Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Princess Warrior

Director: Lindsay Norgard
Writer: John Riley
Producer: Philip J Jones
Cast: Sharon Lee Jones, Mark Pacific, Dana Fredsti
Country: USA
Year: 1995
Reviewed from: Online version (naughty)

Princess Warrior has two things in common with Demonsoul. First, it was produced and distributed by Vista Street Entertainment, the stack-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap outfit whose greatest contribution to modern culture was dragging their Witchcraft franchise out to an incredible 13 films. The other connection, or rather similarity, is that like Demonsoul I have been waiting 20 years to see this.

Back in the 1990s, I used to collect VHS sleeves. I’ve still got stacks of them. You could buy them for 25p a pop from dealers at film fairs, or just save the ones off rubbish videos you had watched once and then chucked. Naturally I acquired a lot of them during my time on SFX. I don’t know where my sleeve for Princess Warrior came from, but it intrigued me. Two hot women fighting with light-sabres, one clad in a short, simple white dress, the other wearing a sexy black dominatrix get-up. Surely this must be a film worth watching.

In 1998 I found myself in Los Angeles at the AFM where I picked up what was sometimes confusingly called a ‘one-sheet’ for the film. Not a poster but a piece of glossy card about A4 in size with imagery and blurb, a promotional doodad for places like the AFM. It had the same image as the video sleeve. Except: I couldn’t help noticing that the VHS sleeve from the UK had an unexpurgated photo with a fine view of the sexy upper thigh of the white-clad actress, while the one-sheet from the USA had a pair of pink pants crudely Photoshopped into place! From such minutiae is an unhealthy interest begat.

I also met actress Dana Fredsti at the AFM, and did an interview with her which it looks like I never got round to typing up. It must still be in a pile of cassettes somewhere.

Over the years I kept meaning to pick up Princess Warrior, but I never saw a copy anywhere and when it turned up on Amazon it was too expensive for me to bother. But recently I was idly googling stuff and came across a version that somebody had uploaded to YouTube and I felt compelled to finally watch it.

When I eventually got round to viewing Demonsoul after two decades, it turned out to be a revelation, a seminal proto-text for the British Horror Revival. Princess Warrior was less satisfying though I did get some perverse pleasure from watching the thing. A bit like watching Wacko. I’m not saying it’s good. No-one would ever say it was anything less than utter crap. But that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. And not, I wish to emphasise, in  a post-modern or ironic way. I genuinely did like watching this film, and would happily watch it again. About once every 20 years or so.

The story is actually mostly Earth-bound, but topped and tailed by scenes on an alien planet, a matriarchal society populated entirely by fit young women of the same age, except for the High Priestess (Selga Sanders: Interview with Terror) and the dying Queen Mother (Cheryl Janecky: Witchcraft II), who are what would later become known as MILFs. The Queen Mum (Gawd bless ‘er) has two daughters and by rights the throne should pass to the eldest. But this is Curette, a mean, dark-haired bully played with glee by Fredsti in her first major role. So in a break with protocol and tradition, the throne is passed instead to the second daughter - sweet, blonde Ovule, played like a plank of wood by Sharon Lee Jones (Leapin’ Leprechauns).

Well, I say throne. It’s actually a sort of vaguely futuristic-looking recliner. In one of those low-budget rooms where you can’t actually see the walls because that would mean building a set. There’s some sort of hooha between the two sisters and their acolytes – as depicted on the video sleeve, although that’s not an actual image from the movie - the upshot of which is that Ovule escapes by climbing into some sort of transportation chamber which looks for all the world like Bill and Ted’s phone booth. And to use this, she has to be naked for some reason. Though you don’t really see anything.

Meanwhile, on Earth, specifically in LA, we meet Bob (Mark Pacific). He’s currently employed as DJ in a dodgy bar/club owned by dodgy Italian stereotypes Vinnie and Vito (Lee N Gerovitz and Stephen J Cassarino, a double act who call themselves the Clever Cleaver Brothers, billed as ‘TV’s zaniest celebrity chefs’!). Right now, the club is hosting a wet T-shirt contest, which consists of three young ladies gyrating to Bob’s music while occasionally having jugs of water poured over their, well, their jugs. It must be said, this hasn’t exactly brought in the crowds. There’s just a handful of middle-aged guys sitting around, letting out the occasional half-hearted whoop.

The wet T-shirt contest is dragged out endlessly but suddenly ends when a fourth girl appears. Yes, it’s Ovule, whose BillandTedatron has materialised inside the bar, without anyone noticing, and conveniently next to the table with the branded T-shirts. This enables her to grab one and put it on before emerging.

What? You were expecting actual full-frontal nudity? In a Vista Street movie? You’re new round here, aintcha?

Of course, while the other three girls wear short, cut-off T-shirts and put their all into the bump’n’grind, Ovule’s T-shirt is long enough to effectively be a dress. And she wins for simply walking past the other three. Which really doesn’t seem fair.

Ovule runs out of the bar, frightened and confused. Bob goes after her and gets sacked for his troubles, so he hops on his motorbike and cruises the surprisingly empty night-time streets of LA until he finds her.

Meanwhile, the phone booth transporter has disappeared. When it reappears it contains Curette and two of her cronies, Bulimia (Isibella Peralta: Cybernator) and Exzema (Laurie Warren: Twisted Justice). I hope you’re laughing at these hilarious character names because they’re the closest this ever gets to actual comedy. All three are naked, of course, but once again you can’t see anything and they pass up any chance of a three-way lesbo clinch to slip into three more oversized T-shirts and then beat up all the guys in the bar for ogling them. After which they dress in matching lycra jogging outfits for the rest of the film.

