Monday, 25 August 2014

interview: Michael Booth

Michael Booth wrote, directed, produced, photographed and edited the marvelous feature Kuru. After I reviewed the film in August 2014, Mike very kindly (and very promptly!) answered a few questions about the movie. (NB. This is not the same Michael Booth who wrote and directed Diary of a Bad Lad and Tash Force.)

What was your film-making background/experience before you made this?
"Before Kuru, I'd really only ever made experimental little shorts. I made two or three short films at college that I haven't seen since, but it was always my ambition to make a feature film. After leaving college I started working full time at a cinema and in the meantime wrote films. That's about all the experience I have."

How did you go about casting your crucial central role?
"I kind of dreaded finishing the script because I knew I then had to find someone to play Claire. I didn't know how I was going to pitch it to an actor, what was essentially the part of a cannibalistic monster with no emotion. I started asking around through various actor friends in case they knew someone but it was slow going. Then one day I found out that Carol, who I worked with, was an actor. I sent her an e-mail with the script and was thrilled when she agreed to meet and talk about it. I remember she was enthusiastic about it and had a lot to say about the part and why she'd like to do it. I was very lucky because, as well as being an excellent actor, Carol has a great sense of humour. There were days when I was asking her to crawl around on the floor and throw up concoctions of dyed black porridge! She took it in good spirit  I was really pleased with her performance, she required very little direction on my part which was a massive help. I'm not sure I could have made it without her."

How were you able to create something this impressive on just £250.
"The short films I've made in the past I've done for little or no money, so I just made it the way I would have shot one of my shorts, just over a longer time. I knew my first film would have to be low budget, so I wrote it low budget. I set it in one location with as few characters as possible, and then shot it myself in my parents' house. The £250 went on make-up materials, batteries for the sound man, props....and sandwiches! If I'd have had more money, I would have distributed it amongst the cast and crew, because everyone was so good to give up their free time to make it, but I just didn't have the cash to pay them."

Why did you decide to turn your colour film into monochrome and how do you think that changes the movie?
"The film was shot, edited and first screened in colour. I'd always envisioned it as a colour film. I can't remember what made me do it now, but I decided one day to take a look at the film again in black and white and that was it. I converted the whole thing, having spent ages already colour correcting it, and mastered off the final cut in monochrome. It just works for the film. There's an otherworldly quality to black and white images that I find beautiful and engaging. I don't know if the film is better in black and white, but I think it adds to the tone of the film."

Which part(s) of the film do you think work best, and what would you change if you could?
"I find it very difficult to see Kuru objectively now. I spent so long writing and shooting and editing it, looking for faults, that I can't watch it without seeing things I would change. I'm happy with the overall tone, the sense of building dread. Henry's music did a lot of that work for me. I think I could have shot some scenes differently, given them more of an impact, made it scarier  It wasn't meant to be scary though, I always describe it to people as 'unsettling'. The main thing I would change is the location. The house was meant to be small, but I just couldn't find anywhere to do it. In the end I decided to make it at my parents' house which is a lovely big country house, and because of that I had to write in some back story to make sense of why a young artistic couple are living in such a large house. I should have rented somewhere and I did look into it but I can't remember why I changed my mind."

Why has the film sat unseen on Vimeo? Did you try for distribution or festival play?
"I did send it to some festivals when I finished the first cut. That would have been the slightly longer colour version  It was rejected by all of them. I actually spent more money sending it to the festivals than I did making the film, about £300. I was quite tired of the film by that point having worked on it non-stop for about four months, so the rejections left me deflated. I shelved it for a few months then eventually went back to it and re-edited it and converted it to black and white. I could have resubmitted it to festivals but I decided to just post it online so at least the people who worked on it could see it and show it to their friends and families."

To what extent is this, in your view, a vampire film?
"It's interesting you regard it as a vampire film - I always intended it to be a zombie film. I wanted to take a genre and try and do something different and original with it, and with zombies I thought I could do something. Claire isn't a typical zombie of course, I suppose I've created a new kind of monster. All zombies I've seen are mindless hungry beasts. The difference with Claire is she's intelligent, she's sentient. She hunts her prey. That's why there are so many references to spiders throughout the film. Spiders are so creepy because they always seem to be thinking. They sit perfectly still until their prey comes to them, like they're just waiting. That's how I described it to Carol, that she's really like a human spider."

What are your plans for the future?
"At the moment I'm shooting a short film about the artist JMW Turner ( which I'm very excited about, I hope to finish that in October.  I'm also writing my next feature film Deadbeat which I hope to shoot next year.  It's a film noir about ghosts and murderers and femme fatales. After that, I'll just keep making films because it's what I love doing."


Director: Michael Booth
Writer: Michael Booth
Producer: Michael Booth
Cast: Carol Roache, Joseph Curdy, Natalie Danks-Smith
Country: UK
Year: 2013
Reviewed from Vimeo (see link below)

Kuru is a complete vindication of everything I keep trying to tell people about the British Horror Revival, to frustratingly little effect. How can people still be bothered about bloated Hollywood crap, or pine nostalgically for the long-gone days of Hammer and Amicus, when brilliant, vital indie pictures like this are being made and freely distributed? It’s as if, in the late 1970s, everybody had been ignoring punk and instead listening to dreadful prog rock double albums or just obsessively listening to 1960s Rolling Stones hits.

This is where it’s at, horror fans. Wake up, sheeple!

Kuru cost about £250 to make. You can watch it for free on Vimeo. It’s expertly directed, brilliantly original, superbly photographed, bleakly depressing, thoroughly contemporary and features an awesomely powerful central performance. Watch it. Watch it now. Understand that this is where British horror is at. And understand that this is a good thing.

Claire (Carol Roache) and Ethan (Joseph Curdy) are an Anglo-American couple living in a nice house in the countryside which formerly belonged to Claire’s parents. He’s a writer, she’s a costume designer, and three months ago she had a miscarriage. Now Ethan has to leave his wife alone for a week or two while he travels to California for a final visit to his terminally ill father. Looking for something in the loft, Claire finds an old box, within which is a curious item, perhaps some sort of large nut, which contaminates her, making her ill.

The first act is a brilliant build-up, with fine characterisation from the two leads (plus a couple of neighbours) and a gradually mounting feeling of dread. We’re sure that something will happen, but not sure what. Particularly clever is the contrast between Claire in the prologue and flashbacks, a cheery blonde, and post-miscarriage Claire. Her brunette bob isn’t the only difference, just the most obvious. Roache tells us through her face how this woman’s dreams have been shattered, and Curdy does a terrific turn as the husband who would help in any way if he could.

But it’s the infection from that mysterious nut which instigates the film’s horror as sickly Claire transforms into… something. Not quite a vampire, not quite a zombie, though certainly more towards the former. Her hair falls out, she becomes increasingly photosensitive, and every type of food she tries to eat is just brought straight back up. Until… circumstances present her with human flesh, the one type of sustenance she craves.

Narratively, Kuru reminded me of Andrew Parkinson's I, Zombie in its tale of a person living alone, descending into mental as well as physical illness as they are forced to become a murderer and cannibal in order to survive. In a frankly superb performance, Roache plays the final hour in silence, and often alone on screen. Unlike I, Zombie’s urban protagonist who could stalk the city streets, visitors to the house are rare and Claire must take what opportunities she can as the remains of her life spiral down the metaphorical plug-hole.

But there are other layers here, revealed in flashbacks of uncertain provenance which make us see Ethan differently. But is there any reality to these, or are we viewing things through Claire’s diseased mind? There are no easy answers or pat resolutions in Kuru, but neither is there a lazy lack of resolution like the over-rated Kill List. Vastly superior to Ben Wheatley’s over-hyped crap (and much of the other horror which gets critical darlings salivating), Kuru demonstrates how to create a film which poses questions and makes its viewers think about what they have seen and what it could mean.

The cast are all excellent, including Joseph Curdy’s son as a little boy at the centre of a genuinely creepy and disturbing scene. The only serious mis-step is a trio of burglars whose good looks and posh, drama school accents suggest their drugs of choice are cappuccino and a nice glass of chablis. That aside, there is nothing to dislike here and much to admire, not least the cinematography and editing by writer-director Michael Booth. The film was originally in colour and ran about 110 minutes but Booth revisited the picture, cut it down to 94 minutes (which does include a rather long, albeit visually interesting, opening title sequence) and regraded the film into black and white. The monochrome works without a doubt, giving this bleak story a suitably bleak appearance. Props also to Henry Salmon whose wonderfully atmospheric score adds hugely to the film’s professional sheen.

