Friday, 21 April 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm

Director: Thomas Lee Rutter
Writer: Thomas Lee Rutter
Producer: Thomas Lee Rutter
Cast: Lee Mark Jones, Sarah L Page, 'Tatty' Dave Jones
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: online screener

I love Tom Rutter’s stuff. Right from his early teenage movies like Full Moon Massacre and Mr Blades Tom has always wanted to do something different. Not for young Master Rutter anything as simple as a generic slasher or zombie picture – there was always something offbeat, something unique and distinctive. Something new and unapologetic.

Since those days he has made a fair number of oddball shorts, from hallucinogenic clowns to stop-motion animation to Ancient Greek drama. Some of these have been assembled into flatpack anthologies such as Quadro Bizarro and The Forbidden Four.

The one thing you can be sure of when you watch a Tom Rutter film is that you can’t be sure of anything. You can confidently expect that it’s pointless to expect anything. The man’s range and nonconformist approach is his auteurial signature. Tom is a cinematic maverick, the original ‘unable to label’.

The latest movie from Tom’s outfit Carnie Films is a half-hour dramatised documentary about a very curious event which happened in the Black Country during the Second World War. It’s such a bizarre tale that I had to check to see if it’s true – and indeed it is. Which makes the film no less fascinating and enjoyable.

Here’s the basic gen: Some boys discover human remains hidden inside the hollow trunk of a tree (a wych elm, not a ‘witch elm’). The police investigate and find the skeleton of a woman who must have been crammed in there shortly after she was killed. Attempts to identify her came to nothing – and to this day no-one knows for sure who she was, although various theories have been put forward. Some of these relate to black magic, some relate to WW2 espionage. And just to make things even weirder, a recurring graffiti has been inscribed around the area over the years asking: “who put Bella in the wych elm?”

I won’t go into any more detail. If, like me, you’re not familiar with this story then Tom’s film is an excellent summary of events. If you are familiar with it then you’ll enjoy the way it is presented. If you want to find out more, there’s tons of stuff all over the web. It’s exactly the sort of local Forteana that people love to document.

Fascinating story aside, the strength of Tom’s gorgeous little film is in his use of the image and the sound. A cast represent the players in this tale but they’re all shot silently as the story is narrated, in a glorious accent, by someone named ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones. As the story – and one possible explanation – progresses, Tom Rutter turns the visuals into poetry, mixing and cutting and overlaying and using all manner of techniques so that what we have is something very, very much more than just dramatised, narrated scenes.

This is film as art, without sacrificing narrative. It is film as dreamstate, without sacrificing reality. Together, Jones’ voice and Rutter’s camera-work and editing create an unnerving atmosphere resonant of English folk tales much older than 1943. An alternative version exists, with Jones’ narration replaced by intertitles.

I really, really enjoyed watching Bella in the Wych Elm. It’s not a straightforward documentary on the subject, and if someone made one (mayhap they already have) no doubt we the viewers would learn more facts (or at least, more speculation and theory). Neither is this a straightforward dramatisation; the story could bear one but the lack of a definite, satisfying conclusion to the mystery would require some fictionalisation on the part of the screenwriter. This is something between and separate, something special. I heartily recommend it to you because it’s different and beautiful and intriguing and mind-expanding.

Which is not to say that if you like this you will also necessarily like Full Moon Massacre, which is cheesy as hell and has me in it. But you might.

The cast on screen includes Lee Mark Jones (Theatre of Fear, Spidarlings). Some of the cast are also in The Forbidden Four and/or Tom’s next movie, now in post, the hallucinogenic western Stranger, which I. Cannot. Wait. To. Watch.

MJS rating: A+

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Bigfoot vs Zombies

Director: Mark Polonia
Writer: Mark Polonia
Producer: Mark Polonia
Cast: Dave Fife, Danielle Donahue, Jeff Kirkendall
Country: USA
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: TubiTV

Despite a filmography of 42 features since 2000 (plus a few earlier ones), this is the first ‘Polonia Brothers’ picture I have watched. I do view a lot of odd stuff but I’m pretty sure I would remember if I had seen Preylien: Alien Predators or Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast or Peter Rottentail or Curse of Pirate Death or Jurassic Prey or Snake Club: Revenge of the Snake Woman or any of the three dozen or so other titles in that list. And boy, do these guys do titles.

I say ‘guys’ but since 2008 when John Polonia passed away, ‘Polonia Brothers’ has been a solo project by his twin Mark. I suspect that’s why there’s a two-year gap between HalloweeNight (listed as 2009) and Snow Shark, after which Mark Polonia returned to his hugely impressive output of two to four features every year.

Unfortunately that’s going to be the only usage of the term ‘hugely impressive’ in this review. Bigfoot vs Zombies is watchable, if you’re in the mood for lacklustre micro-budget tosh, but I’d hesitate to call it enjoyable. Nevertheless it deserves to be noted, if only for its status as a crossover between two otherwise utterly disparate subgenres.

The one thing that the film has going for it is an original setting, which is a body farm. If you’re not familiar with the concept, don’t worry, it’s explained about ten minutes in. A body farm is where dead bodies are placed under controlled conditions in order to be studied by forensic experts. It’s a clever (if gross) concept. If you leave three corpses on the ground and examine one after a month, one after six months, one after a year – then when the cops discover an actual dead body somewhere, the forensics dudes can judge how long it’s been there by the state of decomposition.

Obviously any body farm has to be well away from habitation and protected by a stout metal fence to keep out both intruders and wildlife. The object is to see what happens when a human cadaver is eaten by bugs, not by foxes or bears.

A body farm would be a place where there were lots of dead folk just waiting to walk again, although in real life they would more likely by in shallow graves or ponds than just lying around. And this premise does at least justify why the zombies here appear different to each other, with some merely grey-faced and others having stiff, skull-like masks. Although that may be more the result of there being dozens of zombies but only 11 actors playing them. Even then, we see the same zombies killed multiple times. Also, it pains me to say it, but the quality of this film can be judged by the fact that one of the ‘skull-face’ zombies has been so shoddily created that we can clearly see the actor’s beard underneath the skull…

This particular zombie farm is run by mad scientist Dr Peele (Jeff Kirkendall) and his long-suffering, bored lab/admin assistant Renee (Danielle Donahue). There is a truck driver named Andy (Bob Dennis) who drives around the farm, delivering cadavers to requested locations. And there is a security guard (Todd Carpenter) on the main gate who has no character name. Rather cruelly, the others refer to him throughout the film as ‘the security guard’ despite the fact that he is 25% of the farm’s entire workforce and they must all see him at least twice a day.