And thus we come to what one might term the Middle Act, which drags on and on and on without ever really going anywhere. Bob attempts to help Ovule, who makes a token attempt at being dismissive of him because he’s a man although that aspect of the story is swiftly forgotten. We are introduced to two cops, clearly based on the Lethal Weapon model: middle-aged, black Matt (Augie Blunt: Hell Spa, Steel Justice, Club Dead and the voice of a spirit channelled by Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost) and young, white Johnny (Mark Riccardi, a stuntman whose credits include Star Trek: Generations, Die Hard 4, Big Ass Spider, the 2014 Godzilla and Battlefield Earth). For what seems like hours Bob and Ovule are chased around the dark streets of LA by the cops, by Curette and her cronies, or by the cops (with Curette and her cronies in the back of their car). Every time it seems like this part of the film is over, someone drives past someone else and suddenly the chase is on again. It’s extraordinarily dull.

Actually, the first introduction of the cops isn’t too bad and exhibits the sort of curious anomaly that Vista Street would sometimes let slip into their films. Curette and her cuties catch Bob and Ovule in a motel room and decided to torture Bob by heating a metal soup spoon over a stove until it’s white hot, then sticking it in his mouth. Fortunately Matt and Johnny burst in just in time to prevent this happening, but not before Fredsti delivers a staggering graphic description of what such an act would actually do, in medical terms. (This part of the script was apparently her audition.)

Intercut with all this are scenes back on the alien planet where Curette’s other acolyte Ricketsia (Diana Karanikas: Dead Girls, Tales of the Unknown) has locked herself in the room with the BillandTedotron. The High Priestess gathers around her Ovule’s followers (or possibly just slightly lower Priestesses – it’s difficult to tell and doesn’t really matter) who eventually concentrate hard enough that one of them is able to magically enter the locked room somehow, defeat Ricketsia, and send the phone booth back to Earth. Where Curette has finally been defeated, and Bob and Ovule have fallen in love, so that he returns with her to her home where they can jointly rule.

Or something.

Princess Warrior is rubbish of course. On any absolute scale of one to five stars this would barely merit the individual pixel on the bottom left point of the first star. But in the world of cult movies (and the people who make ‘em) scales are not absolute and there’s a camp fascination to Princess Warrior that makes it bizarrely watchable. Lots of it doesn’t really make much sense: apparently several bits weren’t filmed (hence the car chase padding) and other parts were directed by Brian Thomas, who was Fredsti’s boyfriend at the time. (Fredsti and Thomas are jointly credited as fight choreographers.)

The whole thing was shot in two weeks for 60,000 bucks, with far more time lavished on the wet T-short contest than on the climactic fight between Ovule and Curette in an old warehouse. But Vista Street sold it to USA Network who screened it in a late night slot for bad films, and between that and the UK rental VHS rights, they probably made a clear profit even before DVDs were invented.

Vista Street released the VHS in 1992 then sold the rights to Simitar Entertainment who put out a region-free DVD in 1997 followed by a two-fer disc the next year double-billing this with Eye of the Serpent, a 1994 fantasy cheapie whose only similarity is a ‘battling sisters’ premise. Amazon lists a Spanish VHS release from 2000. Apparently, Troma now have the rights: the film is available on VOD with entirely unrelated artwork showing a woman standing in a field holding a samurai sword. (?).

Many of the cast had never acted in anything before. Many – including leading man Pacific – never acted in anything again (at least, not under the name used here). One of the wet T-shirt girls was Heather Kennedy who went on to a successful career as a bikini model and competed in the Topless Dancer World Championship(!). Another was Janie Liszewski who was a dancer in From Dusk Till Dawn and then turned to stunt work, racking up credits including Spider-Man 2 and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Fredsti made a couple more films in the 1990s - Time Barbarians and Bloodbath - before concentrating on writing. She has penned mystery novels, zombie novels and assorted scripts, and is evidently also very into cats, big and small.

Composer Marc Decker is Marc David Decker, the guy who scored The Dark Backward, Psycho Cop Returns, Soulmates and Bikini Squad. And not, I was disapponted to discover, Dr Marc Decker, Assistant Professor of Music at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Editor Tony Miller cut Inhumanoid and The Omega Code, as well as loads of TV including Alias, Roger Corman's Black Scorpion and the US remake of The Tomorrow People.

Production designer Greg Hildreth (not the Broadway actor) has various credits on The Willies, Dead Girls, the original Mirror Mirror and Not of This World (a 1991 picture not to be confused with any of the various versions of Not of This Earth). The art director was my old pal Mark Adams, later director of Minds of Terror! Costume designer Roxie Poynor now does 'couture bridal gown design'; I think this was her only film gig. Cinematographer Robert Duffin also DPed  action thriller Cause of Death and had a number of cool credits as electrician/gaffer in the 1980s, including Prison, Frightmare and Evil Dead II. "Special visual effects created at William S Mims Productions" is the effects credit; Mims also worked on Time Barbarians and at least one Witchcraft sequel.

Director Lindsay Norgard is a bit of an enigma. When he shot Princess Warrior he was a 25-year-old kid from Michigan. The IMDB lists four other films as writer and/or director and/or producer between 1992 and 2006. I know he directed some commercials, including a superbowl spot for Dorito's. But beyond that I'm drawing a blank. Maybe he'll read this and get in touch. The IMDB thinks that writer John Riley was later a production assistant on Independence Day and Men in Black, which could be true. I think he's now a props maker.

Princess Warrior is a curio. It feels more '80s than '90s, like the film-makers had been watching some old Fred Olen Ray movies and decided to make their own. It really does remind me of Wacko in that there's absolutely nothing to recommend about this film, yet it's far from the worst thing I've ever seen and it exudes a bizarrely magnetic fascination.

