Monday, 28 October 2013

High Treason

Director: Maurice Elvey
Writer: L’Estrange Fawcett
Cast: Jameson Thomas, Benita Hume, Humberston Wright
Year of release: 1929
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK conference screening

One by one, I’m tracking down and seeing those pre-war SF movies, ticking them off my list. I’ve seen Secrets of FP1, I’ve seen Son of Kong, I’ve got The Tunnel sitting on my shelf waiting for me, and now I’ve seen High Treason. That still leaves Just Imagine and Die Frau im Mond, but I can wait.

Unfortunately, High Treason turns out, after all that, to be rubbish. The film was shot in 1929 in two versions: one silent and one using that new fangled ‘talkie’ process. The BFI has prints of both but unfortunately the sound elements of the talkie version are in such a poor state that they’re unusable. So this screening at the 2003 conference of the International Association for Media and History was a Beta tape of the BFI’s silent print.

Basically, this is a very simplistic anti-war story. There are two power blocks: the Atlantic states, which seems to be the USA and the British Empire, and the European states, which is Johnny Foreigner. We open at a manned border crossing, which is puzzling in itself because, like, where is this border? Later on it’s made clear that one end of the Channel Tunnel (A tunnel under the English Channel? Futuristic nonsense!) is in Atlantic territory and the other on European soil. So it’s not as if we’ve re-established our rightful ownership of Calais.

So where is this border crossing? Wherever, there are guards there, playing cards and nearly starting a war when one of them cheats. Then an odd-looking car turns up with a couple who are accused of smuggling booze (or something) and this creates a border incident which leads to possible war.

Our three main characters are Atlantic military officer Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas: Charlie Chan in Egypt and an uncredited role as a doctor in Universal’s The Invisible Man), his sweetheart Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume: Tarzan Escapes) and her father (Humberston Wright, who was Dr Petrie alongside Fred Paul’s Nayland Smith in an early 1920s series of Fu Manchu pictures). As war looms, helped along by a bunch of ‘professional agitators’ who plant a bomb in the channel tunnel, knowing each side will blame the other, Evelyn and Michael find themselves on different sides. (I love the idea of ‘professional’ agitators. Is there some sort of union or something? Can you take a City and Guilds in agitation?)

Dr Seymour and his daughter run the Peace Corps, a worldwide organisation devoted to peaceful resistance, apparently consisting entirely of women except for Dr S (dirty old git!). We see them suiting up, including some scandalous shots of young ladies in their underwear. One woman is desperate not to go and is allowed to leave because she has a child at home (er, wouldn’t that apply to a lot of the women?), making her apparently a conscientious objector to the Peace Corps. The Corps’ main office is full of young women at desks, while Dr S sits at the front controlling a big pipe-organ-like affair which continually racks up how many members there are in all the world’s major cities.

Anyway, war looms closer, Michael has to fight, Evelyn doesn’t want him to. Hordes of white-clad Peace Corps women clamber all over biplanes, preventing them from being used, and eventually the problem is solved when Dr Seymour assassinates the Atlantic President (Basil Gill: the 1937 TV version of Journey’s End). Yes, very peaceful that. The film winds down (and down and down) with a tedious courtroom sequence in which Dr S is tried for murder, but he smiles beatifically because he knows that he averted war.

What a load of tosh. Old and rare is not always good, and here it’s downright terrible. Characters are one-dimensional and uninteresting, there’s no depth to the plot whatsoever, and the political views espoused are both naive and contradictory. To be fair, I suppose it wasn’t inopportune to think that, the First World War having been caused by intransigence and dogma on the part of out-of-touch political leaders, the next war might start that way too. In 1929 it wouldn’t have been obvious that it would start by some charismatic but insane politico blaming his country’s suffering on Jews, then annexing the Sudetenland and invading Poland. The year of High Treason, incidentally, is never specifically identified on screen, other than being post-1938. Various sources cite it as anything from 1940 to 1955.

Director Maurice Elvey’s amazing career goes back at least as far as a 1913 version of Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn, taking in two versions of Hindle Wakes (1918 and 1927), Vice Versa (1916), the infamous lost-but-rediscovered 1918 biopic The Life of David Lloyd George, The Clairvoyant (1934), The Tunnel (1935), the early British colour picture Sons of the Sea (1939) and a whole series of Sherlock Holmes pictures in 1921. He directed his last film in 1957 aged 70 and died ten years later; the Lloyd George film aside, he has a reputation as a dull, workmanlike director and I can see why. The most notable other credit for writer L’Estrange Fawcett (what a great name!) was the 1930 fantasy comedy Alf’s Button. A young David Lean worked on the film as assistant director while art director Andrew Mazzei later worked on a couple of early Hammer thrillers - Wings of Danger and The Last Page.

Also in the cast are James Carew (Midnight at Madame Tussaud’s, Mystery of the Marie Celeste, The Tunnel), Alfred Goddard (Non-Stop New York and the 1937 King Solomon’s Mines), Wally Patch (The Ghosts of Berkeley Square, I’m All Right Jack, a 1937 version of Dr Syn, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, various comedies alongside George Formby, Arthur Askey, Max Miller, Gert and Daisy and Old Mother Riley - and even Cathy Come Home), Milton Rosmer (a 1948 version of The Monkey’s Paw and the title role in - who knew such a thing existed? - a 1921 British version of French horror classic Belphegor), and allegedly Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace) and Rene Ray (later the author of the novel that The Strange World of Planet X was based on).

The special effects vary enormously. Some of the cityscapes are not bad, with miniature planes flying over, though there’s a very amusing couple of shots where a miniature autogyro is seen to take off and land vertically! There’s also some archive footage of contemporary ‘state of the art’ planes which is historically interesting. Aside from the car seen at the start, there’s no really imaginative design. One particularly stupid scene has couples doing a ‘futuristic dance’ to the sound of an automatic orchestra, which in the unimaginative, prosaic way of these things is all the actual instruments - trumpets, drums, etc - being remotely controlled by a chap with various knobs and buttons. Dear oh dear.

One of the reason for the prominence of aeroplanes is that High Treason was (very) loosely based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing, an aircraft fanatic and designer who founded the Supermarine company. This screening of the film was preceded by some archive documentary footage of Pemberton Billing, relaxing at home and driving a bullet-shaped car which he designed and built himself.

Pemberton Billing seems a fascinating bloke: an MP, a writer, an inventor, a designer and a social reformer. He founded, in the late teens, a dodgy sounding organisation called The Society of Vigilantes which was devoted to promoting ‘purity of life’ in Britain. This body seems to have flourished briefly, with several thousand members, before disappearing. But ‘PB’ remains most notorious not for the Society of Vigilantes, not for founding the company which built the Spitfire, not for High Treason - but for winning a libel case based on the word ‘clitoris’!

Gentle readers should avert their eyes now. It seems that back in those unenlightened days, when it was well known that lesbians were mentally and medically retarded freaks of nature, one of the distinguishing features of a follower of Sapphos was thought to be an abnormally large clitoris. Pemberton Billing wrote an article in one of his many publications in which he discussed a well-known actress and her performance in Wilde’s Salome. The article was headed ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ and the implication - though never overtly stated - was that this particular actress was a lezza.

The actress sued for libel. But PB’s lawyer argued that ‘clitoris’ was an obscure medical term - that he had shown the article to several dozen well-educated people and none of them had known what the word in the title meant. The judge concurred, adding that he had also mentioned the title to people to be met with blank looks. The average (well-educated, upper class) person in the street simply did not know what a ‘clitoris’ was. But the actress must have understood - in order to be offended.

Since she was not a medically trained professional, the only other way she could possibly have understood the title enough to take offence would be if she actually was a lesbian! Implying that she was a tuppence-licker could not be considered libel, because the mere fact that the implication offended her proved that she obviously was one! A stunning piece of argument, which has kept Noel Pemberton Billing’s name alive in the minds of feminist historians ever since.

