Reviews: The Invitation

The Invitation,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Tammy Blanchard

Other than the fact The Invitation debuted to some acclaim at the London Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about this film in advance (a rare occurrence these days when we hear about most films well in advance), but frankly they had me at Karyn Kusama. Kusama impressed me with her Nicole Kidman-starring Destroyer, which I reviewed on here back in the spring (see here). When I realised it was the same director I was more than happy to have a look at The Invitation, and I am glad I did, as it proved to be a masterclass in tension and discomfort, right from the start.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up into the hills behind LA, invited to a dinner party with old friends, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The sense of something out of joint is present right from the start, when Kira and Will’s car hits a coyote on the isolated, tree-lined road up through the hills. And this isn’t just a sudden accident, Kusama drags the scene out – the animal is mortally wounded but not dead yet, making the whole incident more distressing. Will is already uncomfortable at the thought of returning to the house he once shared with his former wife, without this incident – a portent? – on the way.

I imagine most of us would feel awkward at having dinner with and ex and their new partner, and in this case we learn that it is a gathering of a bunch of old friends, but none of them have heard from Eden in a couple of year, leaving them all wondering, understandably, why now, out of the blue, they send an overly-elaborate invitation insisting they all get together at this time. Will is clearly ill at ease, and we gradually discover through tiny flashbacks of memory, triggered as he goes round the home he once shared with Eden, that this isn’t just because they are ex-partners, it is that something happened to them something very, very bad, something that drove them apart and almost finished both of them. Something that happened around this house…

This makes Will question why she can stand living here again, not to mention the strange serenity she and David seem to now possess – a rather creepy form of serenity, the type you expect from someone sucked into some phoney therapy or cultish type group. And then they mention a group run by a guru in Mexico, and introduce two strangers into this reunion of friends, two people the rest have never seen before but David and Eden know from this Mexican retreat. Again Will wonders why these two, odd strangers have been invited to what is meant to be a gathering of old fiends?

The others, even his girlfriend Kira, think he is over-reacting, that it is his history with this house, Eden and the tragedy that befell them that is causing him to react so badly to the evening, to jump at shadows, suspect for no reason. Perhaps he is still disturbed, discomfited, out of his element, in a place he doesn’t want to be. But why does David lock all the doors once everyone is in? Why are there bars on the windows, why is there no phone service, why are Eden and David so keen nobody leaves early?

Is this all in Will’s abused psyche or is something really wrong here? I don’t want to ruin anything with possible spoilers, so I won’t say anymore on the plot. I must say, though, Kusama, crafts such a sense of ever-increasing unease throughout the film, expertly cranking up the sense of wrongness and disturbing atmosphere, but for much of it leaving us to wonder how much is genuinely out of kilter and how much is the broken psyche of Will reacting badly to this event. The slow reveal of the tragedy that befell him and Eden aids in this and gradually changes the viewer’s perspective, leading to a fascinating and darkly compelling third reel.

The sense of tension, of unease and wrongness lurking below what seems like a lovely home and group in a nice area is beautifully done – think Blue Velvet era Lynch crossed with Get Out, perhaps, and the use of mostly one location – the house – enclosed everything and makes it more tense, more claustrophobic. Highly recommended.

The Invitation is released on Blu-Ray (with a raft of extras, including commentary by Kusama, making of and interview features) by Second Sight on November 4th

Reviews: “lost” 90s horror movie Skinner get the 4k Treatment

Skinner,
Directed by Ivan Nagy,
Starring Ted Raimi, Traci Lords, Richard Schiff, David Warshofsky,
101 Films

Unavailable for years – some thought it was actually lost – the late Ivan Nagy’s 1993 is returning to the horror movie scene with a spiffing 4k resurrection on Blu-Ray by 101’s Black Label. Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi), wanders from town to town, pursuing his obsession – in a nice bit of normative determinism, our Dennis enjoys not only nice, long walks in the seedier parts of town, but picking up sex workers who he not only kills but then expertly skins, keeping those skins as trophies. And even more disturbingly, to wear, to show his “true self”.

The story has elements of the 80s slasher, with the focus on killing young women in bloody fashion, with elements of the serial killer genre (not least Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and his woman “skin suit”, and a couple of scenes that hint to Norman Bates in Psycho). One of the aspects which differentiates between this and other similar horrors of the era though, is the use of Ted Raimi. Of course Raimi is no stranger to horror and the fantastic genres, having been in everything from Dark Man to a recurring role in Xena. Fair to say, in fact, Ted is a much-loved genre regular.

