House of Salem

House of Salem,
Directed by James Crow,
Starring Liam Kelly, Jack Brett Anderson, Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills

First debuting at FrightFest’s New Blood strand in 2016, James Crow’s Brit-horror House of Salem finally gets a DVD release. Josh (Liam Kelly) is a young child with special needs, being left in the care of a teenage babysitter while his parents go for an evening out. As she puts him to bed she teases him that he is getting a bit old for taking a cuddly toy to sleep with – a cuddly lamb – but he is adamant that he needs it and she acquiesces, leaving him to sleep and returning down stairs to indulge in the grand babysitter tradition of chatting on the phone. The peace of a domestic slumbering evening is about to be broken, however, as a group of creepily masked intruders make their way into the home, intent on snatching the boy. So far it’s not that different from any number of other home intrusion thrillers we’ve seen, except Josh hears a spectral warning just before the attack, and attempts to hide and evade his pursuers while his babysitter bravely tries to defend him, but it’s no use, and he is soon in the bag.

Taken to a large but isolated old country house the masked gang, Josh is locked into one of the bedrooms while the gang’s leader Jacob (Leslie Mills) awaits more instructions from their mysterious employers, who will only get in touch via an old, vintage Bakelite landline phone. It is when they settle in for the long wait that the first cracks start to appear, as the different personalities in the gang assert themselves – the belligerent one who thinks nothing of violence or even murder, the cooler headed-one, the solitary women in the group, Nancy (Jessica Arterton), who seems least happy with the whole thing and is clearly protective of the child, despite having taken part in his kidnapping. Mills’ Jacob plays the hard-man leader, the sort who rarely shouts but is all the more threatening and scary for his seeming reserve – you just know this is a man who has done bad things and will do so again in a split second if anyone crosses him, and his authority forces the arguing individuals of his team to try and get along as they wait the night out.

But this is no kidnapping for ransom, this child and this location have been chosen by their mysterious employers quite carefully and carry an awful history of previous, similar events, and it is a history Josh can see and hear. Josh lost a sibling years before and this closeness to death has left him sensitive – he hears noises and voices, then sees figures, usually other children his age, dressed in white sleepwear like him (his hooded onesie recalls Where the Wild Things Are) and bloodied. Are these trapped spirits of other children who had been brought here, and if so, what were they brought for. As with most heist/crime stories they are at their most compelling when it all goes wrong, and between the bickering gang members and then changing plans from their distant employers, then the external threat of someone else being around this supposedly safe house (creepily leaving a dead game animal hanging from a garden tree). No, this is no ransom for money at all, this has a darker – a satanic – element to it and Josh is part of that ritual, and it may be that Jacob knows more about the real reasons behind it all than he is letting on.

While House of Salem has flaws, I’m not going to dwell on them as I think they were mostly down to the perennial problem for all Indy film-makers, lack of budget and shooting time. And while their resources may be slender (Primeval’s Andrew Lee Potts is billed as a star but in truth is only in it for a short time), Crow makes the most of what he has. It’s remarkable how much creepiness you can get just from figures in masks, both the kidnappers, then the Satanic cult members, both groups using very simple masks, nothing elaborate or complex here, but quite chilling in the way they dehumanise the figures and make them quite terrifying.

The mix of 70s style hidden Satanic cult and the crime gone wrong bickering gang works well, and while most of the gang are stereotypes, Arterton’s Nancy is fleshed out more, her backstory slowly emerging (and her relation to leader Jacob, a sort of surrogate father figure), which gives more reason for her defence of Josh. Liam Kelly is quite outstanding as Josh, this young lad gives a superb performance in a complex emotional role as a traumatised child with psychological and emotional problems already, then dealing with the kidnapping, the voices and the visions, it’s quite a performance from one so young.

The film also works in some nice symbology too, notably the image of the lamb and blood which recurs and becomes increasingly creepy as it builds to a climax in the third reel. An intersting, inventive and frequently creepy Brit-horror, ideal for some late Saturday night viewing.

House of Salem is released on DVD and Digital by Left Films from October 1st

A sad farewell

Only a few weeks ago my Irish chum Stephen – who did his comics and movie work under the pen-name Garth Cremona – told me that a result from a hospital stay had come back. With the worst possible news – a terminal diagnosis. I am a writer, a wordsmith, I, all false modesty aside, can turn a phrase to most occasions when I want to. And so could Stephen. But I was without words at this news, and told him as much, and he replied that so was he.

I couldn’t let that lack of words stand in the way of talking to my friend though, and dropped him a line or two, but didn’t hear back. Given the circumstances I was not surprised. And then this week his other half Tina, who he had told me several times was the total light of his life, took over his Twitter feed to announce that Stephen was gone. It was only a few weeks from the diagnosis and my friend, so much younger than me, was already gone.I’m heartbroken at his sudden passing, and I hate to think how much worse that is for Tina and his family.

I’ve lived through sudden loss of a loved one, and it is horrendous, marks you down to the soul for life ever after. It all but broke me when dad and I lost mum so suddenly. To lose someone even younger like Stephen is just so bloody wrong, and my heart is heavy for his loss and even heavier for the sorrow and grief that Tina and his family must now bear.

Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name volunteered his services as a film reviewer for me on the Forbidden Planet Blog, for no other reason than a desire to promote good works – especially loving the chance to promote Indy works. He was hugely active on the Irish comics scene as a creator and also a supporter of other Indy creators. All of this was done without ego, just for the love of it all, to highlight interesting artistic works. In between reviews we tweeted and emailed each other banter and chatter and bonded over it and other, more personal matters. With FP deleting the blog only a day after I was paid off I can’t even pay tribute to him on there.