MJS rating: C-

Monday, 26 October 2015

Friday Download: The Movie

Director: John Henderson
Writer: Toby Davies
Producers: Jules Elvins, Jeremy Salsby, Daniel Shepherd
Cast: Dionne Bromfield, Shannon Flynn, Tyger Drew-Honey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screener

Despite the presence upstairs of a nearly-12-year-old couch potato nerd, the CBBC channel doesn’t really figure in this house. TF Simpson watches Deadly 60 and Horrible Histories and we used to sometimes watch Dani’s House but those are all viewed on iPlayer. CBBC is never watched in real-time the way CBeebies was, and so neither he nor his parents have any real concept of what’s on there. He tells me he’s caught a bit of the programme called Friday Download on a couple of occasions, but since he has no real interest in pop music (apart from Weird Al, whom we saw together last week!) it’s not the sort of show he would watch.

Instead his televisual diet largely consists of Doctor Who, The Simpsons, Futurama DVDs, wildlife documentaries, dinosaur programmes and endless repeats of Top Gear on Dave. Plus whatever retro shows his parents turn him onto; we’re halfway through Lois and Clark right now.

So, working on the assumption that you know as little about Friday Download as I do, here’s a primer, largely gleaned from Wikipedia and the CBBC site. The show seems to be a mix of interviews, games and performances based around music, video games and movies. The guests are contemporary pop stars: the sort of production-line teenybop automata that you and I have mostly never heard or even heard of (and wouldn’t admit if we had). It’s presented by bland stage school Stepford teenagers indistinguishable from the bland singers they interview. A perusal of the online bios of the current presenters (not the ones in this film) shows them to be shallow and dull, their interests limited entirely to sport and pop music. None have even the slightest interest in science, or history, or nature, or art, or literature, or anything beyond vacuous soundbite pop culture.

Let’s put it this way. If Jeremy Corbyn gets elected Prime Minister and turns Britain into a totalitarian Communist state, none of this lot run any risk of being arrested for being dangerous intellectuals. One boy does list Of Mice and Men as his favourite book but then admits that it’s the only one he’s ever read(!) and in fact the only glimmer of anything approaching any sort of credibility is that one girl says her favourite band is the Stone Roses.

Friday Download has been running since 2011 and has apparently won a BAFTA at some point. The whole thing all looks rather ghastly, to be honest, like an ADHD Why Don’t You for the X-Factor generation. Presumably it’s what some kids want but you can see why someone like TF Simpson wouldn’t be interested. (Please note that I have never seen even a second of the show and hadn’t actually heard of it until I was sent this screener. All the above is based on minimal research. I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my disdain for the programme as anything except good old-fashioned, uninformed prejudice.)

So why, you may ask, am I bothered about any of this? Because in 2015 Friday Download spawned a spin-off feature film. And dang me, it’s a haunted house horror comedy. And while it’s not something that I would ever choose to watch, as a British horror completist I feel it my duty to view the screener I was kindly sent and report back to you what’s what. So, in summary: it’s not terrible and I’ve seen worse. Like the bands who feature on the show, it’s inoffensive, forgettable and corporate.

But it also has its moments.

There are five presenters playing themselves, or rather, their one-name screen personas, in this movie. Richard (Wisker) had been a regular on the show through all previous eight series; Dionne (Bromfield) was a regular up to series 7, and a guest presenter in series 8; Shannon (Flynn) had been part of the team since series 5; George Sear since series 6. Bizarrely, Bobby (Lockwood) hasn’t actually presented the TV series (according to Wikipedia) although he plays a presenter in the movie.

I’m sure each of these kids is the life and soul of the party in real life, but there’s precious little personality to their screen personas. Bobby is a bit dim, and frequently talks about his dog Cujo (a horror reference that’s never acknowledged or touched upon). Dionne is a bit vain and obsessed with make-up, hair products and skin conditioner. Shannon is probably the most rounded and interesting character, a take-charge Mancunian with a no-nonsense attitude. Richard and George don’t seem to have any distinguishing traits at all and I’m not sure I could even tell them apart.

The plot, such as it is, has the quintet finish the latest series of Friday Download and head off for a holiday in a battered old van. After pausing for no apparent reason at a cemetery, they get lost in the fog and crash (harmlessly) into a ditch, conveniently close to an enormous mansion that looks like the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home. (It’s actually Margam Castle, a gothic monstrosity near Port Talbot which was designed by Thomas Hopper in the 1830s for William Henry Fox Talbot’s cousin.)

This vast pile of masonry is inhabited by two posh siblings, Clara (Louisa Connolly-Burnham from House of Anubis and Wolfblood) and Caleb (Tiger Drew-Honey) who live alone there since their parents died. Drew-Honey was a presenter on Friday Download series 1-4 although he is better known for either (a) playing Jake in Outnumbered, or (b) being the offspring of porn professionals Linzi Drew and Ben Dover (depending on one’s own cultural sensitivities). Invited to stay the night, the five friends are shown to separate bedrooms, each of which contains appropriately monogrammed pyjamas.

Overnight, spooky things start to happen and this is where the film proves surprisingly effective, since some of these would actually be really good and scary in a proper horror film. Shannon hears a beeping, as of a smoke alarm requiring a new battery, and opens the door to the passage only to find it leads into an exact copy of her bedroom, including another door which leads to another copy. She ends up running through room after room in a brief but hallucinatory sequence that is not played in any way for laughs.