Anyway, back at High Treason, let’s be honest, this is rubbish and only a curiosity. Comparisons with Metropolis are daft and lazy; Lang’s film is infinitely superior in terms of both design and story, despite being made several years earlier. The one notable and intriguing aspect of the film is the use of televisions and videophones. Moving images are seen on flat screens sticking up from desks. The images fade in and out, there are no obvious matte edges, people and objects move in front of the images - I cannot for the life of me work out how these are done. It’s a terrific effect. But sadly, it’s not enough to save High Treason from being crap.

Watch it once, just to say you’ve seen it, but don’t expect to enjoy it.

MJS rating: C-
review originally posted before November 2004

High Stakes

Director: Peter Ferris, additional scenes by Dewi Griffiths
Writer: Michael Doyle, Thomas Bruce Bevan
Producer: Dewi Griffiths
Cast: Jeff Higgins, Charlie Bird, Jason Excell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

In Easter week of 2006 I took Mrs S and young TF - then aged two and a half - to the little seaside town of Penarth, just across the bay from Cardiff. It’s a lovely place with a smashing beach, a delightful short pier and plenty of charming Victorian architecture. Not overly commercialised, Penarth is a perfect place to take a little kid who enjoys the seaside. We stayed in a pleasant little hotel and had some nice meals and it was all generally rather smashing.

But I didn’t go there just for sun, sea and sand. Oh no. What drew me to Penarth was blood. Vampire blood.

Specifically my mate, producer Dewi Griffiths, was shooting his indie vampire thriller High Stakes in the town. High above the seafront, looking down on the town is a large Victorian church-cum-community centre which was free that week. Obviously it was in use every Sunday so Dewi and his team had just six days to get most of their principal photography in the can; the bulk of the film is set in a church and even some of the scenes set elsewhere were actually filmed in the church cellar which otherwise functioned as dressing room, props store and make-up salon.

Just think about this. On Easter Monday, the day on which we all celebrate our Lord conquering death to rise again from the tomb, this lot were shooting a vampire film in a real, consecrated church. Surely that’s blasphemy or at the very least it’s tremendously ironic.

Reviewing films where I visited the set is usually no different from reviewing films where I didn’t, apart from occasionally spotting a scene that I recognise. However, High Stakes is one of the few films on this site where I read the script before visiting the set. I usually like to come to a film with no preconceptions at all. If I know I’m going to review an indie picture I won’t read the synopsis beforehand and usually won’t even watch the trailer. That can come later. If what the film-makers want to say ain’t on screen, it ain’t anywhere. Uh-huh.

But that was two years ago so although I recalled the basic set-up I still had the potential to be surprised. Fact is, the script is one of High Stakes’ strengths. The acting’s pretty good too although I’m less convinced by the photography.

Jeff Higgins (who has been in a couple of Big Finish Doctor Who audios) and Charlie Bird star as Guy and Lydia, two people who independently find themselves trapped inside a church when a group of vampires lay siege to the building. There’s much more to High Stakes than that simple ‘high concept’ but the publicity angle which pitches this as a mixture of Assault on Precinct 13 and From Dusk Till Dawn is not far off the mark. What would have been neat would be to have Guy and Lydia’s paths cross inconsequentially at the start of the film when she is walking home with shopping and he is driving into town. Just a moment of eye contact at a pedestrian crossing maybe.

Actually, come to think of it, there’s not really any interaction between Lydia and Guy once they’re inside the church although they both interact with the building’s inhabitants. I did find myself wondering whether both characters were necessary to give an outsider’s view of the situation although I can see that they relate to the church in different ways: Lydia attends dance classes there and is known to the Reverend Clegg while Guy is a stranger. So their attitude and understanding of the situation is different but we don’t get to see the contrast because they barely speak to each other.

As the film opens, teenager Lydia finds a frightened, injured boy in the road outside her house and takes him in where, in a pretty groovy and gruesome opening, she leaves her father (Phil Rowlands, who was in an episode of Star Cops) to take a look at the boy while she makes a brew. Returning from the kitchen, she finds the lad crouched over her dad’s bleeding corpse. So she runs out of the house and up the hill to the church. Which makes sense.

In a parallel story, Guy and his pal Eric (Daz Kaye: Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice) visit an illegal gambling den where they find themselves up against Celano (Andreas Coshia), a suave, brutal gangster up from London with his entourage. A dispute over the money reveals Celano and his acolytes to be a bunch of bloodsuckers and Guy only escapes by the skin of his teeth after Eric is killed. Celano gets temporarily pinned with his own cane which is the sort of thing that always irritates me (see also the pool cues in Dracula 3000). There is a reason why wooden stakes have sharp points on the end; if you could spear a bit of wood through somebody’s torso without sharpening it, that would render the whole thing, ah, pointless.

Running from the vampires, Guy also seeks sanctuary in the church which is home to long-haired young vicar Reverend Clegg (a terrific performance by Jason Excell: Faintheart) and a group of young people. Characterisation is another strength that this film has, distinguishing it from more run-of-the-mill indie fair (and let’s face it, the world is not short of low budget, independent vampire movies). While the names of these characters don’t sink in, their identities do - there’s the bald one, the disabled one, the shouty one etc - and, crucially, they argue with each other. Character conflict, that’s where it’s at. It’s no good just putting your characters into a crisis and letting them try to get out while the antagonist picks them off one by one. They need to have strong, forthright - and in some cases morally ambivalent - views on what to do. The shouty one, for example, is all for chucking Guy out the door and letting the vampires have him so they’ll go away.

What we have here could have been a classic siege drama, in the manner of Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, Dog Soldiers, Zulu, The Lost Patrol and all those other classic siege dramas. ‘Could have been’ because one of the basic tenets of a siege drama is that whatever or whoever is outside should be trying to get in - ideally with amoral savagery - requiring those on the inside to fight them off. But there is no way for Celano (who has removed the cane he was stuck with) and his cohorts to enter the building. Even when they realise that it is not a consecrated church, they still can’t come in unless they are invited.

Oh yes, these are proper old school vampires. None of your modern revisionism here. They fear the cross and holy water, they cannot tolerate sunlight and they cannot enter a building unless invited. Which ought to be fine and dandy. All that Clegg, Lydia, Guy and the others have to do is wait for morning, surely?

The complication is that the youngsters in the church aren’t just there for Bible study or dance classes, they live there. Because they too are vampires. Except that they they have found God, thanks to the Reverend Clegg. A couple of centuries ago, they built a ‘fake church’ above a little Welsh seaside village and they have lived there ever since with Clegg (and presumably his precursors) acting as their contact with the outside world. And presumably they all keep out of the way when the local teenagers come round for dance classes.

As for their need to feed on those who bleed, again Clegg helps them by promoting local blood drives. This is a neat idea which doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny: you need properly trained phlebotomists to handle blood donations, plus these vampires can’t be too hungry because the number of donations that could be gained from one small town in any year (blood donors normally donate every four months) would be pretty limited. And sooner or later someone is going to be suspicious that this is not part of the NHS Blood Service.

But let’s gloss over all that. It’s still a pretty neat idea and sets up a situation which is, I believe, unique in the annals of vampire cinema: one bunch of vampires laying siege to a building inhabited by another bunch of vampires.

Clegg, as you will no doubt have gathered, is not a vampire himself which is why it is unfortunate that he gets bitten. Dragged back into the building, his corpse is bundled down into the crypt and the door securely locked. In an hour or so he will come back and will, in the short term, exhibit ‘bloodlust’. Basically the deal is that before a vampire becomes a rational, thinking being like those on either side of the church door, he or she is an uncontrollable animal for a short time and will attack anything - including former friends.