I find it hard to believe that I will never again get to tease him over his love of even trashier horror films than even I liked. I’m not going to swap messages with him again, talk about the comics and films we loved or hated. There should have been years of that more to come and suddenly there isn’t. Gone to the great editing suite in the sky and far, far too damned soon. I’ve reached that period of life where losing people becomes sadly more frequent, but Stephen was much younger and should never have been gone early like this. I will miss you, my friend, and I will see you again one day for that great Director’s Cut, in wonderful wide screen.

And damn you cancer, damn you to hell for all the pain you have caused to so may of us, up yours, cancer, up yours with a diamond tipped chainsaw for all the sorrow you have caused.

And on a final, silly note, whenever Stephen sent me in a piece to edit for the FP blog, as I went to schedule it under his nom-de-guerre of Garth Cremona I would find myself singing “Garth Cremona” to the tune of “My Sharona”. I told him this once, and he was mightily amused by the idea.

Der Hauptmann – The Captain

The Captain,
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.

It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.

Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.

When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.

It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.

This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.

Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.

The Captain is released on September 21st

Killer App: Bedeviled

Bedeviled,
Directed by Abel Vang and Burlee Vang,
Starring: Saxon Sharbino, Bonnie Morgan, Brandon Soo Hoo

Using internet and social media as a new gateway for evil to stalk pretty, young teens in the American suburbs is hardly new – film (itself a technological artform) has always, since its earliest days, reflected our fascination with and fear of new technology, from the Lumiere’s steam train scaring audiences to the giant engine in Metropolis to recent films using the internet, like Pulse or Unfriended. We’ve seen quite a number in recent years, hardly surprising given our seemingly endless fascination with and increasing use of the online world and social media (especially now it goes everywhere with us on our ever-present smartphones), and horror has often been quicker than most forms to explore our love-hate, desire-fear relationship with technology and how it affects individuals and society.

In Bedevilled it takes the form of the eponymous App, which a group of high school friends are all sent… From their deceased chum. Most of us would be a little worried at receiving an invitation to download an App from the phone of a friend who had died a few days before, but our teens just install it right away (to be honest this doesn’t stretch credulity, I imagine a lot of people who practically live on their phones would just install new Apps without blinking too). Of course any horror flick fan knows that such an App is going to prove to be an open invite to bring evil to play right into the home – in some ways this is the 21st century version of the curious teens playing with an old Ouija Board they found in the loft, and in fact one character comments as much during Bedevilled.

There’s a pretty decent opening here, with the soon-to-be-deceased member of their group being menaced in her home, with a nicely creepy figure that unfolds itself in the darkness of the nocturnal home. After that though, I have to say it seemed to very much veer into an awful lot of teen horror cliché: of course the youngsters are all good-looking, they all live in large houses (where the parents are almost always absent so they can be alone when spooky noises scare them at night), there is a lot of those daft things people do in horror movies, like deciding to explore the dark house for a noise and not actually switch on the lights, the “this can’t be real” moments, the childhood scares that suddenly become manifest after they’ve discussed them, there are numerous dark scenes shot from low tracking angles and so on.

For the first half I was, I admit, thinking this is running through way more than its fair share of clichés. But then I started wondering if in fact this was deliberate, that the film-makers were actually taking all those many standard tropes of the teen horror and deciding to have fun with them, that they know fine well that horror fans know these are standard elements and we’re all in on the joke here. I really couldn’t quite decide which it was, just running through those clichés or being postmodern and having fun by deploying them. It does offer up some nice little scares though – the talking App invites one girl to pan the phone around her room, like an augmented reality app, and even though you know, you know well before it happens, that as she pans the screen around there will be something horrifying at some point, it still gives you a good jump when you see it (the digital App equivalent to the old seeing something scary standing behind you in the mirror, but when you turn around, it isn’t there trick), and that seemed to reinforce for me the idea that the use of those standard elements was deliberate.

Bedevilled may not be the most innovative horror, or even social media horror, but it does have some cool little moments, and I think it knows its audience. My recommendation is to treat this as fun popcorn horror – watch it on a Saturday night with a bunch of friends as part of a double-bill with some other teen horror, maybe, with the popcorn and booze and that’s just the way to take this.

Bedevilled is out on VoD from The Movie Partnership from 17th September

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story,
Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre

Kangaroo has been doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit, receiving quite a bit of acclaim, and now with it being eligible for the 2019 Oscars they are making a push to get it noticed a bit wider by cinema-goers (and the Academy, the old “for your consideration”), which is how yours truly managed to get a screener to watch. And although this is very, very hard to watch in places, I am glad I had the chance to see this Australian documentary. As the film-makers and others point out early on there is a real dichotomy in the image of the kangaroo – it is the national symbol of Australia, it’s on their coat of arms, that sports-mad nation nicknames many of its teams after roos. And yet they slaughter millions of these animals every single year.

Not just slaughter, but killed often in the most disgustingly inhumane ways. Make no mistake, although this is a compelling documentary, you will need a strong stomach in certain parts of this film, it does not pull many punches in depicting just what goes on, nor should it – one of the central points here is that so many, in Australia and around the world where roo products (meat, leather) are exported, are totally unaware of what is happening, aided by a complacent government that seems to be in cahoots with a wealthy, multi-million dollar industry (and isn’t that something we’ve seen all too often in many different industries in many different countries? Strange how easily morality and decency can go when big money is involved). There are some stomach-churning scenes filmed by activists who are determined to break that cover, bring these practises out into the light – literally, as most of the hunting is done at night.