Here however Nagy is playing Raimi against type – there is always something of the charming goofball about his characters, and normally a lot of humour and a fair bit of charm too. And those qualities are here, and feel very Ted Raimi. And then we see the other side come out, the monster within that charming, smiling, considerate, polite, affable guy in glasses, a monster created in his youth by a brutalising father and the murder and dismemberment of his mother by his father in a grotesque parody of an autopsy.

I must admit at first I wasn’t entirely convinced – the initial glimpses of Raimi’s Skinner letting his restrained inner demon out didn’t quite work for me, it was hard to buy cuddly Ted as an evil killer. But the more I watched the more I revised that opinion because I realised that was more than likely the intention here, that we’d find it difficult to believe one of his characters could be this nasty. Like Ted Bundy and some other real-world serial killers, Raimi’s Skinner is the last person you’d expect to be a bloody-minded psychopath, he seems the nicest, gentlest person, always a ready smile, and that’s a major part of Skinner’s draw here, having a monster who, most of the time, doesn’t seem like a monster.

Traci Lords plays Heidi, the only streetwalker to survive Skinner’s murderous thirst for women, terribly disfigured and in constant pain, hiding her multiple scars and wounds as she relentlessly hunts for Skinner. As with many serial killers Skinner has a preferred method of operating, and as Heidi mutters, this makes him “as creature of habit, predictable”, aiding her quest to hunt him and seek revenge. As the film progresses and we see more of her, while sympathising with the suffering inflicted on her and her right to seek her own brand of justice, the film also starts to intimate that her scarring is as much mental as physical, and that, in some ways, her single-minded pursuit, letting no-one stand in her way, has perhaps made Heidi something of a monster, a dark twin of Skinner, the two drawn together in mutual violence and pain.

Some of the film very much shows its 1990s roots – a hidden area in a run-down factory that Skinner uses as a lair is lit with contrasting spots of green, blue and red light that were a style in more than a few productions of the time, but given that’s when it was made that’s fair enough. The early killings are fairly quiet and almost bloodless on-screen – a sex worker lured away, the intimation of Skinner about to strike, then a cutaway to flashes of skin being cut, but only brief flashes rather than the grand guignol bloodbath some may expect. Theses scenes grow longer and more explicit as the film progresses, however, which is more effective in ratcheting up the levels of tension and horror, and while we have to wait for those longer scenes – and the slow reveal of what Skinner does with those pieces of skin he slices from the victims – it works to the film’s advantage.

Skinner is getting the full 4k restoration treatment, and arrives from 101 Films on a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD, with extras including interviews with Nagy and Raimi, and a limited edition booklet.

Reviews: new Brit horror-comedy in Double Date

Double Date,
Directed by Benjamin Barfoot,
Starring Danny Morgan, Georgia Groome, Michael Socha, Kelly Wenham

Fresh from a good reception at FrightFest (always a good sign), this new horror-comedy with a strong gender element, Double Date arrives on home screens this month. Jim (Danny Morgan) is quiet, awkward socially, especially with women, and facing his imminent 30th birthday as a virgin. His best mate, Alex (This is England’s Michael Socha) is the polar opposite, cocksure, always on the pull, a jack-the lad and boy around town. For all his teasing of Jim, though, it’s also clear that under the cocky, laddish banter he actually cares about his friend, and in the tradition of many a movie, he’s determined he’s going to get his friend laid before his birthday.

Meanwhile we’ve already had a glimpse of sisters Kitty (Kelly Wenham) and Lulu (Georgina Groome), going home with a pair of men from a nightclub to a huge country home, the men delighted, thinking their luck is in, as they split up, one going with each sister, Kitty taking her partner upstairs. There’s music and a lot of body on body action, but not quite the sort of penetration the young man was hoping for as Kitty goes to work on him with a knife and a mad stabbing frenzy.

The next evening they are back out on the prowl at the nightclub, the same club where Jim and Alex are cruising (well, Alex is cruising, Jim is just ambling along). And they notice Jim, much to his surprise, in fact they seem to be inviting his attentions, more interested in him than self-proclaimed stud Alex. But Alex pitches in gamely, trying to advise Jim on the “perfect” pick up line and techniques (their regular barmaid tries to dissuade him from this awful, corny approach), even going so far as feeding Jim text messages as he talks to the girls, trying to give him prompts, which of course Jim makes a mess of. And yet, somehow the girls are still interested and agree to meet both men again the next evening for a date.