Richard (or possibly George) is woken by a wide-screen TV switching on which he groggily realises is showing footage from a camera somewhere in the room, of himself in bed, at which point a shadowy figure appears beside him on the screen. Dionne, going through her nightly rituals in front of a mirror, finds a scary-faced version of herself staring back. Bobby hears his dog at the door but is dragged under the bed by the unseen animal, emerging with shredded, slimed PJs. And something probably happens to George (or possibly Richard) but I can’t remember what.

The spooked kids head back to their van but find that it has left the ditch and somehow got stuck halfway up a tree. Forced to return to the house, where Clara and Caleb remain welcoming and understanding (if stiffly eccentric), the gang are joined by Fraser (Ethan Lawrence: Joe in Bad Education), who runs a ghost-hunting blog and has been camping outside the mansion grounds. Once he has sneaked inside with his new friends, Fraser goes exploring.

After spending the rest of the night sharing a single room, blithely unaware of the ectomorphic entities around them, the FD team are awoken by Mr Peck (Angus Barnett: Mullroy in Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 3 and 5), a property developer who wants to buy the house, knock it down and build something else. The precise details of the financial situation aren’t exactly clear. Peck has purchased a £20,000 debt and the siblings have until sunset that day to come up with that amount, otherwise he will own the house. Or something.

We also learn that Caleb and Clara’s late parents are haunting the place. We don’t learn at this point that the siblings themselves are also ghosts, although it was screamingly obvious from the moment we first met them.

The gang decide that they can raise the required 20 grand by calling in a few pop star mates and staging a concert in the grounds – which they do. Coachloads of screaming, pubescent girls arrive (plus one or two boys) and are treated to performances by Dionne (Bromfield is a singer, rather than an actor) plus Bars and Melody and The Vamps.

Apparently Bars and Melody are two kids who came third on Britain’s Got Talent and have subsequently had a top ten single and album. After this movie, they both became regular presenters on the ninth series of Friday Download. The Vamps are a four-piece boy-band who sound like a McFly album track and actually supported McFly on a 2013 tour (I’ve got no problem with McFly – plenty of McFly CDs on my shelf). Each of the three artists performs one song, intercut not only with shots of the screaming training-bra battalion but also with scenes of Fraser finding out the truth about Caleb, Clara and their parents.

Apparently – according to a spooky story told early on in the van, and a book browsed by Fraser – if ghosts are allowed to own the ground that they haunt, they can take over the world. Or something. The interesting upshot of this unique idea is that, in raising the required £20,000 (by passing a bucket among the crowd, most of whom presumably get decent pocket money), the Friday Download gang have actually done the wrong thing. They thought they were helping two new friends stand up to a greedy property developer, but they have actually brought about the end of mankind by unleashing unstoppable ghostly forces upon the Earth.

Well, I didn’t see that coming.

I’m prepared to give props to the film for not only that twist, but also for the way it gets out of this situation, which is that they use social media to alert every ghost-hunting nutter in Britain to the inarguable presence of two ghosts (the siblings having now revealed their true natures). An army of paranormal investigators immediately descends on the house and Fraser makes it clear that from now on the two spectres will never have a moment’s peace. This is enough for them to realise that they would be better off with their parents, which they achieve by magically entering a painting that Fraser found in an attic.

The final gag of the film sees the team heading off to a town which, it is implied, is populated by werewolves.

Obviously I’m not the target audience for this film so I can only offer my personal subjective opinion as a seasoned film reviewer. I reviewed plenty of kids movies back in the SFX days so I’m not completely unfamiliar with the genre and its tropes. What struck me most, I think, was that this is a curious chimera of two well-established themes. Normally when established entertainment characters find themselves in a haunted house, the template is Scooby-Doo and they work to solve the mystery and/or lay the ghosts to rest. Alternatively, there is the well-worn plot of needing a large sum of money to save someone/where/thing and achieving this by calling on showbiz mates to stage a mini version of Live Aid. Friday Download: The Movie bolts these two ideas together and the end result is not unsuccessful, to be fair.

More problematic for me is the subtext of the film, which is very much that there are the cool, beautiful people – and then there are the freaks and geeks. Though he is never rejected, Fraser is very much the outsider: a loner, an obsessive, someone more interested in research, discovery, heck just reading, than in ‘important’ things like pop music, partying and looking good. Because of his outsider status, he must be fat, with unstylish clothes and a bad haircut.

There’s a disturbing lack of diversity in the film. Apart from TBG Bromfield, the only non-white face is an obsessive mega-fan of the series named Darren (Nathan Bryon: Jamie from Some Girls). With his cheerily oblivious attitude to social convention and his lop-sided ‘fro, Darren is rather obviously modelled as a younger version of Moss from The IT Crowd (I don't know if he's part of the series or just created for the film). As with Fraser, he is a loner, desperately unstylish and classified as a nerd, a geek, a nutter. He can only watch the cool kids from afar; he can never be part of their gang. And that really is it as far as diversity goes in this film. There may be a few black faces among the hordes of little girls watching the concert, but everyone else is as white as sour cream. If you’re disabled, or Asian, or think you might be gay, or you’re a goth or an emo, or if in any other way you feel ‘different’ or are suffering the sort of emotional crisis that comes with puberty and adolescence – well, my friend, this is not the movie for you.

The subtext here is that cool, white kids with trendy haircuts and exciting media careers are so much better than you. If you don’t wear the right clothes, don't listen to the right music, don't have the right haircut, demonstrate weird interests like reading or science or history – then you are The Alien Other. You may look at the cool kids. You may speak to them if they speak to you first. But you can never be one of them. You are a weirdo, a loony, a freak.

In the entire film, I don’t think there’s a single character who wears spectacles. That, for me, sums it up.

