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


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

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-