Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grave Tales

Director: Don Fearney
Writers: John Hamilton, Mike Murphy
Producer: Don Fearney
Cast: Brian Murphy, Edward de Souza, Damien Thomas
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: DVD

“This British, feature-length, anthology horror film is the first one of its kind in over twenty years” says the DVD blurb of this exercise in cinematic nostalgia, which obviously isn’t true. Shot in 2011, copyrighted 2012, released (sort of) in 2013, this was preceded (albeit not by much admittedly) by Bordello Death Tales, Nazi Zombie Death Tales and Little Deaths. Even if Don Fearney wasn’t aware of those movies, and assuming that he had no knowledge of the work of Jason Impey, Kemal Yildirim or Tom Rutter (not many folk do, to be fair) he has still contrived to pretend that Cradle of Fear doesn’t exist.

What this tells us is that this is a film made by – and for – people whose knowledge of British horror movies kind of peters out after To the Devil a Daughter. Which is fair enough, I suppose. Know your audience and all that. But it does contrive to make Grave Tales a curiously anachronistic film of very limited appeal.

There are four stories, plus a linking tale in which a young woman (Heather Darcy: Till Sunset) exploring a graveyard meets an aged gravedigger (or is he? da-da-dum!) played by the somehow still living legend that is George Roper, the one and only Brian Murphy. Murphy was 79 when he made this and he shows no sign of slowing down. His actual horror credits are pretty much limited to a small role in The Devils and, um, this… although the feature film version of Man About the House was a Hammer production of course (and remains one of the most enjoyable sitcom spin-off features of the 1970s). More recently Murphy was in the brilliant, long-gestating Room 36, which shares several cast and crew with this film. He is a national institution and we love him and why isn’t he at least an OBE?

Anyway, the gravedigger tells the young woman the stories behind four nearby graves. The first of these, 'One Man’s Meat', stars the sadly missed Frank Scantori (Witchcraft X, Kill Keith, May I Kill U?, Room 36) at his oleaginous best. He plays Norman Elliot, an alcoholic butcher who accidentally murders a homeless girl (Johanna Stanton: Nightmare Box). Riven with guilt, he disposes of the body in the obvious way, putting down to the booze the vampire fangs which seem to appear briefly in the girl’s mouth as he chops her up.

A family who bought this meat – who seem to be his only ever customers – come back for more, but they have become infected and want something a little rarer. Miles Gallant (who does a one-man show about Stan Laurel), Darby Hawker (Stardust, Room 36) and Chloe Ann Withey play the family, and Clifford Allison (Landis’ Burke and Hare) is a doctor from a local institution who comes looking for the girl, an escaped patient who believed she was a vampire.

There is simply too much crammed into these 20 minutes for the story to work, despite Frank’s sterling performance. It would have been better without the doctor, who delivers no useful info and basically just bleats on the same “Have you seen her?” schtick for five minutes. But Frank is great because Frank was Frank, and the neck wound after the first cleaver chop is an impressive prosthetic.

The second story (and they’re none of them particularly memorable so it’s a good job I made notes) is called 'Callistro’s Mirror'. Damien Thomas (Twins of Evil, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) stars as Mr Baxter, a collector who spots a mirror in an antique shop, instantly identifying it as having once belonged to a notable sorcerer, four centuries earlier. It’s not for sale so he kills the shopkeeper (Edward de Souza: The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Vampire) and sneaks back to his flat where he discovers – quelle surprise – that he can see something in the mirror.

What he sees is a bald guy (Ric Truman) being pawed by two topless lovelies (Katie Langford and blogger/poet Jade Moira Lawrence). Baxter is pulled into the mirror and, after some tussle, the previous incumbent escapes, taking over Baxter’s body, leaving the poor bloke to face centuries of torment at the hands of the two young ladies (who are vampires, apparently, possibly because there were some spare teeth left over from the first story).