Stu (James Carolus) and Ed (Dave Fife) are delivering a couple of new corpses in their van. Stu’s an old hand at this, Ed is the new guy. Stu and Andy both constantly hit on Renee who is repelled by their unsubtle advances but takes a liking to nice guy Ed. So, you know, characterisation.

The problem is that Dr Peele has been working away in his ‘secret lab’ (which is literally an office with a microscope and a couple of bottles on the desk) to develop a serum which will deteriorate the bodies faster. The idea being that he can then process more corpses through his body farm and thus make more money from the local hospital that supplies them. Don’t look too closely at that plan, it maketh not one lick of sense.

Actually the real problem is that, far from deteriorating the cadavers, this serum brings them back to life. Although it is unclear whether this is due to the injections that Dr Peele has given the dead bodies or leakage from the barrel of the stuff which drops off Andy’s truck near the start of the film. Much later, it is discovered that an overdose of this stuff will actually kill a zombie but this is never followed up on, as if both the characters and the director simply forgot this ever happened.

As the dead start to rise, one more character arrives at the farm. Duke Larson (Ken Van Sant) is a big game hunter called in by Dr Peele because Andy has reported that one of the shallow graves has been dug up, presumably by a bear that has somehow got into the compound.

Well, strictly speaking two more characters arrive because here comes Bigfoot. We have already met him in a prologue where he spies on a hiker/photographer (Greta Volkova) who is later munched by a zombie after somehow getting past the security fence. For no reason at all, Bigfoot hides in the back of Duke Larson’s Jeep to get into the farm, where he starts fighting zombies.

The last part of the preceding sentence sounds very exciting and is the nub of this high-concept film whose title basically is it plot. And kudos to Polonia for the amazing sleeve art showing a giant, fearsome sasquatch hurling itself at a shuffling army of the undead.

But you won’t be at all surprised if I tell you that there ain’t nuttin like dat on show here at all, no sir ma’am.

This film’s Bigfoot is, well, it’s an ill-fitting, tatty gorilla suit with a long, shaggy wig over its face. It’s really one of the very worst Bigfoot costumes you’ll ever see. I know the movie isn’t exactly taking itself seriously but nevertheless this is just kind of embarrassing. Uncredited on screen, the actor inside the suit is Steve Diasparra according to the old IMDB and he does at least attempt to give the creature some characterisation, establishing a mute, somewhat touching relationship with Renee.

At various points in the film we do get Bigfoot fighting zombies but it’s all really half-hearted and lame. Basically they shuffle towards him and he pushes them away. In fact, that’s the film’s biggest failing: it is utterly devoid of even the slightest hint of action. There’s gore, certainly. Or at least, there’s fake blood in some scenes as people scream. But obviously they couldn’t afford to get any of that on the gorilla suit as the dry-cleaning bill would have trebled the film’s budget. So we have lackadaisical shuffling scenes, and shots of bloody terror, but nothing inbetween. No actual fast or emphatic movement. Even in dialogue scenes, people just stand around talking. Then they walk somewhere. It’s like they can’t do both at the same time.

There are a few nice bits of dialogue but the quality of the acting is generally poor. Most of the cast have been in various other Polonia pictures and some have other credits at a similar level, but nothing notable. And, for all his experience in film-making, Polonia’s direction remains thoroughly pedestrian. Cut to Renee; Renee says line; cut to Ed; Ed says line; cut to Renee, Renee says line... and so on. There’s no flair here, but there’s also no real sense of storytelling or atmosphere. It certainly kills any potential comedy moments stone dead. There’s no verve, no pizzazz, no oomph in any scene in the entire 79 minutes. And if there’s one thing that a film called Bigfoot vs Zombies should have it’s oomph. I don’t think anyone ever actually runs anywhere in the entire film.

A sequence in which Duke Larson drives his Jeep across the farm, shooting at zombies with a pistol, is probably the closest we get to any action - but there again the direction hobbles the potential enjoyment. We have close-ups of Van Sant in his jeep, and cutaways of zombies falling over, but no shot of the Jeep actually driving past zombies as Larson blasts them out of the way.

Yes, budgets (or lack thereof). Yes, shooting schedules. Yes, lots of other limitations on micro-budget indies. But there are plenty of micro-budget indie pictures which manage to stage action sequences, which manage to film exciting scenes, that demonstrate oomph or just where characters, y’know, run.

The film carries a 2014 copyright date, is listed as a 2015 picture in the sales agent's publicity, and eventually appeared on DVD and VOD in February 2016. Mark Polonia's subsequent films have been Sharkenstein, Land Shark and Amityville Exorcism. You've got to give the guy props for coming up with titles (and commissioning great sleeve art).

I can’t say that Polonia’s movie is the worst zombie film out there, not by a long chalk. Neither am I convinced that it’s the worst bigfoot movie ever made. And certainly within that tiny lozenge at the centre of this previously unconsidered Venn diagram, Bigfoot vs Zombies holds its own – primarily because of the absence of any other pictures that tick both boxes.

But I can’t help feeling that this could have been better, without too much additional effort. It honestly doesn’t look like anyone had fun making it. Maybe they did, but that doesn’t come across at all. And with a film like this, if it doesn’t seem like it was fun to make, sadly it’s not much fun to watch.

Still, it hasn’t put me off watching other Polonia Brothers productions. And boy, do I have a lot to choose from.

MJS rating: D+

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Cryptic

Directors: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Writers: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Producers: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Cast: Ed Stoppard, Vas Blackwood, Ray Panthaki
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: DVD
Website: http://nextlevelfilms.co.uk

Cryptic is an amazingly good film. By which I don’t mean that the quality of the actual movie is staggering. Yes, it’s good – but it’s not perfect and it won’t blow you away. What I mean is that the fact that Cryptic is a good film – is amazing.