The supporting cast includes Natalie Danks-Smith, who was a hand-maiden in Attack of the Clones and has been in episodes of Doctor Who and Torchwood. Laura Barker handled the make-up, which includes some very good bald caps, and Lindsey Archer (Doghouse, Armistice) designed the costumes. Hugely experienced sound engineer Bob Burnell handled the sound, another area where the film scores points.

Shot over February to June 2011, Kuru had a single cast and crew screening in its longer, colour version. In April 2013, Booth posted the monochrome version to Vimeo – and there it has sat ever since, almost completely unknown and undocumented. Which is a bloody shame because this is a terrific little film. It’s British, it’s bleakly depressing, it’s brilliantly written, directed, acted and produced. It’s exactly the sort of undiscovered indie gem that people like me are looking for.

MJS rating: A-
[The film was subsequently retitled Claire for festival submissions. - MJS]

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Mirror

Director: Ed Boase
Writer: Ed Boase
Producers:  Ed Boase, Hamish Moseley
Cast: Jemma Dallender, Joshua Dickinson, Nate Fallows
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: screener (Matchbox Films)

There’s a bit in one of Dara O’Briain’s stand-up videos where he talks about a feature he saw in the Evening Standard on ‘Ten medical symptoms you must not ignore’, of which the top three were: “rectal bleeding … loss of height … and sudden blindness! Who ignores ‘sudden blindness’?” In The Mirror, a character wakes up completely blind, with massively dilated pupils, and both he and his friends decide that the best thing for him is not a trip to the emergency eye clinic but to just sleep it off. It was at this point that I realised the film’s plot, such as it is, depends in large part on the characters doing completely stupid things. Which is a shame.

The Mirror is the 428th found footage horror movie released this year, by my reckoning, but it at least presents an original justification for its hackneyed let’s-film-everything premise. Flatmates Matt, Jemma and Steve are going to apply for the James Randi $1,000,000 Prize and are filming themselves as their application video. A little background I feel is in order here, as there’s none in the film so viewers unfamiliar with Randi and his work may be confused.

James Randi is a celebrated American magician (now retired) and sceptic. A large part of his life has been spent debunking paranormal claims of all sorts, most famously Uri Geller’s ridiculous spoon-bending antics in the 1970s. In 1964 Randi established a $1,000 prize, on offer to anyone who could provide evidence of supernatural or paranormal abilities or phenomena under controlled conditions. Over the years, the prize money has increased and since 1996 it has been a million bucks. There have been hundreds of applicants, all of whom have agreed to controlled conditions, all of whom have failed miserably (of course) and most of whom have immediately claimed that the conditions they agreed to were unfair.

To save having to deal with every wacko and fruitcake on the planet, Randi used to stipulate that he would only accept applications from people whose ‘abilities’ had already generated some press coverage or who had the backing of an academic institution. In 2011, the rules were changed to allow people to submit a video via YouTube as an alternative. And that’s what Matt, Jemma and Steve are planning to do. Apparently.

The three live in a modern flat in a converted warehouse. Matt and Jemma are an item. Steve is the best-friend gooseberry. Occasional possible hints at a sublimated love triangle are so vague and fleeting that they may just be my imagination (in other words, if there’s supposed to be any sexual tension between Jemma and Steve, nothing is made of it).

But what precisely is the paranormal malarkey which they think will net them a cool million from the James Randi Educational Foundation where so many others have failed? It’s… a haunted mirror. They have bought on eBay a large antique mirror which is supposedly ‘haunted’ in some never-clarified way. And so confident are they that this nonspecific ‘hauntedness’ will be not only genuine but also visibly apparent that they are prepared to invest considerable time, effort and money in videoing the mirror from the moment it arrives. They put it on the living room wall, set up a camera to film it 24 hours a day, and also invest in a second camera and a Go-Pro because “we must film everything.”

And there, as so often, is where the whole ‘found footage’ thing becomes an intrusion, having the very opposite effect on the verisimilitude of the movie to that which the film-makers intend. You don't have to film everything; that’s just creating an arbitrary narrative requirement out of nothing. Furthermore, you’re not going to film everything, if only because you can’t film everything. You’re looking at 24 hours of footage every day from the ‘mirror-cam’ and, say, 16 hours each from the other two cameras, assuming you switch them off when you’re asleep.  So that’s 56 hours of tedious nothing-happening footage to review and edit every day. In a very short space of time most of your personal footage will be of you hunkered over a laptop editing the footage from the previous day: footage of you editing stuff from the day before. It’s going to get so recursive you’ll eventually disappear with a pop like some sort of digital oozlum bird.

As often happens when I watch a found footage film, I rapidly realised that the concept added nothing to the story, which could (and should) have been told better without every single thing being a POV shot. That wouldn’t detract from those occasions when POV was relevant. We could still have been shown footage from the mirror-cam, for instance, staring through its unblinking lens at a reflection of the camera itself while our own vision flicks around the glass rectangle and the ‘other room’ it reveals, searching for something spookily out of place.

Good luck with that by the way. Let me tell you here that this is a possibly unique entry in the subgenre of ‘haunted mirror’ horror films in that absolutely nothing unusual or spooky appears in the mirror. Nothing. Nothing ever. It just shows the room, the camera and anyone standing in front of it. We don’t see anything out of the ordinary, nor do the three flatmates. To put it bluntly, the fact that the ‘haunted’ item is a mirror is completely irrelevant. It could have been a haunted candlestick, a haunted alarm clock, a haunted pizza-cutter or a haunted Swedish-made penis enlarger for all the difference it would make to the plot. It is, in short, just A Mirror.

So as I say, a regular film could still have shown us the initially intriguing but ultimately disappointing mirror-cam footage, and could also have included footage from the other camera and the Go-Pro if their existence was considered relevant to the plot. Heck, there’s no law against just showing a character’s point of view. Film-makers have done that for decades. It helps the audience to identify with and empathise with the character in question: we see through their eyes and for that instant we are that character. Found footage as a format destroys that identification and empathy by making everything POV – even moreso here as the multiple cameras mean that often we are initially unsure whose point of view we are actually viewing.

Now, if the mirror itself doesn’t do anything, what constitutes the plot? Well, Matt starts sleepwalking, becomes increasingly irascible and refuses to share the Go-Pro footage with the others. There are some sharp kitchen knives which become relevant in a way that I won’t describe in detail to avoid spoilers, except to note that seven minutes from the end of the film one character finally has the bleeding obvious idea of, you know, hiding them. Matt’s behaviour is blamed by Jemma and Steve on the mirror - but there’s no connection at all, except that he started acting oddly after the mirror was brought into the flat. Honestly, it’s astounding how irrelevant the mirror is to the plot of The Mirror. All through the film I was expecting something to happen, something to appear, but there’s nothing. The closest we get is an odd coincidence in one of several 1920s newspaper clippings stuck to the back of the mirror for some never-explained reason (these are dated very precisely, so either the 1920s clipper carefully wrote the date on each bit of paper or they are all from the corner of the page).

Actual events are few and far between. There is a short scene with a Ouija board which made my heart sink but nothing comes of it and it’s never mentioned again. Maybe there’s some sort of EU directive that all low-budget horror movies must contain a Ouija board scene. There is also a sequence where the trio return from an evening out to find the door ajar and the flat wrecked, which they are sure is conclusive proof of ghostly activity. And not, you know, burglars. Which is a more likely explanation, even in a ghost movie, because why the hell would a paranormal entity emanating from an item in the flat need to open the door?

So do they report this break-in to the police? Apparently not. (That is: if they do tell the cops, we’re not told or shown it and it’s never referred to.) Instead, they swiftly restore the flat to its previous pristine condition and never mention it again. And it is pristine, this place. It doesn’t look at all like three young people live there. I know young people are duller and more boring than in my day and it doesn’t have to look like the house in The Young Ones, but they would still make a mess, they would still leave clutter. Young people still put posters on their walls; I’ve seen them. But not these three dullards apparently. No attempt has been made to dress the location to make it believable, thereby further robbing the film of credibility.