This adds another level of danger to the proceedings and ironically it is the internal threat - once vampire Clegg gets loose in the building - which presents the bigger danger, not the haemovorous London gangsters outside. There is a great deal of running around, a certain amount of fighting and various people get killed.

Alas, here’s where the photography stifles the story (well, here and elsewhere to be honest) because everything is so dark that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s going on. Clearly someone is fighting someone else but not only is it difficult to make out what moves, weapons or defences are being used, we sometimes can’t even see who the people involved are. And this is inside the church. Outside in the darkness things are even murkier.

The whole of High Stakes is shot with lots of smoke and filters and while this makes for fabulous stills it’s not so great for watching the movie itself. I know it all takes place over one night, starting as the sun sets, but after a while you long for a bit of bright light. It’s wearing on the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not completely impenetrable (apart from one or two shots) but it does give the whole film a smoky, foggy, indistinct feeling that’s wearying after 70-odd minutes.

Nevertheless, there is a bunch of great action - and not a little gore - to be found as the character conflict previously alluded to bubbles over into violence and genuine danger. Director Peter Ferris handles the action scenes very well. It would just be nice if we could see more clearly who is biting whom and where.

Shot on a low budget with a largely neophyte cast and crew, High Stakes benefits from the experience of industry vets in more senior positions. For example, the sound crew was overseen by Dick Philip, fresh from a stint as boom-handler on the Hills Have Eyes remake. It’s a smart little indie with an undeniably original and clever premise and that’s a rare, rare thing in the vampire subgenre nowadays.

There are some ideas that are not fully explored, such as the boy at the start, Duane (Lewis Rhys Davies). It transpires that he is the oldest of the vampires - over a thousand years old in fact - and is starting to lose his marbles. Hence his trip outside to hunt for victims. One result of all this is that he speaks Middle English. It’s a neat concept - the apparently ‘youngest’ kid is actually the oldest - but you have to wonder how he’s managed to not pick up developments in English speech patterns over the centuries.

Among the cast are Bernard Latham (Erik the Viking), Sarah-Louise Tyler (Street Dreams, Watch Her, Masterpiece), Caroline Lees (who was in DTV Doctor Who spin-off Downtime!), Cristina Higuera Martin (also in Street Dreams), Alexis Tuttle (who was in a documentary about Jack the Ripper) and Kim Ryan (Darklands). Viv Mainwaring, who worked on the visual effects of notoriously obscure Welsh supernatural TV series Arachnid, was the DP; Taimur Khan (Lift, Trouble) handled editing; Nick Burnell (Love, Honour and Obey) was production designer; Chrissie Pegg (Flick) designed the costumes; Dawn Thatcher (Tracy Beaker) was in charge of make-up.

Director Peter Ferris is an experienced acting coach who has taught the likes of Martine McCutcheon and Claire Sweeney; several of the cast come from his Cardiff acting studio. I worked with producer Dewi Griffiths on an unmade adaptation of Phil Rickman’s novel December and he was also line producer on Summer Scars.

Despite its great premise and interesting, varied characters, High Stakes never really examines its central premise and actually throws too much into the mix. I’m still not convinced we need Lydia as well as Guy although the former comes to the fore at the end after the threat his been dispelled. But the dialogue is crisp, the character conflict gripping and the action/horror scenes thrilling. High Stakes does something different from most indie vampire pictures and does it well and for that reason is well worth seeking out.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 26th July 2008

Saturday, 19 October 2013

interview: Frank Scantori

I first met Frank Scantori on the set of Elisar Cabrera's Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft, which is where I conducted this previously unpublished interview. Our paths would cross occasionally over the next 15 years and we'd swap the odd email about projects. It was always a delight to see Frank in a film: he had a knack for picking interesting projects like Room 36 and Kill Keith, and he never failed to act everyone else off the screen. Frank passed away in September 2013 and I found out a few weeks later, which is why I'm posting this interview as a tribute to him. RIP Frank. 

What are you on this film?
"Co-producer, assistant director, fight and stunt co-ordinator, casting director and I also play Ben Markowitz."

Who's he?
"Ben Markowitz is the director of Bureau 17, runs the whole agency, so he's very much like everyone's boss. I co-ordinate between all the other bureaus throughout the Interpol network, and then call in specialist people like Celeste."

What did you do as casting director?
"I assisted in the casting. I organised the whole process and supplied the list of actors to Elisar and Jonathan, and they chose whoever they needed. I made certain recommendations for certain people who I knew would do the job and would give the best performance. A mixture of people I've worked with before and people whose work I've seen. There's loads of different types of combinations you can pick. We also tried to bring in new people who have specific types of skills - see how they work and what they're like."

Are you happy with the cast and crew?
"I think they're brilliant, every single one of them. It's very hard work, but everyone's pulled together. There hasn't been a single row yet. Admittedly it's only day five, but I've been on productions where day one we've had arguments. But the crew are really good. They all get on well together; they're fun. It's a very, very tiring shoot as well but they overcome it and do it. People are up about five o'clock in the morning and not going home till about midnight, and still manage to keep a smile on their face."

Fight and stunt co-ordinator?
"Yes, for my sins. I used to do quite a bit of stuff in the past. I studied it at drama school and I used to do a bit before, regardless of the size I am. I've done a lot of martial arts in the past and I've also been in the Parachute Regiment, so I've got a lot of stuff through there. Self-defence has always interested me as well - I've always been a nutcase - and I've always gone headfirst into everything. I've seen stuff in the past which hasn't been safety-oriented and it really annoyed me, so I thought I'd get into it and see if I could have some sort of control over that as well.

"Because the entertainment industry, the film industry especially, is something that I love; it's very dear to my heart anyway. I studied karate and got up to third dan, black belt, on that. Also, training during the Paras, we worked with various unarmed techniques. And I developed from there. After seeing some of the fights that I've seen on television and film, they haven't been realistic enough for me. It's always seemed false, even the camera angles, so I wanted to put a bit more into it and actually show that when people do get hit, even though they're about a foot away from the other person, there is force going through. So it's teaching the actors to fight with force, and still keeping it safe and still keeping distance."

Does it help that Kerry is a pro wrestler?
"It's always good if you've got someone else who's got other techniques. It stops the whole thing becoming boring because you develop techniques: you put two things together and you get a third thing. So whenever there's a confrontation, the fight is not the same all the way through the film. They become different fights, so to the audience they become different and more interesting to look at. I'm directing and producing a martial arts film next year and it's got 35 fight sequences in it. There are seven different styles of martial art. It's all set in the East End of London as well: three lines of dialogue and the rest is fighting!"

What have you done before?
"I've done numerous amounts of things, like Revenge of Billy the Kid, which is now a cult movie. It's about this goat who gets seduced by the farmer then the goat gets pregnant and has a little kid, which the daughter calls Billy - hence 'Billy the Kid'. The goat wreaks havoc on the farmhouse. The farmer's name is Ronald MacDonald! I did loads of work on other movies, like Star Wars. I played one of the Stormtroopers. I used to do a bit of mucking around with the top bods there, like Harrison Ford, and just work a little bit with the fight sequences. I learnt a lot through that as well, because I stayed close to the stunt workers as well. I also used to do an awful lot of acrobatics in those days. I worked on all three Star Wars films - I was very lucky. I wanted to do the others but I haven't been lucky enough or I've been too busy. It would have been nice, but it was good doing the first three."

Can you spot yourself among the Stormtroopers?
"Half the time, I can't. I was twenty years younger. I just keep looking but you tend not to recognise yourself, especially when you've got this white helmet on. A lot of us who played Stormtroopers also played rebels as well, so there was a hell of a lot of doubling up. It was great fun. You'd never seen stuff like that before. Everyone was wondering how it was going to work, because the man had his own vision. He knew what he wanted and he was just giving bits to people and nobody knew what the bits were: 'No, this is not going to work.' Then when we saw it for the first time it was totally mind-blowing. That was incredible thing to see; you never forget it. It was so, so good."