Because of who made it. This is the third horror film from the team of Bart Ruspoli and Freddie Hutton-Mills. They also wrote/produced the middling zombie time-waster Devil’s Playground and wrote/produced/directed the ridiculously titled World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen which, in a crowded market-place, manages to stand out as one of the very worst found footage pictures ever made in this country.

World War Dead was actually made after Cryptic but released first. My understanding is that the executive producers approached Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills, asking them to quickly bang out a zombie picture that could tie in to the centenary of the First World War (tasteful…). Can’t really blame the guys for taking the money and running, and the number of people who have suffered through WWD:ROTF must be pretty minimal, but still it’s not a good film to have on your CV. So it’s fortunate for the duo that Cryptic, which is significantly better than Devil’s Playground and infinitely better than the execrable World War Dead, is now out there to be viewed.

This has certainly revised my opinion of BR and FHM. I was genuinely surprised not just by how much I enjoyed Cryptic but by how skilfully it had been constructed. Where World War Dead was utterly devoid of characterisation or plot, Cryptic is a tightly structured narrative which relies almost entirely on characterisation.

So what I really meant to say, back up at top there, was: Cryptic is, amazingly, a good film. All the right words, not necessarily in the right order.

This is a classic gangster set-up: eight people, one room, loyalties and conflicts ebbing and flowing, tension building until someone lets fly with a shooter. There is a brief discussion about how similar the situation is to “that film, the one with dogs in” to acknowledge that the film-makers understand the territory wherein they are currently working.

The location is a crypt underneath a church (in, presumably, London). Our first two characters are ‘Sexy’ Steve Stevens, a dapper and rational crooked banker (Ed Stoppard: Upstairs Downstairs redux, The Frankenstein Chronicles and Dan Dare audio dramas – rocking a very fine set of threads) and ‘Meat’, a nervous and not terribly bright gangster (typically superb performance by the great Vas Blackwood: Lock Stock, Creep, A Room to Die For). Both have been sent to the crypt by a local Mr Big, as have the next to arrive, brothers Jim and John Jonas.

The Jonas Brothers (presumably named as a gag about the soulless boy band from a few years ago, which fairly accurately dates when this script was written) are both psycho idiots. One is slightly less idiotic than the other and one is slightly more psychotic. But you wouldn’t trust either of them to cat-sit for you or to count to 20 without using their fingers. They are played by Philip Barantini (World War Dead, Young High and Dead) and Daniel Feuerriegel (Spartacus TV series, Pacific Rim 2).

Completing the sextette are Cochise (Ray Panthaki: The Feral Generation, 28 Days Later, World War Dead), an arrogant fellow with intricate designs cut into his beard, and his moll Alberta (Sally Leonard). All six have been sent to the crypt with instructions to locate and guard – but not open – a coffin. Their employer will be with them in due course but has been delayed by illness.
It’s a very Beckett-ian set-up and once again Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills acknowledge their debts with the name of the godfather behind all this is. Meat, Cochise and the others are all… waiting for Gordon.

Two other people show up. One is Ben Shafik as Walter, a posh junkie looking for some drugs he stashed in the crypt. (Shafik was in not only World War Dead and Devil’s Playground, but also the Bart Ruspoli short that the latter was based on, The Long Night.) The other is Gordon’s crooked lawyer (Gene Hunt’s brother, Robert Glenister: Spooks, Hustle, Law and Order UK) who knows all the others (except Walter, obviously) though they don’t know him.

Five gangsters, a lawyer, a banker and a junkie.

The coffin, when located, proves to be a curious metal construction, solidly locked. What – or who – is in there? Meat has an idea, because he has invested in a vampire-slaying kit.

Over the course of the film we learn about the gradual decimation of organised crime in the area, a series of gangland murders which some are saying is the work of a vampire, or at least, someone pretending to be a vampire.

Because, as Steve Stevens assiduously points out, there are no such things as vampires.

But then, if there are no such things as vampires, what is in that coffin and why has the frustratingly delayed Gordon assembled this team to guard it. Guard it against what?

As the plot develops – through dialogue but without being talkie – the characters find themselves in groups of two or three, often discussing the others. Unable to find his junk, Walter is getting withdrawal symptoms. And attempts are made to resolve an unpleasant situation caused by the slightly more psycho of the Jonas brothers having recently raped and murdered a 17-year-old girl.

Eventually somebody cracks and lets off a shooter. Which punctuates the dialogue but thankfully doesn’t tip the film into general mayhem. By now the door is locked and no-one is getting out until Gordon lets himself in. And eventually, inevitably, one of the group, in a dark corner of the crypt, unseen by the others, is killed – with subsequent examination revealing two puncture wounds in the neck.

Five gangsters, a lawyer, a banker and a junkie. And one of them is – possibly – a vampire. Well, you’re spoiled for choice there, aren’t you?

It is a measure of how carefully plotted Cryptic’s script is, that each act of this 90-minute film is exactly 30 minutes long, the inciting incidents for acts two and three occurring dead on the half-hour and the hour. You could set your watch by it. And there’s some lovely, lovely dialogue in the script, some real zingers, many of them delivered by Steve Stevens whose masterful calm clearly infuriates the psycho Jonas Brothers. It’s a cracking script that, while it doesn’t unfold in exactly real time, could probably be adapted into a stage play without too much difficulty.

Notwithstanding all the above, the film falls down in two respects. One is the sound mix. As the group fragments, people hold whispered conversations in corners of the crypt. And sometimes the dialogue just isn’t audible – especially when Ray Panthaki is speaking. You can pump up the volume on your telly but you’d better remember to turn it down again before the next round of shouting and shooting.

The other problem is the character of Alberta, whom you may notice I have barely mentioned. And that’s because she doesn’t really have a character. Which is no reflection on the actor. It’s not that she isn’t given stuff to do. There’s a couple of very funny scenes where two male characters discuss matters while, in the background, Alberta struggles to lift a dead body on her own. And when it is revealed that she is from Transnistria there is debate over whether that is where Dracula comes from.

