Friday, 20 January 2017

Let’s Be Evil

Director: Martin Owen
Writer: Martin Owen
Producer: Jonathan Willis
Cast: Elizabeth Morris, Kara Tointon, Elliot James Langridge
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.facebook.com/LetsBeEvilMovie

Let’s Be Evil tries to do something different and we must give it props for that. I don’t think it fully succeeds, and in all honesty I don’t think what it’s trying to do is as different as the film-makers – and some critics – think. But this is a sincerely made movie with some nice characterisation and one genuinely shocking, nasty moment that will stick in your memory.

It’s also absolutely laden with post-production. Excessively so.

Three teenagers take paying jobs with something called the Posterity Project. It’s based in an underground complex, where they are chaperones to 20 or so children, aged about 7-11. These kids are being prepared to become great leaders and thinkers, learning hugely advanced scientific concepts. The less cine-literate among my fellow reviewers have consistently compared them to the young antagonists of Village of the Damned but actually that’s completely misleading and a much closer, more relevant and accurate comparison (which could actually be a direct influence) is These are the Damned.

The three teens and the kids all wear ‘augmented reality’ glasses, without which the complex is pitch black. I guess it saves on the leccy bill. And this is where the post-production comes in as we see almost the entire film through these glasses, with lots of unreadable little graphics skittering away on both sides of the screen. There is also a tab in the top left with the name of the person and a little photo. Which is handy for us as an audience because it means we know whose POV we’re looking through at any one time, since the film constantly cuts between the three main characters. But it does seem a bit redundant because people know who they are…

So yes, what we have here is another entry in what I have suddenly decided to call the third wave of found footage. The first wave – post-Blair Witch films where people carry cameras around with them at all times – are passe, as are second wave, post-Paranormal Activity stories about folk setting up cameras everywhere to record spooky activity.  None of which stops people from still making that sort of stuff, of course.

But a more recent development has been POV film-making where we see everything from one or more person’s point of view, usually (but not always) because of a tiny camera mounted on their glasses. A good example of this sub-subgenre was POV. A poor example was Day of the Mummy. I would venture to suggest that Let’s Be Evil falls somewhere betwixt the two in terms of quality.

Let’s be honest (not evil) – it’s a gimmick. It’s only ever going to be a gimmick. And it gets irritating really fast. What it does is at least distract from the sparse and – let’s be honest again – daft story at the heart of the film.

I actually liked the three main characters. Jenny (co-writer Elizabeth Morris) is sweet, fun and thoughtful. Tiggs (Kara Tointon: EastEnders, Mr Selfridge, Never Play with the Dead) – it’s short for Antigone – is more vivacious, dynamic and spunky. And Darby (Elliot James Langridge, who most people know from Hollyoaks but I know from Dalston Heath) is kind of a slacker but a good-hearted one who is nerdy enough to make a passing Trekkie reference to the Kobayashi Maru. I liked the relationship(s) that these three build up. I particularly liked that, a few bits of joshing aside, there’s no attempt to insert a romantic or sexual dynamic into the set-up. All three actors deliver fine performances of natural-sounding dialogue.

Where the script falls down is in what they do about where they are. They seem to just accept their situation. They say things like “This is weird” but at no point do they, either singly or together, question what’s going on. They didn’t know what this job entailed before arriving. They’ve had no contact with anyone apart from a phone voice confirming they’ve got the job. They never question the morality or ethics of what is being done to these children. They never ask where the kids come from or what the purpose of this advanced training is or where their families are. They never even wonder how long they or the kids are going to spend down here in this sunless network of rooms and tunnels.

In fact, what are they even paid for? The children behave in a kind of quasi-autistic way, not even acknowledging the trio’s presence. Food is provided from a dispenser in the form of unappetising mush in sealed packets.  There’s no suggestion that Jenny, Tiggs and Darby are doing the kids’ washing or any similar housekeeping chores. Also, there was no-one down here before them, or at least there was no sort of handover, so it looks like the kids have been doing fine on their own. They all seem to passively and unquestioningly follow instructions from Arial.

