

The other notable thing is that absolutely everyone pronounces the Biblically derived codename name ‘Magog’ with a short A (as in ‘mad’) and emphasis on the second syllable. Whereas I have always understood that it is correctly pronounced with a long A (as in ‘made’) and equal stress on both syllables. Even though this is completely irrelevant, it annoyed me enormously. So much so that I just checked the pronunciation on Wikipedia, which agrees with me.

Anyway, Michelle was orphaned at the age of four in a prologue when she saw her mother murdered by a man with a distinctive scar. He was seeking a folder intended for Michelle’s often absent father who had apparently already been killed. Hidden in a cupboard, young Michelle clearly saw the convenient label on the envelope, which read ‘Magog’. So we know there’s some connection between Michelle and Charles.

And that’s probably the film’s biggest flaw: the plot is based entirely on the coincidence of these two people living in adjacent bedsits on the same corridor of the same floor of the same building. Although we later find out that Charles knows who Michelle is, there is no suggestion that he deliberately moved in next door to her, nor is there any reason on God’s Earth why he would do that, except to kick-start the plot.

There are quite a lot of minor characters whose paths cross that of the MacGuffin and it seems at first like this might be one of those hard-to-follow, twisty-turny thrillers but it is to the credit of both Howard Ford’s direction and Mark Andrews’ script that the plot unfolds and explains itself in a way that makes a reasonable amount of sense, curious IT ideas notwithstanding.

On the downside, once things move up a gear and bullets start flying, we are presented with a succession of professional hitmen who make Imperial Stormtroopers look like Olympic rifle-shooters, failing to hit targets who are only a few yards away in a narrow corridor. A lot of people do get killed, including some significant characters, most of whom are entirely innocent and are just casually despatched for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, there are too many really obvious, clichéd ‘surprises’ such as characters we thought dead turning out to be alive and turning up in the nick of time, or gunshots which turn out to be fired by and aimed at people other than the ones at whom we were looking.

As for Project Magog, this is revealed to be some sort of unethical biological warfare experiment in Africa which was disguised as a vaccination programme and has resulted in the deaths of ‘millions’ (so implicitly AIDS, although mentions of Ethiopia glimpsed in the decoded document alternatively suggest that it could have been an artificial driver behind the famine which devastated that part of the continent). But absolutely nothing is made of this.

Distant Shadow was apparently shot in 1998 as a diary page from 16 years previously is clearly marked ‘1982’. It premiered at the ‘Cherbourg-Octeville Festival of Irish and British Film’ in October 2000 but didn’t appear on DVD until March 2002, when there was a US release. The British disc, on the Lighthouse label, followed in May 2004.

This was actually Howard Ford’s second feature, his first being an even more obscure thriller called Mainline Run way back in 1994, which was executive produced by Mark Andrews. Howard also edited this film while brother Jon was the DP. Guy Michelmore provided the music, after starting out on things like The Interrogation but before establishing his niche as the go-to guy for Marvel superhero cartoons. First AD Stefan Smith also AD-ed A Day of Violence and directed his own BHR entry Aggressive Behaviour aka Unwelcome. The special effects were provided by Alastair Vardy whose low-budget credits include Hellbreeder, Darkhunters, LD50, Sudden Fury and Edgar Wright’s A Fistful of Fingers, while his big budget gigs include Die Hard 5, World War Z, Victor Frankenstein and Game of Thrones.

The cast also includes Andrew Pleavin (Attack of the Gryphon, Return to House on Haunted Hill) and Glenn Salvage (The Silencer, Ten Dead Men). The Demon Headmaster himself, Terence Hardiman, is suitable aloof as Clay’s boss.

Distant Shadow kept my attention throughout, which is more than many films I’ve watched recently have managed. It has some decent production values for its budget and Howard’s direction gives it a class one might not expect, helped by Jon’s photography. It’s probably weakest in its characterisation, especially Paskin who is a bit meh for a secret agent. He doesn’t have anything approaching the flair of a Bond or a Bourne, but he also doesn’t have the subdued parochialism of a George Smiley. He also has very little chemistry with his female co-star, leaving the film somewhat hollow, with interesting supporting characters but nothing strong or distinctive at its centre.

Whatever, this is definitely neither a horror film nor a relentless urban chiller, just a production line British thriller with a slightly daft, clichéd plot and a few good aspects but nothing that lingers in the memory.

MJS rating: B-

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