But there’s just no depth to Alberta, a situation heightened by the seven well-rounded characters surrounding her. Even the junkie has more personality. She is defined by her skin-tight, cleavage-flaunting black leather outfit, her flame-red hair and her eastern European accent. None of those elements define character. She might as well be somebody at Comic-Con pretending to be Black Widow. Maybe Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills suffer from the traditional British male writer’s inability to create realistic female characters. Or maybe they just couldn’t work out what to do with her, beyond using her as a sounding board so that Cochise doesn’t have to talk to himself.

Those cryptic, whispering corners – and indeed the rest of this small but adroitly used set – come courtesy of top production designer Caroline Story (The Seasoning House, Vampire Diary, Its Walls Were Blood). The excellent hair and make-up is by Emma Slater whose British horror CV includes The Borderlands, Stormhouse, Evil Never Dies, Blood Moon, World War Dead, The Rezort and 47 Meters Down). There’s some fine cinematography by Sara Deane (The Horror of the Dolls, World War Dead) and a sympathetic score by Emma Fox. But I think what really stands out is the costume design (not least Ed Stoppard’s terrific coat, which I craved throughout the entire film) courtesy of Raquel Azevedo (The Seasoning House, Truth or Dare, Scar Tissue). It’s somewhat ironic that a movie with so many female department heads should fall down so badly in its non-characterisation of the only woman on screen (a big fat zero on the Bechdel test here).

Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills, whose other feature was prison drama Screwed, are currently in post on sci-fi picture Genesis, which uses many of the same cast and crew as Cryptic. The website for their Next Level Films company says their fourth feature will be called Dark Web, but that’s out of date – it was a comedy thriller that got shelved when they were unexpectedly asked to make World War Dead.

Shot in 2014, Cryptic was released on UK DVD in February 2016 but doesn’t seem to have appeared anywhere else yet. The IMDB lists Chinese and South African releases in September 2014 which we can take with a pinch of salt.

My expectations when I picked up this DVD were low, which only heightened my delight when Cryptic turned out to be such a whip-smart, carefully structured slice of gangster/vampire cinema. It’s a long, long way from the over-the-top bullets’n’bloodsuckers action of From Dusk Till Dawn or Dead Cert. Give it a spin and I think you’ll really enjoy it.

MJS rating: A-

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Di Gal Bite Mi

Director: Jc Money
Writer: Jc Money
Producer: Jc Money
Cast: Jc Money, Sharan B, Roll Out
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: YouTube

When I came across – quite by chance – this amateur, feature-length, British vampire movie I thought I had found something completely unknown and unrecorded. I subsequently discovered a review on specialist bloodsucker website Taliesin Meets the Vampires but this is still a staggeringly obscure film. There’s no IMDB page, no mention of this anywhere except YouTube, plus that one review and now this one.

In North London, a seductive young woman is actually a vampire, preying on flirtatious, cocksure men. A young man whose friend was killed by the vampire is told by his grandmother (who raised him) the truth about what happened to his parents. He always believed they left when he was eight but actually they were killed by vampires, sacrificing themselves to save their baby (shades of Harry Potter). Grandma says the man who can tell him about vampires is a wheeler-dealing Rastafarian who wears a permanent oxygen mask and reads from (I assume) the Holy Piby. At the end of the film, our hero and a friend discover the house where the vampire sleeps, sneak in and destroy her with a combination of stake through the heart and ripping down the curtains to let the sunlight in.

On an objective level, the film is solidly amateur. Camera work is wobbly and handheld with no real attempt at grading or anything fancy like that. There are lots of characters, many in only one scene. Actors wear their own clothes, improvise their dialogue, and for the most part can't act. Outside scenes are shot guerrilla-style so that quite a few people are in this movie without realising it. The whole thing is either a home movie or a dogme masterpiece – you decide.

But listen, I absolutely don’t care about the lack of basic film-making elements like script, acting, make-up or ‘vampire fang effects that weren’t bought at Poundland’. Di Gal Bite Mi has one big thing going for it, which makes it (I believe) unique in the history of British horror cinema, and the clue is in the title. Under the Shadow was in Persian, The Passing was in Welsh, and this, my friend, is a British horror movie with dialogue in Jamaican Patois.

Filmed in, by, among and for the African-Caribbean community in North London, most of the film is delivered in a Patois – and with accents – so impenetrable to this white Midlander as to be effectively unintelligible. But not to worry because the film is subtitled. Admittedly the subtitles have their own curious take on grammar and syntax, and frustratingly they stop 15 minutes from the end of this 69-minute feature (although by then you’ll have the gist of what’s happening), but nevertheless they make the narrative (such as it is) understandable. And hence they make this film hugely enjoyable.

Some characters do speak more clearly and there are a few white folks, notably a young (Polish?) woman who has a scene where she implores the vampire to come and bite her. She is fed up with her miserable life and wants to become a glamorous immortal. However, a mysterious male voice explains that the vampire (spelled ‘vampier’ throughout the film) only ever bites men. Thirty years ago, she was wronged by a man who cheated on her, and now she returns every three decades to take revenge on arrogant, sexist men. (This of course slightly contradicts the bit about that guy’s parents being killed by vampires, although to be fair his grandma doesn’t say it was this vampire who killed them, just a vampire).

There is a (literally) running gag about a Rasta who sees his friend killed in the prologue, runs off – and keeps running. Every so often we cut to shots of him running along assorted pavements, and characters sometimes mention that they saw a scared Rasta-man haring along the road. Eventually, as the final gag of a light-hearted movie, he reaches Manchester(!) where he sees another vampire and starts running back down south again.

Apart from the above and a couple of vampire attack scenes – surprisingly well-shot with judicious use of fake blood – most of the rest of the film is simply two or more characters discussing the recent vampire attacks. There’s not really what you might call narrative development.

But none of that matters a jot. This is something strange and special. Here we have a horror film, made by people with a basic awareness of the standard genre tropes, but set within a distinctive community: genuine, indigenous black British horror film-making. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Notwithstanding that this is a horror-fantasy romp, this film reflects the community where it’s set and where it was made in a genuine, unforced way. This is not some right-on, Lottery-funded, serious exploration of London Jamaicans by a pretentious, if well-meaning, film school graduate. This is real. This one movie can tell external audiences far more about this community than a dozen serious dramas with budgets and trained actors and proper equipment – and it does so precisely because it was not made for external audiences.