What else?
"I've also been involved in a lot of low-budget films, doing a lot of what I'm doing here, sort of multi-faceted. As an actor or helping with the guns side or doing anything that needs doing basically. I just love getting involved in film in any area. It's mostly British stuff. I'd love to have a go with some of the American films. I was talking to Stephanie and said I would just love to go over and do something."

How did you get involved with this?
"Well, I've known Elisar for a little while now. I met him through the Raindance Festival, through various contacts that I have there. He saw me in a film that I did a couple of years ago called Room 36, which still hasn't been released. It's a black and white, very film noir kind of thriller, and I played an outsize ladies' lingerie salesman, who's into wearing his own products and gets murdered with a champagne bottle. Oh, it's disgusting - split head, all that lot. It's made of sugar-glass and whacked across the head.

"In rehearsal we used a real bottle and the actress got a bit scared and went bang, just there, so there was a bit of extra blood. But that was good fun. I did that and Elisar saw me in that and saw me at the preview. He liked what I did, and we kept in touch every now and again. I saw one or two things that he did. I did a voice-over for his trailer for Virtual Terror. I did that deep, grunty voice for promoting the film. After that he kept in touch and came up with this and said 'Fancy being involved?' And that was it."

Is it all going okay?
"It's going great. We're virtually on schedule, which is unheard of. we shouldn't be on schedule. But we're doing very well. Everyone's working so hard; they've got their act together and are just getting down and doing it. Hopefully we'll finish on schedule as well."

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Director: Anthony Hickox
Writer: Peter Atkins
Producers: Lawrence Mortorff , Christopher Figg
Cast: Doug Bradley, Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall
Country: USA
Year of release: 1992
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Many, many years ago I saw Hellraiser, probably on its first TV screening. I recall it being very good. I don’t think I ever saw Hellraiser II and I know I have never seen any of the subsequent six sequels - although I have read about them in Doug Bradley’s book.

Before I could review RN Millward’s fan film The Hellraiser Chronicles: A Question of Faith, I thought that I had better reacquaint myself with the franchise proper, so I wasted an hour and a half of my life watching Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, a movie which, while it’s not quite as bad as Hellgate, is nevertheless utterly awful in almost every respect and something that no right-thinking person would want to include on their CV.

Terry Farrell from Deep Space Nine stars as the most monumentally miscast female lead in a horror film ever (apart from Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly, obviously). She is dreadful but even a good actress would struggle with this terrible dialogue, wafer-thin characterisation and nonsensical plotting. Poor old Doug Bradley spends the first half of the film in a large box with his face stuck through a hole in the front, which is supposed to be some sort of ‘pillar’ in which he has been trapped. Whereas Pinhead was an enigmatic and unnerving manifestation of evil in the first film (when he didn’t even have a name), by Part III he has been transformed into a stock monster spouting lame sub-Freddy jokes as he blasts people to pieces with his magical powers.

Much of the film takes place in a night club which, in the manner of these things, is brightly lit and plays music at a reasonable volume. There are a few weird statues on the walls as a token nod towards the fetishism which made the first film sexually powerful as well as horrific but for the most part all the absolutely integral S&M elements of the franchise have been stripped away from the story: there’s no M and virtually no S and all that leaves is an ampersand. Which, you know, just doesn’t do it for me on any level.

Farrell (whose non-Trek genre credits consist of Legion, Deep Core, Psychic Murders, an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone, a Quantum Leap and the American Red Dwarf pilot) is Joey Summerskill, a bottom-of-the-rung TV reporter who doesn’t seem to work for any actual network or company but who nevertheless manages to live in a huge split-level apartment with gorgeous views of Manhattan. In a deeply stupid prologue she is hanging around in a hospital emergency room when a young man is wheeled in with chains and hooks stuck into his flesh. He is plonked onto the operated table and promptly explodes. Apparently, Joey has no story because there was no cameraman to capture it, although there are numerous witnesses among the medical staff.

Kevin Bernhardt (who was ‘Dr Byron Shelley’ in two Dracula-themed episodes of Superboy and also wrote the screenplay for Jill the Ripper) plays JP Monroe, narcissistic owner of the aforementioned night club, which is called The Boiler Room. He lives directly above the club, the sound of which can be completely muted by simply closing his front door (I told you the music was quiet) and his hobby is picking up girls downstairs, screwing them upstairs them throwing them out. He buys the Pinhead-in-a-box pillar from a weird art dealer and installs it in the club then moves it to his bedroom when it gets chipped (well, duh).

Paula Marshall (The Flash, Full Eclipse, Warlock: The Armageddon, WEIRD World) is Terri, gum-chewing wannabe gothette of no fixed abode who is a former ‘girlfriend’ of JP and who is Joey’s only clue to what happened (she finds her by asking if anyone in the club has seen “a pretty girl”, a description which one might think would need narrowing down a bit more). Eventually the pillar has consumed enough souls for Pinhead to break free and he goes on a rampage, killing everyone at the club in a sequence that is completely mishandled: everyone panics when they see him, but it’s just a bloke in a leather dress. Most goth nightclubs are full of them. Apparently The Boiler Room is in a part of the city so isolated that absolutely no-one is aware of this carnage and all the various explosions involved in it, although Pinhead causes a fake news report to magically appear on Joey’s unplugged TV, sending her down there to investigate.

We then get to see one of the most awful and dumb chase scenes ever as Joey is pursued through empty streets (actually: almost empty, which is even dumber) by Pinhead, a few other Cenobites and lots of carefully controlled explosions. A couple of police cars turn up but the cops are killed and of course there’s no sort of back-up. The new Cenobites, by the way, are made from people who were at the club: the DJ (Brent Bolthouse pre-transformation; Eric Willhelm afterwards) has CDs stuck in his head and can shoot razor-sharp CDs from his flat, wide mouth; Joey’s cameraman (Ken Carpenter: Tammy and the T Rex - apparently dubbed) who got there before her has his camera melded with his head and can knock out people’s skulls with his telephoto lens if they get close enough; and the barman (played by scriptwriter Pete Atkins, who also wrote Hellraiser II and IV and the first Wishmaster) has some sort of deadly cocktail shaker.

Key to all this of course is the Lamont Configuration box which is stuck in the pillar and then comes into Joey’s possession and which enables her to beat Pinhead at the climax through a completely arbitrary bit of deus ex machina. She then buries the box in some wet cement, although why a deserted building site would have cement so freshly laid that you can plunge your hand easily into it up to the elbow is yet another unexplained piece of bad storytelling. The film’s one good idea is an epilogue set a few years later in the completed office building when we see that the designs from the box have been used to decorate the walls, turning the whole place into one gigantic Lamont Configuration - although whether that’s a good or bad thing I couldn’t say.

As well as playing Pinhead, Bradley gets to appear out of make-up as a First World War British officer who is apparently the character’s origin. Walking Joey through a corpse-filled Flanders trench and then 1920s Cairo, he unloads pages of infodump exposition on her; these scenes are related somehow to very badly staged dreams that Joey has about her father being killed in Vietnam. It seems that ‘Captain Elliot Spencer’ sought out weird S&M practices and demonic rituals as some sort of closure to the horrors of the trenches and frankly this is where the whole sorry mess of a film tips over from being just badly made and risibly scripted to actually being naive and offensive. To compare sadomasochistic sexual practices with the horrors of the Belgian front is in incredibly bad taste, detracts from what little enjoyment the film may give and is appallingly disrespectful to the millions who died there.

