Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Rite of Rosemary

Director: Daniel Webb
Writer: Daniel Webb
Producers: Daniel Webb, Sara Jimenez Criado
Cast: Bill Thomas, Guy Barnes, Tanya Page
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: Online screener

In the context of this impressive and enjoyable short, Rosemary means the herb, not the girl’s name. Dan Webb’s half-hour film is principally a two-hander between Bill Thomas as Thomas, an old guy who has moved from his large house into an adjacent lodge, and Guy Barnes as Jack, the son who returns after years away.

These two fine actors create a solid and believable relationship between the characters, a familial antagonism based on the secrets that each keeps from the other (and they both initially keep from us). Through their tense conversations – and a flashback featuring Jack Stevenson as young Jack – we find out something of their history. Initially Jack seems more of a threat, but Thomas is also a dangerous man. His reduced home has religious icons and he chides his son for taking the Lord’s name in vain. A painting of the Virgin Mary is essentially the Chekhov’s Gun of religious obsession, so we know that Thomas’ dogmatic faith will come into play later on.

Webb’s screenplay - based on a short story by Sarah Scanlan - is cleverly structured and flows well, so that the film seems to fly by. I’ve watched shorts of eight or nine minutes that seemed to drag compared to this one. To go into too much detail would be to risk spoilers; suffice to say there is a little violence, a little prosthetic gruesomeness and a good slice of obsessive wacko determination.

Bill Thomas is a veteran character actor of more than 40 years’ standing with TV credits that include Minder, Poirot, Boon, Lovejoy, Bergerac and many other classics shows. He was in The Tenth Kingdom, episodes of Merlin and Atlantis, and one episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Guy Barnes has a much shorter IMDB list but it includes Rock Band vs Vampires and an Aliens fan film, plus he sings the end credits song for this film. The cast also includes Tanya Page as a police officer and Charlotte Mount in a role that it would be a spoiler to identify.

Among the crew, one notable name with multiple British horror credits is costume designer Sallyann Short whose other gigs include Nightmare Box, FirstBorn, Let’s Be Evil, Shed of the Dead and The Devil Went Down to Islington.

Dan Webb has directed a few shorts in recent years and and has been editor on a bunch of other people’s movies. You won’t find it on the IMDB but way back in 2007, when he was but a slip of a lad, he shot a zero-budget feature called The Zombie Survival Guide.

The Rite of Rosemary is an accomplished work, with echoes of classic British folk horror. Webb uses his cast and his location well to tell an intriguing, disturbing story. If I'm being picky, some of the cinematography is a bit dark and the initial concept of a killer on the loose is not fully developed and consequently seems something of an unnecessary red herring. But neither of these factors impinged on my enjoyment and appreciation of the film.

Currently playing festivals, The Rite of Rosemary was shot in June 2014. It screened for cast and crew in September of that year and was briefly available online in summer 2015 as part of the Top Shorts Online Film Festival.

MJS rating: B+

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sister Street Fighter

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Writers: Manfred Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki
Producers: Kineo Yoshimine, Kenji Takamura
Cast: Sue Shiomi, Sonny Chiba, Harry Kondo, May Hayakawa
Year of release: 1974
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Stablecane Video)

Sister Street Fighter is one of the most brilliant, most bonkers, most hugely entertaining martial arts films ever made. It is sort of a spin-off from the Sonny Chiba Street Fighter movies, in that it co-stars ‘Sonny Chiba, the Street Fighter’ but his character is different in this film.

The actual star is the phenomenally cute Etsuko ‘Sue’ Shiomi who made several other films with Chiba including The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, The Bodyguard, Message from Space and Dragon Princess. Only eighteen when this picture was made, and dressed in either a grey and red Chinese collar-less suit or white pyjamas, she kicks and punches her way across the screen with yells and squeals and a cheeky smile. She is great, displaying the same sort of evident delight in what she (or her character) is doing that distinguishes the great martial arts stars. You always get the impression that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan love their jobs; you never get that impression with Steven Segal or Don ‘His movies drag on and on’ Wilson.

Shiomi plays Tina Long, sister of a missing Chinese undercover cop named Lee Long, star pupil of the Shorinji School of Martial Arts. Lee has disappeared, Tina is told by a balding Hong Kong police chief, while investigating a drug-smuggling operation. It is up to his sister to save him, initially by making contact with another undercover operative, working at the Club Mandarin and named, um, Fanny Singer.

Tina flies to Yokohama where her attempt to have a quiet meal is interrupted by a bunch of young Japanese men who would like to show the Chinese cutie a good time. She demonstrates why they should not mess with her by spearing flies in flight with a toothpick, then kicks their arses anyway, joined halfway through by her cousins, Jerry and Randy. The three later join Tina’s uncle for lunch; Jerry says Tina is well-known in Japan now, “a real celebrity” although no-one at the cafe in the previous scene recognises her, nor in the next scene at the Club Mandarin.

At the club, which features topless dancers behind the bar, Fanny Singer is identified by a red rose on her thigh. Trying to leave, she is accosted by gangsters but runs out the back when Tina throws a fork into a hood’s hand. Fanny is caught in an alleyway and although Tina beats up some of the gang, others bundle the dancer into a car and drive off - only to be halted by a mysterious stranger (Chiba) who beats them up, takes the car (with Ms Singer in it) and drives off.

At Central Trading Co., the front for the drug smugglers, the guys who failed to kidnap Fanny successfully are berated by their boss's second-in-command, a beaky guy in a sharp suit who looks like he should be second from the left in the Flying Pickets. Suddenly, in bursts Hammerhead, a gang leader who dresses like an ancient swordsman and leads a squad of goons with odd, bucket-like helmets on their heads.

Meanwhile, Tina visits the Shorinji School where pupils are taught about love and zen and peace and karma and a whole load of other tree-hugging hippy crap: “Harmony between yourself and others is the basic condition of the karate fighter.” Wise old master Shorinji pledges the assistance of himself and all his pupils in tracking down and rescuing Lee Long. The odd bit of this is that the logo of the school is a reversed swastika, clearly displayed on everyone’s tunic and on the wall (in fact, the camera focusses in on it). Presumably it is being used in its ancient Sanskrit, pre-Nazi concept, but still...

Tina is introduced to star pupil Emmy Kawasaki and also recognises young Mr Chiba who is, it transpires, martial arts teacher Sonny Hibachi. He has Fanny safely hidden away at a dance school, where young ladies are practising ballet to the strains of Ponchielli’s 'Dance of the Hours' (or ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ if you’re an Allan Sherman fan). Fanny tells Tina that her brother was captured breaking into the headquarters of chief bad guy Koki. She gives Tina a lock of Lee Long’s hair, then has a fit and starts screaming that she needs heroin.

At this point, Hammerhead’s bucket-headed goons barge into the dance school looking for Fanny (as it were) but discover that the dance teacher is none other than ‘Shinobu Kojo - karate of the Ryukyu School’. We discover this too, through the first of several similar freeze-frame captions. Miss Kojo successfully fights the bucketheads with the assistance of Miss Long, but when Tina returns to Fanny she is just in time to see her shot by a poison dart. This emanates from a guy on a rooftop opposite who has a Mohican haircut, a billowing cloak and a large African shield - ‘Tettoso - blowgun of the Takasago School’. Before making his escape, he takes a potshot at Tina but succeeds only in killing a canary in a birdcage.