The law says any kangaroos “harvested” need to be killed swiftly and humanely, as you’d expect from similar standards in any animal food industries – we all, rightly, get sickened and outraged if cattle, pigs and sheep are made to suffer before the inevitable abattoir date and we have built up laws to protect the animals from such needless suffering. But shooter firing at night from a truck bumping over rough terrain and firing at a moving target often miss. Many roos are hit but not fatally, some take hours, days or in one case the crew documents, two weeks to die. Two weeks of agony and suffering. And that’s not the worst – there are the baby Joeys, the mothers shot, the baby still alive but helpless. The hunters take the baby animal and swing it by its hind legs, dashing its head on the nearby Ute (that ubiquitous Aussie truck), or in one especially sickening scene, the man stands on a tiny infant Joey after pulling it from the pouch of the dead mother. Yes, I did warn you, there are some stomach-turning scenes here. I’m an old horror fiend, grew up in that first wave of unregulated “video nasties”, and can take all sorts of gore on film. If it is fictional. Seeing it inflicted on an animal for real. Not so much.

The film doesn’t use these tactics just as shockers to get your attention and raise your awareness though, it is quite clear how stressful and disturbing this is to the film-makers and to the activists who are gathering this evidence, often at the risk of their own life. One couple who film and collect evidence bought land as a preserve for wildlife, but the law allows neighbouring farmers to drive onto their land and kill roos legally. Yeah, imagine a bunch of gun nuts on a truck in the dark of an outback night driving right past your house on your ground firing away and imagine not just the animal slaughter on your own property but how easily that could end in a human tragedy too. They gather evidence in film and, gruesomely, in body parts, that are then examined by vets to prove violations of the hunting rules. The government has largely ignored such evidence before, but with green politicians getting into office now they have politicians who are able to highlight this evidence, and as well as taking it to Aussie authorities, media and people to expose the reality, they take it to other countries who import kangaroo products, which hits the industry where it hurts (suddenly big sports stars like Beckham find out their footie boot leather came from kangaroos and how they were killed, and the major companies like Adidas, unsurprisingly, soon also decide this is not good).

Maybe you aren’t an animal lover and are wondering why you should be bothered. There is more here than just respect for nature and animals though – the big industry sways government policy (you know, governments, who are meant to represent the people, not corporations) and attempts to do similar abroad (one sequence shows some rather underhand shenanigans as they try to influence Californian politicians to lift a ban in imports). And then there is the health question – the roo meat for human consumption does not get the same strict hygiene rules that beef or pork does. The shooters drive through the outback at night, shoot a roo, hang it on the back of the Ute, gut it then and there (another pretty awful scene to watch – blood, knife, innards and bolt-cutters for those strong legs. Yes, shudder), then drive on looking for more. They all have to be shot between dusk and dawn when it is cooler, but as this is allowed at night it can regularly be over 30 degrees centigrade. And it takes all night to fill the truck, so imagine all those corpses hanging in that heat for hours before being driven some distance to the nearest refrigerated storage chiller. Driven in heat on dusty, fly-ridden roads while exposed to all of that contamination and heat, spoiling away. Independent studies of roo meat on sale in shops showed high levels of salmonella and e.coli. So even if you don’t care about animal welfare and enjoy your red meat, you should be worried about this.

It’s often a hard film to watch, there are some truly disturbing scenes, but that’s part of what makes this such a powerful documentary, and the way it covers the other strands, from the big industry-government collusion, the media buying unquestioningly into the much-peddled lies (“they are vermin and need to be exterminated”, “upsetting the natural balance”), the clearly dodgy “science” government agencies use to “prove” animal numbers (which don’t stand up to even basic logical scrutiny) and the public health threat is well handled and gives a rounded picture, rather than simply dwelling on the hideously huge slaughter. The fact much of this is beautifully shot, taking in that astonishing Australian outback and the gorgeous, iconic animals themselves adds a powerful contrast to the more disturbing scenes, while the film itself lays bare not just the monstrous slaughter (millions of animals a year) and the inhumanity of it, but asks upsetting questions about just how humans, as a species, see the natural world as a resource to be used and consumed.

This review was originally penned for Live For Film

Clever Indy science fiction with 2036 Origin Unknown

2036 Origin Unknown,
Directed by Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull,
Starring Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree

Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) is one of the last of a dying breed – what used to be a highly qualified, highly trained role that took years of study and experience to achieve, a mission controller for the space programme. Except now that true AI has come along most of those roles are redundant, humans no longer required, the AI, ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) is pretty much running the show, she’s there as a sort of failsafe, or for some unusual occurrence. Now working all but alone with ARTi in an underground command bunker Mack is overseeing a new mission to Mars, and it’s a project that is fraught with personal, emotional baggage for Mack. Quite aside from her understandable dislike of the new AI usurping the role of herself and all her former colleagues, the last mission to Mars crashed, killing the entire crew – including her father. Add into this mix the eponymous signal of unknown origin and you have an intriguing mix.