Astoundingly, Hellraiser III is not a stravisnut but actually played theatrically. I can’t imagine how pissed off I would be if I had paid good money to see this at the cinema (my copy was one of 20 films that I picked up for £9.99 so I just about got my 50p’s worth). This version includes a couple of shots which were apparently cut from earlier releases. Whoop-de-doo.

Ashley Laurence from the first two films makes a brief appearance in a video recording of a police interview, and most of the rest of the cast are stuntmen and stuntwomen. Producer Lawrence Mortorff (Children of the Corn II, Tarzan and the Lost City, The Omega Code), director Anthony Hickox (Waxwork I and II, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Full Eclipse, Prince Valiant) and his brother James (editor on this film; director of Children of the Corn III, Blood Surf and The Gardener) all make cameo appearances and Clayton Hill (Dawn of the Dead) turns up as a priest in a scene where Joey tries unsuccessfully to find sanctuary in a church. Embarrassing beyond belief, Pinhead’s mockery of religion neither shocks nor impresses and is a half hearted attempt to ape the charred-black Catholic guilt which underpins Clive Barker’s work. The whole scene comes across as merely childish, like a thirteen-year-old trying to shock their parents by wearing a sweatshirt with a swearword on the back.

Behind the camera, many of the crew also worked on Waxwork I and II, Warlock: The Armageddon, Children of the Corn II and III and Hellraiser IV. Cinematographer Gerry Lively’s other credits include Project Eliminator, Son of Darkness, Future Shock, Return of the Living Dead Part III, DNA and Soulkeeper. Production designer Steve Hardie worked on Nightbreed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series, not the film). Other notable names include costume designer Leonard Pollack (Candyman), composer Randy Miller (Space Marines, Witchcraft), make-up effects artist Mark Coulier (Attack of the Clones, various Harry Potter films, two versions of Frankenstein, Alien vs Predator and Little Britain!) and top special effects bloke Bob Keen - of course - who also directed the second unit. Author/editor Stephen Jones (The Essential Monster Movie Guide etc) was unit publicist on the film.

Clive Barker is credited as executive producer but I can’t believe his contribution went beyond cashing a cheque. To be honest, I suspect most of those involved did this for the money. I’ve met Messrs Hickox J, Lively, Bradley and Keen and all are much better at their jobs than this by-the-numbers film suggests.

The oddest thing in the credits is the fact that Carol Sue Baker gets her name in letters three times as big as anyone else - including the stars and the director - for being, um, ‘music supervisor’. Her other credits include Sex and the City and Monster’s Ball and she must have one hell of an agent.

Hellraiser III is a pathetically lame film which does almost everything wrong, the epitome of the crap sequel. I don’t normally quote other reviews but my mate Kevin Lyons summed it up perfectly over at the Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Film and Television: “The film itself is full of unlikeable people doing obscure things for no discernible reason.”

MJS rating: D
review originally posted 9th April 2006

The Hellraiser Chronicles: A Question of Faith

Director: RN Millward
Writer: Kieron Hazel
Producers: RN Millward, Kieron Hazel
Cast: Rob Leetham, Adrian Palmer, Leila Gray
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener DVD

I’m not the right person to review this film. For one thing, this is not part of the never-ending Hellraiser franchise but a fan film and I never watch fan films. There are enough original movies out there - and certainly enough genuine sequels - that I have neither need nor time for unofficial, amateur spin-offs.

Nor can I claim to be a serious Hellraiser fan. Out of the eight films I have seen number one about twenty years ago and number three a couple of weeks ago (in preparation for watching this). It goes without saying that a low-budget, unauthorised indie short is never going to live up to the original Hellraiser, one of the best British horror films of the modern era. But by the same token, it goes without saying that this is much better than Hellraiser III, although that’s unfairly faint praise; I have squeezed better things than Hellraiser III out of my bottom.

Anyone I watched this because it was the first thing on a disc of three short films that RN Millward sent me. It’s not a bad little half-hour horror film if viewed in its own right and in fact if you took the Lamont Configuration out of it and redesigned the bad guy’s costume so he looks less like a Cenobite, you’d have a decent little film that could stand up on its own without trying to piggyback on someone else’s ideas.

Father Dominic Farrell (Rob Leetham: Waiting for Dawn, Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit) buys a terraced house which is haunted by the ghosts of three friends with whom he shared an unwise demonic summoning twenty years earlier. The demon was a Cenobite (Adrian Palmer) who started life as an Italian priest in the 1930s called Father Lombardo (also Palmer), who became corrupted when he gave in to the sins of the flesh and raped a possessed girl (Leila Gray). Father Farrell needs to raise the Cenobite again and send it back to Hell in order to free his friends’ souls. I think.

The spooky scenes are particularly well directed and edited, raising some genuine chills. However, there’s no real air of sexual menace, with the Cenobite looking more like a pasty-faced bloke in a leather jacket. However, the flashback Italian scenes, introduced with an excellent effects shot of a hanging miniature, are quite powerful as the possessed girl lures Father Lombardo into sin.

This screener disc was absolutely packed with extras including two commentaries, in one of which Millward discusses the problems which the productions faced because of the paucity of budget and schedule. He also points out some aspects of the story which, to be frank, don’t come across in the film itself.

A Question of Faith is, so we’re told, a pilot for a proposed TV series. While I have no doubt that there will some day be a Hellraiser TV series, simply because it’s a franchise that refuses to die, that series is clearly not going to be this, because rights holders always commission their own projects, rather than picking up speculative fan productions, however well-produced. One must assume that Millward and friends are aware of this rather basic truth of How The Media Works so it’s not clear how serious the ‘pilot’ status of this short film should be taken.

What is even odder than the concept of a fan-produced TV pilot is that absolutely nowhere in the credits is there any mention of Clive Barker. Plenty of other people get a ‘thank you’ but there’s no acknowledgement that this film owes its entire existence, ultimately, to Mrs Barker’s little lad Clive. It’s like making a Star Wars fan film without even a tip of the hat to George Lucas. I rather assumed that people who made fan films would be fans.

I really don’t know whether this is any good as a Hellraiser story or as a fan film. In its own right, it’s a decent enough 30 minutes of low-budget spookiness. But I don't want to make a habit of reviewing fan films. That's not what I do.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 15th April 2006


Director: William A Levey
Writer: Michael O’Rourke
Producer: Anant Singh
Cast: Ron Palillo, Petrea Curran, Joanne Ward
Country: South Africa
Year of release: 1989
Reviewed from: R2 DVD (Anchor Bay)

This may possibly be the worst horror film of the 1980s. Hellgate is completely nonsensical and neither scary nor entertaining in the slightest. It is like watching randomly selected scenes from completely different films, all of which star the same actors wearing the same clothes. This is one of those films where you can’t actually tell, just by watching, whether or not it is a comedy. I’m still not sure and, frankly, it doesn’t matter because even if this was supposed to be funny, that doesn’t excuse or explain the cut-price special effects, the lousy acting, the appallingly bad production design, the hopeless direction or the utterly inept editing which seems to have been done in a shed with a pair of garden shears.

Nor, for that matter, does it excuse the awful 1980s fashions and hairstyles, but there’s not much anybody could have done about them, I suppose.

Blonde Chuck (Evan J Kliser: Space Mutiny, American Ninja 3, American Kickboxer), his short-haired girlfriend Bobby (Joanne Ward: Night of the Cyclone) and their permed friend Pam (Petrea Curran) are telling each other ghost stories in a lodge which they have rented while they wait for Pam’s boyfriend Matt. Bobby tells the others the story of the ‘Hellgate Hitchhiker’ which apparently everyone around there knows (suggesting that Bobby is local although this doesn’t otherwise seem to be the case).

“It all happened a long, long time ago,” she says, “way back in the 1950s.”

This is the first and last decent line of dialogue in the entire film.