Now listen. Yes, I know I’m reading too much into this. It is just a silly kids comedy with some slapstick and some pop music. And I’m not asking for some righteous, politically correct, box-ticking of a black kid in a wheelchair as a token member of the gang. I’m just saying that the presenters of a show like this, and hence the stars of a film like this, could be more representative of today’s youth, instead of all looking and sounding and behaving the same. And the script could have been less at pains to point out that Fraser and his many ghost-hunting web friends - who actually save the day, remember – are ‘nutters’ and ‘geeks’.

Just saying.

The film was directed by the very experienced John Henderson whose notable genre credits include the 1990s TV series of The Borrowers, Ted Danson starrer Loch Ness (and Loch Ness lite feature Mee-Shee: The Water Giant), Hallmarks’ The Magic Land of the Leprechauns, unfunny scifi sitcom Hyperdrive and legendary Doctor Who Comic Relief Special The Curse of Fatal Death. He also directed episodes of Spitting Image and brilliant Steve Coogan sitcom Saxondale. Scripter Toby Davies previously wrote sketches for Sorry I’ve Got No Head (oh yes, that’s another CBBC series we have actually watched) and That Mitchell and Webb Look, as well as episodes of Yonderland.

John Henderson’s regular cinematographer John Ignatius lit the picture; in his early career he was focus puller on Brazil and The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Production designer Blair Barnette started out in LA doing props and sets work on superior kidcoms like Clarissa Explains It All and Kenan and Kel before moving to the UK where she actually has a couple of BHR credits in Sightseers and In Fear.

Kevin Eldon, David Mitchell and Marcus Brigstocke make utterly irrelevant name-value cameos as respectively a creepy security guard, a comedy policeman and himself. Also credited as themselves are Connor Ball, Tristan Evans, James McVey and Bradley Simpson. I have no idea who they are (presumably they’re in the phone-round-our-celeb-pals montage) and I can’t be arsed to look them up.

Released theatrically in May 2015 as Up All Night (with a West End premiere), the film swiftly learned the lesson that TV spin-offs must have the same title as the show from which they originate so for the October 2015 DVD release it became Friday Download: The Movie.

MJS rating: C+

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dense Fear

Director: Tony Gardner
Writer: Tony Gardner
Producer: Tony Gardner
Cast: Tony Gardner, Andy Moffitt, Shaun Winn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2003
Reviewed from: YouTube
Website: http://densefear2.webs.com

Dense Fear is the 50-minute film to which Dense Fear Bloodline is a sequel. It’s available on YouTube but the picture quality is very poor, albeit not enough to spoil the film or prevent one from following the action.

Director-writer-producer Tony Gardner stars as Paul, a young man living in a middle-class suburban house, who has psychological issues and a taste for raw meat. Visited by his sceptical psychiatrist Dr Sandla (Gardner’s sister Sonia Brotherston) he recounts the story of how he became a werewolf.
The bulk of the film is a flashback to a camping trip into the woods by Paul and his mates Dave (Shaun Winn) and Bill (Andy Moffitt), a trio of Geordie likely lads equipped with a tent, some cans of beer and a dirty magazine to provide entertainment. On the road, they pass a scary-looking figure whose hands and face are covered in blood (also Andy Moffitt).

Later, in the woods, Paul is freaked out to see the same bloody individual. Later still, the trio are attacked by a hairy man-beast. Gardner’s fantastic home-made werewolf suit uses the same head as in the sequel but a different body, this one being a quadruped. Good editing of the attack scenes lets us see enough to be impressed.

Curiously, the last 15 minutes or so is a completely different flashback, as Paul explains to Dr Sandla how he knows about a recent local death. Another member of the Moffitt clan, Joe, is a lone driver whose car breaks down and who is attacked by a beast (implicitly Paul). Three days later, Ashley and Lee Moffitt play two kids who find a dismembered body in the woods. Stuart Hills and Joe Youngman are the forensic experts checking it out.

Shot around Gateshead for about 30 quid over a three-year period, Dense Fear was finished in 2003 and shared with family and friends. The film was posted to YouTube in April 2011. Despite a (fake) feeder reel at the start, this seems to have been shot on VHS, not 8mm. An effective negative effect is used for some werewolf POV shots.

Taking into account the budget, the minimal resources, Gardner’s inexperience and the early date in the British Horror Revival, Dense Fear is genuinely very impressive. It’s not as good as the second film, of course; Gardner learned from making this one and fed that experience into the follow-up. But even taken on its own, this is a pretty damn good little slice of British horror. There’s nothing embarrassingly bad and the great werewolf suit balances out the inadequacies of some of the acting and the rather minimalist plot (plus the odd structure, which makes it look like this wanted to be an anthology then got distracted halfway through…).

Worth checking out.

MJS rating: B

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Caesar and Otto's Paranormal Halloween

Director: Dave Campfield
Writer: Dave Campfield
Producers: Dave Campfield, Richard G Calderon, Joe Randazzo, Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Dave Campfield, Paul Chonicki, Scott Aguillar
Country: USA
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: Online screener
Website: www.caesarandotto.com

They’re back! Half-brothers Caesar and Otto Denovio follow their Summer Camp Massacre and their Deadly Xmas with a Paranormal Halloween. And if you’ve met these guys before, you’ll know what to expect and won’t hesitate to get your hands on a copy of Dave Campfield’s latest opus.

Caesar (Campfield himself), you will recall, is a waspish, selfish wannabe actor (here turning his hand to screenwriting). Otto (Paul Chomicki) is a pathetic, loveable slob. And their massively untrustworthy father Fred (Scott Aguillar) is once more along for the ride, along with the expected gaggle of B-movie legends.