By now, the film has established itself as something much more than just another chop-socky flick, oh yes.

At Koki’s bayside mansion, complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool, we see some more of his killers training”

  • Tessin - the sickle user
  • Neray - ancient Chinese martial arts
  • Eva Parrish - karate champion of Australia
  • Amazons 7 - Thailand kickboxing
  • Hachigen Ma - Japanese cudgel play

Of these, Amazon 7 are the most memorable, being a septet of oriental lovelies in carefully ragged mini-dresses apparently made from the same fabric as Fred Flintstone’s suit. “I don’t like race horses so I keep killers,” explains Koki to Hammerhead. “It’s like a private zoo. It amuses me. It’s as much fun as a carload of gorillas.” He then shows his visitor close-circuit footage of a cell where Lee Long (played by Kamen Rider V3 himself, Hiroshi Miyauchi) is being held and forced to take hard drugs. Another camera shows Tina approaching the perimeter fence, which she leaps in a single bound. She fights Hammerhead atop a high cliff and onto a narrow footbridge from which he hurls her after informing her that her brother is still alive “because you’ll die soon anyway.”

Koki then shows Hammerhead how he manages to smuggle heroin without the authorities spotting it. In a laboratory deep in the bowels of the Koki mansion, scientists are hard at work saturating wigs in A-class drugs! That’s right - wigs. It may sound bonkers, but - well, no, it just is bonkers. Emmy Kawasaki is onto him and finds, on the dockside, crates of wigs being exported from Japan to Hong Kong. She fights Koki’s goons with the surprise help of Tina, who survived the fall from the bridge. As the Koki gang’s truck catches fire, one of them yells the immortal line, “Save the wigs!”

Tina’s uncle turns up at Koki’s place, trying to pass a message to Lee Long, but is forced by the rascally Koki - who makes him watch his daughter being raped - to call Tina and tell her to meet him. Of course, when she turns up it proves to be a trap and she is forced to fight first Hachigen Ma and his pole of death, then Neray and his lethal clubs.

Things are getting complicated now. Uncle Wotsit arrives back home with Randy; Jerry is already there, as is Emmy, and the four of them suddenly face Amazon 7 who are all wearing odd papier-mâché masks. Having defeated the crap girly kickboxers - with the aid of Tina, who turns up in time for a good fight as usual - Uncle is then felled by a poison dart.

Tina manages to smuggle her way into Koki’s lair by hiding in the back of a truck, but Oki has a new pet killer - Reverend Star. This fellow is a former preacher who comes equipped with dog-collar, wide-brimmed hat and that essential ecumenical accessory, an armour-piercing spear-gun. Reverend Star kills Lee Long in front of his sister, then perishes by his own spear-gun...

...whereupon Tina falls through a trapdoor and regains consciousness hanging upside-down surrounded by Koki and his chums. Koki’s mistress, previously seen being thrown into the swimming pool by Hammerhead, gives Tina a good Ilsa-style whipping and Flying Picket-man gives her another lash for good measure. Then a flame is applied to the rope which holds her and we eventually see, just before it breaks, that she is suspended over a pit of steel spikes. Fortunately, she is athletic enough to somersault out of trouble just as the rope snaps, and pushes Ilsa on to the spikes for good measure.

Finally, we get a full-scale fight between the bad guys (including Tessin the sickle user) and the heroic team of Tina, Sonny, Emmy and Randy (and possibly Jerry - the editing is a little confusing at this point). Sonny kills Hammerhead by smashing his face into a mirror while Tina chases Koki through an escape tunnel full of rubber bats to the clifftop, where the final showdown takes place.


What a movie. The fights are mostly terrific. Sonny Chiba is always great value, but so is Miss Shiomi and the inclusion of all these oddball specialists just makes a good film great. Though one has to wonder whatever happened to Eva Parrish, karate champion of Australia, who never reappears. The whole film is populated by eccentrics and the plot makes just enough sense to follow whilst making just enough nonsense to take the film to a level rarely attained by such pictures.

Some martial arts films are worth a watch, some are unwatchable, but Sister Street Fighter (Onna Hissatsu Ken) is one that I can watch again and again. This VHS tape was released in 1986 and has a cover painting of Shiomi based on a photograph of her (seen on the back of the sleeve) in a completely different film. the back-cover blurb reckons that the story is set in Tokyo although an on-screen caption clearly identifies it as Yokohama (and it certainly looks more like the latter). More amusingly, the film apparently features Sonny Chiba as ‘a super karate master and Ninja - a fighter who can become invisible.’ Well, if Chiba’s character ever becomes invisible in this story, he only does so whilst off-screen. (Or maybe not, actually...)

Director Yamaguchi (Karate Bear Fighter, Moon Angel) lifts the film above run-of-the-mill mid-1970s Oriental action flicks, possibly because this is, to all intents and purposes, a Hong Kong film made in Japan by Japanese film-makers. The English dubbing, written and directed by the ubiquitous Peter Fernandez, is very good indeed - understandable dialogue that closely matches lip movements, spoken by well-cast actors with real talent - and it is easy to forget that one is watching a Japanese film. Two sequels followed within the next couple of years, also starring Shiomi and directed by Yamaguchi, but I haven’t yet seen either of them. (NB. Most places list the title as three words but this version makes it two words - Sister Streetfighter - both on the sleeve and on-screen.)

Just remember: save the wigs!

MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 1st March 2005

Sunday, 14 August 2016

As Sete Vampiras

Director: Ivan Cardoso
Writer: RF Luchetti
Producer: Ivan Cardoso
Cast: Andréa Beltrão, Nuno Leal Maia, Ariel Coelho
Country: Brazil
Year of release: 1986
Reviewed from: Portuguese VHS

Back in the 1990s, I was twice invited (with my journalist’s hat on) to attend the Fantasporto Film festival in the delightful Portuguese town of Oporto. And I had a grand old time on both occasions, hanging out with film-makers and journos from around the world.

Among those people who were present on both occasions was a Brazilian fellow named Ivan Cardoso, several of whose films were released in Portugal on VHS by Mario Dorminsky, the driving force behind Fantasporto. I bought three such tapes... and they proceeded to sit on my shelf for many years, gradually becoming less and less likely to be watched as DVD became the defacto format and the number of VHS players in the Simpson household (and indeed, around the world) reduced considerably.

So now it’s 2008 and I’ve got a couple of hours access to the one remaining VHS/DVD combi when it’s not being used by either Mrs S or The Boy, so I thought what the heck, let’s watch a dodgy Brazilian horror movie. Unfortunately the first tape that I tried, O Escorpiao Escarlate, turned out to be knackered so I’ll probably never know what that’s about. However, The Seven Vampires played okay.