Four bikers on three bikes roar down the highway in this opening flashback, demonstrating how hard they are by clenching their fists at each other in a display of macho posturing which would - in a more intelligent film - clearly identify them as homosexuals. They stop at a large isolated diner with a big neon sign - it looks more like a nightclub from the outside - which has a gas station next to it. Inside, they throw out all the customers apart from one bloke whom they seem to know so he might be another biker but there is no explanation.

The bikers harass the waitress (Lynda Powell) and then, when an attractive young woman enters, decide to have some delinquent fun. This is Josie (model Abigail Wolcott in her only screen role; she now markets a range of skin-care products and is married to celebrity chef Tom Valenti): tall, slim, ponytailed, softly spoken. The bikers grab her, rip her skirt off and - when the diner’s cook (Tom Hoskins) appears with a shotgun - carry her out to their hogs and roar off.

They head up to ‘Lucas Carlyle’s Hellgate, an authentic 1890’s ghost town’, as it says on a sign over the entrance, complete with incorrect apostrophe. This appears to be some sort of tourist attraction although it is clear that the makers of this film didn’t really work out what it was supposed to be. Basically it’s a collection of new-looking (and flimsy-looking) wooden buildings in the style of the 1890s but with flashing fairy lights strung along every roof. Various people wander up and down the main street, despite this being the middle of the night.

The hoods torment Josie in a sequence which seems gratuitously misogynist even to me (and I’m someone who loathes film critics who accuse films of misogyny so that should indicate quite how bad this is). She runs away but is cornered down an alley by the two lead bikers, Zonk (Lance Vaughan), who looks like Gary Busey, and Buzz (Frank Notard: Rebel Storm) who looks like the lead singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

No, honestly. Zonk.

A moustachioed fellow who bears a passing resemblance to John Astin appears and yells, “Stay away from my daughter!” This is Lucas Carlyle himself, played by Carel Trichardt. He flings an axe into Buzz’s head at the same time that Buzz flings a chain which wraps itself around Carlyle’s left wrist, almost severing his hand. As Zonk revs up his bike to leave, Carlyle uses his other hand to throw a knife although we don’t see where that goes because of the crap editing.

There is absolutely no indication of what happens to the other two bikers, identified in the credits as Fast Freddy (Alan Pierce) and Nervous Norman (Jonathan Taylor) but as they share a bike and one of them is what is known (I believe) as a ‘bear’ it’s not unreasonable to assume that they got married and lived happily ever after. Zonk makes it back as far as the garage next to the diner where we see him remove the knife from his thigh, producing the traditional spurt of blood. (You know, a severed vein just causes blood to well up. If the blood is pumping out in rhythmic spurts that means an artery has been sliced and the victim is going to die very, very soon unless a tourniquet is applied immediately and urgent medical attention sought. But anyway...)

Back in 1989-era present day, Bobby continues with the story...

Some time later, business is poor at the ‘ghost town’; this second flashback is the only time we see the place in daylight, incidentally. There are a few simply written notices attached to various buildings but no sign of any marketing or, I don’t know, prices or anything. No real attempt has been made to make this location - whatever and wherever it is - look like an actual tourist attraction, successful or otherwise.

We now meet Jonas (Victor Mellaney: Safari 3000, Cyborg Cop II, Operation Delta Force II, The Last Leprechaun), a grizzled old timer who helps out around Hellgate fixing things. He goes into a small cave which is supposedly dressed up as a fake gold mine but which in actual fact merely has a sign inside saying ‘Genuine gold ore nuggets’. In attempting to repair this sign, Jonas is distracted by the crappiest looking, plastic, joke-shop bat that I have ever seen. He whacks it with his shovel - an essential tool for anyone planning to repair a notice on the wall of a fake cave, apparently - and it falls to the floor.

Then Jonas sees a pulsating blue light coming from behind some rocks and discovers a large, glowing crystal which fires a beam of blue light at the bat - which promptly flies up off the ground again. The old man rushes off up to see Carlyle, who lives in a huge mansion within easy shuffling distance of the ‘town’.

Now, it is not clear when this flashback takes place as everyone wears fake period clothes but it seems to be closer to the 1950s than the 1980s. Carlyle has a large black and white photo of his daughter on the wall behind his desk and we are meant to think that Josie died that night that the biker gang (whom we later learn were called ‘the Strangers’) came to town. But if so, why does she have very 1980s hair and make-up in this portrait? Well, apparently because the film-makers merely used a photo from Abigail Wolcott’s modelling portfolio and weren’t bothered about the anachronistic styling.

Anyway, Jonas shows Carlyle the crystal and tells him about the bat. Carlyle decides to test the crystal’s life-restoring properties on a goldfish, swimming in a much-too-small bowl on his desk, despite the fish not actually being dead. Zapped by the ray, the fish grows and mutates into an ugly fish monster, shattering the bowl and subsequently exploding. Carlyle then turns the ray onto a stuffed turtle which he just happens to have lying around and the thing comes to life as a distinctly shoddy hand-puppet. Delighted, Carlyle sticks his laughing face right up against the turtle’s beak and is promptly savaged.

You would think that any film which features a man being attacked by a zombie turtle would be at least slightly entertaining. But you would be wrong.

The turtle then explodes.

Finally the crystal blasts a beam at Jonas who suffers through a series of incremental make-ups which show him either getting old or melting (it’s not clear) as he screams and starts to smoulder.

He also explodes, albeit off-screen.

Carlyle of course thinks that he can use the crystal to bring his daughter back to life; his daughter who is buried in a large, genuine cemetery just outside the minute, fake town, under a slab surmounted by a crude, life-size, recumbent statue of herself.

Has any of this made any sense yet? No? Well, buckle up because we’re just getting started.

Now we see Matt (Ron Palillo from Friday the 13th Part VI, top-billed here as token name value on the basis of having been in a 1970s sitcom called Welcome Back Kotter; he was also the voice of the title character in a cartoon series called Rubik the Amazing Cube), stopping off at the diner from the first flashback where he is chatted up by the waitress (Kimberleigh Stark: Cyborg Cop I and II, Project Shadowchaser II, Terminator Woman). He also buys some gas from the garage which is now run by Zonk (Lance Vaughan again, with some really, really bad make-up and hair that does absolutely nothing to make him look 30 years older). Back out on the road, Matt nearly knocks down a mysterious woman clad in a white shift, whom we recognise as Josie. She has lost her ponytail and her 1950s innocence and now has the ability to affect cars (although it’s unclear in what way) using her glowing eyes.

Thinking she’s not well, Matt offers to drive her home, a journey which takes them through Hellgate where he sees people wandering around in a daze, including (we notice, briefly) Buzz. At Carlyle’s mansion, Josie tries to seduce Matt but they are interrupted by the arrival of Lucas Carlyle himself. Carel Trichardt’s ageing make-up is not as bad as Lance Vaughan’s but is still not convincing. Carlyle has a stump where his chain-damaged hand was removed (except of course his fore-arm is now that much longer) and three metal clamps on the side of his head, presumably repairing the damage down by the zombie turtle.

Before it exploded.

(Incidentally, although Carlyle did indeed use the crystal to resurrect Josie, there is no explanation of why she didn’t explode too.)

As Matt makes his escape, Carlyle blasts a couple of rays from the crystal: the first causes a small explosion, the second slices the end off a water-ski sticking out of the back. When Matt makes it to the lodge, Chuck is annoyed to see that his water-ski is damaged. There is never any other suggestion that any of this takes place anywhere near the sea.

After Matt and Pam have made out because they haven’t seen each other for nearly a day(?), Matt and the girls head off to the diner (in a purple jeep) to eat - with only a cursory explanation of why Chuck isn’t with them. On leaving they drive as far as the gas station (ie. next door) before Matt yells to stop the car because he has to explore the place. He finds some newspaper cuttings about the disappearance of Buzz, which look rather less than 30 years old, and is then thrown around the room by Zonk before leaping into the back of the jeep, which roars off.