What starts as a pretty timely commentary – the threat of ever smarter expert systems and nascent AI being in the news again regularly as a threat even to highly specialised jobs- on humanity’s relationship with technology, adds layers as it progresses. Mack may have to put up with ARTi but it doesn’t mean she has to like it. And the more she works with him the more she finds herself questioning the AI, its motives, its very existence. How exactly did such a sophisticated AI come into being? How did it come to be running so much so quickly, to be accepted by most humans as the way to go? ARTi is using his vast cognitive abilities to create more new technology – including a hyperlight communication system that allows instantaneous communication with the automated new Mars ship and rover (a handy idea that gets around the several minutes of time-lag in normal plant to planet communications between Mars and Earth, obviously useful here for the film-makers too as well as the character). ARTi may seem polite and willing to help, but is he? He isn’t human and she isn’t sure of his exact origins, let alone what hidden motivations he may have…

This is clearly a small budget, Indy production, but Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull uses his limited resources quite well – we do get some decent special effects sequences, such as the original Mars mission, the later one Mack is involved with, but the bulk of the film is Mack alone in the mission control bunker with ARTi. There is a brief visit from a former colleague and video call from her sister, but most of this film is Katee Sackhoff interacting with ARTi’s AI in a small, enclosed space. Much of this would work perfectly on stage and is nicely self-contained.

It also comes with overtones of Dave Bowman alone inside the Discovery with HAL 9000, and while it feels from his performance that Cree is obviously aware of that illustrious and influential predecessor, he gives a carefully nuanced voice performance, paying a little homage to HAL but still making ARTi very much his own character, and one who may have very different ideas about the mission that the humans (but is that a good thing or a bad thing?). The tight running time helps with this claustrophobic bunker setting with Mack and ARTi, building the tension increasingly until… Well, you’ll need to watch the film to find out.

The film-makers have been very fortunate in landing Katee Sackhoff for their film, I’d imagine a lot of science fiction fans will be more interested because of her presence (and as already mentioned she carries almost all of the human side of this movie). But a film still has to deliver good story and characters, and this is a clever piece of small budget science fiction that does deliver, using a nice combination of tightly wound emotions (Sackhoff mostly only has the screen of ARTi to act against, but she does it well) with layers of intrigue and mystery to good effect.

2036 Origin Unknown will be released on iTunes, other Video on Demand services and DVD from August 13th

Creeping folk horror in Dogged

Dogged,
Directed by Richard Rowntree,
Starring Sam Saunders, Debra Leigh-Taylor, Nadia Lamin, Philip Ridout, Jo Southwell, Aiysha Jebali, Toby Wynn-Davies

Richard Rowntree has being paying his dues in the movie business for years, working on all sorts of productions large and small, crafting some of his own short films, and now his directorial feature debut, Dogged. And it is a rather tasty, creepy slice of British folk horror at that.

Young Sam (Sam Saunders) returns to his home, a small island whose causeway is submerged twice a day at high tide, leaving it isolated. The opening montage of rural and coastal scenes would normally be restful, but Rowntree picks angles and perspectives that right from the start convey an impression of something wrong, something out of kilter, of leaving the regular world behind and entering somewhere that conforms not to society’s wider norms but to its own, secretive rules. Just to reinforce the unwelcoming atmosphere, his father picks him up by the causeway without so much as a “hello”, just a bad-tempered “hurry up, the tide is coming in”, while the signs where causeway meets the island all make clear visitors are not welcome here.

Sam was born and raised on the island, but escaped its cloying, inward-looking small community to go to university. He’s only returned now, reluctantly, to attend the funeral of the young daughter of one of their neighbours, supposedly killed in an accidental fall from the cliffs. Except Sam finds it hard to believe this was an accident, all the local kids know to avoid the cliffs… At the memorial service in the small local church the vicar (a superbly, quietly menacing and creepy Toby Wynn-Davies) gives a sermon which seems more of a veiled warning to the mourners than it is a message of hope or comfort. The padre clearly has some power over his local community, more than just a spiritual leader, and he is less than happy to see Sam return as he knows his daughter is fond of Sam, and this is a man who obviously does not like challenges to his authority.

Rowntree litters Dogged with some inventive camera angles and perspectives that make even a leafy country lane or what should be a comforting house becoming filled with menace, along with other nice little touches (the young couple walking into the local tearoom sees all conversation stop as they are stared at, like a scene from a cowboy saloon in a Western). Figures are glimpsed in the woods, one even knocks Sam from his bike before running off, another is lurking near his gran’s house, and for some reason these young men all run around topless sporting animal head masks. It all builds tension throughout the film – it is clear some in the village are not who they seem, that there are secrets, but what secrets, and are they related to the death of the young girl?

Sam is as far from the pro-active horror hero as you can get, a young man who has been under his strict father’s thumb for so long that although he tries to investigate he is often fairly passive and pushed along by events and other characters, although it is hard not to feel sorry for him – he has escaped what he thought was an overbearing, isolated community, come back briefly and found himself not only drowning in it once more, but being submerged into darker, hidden depths that he hadn’t known were there.

I’m guessing Rowntree didn’t have access to a big budget, but he marshals what resources he has quite effectively. The aforementioned clever use of odd camera angles and perspectives, the expressions on the faces of the locals, the simple sight of half-naked male figures in animal head masks lurking in the woods, all combine to raise the tension steadily, leading to a satisfying final reel. Rural horror often plays on the sense of the small, isolated community, and by having this on an island cut off twice a day Rowntree increases that sense of isolation and difference, as well as adding a feeling of claustrophobia, both generally (across the whole community) and more personally (Sam’s own family) and that “you don’t really belong” sense. I was put in mind numerous times of the original Wicker Man, which I think Rowntree was channeling very well here, offering us a creepy, disturbing slice of Brit horror.