Now, there’s very little been written about As Sete Vampiras and most of what has been written is, naturally, in Portuguese. But I can grasp that lingo well enough to understand that this film is intended as a comedy. That’s actually quite important because my experience of popular Latin American cinema (which I will admit, pretty much stops at the Mexican border) is that is it often over-the-top, exaggerated action and that the presence of an obvious comedy character does not in and of itself indicate that the film in toto is a comedy. Actually, that’s not just Latin America; it may be a broad, sweeping generalisation but that seems to be common among indigenous popular cinemas in general once you get away from Europe/Hollywood and their obvious sphere of influence. In other words, indigenous cinemas which were destined to remain indigenous. And obviously I’m talking about all this, for the most part, in the past tense.

So, to get down to brass tacks: is this a clumsily made, naive attempt at a horror movie or is it a pastiche of clumsily made, naive attempts at horror movies? The geographical and temporal distance (As Sete Vampiras was released in 1986 so it was already a decade old when I bought a copy) robs the film of cultural reference points for this reviewer. But the Portuguese blurb includes the word ‘comedia’ so I have to take this as a pastiche. In which case I suppose it’s quite good. (Actually, I should have just checked the sleeve which proclaims, ‘Comédia, terror e... muito sexo!’)

There is also the question of the film’s historical setting. Unless Brazil in the mid-1980s still looked like this - which seems unlikely - then the film appears to be set in the 1940s, yet it gives the impression of having been made in the 1960s (or maybe early ‘70s). It’s all very confusing.

But not as confusing as the plot, which opens with two workmen discussing a very large crate, recently unloaded from a ship. Their boss doesn’t know what’s inside either: “I only know that we have to put meat in that hole every three hours,” is the first of many superb (and I suspect, accurate) subtitles. The crate belongs to Fred Rossi (Ariel Coelho, who was in John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest and is a dead ringer for HP Lovecraft), a botanist who has shipped in a large carnivorous plant.

This rather impressive, Audrey II-style prop has a large central florette with three or four leaves/petals, each equipped with numerous long, sharp teeth, plus a dozen or more snake-like appendages, each ending in a hungry mouth. Fred’s wife Silvia (Nicole Puzzi) obviously isn’t the sharpest chisel in the toolbox because she stares at this wriggling, writhing specimen for quite some time before exclaiming, “That plant just moved!” She is off to a dance class run by her friend Clarisse (Susana Matos) and is concerned about leaving Fred alone. “Don’t worry,” he assures his wife. “The plant won’t eat me.”

But while Silvia and Clarisse change into their leotards (alongside a full-frontal nude extra), Fred gets too close to the plant while he’s feeding it raw meat and it chows down on his head. When Silvia returns home, she finds the plant covered in blood and with an eyeball staring at her from one of its mouths...

Sometime later, the widowed Silvia enters into business with Rogério (Johnny Herbert - no, not the racing driver) who owns a swinging nightclub in need of a star attraction. The current show includes a fake-oriental magician who calls himself Fu Man Chu and a swinging rock’n’roll band - Bob Rider and his Crazy Rhythm. Rider is played by Leo Jaime who was a genuine Brazilian pop star, formerly with João Penca e Seus Miquinhos Amestrados. He also appeared in Cardoso’s O Escorpiao Escarlate and starred in the Brazilian version of The Rocky Horror Show! Under the Fu Man Chu make-up is veteran actor Wilson Grey, whose career from 1948 to 1996 incorporated John Hurt-starring prison drama Kiss of the Spider-Woman, a 1972 version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and several films in the Trapalhões series, notably haunted house comedy Os Fantasmas Trapalhões, Rider Haggard knock-off O Trapalhão nas Minas do Rei Salomão and superhero spoof O Incrível Monstro Trapalhão. But the Wilson Grey picture that I most want to see is the 1977 epic Costinha e o King Mong in which popular comedian Costinha encounters a jungle tribe who worship a giant man-in-a-suit gorilla. Apparently featuring a climax in which the ape climbs the Christ the Redeemer statue, this looks like it could give Queen Kong a serious run for its money...

Anyway, Silvia recommends a dance act called ‘The Seven Vampires’, a septet of attractive young ladies who gyrate to goth-lite music amid much stage smoke. And here’s the film’s biggest disappointment: not only does As Sete Vampiras not have seven vampires in it, it doesn’t even have one vampire (as far as I can tell). It’s just the name of a dance act. What a cheesy swizz!

However, there is the possibility of a real bloodsucker as we are introduced to the long-suffering (but unnamed) Chief of Police (Bene Nunes) and comedy cop Inspector Pacheco (Colé Santana) who is less irritating than one might expect. “Two crimes in two months!” bemoans the Chief, which is either meant to be ironic or hasn’t been translated properly. Both crimes are actually murders where the body has been drained of blood and this leads the ever-alert coppers to suspect that the same person may be responsible. Pacheco is adamant that they are dealing with a vampire but the Chief poopoos this ludicrous idea.

Meanwhile Ivete (Simone Carvalho), one of the ‘vampire’ dancers, is worried for some reason and goes to see private detective ‘Raimundo Marlou’ - I kid you not - (Nuno Leal Maia) who spends his time reading detective comics but is fortunately assisted by competent secretary Maria (former children’s TV star Andréa Beltrão). Ivete is subsequently seduced by Rogério (who is supposed to be an item with Silvia now, I think) but when they return to his swanky house, he is murdered while Ivete is in the bath.

Later, Silvia is chased across a cemetery by a masked, knife-wielding maniac in a long black cloak, after which she too turns to Raimundo Marlou, who is presumably the only private dick in the area. Marlou’s assistant Maria then goes undercover at the club as a hat-check girl, working alongside female comic relief Rina (seventy-year-old Zéze Macedo). A word about Ms Macedo, who is obviously a local legend, having been in films from 1950. Her other credits, offering a tantalising insight into a world of cinefantastique that remains largely untapped even in these globally aware days, include ultra-topical 1959 sci-fi comedy O Homem do Sputnik, family-friendly adventure Robin Hood, o Trapalhão da Floresta and a number of 1970s sex comedy anthologies. Most incredibly, she also played the title role in an unauthorised blockbuster sequel called - are you ready for this? - Etéia, A Extraterrestre em Sua Aventura no Rio! Zéze Macedo made her last film in 1991 and passed away in 1999, aged 86.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, Maria somehow finds herself in a situation to overhear a telephone call which sends her and Raimundo to a particular location. Inspector Pacheco, who is still pursuing his vampire theory (the number of murders having risen to eight now, we’re told) also arrives and the masked maniac, when shot, turns out to be... well, I’m not entirely sure because most of his face is burned, but I’m assuming it’s Fred.

I’m assuming the killer is Fred for two reasons. First, because I can’t see who else it could be, and second, because if that’s not Fred then the entire prologue with the carnivorous plant is pointless. On the other hand, if the masked killer is Fred then the prologue is still largely pointless. We’re never told what happened to the killer plant. It just disappears from the film during the leap forward from Fred’s death to Silvia going into the nightclub business. Extraordinary.

Nor is there any explanation of why Fred was going around killing people or why the bodies were drained of blood. Unless being eaten by a plant not only burns one’s face but also creates haemovorous tendencies. To be fair, the synopsis on the BFI database (pretty much the only description of the film in English until now) says, “a killer vegetable transforms a scientist into a vampire, who brings horror to the chorus girls at a hotel, who are performing ‘The seven female vampires’.” But that’s really not clear from the film.