In that respect, this cypher of a location reflects the three cyphers who live there. It dawned on me halfway through that these three people have no existence outside of the film. Are they students? Do they have jobs? They're certainly not unemployed slackers in that nice flat. Do they have families or any other friends? Who knows? The three of them and their one location are a self-contained microcosm which exists only for the purposes of the 83 minutes we spend with them, and as such neither they nor their lives are believable in any way.

The upshot of all this is that The Mirror, I am sad to report, is very, very dull. Almost nothing happens, and when it does happen, it’s not interesting or believable. About an hour in, this pattern is briefly broken by a couple of nasty, gory moments (one of them completely given away by the DVD sleeve!) which are the indisputable high points of the film. Not because of the gore, but because something freaking happens. Furthermore, this overall lack of story has the unfortunate side-effect of allowing the viewer to pay more attention to the nuts and bolts of the film and hence further flags up the inadequacies of the found footage conceit. Unless a camera is being carried by someone in a state of panic, everything is framed just so. Nobody’s head is ever cut off, except for one shot where the director doesn’t want us to see a character’s face so the frame cuts them off at the neck. And everything is lit to be spooky; I lost track of the number of scenes where someone prowls around the flat in semi-darkness when there is no reason at all not to just switch on the damn light.

On the plus side however, at least none of the footage breaks up and goes BZZZT! like in Hungerford and Dark Vision. These guys bought decent cameras that actually work. There is just a little bit of digital blocking on occasions which is so believable that it might even be real.

Beyond the camera-work it’s the editing (by director Ed Boase) that really lets the film down; not because it’s bad but because – you guessed it – it’s good. The whole thing has been professionally edited like a regular movie. The use of multiple cameras to film the same thing results in lots of cuts between characters, cuts to close-ups, elliptical time-lapses, the sort of construction that we expect in a movie but which completely destroys the premise that this ‘footage’ has been ‘found’. A successful found footage movie, like Cloverfield for example, works on the premise that a series of long, unedited takes have been shot in chronological sequence on a single camcorder. Once that idea is lost, we’re no longer dealing with found footage.

A caption at the end of the film reads: “This footage was recovered by police in the search for the missing flatmates. It has since been submitted to the James Randi Foundation. The Mirror has never been found.” What? Did the police take the hours and hours and hours of footage on the cameras and laptops in the flat and edit together about an hour and a half of it very carefully, using lots of cinematic conventions, including plenty of character-establishing stuff from before anyone started acting oddly? Oh, and then they decided to submit it to the JREF, did they? Because that million dollars could buy them some shiny new walkie-talkies and new upholstery for the squad cars, I suppose…

And just what is it that is being submitted for Randi’s prize anyway? There’s nothing supernatural, paranormal or in any way unexplainable in any of this footage: no ghosts, no poltergeists, no telekinesis. Looks to me like a simple case of mental breakdown and psychosis which is blamed on a ‘haunted’ mirror in a classic case of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, a common delusion familiar to anyone interested in scepticism. Plus the fact that these people don’t call 999 when (a) their flat is ransacked or (b) one of them is rendered blind proves what morons they are and doesn’t give me confidence in anything they say on screen. (The non-supernatural explanation for the blindness is shown to us beforehand via the Go-Pro footage but apparently neither of the other two bothered to watch this.)

What a thoroughly disappointing and dispiriting experience The Mirror is. Which is a real shame because this has obviously been made with care and with passion. Technically it’s highly commendable (which is, as noted, not necessarily a good thing in this type of film). The largely improvised dialogue is smart and believable, even if the characters and plot aren’t. Above all, it features three absolutely terrific performances from three very talented actors. But since their characters have no reality, the story doesn’t hang together in any way, and the audience is constantly distracted by not wanting to miss the spooky image in the mirror which must surely, eventually appear… no? … ah well … this excellent acting is wasted in a film which, with the best will in the world, simply doesn’t work.

Jemma is played by Jemma Dallender, who also starred in Community and I Spit on Your Grave 2. Matt is Joshua Dickinson, creator/star of both the stage and screen versions of Opening Night of the Living Dead. And Steve is Nate Fallows who was in an episode of Whitechapel. If nothing else, The Mirror is a great showcase for all three. Brief roles for Abby Ford (Prisoner of Azkaban) and Roisin Rae in exterior scenes round out the cast.

The Mirror is based on a real case, sort of. In February 2013 two men in London advertised a ‘haunted mirror’ on eBay, a novelty story which attracted the attention of the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post (but no other papers, who could see what a load of crap it was). A quick google will bring up press coverage of these guys who allegedly picked up an old antique mirror from a skip, painted the frame and then started getting all manner of random, spooky occurrences, ranging from the nebulous (feelings of dread – jeez, get over it) to the ectoplasmic (smoky apparitions and other stuff that might have enlivened this film). I get the impression that the more remarkable phenomena were added to the story to keep the press interested, but maybe that’s just me. Incidentally, I love how the liberal Huff Post refers to these two men as ‘a couple’ but in the conservative Mail they are merely ‘flatmates’!

As a result of this publicity the mirror apparently sold for £100 to an anonymous buyer. But as many web commenters observed, if the thing that these guys got for free was causing them so much upset, why didn’t they just chuck it back in the skip instead of keeping it in the house while the eBay ad ran and gullible/bored journos came round to interview them.

Ed Boase also came round to interview them and this forms a 14-minute extra on the Mirror DVD. He then apparently decided that this idea of a haunted mirror would make a great horror film and set to making it, the finished movie premiering at the 2014 Frightfest just ahead of the disc’s release. Being of a cynical turn of mind, I can’t help wondering whether the two men are actually mates of Ed’s and the whole thing around the eBay ad was just a big scam, designed to provide a convenient publicity hook for the film when it finally appeared. Especially as Ed has said he was offered the chance to use the actual original mirror in the film, which shouldn’t have been possible if it really had been snapped up by an anonymous buyer. Frankly, if the whole story is BS and the 14-minute interview is fake, then I find that more interesting and entertaining than the feature, which surely was never the intention.

The Mirror was shot (as Haunted Mirror) over nine days in the summer of 2013 with a couple of pick-ups later for brief outdoor scenes. The budget of £10,000 apparently included 500 quid to the real mirror guys for exclusive rights to their story, which was a pretty good deal as it’s five times what they got for their actual crappy old (non-haunted) mirror on eBay! They also get a ‘special thanks’ credit. The location was an unfurnished flat in East London, which a company was paid to furnish, but the absence of a production designer (none is credited) is glaring. The place looks like these three have just moved in (as indeed they have).

Cinematographer Keidrich Wasley does a good job on his feature debut after numerous shorts and music videos, adroitly handling the different light levels (even if, as noted, they’re not always needed) and letting us believe that the cast are always holding the camera. He also shares story and editing credits with Boase. Tim Quinton (Doctor Who, Bloody Cuts, The Harry Hill Movie) designed and applied the prosthetics for the later, nasty bits, while Natalie Wickens (Dead Cert, Devil’s Playground, Umbrage, Zombie Diaries 2) handled the regular make-up. There is no credited costume designer. Neill Gorton’s company Millennium FX provided ‘sfx’ but these don’t extend as far as any apparitions, ghosts or demons, sadly. Indie rock quintet Of Mercia were responsible for the music apparently but I can’t honestly recall any; the found footage concept precludes incidental music and the end credits play out in silence. Maybe they were on a radio or something. Was there a radio in any scene?

This is Boase’s second feature after Blooded, a 2011 BHR spin on The Most Dangerous Game in which hunt protestors chase down hunters. I haven’t seen that but Variety called it “a promising but flawed debut … [with] … a half-clever, half-pointless pseudo-documentary framing device”. On the evidence of The Mirror - which I really, really wanted to like more than I did – Boase has the talent and just needs to channel it into a feature that relies on a well-thought-out story and credible characters rather than a novelty filmic concept, especially when it’s not such a novelty any more.