It’s another pretty obvious and basic story, which is at least in keeping with the Amicus tradition towards which Grave Tales aspires. There’s some irrelevant stuff about Baxter’s late wife, and Don Fearney himself plays a tramp outside the shop. The highlight of this story – and arguably the whole film – is Kiki Kendrick (Sanitarium, The Stomach) having a ball as Baxter’s blousy landlady. It’s a rare moment of enjoyable characterisation in a film which is for the most part pedestrian and prosaic. More Kiki Kendrick in stuff, that’s what we need.

Tale number three, 'The Hand', is slightly shorter than the others, giving the whole film a running time of 75 minutes. Porn actor Mark Sloan (who also played a barman in the first story) is Stanton, a prisoner on the run who has legged it while handcuffed to another jailbird, Duggan (composer/pianist Marc Forde). Peter Irving (moderator of the Kiss of the Vampire DVD commentary) is a nightwatchman – though it’s not clear what he’s actually nightwatching – among whose equipment Stanton finds an axe. And when the handcuffs prove impermeable to the axe blade, an alternative solution presents itself.

Stanton heads off through some woods and hides in a small lake, for some reason. Four police officers (one of whom looks about 12) spot him from a summer house, but he goes underwater and doesn’t come up. Subsequent investigation by a police frogman finds Stanton’s drowned body chained to Duggan’s hand. Is it gripping that underwater branch, or just wedged? (It’s gripping the branch. There’s nothing subtle here.) For the record, the coppers are played by Marcus Taylor, Russell Barnett (Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit?), Adrian Annis  (Dark Rage, Survivors, My Guardian Angel) and Josh Parris; the frogman is Ross Ericson (writer of The Unknown Soldier, a play which was a  big hit at Edinburgh in 2016).

The final segment is 'Dead Kittens', starring British horror favourite Marysia Kay (who gets an ‘And…’ in the opening credits). She plays Vicky, who is (without explanation) selected to be the new lead singer of pop trio the Dead Kittens. Louise Houghton (Wilby Park) and Nieve Hearity (whose name is spelled wrong in the credits) are the other two. Celia Carron (who sidelines as a Pilates coach) is record producer Sadie and Aubrey Wakeling (apparently now in the States making things like Jurassic Wars(?)) is Mr Varley, the talent scout – or manager or something – who finds Vicky.

After a quick bash in the recording studio, they all head off to Varley’s massive country house to shoot a pop video, directed by none other than dear old Norman J Warren, helmer of Satan’s Slave, Prey etc. Rhiannon Ellison Sayer (who had a bit part in Burton’s Sweeney Todd) is Varley’s posh daughter, who tries to warn Vicky that something is up. The video involves Vicky lying down on a stone altar while everyone else pretends to be Satanists. Wait a minute…

A coda suggests it was all a plot to sell more records because dead pop stars shift units. Which doesn’t make sense because Vicky hasn’t had a chance to become a pop star, has she? Marysia turns in her usual reliable performance but, like most of the actors in this movie, she doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with. Scripter John Hamilton is one of the Satanists, along with George Hilton (Beyond the Rave, Cockneys vs Zombies), Moyb Ullah and Tom Levin.

One of the strengths of 21st century British horror is its diversity and the scope for every sort of movie, however unlikely. So I suppose it’s only fair that there should be a movie which tries to recreate the days of old. But that’s the film’s biggest problem: it is a recreation. It’s not an old 1970s Amicus anthology, just a pastiche of one. Technically it’s competent, though the sound recording (also credited to John Hamilton) isn’t consistently brilliant. But there’s nothing special here, nothing celebratory, nothing to impress (unless you’re enough of an oldtime Brit horror fanboy to just get wet at the thought of a new Edward de Souza movie – there are people like that). Grave Tales is the cinematic equivalent of a pub band playing 1960s covers, featuring a guy who used to be in Herman’s Hermits.

Don Fearney, the motive force behind this film (as well as producing and directing, he is also credited as production designer) is a name in Hammer fan circles. He has organised numerous fan events and also produced several DVD documentaries, often narrated by de Souza. The script is jointly credited to Mike Murphy (editor of the excellent Dark Terrors Hammer fanzine back in the 1990s) and John Hamilton, author of such hugely impressive horror history tomes as Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Films of Tony Tenser and X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film 1951-1970. Murphy wrote the first tale, Hamilton wrote the other three plus the framing story.

