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

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+

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