What Di Gal Bite Mi reminds me of most is Nollywood. Though clearly British – and identified on YouTube as Jamaican (which it is, in an ex-pat sort of way) – this feels very much like a West African film. There is the same focus on reflecting the real lives of the audience, but within a fantastic storyline full of action, thrills and laughs. There is the same defiant determination to simply not worry about limitations or restrictions, to just plough ahead and make the film. But whereas such determination in a European or North American context can often be self-indulgent, this is not a self-indulgent film. This movie has been made to be seen. It has been made for audiences. Audiences beyond the amateur actors on screen and their immediate friends and families, but audiences like these actors, who identify with the characters, the settings, the attitudes, the dialogue, the jokes, the sex, the beliefs, the haircuts.

If you enjoy Nollywood films that were never meant to be seen outside of Nigeria, if you love old Mexploitation movies that were never expected to play North of Guadalajara, if you get a genuine thrill from discovering some Thai or Filipino obscurity that has never been subbed or dubbed into English, if you somehow combine this international eclecticism with a determination to seek out the most obscure and esoteric elements of 21st century British horror - so if you're me, basically - then you will derive great pleasure from watching Di Gal Bite Mi.

The man behind this movie is Jc Money whose YouTube channel is full of music videos, short films, animation, trailers and a couple of other features, all produced under the banner of Wah Gwan Family Entertainment (I don't speak Patois but even I know what 'Wah gwan?' means). His ‘ghetto action movie’ Murder Job and ‘ghetto movie’ 135 D Street were posted to YouTube in April 2013 and January 2014 respectively; Di Gal Bite Mi was posted between them in July 2013.

Money is a one-man band: writing, directing, producing, photographing and editing as well as playing the nominal hero whose gran sends him on a quest that ends in the eventual destruction of the vampire. Judging by the order of the cast list, in which everyone uses either a single name or a nickname, I would guess that Sharan B plays the vampire (under a selection of wigs) and Roll Out is probably the running Rasta-man.

While it’s pretty much impossible to google anyone involved in this film – and they’re certainly not on the old IMDB! – I have managed to dig up a little bit of info on Jc Money, or Devon Spence to use his real name. His primary interest is music: he studied music engineering at CONEL (The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London) and has been performing since 1995. When Jamaican dancehall stars visit London he sometimes gets support gigs and has appeared on bills with the likes of Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Mavado. As a film-maker, Money is entirely self-taught. He watched other people making videos and hence learned how to shoot and edit, leading eventually to his three (so far) feature-length films.

I was absolutely amazed and delighted to discover Di Gal Bite Mi and can definitely recommend it for anyone who is (a) open-minded and (b) bored with sitting through formulaic horror films.

If you want something different, try a vampire with a reggae beat.

MJS rating: B+

Monday, 13 March 2017

interview: Grant McPhee

After I reviewed arty Scottish vampire chiller Night Kaleidoscope, director/producer Grant McPhee very kindly answered a few questions by email.

In what way do you consider Night Kaleidoscope to be ‘punk rock cinema’?
"It's more an attitude. We took the  'don't need permission' and DIY approach from punk, rather than the spikey haired three-chord version. And I think that's an attitude that every indie filmmaker should take. Just get out there and do it.

"Additionally, it was a pretty rocky production. I had fantastic production support. I like controlled chaos, so there is always a strong semblance of structure - just with an ability to improvise within that. Unfortunately everything that could go wrong went wrong and it became very much an adapt-to-survive approach. All very seat of your pants. There was no script as such. I was shooting a feature for a friend that finished on the Saturday, we filmed on the Monday and I went onto another feature the following Monday. Just picking up a camera and making it up - which you can tell in a fair few places! It's more an attitude of production - as the film is really a bit prog rock! You can achieve special things working this way, but it does not always work out and what you gain in places you lose in others."

Why has it taken three years to be released?
“Due to the shear amount of other work I had on, the film just sat on the shelf. I just had no time to look at it, or even think about it until I could squeeze in one day in 2015 for a pickup. My day job was taking about 15 hours a day and I had a documentary to finish - we had a TV and large festival slot for that but had not actually finished the film, so every second was taken up. A few days without sleep.

"Without knowing what we had in the can we managed another pickup at the end of 2016, for what we assumed was needed. It was edited fairly sporadically from mid 2016 as our editor had to work on it in between jobs. This was the first time we really saw it, and realised we needed an extra couple of scenes. Again it went a bit 'fly by the seat of your pants' and I ended up covering my hotel room in tinfoil, getting Patrick, Jason and Kitty around and throwing blood all over the place. Not sure what the other guests made of that, but we had no complaints. So, although it was started a long time ago it was only put together very quickly towards the end.

"There was actually very little post production work done. Nearly all the images were made in camera. I just held a couple of pieces of glass at angles in front of the camera. One with food dye on it and the other to reflect or project images onto it. The only real bit of post was a shot of eyes turning white."

How satisfied are you with the way that the film turned out?
“In some respects it's amazing there is a film there. But really nobody outside of your friends or other filmmakers care how little time a film took to make, or how small the budget was. Films only stand on how good they are.

"The film is what I wanted to make; in that respect I'm happy. Overall I just wanted to try something different whether it was a failure or not. Some of it worked and some, well not as much. Mainly not having a story! I think you're certainly right about the repetition, though I was very keen on a visual art film with poetic flourishes. I just maybe put a bit too many in! But I'd rather have a film that got one star where we'd tried something that was different than three stars for something that's like every other film.

"I just have no interest to try and copy anyone, a style or a current genre. And if that means some people hate a film, I'm fine with that! I can see where the flaws are, but that's also something I'm happy with. it's a bit more human. People these days are not allowed to make mistakes and learn. Things are too neat and shiny. Rough edges can be good. I'm most satisfied with what I've learned. That's the way to progress. I'm not afraid of failure, what you learn from it is important to your next movie."

What exactly is a ‘Digital Imaging Technician’?
"Ha, a Digital Imaging Technician - also known as a DIT is a geeky guy who sits next to a DoP at a monitor and manipulates the image to suit the DP's intended look."

