Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Conjuring: (The) Book of the Dead

d./w./p. Richard Driscoll; cast: ‘Steven Craine’, Bai Ling, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Lysette Anthony, Sylvester McCoy

Unsure of its own title, this latest Driscoll film is (mostly) the one he shot in 2006 as The Raven Part 2 which he has been trying to edit together ever since. Over the years variously aka The Devil’s Disciple, Back2Hell, When the Devil Rides Out and even Blade Hunter, it’s a prequel to EvilCalls, in which author George Carney comes up with the main story of that film. Hence stock footage of Eileen Daly (credited top and tail), Jason Donovan (in end credits only) and Norman Wisdom (uncredited). The Ask, who assures me he got paid, actually pops up in two very brief new scenes as Carney’s cuckolding bother.

Carney is a pulp writer whose New York editor Martha (Anthony) has bought a collection of original HP Lovecraft manuscripts which includes the ‘Necromonicon’ (sic) which is, of course, actually the secret diary of Aleister Crowley aged 36½. Martha sends Carney to New Orleans to get the diary authenticated by bisexual femme fatale tattooist Zilia (Ling, who flashes her tiny tits at the drop of a hat). This will somehow enable him to adapt it into a graphic novel because that’s what sells (as evidenced by a news report on a superhero named the Praying Mantis). It all turns out to be a plot to ritually sacrifice Carney and thereby resurrect the Great Beast himself.

Everybody is involved in this conspiracy, of course, including auctioneer Dudley Sutton (died 2018), university academic Vass Anderson (died 2015), vintage bookseller Sylvester McCoy, Madsen and Sizemore (who are both some sort of underworld contacts, I think), Zilia, Martha, The Ask and an unnamed comic book artist who seems to be Carney’s flatmate (the credits don’t identify individual characters, but this doesn’t seem to be any of the credited male cast). RADA graduate Clive Shilson (died 2012) appears momentarily as a strip club patron. The original 2006 shoot definitely included Kenny Baker (died 2016) and allegedly included Tom Savini, but neither is evident here.

Despite the rambling, nonsensical, contradictory plot – and the fact that almost all the American characters have British accents – this is actually one of The Drisc’s more coherent narratives; certainly much more so than the random WTF-ery of Assassin’s Revenge. The ending is sudden and inexplicable but there is a plot of sorts. Nominally it is “based on the MR James novel Casting the Runes” (which isn’t a novel…) and there are a couple of references to a slip of paper with symbols on it which Carney finds inside the diary, but that is swiftly forgotten. Nevertheless, the additional footage shot in Cornwall in 2017, including a scene in the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum, was filmed under the title Curse of the Demon.

This has finally seen the light of day thanks to American executive producers Maria Norman and Galen Walker of B-movie/space documentary distributor Monarch Films. A trailer was released in October 2018 and it finally turned up on both British and American Amazon Prime this month.

All the above notwithstanding, the film’s highlights include Sutton’s HP Lovecraft infodump speech, partly cut and pasted from a horror wiki, which specifies his dates of birth and death and then adds a new line that gets his age-at-death wrong; a time-lapse shot of the Moon crossing the New Orleans sky with a real-time rain effect over it; and the traditional misspellings which include actress Gabz Barker (on the front desk of the museum) as ‘Gabz Baker’ and British horror regular art director Melanie Light (here an ‘Art Dept Assistant’) as ‘Melaine Light’. Some things never change.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

The Spawning

d./w. Simon M Riley; p. Janet Riley, Colin Grist; cast: Zoe Karpeta, Reid Anderson, Faye Sewell, Liam Millard, Christopher Ward, Luke Richards

Intense, dark, Freudian sci-fi/horror feature with an unavoidable Xtro feel. When three-months-pregnant Amy is rescued from an attempted rape, she unwisely invites her saviour home – but we know from an effective prologue that he’s actually a humanoid alien. Amy is drugged and raped by this being, but police, doctors and cheating boyfriend only believe she was assaulted once. By the end of the film four people are dead and Amy has given birth to a slug which is eaten by a spider-monster under her bed. Excellent acting by the whole cast combines with well-crafted, naturalistic dialogue plus tight, shallow camerawork and very gooey effects to create a powerful, disturbing, serious drama with few answers. Frustratingly, like too many titles in my books, The Spawning is a lost film. Shot in 2016 around Cheshire and Merseyside, it premiered in New York in 2017 and was released VOD in March 2018. But by 2020 Riley had moved abroad and his only feature had disappeared from Vimeo, becoming no more available to watch than London After Midnight