Dogged is out now from Left Films

High school, zombies & musicals: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail,
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu

High school. Zombies. Hard to tell sometimes which is more horrific. Add Christmas concert, overbearingly strict new headmaster, boyfriend troubles, arguments with parents, worrying about what you’ll do with your future plus a zombie apocalypse and set much of it to music and you have Anna and the Apocalypse.

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was one of those episodes that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea that would fall flat, but actually it was enormous fun and also moved on the story arc and character developments. There’s a lot of Once More, With Feeling in Anna’s DNA, and a touch of those wickedly satirical musical episodes of South Park too, I think (indeed the opening credits are animated and have a slight similarity to South Park’s style). Here, while the young cast (sensibly) play it all straight, it’s also clear the film-makers are having a huge amount of fun taking the American style high school musical, populated by teens with whiter than white teeth who love in sunny, Californian towns and royally taking the mickey out of them.

The sight of a bunch of Scottish school kids and staff in a wee town near Glasgow bursting into this very US style (complete with teachers and even the dinner ladies dancing) is side-splitting, while lyrics like “not a Hollywood ending” further satirise the American musicals and teen comedies Anna riffs on (although not in a nasty way, you get the impression they like laughing at them but still like them). And as one character comments when the action starts, this sort of thing happens in other countries, not in a wee town in Scotland, and that is part of the fun here.

We have the Usual Suspects – Anna (Ella Hunt) is a gifted, smart, intelligent girl, approaching the end of school and scared to tell her father she’s going travelling before she applies to university (he is over protective after losing his wife), her friends John (Malcolm Canning), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Nick (Ben Wiggins) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The kooky, daft but loveable one, the “best friend” who is so obviously totally in love with her, the geeky one, the obsessive, intense one, the trying to be a hard-man jock but masking inner feelings one, and naturally a nasty headmaster (Paul Kaye) who would probably have enjoyed teaching at Sunnydale High, the sort of headmaster who clearly hates kids and resents that they may grow up to have a happier life than he has had.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes all of these generic elements but filters them through a small, west-coast Scottish town sensibility, and that’s funny in itself seeing such very American stylings done in a wee Scots school as they prepare for the annual Christmas concert (especially slightly ditzy but delightful Lisa, who plans a somewhat more risque number than she told the headmaster she’d perform). And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse happens. And at first Anna, John and the others don’t quite notice. Heading out of her house, walking down the rainy winter street Anna is singing and dancing, earphones plugged in, while behind her neighbours flee from their homes pursued by the undead, fires burn, cars lie crashed and she’s oblivious with her phone, singing and dancing away, until she bumps into John dancing and singing his way to school, they duet and, of course, that is the moment a zombie in a snowman costume attacks them (hey, we’ve all been there).

After that it is the quest for survival, Anna and John finding some other friends along the way, trying to sneak across their town to school to find their other friends and families, and because authorities have issued emergency alerts saying the school will be the evacuation point for the town. And as with all such films, it’s a guessing game as to which characters are going to make it, which are going to end up becoming finger food for the ravenous undead who are rapidly over-running their town. And again while this takes the well-known generic tropes, it does so with such a knowing nod and wink – these people are fans and they are in on the joke, they know we are in on the joke and, to be honest, the young cast are so damned likeable that you buy into it happily. Of course the flipside of that is that you know not all the characters you come to love are going to make it. But they may go out with a song!

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 02
(a very happy director: John McPhail talking to the late night film festival audience before Anna and the Apocalypse screened in the Edinburgh Filmhouse)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 03

This was my final movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival, part of the late night strand the EIFF does each year (and don’t horrors suit the late night slot?). Director John McPhail and many of the cast and crew were at the screening, and clearly extremely excited and buzzed to bring their Indy Scottish film to the country’s most famous film festival. As a very delighted John McPhail told the audience, this is their home-town showing, screening to a Scottish audience, and the pleasure and excitement he and the others showed in being allowed to make this film then get to screen it at a packed festival showing was infectious. The festival audience didn’t just laugh at the humour or wince at the (deliberately) OTT violence (very cartoony), the whooped and hollered and clapped along to the musical numbers, it was almost like being at a Rocky Horror screening, and that made it ten times more fun (the festival crowd was also treated to a special sing-a-long segment after the screening).

This is gleeful film-making, loving but also happy to play with the generic tropes of horror, teen drama and musicals, and has future cult film written all over it. Best seen with a group of friends.

Riding the rails in Canada

To mark Canada Day why not enjoy this National Film Board of Canada’s film – it’s a documentary about a short film they shot with silent movie god Buster Keaton in the 1960s, where Buster gets stuck on a ride on a railway scooter, taking in some behind the scenes elements of the short film and chatting to the legendary actor:

Buster Keaton Rides Again, John Spotton, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

McLaren Animation at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I always make a special point of attending the two McLaren short animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival each year. BBC2 and Channel 4 used to have animation seasons, but that’s something that seems to have fallen mostly by the wayside these days (despite each now having multiple digital channels) and the days of a wee short before the feature film in cinemas is long gone, which, for me anyway, makes it more important to support and celebrate when we get to see short animation being highlighted, especially when it is being shown on a cinema screen. We have some remarkable young animation talent in the UK, and this and other festivals are a chance for them to shine, to effectively show their portfolio in order to try and secure more work (be it with an animation house on a film or the bread and butter of music videos, ads etc which help pay the bills) or compete for scarce funding.

