Thursday, 8 April 2021

Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing

d./w./p. Steve Lawson; cast: Mark Topping, Charlie Bond, Tom Hendryk, Joe Street, Helen Crevel

The latest feature from Lawson’s Leicester-based Creativ Studios (funded and distributed by High Fliers) is based on Dracula, or at least the part of Dracula after the Demeter arrives but before the Harkers return from Budapest. Reigning British horror princess Bond has a ball as the ailing Lucy who goes from simpering coquette to full-on monster. Topping is subtle and restrained in the title role, dealing with Lucy’s illness and the jealousy between fiancĂ©e Arthur and spurned John (there’s no Quincy). Neither V-word nor D-word is mentioned, and the Count is seen only briefly as a faceless figure. Steve says that he treated this sub-story as analogous to The Exorcist and it’s a refreshing take, although the film is distinctly short on action. The overly talkie second act drags somewhat but things perk up when Lucy starts flying to London to attack street whores (not part of the novel!), murders which The Times credits to Jack the Ripper. Creativ regular Crevel pops up at the end as Mina, teasing a possible sequel. Filmed in 2020 at Pipewell Hall, Northants and against a variety of effective digital backgrounds.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Broken Spirits

d. Steven Hines; w./p. Geoff Harrison; cast: Amy Littler, Ryan Leadbetter, Alec Walters, Graham Bridges, Steven Hines, Alex Labelle, Ashley Riley, Paul Wilkes, Paul Malone

Produced by staff and students at Cowley International College, St Helens (30 years after it served as a location for Chariots of Fire) this amateur feature does a surprisingly good job of maintaining its central mystery. A trouble-making student clashes with a strong-willed teacher but when things get out of hand, he swears he has actually backed off and blames the ghost of a former pupil. Unknown to all but a few colleagues, this teacher was involved in that boy’s accidental death. As her mental state deteriorates, she struggles to cope with the pressure. Camera-work and sound are nothing to write home about but the film does a good job of walking an ambiguous line between ghost story and psychological thriller until the final revelation. A subplot about a ghost-hunting TV show filming an episode on the premises is a red herring. Rugby international James Roby has a cameo. There was a single local screening in December 2011 and a DVD the following year.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Nights Before Christmas

d. Paul Tanter; w. Simon Phillips, Paul Tanter; p. Simon Phillips, Paul Tanter, Ken Bressers; cast: Simon Phillips, Sayla de Goede, Kate Schroeder, Marc Gammal, Keegan Chambers, Shannon Cotter

This sequel (with prequel flashbacks) to Once Upon a Time at Christmas functions as a stand-alone film. One reason why that enjoyable 2017 slasher stood out from the crowded psycho-in-a-Santa-suit subgenre is because it was structured as a police procedural, and the same trick works here. Schroeder is terrific as the FBI agent searching for a link between the new victims (which turn out to be not quite as fun – or obvious – as last time). At 104 minutes this is a tad too long and could probably have lost a few of the numerous times when Schroeder deduces “It’s an actual list.” Nevertheless, it’s good festive bloody fun with Phillips and de Goede hamming it up gleefully and plenty of production value on screen. Tanter pops up in the stand-out scene, a boardroom massacre. Originally announced as Twice Upon…, this was shot in Canada in January 2019 and premiered 10 months later in Toronto. A third outing for Santa and Mrs Claus, One Christmas Night in a Toy Store, is in development.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Saint Maud

d./w. Rose Glass; p. Oliver Kassman, Andrea Cornwell; cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer

A rare theatrical release during lockdown, Saint Maud consequently received a level of promotion – and hence hype – that it doesn’t really warrant and cannot possibly live up to. It’s a well-crafted psychological horror with powerful religious motifs and a superb lead performance by Clark. But it’s not the great white hope of British horror and certainly not the scariest film of the year. Maud/Katie is a home carer employed by an agency apparently unaware that she lost her nursing job after something appallingly bloody happened (glimpsed in a momentary flashback). A devout Catholic, Maud is sure God has a purpose for her, which might be saving the soul of her charge, a disabled, bisexual, wine-swigging ex-dancer. As her grip on reality dissipates – God literally speaks to her (in Welsh!) – our concern for Maud’s fragile mental health increases. But despite some wince-inducing moments of self-harm, there’s no real horror till the end when debut writer-director Glass suddenly throws in blood, violence and unnecessary VFX. A FilmFour/BFI production, Saint Maud feels very mainstream and restrained, lacking the punch of a true low-budget indie.