Paranormal Halloween starts out as a lampoon of the original Halloween, with Caesar in drag earning a few bucks, between gigs, as a babysitter. A Michael Myers-style psycho comes a-calling but, after some close calls, is killed – resulting in the brothers Denovio being presented with the Key to the City. Which is fine and all but they’re currently homeless.

Not to worry, because the Governor of California (Ken MacFarlane, who has been in every C&O movie so far), who has weird artificial hands, offers them a job house-sitting his (haunted) property, starting in late October. As usual, Caesar and Otto find themselves surrounded by eccentrics, nutters and quite possibly psychopaths too, including neighbours, servants, security guards, cops, and a ‘money laundering service’ which provides clothes care and financial advice.

Otto is on a quest to find his long-lost mother. An Exorcist-based subplot centres around unconventional priest ‘Father Jason Steiger’ (Deron Miller: Return to Sleepaway Camp, C&O’s Deadly Xmas, C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre). A psychic married couple are keen to stress that they are in no way based on characters in The Conjuring. Caesar finds a collection of webcams and sets them up around the house. Fred locates a hidden cache of booze.

I can’t go into too much detail. It’s a complex plot but no-one is here for the plot, and the reason it’s so complex is because it’s trimmed neatly and wound tight, leaving not a moment to spare and nary a wasted line. Campfield directs with masterful precision, keeping the gags coming thick and fast (and varied: character gags, visual gags, slapstick, spoofs…). Zinger follows zinger for 90 minutes of brilliantly entertaining horror-comedy. Some comedy films achieve this sort of hit rate by chucking everything in and hoping enough of it works, but Dave Campfield’s approach is more carefully managed. Sean Steffen shares story credit with Campfield, as he did on Dave’s 2012 short The Perfect Candidate.

I'm not going to list all the horror pictures referenced or spoofed here - I probably missed a lot of stuff - but it's worth noting that this isn't some lame sub-Scary Movie comedy that thinks just referencing something makes it a joke. Dave crafts funny gags out of this intertextuality and self-referentiality, weaving it into the character-based farce that is the brothers' lives. My favourite sequence is one which - as you may guess from the title - brilliantly scuppers the found footage genre (which, let’s face it, had it coming).

Our two bumbling heroes sail through the story like it’s an old Bob Hope movie (just to clarify: I am a huge fan of old Bob Hope movies). Or maybe the Marx Brothers are a better comparison (but without the manic wordplay or musical interludes). What I’m trying to get at here is that things happen around Caesar and Otto - in front of them, behind them, to the side of them – while they pursue their own specific goals. This is why Dave has been able to place them into four films now, plus assorted shorts and guest appearances, with a teaser here for a mooted Caesar and Otto’s Spring Break of Death. You could put these guys pretty much anywhere where horror-related malarkey is happening and they would fit. Because Caesar doesn’t care and Otto doesn’t notice.

There are so many characters and cameos that keeping track of names and identities proved a thankless task, so I’ll just scoot through some of the cast highlights in IMDB order. We have Andre Gower (one of the kids from The Monster Squad!), Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2, T-Force, Power Rangers Time Force and Plughead in the Circuitry Man films), Sean Whalen (Python, Hatchet 3), Campfield regular Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Catherine Corcoran (Return to Nuke’Em High 1 and 2), Beverly Randolph (Return of the Living Dead), Monique Dupree (Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned), Nicole Cinaglia (Camp Dread), Caleb Emerson (Chop, Poultrygeist and director of Die You Zombie Bastards!), Frank Sorrentino (Sleepaway Camp) and Brendan Mitchell (Witchcraft 14: Angel of Death – holy crap, they made another one!). Some of these actors, and many of the others I haven’t got room to name, have appeared in one or more previous Caesar and Otto pictures, sometimes in the same role, sometimes as multiple characters.

Also present are three of my all-time favourite actresses, any one of whom (as should be clear from the number of links in this paragraph) is enough to make me watch a movie. They are of course the Shep (Nympha, Chainsaw Cheerleaders, The Frankenstein Experiment, Wrath of the Crows), the Roch (Colour from the DarkWrath of the Crows, Serial Kaller, C&O’s Deadly Xmas, Exhumed, Chainsaw Cheerleaders, Dr Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, Dead and RottingWitchouse 3, Filthy McNasty) and - as Shining-inspired ghost twins – the Brinkster (C&O’s Deadly Xmas, C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre, The Naked Monster, Vampires vs Zombies, Hell AsylumWitchouse 3, Invisible Mom).

Editing is wonderfully tight, cinematography and sound are both good. Caesar and Otto films never cost much but every penny is on screen and the return on investment is high. If you have met the Denovios before you’ll know what to expect and you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve yet to discover the delights of the Caesar and Otto series, take a look (no knowledge of the earlier films is required) and discover the funniest sequence of B-movie comedies around.

MJS rating: A

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Stomach

Director: Ben Steiner
Writer: Ben Steiner
Producer: Dan Dixon
Cast: Ben Bishop, Simon Meacock, Peter Marinker
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screening (Fantastiq) and online screener
Wesite: www.fumefilms.com

It has taken me a ridiculously long time to review this 15-minute masterpiece of British horror. But I wanted to do it justice.

The Stomach premiered at Fantastic Fest in the States in September 2014. I saw it at Fantastiq in Derby the following May. In August 2015, Ben Steiner was kind enough to send me a screener, at about the same time that the film appeared on iTunes. All this time it has been touring the genre and mainstream festivals of the world, playing well over a hundred gigs, amassing more than 20 awards and impressing all who see it. Meanwhile, a major project at the University kept me working evenings and weekends (and exhausted when I wasn’t working) so that it is only in October 2015, five months after first seeing the film, that I have been able to find the time to watch and review it.