MJS rating: B-

Monday, 18 August 2014

Panic Button

Director: Chris Crow
Writers: Chris Crow, Frazer Lee, John Shackleton, David Shillitoe
Producer: John Shackleton
Cast: Michael Jibson, Jack Gordon, Elen Rhys, Scarlett Alice Johnson
Country: UK
Year: 2011
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Panic Button is a well-made but unpleasant and ultimately somewhat shallow feature which is primarily notable as the return from the wilderness of Frazer Lee, whose short films On Edge and Red Lines were among the first rays of the dawning British Horror Revival. Lee is one of four credited writers, along with sophomore director Chris Crow, but the inverse square law of writing credits applies (sometimes known as Flintstone’s Law) and sadly the script features a plot which doesn’t make a lot of sense during the film and then falls apart completely, as soon as the credits roll, like a tissue in a rainstorm.

Keeping costs low while maximising on-screen production value, most of the film is four actors in one location, which is the cabin of a luxury private jet. Gwen, Jo, Max and Dave have won a competition organised by massively popular social networking site Facebook All2gethr and their prize is an all-expenses paid trip to New York. Once in the air, they are given a series of tasks by a disembodied voice (and a simplistically animated crocodile on their in-flight movie screens) as part of a ‘game’ which rapidly turns sour.

On first meeting the quartet in a VIP lounge at the airport, the only obviously unpleasant one is Dave (Michael Jibson: Freakdog), a smarmy creep who thinks he’s much funnier than he is. Max (Jack Gordon: Heartless, The Devil’s Business, Truth or Dare) seems pretty relaxed, with his multi-coloured woolly hat; Gwen (Elen Rhys, who was a flight attendant in World War Z) is a bit ditzy; and Jo (Scarlett Alice Johnson: EastEnders, The Reeds) whom we met in a prologue saying goodbye to her daughter, is ‘the sensible one’ I suppose. Real characterisation comes later as all four are forced to admit to character failings: one has an alcohol problem, one has a taste for dodgy Japanese porn etc.

The first act does a good job of establishing the premise as the foursome gradually realise quite how much danger they are in and how helpless they are to do anything except what they’re told. But it’s not just these four: infringements of the rules are punished by the brutal murder of friends/relatives, shown live via handycam. This tips Panic Button over into the genre of torture porn, albeit more in terms of theme than imagery as the killings happen elsewhere and are shown only very briefly in grainy footage (complete with the occasional mandatory BZZZT!). Naturally, the four passengers clash about what to do and naturally the situation on board the plane turns, before too long, to violence.

Chris Crow follows his rural horror debut Devil’s Bridge by swapping the agoraphobia of the wide, Welsh open countryside for the claustrophobia of a single cabin (plus loo) with no possible means of egress. And to his credit he does a good job of keeping the story flowing and the tension rising within the fugue-like limitations of four characters and one set. In this he is greatly helped once again by the cinematography of Simon Poulter who bathes much of the film in the sort of sodium-beige lighting that we associate with the inside of an aircraft. And there is no doubt that the four principal actors do a sterling job, bringing their characters to life and preventing them from being simple cyphers.

Ostensibly Panic Button is about the potential horror of social media: people’s willingness to put every detail of themselves online, and the callous disregard for humanity which reduces other people’s suffering to video clips and LOL comments. The trouble is that, by halfway through the film that side of things is largely forgotten in favour of a simplistic tale of a sadistic control freak forcing people to do horrible things in a desperate attempt to prevent their loved ones being butchered. Which is a lot less interesting. There are horror films to be made about the plague of social media – Backslasher is an example of one that works – but Panic Button ends up using its supposed main theme as little more than a hook on which to hang off-the-shelf violence and fear. There’s no depth to it and it never makes us think anything (except “ooh, that’s nasty” or “well, that person’s an idiot”),

One of the film’s biggest problems is that these four young people, while no angels, are not especially wicked. They haven’t murdered anyone, they haven’t even cyberbullied anyone, they’re just four meaningless individuals in the morass of impersonal crap that is Facebook All2gethr. So the punishments they face are not random but nor are they appropriate to the characters’ transgressions; they come across instead as utterly disproportionate. We can’t really sympathise with the characters but nor can we view their punishment as in any way righteous. The ending does implicate them in something a bit worse than previously revealed but that still doesn’t justify what is done to them and certainly can’t justify the murders of their friends and families. In fact, the ending is the film’s weakest point as it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

It transpires that the voice they hear [spoilers on]  is the father of a teenage girl who committed suicide in front of her webcam, a video clip which these four and a couple of the other victims shared and mocked. But surely they weren’t the only ones? Why these four out of thousands? In a particularly daft-but-not-creepy twist, Jo’s nine-year-old daughter is kidnapped by the grieving father and forced to adopt the identity of his own dead daughter, who was 15. Which is never going to work. We also discover that the plane’s unseen pilot is just as much a victim as the four passengers, forced to fly the aircraft to Norway and there crash it into the Facebook All2gethr headquarters, in order to prevent his own kidnapped family being murdered. None of this stands up at all. Why go to this massive amount of trouble and expense? Why murder Jo’s mum (looking after her grand-daughter) who had no involvement with the website? How has the father gained access to records of every webpage ever viewed or visited by these four? Where has he found the money to not only hire a private jet but also kit it out with all manner of screens and cameras, not to mention a never-explained HAL-like red bulb on the sealed cabin door (there is even a quote from 2001 in the dialogue)?

How did the foursome get through customs at the airport believing that they were flying to New York when the plane was bound for Oslo? Or, if the plane was nominally bound for New York but changed course, why hasn’t it been intercepted once Air Traffic Control spotted it had gone off course? This is ten years after 9/11, after all. If the murders on screen were committed beforehand (as is subsequently revealed when they find bodies in the luggage compartment), how were they not known about? But the fact that Jo’s mum’s body is there implies that the father single-handedly (as his wife and adult son are seen at the airport) tortured and killed several people in different locations during the brief time the quartet were in the VIP lounge and smuggled the bodies onto the plane without any airport staff noticing. Above all, how the hell does the grieving father expect to get away with all this? It’s not like there isn’t a trail: you can’t just have a jet take off from a major British airport without filling in a LOT of forms! Honestly, this plot has [spoilers off] more holes than a string vest.

It looks like the film has been written (or rewritten) backwards, starting with the on-board situation and then finding a justification for the unseen manipulator to do this, and the problem is that when this is retconned into the actual plot, it’s just impossible to believe or accept that this would be the modus operandi of someone in that situation. Plus, as so often, the film relies on fairly intelligent people acting completely stupidly. There is a throw-away line observing how odd it is that there is no stewardess but really that’s a big clue. On a private luxury flight you have flight attendants who attend to your every whim and you would expect to meet them before take-off – and the pilot. And how come no-one questions why a social networking site would have a big publicity-generating competition without taking any pictures or video of the prize-winners, or indeed without ever mentioning it on the actual site or putting out a press release? Yes, it’s one big string vest.

The original story of Panic Button (then titled All2gethr) was a nine-page treatment by producer John Shackleton (who had previously directed a couple of horror shorts with Simon Poulter as DP) and co-producer David Shillitoe. Frazer Lee was brought in to develop this into a screenplay and then Chris Crow was attached, the final credits listing all four gentlemen equally as writers. Interestingly, Julian Richards gets a ‘script consultant’ credit for some unspecified work on the screenplay. It’s a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, I fear, with more people working on the script than characters in it... The film also has the hallmarks of a producer-generated picture: gaping plot-holes which could be ironed out but only by making some fairly fundamental changes to the original premise; changes which presumably weren't an option.

Tim Dickel (Sarah Jane Adventures, Elfie Hopkins) was the production designer with Sian Jenkins (Elfie Hopkins, Bronson) handling costume design. VFX supervisor Bob Thompson, whose work includes some fine shots of the plane in flight, previously wrote and executive produced all three Bionicle features! The rich, fruity voice of the villain is supplied by Joshua Richards who also supplied the rich, fruity voice of Richard Burton in an obscure 2013 biopic. The supporting cast includes Sule Rimi whose BHR credits include Daddy’s Girl, The Machine and Vampire Guitar but who is best known to the nation’s kids as Henry Smart on DNN!  There are nine credited executive producers including Robert Graham (Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection, Amityville Asylum, Valley of the Witch, previously production accountant on The Feral Generation) and John Shackleton’s brother (or dad?) Kevin.