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Beware the Eye of Amun-Ra


d./p. Chris Starmer; w. Simon Hopkins, Chris Starmer; cast: Simon Hopkins, Neil Brooke, Joanne Archer, Angus Brooks, Chris Chaplin, David Chappell, Natalie Chisholm, Rich Llewellyn, David Mander, Derek McQuiston, Roger Simons, Chris Starmer

British animated features are scarce, British mummy films even rarer, so props are due to this unique action-horror-comedy about two MI6 agents and a nightclub singer who face a reanimated Pharaoh while searching Cairo for a stolen diamond. Starting life as a 1988 audio drama entitled The Curse of Seven Swedish Maids, this took seven years to produce using gaming software called Muvizu. Almost-one-man-band Starmer had some stop-motion experience but was a CG novice so this is a tremendously impressive piece of work. In all honesty, no-one is going to confuse it with Pixar: characters are stiff, polygonal and inexpressive, although the backgrounds are beautifully rich and detailed. A cast of local amdram players do a good job and there are some nice gags in dialogue and on screen. With some surprisingly gory deaths and some random vampires near the end! There was a single local screening in Northampton and an October 2018 VOD release but otherwise this has gone largely unnoticed.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Concrete Castles

d. Benedict Bevan, Alex Boundy, Peter Fellows, Kate Moreton; w. Peter Fellows; p. Alex Boundy, Peter Fellows, Kate Moreton; cast: Cati Vacher, Peter Fellows, Benjamin Christmas, Katherine Loudoun, Emma Knowles, Rachel Wiltshire, Joe Cole, Liberty Buckland, Alan Long, Lynn Binks, Adam Hicks, Jake Holdsworth

Inventive and original, clever and confident, this amateur zombie feature shot by teenagers for £80 deserved a much better fate than a momentary online release. The prologue and three acts follow the simultaneous stories of four characters who interact, with some scenes repeated from different points of view. The main narrative is in black and white but most of the film is lengthy colour flashbacks. Weighty themes – drugs, prostitution, rape, miscarriage and an inappropriate teacher-pupil relationship – are mixed with lighter elements, including scenes told through comic-book panels and a brief West Side Story pastiche. Despite this, and the variable acting, and the 128-minute run-time (six of them credits), this works – and works brilliantly. Filmed in August/September 2010 in Bracknell, Berkshire (an unprepossessing new town of square subways and rectangular shopping centres) it had a local screening in April 2011. Fellows later referenced this in scripts he wrote for Veep!

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Zombie Genocide


d. Andrew Harrison, Darryl Sloan, Kris Carville; w. Darryl Sloan; p. Andrew Harrison; cast: Andrew Harrison, Darryl Sloan, Jason Morrison, Paul Barton

An incredibly early zombie feature (65 minutes) from Midnight Pictures, the Northern Irish duo who later gave us vampire action picture Dark Light. Four lads return from a week’s camping to find their town deserted. Gradually they realise that the few people they see stumbling around are dangerously aggressive. This is played completely straight (apart from one lovely gag referencing a Day of the Dead poster) and is very much in a Romero vein. Emphasis is on conflict and co-operation between the quartet, and effects, while bloody, are not over-the-top. Much of the film takes place in one suburban house and the later scenes make excellent use of an empty college campus. Bleak and pessimistic, right up to its blackly ironic ending, this is a solid watch. Far too many modern zombie flicks can’t reach this level of artistic and technical competence. Shot on VHS in Portadown between 1991 and 1993, at a time when carrying a replica gun around Northern Ireland could get you killed! Originally self-distributed on VHS, this was released via BitTorrent in 2006 and finally posted onto YouTube on Halloween 2019.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Zombie Toxin


d. Tom J Moose; w./p. Robert Taylor, Adrian Ottiwell, Tom J Moose; cast: Robert Taylor, Adrian Ottiwell, Tom J Moose, Lee Simpson, Nestus Forsythe, Russell Ottiwell