I haven’t mentioned Arial, which is the sentient AI running the place. Sometimes she’s a disembodied voice (Natasha Moore) and sometimes she appears as a rainbow-washy female silhouette (Jamie Bernadette: Reel Evil, The Bunnyman Massacre), usually in the corridors. She always walks ahead of the characters (so we can see her via the glasses) and consequently has to keep talking back over her shoulder, which just looks silly. Arial (or rather A.R.I.A.L.) stands for something tortuous and one can’t help thinking: if you’re going to come up with a strangulated acronym, why not make the second A an E and then you would have a much better name, one which simultaneously carried connotations of remote control/communication and a magical, ethereal sprite. But whatever.

Arial’s female form is purely digital and can only be viewed through the ‘augmented reality’ glasses of course. Which is something else I’d like to question. In what sense is any of this ‘augmented reality’? Now, I’m no technogeek, but my understanding of augmented reality is that it overlays digital imagery onto the real world as a sort of extra. So one might be able to view a still image that moves, or one might be able to read explanatory labels on things, or one could just search for and find a weird Japanese cartoon creature in a certain location. But there’s none of that here.

The children, when seated at their long table, wave their hands and fingers in the air in front of them, operating invisible (to us) touchscreens as they learn and study and calculate. But that’s not augmented reality is it? It’s just a heads-up 3D display that responds to motion, a cross between Google Glasses and a Wii. It’s no different from what Tony Stark does in his basement, or even what Tom Cruise did way back in Minority Report. At one point, Darby has a go at playing with some giant 3D star-map thing that the kids have been playing with but again it’s just a 3D display. There’s no sense of it seeming to interact with the real world when viewed correctly.

Now, it seems to me that the horror potential in augmented reality is when you find yourself uncertain about what’s real and what isn’t, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the film-makers were aiming towards here. At one point Jenny finds a message carved into a toilet stall door which is no longer there when she shows it to Tiggs. And later she steps out of a shower to find that her clothes, which were neatly folded and balanced on the hand-basin, have disappeared – and now they’re back in her room. But this doesn’t square up with the premise of augmented reality. Everything that the characters see through their glasses is really there – because they can feel it. Jenny physically put her clothes on the basin. Their location is nothing to do with what she can or can’t see. They are physical objects. It’s entirely possible that they look different, that the name tag everyone sees is actually blank – now that would actually be augmented reality – and for all we know the 'black' outfit is really shocking pink with pictures of unicorns on it. But its physical nature – and hence its physical location – is undeniable.

The creepiness of the situation and the creepiness of the silent, super-brainy kids – neither of which is ever really explored in any great depth – give way in the third act to basically just a generic chase sequence. Jenny and the oldest little girl, Cassandra, who has somehow broken out of her quasi-autism and made a personal connection with her surrogate big sister, scramble around the facility, collecting first Tiggs and then Darby. Cassandra has lost her special glasses so has to hold Jenny’s hand in the darkness (though Jenny’s exhortation to never let go falls a bit flat when Jenny repeatedly lets go of Cassandra’s hand).

This third act, though more action-packed – and featuring one astounding, out-of-nowhere act of violence which is let down only virtue of the victim being a very, very minor character we’ve met once, briefly, ages ago – doesn’t really use the film’s premise in any way. Since we don’t actually see the children they are running away from, the nature of the threat is immaterial. They could be escaping zombies or killer robots or giant ants for all the difference it would make.

And why exactly are they afraid of the children? Sure they’re outnumbered but these are little kids. Three fit young adults could easily fight them off if they turned wild and violent like in that old, banned Star Trek episode (look it up). Like so many elements of the story here, it's an idea that has no substantial premise underlying it, just an assumption that this is how things are because the plot requires it.

