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’!

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.