What is Tartan Features?
"Tartan Features is part of Year Zero Filmmaking. It's a bit like an indie record label where a collective of film-makers make micro budget feature films that share a certain vision. We've made about 13 so far - it's open to anyone in the world. It just happens to have started in Scotland but you don't have to be from there. We've had a few good successes. One film allowed the director to go on to have a well-funded next feature. At its heart it's just people who get up from their seats and make a film, help grow an industry and learn. Here's a link (click on the pictures for more info on each film) - www.yearzerofilmmaking.com/tartanfeatures"

What’s next for you?
"I'm a week away from shooting a new feature. This time something very different  It has a story for starters. People do and say things without 15 minutes of trippy visuals (only five). We're taking two weeks to make it, the budget is more, we're paying everyone. We've got a great cast, script and crew, and I'm very excited. It's a little like Blood on Satan's Claw, Picnic at Hanging Rock and less Night Kaleidoscope. You'll definitely know it's one of my films though. I'll tell you all about it soon!"

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Night Kaleidoscope

Director: Grant McPhee
Writers: Chris Purnell, Megan Gretchen
Producer: Grant McPhee
Cast: Patrick O’Brien, Mariel McAllan, Kitty Colquhoun
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: https://kaleido-dog.com

This ultra-stylish vampire/cop feature scores props from the start by restricting its opening titles to the first 50 seconds. Other film-makers please take note. We don’t want to sit through four minutes of titles with a separate screen for every single cast member, none of whom we’ve ever heard of. Do that for your premiere/cast+crew screening if you must, but recut the opening before anyone else sees it.

One thing which did occur to me during those 50 seconds: ‘Tartan Films presents’. Oh, it’s a Scottish production. That’s fine but, hang on, what do I do if/when Scotland becomes independent? Should I continue to regard Scottish horror films as British horror films? Not really thought about that before. Just geographically, Scotland can’t stop being part of Britain. That’s the name of the island that the English, the Scots and the Welsh all live on (except for folk on Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Isles and all the little Hebrides/Orkneys bits and bobs up north, obviously). But should cinema be defined geographically? The Dead was filmed in Africa, The Dead 2 in India, My Little Eye in Nova Scotia, Grave Matters in the Los Angeles, Dog Soldiers in Luxembourg and South of Sanity in Antarctica. They’re all of them ‘British films’.

I may be getting off track here.

So: Night Kaleidoscope. This is a very artistic, arty movie. It is not a narrative movie. There’s probably no more than about 15 minutes of actual story here; quarter of an hour tops of people actually doing and saying stuff. If you come expecting a gripping storyline, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

In a nutshell (so far as I can work out), there’s a guy in a sheepskin jacket who is psychic (at least, when he’s high) who helps a police detective investigate murders. He has a toke and sees visions of what happened. There’s a new killer in town, but it’s someone (or something) different. A vampire. Actually two. A dominant female vampire and her male acolyte. Sheepskin jacket guy teams up with a young woman (who I think may have lost her boyfriend to the vampires). He captures the male vampire and holds him prisoner in a bathtub. Then after that it kind of all gets a bit fuzzy. There’s some Molotov cocktails (prepared but unused). There’s a locket. I’m honestly not sure how it all ends.

But this isn’t about story. Or character. It’s about imagery.

After those 50 seconds, there’s a trippy, psychedelic, drug-induced montage. Then another one. Then another. By now we’re 12 minutes in and I’m thinking: is this film going to be nothing but trippy montages?

As it turns out: yes. Pretty much.

Actual dialogue scenes are few, far between and consistently brief. Then we’re into another montage. And don’t get me wrong: these trippy montages are terrific. The handheld photography and fast editing and extensive post-production work, all overlaid with a 1980s-style score, creates magical sequences of two to three minutes. Despite being set in an ugly, urban world where everything is made of granite or concrete, where locations look better at night only because you can see less of the crap they’re covered in, nevertheless this is a film full of colour. Not vibrant colour; it’s muted but it’s more than grey. The colour twists and turns as the camera moves. Night Kaleidoscope is the perfect title for this film.

Any one of these montages, dropped into another picture, would be a highlight of the movie. But I’d be failing in my duty as a reviewer if I didn’t point out that, one after another after another, interrupted by ‘scenes’ which are often little more than a couple of lines of dialogue and a hefty pause, all these montages get a bit much. Let’s put it this way. I like mayonnaise. Everyone likes mayonnaise. There isn’t a foodstuff on the planet that can’t be improved with a dab of mayo. But the keyword here is ‘dab’. You wouldn’t want to just eat a jar of mayonnaise. Even if you occasionally nibbled on a biscuit between spoonfuls, you’d rapidly get sick of it.

And I’ve got to say that I did start to get bored of the endless succession of trippy montages. By the end of the first act (or at least, half an hour into this 82-minute movie; I’m not sure something this minimalist can be said to have acts per se) the technique had lost its initial impact and was just becoming repetitive, soporific, even somewhat tedious. It’s simply too much.

Bit of dialogue. Pause. Bit more dialogue. Then in comes the music. An electronic snare drum in a slow 2/4 rhythm, then a synth melody so subtle it’s basically just a repeated loop of rising and falling tone. Every single time. All the music sounds like the intro to a Blue Nile song. And listen, I absolutely freaking love The Blue Nile; they’re one of my favourite bands. But if they recorded an 82-minute instrumental album, I’m not sure I’d be so keen on it. Even if there was an accompanying feature-length video. With vampires.

All the above notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary film. Visual poetry. With some quite gruesome and nasty gory bits in several of the montage sequences. I’m criticising Grant McPhee’s film for achieving precisely what it set out to do, for which I feel a bit bad.

Eventually I twigged what I was watching, and it’s this: Night Kaleidoscope is what you would get if Jean Rollin had directed Trainspotting. And once I understood that it was a Scottish Rollinade, I was able to relax a bit (though I did still find my attention frequently wandering, by that point an almost Pavlovian response to yet another synth snare drum intro).