Thursday, 8 October 2020


d. Rory Kindersley; w. Rory Kindersley, Drew Sherring-Hill; p. Matthew Cook, Tony Cook, Drew Sherring-Hill; cast: Rachel Warren, Christine Marzano, Andrew Lee Potts, Jonathan Forbes, Elizabeth Healey

This stylish horror-thriller benefits from terrific photography by ace DP Douglas Milsome (Full Metal Jacket) and an extraordinary principal location. Alex is a successful actress living with her glamour photographer boyfriend (the always bankable Potts) in an ultra-stylish, split-level luxury apartment. It has a bathroom bigger than your living room and a slide between floors! But an AirBnB guest (who, oddly, they make no attempt to trace) has smeared fake blood everywhere. Eve is a well-produced, enjoyable flick with some seriously creepy ‘someone’s in the house’ moments, but … I would be lying if I said I knew what was going on. It’s something to do with duality (mirrors are a recurring theme) but is it a Fight Club thing? A Jekyll and Hyde thing? An evil twin? Even as the credits rolled I was none the wiser. Reading other reviews, some claim the basic plot is quite prosaic and straightforward, but they are misreading things. Which is understandable; the stylish nature of the film (and the casting of two very similar looking actresses) does somewhat obfuscate the story. I would probably have understood this if I’d read a synopsis – but that’s something I never do, on principal, for precisely this reason: a film must stand or fall on its own and require no pre-knowledge. Worth watching, but if you read other reviews than this beforehand, don't necessarily believe them.

Saturday, 3 October 2020


d./w. Paul Matthews; w. Liz Matthews; cast: Emmanuel Xuereb, Kadamba Simmons, Jack Chancer, Michael Fitzpatrick, Tres Hanley, Jules de Jongh, Nesba Crenshaw, Nadia DeLemeny, Louise Hickson, Peter Tregloan

Confused and generic, Grim deserves props for being produced in 1995, the absolute doldrums of British genre cinema. PeakViewing Transatlantic, a Cheltenham-based, sibling-run construction firm turned production company, was a big fish in this small pond from the mid-nineties to the mid-naughties. Investigating subsidence under an allegedly American but obviously British housing estate, seven people explore a cavern/mine network where they discover a troll-like monster halfway between Rawhead Rex and Trog. Despite its animalistic appearance, ‘Grim’ wears (ragged) clothes and dextrously uses implements including chains and a meat cleaver. Also, it can magically walk through solid rock. There are no discernable characters, no explanation/motivation for anything and the ending is inexplicable. Every so often, the cast remember they’re meant to be American. Unlike The Descent, this was shot in real caves, with DP Alan M Trow (who also shot The Comic!) making a good job of the 16mm photography. Creature suit by Neill Gorton, whose name is spelled wrong in the titles. The feature debut of tragic starlet Kadamba Simmons.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Rising Tide

d./p. Dawn Furness, Philip Shotton; w. Dawn Furness; cast: Ileana Cardy, Anna Greenwood, Leif Halverson, Lewis Jobson, Joe MacCabe, Harriet Perkins, Casey Railton, Isolde Roxby, Jodee Temple, Jack Traynor, Peter Furey

Unavailable for some time now, this is a smart little film with a pleasingly ambiguous narrative. To celebrate their A-level results, ten Geordie friends head for a music festival, get booted off the coach for rowdiness, walk to the coast and end up trapped on a causeway-accessible island. They tell spooky stories around a campfire but, in commendable defiance of tradition, don’t get drunk or high. In the morning, two are missing and others vanish one by one, while a tall, dark-clad figure is occasionally glimpsed. The key, somehow, is ‘new girl’ gothette Izzy. A final act flashback montage of violent deaths and slashed tents contradicts the silent, mysterious disappearances, suggesting the whole thing might be in Izzy’s head. Well shot and edited, with atmospheric music by, among others, top folkie Kathryn Tickell. Shot in 2011, this had a couple of local screenings and was briefly available on the now defunct Vodo website. Music video director Shotton allegedly coined the term ‘Madchester’!