This Troma-influenced, shot-on-VHS epic has a strong claim as one of the first ever British zombie features. When a farmer drinks from a stream polluted by a dead horse he becomes a diarrhoea zombie (lots of gross-ups of a prosthetic bumhole!). The Satanist mad scientist who chopped up the horse is also now a zombie; in a unique scene they take turns biting bits off each other. The main plot has two Hitler-moustached Nazis plot to destroy humanity by selling bottles of wine brewed using yeast fertilised by zombie shit (the film-makers apparently thought yeast was a crop...). The wine bottles become sentient and fly through the air attacking people. Highlights include a version of Sinatra classic 'New York, New York' rewritten as 'Oop North, Oop North', the mad scientist’s assistant using a passing train to remove an arm (the wrong one), and one Nazi blowing the other up with a bazooka. Extraordinarily ambitious for the era, this is packed with blood, vomit, dismemberment and bad wigs, with three actors playing almost everyone on screen. Music by Aura director Steve Lawson. Made in 1992, this was released on VHS in the States by EI Independent Cinema in 1998 and also saw UK release (as Homebrew) through the legendary Screen Edge label. It bypassed DVD entirely to eventually surface on YouTube in 2019.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Dead Again

d./w. Steven M Smith; p. Steven M Smith, Tal Edgar; cast: Tony Fadil, Elliot Cable, Mark Wingett, Sonera Angel, Kit Pascoe, Chris Monk, Anastasia Cane, Will Pryor

Steven M Smith’s take on the zomcom subgenre is not entirely successful but is at least watchable, largely due to a likeable cast. Given how desperately awful so many low-budget horror comedies are, this can be considered a qualified success. Two rural coppers – one out of condition, experienced and cynical; one young, enthusiastic and na├»ve – face a zombie apocalypse in their tiny village. They hole up in a derelict manor house (the same location as Smith’s Scare Attraction) with a grizzled gamekeeper and three other random people whose characters aren’t explained. There’s no real plot here: of 75 minutes, four are titles/prologue, eight are credits and twelve are basically just the cops shooting zombies. Some giant alien spaceships are thrown in for no obvious reason and there is cheeky footage of Trump and Boris discussing COVID-19 as if it’s a zombie plague, Although the film is noticeably light on actual gags (the funniest moment is a fart), Smith gets the comic tone spot-on, with eccentric characters playing it straight in extraordinary circumstances, and good chemistry between the leads.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Edge of Extinction


d./w. Andrew Gilbert; p. Andrew Gilbert, Julian Hundy; cast: Luke Hobson, Georgie Smibert, Chris Kaye, Bryn Hodgen, Nicholas Chambers, Susan Lee Burton, Neil Summerville

Nasty, brutish and, well, 141 minutes long, this impressive second feature from the team behind The Dead Inside is a bleakly nihilist, bloodily violent post-apocalyptic tale where no character has any real moral integrity. Two men with no reason to trust each other rescue a female mutual comrade from an organised gang of cannibal psycho rapists, then face down their enemy with the help of a couple living in an isolated eco-home. There are many more layers of betrayal and brutality than that precis implies. It all happens a few years after a global war reduced society to individuals and groups eking out a desperate existence, making this a sort of miserabilist British Mad Max. Childhood flashbacks give us some clues, though it’s never explained why no-one has a gun (which would have changed the plot significantly!). Shot (as The Brink) weekends in 2017/18 in Beds and Bucks, with terrific use of derelict locations. Mycho’s Anna and MJ Dixon were associate producers (and are among the extras), repaying Hundy and Gilbert’s contribution as co-producers on Mask of Thorn. Brit horror regular Rudy Barrow has a small role but doesn’t last long.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

It Never Sleeps


d. Matt Mitchell; w. Matt Mitchell, Taliesyn Mitchell; p. Clare Pearce; cast: Laura Swift, Fabrizio Santino, Cassandra Orhan, Pixie Le Knot, Charlie Rawes, Simon Mathews, Richard Foster-King, Kevin Golding

