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

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.