Each year the McLarens always impress me with the range of material on offer, both in terms of method (from slick CG animation to traditional hand-drawn or stop-motion work and all sorts in-between), and subject matter (some are funny, some are political, some are biographical, some bring a lump to the throat). This year was no exception. Given the two screenings took in over twenty short works I am not going to go into each and everyone that was shown, but I will pick out some of those that made an impact on me, personally.

Sam Gainsborough’s Facing It was a pretty unusual-looking piece, mixing live action actors with claymation faces overlayed on their heads, producing a strong visual style for the piece. A young man waits for others at a table in a busy pub; he clearly wishes to reach out and be a part of the buzz of vibrant, lively conversation and life goign on all around him, some even invite him to join them, but his crippling shyness halts him, his claymation face morphing, a hand literally growing out of it to clamp around his mouth as he tries to speak to a stranger, while flashbacks show childhood events with his parents which shaped this isolation and nervousness. While most of us don’t suffer from such an extreme I think we have all had moments where we need to interact with strangers or a group and have that anxiety moment before we do. The plasticine animated faces over the live actors works very well, allowing for a range of emotional expression way beyond what even the most facially gifted actor could give; it’s a lovely example of one of those things animation can do so well, using a few simple visual signifiers to show the internal emotions of a character so clearly.

FACING IT – TEASER TRAILER from Sam Gainsborough on Vimeo.

Ian Bruce’s Double Portrait splits the screen into two hand-painted images, changing and coming to life before our eyes, telling the story of a woman, Geraldine, and her first love, of how it all seems so straightforward to them when younger, but how life changed them, parted them, brought them together again. It’s beautifully illustrated with Bruce’s painting, giving a warm feel as we move through their lives across the decades. Jonathan Hodgson’s Roughhouse, a traditionally-drawn animation, tells of a group of pals, friends since childhood, marked by a moment of rough play with a pet that ended badly, later growing up, going away to college, meeting a new flat-mate and settling into student life (complete with messy flat). It’s actually quite a brave film, I think – Hodgson gives us characters who are often not very likeable, and the roughest of them all, the one who never pitches in for the rent but can always pay for drink, seems the least likeable of the group, but Hodgson carefully shows us that under laddish, unthinking jokes and “banter” and bravado there are feelings and even the seemingly strongest and toughest can suddenly crack. It’s a good reminder that under it all everyone is human.

Roughhouse Trailer from Jonathan Hodgson on Vimeo.

Maryam Mohajer’s Red Dress, No Straps draws on some of her Iranian background, with a very young girl living during the era of the Iranian revolution and the awful Iran-Iraq war which lead to scenes reminiscent of the First World War. At home with her grandparents, grandma indulging her beloved grand-daughter by making her a dress like her favourite US pop star seen in a magazine (that has to be hidden from the religious authorities who are busy teaching her and other kids to shout “death to America” each day at school). A red dress, strapless. Meanwhile they have to worry about bombing raids on civilian targets during the war, but she tells us Saddam is not very good at this and they are all okay. It’s a lovely, warm piece evoking a strong feeling of family that any of us can identify with, but despite what she says, everything is not okay, and this is a film that left me with a lump in my throat.

Red dress. No straps. trailer from maryam mohajer on Vimeo.

Lucia Bulgheroni’s Inanimate proved to be my favourite from all the films shown in both McLaren screenings. I love all form of animation, but I have a special soft spot for traditional stop-motion animation. There’s something for me that is truly magical about knowing that everything you see on the screen there has been built by hand, from the characters and their clothes to the tiny sets, furniture, right down to coffee cups, then, through a painstaking alchemy, enchanted into life, one frame at a time, hours, sometimes days to capture a few brief seconds of movement. In Inanimate Katrine is leading her normal life – work, home, shopping, boyfriend. And then things seem to go wrong, to be disconnected, she is doing one thing and suddenly, woosh, she’s rushed from home and finds herself at work with no in-between, then somewhere else and somewhere else. She panics, is she losing her mind, having blackouts?

And then see starts to see the world around her differently, it starts to seem unreal to her, and soon so do the people and then, most terrifyingly, her own body. Her skin looks fake, it peels back and she sees the metal armature of a stop-motion puppet below. She isn’t real. Around her she is suddenly aware of huge figure, flickering at a speed that leaves them almost invisible, changing things around her world and other little worlds nearby. She’s a puppet who has somehow become aware, seen behind the scenes of her little reality, seen the strings and the puppet master. It’s both a story about how we all invent our own little realities to cope, to understand, to get through life, but are often aware there is more, just beyond the edge of our vision, and at the same time it is an ode to the laborious art of stop-motion, those long, long hours to create tiny moments of life in inanimate objects are, from her point of view, fleetingly fast.

It reminded me of Tom Moody at the McLarens a couple of years back, talking about working with found objects which he turns into characters, then brings to life with stop-motion. Tom he talked about the sadness which went with the joy of animation, joy at making something, but the sadness that after all the care to bring these creations to life they only had those few, brief moments of that life, then they would go on the shelves with older creations, never to move again, a rapid, Mayfly experience of the world. I suppose there’s probably a lesson about life in there, somewhere.