Unseen outside South Africa due to sales agent problems, this is a slick, enjoyable and original spooker from the director of Gangsters,Guns and Zombies. Ex-squaddie Joan, now working as a bouncer, sees a therapist to help overcome her PTSD. But there’s more to her problems than flashbacks to Afghanistan. She’s being haunted by a young woman – and something even less corporeal. A man who she literally met once, randomly, for a few seconds is having similar visions and together they try to solve the mystery. It Never Sleeps take a sharp left turn about 20 minutes from the end which will initially leave you confused and annoyed – but stay the course because things will make sense before the credits roll. Swift (principally a stunt performer) is great in the lead with terrific support from Orhan as her gobby best friend and Rawes as her partner on the nightclub doors. Shot in 2014, this will definitely get a proper release at some point.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

The Haunting of Margam Castle

d./w. Andrew Jones; p. Rebecca Graham, Robert Graham, Andrew Jones, Sharron Jones, Harry Willis, Jonathan Willis, Tom Willis; cast: Jane Merrow, Derren Nesbitt, Vernon Dobtcheff, Simon Bamford, Garrick Hagon, Caroline Munro, Judy Matheson, Amy Quick, Lance C Fuller, Mads Koudal

A solid B-movie spook-show with a nostalgic cluster of British horror veterans, Andrew Jones’ latest is a treat for fans that effectively combines classic and contemporary horror. Nesbitt and Merrow are a local history expert and a medium assisting a visiting gaggle of American para-psychologists in a Welsh castle, where things get spooky in act 2 and deadly in act 3. Dobtcheff is the creepy caretaker, Munro and Matheson are warning voices in the local pub, and Biggs Darklighter is the Dean who sends them across the Pond to boost his university’s reputation. Add in Hellraiser’s Bamford as Matthew Hopkins in a hallucinatory sequence and indie legend Koudal as a ghostly axe murderer and there’s not a lot of space left for the actual plot, to be honest. Jones’ regular DP Jonathan McLaughlin ably photographs the actual Margam Castle, an early Victorian monstrosity built for William Fox Talbot’s family. If it looks familiar, you might have seen it in Up All Night or any of several ghost-hunting TV series.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Day of the Stranger


d./w./p. Thomas Lee Rutter; cast: Dale Sheppard, Gary Baxter, Gary Shail, Richard Rowbotham, James Taylor, Bazz Hancher, Jim Heal, Maryan Forouhandeh

The list of British westerns is fairly short and frankly a bit odd. Which is also a perfect description of Thomas Lee Rutter’s latest feature. Rutter is the West Midlands auteur who gave me a couple of early credits in his slasher Mr Blades and his werewolf romp Full Moon Massacre. Now he’s working with real actors like Gary Shail from Metal Mickey and Richard Rowbotham from The Grimleys – on a trippy microbudget horse opera. Ostensibly based on a Mark Twain short story, there’s not a great deal of story here. But westerns are not about narrative, they’re about a feeling, an essence: individuals rattling around in a space so large it shouldn’t exist, occasionally interacting in surprising, often violent, ways. Tom has caught the spirit of the western genre (or at least, its more existential side) brilliantly. Parts are talkie, the desert is a Welsh beach, accents are … variable … and the only horses are stock footage. But Day of the Stranger feels right. Like Sergio Corbucci took a day trip to Rhyl. It shouldn't work... but it does.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Haunting of Alcatraz

d./w./p. Steve Lawson; cast: Tom Hendryk, Helen Crevel, Chris Lines, Jonathan Hansler, Mark Topping, Beau Fowler, Marcus Langford

The latest feature from Lawson (Hellriser, Aura, Pentagram) is a spooky historical set in the eponymous prison in 1942. College boy Charlie lands a job as a clerk on the notorious block D where Cell 13 is used to make difficult prisoners disappear, a process invariably recorded as ‘suicide’. He befriends a nurse, clashes with the Warden and discovers that Cell 13 was, five years earlier the scene of a particularly nasty actual suicide by a prisoner whose ghost still lurks therein. Shot in Gloucester Prison, this overcomes much of its low-budget nature but can’t avoid depicting Alcatraz as an institution with five staff and even fewer prisoners. A fine cast and solid script make up for this, along with the director’s typically adroit camera-work. At 90 minutes it’s a tad long, especially given its languorous pace – don’t expect intense action scenes or jump-scares. Nevertheless The Haunting of Alcatraz is a slow-build ghost tale that draws you in and keeps you gripped. Produced for, and soon to be released by, High Fliers.