Don’t get me wrong, individual moments within the film mostly work, and there are many of them strung together. It’s the framework they’re strung together on that makes no sense, a bunch of half-formed ideas loosely connected without development or discussion. There's no weight to the film, and a film about children's minds being messed with that also questions the nature of the reality we see around us should have some weight, some oomph, some PKDick-ian pizzazz. Let's Be Evil is oomphless, disappointingly so. It's neither thought-provoking nor mind-expanding, throwing away its interesting premise with a lightweight tale that goes nowhere.

Furthermore the whole film is book-ended with a splash panel prologue that has no obvious connection with anything else and a dumb, lazy epilogue that makes not a lick of sense.

In short, the whole of Let’s Be Evil is less than the sum of its parts. It’s an okay time-waster and at only 82 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. But there is a much more interesting story to be told about these characters and this set-up, one that uses the premise to explore ideas of humanity, responsibility, even the very nature of reality. And one that isn’t bogged down with the restrictions of third-wave found footage. If half the effort that went into all the photography and post-production here had gone instead into the script, Let’s Be Evil could have been a belter.

Said script is credited to director Owen (who also provides a telephone voice near the start). Owen and Elizabeth Morris share the story credit, which is “based on an original concept” by producer Jonathan Willis. So there’s a three-stage process there and the actual creation of a coherent, interesting story that explores this scenario, plays on the creepiness of the kids and uses the undoubtedly well-drawn characters in some way – well, that’s just slipped through the cracks. What, we are left wondering, was Willis’ ‘original concept’? Was it just 'creepy kids in a secret underground facility'? My money’s on it being something about augmented reality and seeing the whole film through the character’s hi-tech glasses.

See, it’s all very well having a concept. It’s fine and dandy having a story. But they’ve got to mesh in some way. The story has to take the concept and build on it in ways that derive from that concept, incorporate that concept and rely on that concept as an intrinsic element of the narrative. Not just use the concept as window dressing.

Four other producers are listed separately from Willis: Owen, Morris, Matt Williams and Weena Wijitkhuankhan. The old IMDB lists these as co-producers but they are producers on screen. Willis also gets an Executive Producer credit, separately from the other 24 executive producers (whom I’m not going to list here). Willis has also exec-produced Dartmoor Killing, The Machine, Andrew JonesPuppet Master homage The Toymaker and The Last House on Sorority Row, a forthcoming slasher which Steve Lawson is making for Jones.

This is Martin Owen’s second feature after Abducted aka LA Slasher, an Anglo-American picture which seems more the latter than the former so doesn’t make it onto my BHR master-list. Before that he made some shorts with regular Brit-horror actor Giles Alderson. Production designer Melissa Spratt should get a shout-out for effective use of the location, which is an old nuclear bunker in Brentwood. Some distinctly low-tech equipment – phones with cords, PCs with CRT displays – contrasts with the super-futuristic glasses and their displays in a way that adds to the spookiness and apparent unreality of the whole set-up.

Let’s Be Evil premiered at Slamdance in January 2016 and also played Frightfest in August, a couple of weeks after an American VOD (and limited theatrical) release. There was an extremely limited UK theatrical release in October of that year (could have been a single cinema). The first DVD release was in Japan in December 2016 with the UK disc following at the end of January 2017.

Two final points. Cassandra is played by Isabelle Allen who was the little girl on the poster of the movie version of Les Miserables. One of the pre-release images was Allen as Cassandra, her hair blowing across her face in a recreation of the iconic Les Mis image, a bit of fun which seems to have been (wisely) relegated to the back of the actual DVD sleeve. Maybe there’s something in the (otherwise meaningless) title too: let’s be evil instead of let’s (be) miserable. Maybe not.

And also: Kim Wilde. When we first meet Jenny, a pop video is playing silently on a TV screen which I instantly recognised as ‘Kids in America’ – and indeed that is the song that plays over the end credits. The MJS rating definitely goes up a notch for featuring the Kimster.

I didn’t dislike Let’s Be Evil, and you won’t either. But it’s a poorly constructed, frustratingly empty missed opportunity which never has the courage of its convictions and consequently squanders its narrative potential in favour of gimmicky post-production and a formulaic third act.

MJS rating: B-

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