As Sete Vampiras is an oddball movie by anybody’s standards. It seems to have a fairly decent budget, certainly in terms of costumes, extras, props, sets, locations and vehicles (actually there’s only one car but it’s a nice one). I know all these things are relative but, the Brazilian film industry not being one of the most robust in the world, there are no obvious embarrassments on that score. The movie was released theatrically in Brazil in November 1986.

Several of Cardoso’s feature films and a compilation of his early shorts were released on VHS in the USA by Something Weird and the rights to his most notable pictures are now handled by a company called One Eyed Films, which seems to specialise in Brazilian popular cinema.

The only non-Brazilian festival where As Sete Vampiras definitely played was Sitges in Spain. At the Festival do Cinema Brasileiro de Gramado it won Best Screenplay and Zéze Macedo won a Special Jury Prize for her small but memorable role as comedy hat-check lady Rina. At the Rio-Cine Film Festival the picture won no fewer than four awards: Best Editing - Gilberto Santeiro; Best Art Direction - Oscar Ramos; Best Supporting Actress - Andréa Beltrão; and Best Film. Carlos Egberto also won an award (somewhere) for his cinematography; to be honest the film looks fairly ghastly but I suspect it was shot on 16mm and that this isn’t a great VHS transfer. Leo Jaime’s title song was a big hit on the Brazilian pop charts too, by all accounts.

Many of the cast and crew also worked on O Escorpiao Escarlate although as that was released four years later it’s unlikely the two films were shot back to back. A few also worked on Cardoso’s 1982 feature O Segredo da Mumia. Screenwriter RF Luchetti (credited as ‘RT Luccetti’ on the sleeve of this video) seems to have the Brazilian horror scene pretty much sewn up as he is not only Cardoso’s regular writer, he also penned several scripts for the country’s other notable fright-meister, José Mojica Marins aka Coffin Joe.

As for Ivan Cardoso himself, information about the man in English is in short supply. He started making films in 1969 and has directed more than 70 since then, ranging from documentaries to experimental, abstract pieces to hardcore porn but he is best known for comedy horror features. In fact, his brand of comedy horror became its own subgenre in Brazil where it was dubbed ‘terrir’ - terror that makes you laugh. I’ve got a whole bunch of stills, leaflets, posters and other stuff which he very kindly sent me in 1999 after we met in Oporto but there’s nothing in there that looks actually biographical.

The most complete list of his films is on the CITWF website, which is vastly more comprehensive than the Inaccurate Movie Database. However, it only goes up to 2004 and therefore omits his most recent feature, 2005’s Um Lobisomem na Amazonia which stars Paul Naschy. (Not as Waldemar Daninsky but as a lycanthropic scientist named ‘Dr Moreau’!)

Perhaps the time is right for an Ivan Cardoso revival. The chap’s still out there, still making bonkers films. Say what you like about As Sete Vampiras, it’s not boring - so let’s hope somebody puts it out on DVD soon, along with the rest of Ivan’s back catalogue.

MJS rating: B
Review originally posted 9th November 2008

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Sally Kerosene

Director: Steve Barker
Writer: Steve Barker
Producers: John O’Hara, Kieran Parker
Cast: Amanda Loy Ellis, Olivia Shaw, Alex Zed Fodor
Country: UK
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: VHS

Sally Kerosene is one of a number of 20-year-old VHS tapes I recently came across and watched. The principal interest in this one being that it is an early work by Steve Barker, creator of the Outpost trilogy.

This near-future, film noir cyberthriller is about half an hour long and stars Amanda Loy-Ellis (subsequently in episodes of Cracker, Peak Practice etc) in the title role. Produced just three years or so after the web was invented, just as ‘the internet’ was becoming a thing, there is a charmingly retro feel to the film as Sally and her partner Max (Tim Poole, also in Stephen Gallagher-scripted mini-series Oktober) explore the net using VR goggles and gloves, which was kind of how we all hoped it might be.

Underneath Sally’s sprightly, cynical narration we’re told about how she and Max worked for crime boss Parry (Gregory Cox – later in X-Men: First Class!) but came a cropper when the online information they were stealing was also stolen by someone else. Sally is betrayed by Max and ends up being driven around by a couple of hitmen (Alex Zed Fodor and the always watchable Tom WuRa.One, Mutant Chronicles – who around this time was doing bit parts in episodes of Cracker and Thief Takers).

Interspersed with this are scenes of Sally talking with her mother (Olivia Shaw) who would very much like her daughter to settle down, dress a bit more feminine and give some idea of what she does for a living. These scenes are in colour while the main story is in black and white, plus there is a fun spoof cop show in distorted hypercolour which Sally watches on her ‘interactive TV’. Nic Osborne was the DP and some fine work indeed is on show here. The whole thing is neatly snipped together thanks to the adroit editing of Hardeep Takhar and Andrew Ward (who later worked on Wallace and Gromit!).

Sally Kerosene is a crisp, smart 30-minute short of the sort that they don’t make them like any more. Made back in the days when there was almost no way for something like this to be seen (except at festivals), this is a calling card as much as anything. But it’s also a neat little film, a half-hour story told over half an hour, reliant on its script, acting, direction, photography and design rather than flashy gimmicks. That said, Sally is a fun character in a fun world and there’s no reason she couldn’t have returned in a feature.

This was Steve Barker’s graduation film, produced at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design. It played some festivals and won a few awards, including Best Short at Houston, but its biggest exposure was on TV. Back when there were only four channels and the fourth one was actually good, there was a C4 series called Shooting Gallery which each week collected together two or three impressive short films. This slot actually ran for several years and a few episodes are available on All4 – but not the November 1995 episode ‘Images of Femininity’ which included Sally Kerosene.

It’s clear from comments that lie scattered on various forums and blogs that Steve Barker’s film made a strong impression on those who saw it (and understandably so). For example, I found a 2009 blog post by Chris Regan, director of Jenny Ringo and the Monkey’s Paw, in which he describes Sally Kerosene as, in his opinion, “the greatest short film ever made…Essentially, it's a British cyberpunk thriller that manages to be huge in scale and scope whilst never over-reaching it's meagre budget. And the title character is super cool.”

Sally Kerosene was Steve Barker’s entry into the film industry, helping him to get his foot in some doors and establish a name for himself. After a number of writing gigs including crime thriller Plato’s Breaking Point and true-life crime caper The Great Dome Robbery, Steve made his mark with 2008’s Outpost and its 2012 sequel (for the third film he handed the directorial reins to Sally/Outpost producer Kieran Parker). More recently he shot second unit for Paul Hyett on Howl and now his latest feature The Rezort (aka Generation Z) is lined up to screen at Frightfest next week (it has already played Edinburgh and had a limited theatrical release in Spain).

For some reason, Sally Kerosene has never appeared online. In fact there's almost no record of it outside of a BFI page. It's not on the IMDB and there isn't a single image anywhere on the net (apart from the VHS sleeve I've just scanned). I know a lot of people would like to see it so maybe once Steve has finished promoting The Rezort he could dig out a copy. Until then, my VHS tape and a few off-air copies held by Chris Regan and others are the only evidence of this corking sci-fi romp.