Picking up Chuck, they head up to Hellgate, which still has those same twinkling fairy lights. In the cemetery, Matt finds his jacket (which he had lent to Josie) being worn by the statue on her grave, even though the statue is lying down. When they actually enter Hellgate, things start to get really weird.

From this point there is nothing to be gained by my trying to recall the narrative sequence of events - because there isn’t one. Here are some of the things that happen:

    • Bobby sees a piano playing itself. A man appears from nowhere, playing it, then fades away. The others tell her it’s just a player piano.
    • A curtain is pulled aside to reveal an attractive woman, who smiles at the boys then walks away through a wall. Despite this ghostly activity, Pam protests, “She’s a zombie.”
    • The quartet find a dozen or more classic cars, some of which have been there since the 1960s according to the documents inside. Chuck proposes taking a couple and selling them. Bobby is nearly grabbed by a cadaverous, Cryptkeeper-like ghoul in one car. Then all the headlights come on at once.
    • Dead bodies rise from the graves in the cemetery.
    • Dead-looking people materialise in chairs.
    • A small crowd of zombies advances down the main street but is completely forgotten about a minute or so later.
    • Bobby announces, “My ankle’s sore. I think I’ve twisted it.” This is notable for two reasons: because her pronunciation makes it sound like “My uncle’s sore” and because how can you only think you’ve twisted your ankle? A sprain, a fracture or a break can’t be determined without a medical check, but you either twist your ankle or you don’t. There can’t be any element of doubt. It’s like saying. “I think I’ve got a headache.”
    • Carlyle takes the keys from the purple jeep, carries them a few yards down the street then just drops them on the ground. When Chuck and Bobby make it to the jeep, Chuck goes looking for the keys and fortuitously finds them. At this point, Carlyle slices the young man’s head off with a sign. Yes, a painted sign that apparently has razor-sharp edges. In the actual effects shot, it is noticeable that Carlyle is wearing the moustache and costume from the 1950s scenes, rather than the metal faceplates and 1980s costume which he wears in the shots before and after.
    • Bobby, understandably traumatised, finds Matt and Pam but they leave her in the saloon (“Can you think of a better place than a saloon?” asks Matt, without a hint of irony). She looks at the stage - or rather, we cut to the stage, because there is nothing to indicate that this is in the same room - where she sees an MC appear out of thin air. This bearded, bowler-hatted, English-accented chap tells a couple of crap jokes and then introduces five cancan dancers (who also fade into existence), the last of which seems to be Bobby herself. Except that crap direction means we never get a good enough look to be sure, and there is no reaction on Joanne’s face because it looks like the actress wasn’t even told what she would be seeing.
    • While Bobby watches the dance with a glassy expression, Carlyle appears behind her and puts a length of stout rope across (not around) her throat, which causes blood to dribble from her mouth. When we cut back to her after another shot of the dancers, she is dead. There is a rope burn on her neck but no sign of blood on her chin.
    • Every so often, we cut to shots of Josie, lying on a bed and murmuring, “Matt...” The make-up team have given her a pasty face but her neck, shoulders and arms are still nicely tanned.
    • We also get a couple of cutaway shots of Zonk, back at the garage, sharpening first an axe and then a machete.
    • Matt and Pam, attempting to escape, see the purple jeep pull up in front of them with the undead Bobby and Chuck in the front. So they take a different car and head up to the mansion (the one that old man Jonas was able to walk to).
    • Inside this colonial-style building are all the trappings of a gothic castle, complete with suits of armour and large amounts of cobwebs. Matt goes upstairs while Pam explores the kitchen - which doesn't match the rest of the house at all. Inside the fridge she finds a severed head which sings: “I just want my body.” (This is director William A Levey himself, apparently ripping off a gag from Young Frankenstein but without using a real song.) Pam says, “Get a grip of yourself!” and shuts the fridge door.
    • Upstairs, Matt is seduced, again, by Josie. Pam appears but is knocked to the floor. Josie then moves a knife very, very, very slowly towards Matt’s throat, giving Pam enough time to wake up, take in the situation and knock the knife away. Except she doesn’t knock the knife away, but Josie stops what she’s doing anyway.
    • Pam and Matt escape but find that Carlyle is on the roof of their car. Instead of just screeching to a halt and letting momentum take its course, they deliberately crash into a building. As Carlyle struggles to his feet, Zonk suddenly appears, standing on the back of the car, waving his axe and machete. Carlyle blasts him with the crystal and Zonk falls to the floor, never to be seen again.
    • The building collapses on top of Carlyle but as it seems to be made of only very light planking it’s no surprise when his hand emerges from the wreckage.
    • Matt and Pam drive away from Hellgate but stop close enough to look back and see the buildings blowing up for no apparent reason.

    There is undoubtedly more but I have blocked it from my memory. This should however be enough to demonstrate that there is absolutely no attempt at continuity or sense. I wondered at one point whether this was all supposed to be a nightmare, or a Carnival of Souls-type situation, but I don’t think it is because, apart from anything else, whose nightmare would it be? Most of the really weird things happen to Bobby and she dies before the end. Throughout all of this, incidentally, there is constant thunder and lightning but never a hint of rain.

    The number of questions raised is probably longer than the actual film script. Prime among them are:

    • Is the town inhabited by ghosts or by zombies?
    • Why does a fake town have a real cemetery?
    • What do Carlyle and his daughter actually do?
    • Why does Zonk go to the town and why do we only see him for about a second and a half when he gets there?
    • And possibly the most important question of all: can I get my money back?

    Actually, I’m reviewing this from the same disc that I was sent to review for SFX. I received the DVD on Friday, watched it on Saturday, wrote the reviews on Sunday and Monday and by Tuesday the disc had achieved that rare feat of being on sale in a charity shop before it was actually released.

    Hellgate really is unremitting shite from start to finish, scraping the barrel in terms of direction, script and production design to the extent that the crappy special effects and the wooden acting seem to rise by comparison to the level of mere mediocrity. A large part of the blame must lie with director Levey who started his career with the worst blaxploitation film ever made, Blackenstein, and followed it with Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. This was his last film, thank the Lord. He may have been working from a crappy script, and perhaps the producer interfered, but much of the direction is simply incompetent. One of the most extraordinary things about the film is that it wasn’t directed by Alan Smithee, because it’s difficult to see why anyone would keep their name on this rubbish.

    Scriptwriter Michael O’Rourke wrote and directed two other crappy late 1980s horror movies, Deadly Love and Moonstalker, before disappearing from whence he came. Producer Anant Singh’s other credits include Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country, The Mangler and Bravo Two Zero. Observant readers will have gather by now that this film, although set in California, was actually a South African production. Cinematographer Peter Palmer was second unit focus puller on Shaka Zulu, which is about as low as one can go in the pecking order of crew members without actually doing the catering.

    Speaking of people with minor credits, the sleeve of this DVD repeats the claim from the original New World video that the film comes “from the special effects masters behind Hellraiser and Hellbound.” Which is odd as Bob Keen did the effects for those two movies. A close analysis of the credits finds that one of the members of Keen’s Image Animation team on Hellbound was Alan Hedgecock and that Allen Hedgecock is one of three people credited with the effects on Hellgate. It is obvious that he made only a very minor contribution to Hellbound and if he did any work at all on Hellraiser it wasn’t enough to get a credit. (An unpleasant addendum to this is that in 2007 Alan Hedgecock was found guilty of possession of child pornography and conspiracy to rape a minor and setenced to prison. - MJS)

    Astoundingly for such an ineptly edited film (or maybe not so astoundingly) there are three credited editors: Alan Baard, Max Lemon (Picnic at Hanging Rock and, um, Gor) and Chris Barnes - who started out working for Hammer on Plague of the Zombies and continued through to The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, fifteen films later. He also worked on The Last Horror Film, Masks of Death and Sammy's Super T-Shirt. No production designer is credited and that also says a lot.