Shot in September 2010, Panic Button premiered at the 2011 Frightfest with a British DVD release from Showbox in November of that year (and simultaneous VOD through Sky Movies Box Office). The American VOD release followed in April 2013 and the US disc finally hit stores one year after that, with a misleading sleeve image and strapline designed to make this look like an airborne slasher, thereby guaranteeing disappointment for a significant section of the audience (good move, Phase 4 Film). A number of other territories picked up the film and there was, somewhat anachronistically, a novelisation (by Frazer Lee, who since Red Lines has been hard at work as a Bram Stoker-nominated horror author). The German DVD copied the UK sleeve design (a montage based, for no obvious reason, around a 35mm camera lens) but managed to include a still from On Edge on the back!

There is no actual panic button anywhere in Panic Button, although the phrase is used once in a throwaway line of dialogue for no apparent reason except to tick that box.

MJS rating: B

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Uninvited

Director: Greydon Clark
Writer: Greydon Clark
Producer: Greydon Clark
Cast: Alex Cord, George Kennedy, Eric Larson
Year of release: 1987
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Braveworld)

One sure sign of a quality movie is that it’s not sure what its own title is: this is called The Uninvited on the front and back of the (3D!) video sleeve but just Uninvited on the spine and on screen. But could a film made by the creator of Without Warning, Wacko and Satan’s Cheerleaders really be all that bad?

Alex Cord (Airwolf) plays rich guy Walter Graham - twice on the cover of Forbes magazine but actually a crook - and George Kennedy (The Naked Gun, Demonwarp) is his partner Mike Harvey. They set off from Fort Lauderdale for the Cayman Islands and provided they can reach there in three days they can get their hands on vast amounts of cash (the details aren’t clear - it may be some money laundering scheme).

As a cover story, Walter invited aboard his luxury yacht a couple of bimbos, Bobbie (Clare Carey: Waxwork and the Johnny Mnemonic video game!) and Suzanne (Shari Shattock: Witch Bitch). They in turn invite three students: sports jock Lance (Beau Dremon: Frankenstein: The College Years), yuppie law major Corey (Rob Estes: Phantom of the Mall) and quiet biologist Martin (Eric Larson, who has been in episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Angel).

Suzanne also brings aboard a cat which she has rescued from a dockside trash can. Also on the boat is henchman Albert (Clu Gulager: Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street II) plus Rachel (Dirk Benedict’s then-wife Toni Hudson: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), the boat’s captain whose father once owned the vessel.

Now, the key to all this is the cat. Back in the 1980s when I occasionally performed stand-up comedy, one of my routines involved demonstrating how Alien was actually a remake of Ten Little Indians and proving that the murderer was actually the cat. And on this ship - it actually is the cat! We know this because of a prologue at some scientific establishment where the cat escapes while being injected and then kills several people (the doctor in this scene is Greydon Clark himself).

The cat has some sort of deadly mutant creature inside it which climbs out of its mouth, but it takes a long time for even the audience to realise this because the effects are so hopelessly inconsistent. Is this thing just sticking its head out of the cat, or is it climbing out completely and then back in, or is the cat itself mutating when it attacks? In fact, the mutant thing does crawl out of the cat, yet somehow when it hurls itself on its victims moments later it’s twice the size of its host! A&A Special Effects are the people responsible for the hilarious hand-puppet which rips people’s throats out, apparently.

When the cat-thing attacks, it’s not only strong and vicious but also has poisonous saliva which contaminates the victim’s blood and causes them to break out in not-terribly-convincing bladder prosthetic effects (courtesy of the imaginatively named Makeup Effects Lab). Albert is first to go, then Mike, and gradually the crew is whittled down.

Meanwhile the engine has broken down (the cat’s doing of course!) and Walter has shot up the radio. The ending (and it’s not too difficult to spot which couple will survive) is a ridiculous let-down, and in an extraordinary editing cock-up, at one point there are two consecutive takes of the same dialogue!

This is not the worst monster-on-a-boat movie I’ve ever seen - that honour goes to Creatures from the Abyss - but it’s pretty bad. There’s no actual nudity though Bobbie and Suzanne do spend most of their time in tiny bikinis, and when they’re fully dressed it’s in the most awful 1980s fashions. In terms of wardrobe, this really is symptomatic of the Decade That Good Taste Forgot.

A film to be watched only late at night while very, very drunk. Unfortunately I saw it sober in the middle of the afternoon.

MJS rating: D+

The Vampire

Director: Fernando Mendez
Writer: Ramon Obon
Producer: Abel Salazar
Cast: Abel Salazar, German Robles, Ariadna Welter
Year of release: 1957
Country: Mexico
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Mondo Macabro)

For all that people rave about Hammer’s 1958 classic (Horror of) Dracula, it was actually the fourth significant vampire film of the 1950s. First there was the Turkish Drakula Istanbulda in 1952, then from Italy in 1956 came Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri, and finally El Vampiro was made and released in 1957 down Mexico way.

Long relegated to a footnote in horror movie history, this film is now available on Region-free DVD from Mondo Macabro and turns out to be an absolute belter. Viewers expecting campy shenanigans on a par with the Santo movies will be surprised to find a well-made, atmospheric horror flick.

Aradna Welter (The Devil’s Hand) plays Marta, returning to her family home, The Sycamores, where lives her uncle Emilio (Jose Luis Jimenez: Santo in the Wax Museum) and two aunts, Eloisa (Carmen Montejo, who started in films in 1943 and is still working!) and Maria Teresa (Alicia Montoya: Santo Vs the Martians). Except that she turns up a day too late, Maria Teresa having just been interred in the family tomb. Accompanying Marta is Enrique (producer Abel Salazar: The Curse of the Crying Woman, The Brainiac), a travelling salesman she met at the railway station who is invited to stay the night. The whole local area is riddled with superstition and fear - folk don’t go out after dark - and this may be connected with the family’s mysterious neighbour, Hungarian Count Lavud (German Robles: Castle of the Monsters, Curse of Nostradamus).

But not all is as it seems. Maria Teresa had been talking of vampires before she died, and Enrique is really a doctor summoned by Emilio to examine her. Lavud is of course a vampire and so (fairly obviously) is Eloisa - and now it seems that Maria Teresa is also rising from the tomb. But the family servants know a deeper secret. Could it somehow be connected with the hacienda’s former owner, also buried in the crypt below, a fellow named... DuVal?

The great sets are loaded with secret passages, the direction and camerawork are exemplary, the acting is excellent (especially Welter, who is both strong and vulnerable at the same time) and the story, when finally unravelled, actually makes sense. Are characters alive or dead? Who is in league with whom? This is cracking stuff. The effects used to show items moving by themselves when reflections are checked in mirrors are top-notch, while appearances, disappearances and transmogrifications are achieved by simple but effective jump-cuts and dissolves. Granted, the string holding the rubber bat is visible - but it’s not a bad puppet with properly flapping wings, and is used minimally. It’s certainly a lot better than the rather embarrassing rubber toys flung about on later Hammer ‘classics’.

Salazar is a likeable leading man who looks a touch like Bernard Cribbins and is cheerful enough to keep the film entertaining. Spanish-born Robles, making his big-screen debut at age 28, is one of the truly great screen vampires, devilishly handsome and imperious; it’s an interesting thought that his inspiration may not have been Lugosi, since the Mexican release of Universal’s 1931 Dracula would have been the Spanish language version with Carlos Villar. According to Stephen Jones’ Essential Monster Movie Guide, Robles’ role was originally intended for Carlos Lopez Moctezuma (Night of the Bloody Apes). Director Melendez also made Misterios de Ultratumba and The Living Coffin (and something in 1943 called Las Calaveros del Terror which I would love to see). Screenwriter Obon wrote those two films and returned to bloodsucker territory with World of the Vampires and Empire of Dracula, as well as occasional directing chores on interesting titles including La Mansion del Terror and Dynasty of Death.

Mondo Macabro’s print is fantastic, with only a few tiny speckles here and there and a wee bit of soundtrack noise for a couple of minutes just over an hour in. The first reel in particular (for some reason) is simply stunning, with a clarity and contrast that makes it look like it was shot yesterday. I doubt if the film looked this good even when it was playing cinemas South of the border in the late 1950s. (Cinematographer Rosalio Solano worked on more than 150 film from 1943-86, including some later Santo movies and also a few US productions, notably the Jim Brown-starring blaxploitation classic Slaughter!)