Here’s what it says in the press release I was sent along with the screener. (Film-makers please note: I very much appreciate press releases, or just good website content, that can contextualise your work. But I usually read them after watching the film because I like to view things with an open mind.) Anyway, it says: “Bridging a fine line between the trashy 70s Euro Horror of Jess Franco, the British Art-House miasma of Nicholas Roeg and the underground experiments of Kenneth Anger Night Kaleidoscope manages to become a unique film of its own.” And then it says: “The film is a treat for the eyes and ears – trippy, psychedelic imagery flashing against a pumping 80s synth rock score – story and logic come secondary to atmosphere and terror, a dreamy nightmare captured on film.”

And I cannae really disagree wi’ any o’ tha'!

What I do disagree with is the headline ‘PUNK ROCK CINEMA!’ and the line “maintains a … punk rock attitude throughout”. If there’s one thing this doesn’t feel like, it’s punk rock. It’s about as punk rock as, well, The Blue Nile.

It may have been shot in a week (in 2014 under the curious title Land of Sunshine), but it has then spent the best part of three years being edited and graded and scored and colour-corrected and flimflammed and zimzammed and all the other digital malarkey that film-makers do in post nowadays. This is a film where every frame has been carefully selected and manipulated to create a specific, deliberate, aesthetic, audiovisual impression. It ain’t two chords and a pair of bondage trousers. I can kind of see what Grant McPhee means, and I have no doubt that he knows his musical chops, his previous feature Big Gold Dream being a documentary about post-punk bands like The Scars and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But some of us are old enough to remember real punk.

I mean, I don’t. I don't actually remember it because I was eight and living in a little village in south Nottinghamshire, a long, lomg way from the 100 Club. But I’m old enough to potentially remember it, had I been aware of it at the time. Which I was wasn’t. Jesus, I was barely aware of Top of the Pops.

Before Big Gold Dream, McPhee’s debut feature was Sarah’s Room aka To Here Knows When, a psychological drama three-hander. The reviews I’ve read of this seem to exactly describe Night Kaleidoscope (except without the vampires), suggesting that McPhee is establishing a distinctive auteur-ial style. Before that he made a bunch of horror shorts. He has also done a lot of cinematography over the years, including his own features and also a lost British horror film, Christmas Hear Kids directed by this film's co-writer Chris Purnell. Shot in 2012 and premiered in 2014, that’s been in the MIA appendix to my British horror masterlist for a few years now. I wonder whatever happened to it.

In terms of actually paying the rent, McPhee does small jobs on big projects, as camera assistant or clapper loader or (increasingly) digital imaging technician. His IMDB page includes Trainspotting 2, Game of Thrones, The Bad Education Movie, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Sunshine on Leith, Cloud Atlas, World War Z and a bunch of BHR titles: Let Us Prey, Under the Skin, Outpost: Black Sun, Citadel, The Wicker Tree, The Awakening, Book of Blood and Doomsday. Also Jim Davidson: The Devil Rides Out – Live (a lesser known Dennis Wheatley adaptation, that one) and Eating with Ronnie Corbett.

Thing is: I don’t know what a digital imaging technician actually does. But if ever a film looks like it was made by a digital imaging technician, it’s Night Kaleidoscope.

The small cast are excellent. The psychic guy in the sheepskin jacket is played Patrick O’Brien who has a widow’s peak and a Dan Dare jaw. Mariel McAllan is his associate. The vampires are corporate voice-over queen Kitty Colquhoun and Gareth Morrison (Outpost 2 and 3). Craig-James Moncur as the detective and Robert Williamson as a drug dealer provide impressive support. Alec Cheer is credited with the music; Ben McKinstrie with the editing; Eve Murray with the production design.

Often I find that I enjoy a film while I’m watching it but then, as I think on it more carefully while drafting a review, I find myself becoming less enamoured. Night Kaleidoscope is the opposite. While watching the film I found myself at times underwhelmed and distracted, but re-evaluating it through the process of writing these 1,700 words or so, I now appreciate it more and have realised that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I did.

Night Kaleidoscope was released on VOD, DVD and – why not? – VHS in March 2017.

MJS rating: B+

Thursday, 9 March 2017

interview: Joe Dante

In January I posted four questions to 100 Big Names to celebrate my website's 15th anniversary. A few weeks later, I received these answers by email from the always awesome Joe Dante..

Which technological or social development during your career has changed cinema the most?
"The movie business I got into in 1975 was completely different from the one we have now. We don't shoot on film anymore for the most part, and we don't even project on film apart from a few venues in big cities. Theatrical movies now tend toward expensive spectacles and tentpoles, with the mid-range movies of the previous era moving to cable. And socially, the majority of films are no longer seen in theaters which means the vital connection between film and the communal experience has been lost."

Which deceased film-maker or actor do you wish you could have worked with?
"Orson Welles."

What is the one question you’re fed up with answering in interviews?
"When are you going to make Gremlins 3?"

What would you rather be asked instead?
"Why doesn't Criterion put out The Second Civil War?"

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Altre

Director: Eugenio Villani
Writer: Raffaele Palazzo
Producer: Eugenio Villani
Cast: Agnese Nano, Antonietta Bello
Year of release: 2017
Country: Italy
Reviewed from: online screener

Bearing the parenthetical English title Others Like You, Altre is a 22-minute Italian short which is intriguing, thought-provoking and slightly disturbing. A thoroughly polished production, it looks great and is carried by a pair of very fine performances.

The opening two minutes will hook you, before we hit our main story. Ester (Antonietta Bello: La Buca, The Space Between) is a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant, despite a recent, unspecified operation. Greta (the hugely experienced Agnese Nano, who was in Cinema Paradiso) is a stern family doctor who says Ester’s perceived ‘symptoms’ of pregnancy are just a side effect of the surgery.

Disappointed, Greta adopts then loses a kitten. Searching for the missing feline, she discovers something dark and alarming, a secret that Greta has been keeping. More detail than that it would be unfair to reveal, except that the underlying theme is one of motherhood.

Now, I would be lying if I said that I fully understood the ending of this film. But that did not lessen my enjoyment. I like a movie that makes me ask questions, that offers unclear answers, that hints at ideas and suggests possibilities. This sort of open-ended, stylish enigma is something that Italian cinema has always done very well, and Eugenio Villani has done it very well here.

Villani has been making short horror films for about six years now, and you can find most of his earlier work on his Vimeo channel. This film’s script was written by Raffaele Palazzo, an actor who was in Villani’s earlier short Haselwurm.