MJS rating: A

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Harmony’s Requiem

Director: Mark McDermott
Writer: Mark McDermott
Producers: Mark McDermott, Paul Smith
Cast: Mark McDermott, Rosie Tratt, Christopher McAleer
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: Online

I really didn’t think I’d ever see Harmony’s Requiem. It was released online in 2011 but disappeared almost immediately, together with any trace of its creator Mark McDermott, including his Facebook page and his website. There was an IMDB page for the film, a British Council page and a trailer on YouTube but after that every mention was just those fake sites which claim to have free-to-view illegal copies of any movie you stick into Google.

The premise sounded intriguing. Here’s the British Council synopsis:

The peace of a City is shattered and fear spreads when the population becomes preyed upon at random. People begin searching for the rogue responsible as the intensity of the menace escalates, but the disturbing threat remains anonymous, creating widespread paranoia and panic. Can one person bring society to its knees?

And here’s the IMDB plot summary:

A reclusive composer struggling to arrange the most poignant score of his life emerges from his home in search of inspiration. However, his naive curiosity drives him to begin preying on unsuspecting people and tormented with inner turmoil he swings between right and wrong with increasing intensity. Can he find redemption before he goes too far?

All well and good but where was the film? Here’s what I wrote in issue 37 of Scream in 2016 in Part 8 of my ‘21st Century Frights’ series of articles:

Good luck seeking out Harmony’s Requiem, a film which seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Directed by Mark McDermott in 2010 as Silent Terror, this Oxford-set chiller involves a composer who seeks inspiration in serial murder – and more than that I cannot tell you. It was available through Amazon Prime at one point but not any longer. McDermott made no further films and is nowhere to be found. His Facebook account has been deleted. No-one ever reviewed this movie when it was available. Aside from an IMDB page and a trailer on YouTube there is no evidence that it ever existed. Yet we are talking about a movie released only five years ago! This is why it is so important to document these movies now – because in the digital world reality is fleeting. If anyone ever saw Harmony’s Requiem, or knows how I might get to see it, please please get in touch.

I didn’t really expect anything to come of this plea but a little while later I received an email from a kind-hearted, observant Scream reader named Karen Van Dahlen with a link to an online version of the film on the Amazon Studios website. I think I had actually already checked this out but thought it contained only the trailer. I hadn’t realised that by clicking on ‘Show all work’ and then on ‘Video 1 – Director’s Original’ I could access the full 90-minute movie.

That very evening I sat down to watch Harmony’s Requiem. I was probably the first person to watch this ultra-obscure feature film in the past five years and almost certainly the only person to watch it who didn’t know a member of the cast or crew personally. And here is what I found.

Harmony’s Requiem is simply brilliant. It is a powerful, disturbing, frightening, gripping, intriguing, thought-provoking, genuinely clever and original slice of modern British horror. It is a lost treasure, an undiscovered gem. The sort of discovery that makes this passion of mine all worthwhile. Bear in mind that in recent weeks, as part of the research for my next book, I have sat through a cascade of cinematic shite-ola that includes The Coven, Crying Wolf, Exorcism, Fantacide, The Hike, Knife Edge, The Quiet Ones, The Reeds, Temptation, Voodoo Lagoon and more Philip Gardiner movies than I care to name. But I would sit through all that crap again if at the end of it I could discover another unknown feature of the quality of Harmony’s Requiem.

This movie has instantly marked out for itself a place in my top ten British horror movies of the 21st century. I haven’t stopped thinking about it for 24 hours. I really, really want more people to see this movie. It may be that other people will look at Harmony’s Requiem and think, well that was crap. Simpson up to his usual hyperbolic bollocks again. You can’t win them all.

But I am genuinely excited by this film. By both the movie itself and the fact that it has finally come to light and I have a chance to share it with others.

So what is Harmony’s Requiem actually about? Well, my summation that it is an “Oxford-set chiller [which] involves a composer who seeks inspiration in serial murder” was wide of the mark. I think only two people get killed in this film, both towards the end, off-screen and almost incidentally. The main character is not a serial killer, though he is an aspiring composer and the film is set in Oxford.

We’ll call the main character K. We do eventually find out his name, though it has no special significance. The reason why I’m assigning him a code-name is because he never speaks throughout the film. He grunts and occasionally roars or screams or whimpers but even when interacting directly with other people he has no dialogue. We’re never told whether he actually can speak. We also never see his face.

K lives in a flat with modern décor that has recently gone to seed. Some of his doors have been crudely boarded up and he is reduced to eating cold baked beans directly off the kitchen counter, among rotting food. When we first meet K he is attempting to create music on his electronic keyboard but it is awful and discordant and he knows it. He smashes a small toy piano and then, still furious with himself, smashes an actual upright piano. Then he storms outside where he walks the streets and parks, watching other people from a distance.

Most (but not all) of this is shot POV but it’s only a little way in, when an angry man challenges him, that we realise K is actually carrying a camera everywhere and filming what he sees. So yes, this is found footage but it is a rare example of how to use that most over-used of filming styles in a positive, effective way. This is not some stupid, lazily-constructed, cut-price movie about putting cameras everywhere in a haunted house or going camping and filming every single moment of the trip. K’s use of his camera is intrinsic to who he is and to the story we will see unfold. Mentally challenged, painfully shy, socially inept, his camera with its zoom feature is the only way he can interact – covertly and at a distance – with the world and with other people.

Back at home, K uploads his secretly filmed videos of strangers to YouTube (here called iTubeU to avoid any copyright problems). This aspect of the story fades away as the film progresses but is nevertheless important to the plot. Produced just five years after YouTube was invented, McDermott’s film is a remarkably astute take on the idea and its potential for unpleasant or unethical usage. When K follows a young woman (Victoria Tyrrell, now Victoria Fitz-Gerald) who has left her friends and is obviously angry and upset, he thinks she is about to jump off a bridge so grabs her. His POV footage of this incident ends up on his iTubeU channel but the woman discovers the clip and uploads her own clip talking to camera about how angry she is with this weirdo.

K continues to secretly film people around him, from a distance, often from behind foliage or a fence. Though there is nothing overtly sexual about his voyeurism, he does focus mostly on young women. It’s clear that his driver is idealised, lonely romanticism rather than lust or masturbatory fantasy – although that’s not going to change the views of those women who spot him (or their boyfriends). At intermittent points in the narrative we are reminded that K is also driven by his desire to compose music. Mark McDermott himself is K but in the scenes where K actually plays the keyboard it's Olly Hamilton, a professional pianist who does music arrangements for BBC religious programmes and has accompanied the likes of Lesley Garrett and Katherine Jenkins.

After a while, K starts to concentrate on a girl he first spots jogging. Jane (Rosie Tratt) lives in a smart mews house and unwisely keeps her front door key under a plant pot. After leaving some flowers on her doorstep, K returns and enters the house. His POV exploration of Jane’s home is genuinely disturbing, an invasion of privacy that can’t help but make us wonder if anyone has been in our own homes. But when K realises – and we realise with him – that Jane is not out jogging, she’s in, she’s upstairs, she’s in the bath, she’s completely oblivious to the stranger in her house, that’s when the film really starts to unnerve.