The disc defaults to the (preferable) original Spanish language soundtrack and English subtitles, but there is an option to play the K Gordon Murray-produced American version, with Matt King (I Eat Your Skin) dubbing Robles and director Paul Nagel/Nagle dubbing Salazar. There is also an episode of the Mondo Macabro TV series, covering Mexican horror, and a photonovel version of the film’s sequel The Vampire’s Coffin (which reunited most of the cast and crew six months later) with the captions in English. It would be nice to know where this photonovel originated, and some background notes on the cast and crew would also have been appreciated. One other minor quibble: a montage of highlights from the film playing under the menus does rather spoil some of the suspense.

But these are just suggestions on how to make a terrific disc of a fantastic movie even better. Hopefully Mondo Macabro will follow this disc with some more Mexploitation: The Crying Woman, perhaps, or The Aztec Mummy or The Brainiac. I will certainly be buying anything else that the company releases in this vein. Take a chance on El Vampiro and discover a world of Latin American horror you never dreamed of.

MJS rating: A-

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Voodoo Academy

Director: David DeCoteau
Writer: Eric Black
Producer: Kirk Edward Hansen
Cast: Debra Mayer, Riley Smith, Kevin Calisher
Country: USA
Year of release: 2000
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Prism)

It doesn’t take long to spot that this is a David DeCoteau film (from his later period). Six young men, all of whom look like they are auditioning for the lead role in a TV movie called The Jude Law Story and who spend a considerable amount of time shirtless. Hey, why not? If it was a half dozen young ladies wandering around in their skimpies, no-one would bat an eyelid - but the film would be indistinguishable from a million others.

Besides, there’s the gorgeous Debra Mayer (Prison of the Dead, Hell Asylum, Decadent Evil) to distract those not interested in the masculine eye candy.

Riley Smith (Alien Arsenal, Eight Legged Freaks) stars as Christopher Sawyer, a young man who enrols in the mysterious Carmichael Bible School which has a maximum of six students and two staff: glamorous thirtysomething widow Mrs Bouvier (Mayer) and the eponymous Reverend Carmichael (Chad Burris, not a great actor and apparently now working as an agent). Her late husband, we learn, investigated zombies in Haiti and discovered the scientific basis behind them. The Rev has founded his own weird church and has devised a form of confessional booth which draws out its occupants’ sin by some pseudoscientific means.

Sawyer joins his five almost identical room-mates in the small dorm which they share. (Frequent stock establishing shots show the building to be very large, so you have to wonder what goes on in the parts that aren’t the dorm, the classroom/chapel, the dining room and Mrs B’s quarters. Carmichael, we are told, lives down the road.) Anyway, we have hunky Rusty Sankervitch (Huntley Ritter: Wishcraft), blonde, rebellious joker Billy Parker (Kevin Calisher, who seems to have no other screen credits apart from an episode of Roswell), plus Mike McCready (Ben Indra: Raising Dad), Paul St.Clair (Drew Fuller: Vampire Clan, Charmed) and Sam Vollero (Travis Sher) who are somewhat short on identifying characteristics but make up for it by being abnormally good-looking.

The previous sixth student was Blake Godfrey (Rhett Jordan: Crocodile) whom we saw in a lengthy prologue being seduced by Mrs B while Carmichael looked on, rubbing his chest in lustful excitement (he’s not that much older than the boys in his charge). Some sort of weird magical ritual was attempted but it evidently failed, Blake was ‘disposed of’ and his schoolmates were told that he had been summarily dismissed after being found smoking a joint.

During class, Rusty is invited into the confessional booth. At dinner that night, he appears wearing a white vest, straining somewhat to contain his pecs, instead of the customary shirt and tie. Mrs Bouvier doesn’t seem to mind and allows the boys to drink a glass of wine each, which Christopher declines. That night Christopher sees the others tossing and turning and then moaning as, still asleep, they rub their hands all over their firm young torsos.

This goes on for some time.

Apparently the VHS version is about 20 minutes shorter than this 92 minute DVD, most of the missing material (snipped by executive producer Charlie Band for being too homoerotic) being from the prologue and this very, very long sequence. To be honest, even if nubile young nymphets had been doing exactly the same thing I would have got bored after, I don’t know, eleven or twelve minutes of it.

While Sam, Paul, Billy and Mike are writhing semi-naked on their beds, Rusty stands up and sleepwalks upstairs to Mrs B’s apartment, furtively followed by Chris who witnesses the unholy and weird ritual that the school’s only two staff are perpetrating. The next morning, Rusty has disappeared and the others have adopted his ultra-casual look. Can Chris save his friends from succumbing to the satanic practices of the Reverend and Mrs B?

Voodoo Academy was shot in four days (even quicker than Decadent Evil) and that shows in the limited cast, limited sets and lengthy scenes. There is a half-decent story buried in there and DeCoteau’s direction (under his own name) cannot be faulted; most of the acting is good too. The story doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense, completely ignores huge questions (there is, for example, only one passing reference to the boys’ parents) and requires great leaps of logic. But there is some sort of sense there: it seems that Mrs Bouvier requires six completely pure souls in order to achieve... whatever it is she’s attempting to achieve. I think she mentions at one point that if she is successful she will have the power to raise a zombie army and rule the world. Or something. The script is by Eric Black who also wrote Bikini Goddesses and co-wrote and co-directed (with Matthew Jason Walsh) The Witching.

Opening with a ‘Cult Video presents’ caption, this is nevertheless identified in the closing credits as a Full Moon film although curiously the only appearance of Charlie Band’s name is the credit for Bennah Burton-Burtt (“assistant to...”). DeCoteau went on to direct more homoerotic horrors for his own Rapid Heart company and used his ‘Richard Chasen’ pseudonym on the shortened version of this which, according to some sources, was retitled Subhuman. This was one of the last credits for producer Kirk Edward Hansen (The Vampire Journals, Frankenstein Reborn!, Witchouse, Totem, The Dead Hate the Living).

Cinematographer Howard Wexler also lit Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy, The Brotherhood, Totem and Leather Jacket Love Story for DeCoteau and now spends most of his time working on ‘erotic thrillers’ such as Sapphire Girls, Visions of Passion and Model Lust. (‘Model Lust’? ‘Sapphire Girls’? It’s like they’ve run out of sensible two-word titles and now just open the dictionary at two random pages). Though the photography is good, the image itself is incredibly grainy in many places though this may be a transfer fault. There are also some noticeable scratches on the print which is unusual for a straight to video movie!

Regular Charlie Band effects guy Christopher Bergschneider (Totem, Witchouse, Blood Dolls, Leeches) and Jeffrey S Farley (Babylon 5, Leeches, Scanner Cop II and the Red Dwarf US pilot) together provide ‘prosthetic and puppet effects’ - and yes, they do involve dolls. David Lange (Ozone, Jigsaw, Bad Movie Police) is credited with ‘special visual effects’. All the significant effect shots are featured heavily in the trailer which should probably be seen after the film. However, one cannot avoid knowing that Mrs Bouvier turns into a sexy horned demon because that is how she is depicted on the front of the bloody DVD sleeve.

Not a terrible film by any means, Voodoo Academy is a brave attempt to subvert the genre by substituting gorgeous guys for sexy gals. It raises the questions of what the film would have been like if the students were female. The seducer would probably still have been female and there might have been some actual lesbian fondlings whereas, for all its homoeroticism this movie’s hunks are as pure as driven snow and limit themselves to fondling their own muscles, never even sneaking a hand inside their bulging Calvin Kleins. Nevertheless, you can kind of see why Band snipped the film down to 70-odd minutes: not just to reduce the homoerotic content but also to give the thing some pace and stop it getting bogged down in endless (well lit, well shot) sequences of young men rubbing their chests.

MJS rating: B-

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Vampires vs Zombies

Director: Vincent D’Amato
Writer: Vincent D’Amato
Producer: Damien Foisy, Rob Carpenter
Cast: Bonny Giraux, Maritama Carlson, Brinke Stevens
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Hardgore)

Sometimes you just want to relax with a shitty horror film, but bloody hell, does it have to be quite this shitty? Vampires vs Zombies is, despite my best efforts to find something good to say about the thing, a pile of muddled, boring, amateur rubbish whose sole saving grace is a small role for everyone’s favourite marine biologist, Brinke Stevens.

