Friday, 21 April 2017
Writer: Thomas Lee Rutter
Producer: Thomas Lee Rutter
Cast: Lee Mark Jones, Sarah L Page, 'Tatty' Dave Jones
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: online screener
I love Tom Rutter’s stuff. Right from his early teenage movies like Full Moon Massacre and Mr Blades Tom has always wanted to do something different. Not for young Master Rutter anything as simple as a generic slasher or zombie picture – there was always something offbeat, something unique and distinctive. Something new and unapologetic.
Since those days he has made a fair number of oddball shorts, from hallucinogenic clowns to stop-motion animation to Ancient Greek drama. Some of these have been assembled into flatpack anthologies such as Quadro Bizarro and The Forbidden Four.
The one thing you can be sure of when you watch a Tom Rutter film is that you can’t be sure of anything. You can confidently expect that it’s pointless to expect anything. The man’s range and nonconformist approach is his auteurial signature. Tom is a cinematic maverick, the original ‘unable to label’.
The latest movie from Tom’s outfit Carnie Films is a half-hour dramatised documentary about a very curious event which happened in the Black Country during the Second World War. It’s such a bizarre tale that I had to check to see if it’s true – and indeed it is. Which makes the film no less fascinating and enjoyable.
I won’t go into any more detail. If, like me, you’re not familiar with this story then Tom’s film is an excellent summary of events. If you are familiar with it then you’ll enjoy the way it is presented. If you want to find out more, there’s tons of stuff all over the web. It’s exactly the sort of local Forteana that people love to document.
This is film as art, without sacrificing narrative. It is film as dreamstate, without sacrificing reality. Together, Jones’ voice and Rutter’s camera-work and editing create an unnerving atmosphere resonant of English folk tales much older than 1943. An alternative version exists, with Jones’ narration replaced by intertitles.
I really, really enjoyed watching Bella in the Wych Elm. It’s not a straightforward documentary on the subject, and if someone made one (mayhap they already have) no doubt we the viewers would learn more facts (or at least, more speculation and theory). Neither is this a straightforward dramatisation; the story could bear one but the lack of a definite, satisfying conclusion to the mystery would require some fictionalisation on the part of the screenwriter. This is something between and separate, something special. I heartily recommend it to you because it’s different and beautiful and intriguing and mind-expanding.
Which is not to say that if you like this you will also necessarily like Full Moon Massacre, which is cheesy as hell and has me in it. But you might.
MJS rating: A+
Sunday, 2 April 2017
Writer: Mark Polonia
Producer: Mark Polonia
Cast: Dave Fife, Danielle Donahue, Jeff Kirkendall
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: TubiTV
Despite a filmography of 42 features since 2000 (plus a few earlier ones), this is the first ‘Polonia Brothers’ picture I have watched. I do view a lot of odd stuff but I’m pretty sure I would remember if I had seen Preylien: Alien Predators or Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast or Peter Rottentail or Curse of Pirate Death or Jurassic Prey or Snake Club: Revenge of the Snake Woman or any of the three dozen or so other titles in that list. And boy, do these guys do titles.
I say ‘guys’ but since 2008 when John Polonia passed away, ‘Polonia Brothers’ has been a solo project by his twin Mark. I suspect that’s why there’s a two-year gap between HalloweeNight (listed as 2009) and Snow Shark, after which Mark Polonia returned to his hugely impressive output of two to four features every year.
Unfortunately that’s going to be the only usage of the term ‘hugely impressive’ in this review. Bigfoot vs Zombies is watchable, if you’re in the mood for lacklustre micro-budget tosh, but I’d hesitate to call it enjoyable. Nevertheless it deserves to be noted, if only for its status as a crossover between two otherwise utterly disparate subgenres.
Obviously any body farm has to be well away from habitation and protected by a stout metal fence to keep out both intruders and wildlife. The object is to see what happens when a human cadaver is eaten by bugs, not by foxes or bears.
This particular zombie farm is run by mad scientist Dr Peele (Jeff Kirkendall) and his long-suffering, bored lab/admin assistant Renee (Danielle Donahue). There is a truck driver named Andy (Bob Dennis) who drives around the farm, delivering cadavers to requested locations. And there is a security guard (Todd Carpenter) on the main gate who has no character name. Rather cruelly, the others refer to him throughout the film as ‘the security guard’ despite the fact that he is 25% of the farm’s entire workforce and they must all see him at least twice a day.
The problem is that Dr Peele has been working away in his ‘secret lab’ (which is literally an office with a microscope and a couple of bottles on the desk) to develop a serum which will deteriorate the bodies faster. The idea being that he can then process more corpses through his body farm and thus make more money from the local hospital that supplies them. Don’t look too closely at that plan, it maketh not one lick of sense.