This scene (and others) reminded me of the home invasion sequences in The Last Horror Movie, but with the tension ramped up to eleven. We at least knew what Max Parry was going to do. We at least knew who he was, what he wanted. We knew he was sane and lucid if amoral. We really don’t know anything about K except that he is mad enough (and strong enough) to smash up an entire piano and has absolutely no idea how to relate to other people. We’re genuinely afraid for what he might do in this situation.

A great strength of Harmony’s Requiem, which stems from the POV/found footage approach, is that we empathise with K. Don’t go in there. Don’t go up there. She’ll see you. She’ll hear you. We’re worried about what will happen. Worried for naïve, innocent, mentally disturbed K as much as for Jane. Other films may place us in the position of the voyeur but McDermott places us inside the voyeur’s head, to the extent that for much of the film it’s easy to forget that we’re seeing the world through a camera. K is not a bad man. He surely doesn’t even realise that what he is doing is wrong. Though he does, I think, appreciate the potential consequences of his actions, which is that Jane’s boyfriend Mike (Christopher McAleer, also in time-travel fantasy Waiting for Dawn) is going to kick seven shades of shit out of the intruder if/when he finds him. But we feel sorry for K, a lost, lonely soul who just wants some human companionship and has no idea how to go about finding it.

We certainly don’t feel sorry for Mike, a manipulative arsehole. The film’s sole, perfectly judged, audacious moment of humour comes when Mike, angling to persuade Jane to move in with him, creates evidence of a second ‘intrusion’. When K, who has understandably taken a dislike to Mike, realises what is happening he sneaks into the house and confounds the boyfriend’s plan by tidying everything up!

But a subsequent intrusion convinces K that his pathetic devotion to Jane is unfounded (of course it is, although we never expected the evidence to be quite as shocking as what he finds). This sends K off the deep end, actively chasing women. Around this time I was thinking of Harmony’s Requiem as a modern take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the lonely social reject, pathetically fixating on a woman unaware of his existence. Then suddenly I found myself watching a modern take on a different classic horror tale of lost love as the bridge girl from earlier and two friends (James Portway and Ashley Harvey, now Ashley Bowden) spot K and give chase, hunting down the weirdo, seeking to unmask the ‘hooded loner’. Suddenly I was watching The Phantom of the Opera

In another audacious plot development, while K escapes injury and unmasking, his pursuers steal his camera and for the next 15 minutes or so of the movie they film each other discussing the hooded loner. K has disappeared from his own POV story but at the same time he is still present in a way because if we are K and we are the camera then the camera is K. This is still his story. We don’t know how he copes without his technological comfort blanket but he eventually regains it – and by this point the film is starting to become nasty as well as creepy.

Yet we also take a step back into mundane reality. K’s visit to his GP (Ruth Curtis: Tormented) to obtain a replacement inhaler reminds us that he is, or at least was at one time, a normal member of society. His reclusive nature is a relatively recent development – and the revelation of what has caused, or at least contributed to, that personality change is one of the film’s simplest but most shocking ideas.

In the third act, after finding himself once again a hunted quarry but fighting back, K wanders far from home, trying to make sense of his fractured, lonely life. An act of kindness leads him into a situation where, through a combination of naivety, social awkwardness and moral confusion we witness him committing a crime potentially far, far worse than what has happened so far. Fist in mouth, we scream “Don’t do that!” but he does it anyway and our genuine fear for the repercussions of K’s action, an action which places him utterly outside of acceptable society, twists our guts as we watch events unfold.

I don’t want to go into any more detail. I’ve said enough already to hopefully intrigue you without spoiling the plot. There is a lot more to the story than what I have described above, and a great deal more to the character despite his faceless, inarticulate nature. K is both simple and complex, and neither good nor bad. He is a classic horror icon unable to cope with the world around him: as innocent and naïve as Frankenstein’s monster, as cruelly mistreated and unjustly feared as King Kong.

Rare indeed is the film which grips me like Harmony’s Requiem did. At first I had my doubts: was this going to be 90 minutes of a screaming man smashing a piano? But very swiftly I fell into an understanding of what this film was trying to achieve. I was carried along by the skilfully constructed story and the razor-sharp direction (and, it has to be said, quite excellent acting from the supporting cast caught by K’s lens). I felt myself bound up in K’s life, equally horrified by his transgressions of social acceptability and by the threatened consequences of society’s reaction to his faux pas. I can’t remember the last time I genuinely enjoyed a horror film this much: the twists and turns of the plot mirroring the way my stomach was twisting and turning as each revelation came to light, as each new event diverted in unexpected, unwelcome directions.


So here’s what I know about Mark McDermott and Harmony’s Requiem.

The film was shot in Oxford between April and June 2010 with post-production completed in August of that year. Some of the cast have no other credits but one notable name is Helen Holman (as ‘Woman walking to church’), an experienced actress whose other British horror gigs include Jacob’s Hammer, Aggressive Behaviour and Spirital Phantoma. Max Van De Banks (Soul Searcher, The Dead 1 and 2, Siren Song) provided the make-up while the visual effects were by David Laird (UFO, Kill Keith, The Scar Crow, The Crypt).

Mark McDermott became interested in film-making while studying at Lancaster University where he made his first two short horror films, No Fear and Screaming Out Silently. After a few more shorts his first feature-length work was a drama called The Jigsaw of Life. Next was a short film called Perception, shot in one day in June 2009, starring the aforementioned Helen Holman and Paul Smith, who shares producer credit on Harmony’s Requiem. (Smith also shares a 'story by' credit with Mark and Victoria McDermott.) Perception premiered at the London Independent Film Festival in 2010 and a few weeks later McDermott started work on this, his masterpiece. The shooting title was Silent Terror which is misleadingly exploitative and anyway Harmony’s Requiem makes sense at the end of the film in a totally unexpected way.

McDermott’s next project was going to be a comedy, Inspector Dackery Investigates Zetland Street (which hopefully would also have undergone a title change) but this never appeared; he was also developing something called The Human Condition. He was very active on the Oxford film-making scene, running the local branch of Shooting People – but somewhere around 2011 Mark McDermott packed it all in. Possibly because of the two great bugbears of any creative person who also has to pay the rent – day-job and family. (The fact that his wife Victoria plays 'Pregnant woman in surgery' could be a clue!)

For a short while McDermott ran his own corporate video company then in 2007 he started work at Oxford University where he has remained ever since. He now works in the University’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Clinical Health, which sounds like a pretty cool place to earn a living (certainly a bit more impressive than the Leicester University Marketing Division!). There are numerous people called Mark McDermott around the UK, but a little flexing of my journalistic investigation muscles has confirmed to me that this is definitely the guy who made Harmony’s Requiem, despite the complete absence of any reference to film-making in his current digital footprint. (And not just because of the Oxford connection.)

Harmony’s Requiem had a single cinema screening for cast and crew in Oxford in October 2010. In March 2011 it was made available online through the now defunct website, along with a director's video diary. The version on Amazon Studios was uploaded in June 2011. And has sat there, unseen and unknown, ever since. (Despite what I said in Scream, I don't think it was on Amazon Prime. I may have been getting my Prime and Studios mixed up.)