Aside from Brinke, this whole thing is a sorry mess, not least because it singularly fails to feature the promised ‘vampires vs zombies’ schtick. It has vampires, it has a few zombies and it has some things that can’t decide if they’re vampires or zombies or both. But at no point do vampires (or even a vampire) fight zombies (or even a zombie).

Bonny Giraux (who played Ophelia in an indie version of Hamlet) and CS Munro star as Jenna and Travis Fontaine who are supposed to be father and daughter although both appear to be in their early thirties. Jenna has a weird trout-pout and muscular man-arms; Travis is a thin guy who close-shaves what little hair he has left, leaving him looking like the lead singer in a not-very-good REM tribute band.

They are driving nowhere in particular when they meet a mother (Brinke) and her two daughters, one of whom (Melanie Crystal) is bound and gagged because she has ‘the plague’ and the other of whom, Carmilla (Maritama Carlson) - isn’t because she doesn’t. The mom asks the Fontaines to take Carmilla with them so that her sister won’t infect her. Or something. And this they agree to do, for some reason.

A long and tedious scene at a gas station - though to be fair, it’s not that much more tedious than anything else in this movie - involves a goth chick with a dog called Bob. That is, the goth chick (Ligaya Allmer) is called Bob; we’re never told the dog’s name. Producer Rob Carpenter is the gas station attendant who gets vampirised by Carmilla when he unlocks the toilet door for her and who then vampirises Bob in turn, and also some other unnamed guy in a jeep (Derek Champion).

Brinke and the other girl later arrive at the same gas station, or possibly a different one, where we discover that the girl, Tessa, isn’t her daughter but has been kidnapped, though she makes absolutely no effort to escape. An old guy with a white beard called ‘The General’ turns up. That is, the old guy (Peter Ruginis) is called The General; we’re never told the beard’s name. (Seasonally typecast, Ruginis and his beard have only three other IMDB credits, all as Santa Claus.) He thinks that Tessa is Carmilla, who killed or attacked his daughter, or something, so he takes her and she doesn’t bother telling him who she really is.

The General is in phone contact with Travis who says that he has the real Carmilla. So The General lets Tessa go, whereupon she attacks him because she is a vampire. Or something.

The Fontaines’ car breaks down so they flag down a passing jeep which turns out to be the guy we saw before who is now a vampire who they have to kill. Carmilla and Jenna take off in the jeep with Travis in the car, now repaired by the addition of a small bottle of water to the engine. They’re heading for some meeting point with The General, which turns out to be an ‘old church’ that has been converted into a ‘convent’, despite the fact that neither the outside (huge, late 19th century municipal building) nor the inside (huge, 20th century municipal building) looks like either a church or a convent.

A frankly bizarre line of dialogue about, “They converted lots of these churches into convents,” made no sense until much later when I realised that the bozos behind this film don’t actually know what a convent is. They think it means a Catholic girls’ school. Which it doesn’t.

Carmilla and Jenna, who had a completely unerotic topless sex scene in the (parked) jeep on the way here, have another in a room which they both describe as creepy and weird even though, like every other interior, it’s just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill room with featureless, painted walls. There is absolutely nothing creepy or weird about this location whatsoever so the film is reduced to shooting characters in tight close-ups and hoping that we’ll believe them when they talk about what a spooky place they’re in, in defiance of what we can see over their shoulder.

Half a dozen vampire/zombie girls then turn up from nowhere for no reason, dressed in white blouses and check skirts like rejects from the auditions for a Britney Spears video (this was when I finally twigged that the film-makers don’t know the difference between a convent and a convent school). Travis appears, also from nowhere, shouting “Look what I found:” and spends a couple of minutes hacking the zompire/vambie girls up with a convenient and unexplained chainsaw.

There’s something in the crypt about Carmilla’s coffin and there’s a scene back outside where The General reveals that he has found his dead daughter in the back of Fontaine’s car, leading to a chaotically inept fight between various people which ends with Travis suffering mild injuries from a wooden stake through his shoulder (like most people in crap vampire films, his boneless, muscle-free torso must have the consistency of mashed potato). The General’s daughter (Erica Carroll, whose TV credits include episodes of The Outer Limits redux, Battlestar Galactica redux, V redux, Supernatural, The 4400, Smallville, Fringe and Masters of Horror) is despatched when Jenna picks up some stuff from the floor of the car, sellotapes it together and dangles it in the other girl’s mouth, causing her to cough up blood and expire.

For some reason and in some way.

Mixed in with all this half-witted nonsense are random scenes of Jenna in a hospital or at home with a doctor (Roy Tupper) who turns up eviscerated in a bath in his early scene but later appears fine. I think, perhaps, maybe, this is supposed to suggest that the entire Carmilla storyline is taking place inside the head of a mentally ill Jenna. Or something.

And zombies? There are two scenes on the road when grey-putty-faced shuffling individuals are deliberately ploughed down by cars and there’s a final scene (possibly a dream) when Jenna and Carmilla, having killed Travis and The General, escape to a motel room which is suddenly, inexplicably filled with zombies. Who then eat them.

Absolutely not one shred of this makes the slightest bit of sense. An appallingly bad script, amateur-ish direction, wobbly camera-work, occasional random inappropriate music and minimal production design combine with some of the most wooden, two-by-four acting I’ve ever seen in my life to turn this entire film into a huge, stinking pile of crap. I bought this from Poundland and frankly I think they overcharged me by about 75p. It’s not even entertainingly bad, it’s just dull. Despite the amount of throat-bitings, stake-stabbings, chainsaw-hackings and other bloody mayhem, this is the dullest film I’ve sat through for ages. It is entirely devoid of tension, excitement, thrills or any smidgeon of interest. It’s 77 minutes of boring stuff happening slowly to people we don’t care about for no apparent reason.

This only avoids a D- through the presence of the ever-reliable Ms Stevens whose acting talents (and knowledge of undersea ecology) are, I fear, sadly unmatched by any discerning judgement in what projects she chooses. Brinke also turns up as a state trooper shortly after the jeep guy is killed and it’s a toss-up between whether it’s dumber that she doesn’t spot a dead body hastily hidden under a couple of bin liners or that none of the others spot that she’s Carmilla’s mother. Or is she meant to be a completely different character who just looks the same? Who knows? (Other titles in Brinke Stevens’ 120+ filmography reviewed on this site include The Naked Monster, Dr Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, Witchouse 3, Invisible Mom and Caesar and Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre. All of them are much, much better than this, even Witchouse 3.)

Incredibly, Vampires vs Zombies claims to be based on J Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla. Well, it has a lesbian vampire called Carmilla whose mother leaves her with a father and daughter, the latter of whom she seduces. And there’s a guy called The General, but really I think that’s about the closest the film gets to anything LeFanu ever wrote. On the other hand, it’s a lot closer to LeFanu’s story than it is to what’s written on the back of the sleeve:

The battle between the living dead and the undead has begun!
Jenna, who has fallen victim of a strange vampiric/zombie plague, sets out with her father to find and destroy the source of the vile infection. Only then will she be saved.
Along the way, they agree to provide safe passage for a mysterious woman, unaware she is actually Carmilla – a centuries-old baroness and the source of the plague! to make matters worse, the countryside is infected with armies of ferocious zombies.
In order to survive, they ally with The General, who has his own score to settle with Carmilla, as well as the weapons and means to do it. As the men battle endless attacks from the living dead, Carmilla slowly seduces Jenna in mind and body.

Nope, there’s nothing like that in the film. Not any of it.

Now, to be fair to film-maker Vincent D’Amato, he wrote this as Carmilla 2000, shot it (on 16mm in Vancouver) as Carmilla the Lesbian Vampire and then saw it distributed by The Asylum (when they were handling pick-ups rather than producing their own mockbusters) as Vampires vs Zombies. On his website, he reckons that he and partner Nicole Hancock agreed to what they thought was just a video sleeve strapline and were shocked to find out it was the new title.

But even as a strapline it would be a lie. And under its production title the film would still be massively unsatisfying because, instead of wondering why there are hardly any zombies, viewers would be wondering why the hell there are any zombies at all in a vampire picture. The trailer has a voice-over saying that “after the zombie-vampire wars left the cities destroyed, the conflict moved to the country” which doesn’t explain anything and isn’t alluded to in the film.