Space doesn’t really permit me to go into all the other works, but I must mention Sinem Vardarli and Luca Schenato’s (very long-titled!) The Brave Heart or (The Day we Enabled the Sleepwalking Protocol), which, like the old Numbskulls Brit comic or Pixar’s Inside Out it took us inside the body, with various organs such as the Heart and Brain, carrying out their tasks (or not), in the face of a booze, smoking and fast food blow out (very clever, very funny and rather dirty, especially when this all leads to an emergency “blockage” which I shall not describe here!). Stephanie Hunt’s Marfa took us around an odd wee Texas town, from local bands to local characters and gave a lovely flavour of life in a remote small town.

“The brave Heart” or ( The day we enabled the sleepwalking protocol ) Trailer from Luca&Sinem on Vimeo.

Ben Steer’s Mamoon had a mother and child, shadow figures projected onto polystyrene buildings, pursued by dark shadows – as the light fades so too do the shadows which it projects, which means doom, and the shadow figure mother desperately tries to save her child, while Daniel Prince’s Invaders uses very polished CG animation to bring to life three tiny flying saucers, exploring a human home on Christmas Eve, the smaller one unsure of his place with the larger two, trying to prove himself. There was a strong 80s vibe to Invaders, I thought, and Prince confirmed this in the subsequent Q&A, noting 80s Spielberg and most notably Batteries Not Included as influences. Simon P Biggs’ Widdershins was a delightful tale of a Steampunk, quasi-Victorian future of clockwork and steam automata making everything so perfect our character can’t stand it anymore, and falls for a daring young woman who challenges the system. I also loved it because “widdershins” is such a lovely word and we rarely get to use it…

Mamoon Teaser from Blue Zoo on Vimeo.

In the post-screening Q&As with a number of the animators one of the subjects raised was trying to get funding for short film work, and how much harder it had become. Adding to that, as to many other projects, was the looming spectre of Brexit. The animation director for the festival spoke about manning the British stall at the famous Annecy animation festival and remarked it was “tumbleweed” for them. With so much uncertainty nobody wanted to invest in UK productions or take on distribution. In fact he commented that those from outside Europe were being more actively courted by European partners than the UK team. Jonathan Hodgson told us how he could not get any funding from any UK company or arts organisation, but eventually a French one did agree to help, and he, like others, wondered if that avenue was now being closed to them, a question many in various arts disciplines (and science and business) are asking? This is not the place for a political discussion, of course, but equally it would be remiss not to note the worry of film-makers and others about how opportunities for co-operation, distribution and funding for their future work will be affected, and at the moment none of them have any real answers as to how they will be affected, and I’m sure that is a worry being discussed across the UK film industry.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - McLaren Animation 012

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - McLaren Animation 06
(some of the animators doing Q&A sessions in the Filmhouse, post screening of this year’s McLaren Animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - McLaren Animation 07

It was another great crop of inventive, often emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes touching short film-making by all sorts of different women and men working in different methods and styles to bring still objects and art into flickering life. Often I will see some of the McLaren animators figure months later in the short animation categories for BAFTA and Oscar, and fingers crossed some from this year’s crop will have that success too. Props again to the film festival for continuing to support the McLarens (named for iconic Scots-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, an alumni of the famous Glasgow School of Art which was in the news for the saddest of reasons recently), because it is a chance for these film-makers to have their work seen by an audience (and it is the audience who comes along to support them who get to vote on the award) and by the wider industry, a chance for them to be noticed by possible future employers and collaborators, and we need that kind of encouragement and celebration of creative work in all levels of our film-making if we still want to have such creators in years to come.

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers,
Starring Evelien Bosmans, Daphne Wellens, , Frances Lefebure, Patrick Vervueren

I don’t know Bert Scholiers or the starts of his Belgian film, but sometimes I just get a vibe from a film or book and know I am likely to enjoy it even before I start. Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out was another of those that I just had that feeling about as soon as I spotted it going through the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme. I am happy to say that gut instinct was on target, and that this was a film which had me smiling throughout.

Shot mostly in black and white (save for a short segment in strong, almost lurid colours), the basic premise – two girls, best friends, Hannah (Daphne Wellens) and Charlie (Evelien Bosmans) head out on the town for a night out with friends – doesn’t really do this justice. What starts as a pair of slightly kooky but charming young women, joking and laughing as they try to have a nice night out while figuring out their place in the world and why they are as they are (jobs, boyfriends, work, life, the same things we all think about), soon starts to bend off into a more unusual track, starting with some fourth wall breaking as they occasionally talk to the audience, then slowly starts to feed some fantastical elements in (after the pair have swallowed some magic candies which, they explain with a smile are certainly not drugs, they’re “homeopathic”).

Starting small – at a small party with friends Hannah’s breasts start talking (strangely in male voices for some reason), offering advice, bickering with her and each other (one breast complains that it has to get up early tomorrow to work on an opera libretto). Charlie goes out into the garden for a smoke, hears what sounds like someone having some sexual fun in the bushes and yes, indeed there is, it’s Catherine the Great (a horse can be glimpsed in the background, playing on the old myth) and naturally she bums a smoke from Charlie before offering some advice on not sleeping with some famous Russian historical figures. Soon, however, it goes off onto an increasingly surreal bent.