    Also in the cast are Len Sparrowhawk (Terminator Woman, American Kickboxer, Zulu Dawn, Lethal Ninja) and Alan Granville (Black Terrorist, Prey for the Hunter) as a couple of deputies who decide not to go to Hellgate (so what was the point of including them?).

    Sometimes even crap films get a decent DVD release, but in this case the normally reliable Anchor Bay have apparently gone insane. Not only are there no extras of any kind, not even a trailer, they have actually listed the fact that the film is presented in the wrong ratio as a feature! The US release, also through Anchor Bay and double-billed with something called The Pit, was 1.77:1, formatted for 16:9. I’m not a stickler for aspect ratios but the ‘features box’ on the back of the UK sleeve actually crows “Fullscreen presentation (1.33:1)”. Just astounding. The film runs 87 minutes which matches the 91 minutes of the NTSC version; some sources list the original film as 97 minutes but I certainly don’t want to ever sit through another six minutes of this tripe.

    As somebody whose job it is to watch films that most people would consider “the worst film I have ever seen” I try to avoid using specious phrases like “the worst film I have ever seen” - but this really, genuinely is (one of) the worst film(s) I have ever seen. It is relentlessly, unremittingly, mindbendingly bad on every level and in every way without a single thing in its favour.

    MJS rating: D-
    review originally posted 13th February 2006


    Director: Pat Higgins
    Writer: Pat Higgins
    Producer: Pat Higgins
    Cast: James Fisher, Rebecca Herod, James Kavaz
    Country: UK
    Year of release: 2007
    Reviewed from: screener disc

    HellBride is the third feature from Pat Higgins and while it’s better than his debut TrashHouse, I have to say in all honesty that I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as KillerKiller (which was filmed after HellBride but completed first).

    The film comes with one of the great tag-lines: ‘At Nicole’s wedding, there will be blood, mayhem and slaughter. There will also be cake, and a late bar.’ But this is somewhat misleading. There is indeed plenty of blood, a little mayhem and some undeniable slaughter but there is no cake and no late bar in this film. Anyone expecting, as I was, supernatural pandemonium at a wedding reception will have to look elsewhere because HellBride never gets past the actual ceremony. It’s a shame, but I think another tagline is called for.

    The basic plot revolves around a cursed ring. A hundred years or so ago, a bride-to-be named Josephine Stewart (Eleanor James, who was in Forest of the Damned, has been cast in the frankly doubtful remake of The House on Straw Hill and looks like she could be the next Eileen Daly) discovered that her husband was cheating on her so she cut off her finger and then killed the bastard. Now she haunts the ring, bringing death and mayhem to anyone who tries to use it to get married. Only by actually tying the knot - while avoiding the vengeful spirit and her surprisingly corporeal axe - can the curse be broken.

    Lee Parker (James Fisher: The Zombie Diaries) and Nicole Meadows (Rebecca Herod) are the latest happy couple to pick the troublesome ring. Lee is a stand-up comedian which is ironic as I noted that many of the cast of KillerKiller actually are stand-up comedians in real life, whereas Fisher seems to be strictly an actor. I’m not sure what Nicole does but her father Lesley (James Kavaz, Harris in KillerKiller, who passed away suddenly while this film was in post-production and to whom it is rightly dedicated) is a businessman with some shady, but unspecified, dealings. In fact he owes a local mob boss named Mr Gardenia a quarter of a million quid.

    When Gardenia’s unpleasant son Jason (Joey Page - not the American singer of that name) comes calling, Lesley Meadows kills him and is surprised to find that Nicole is unfazed by this, even offering to help dispose of the body.

    Meanwhile, Josephine Stuart has started manifesting herself to Nicole and Lee, along with a curious, unexplained character in a sort of heavy cloak who wears a long, beak-like, metal mask. Described as a ‘monster’, I can’t work out who or what this is, nor could I work out who it is that is killed after the ‘monster’ emerges from behind a sofa (although I subsequently discovered it's the jeweler who sold Lee the ring). Beaky is some sort of supernatural henchman of Josephine’s but no explanation is offered.

    Counterpointing the lovey-dovey couple are their respective best friends, jack-the-lad Ricky (Oli Wilkinson: Luke in TrashHouse) and reformed gothette Carly (Natalie Milner) who are, of course, an ex-couple themselves, now hiding their simmering feelings for each other underneath a layer of antipathy. As Carly was once interested in the dark arts, Nicole seeks her help and the two young women drive through the night to visit Carly’s geeky cousin Sinclair (Cy Henty, who was in both of Higgins’ previous features) whose knowledge of the supernatural enables him to temporarily deal with Josephine Stuart.

    The first two acts of the film are very enjoyable. Comedy is the hardest genre to attempt in a low-budget picture, especially romantic comedy, but HellBride manages to be both funny and romantic and the gradual intrusion of the horror elements is deftly handled. The characters are believable and sympathetic, the dialogue often hilarious.

    It’s the third act, the wedding itself, that left me somewhat disappointed. The hall where the civil ceremony takes place is represented by a high-ceilinged room with yellow curtains around all four sides. A few flowers and balloons are not enough to make this feel like somewhere that a couple are actually getting married. Also contributing to the lack of a wedding feel is the absence of any guests, explained by Lesley having filled the hall with hitmen to protect the happy couple, rightly fearing that Gardenia will want to spoil the day in revenge for his son’s death.

    As the supernatural shenanigans start inside the hall, we are expected to believe that Meadows’ men are having a pitched gun-battle outside with a gang of hoods hired by Gardenia, yet we never hear any shouts or gunshots - and that seems to me to be a major (albeit relatively easily fixed) problem with these scenes.

    More intrinsic is a sudden lack of pace. Just as the film is reaching its climax, with a gangster battle outside and Josephine and Beaky prepared to do anything in their power to stop Nicole marrying Lee... the film seems to slow down. There’s no panic in the climax, no powerful bang-bang-bang in either the editing or or the music, and the story really, really needs to be ramped up, once the bullets start flying and the ghost appears, into a powerful, punchy piece of action.

    There is still some sparkling dialogue and plenty of gore - don’t get me wrong - but where is the excitement? Where is the tension? Things should be happening on top of each other, not in sedate succession. This third act should build to a climax until the final, inevitable bride vs bride denouement - and it doesn’t. I don’t know what has happened there. It must be a deliberate decision on Pat Higgins’ part but it’s very strange.

    HellBride is good fun and very original - and I can appreciate that a tight budget is not going to allow for some massive Richard Curtis-style society wedding in a marquee the size of Wiltshire - but it lacks oomph when it needs it. Plus I still don’t understand who or what Beaky is. On the plus side, Cy Henty (who also contributed the drawings shown under the very funny prologue and epilogue) absolutely steals the picture with a terrific comic turn as Sinclair. Danielle Laws from KillerKiller turns up in a film-within-a-film, a monster spoof titled Squid Slayer that Lee and Ricky watch on TV.

    ‘Gore and prosthetics’ are credited to Beverley Chorlton who also worked on KillerKiller and did a terrific job on both films. Alan Ronald (Jesus vs the Messiah) once again handles cinematography. Higgins pulled quadruple duty, as usual, as writer, director, producer and editor - and also found time to crop up in one scene as a comedy club compere.

    I really wanted to like HellBride more than I did, possibly because my hopes of cake and a late bar were unrealistically high. It is a good, funny, gory, romantic comedy horror but it’s let down by that flat third act. Tighter editing and a background track of screams and gunfire would have made all the difference.

    MJS rating: B-
    review originally posted 2nd May 2007