While I’m giving this a good kicking, it’s worth pointing out that, although the driving scenes indicate that there are very few cars around on these lonely roads, during the gas station sequences vast amounts of traffic can be seen driving past outside.

Really, what can you expect from someone whose pseudonym expresses an admiration for the works of Aristide Massaccesi? ‘Vincent D’Amato’ indeed. Many of the cast and crew have also appeared in or worked on other features or online serials by D’Amato and friends including Corpse-O-Rama, Hell Hath No Fury, The Renfield Syndrome and Heads are Gonna Roll, a short which was shot during the production of this film.

Apparently D’Amato has now restored both the original title and some cut gore but dude, that’s not going to be enough to save this. Embarrassingly poor on every level, Vampires vs Zombies should be avoided under any title and in any form even if you have a 77-minute shaped hole in your near future when you would otherwise be self-harming or abusing animals. Anything - anything - is better than this.

MJS rating: D

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Liberty Bleeds

Director: Stuart Wood
Writer: Stuart Wood
Producer: Stuart Wood
Cast: Stuart Wood, Tara Jennings, Peter Scivier
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: YouTube

I watch this stuff so that you don’t have to. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way.

Liberty Bleeds describes itself on YouTube as an ‘amateur horror film’ and that is completely accurate. It’s horribly shot, has no discernible story, drags on way too long and is of no interest to anyone except those who made it and British horror completists. In the spirit of fairness, I’ll give the film-makers props for honesty and for not trying to pretend their picture is something it’s not, but it’s still unwatchable crap.

Storywise, this is a thoroughly generic slasher with assorted young people stalked at home or in Southampton town centre by a killer wearing a rubber Statue of Liberty mask (hence the title, which is easily the best thing about it). Early on there are some Scream-inspired phone calls from the killer to his potential victims but that angle is swiftly forgotten.

Writer/director/producer Stuart Wood and Tara Jennings star as teenage siblings Camron (sic) and Julie Carter whose parents are away. Who the rest of the characters are is not clear, although one of them is played by Peter Scivier who with Jennings shares ‘co-director’ credit. There is a small boy who gets hanged by the killer while Julie is supposed to be babysitting him. And there’s a ridiculously young-looking and abusive cop who interrogates the siblings on suspicion of the boy’s murder. More than that I could not tell you.

Eventually, Camron collects together all those who have been attacked by the killer but survived – his sister and three others – and they all go to a large isolated house in the countryside where, predictably, the killer turns up and starts attacking them. Julie thinks it’s Camron but it’s not. I don’t know who it actually is, despite an unmasking and numerous subsequent scenes, including a long, dull sequence of the siblings holidaying in Tenerife. Two characters in the end credits are identified parenthetically as ‘(Killer 1)’ and ‘(Killer 2)’ so presumably they share the rubber mask, but I don’t know who they are, and certainly don’t care. It almost goes without saying that no-one in the cast can act and none of them have made any other films, so far as I can tell.

Speaking of the end credits, I feel obliged to reproduce the minimalist crew credits which are as follows:

  • Pre Production Scriptwriter – Stuart Wood
  • Editer (sic) – Stuart Wood
  • Camera Operators – Everyone
  • Stunt Co- ordesigner (sic!) – Peter Scivier, Sam Saunders

I suspect that ‘Pre Production Scriptwriter’ may be a unique credit in the history of cinema, although not as unique as that bizarre chimera of stunt co-ordinator and production designer! Even more bizarrely, the exact same credits, with the same errors, are then repeated - except for the third line which is replaced with ‘Special Effects Editor - Jacob Drewett’. After general thanks, the credits round up with a detailed list of all the copyrighted music used without permission in the film, including tracks by Black Eyed Peas, Dizzee Rascal, Rihanna, Chase and Status, Kula Shaker and Moby.

Music aside, one aspect of the soundtrack does stand out and that’s a news report on a murder, heard in two separate scenes. Now, one thing that always bothers me with no/low-budget productions is that directors cast poor actors as news reporters. I always think: if you need somebody reading a news report, why not cast a presenter from your local radio station? They’ll probably think it’s fun and may even be keen to add a film credit, however minor, to their CV. They’ll almost certainly give you some free publicity on their show. And they’ll sound professional. Win win win. So when I heard what sounded like a real news report from a real reporter, I was initially impressed that somebody had had the right idea.

…Until I realised that it was a real news report. Specifically, it was a report on the murder of Sophie Lancaster, a 20-year-old who was attacked and killed by a gang in Lancashire in 2007. Lancaster’s death was a high profile case because she and her boyfriend (who was badly injured) were attacked for being goths, thus the incident contributed to a broadening of the concept of ‘hate crime’ as something which could apply to any subculture or group. Lancaster’s mother established the Sophie Lancaster Foundation in her memory.

I must say that – irrespective of the amateur nature of the film or the non-existent budget – using a recording of a report on a real life, brutal, unprovoked murder as background in a horror movie is utterly tasteless and insensitive.

The above notwithstanding, Liberty Bleeds is basically a bunch of mates larking about and shouldn’t be considered as a ‘real’ feature film aimed at an external audience. On the other hand, Wood and co went to the trouble of uploading the whole thing to YouTube in 11 ten-minute chunks. (The last is only two minutes but nevertheless 102 minutes is clearly way too long for something like this, even if the last ten minutes are credits/out-takes. The film could easily lose half an hour and still be feature-length, although it would be no more comprehensible, entertaining or interesting.) There is naturally a pejorative view of ‘releasing’ a feature film onto YouTube as the lowest cinematic rung of all (at least Vimeo has a certain class) but on the other hand it is a valid distribution model and there are plenty of good, well-budgeted professional movies which have been made legitimately available on YouTube. Freakdog and Fired spring to mind as a couple of examples.

So the fact that this is on YouTube should not necessarily count against it, although the ten-minute chunks thing does to some extent. On the other hand, it’s so unwatchable for anyone not directly involved – featuring as it does a mixture of unlit, shaky handheld footage and camera mic-recorded dialogue frequently drowned out by background noise – that it’s very difficult to stomach more than ten minutes at a go. Only 175 viewers have made it all the way through so far.

And there, really, is the dichotomy of modern amateur film-making (I touched on this in Urban Terrors): the sort of crappy home movies that people used to make on 8mm and show to their mates are now available for the world to view. By virtue of being posted online in March 2010, Liberty Bleeds has to be counted as a ‘released’ film and hence a title in the British Horror Revival. Shot between August 2009 and February 2010, it was actually the second film from ‘Liquid Productions’ following an earlier ‘teen slasher’ called Screamer, shot in the first half of 2007.

Wood and Jennings subsequently became ‘South Lunar Productions’ and began work on a third feature in February 2011, entitled Purgatory: “A Movie about the paranormal and a group of friends who find themselves lost in the woods and seek for help in an abandoned psyciatric hospital to find out things we'rent what they seem.” Production was halted after one week and seems to have never restarted, although a two-minute clip of one scene was posted in May of that year to a Facebook page which went completely silent six months later.

Now this may be a coincidence, but at exactly the same time that shooting on Purgatory fell apart, Jennings was in court, being fined for assaulting a journalist from the local paper. When Jennings’ mother was convicted in October 2010 of falsely claiming more than £50,000 in benefits, a hack from the Southern Daily Echo took a picture from across the street of her leaving court with her daughter, who took exception to being snapped, grabbed the journo and screamed, “I’m going to kill you!” Charged with a public order offence, Jennings failed to turn up for her hearing in February 2011 (possibly because she was busy making a crappy horror film…) so a warrant was issued and she was arrested. Jennings was fined £350 with £250 in other charges, which was probably considerably more than she and Stuart Wood had ever spent on any of their films.

And that’s pretty much all there is to say about Liberty Bleeds: woeful technical quality, no discernible characters or plot, pirated music, of passing interest as an example of how anyone at all can make a feature-length film and distribute it online, and notable for being followed by an unfinished project which was apparently abandoned because one of the film-makers was nicked for assaulting a journalist covering the story of her benefit-fraudster mother. Which is different at least.

I would have notched this up to a D for the title, which I still think is pretty cool, but I have to knock it back again for using the Sophie Lancaster news report.

Like I say, I watch these things so you don’t have to.

MJS rating: D-