The pair talk about testing their friend Fons (Patrick Vervueren), making him perform odd tasks such as finding a “mummy in denial” (the bandage-wrapped Egyptian style mummy, not the maternal type), their friends produce a picture book of Hannah’s life to explain things, then flip to later pages to show what’s just about to happen next. As the evening wears on with the inevitable “I should go home” moments from the various friends, Charlie and Hannah go off on their own routes, each with a different man, but their evenings still revolve around each other as even apart they talk to their male friends about one another (the men are, well, not exactly superfluous, they have a role, indeed there are many men in this, but this is very much a film about the two women).

The evening – or now early hours of the morning – become increasingly fantastical, travelling to strange places, transformations, a magical mystery tour that takes in talking buildings and haunted houses and bordellos staffed by famous literary characters (fancy a Jane Austen foursome?). Imagine mid to late 70s era Woody Allen, if the films were more female-oriented, mixed with a dash of a more light-hearted Francis Ha, and fantastical flights of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and a friend suggested to me perhaps a touch of Mighty Boosh). Fun, funny, silly, sweet, touching, surreal and totally charming and smile-inducing. Loved it.

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World,
Directed by Franck Ribière,
Starring Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Julie Recoing, Michel Fau, André Wilms

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and another intriguing film, this time from French director Franck Ribière, this partakes of elements of murder-thriller, period piece and delightfully lurid horror. Set in the famous/infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris during the 1920s, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World takes real-life settings and historical characters – most notably the theatre’s great scream-queen, Marie-Thérèse Beau, better known by her stage name of Paula Maxa, played by Mouglalis, an actress who was slaughtered in thousands of violent and gorey ways every night on the tiny stage of the theatre. It’s claimed she was “killed” some ten thousand times, and early on her character lists many of the ways, from strangling to stabbing, slashing, burning, boiling, decapitation, being pulverised. And yet, she shrugs, here I still am…

In some ways this listing of nightly horrors enacted on the stage of this notorious theatre (which only closed in the 1960s) and the fact that Paula “survives” it all and keeps going is part of the central theme here: we were told in the post screening Q&A with the film-makers that they were not aware of a violent assault Paula had endured in her younger years, and yet they had written such a scene in affecting her and a sibling, in an uncanny art imitating life moment. They were exploring the nature of horror and violence, how it affects people, even the pretend violence of the horror on stage or in the movies, both those who watch and those who act it out (imagine being an actor having to be killed in inventively gruesome manners every single night). Experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, another real-life character involved with the actual theatre, is also, appropriately, a figure here, helping owner De Lorde construct not just physically awful torments and demises for Paula, but mentally brutal as well, pushing, pushing, pushing, aided by the giant figure of Paul, the special effects wizard (another real life character, apparently his stage blood formula is still used to this day).

Mixed into these factual elements are more fictional dramatic ones – a young journalist from Le Petit Journal, Jean (Niels Schneider), investigating both the moral brigade demanding the theatre should be closed for indecency (forerunners of later “we should control what everyone can see, for their own good” types that burned rock and roll records or the Mary Whitehouse mob) but also a series of disappearances and murders around the Pigalle and Montmartre areas (loved by tourists today, but rather rougher back then). Is the murdered inspired by what he sees on stage, is it driving his fantasies to act them out for real? Who are the figures haunting Paula? Does her work help her excise her own demons or is it all pushing her to brink – and do those in control of the theatre even care or are they happy to push beyond the limit?

The film is set in mid 1920s Paris, but the cobbled back streets, the heels clicking on them through foggy nights, the evening capes, they could all come from a Victorian-set Hammer film, and the gallons of luridly red “Kensington Gore” as the blood flows scarlet stands out against the dark, mostly nocturnal scenes, as vivid a claret as ever flowed in a Hammer film. Interestingly they film-makers told the festival audience that originally this was to be an English language film, set in New York, but as they explored it more, found the historical Paula Maxa, it became clear they really needed it to be a French film, set in Paris. They struggled for funding, but a Belgian film fund stepped up, as did Netflix, who they thought would ask for it to revert to the original English language premise, but instead were quite happy for it to be a period French piece.

In fact Franck Ribière commented on the “Netflix issue” which has come up at quite a number of film festivals around the world, most notably at Cannes, where some are glad of the new stream of funding and distribution while many others are horrified and say it is killing cinema with movies going straight to television streaming and bypassing cinemas. I can see arguments on both sides, but that’s a debate for another article, not a review. I will note that Franck Ribière explained he didn’t see the problem, it was another welcome source of funding for film-makers, and nobody makes a director or writer work with Netflix, it is up to them to approach them about partnerships, and that he is happy to be able to watch films as he wants, in cinemas, on TV, on his phone. Many other directors, I am sure, disagree, but it was interesting to hear him comment.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Most Assassinated Woman in the World 02
(Director Franck Ribière in dark shirt on the right and his colleagues at the post-festival screening Q&A with the audience)

No news on a UK release for this one yet, but as it is co-funded by Netflix I assume it won’t be long before it appears online, so those of you who don’t have a film festival or arthouse cinema nearby will be able to see it too. All in all I really enjoyed this, it offered both the over-the-top horror the Grand Guignol was famed for (and which it has given its name to as a general term in horror now) mixed with a more psychological aspect, and layers of “plays within plays” as we see fictional and real elements of Paula’s life mixed with pretend versions for the film and more pretend but almost real versions on the stage, until we’re left wondering what elements are real, what scenes are what they seem to be and which are theatrical artifice, all shot in a beautifully sensual manner. One of the smarter, classier horrors I’ve seen recently, and yet one which happily plays with elements of classic horror too.