Please understand, folks, that a quarter-hour film doesn’t take a quarter of an hour to review. And frankly, in this house, just finding a quarter of an hour of uninterrupted viewing time can be a bleeding miracle. But I’m not here to write about my home life. I’m here to write about The Stomach. To explain why it’s one of the very best British horror shorts of recent years, why it has been such a popular choice at festivals, and why you should take the trouble to watch it.

The Stomach is a beautifully original idea. Not for Steiner and his Fume Films partner Dan Dixon the standard tropes of zombies, ghosts, psychos, vampires and so on. This is a tale of mediumship gone awry, of communing with the dead. So it’s a supernatural tale, but it also ticks the ‘body horror’ box because of the unique way that brothers Tom (Ben Bishop: Whitechapel and the 1999 Doomwatch TV  movie) and Frank (Simon Meacock: Slash Hive, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, lots of TV including Poldark, Outlander and MI High) do that communing – via Frank’s torso. A customer provides an item relating to the deceased. Lying in bed, stomach bare, Frank takes this, and then puts a wide tube into his mouth. His belly distends. The customer can then commune with the deceased by speaking into the tube in Frank’s mouth while listening to his stomach through a stethoscope.

It’s a disturbing, even repugnant vision, made all the more unpleasant by the shabby bedroom in which Frank lies, straggly of beard and pale of face. You have to wonder, first, what sort of sick mind comes up with a cinematic idea like this, and second, how Frank and Tom discovered this ability…

Tom, dressed like a seedy working men’s club compere in a velvet jacket that adds nothing but irony to their situation, is the organiser and the money man. The brothers are close; there’s no suggestion that Tom is ripping off or using his brother, though clearly he is the dominant partner while passive, prostrate Frank is the one suffering through these gastric séances. There is also no suggestion that anything is fake. This is genuine communion with the dead.

Most of their customers are rather sad old ladies like Mrs Bird (Jennie Lathan: Gangsters, Guns and Zombies, The House of Silence) who visits regularly to chat with her late friend. The problem arises with the arrival of Mr Pope (Peter Marinker: The Martian Chronicles, Nightbreed, Judge Dredd, Event Horizon and numerous voice dubs including Ben in Star Fleet!), an unsavoury, criminal character looking to contact his younger brother. There is more to Pope than meets the eye.

To say more would be to spoil a film which is at once startling, revolting, fascinating and thought-provoking. Steiner’s script is a fine, self-contained slice of horror which tells us everything we need to know about these people and this world. He has then directed the story with an eye for detail - the fish tank, the coughed-up blood – that makes this more reality than metaphor. What I really, really loved about this film – even above the script, the direction, the superb sound design (by the enigmatically named ‘Z No’)  and the terrific acting by all concerned – is Nicola Wake’s production design.

The combination of Wake’s design with Dominic Bartels’ cracking cinematography creates a seedy, working class, very British world. It’s not the stereotypical world of geezer gangsters (despite Pope’s dodgy motivation) but instead it’s the world of kitchen sink drama, more A Taste of Honey than A Day of Violence. It’s a prosaic (under)world of old bed-linen and peeling paint. This is exactly the sort of horror-meets-social-realism film which exemplifies the strengths and distinctiveness of the British Horror Revival.

Britishness is also key. It’s hard to think of any other country where this would work in the same way. Maybe Germany or Scandinavia, but that would be a different film. This is probably unintentional but it occurred to me that, in combining spiritualism with crime, The Stomach harks back to one of the forgotten bedrocks of British horror cinema. That’s At the Villa Rose, the AEW Mason novel which was written in 1910 and filmed (with extraordinary regularity) in 1920, 1930 and 1940. What goes around comes around.

The fine cast is rounded out by Kiki Kendrick (Grave Tales) and Neil Newbon, whose pop culture immortality is guaranteed by having played the waiter in the original Goodness Gracious Me ‘Going Out for an English’ sketch! Editing is jointly credited to producer Dixon and Jacob Proctor (The Borderlands, The Scar Crow, um, MasterChef). Jon Revell (Belly of the Bulldog, The Forgotten, Scintilla) designed the costumes; Dicken Marshall composed the effective music; Jodi Cope designed the make-up. The prosthetic effects on which the whole story rests were supplied by Dan Martin (Sightseers, In Fear, The Sleeping Room, The Devil’s Chair, Salvage, F, Isle of Dogs, Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business, Nina Forever, Ibiza Undead…) and damn good they are too.

Steiner and Dixon’s previous short was The Flea, an eight-minute vampire film which played Frightfest in 2008 and is now available on YouTube. Before that. Steiner made one segment of 2008 half-hour mini-anthology HorrorShow. Both of those also starred Meakin. Dixon’s day-job in visual effects has garnered him credits on a number of blockbusters including Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Godzilla and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The pair are now developing a slate of four Fume Films features including an expanded version of The Stomach.

Wasting neither a second of screen-time nor a pixel of screen, The Stomach is a little slice of horror perfection. A film you must see and, having seen, will not easily forget and will want to see again.

MJS rating: A+

Wednesday, 14 October 2015


Director: Megan Freels Johnston
Writer: Megan Freels Johnston
Producers: Megan Freels Johnston, Debra Trevino
Cast: Ashley James, Mark Schelbmeir, Wes O’Lee
Country: USA
Year of release: 2014
Website: www.reboundthriller.com

This horror-thriller has its pros and cons but the balance sheet leans towards the former so I’m going to recommend it to you, albeit with caveats.

