With ten(-ish) features under his belt, Johannes Roberts can lay claim to being one of Britain’s busiest and most successful horror movie directors. This Friday, his shark film 47 Meters Down – starring Claire Holt, Mandy Moore and Matthew Modine – opens on 2,270 screens across the USA (having already taken nearly half a million dollars at the Italian box office). Here’s a round-up of how Jo got from microbudget indies to the (well-deserved) big time. (Dates are first English-language release.)
Co-directed with James Eaves (Bane, The Witches Hammer) this microbudget tale of unethical drug trials and weird goings-on in a hospital was shot in 1999. I actually saw this in Manchester in 2000 in its original two-hour cut entitled Diagnosis. The released, retitled version was heavily re-edited, incorporating new footage starring (bizarrely) Uri Geller.
Another joint effort with Jim Eaves, this is a confusing, clown-filled tale of a woman hunting a serial child killer. The cast includes Dominique Pinon (Delicatessen) and West End star Darren Day. It’s a re-edit of an unreleased film called Alice which the IMDB confusingly lists as a separate production.
In Jo’s first solo picture, Pinon is a dead teacher being hunted by two demonic private eyes, one of them played by Jeff Fahey. Special effects by Tristan Versluis and Tim Berry. Shot as The Chosen and the Damned. Ernest Riera, now Jo’s regular co-writer, first worked with him on this film, co-directing the Making Of.
Forest of the Damned (2005) – US title: Demonic
Young people travelling in a camper van get attacked by ‘fallen angels’ (naked women with fangs). This is my least favourite Johannes Roberts film, not because it’s any worse than the preceding three but because it’s generic and formulaic. Cameo by Tom Savini as a random nutter. Shot as The Forbidden Forest. Most notable for launching the careers of British horror regulars Eleanor James and Marysia Kay.
When Evil Calls (2006)
I think this is Jo’s least favourite of his creations. It started life as a series of clips on mobile phones, documenting the spread of a Monkey’s Paw-style curse in a school. The cast includes Jennifer Lim, Lois Winstone, Chris Barrie, Marysia Kay and Shaun Hutson (as a zombie). Sir Sean Pertwee filmed a series of linking monologues as a caretaker to string this into a feature, released on DVD in 2008.
There’s a clear dividing line between Jo’s first four (or five) features which are (over-)ambitious, wild DTV B-movies and his later films which are much more controlled, slick and powerful theatrically released features. This dark, school-set hoodie horror has an embittered teacher (David Schofield) and his teenage daughter trapped by faceless, supernaturally athletic, murderous youths (played by parkour athletes). While the media was talking about “demonising young people”, Jo was taking the idea literally. Scary and gripping, this showed his talent and re-invigorated his career.
This American TV movie for SyFy is the one Johannes Roberts feature I haven’t seen (yet). Some kids get cursed by a gypsy and attacked by a giant bird, apparently.
Storage 24 (2012)
Noel Clarke wrote and starred in this enjoyable monster movie about a group of people trapped in a self-storage facility with an alien beastie that has escaped from a crashed military transport plane. Unpretentious sci-fi/horror fun.
The Other Side of the Door (2016)
Set and shot in India, this Monkey's Paw-influenced ghost story has a grieving American mother travel to a temple where she can be temporarily reunited with her drowned son. She is under strict instructions to talk to him through the door but not open it. Of course, she does and something evil comes through. Terrifically spooky, this was produced by Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance, Hills Have Eyes remake) and distributed by 20th Century Fox. It was released on 330 screens in the UK and 550 in the States.
And so we come to this brilliantly scary and gripping shark movie in which Ms Moore and Ms Holt are sisters on an unlicensed cage dive and Mr Modine is the skipper who hasn’t checked his chains recently. At one stage this was going to be released straight to DVD as In the Deep, but at the last moment that release was pulled and distributor Entertainment Studios decided this should be seen on the big screen, which it absolutely should.
Johannes is currently directing the sequel to 2008 hit The Strangers. He is also developing Hearts, an adaptation of the main story in Stephen King’s collection Hearts in Atlantis, and The Plague in which an unstoppable disease sweeps the planet. Meanwhile Paul Hyett is attached to a Roberts/Riera script called The Pool (‘Cujo in a swimming pool’, apparently!).
I’ve known Jo Roberts for quite some time now. It’s been a pleasure to follow his career and it was an honour to publish the first review of 47 Meters Down last year. I hope it’s a huge success and that Jo continues to provide us with some of the very best British horror films around.