It really looks to me like no-one outside of Mark McDermott’s social/professional circle ever saw this film. Presumably he was planning to submit it to festivals and distributors before real life overtook him, as it overtakes so many of us. Harmony’s Requiem was orphaned and forgotten.

Well no more. I’m here to rescue this brilliant, hugely enjoyable British horror film from obscurity. Please take the time to watch it, discuss it, review it. If you agree with me that this is an absolute belter of a film, let’s make it better known. Programming a festival? Maybe we can get this screened. Maybe we can find a distributor. Harmony’s Requiem deserves to be seen and appreciated by anyone with a fondness for modern British horror.

I just totally, totally dug this film. I really, really hope you will too.

MJS rating: A+

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Santa and the Three Bears

Director: Tony Benedict
Writer: Tony Benedict
Producer: Tony Benedict
Cast: Three bears, Santa
Country: USA
Year of release: 1970
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Inasmuch as this site has any sort of tradition, it’s that I review something Christmassy at Christmas time. This tatty old VHS had been sitting on the shelf for about 13 or 14 months, I believe, before I finally persuaded young TF, just turned three, to sit down and watch it on Christmas Eve 2006. This was preceded by a couple of weeks of: “Why don’t we watch Santa and the Three Bears?” “I don’t like it.” “How can you not like it if you’ve never watched it?” “I don’t like it.” And it was followed by TF insisting on watching the video again, later that same Christmas Eve, before he went to bed. And again on Boxing Day.

Kids, eh?

This old VHS tape is so astoundingly cheap that it doesn’t have a company name or catalogue number anywhere on the sleeve or the tape itself. On the other hand, the pictures front and back do actually match the characters on screen, which is something.

The first thing to stress is that these three bears, despite being referred to in the title as “the Three Bears” are not in fact those three bears, ie. The Three Bears. They’re just... three bears. There’s a mother bear named Nana and two bears cubs, Nikomi and Chinook (which I only know as a type of helicopter) and they live in Yellowstone National Park. (Although I have discovered that an identically titled but unrelated children’s book exists which does feature The Three Bears.)

Winter is coming so it’s time to hibernate but the two cubs are excited by the concept of Christmas, which they have heard about from a balding, rotund park ranger known only as Mr Ranger. As Nana settles down, they sneak off to Mr Ranger’s cabin, where he has put up a tree and a bunch of decorations, and he explains to them all about what Christmas involves: Santa and the elves and the reindeer and what have you (and to be fair, a brief mention of the Nativity). Then he returns them to their cave.

But the cubs are very excited and determined to wait up and see Santa. The kindly Mr Ranger, not wanting to disappoint them, puts on a beard and a Santa Claus costume and sets off with a sack of bear-suitable toys - including, somewhat oddly perhaps, teddy bears - but the weather closes in and he cannot make his way through the snow blizzard so he takes shelter for the night in a bus stop.

With no sign of Saint Nick, Nana eventually admits to her two disappointed young’uns that in fact ‘Father Christmas’ is just the Park Ranger and that’s why he’s not coming this year. So when a rotund figure appears silhouetted in the cave entrance and leaves a couple of stockings of toys, the cubs think it’s just Mr Ranger. Except of course that shortly afterwards, the blizzard having abated, Mr Ranger appears with two more stockings.

What? But then... who...? (“Ho ho ho!”) You get the picture.

Now, this cheapo-cheapo VHS release says the films run approximately 30 minutes but in fact it’s about 45 minutes or so. Santa doesn’t actually appear until more than 20 minutes in, and then only briefly in Mr Ranger’s illustrated explanation, although he does, as I say reappear at the end. Moreover, for the first ten minutes there are no bears either, as Mr Ranger potters around Yellowstone Park, accompanied by one of several instantly forgettable, sub-Snow White, choral songs, checking on all the animals. TF and I were looking at the box, wondering if we had the right tape, especially as the title card is missing from the opening credits.

And this really is a terrible copy. The sound is muffled beyond belief, making the dialogue and especially the singing borderline unintelligible. The picture quality is poor but then the animation is strictly Hanna-Barbera level so there’s not a lot of detail lost. Interestingly, there are some attempts at imaginative direction, including some POV shots when Mr Ranger looks down at the two bear cubs at his feet and some jazzy sequences when images appear and disappear in coloured rectangles of different sizes and dimensions.

Speaking of different sizes, it turns out that this anonymous looking little movie has quite a history. It was originally released theatrically in the USA in 1970 as a 76-minute feature film, the extra time being taken up with a lengthy live-action wrap-around in which another park ranger introduces his three grandchildren to the story of 'Santa and the Three Bears'. So that means that the film has a park ranger tell some kids about a park ranger who tells some bear cubs about Christmas. The whole sequence with Santa and the elves is an explanation inside an explanation. Wheels within wheels and fires within fires. Both the feature version and this animation-only version, which apparently ran for years on USA Network, are currently available on DVD.

There are some big names attached to this obscurity. Mr Ranger (and possibly Santa too) is voiced by Hal Smith who started out in westerns in the 1940s and moved into animation voices in the 1960s. He did a lot of additional voices for The Flintstones and other Hanna-Barbera shows, played Otis Campbell in The Andy Griffith Show and was the voice of Owl in Winnie the Pooh films and TV shows for Disney. Santa seems to have been a regular gig for him as he donned the metaphorical beard in Casper’s First Christmas (1979), Yogi’s First Christmas (1980), The Town That Santa Forgot (1993) and an episode of a Disney cartoon I’ve never heard of called Bonkers. Nana Bear is Wilma Flintstone herself, the legendary Jean Vander Pyl.

Writer/director/producer Tony Benedict was a frequent animation writer in the 1960s and 1970s, racking up credits on The Flintstones, The Jetsons (he created the character of Astro the dog), The Pink Panther Show, The Yogi Bear Show and various Warner Brothers holiday specials. He started out in uniform, drawing cartoons for a military newspaper, then sent some of his work to Disney where he was taken on as an apprentice animator on Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. After three years he transferred to UPA to work on Mr Magoo then in 1969 he went to H-B, adding scriptwriting to his work as an animator. And he’s still going; some of this info came from a newspaper interview he did only last month.

Bizarrely, the live-action wrap-arounds (of which I have only seen frame grabs on various fansites) were directed by Barry Mahon, better known for nudie nonsense and exploitation fare such as Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly, Nudes on Tiger Reef and The Beast That Killed Women. Shortly before he retired from film-making in the early 1970s he did turn to kiddie fare, directing versions of Thumbelina, The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk. He also made another Crimbo obscurity, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. Mahon and Benedict reunited the following year on a truly bizarre Christmas special, Santa’s Christmas Elf (Named Calvin), which consists entirely of still photos of posed puppets. Mahon produced and directed it while Benedict designed and built the characters for what was probably not an homage to La Jetee but, you know, it would be fun if it was.

Santa and the Three Bears is pleasant enough, with a limited number of likeable characters and a simple message that is positive and heart-warming without being cloying or overly sentimental. That it has instantly become TF Simpson’s favourite film - apparently displacing Finding Nemo - suggests that there is something magic in it that a three-year-old can determine, even through the dreadful picture and sound quality of this tape.