Except that’s not strictly true, is it?

'One Man’s Meat', 'Callistro’s Mirror' and 'The Hand' all started life as Van Helsing’s Terror Tales, the back-up comic strip that ran in most issues of House of Hammer magazine in the 1970s, a fact which goes completely unacknowledged in the credits of Grave Tales. Which is odd, because the very specific audience this is aimed at – ageing Hammer fanboys – are precisely the sort of people likely to own old copies of House of Hammer, and quite possibly have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the magazine’s content. If you don’t have any old copies of House of Hammer lying around, fear not. You can find digitised versions of all 30 issues on archive.org. 'One Man’s Meat', written and drawn by Martin Asbury, was published in issue 5. 'Malvoisin’s Mirror', written by Chris Lowder, art by Brian Lewis, was in issue 6. 'The Hand of Fate', written by Parkhouse, art by Goudenzi, was in issue 22. The settings and other details are different, but the basic stories are identical.

Whatever else one might say about the strengths or shortcomings of this film, for Fearney, Murphy and Hamilton (all of whom I believe to be honest gents) to simply lift someone else’s creative work wholesale and base their own on it without any hint of acknowledgement is reprehensible.

Martin Asbury drew strips for TV Century 21, Countdown, Look-In and TV Comic, and took over Garth in the Daily Mirror after Frank Bellamy died in 1976, drawing and occasionally writing that strip until it ended in 1997 (the current version, running since 2012, is a reprint of Asbury’s strips). Nowadays he is one of the UK’s top storyboarders with credits that include Bonds, Potters and Batmans. I wonder whether he has any idea that his IMDB page should also list a ‘story by’ credit on this obscure indie flick.

Chris Lowder wrote for Action, Tornado, Starlord and 2000AD under various pseudonyms. He also edited several anthologies of dark fiction and even wrote some Sexton Blake stories. Nowadays he’s a freelance editor/writer/bibliographer and seems happy pottering about in amateur theatricals and running his local parish council. Again, I wonder if he knows anything about this film and his uncredited contribution to it.

Parkhouse is Steve Parkhouse, another prolific name in British comics with extensive credits in 2000AD and Doctor Who Comic, for whom he wrote Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctor adventures. He has also worked for Marvel and, slightly bizarrely, wrote a graphic novel about the Sex Pistols. It’s probably safe to assume he is likewise in the dark about one of his old stories having been adapted for film.

Given the minuscule budget of Grave Tales and the nature of British comics – which, historically, paid writers and artists a flat fee with no rights and fuck you – I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of the above three writers have been ripped off and should have been recompensed. Who knows who owns the rights to the original comic-strip content from House of Hammer? If indeed anyone does. But it does seem very remiss not to acknowledge the source material and the original writers. (Slightly complicating matters, there was a short-lived horror anthology comic called Grave Tales in the early 1990s, published by Hamilton Comics. However that was Bruce Hamilton, not John, and has no connection with this film.)

Among those whose contributions do get acknowledged on screen are editor Jim Groom (director of Revenge of Billy the Kid, Room 36 and various Hammer DVD extras), composer Scott Benzie (Room 36, Soul Searcher, Ten Dead Men, Fear Eats the Seoul) and DP Jon Nash. Make-up is credited to Gemma Sutton, now one of the top wedding make-up artists in the UK, with ‘special FX make-up’ by Ben Brown. Richard Dudley and Don Fearney are listed as executive producers in the credit block but only Dudley gets name-checked on screen.

Grave Tales was first screened at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington just before Halloween 2010 and had an official festival premiere at Southend-on-Sea the following April. At both those screenings, there was a clip of Christopher Lee (as himself) included in 'Dead Kittens' but this was removed before the film appeared on (uncertificated) DVD.

In June 2013 Grave Tales was made available from Hemlock Books, where I was employed as a monthly blogger. I bought a copy with part of my pay-cheque but have only just got round to watching it.

It’s just a curio really, of principal interest for its ageing cast list (and a nice role for the late Mr Scantori), but loses a point for not crediting Asbury, Lowder, Parkhouse and House of Hammer.

MJS rating: B-

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