Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

“These are the days of our lives…” – Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody,
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker

Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.

We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.

When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.

Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.

The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.

While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.

And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

The Snarling,
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses

Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.

But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?

This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.

It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.

The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films

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.