But it does present a slight moral dilemma in that the central story features Nana Bear telling Chinook and Nikomi that (gulp) Santa doesn’t really exist and it’s just father-figure Mr Ranger in a costume. The fact that Santa is shown to actually exist after all doesn’t detract from the problem which I’m sure you can see: it raises doubts about the reality of Father Christmas, thus making it perhaps suitable for slightly older children but of dubious recommendation for three-year-olds (unless the dialogue is hidden behind a muffled sound, as here fortunately).

You see, I’ve been thinking about this and the fact that, like most people, I don’t recall ever actually believing in Santa Claus. I must have done - and TF certainly does, bless him - but it’s not ‘belief’ in the sense that we normally use. It’s not a conscious decision or an evaluation of the available evidence. Adults believe in flying saucers or ghosts or God because they consider what they have been told - about evidence or faith or whatever - and on balance they deem the existence of such a thing likely or even certain. But even the most devout believer is aware that there are those who don’t believe, that belief is a choice.

Small children don’t ‘believe’ in Santa Claus, they simply accept that he exists, and that he has flying reindeer and brings presents and is generally magical. They believe in him the same way that they believe in policemen or bicycles: it’s part of their model of the world around them. They don’t doubt, they accept on the available evidence, and ‘Mummy and Daddy told me’ is pretty strong evidence for a three-year-old mind. So when TF discovers or realises - as he must do one distant day - that Santa is just a fiction, it won’t destroy his belief, it will simply cause him to re-evaluate his model of the world around him. At least I hope so.

In the meantime, I might need to invest in a DVD of Santa and the Three Bears before next year because this tape is starting to wear out.

MJS rating: B
TFS rating: A++
Review originally posted 23rd December 2006

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Sisterhood

Director: Cirio H Santiago
Writer: Thomas Mckelvey Cleaver
Producer: Cirio H Santiago
Cast: Rebecca Holden, Chuck Wagner, Lynn-Holly Johnson
Year of release: 1987
Country: Philippines/USA
Reviewed from: UK rental VHS (Pearl Communications)

Cirio H Santiago - your mark of quality when it comes to Filipino movies. And I’m not being cynical - the production values here are a whole notch above many of the man’s contemporaries.

This is yet another post-holocaust adventure that would like to be Mad Max 2 but isn’t, but it does at least have an original premise. The world (well, North America) has reverted to an entirely patriarchal society and women are subjugated - except for a semi-legendary band of femme outlaws called ‘the Sisterhood’ who are said to be witches. In fact, they have various powers derived from the mutational after-effects of the bomb, which manifest themselves at puberty. Or something.

We meet two of these, Alee (Rebecca Holden: Knight Rider, Lycanthrope) and Vera (Barbara Hooper: The Wizard of Speed and Time) as they run up against the gang of thugs led by bearded Mikal (Automan himself, Chuck Wagner). One of the girls has healing powers and one has telekinetic ability, but to be honest I can’t remember which is which. Anyway, they kick Mikal’s arse and send him and his gang on their way in their crudely customised motor vehicles.

In a nearby settlement lives 18-year-old Marya (Lynn-Holly Johnson: Mutant 2, Hyper Space) and her younger brother Gil (Tom McNeeley). Marya has some form of psychic link with her hawk Lady Shri, which her master, Lord Newfield, accepts because it’s useful. But the lord is away and others in the settlement are calling her a witch. Mikal and his engine-revving mates attack the settlement and, before she escapes, Marya sees her brother cut down by Mikal himself. (For some reason, although motor vehicles still exist in this world, no guns have survived so all fighting is done with swords and bows.)

When Marya seeks shelter at a tavern, she meets and befriends Alee and Vera, who are reluctant to accept her into the Sisterhood until they discover her affinity with Lady Shri. Camped for the night, Vera is snatched by Mikal and much of the rest of the movie is Alee and Marya trying to get her back. Mikal at first joins forces with fey, hare-lipped Lord Barak (Robert Dryer: Cyborg 2, Spaceship, Revenge of the Zombie) but that ends unhappily so he teams up instead with Lord Jak (Anthony East: Bloodfist II) to journey through the Forbidden Zone to Calcara, ‘the city of ultimate pleasure.’

The Forbidden Zone, you will not be surprised to hear, is home to various unpleasant mutated folks who chase Alee and Marya into a cave network, wherein they find a whole bunch of pre-holocaust stuff - including loads and loads of rifles and some handy armoured personnel carriers which they are of course able to drive straight away. With this they head for Calcara, which is ruled by loud, jovial Lord Kragg (Kenneth Peerless: Bloodfist) but frankly for a city of ultimate pleasure it seems rather devoid of bars and whores.

Lord Kragg receives Mikal’s gift of a witch but, wouldn’t you know it, he’s already got some! A whole room full of captured Sisterhood members in manacles. When Marya and Alee break in and rescue Vera (and kill lots of guards) some sort of spectral goddess appears and all the manacles fall off the Sisterhood who magically fade away. Eh?

I’ve got a soft spot for this movie (which was just called Sisterhood for its UK DVD release, possibly to avoid confusion with the similarly titled David DeCoteau picture), mainly because it isn’t just a clone of Mad Max 2 or Escape from New York (1980s Italian producers, are you listening?). The cinematography by Ricardo Remias (She Devils in Chains, The Muthers, Vampire Hookers, Anak Ng Bulkan) is good and the fights and stunts are well-handled; Ronald Asinas (Terminal Virus), Day Guerrero (Robo Warriors) and Fred Esplana (Raw Target) are credited as stunt choreographers.

Sure, there are plenty of cliches and some silly bits but it’s more enjoyable than many other films in this genre. The mere fact that I’ve watched it twice is evidence of that. The acting is better than one would expect, and if Johnson is a little wooden occasionally she is also very good at playing up her character’s vulnerability.

Also in the cast are Henry Strzalkowski (Desert Warrior, Equalizer 2000, Angel of Destruction, also credited as casting assistant), David Light (Cobra Mission, Future Hunters), Jim Moss (Robo Warriors, Future War, Zombie Flesh Eaters 3) and Peter Shilton (Future Hunters, Equalizer 2000 but not - despite what the Inaccurate Movie Database reckons - the former goalkeeper for Nottingham Forest and England!). Composer Jun Latonio (Fast Gun, Killer Instinct) is anglicised to ‘Jim Latison’ on the sleeve. Ronnie Cruz was the art director, Teresa Mercader did the make-up and Elvia Santos was in charge of wardrobe, while special effects are credited to Juan Marbella Jr - Santiago veterans all.

It’s a Cirio H Santiago movie and, let’s face it, the man’s a cinema legend, having helmed more than fifty films from Filipino Wonder Woman series entry Darna and the Tree Monster to one-boy-and-his-pterodactyl remake Anak Ng Bulkan/Vulcan, as well as producing such WIP classics as Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. I’m not ashamed to say that I will always happily watch any movie with Santiago’s name in the credits.

MJS rating: B

Review originally posted 19th April 2008.