Actually the real problem is that, far from deteriorating the cadavers, this serum brings them back to life. Although it is unclear whether this is due to the injections that Dr Peele has given the dead bodies or leakage from the barrel of the stuff which drops off Andy’s truck near the start of the film. Much later, it is discovered that an overdose of this stuff will actually kill a zombie but this is never followed up on, as if both the characters and the director simply forgot this ever happened.
Well, strictly speaking two more characters arrive because here comes Bigfoot. We have already met him in a prologue where he spies on a hiker/photographer (Greta Volkova) who is later munched by a zombie after somehow getting past the security fence. For no reason at all, Bigfoot hides in the back of Duke Larson’s Jeep to get into the farm, where he starts fighting zombies.
The last part of the preceding sentence sounds very exciting and is the nub of this high-concept film whose title basically is it plot. And kudos to Polonia for the amazing sleeve art showing a giant, fearsome sasquatch hurling itself at a shuffling army of the undead.
But you won’t be at all surprised if I tell you that there ain’t nuttin like dat on show here at all, no sir ma’am.
At various points in the film we do get Bigfoot fighting zombies but it’s all really half-hearted and lame. Basically they shuffle towards him and he pushes them away. In fact, that’s the film’s biggest failing: it is utterly devoid of even the slightest hint of action. There’s gore, certainly. Or at least, there’s fake blood in some scenes as people scream. But obviously they couldn’t afford to get any of that on the gorilla suit as the dry-cleaning bill would have trebled the film’s budget. So we have lackadaisical shuffling scenes, and shots of bloody terror, but nothing inbetween. No actual fast or emphatic movement. Even in dialogue scenes, people just stand around talking. Then they walk somewhere. It’s like they can’t do both at the same time.
A sequence in which Duke Larson drives his Jeep across the farm, shooting at zombies with a pistol, is probably the closest we get to any action - but there again the direction hobbles the potential enjoyment. We have close-ups of Van Sant in his jeep, and cutaways of zombies falling over, but no shot of the Jeep actually driving past zombies as Larson blasts them out of the way.
The film carries a 2014 copyright date, is listed as a 2015 picture in the sales agent's publicity, and eventually appeared on DVD and VOD in February 2016. Mark Polonia's subsequent films have been Sharkenstein, Land Shark and Amityville Exorcism. You've got to give the guy props for coming up with titles (and commissioning great sleeve art).
I can’t say that Polonia’s movie is the worst zombie film out there, not by a long chalk. Neither am I convinced that it’s the worst bigfoot movie ever made. And certainly within that tiny lozenge at the centre of this previously unconsidered Venn diagram, Bigfoot vs Zombies holds its own – primarily because of the absence of any other pictures that tick both boxes.
Still, it hasn’t put me off watching other Polonia Brothers productions. And boy, do I have a lot to choose from.
MJS rating: D+
Saturday, 1 April 2017
Writers: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Producers: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills
Cast: Ed Stoppard, Vas Blackwood, Ray Panthaki
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: DVD
Cryptic is an amazingly good film. By which I don’t mean that the quality of the actual movie is staggering. Yes, it’s good – but it’s not perfect and it won’t blow you away. What I mean is that the fact that Cryptic is a good film – is amazing.
Because of who made it. This is the third horror film from the team of Bart Ruspoli and Freddie Hutton-Mills. They also wrote/produced the middling zombie time-waster Devil’s Playground and wrote/produced/directed the ridiculously titled World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen which, in a crowded market-place, manages to stand out as one of the very worst found footage pictures ever made in this country.
World War Dead was actually made after Cryptic but released first. My understanding is that the executive producers approached Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills, asking them to quickly bang out a zombie picture that could tie in to the centenary of the First World War (tasteful…). Can’t really blame the guys for taking the money and running, and the number of people who have suffered through WWD:ROTF must be pretty minimal, but still it’s not a good film to have on your CV. So it’s fortunate for the duo that Cryptic, which is significantly better than Devil’s Playground and infinitely better than the execrable World War Dead, is now out there to be viewed.
So what I really meant to say, back up at top there, was: Cryptic is, amazingly, a good film. All the right words, not necessarily in the right order.
This is a classic gangster set-up: eight people, one room, loyalties and conflicts ebbing and flowing, tension building until someone lets fly with a shooter. There is a brief discussion about how similar the situation is to “that film, the one with dogs in” to acknowledge that the film-makers understand the territory wherein they are currently working.
The Jonas Brothers (presumably named as a gag about the soulless boy band from a few years ago, which fairly accurately dates when this script was written) are both psycho idiots. One is slightly less idiotic than the other and one is slightly more psychotic. But you wouldn’t trust either of them to cat-sit for you or to count to 20 without using their fingers. They are played by Philip Barantini (World War Dead, Young High and Dead) and Daniel Feuerriegel (Spartacus TV series, Pacific Rim 2).
The Feral Generation, 28 Days Later, World War Dead), an arrogant fellow with intricate designs cut into his beard, and his moll Alberta (Sally Leonard). All six have been sent to the crypt with instructions to locate and guard – but not open – a coffin. Their employer will be with them in due course but has been delayed by illness.