Ashley James (also an executive producer) turns in an absolutely cracking central performance as Claire, who is leaving LA after becoming disillusioned with (a) her inability to make it as an actress, but mostly (b) her cheating arsehole of a boyfriend. The credits play under footage of her discovery of Eric (co-producer Brett Johnston) doing the nasty with a never-named hussy. (Ali Williams is the Other Woman. Though it’s just a brief, wordless, flashback role she absolutely nails it, revelling in her adulterous victory and looking almost demonic in some shots. Of course, this is Claire’s memory of the moment so it’s an exaggeration.)

So anyway, Claire packs up her belongings, says goodbye to her friend (Julia Beth Stern: Killer Holiday) and sets off home to her parents’ house in Chicago.

Though it plays out as very much prosaic reality, the premise of Rebound is distinctively American and to a British viewer (or reviewer) it’s an alien world that’s mysterious and unknown from the off. Chicago, we are told, is three days’ drive away. That’s just unfathomable, living in a country where no journey takes more than a couple of days max. If you lived near Land’s End and wanted to visit your friend in John O’Groats, you could get there by road in under 16 hours. But like the saying goes: Americans think 100 years is a long time and the British think 100 miles is a long way. The USA is a nation built on two inventions: cars and guns. Both feature in this film.

So I’m thinking: if you want to get from LA to Chicago, why would you not just go by air? But I’m not American. To Claire, a three-day drive along the interstate is just a normal thing to do. On the first day, she manages to lose her cellphone at a rest stop. Then, after dark, her car breaks down. That’s okay. There’s an old screenwriting maxim: it’s fine for a coincidence to get your character into trouble, it’s not acceptable for a coincidence to get them out.

Passing motorist Gus (Wes O’Lee, who also contributed some of the songs on the soundtrack) gives Claire a ride into the nearest town: never-named, but it’s the sort of place where there’s one motel and one car mechanic. That mechanic is Eddie (Mark Schelbmeir), who collects Claire’s car but tells her she’ll have to stay overnight as he needs to get a part.

Balking at the unexpected cost, Claire pleads with Eddie to knock a few bucks off, which could be considered sweet-talking, which could be significant. Claire then goes to the town’s only bar where, among creepy you-ain’t-from-round-here locals, she unwisely knocks back a couple of stiff ones, while chatting with Eddie.

…And at the halfway point in the movie, she wakes up tied to a chair.

It has to be said that Claire’s behaviour is not terribly sensible. Since she doesn’t want to interact with anyone in this nowheresville place, why does she go to the bar? If you just want to get drunk after the day from hell, why not buy a bottle of wine from the 7-11 and then drink it while watching cable in your motel room? That’s what I’d do.

Eddie, it turns out, is a psycho. Hence we are treated to about 20 minutes of really very nasty abuse which, with the best will in the world, is basically misogynist torture porn. This does raise an interesting question, in whether a film made by a woman can be misogynist. I don’t see why not. I’m a person and a card-carrying, person-hating misanthropist (which is why drinking wine alone in a strange motel sounds so inviting…) so there’s a sort of precedent there.

What really concerns me is that this ‘middle act’ doesn’t really develop anything. I can see what writer-director Megan Freels Johnston is trying to do (at least in retrospect, having seen the whole movie) but the little hints of subtext are lost beneath a sequence of “Oh God, no!” sadistically abusive actions. In the final 20 minutes or so, matters do start to develop and the film raises some interesting ideas, but too little too late. And while the very final scene is bound to prompt debate among viewers, I personally didn’t find it very satisfying.

There’s a lot to like in Rebound. Strong performances from the cast, very effective music from Michael Boateng (helped by fine sound-mixing by Clint Allday) and some absolutely terrific cinematography from Stephen Tringali. Johnston directs with an assured hand and ensures that the whole film is driven by characters. Except that, well, there’s not really much character to Eddie. There’s a brief mention of an abusive father, and a reference to previous victims, but really he’s an off-the-shelf cinematic psycho who just wants to hurt pretty women. Which isn’t very interesting.

There is a sort of feminist subtext underlying all this, an area I'm going to leave to theorists with too much time on their hands. I'll just note that, although Claire becomes stronger through her experience, it takes the intervention of a man to help her achieve that - and violent, abusive intervention at that. There's a thesis ti be written here.

Structurally, this falls into a trap that I’ve seen many times before, of putting the big turn-around at the midway point, which means that the film is unbalanced. Act 1 takes up half the running time, leaving Acts 2 and 3 not enough space to develop and fully explore the situation which Act 1 has created. While the combination of direction and acting ensures that the first half of the film doesn’t drag, the fact remains that really Claire should be in that chair after 30 minutes, not 47, so that we can spend another 25-30 minutes witnessing her terrible situation - ideally with a series of twists and turns that keep us glued to our seats - then a final half-hour of false hope and things getting even worse before eventual redemption (or not, as the case may be).

I wish Megan Freels Johnston had spent more time – more pages – exploring the very good premise that underpins this story, and less time building up to it before a metaphorical swift jog through what the film is actually about. Which is, I guess, male dominance and female empowerment. Or something.

But look, this is me being picky. If you want a finely crafted horror-thriller about a lone woman in a strange town full of sinister-seeming locals, Rebound is a good choice. It's a solid directorial debut by Johnstion who has been producing since 2009. Her first film was Sparks, a half-hour short starring Carla Gugino and Eric Stoltz, directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. That was based on a story by Elmore Leonard, who was Freels' grandfather - which must have made for some interesting bedtime stories...

The cast also includes Liz Bauer (who was in Jeff Brookshire’s Awaken the Dead) as a homeless woman and Kevin Bulla (Joyful Noise) as a disconcerting barman. Joanne Adolfo provided the (limited) effects make-up.

MJS rating: B+