Altre was kindly sent to me by Emiliano Ranzani whose own short film Langliena I reviewed a few years back. Emiliano is one of three credited associate producers on Altre, along with DP Carlodavid Mauri whose photography is a major part of the film's success.

The version I was sent was labelled as not quite complete but, apart from a couple of minor typos in the (otherwise very good indeed) English subs, it looked pretty finished to me. It was shot near Turin in November 2015.

The film isn’t yet out on the circuit (in fact it’s not even on the IMDB yet) but I expect that it will soon start popping up at festivals across the globe. Catch it if you can.

MJS rating: A-

Monday, 6 March 2017

interview: Todd Jensen

I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Todd Jensen on the set of Rampage (aka Breeders aka Deadly Instinct), a British B-movie which was shot on the Isle of Man in January 1997, in which he starred alongside Samantha Janus.

How did you get cast in Rampage?
“I was originally going to be in this movie. When they first came up with it, they offered me the lead. Then they were going to shoot in Wales. I guess the Welsh were going to put in some money. But in order to do that, they had to have a Welsh cast.”

They've got an entirely Welsh crew instead.
“Yeah, exactly. Then all of a sudden they changed it again, and the Welsh money fell out or something happened, so they ended up coming to the Isle of Man. So they phoned me and said, 'Do you still want to do it?' and I said, 'Yeah. I'm free in January.'”

Are you based in Britain or in America?
“I'm based in LA, but I'm hoping to spend some time in London on a regular basis and hopefully do some more work over here. My sister lives over here. She lives in Birmingham. She'll be here on Sunday; she's coming onto the set. She's met Paul and Liz before.”

Is there much difference between a British production and an American production?
“Um, no actually. It's pretty much the same wherever you are. Very knowledgeable people, great technicians. A great crew; this is probably the best crew I've ever worked with, as far as personalities and fun and hardworking. Everybody's been having a really good time.”

This is what is coming across; that everybody's enjoying themselves.
“Yes. That's a real positive thing. Especially something like this where it's cold. It's good that everybody keeps a positive attitude. And that's a rare thing. That everybody gets along and has fun and can laugh. That doesn't normally happen on film sets!”

Are you enjoying doing the action sequences?
“Yes, that's a lot of fun. Action is always fun.”

Have you had any training on that side of things?
“I've done a lot. I've done about twenty films, and about 50% of them - maybe a little more than that - have been action films. Like the three films that are coming out this year. One's called Orion's Key, which they're renaming, I think they're calling it Alien Chaser, which is a sci-fi film. Do you know the Shadowchaser movies? Well, this is Shadowchaser IV, but they're going to call it Alien Chaser. That's a sci-fi kind of thing. So I'm the lead in that. Then there's another film called Operation Delta Force which is an action film, strictly, with Jeff Fahey and Ernie Hudson and myself and Frank, the guy who's in Alien Chaser with me, the man from the Shadowchaser films. So those'll be coming out very, very soon. There's a film called Warhead that'll be coming out soon, an action film.”

Do you like doing the cyborg and monster stuff or the straight stuff?
“It depends. Like, this was great to be on. This was great to do, because I'm not the cyborg. Believe me, when they talk about Star Trek make up and stuff, that is brutal, to go through that every day. Where you're sitting in a chair for two or three or even six hours.”

How long did your cyborg make-up take?
“Cyborg stuff was about an hour and a half to two hours I had to sit there. It just wears on you, you know? Then they're always messing with you on set.”

Does it make it more difficult to act?
“Not more difficult to act. It's just that it's very tiring. You've got to be in a chair every day, and you've got to do this stuff every day. It kind of wears you out. So when you're reading an action script you get, 'Oh man, I get shot, and for half the movie I've got this or that. And I'm in the water half the movie!' I'm hoping to do another film in March, back in LA, called Blue Motel, which is more of a dramatic, erotic thriller. I hope to venture that way a little bit, do more dramatic stuff, maybe even some comedy stuff. I'm dying to do comedy. I mean, I have on stage.”

Have you done much stagework?
“Yes, in the States. I lived in New York for about three years, and did plenty there.”

Do you prefer doing that?
“Yes, I love doing stage. It's just that, everywhere in the world, it doesn't really pay. Unless you're on Broadway or in a big show in the West End and you're The Guy or The Girl in the show. With TV and film, you can earn a nice living. But as far as a high, doing stage is by far the best. But I'm not a big enough name to be able to say, 'Yeah, I'll do Broadway and pay me $50,000 a week.' I'm not there yet.”

Are you aiming for that?
“I would love to, yes. I would love to get back on stage. I almost did something last year, but I had a conflict with this film. A pretty well-known play from the States about Air Force men and the gay issue. Robert Redford's picked up the rights to that, to do a film of it.”

Are you finding that, although you're not an A-list star, you're well-known enough for producers to come to you because they know what sort of films you tend to do?
“That's tending to happen more and more. More people are becoming aware of who I am and what I do, and that's good. That's how it starts, and then hopefully you have one project that breaks away and makes your name more of a household name. So we'll see. I think this year is going to be a very good year for me. I've got a couple of things slated and I'm producing a film.”

What's that?
“It's a film called Implications which is an erotic thriller that a friend of mine wrote. He'll direct it it, and we've just had confirmation that Maria Conchita Alonso will play one of the leads. And Tia Carrere is looking at it. And I'll be in it. It's not a big picture. And Paul and Liz I'm hoping are going to executive produce on it, and be involved in that way, probably handle foreign distribution. When I go back to LA after this I'm hoping to tie that up and maybe get that shot this year.”

Most of the things that you've made, in the UK tend to go straight to video. Would you rather have them go theatrical?
“Oh, yes. Of course. It's really funny because Cyborg Cop did huge business in Japan and Korea. In parts of Asia it's seen a lot of cinema release. (They're just going to pour water on my head.) But yes, it'd be far better. We're hoping that this can do theatrical in parts of Europe and hopefully in the States. Because they're pretty impressed with what they're seeing, thank God. So we'll see what happens. But you never know. Even the big stars do films that never get to the screen. Although I guess Tom Cruise probably doesn't.”