It’s a very Beckett-ian set-up and once again Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills acknowledge their debts with the name of the godfather behind all this is. Meat, Cochise and the others are all… waiting for Gordon.
Two other people show up. One is Ben Shafik as Walter, a posh junkie looking for some drugs he stashed in the crypt. (Shafik was in not only World War Dead and Devil’s Playground, but also the Bart Ruspoli short that the latter was based on, The Long Night.) The other is Gordon’s crooked lawyer (Gene Hunt’s brother, Robert Glenister: Spooks, Hustle, Law and Order UK) who knows all the others (except Walter, obviously) though they don’t know him.
Five gangsters, a lawyer, a banker and a junkie.
Over the course of the film we learn about the gradual decimation of organised crime in the area, a series of gangland murders which some are saying is the work of a vampire, or at least, someone pretending to be a vampire.
Because, as Steve Stevens assiduously points out, there are no such things as vampires.
But then, if there are no such things as vampires, what is in that coffin and why has the frustratingly delayed Gordon assembled this team to guard it. Guard it against what?
As the plot develops – through dialogue but without being talkie – the characters find themselves in groups of two or three, often discussing the others. Unable to find his junk, Walter is getting withdrawal symptoms. And attempts are made to resolve an unpleasant situation caused by the slightly more psycho of the Jonas brothers having recently raped and murdered a 17-year-old girl.
Five gangsters, a lawyer, a banker and a junkie. And one of them is – possibly – a vampire. Well, you’re spoiled for choice there, aren’t you?
It is a measure of how carefully plotted Cryptic’s script is, that each act of this 90-minute film is exactly 30 minutes long, the inciting incidents for acts two and three occurring dead on the half-hour and the hour. You could set your watch by it. And there’s some lovely, lovely dialogue in the script, some real zingers, many of them delivered by Steve Stevens whose masterful calm clearly infuriates the psycho Jonas Brothers. It’s a cracking script that, while it doesn’t unfold in exactly real time, could probably be adapted into a stage play without too much difficulty.
Notwithstanding all the above, the film falls down in two respects. One is the sound mix. As the group fragments, people hold whispered conversations in corners of the crypt. And sometimes the dialogue just isn’t audible – especially when Ray Panthaki is speaking. You can pump up the volume on your telly but you’d better remember to turn it down again before the next round of shouting and shooting.
The other problem is the character of Alberta, whom you may notice I have barely mentioned. And that’s because she doesn’t really have a character. Which is no reflection on the actor. It’s not that she isn’t given stuff to do. There’s a couple of very funny scenes where two male characters discuss matters while, in the background, Alberta struggles to lift a dead body on her own. And when it is revealed that she is from Transnistria there is debate over whether that is where Dracula comes from.
But there’s just no depth to Alberta, a situation heightened by the seven well-rounded characters surrounding her. Even the junkie has more personality. She is defined by her skin-tight, cleavage-flaunting black leather outfit, her flame-red hair and her eastern European accent. None of those elements define character. She might as well be somebody at Comic-Con pretending to be Black Widow. Maybe Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills suffer from the traditional British male writer’s inability to create realistic female characters. Or maybe they just couldn’t work out what to do with her, beyond using her as a sounding board so that Cochise doesn’t have to talk to himself.
Those cryptic, whispering corners – and indeed the rest of this small but adroitly used set – come courtesy of top production designer Caroline Story (The Seasoning House, Vampire Diary, Its Walls Were Blood). The excellent hair and make-up is by Emma Slater whose British horror CV includes The Borderlands, Stormhouse, Evil Never Dies, Blood Moon, World War Dead, The Rezort and 47 Meters Down). There’s some fine cinematography by Sara Deane (The Horror of the Dolls, World War Dead) and a sympathetic score by Emma Fox. But I think what really stands out is the costume design (not least Ed Stoppard’s terrific coat, which I craved throughout the entire film) courtesy of Raquel Azevedo (The Seasoning House, Truth or Dare, Scar Tissue). It’s somewhat ironic that a movie with so many female department heads should fall down so badly in its non-characterisation of the only woman on screen (a big fat zero on the Bechdel test here).
Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills, whose other feature was prison drama Screwed, are currently in post on sci-fi picture Genesis, which uses many of the same cast and crew as Cryptic. The website for their Next Level Films company says their fourth feature will be called Dark Web, but that’s out of date – it was a comedy thriller that got shelved when they were unexpectedly asked to make World War Dead.
My expectations when I picked up this DVD were low, which only heightened my delight when Cryptic turned out to be such a whip-smart, carefully structured slice of gangster/vampire cinema. It’s a long, long way from the over-the-top bullets’n’bloodsuckers action of From Dusk Till Dawn or Dead Cert. Give it a spin and I think you’ll really enjoy it.
MJS rating: A-