Are they serial killers who get their thrills seducing hapless, hopeless young men like Jim and then leading them to the slaughter? There are signs that there is more than just thrill-killing going on here, there are elements of ritual – however bizarre and deranged – that hint there is a deeper and darker purpose to the murderous crime spree the girls are indulging in., possibly something supernatural…

This is a very enjoyable Brit comedy-horror, right from the start it is clear both director and cast are having some fun with this movie. Sure, the sisters are lethal, seductive killers, but there’s a lot of humour here, much of it as the expense of poor Jim, and there is good use of the difference between both pairs, between Kitty (seen training for the violence to come, seeming to embrace and even enjoy it) and Lulu (who appears more to be going along with her sister’s plans but isn’t really happy with them), and Jim, hopeless yet nice, constantly putting his foot in it, and Alex, the cocky lad who under it all really actually has feelings and cares about his buddy.

It’s a nice combination of elements, creating a fun ride, a nice mixture of horror, some gender-inversions, humour and even some delightfully inept but well-meant romantic moments. A good Friday night slice of viewing.

Double Date will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms by Sparky Pictures from September 9th

Reviews: Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood

Asylum,
Directed by Roy Ward Baker,
Starring Robert Powell, Barbara Perkins, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Patrick Magee, Richard Todd

Second Sight are bringing us two very welcome limited edition Blu-Ray discs featuring some classic Brit-horror from Hammer’s arch-rival Amicus, famous for their “portmanteau” films which would offer up several short stories, tied together by a framing narrative. Despite their quick turnaround times and relatively low budgets, Amicus never skimped on paying for top thespian talent for these films, which many horror fans have tremendous affection for, and both films here – 1971’s The House That Dripped Blood, and 1972’s Asylum – boast some terrific names here, from Herbert Lom to Robert Powell, the great Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt (surely one of the all-time iconic Horror Queens?) and the one and only Jon Pertwee, while the stories and scripts come from the legendary Robert Bloch (Psycho). What a wonderful smorgasbord! Let’s start with Asylum.

Asylum’s framing device features a young Robert Powell, well before his international stardom with Jesus of Nazareth and The Thirty Nine Steps. Powell plays Doctor Martin, arriving at a remote former country house now housing the criminally insane, where the the head of the asylum, Doctor Rutherford (the velvet-voiced Patrick Magee) has offered him a job, if he can pass his test. One of the inmates is in fact Doctor Starr, the former head of the asylum before his own incident drove him into madness. Martin is to interview each of the inmates to see if he can discern which one is the former doctor, leading us into the four short films within the film.

Frozen Fear sees unfaithful husband Walter (D-Day veteran and Dambusters star Richard Todd) plotting with his lover to dispose of his rich wife Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who holds the purse strings and the whip hand in their strained relationship, and doesn’t he just know it, his frustration evident in every syllable he utters to his wife. It’s no spoiler with this kind of story to tell you that he follows through on his plan to murder his wife, but the pleasure here is in seeing what happens next – Bonnie, you see, was a follower of a Voodoo priest, and killing her off is just the start of Walter’s nightmare…

The Weird Tailor has a pre-Space 1999 Barry Morse as a tailor, Bruno, now down on his luck, behind with the rent, engaged for a handsome fee by Mr Smith (Peter Cushing), for a very peculiar suit. He provides Bruno not only with some very unusual material (which has a very 1970s special effect changing-colour glow to it, perhaps a bit cheesy but quite fun and suitable for the era) but very specific instructions requiring him to work only at certain nocturnal hours. The suit is for a very unusual customer and purpose, that will enmesh the two – both desperate men, but for different reasons – into a strange, tragic tale.

In Lucy Comes to Stay, Martin interviews Charlotte Rampling’s Barbara. Barbara was released from some sort of unspecified care regime to return to the home she shares with her brother George (James Villiers), with Megs Jenkins’ Nurse Higgins in attendance to take care – an almost smothering care – of the troubled Barbara. It soon transpires that Barbara has an imaginary friend, the eponymous Lucy (Wicker Man’s Britt Ekland), who tries to persuade her to escape this care regime and sow dissension between her and her brother (reminding her that their parents left the home to her, not him). But is Lucy just a figment of Barbara’s imagination, of her illness, or something more?

The final vignette, Mannikins of Horror, is, for my money, the strongest of the suite and the most memorable, largely due to the presence of Herbert Lom as Doctor Byron. Byron is proud of his many doctorates and talks to Martin as a fellow professional at first, revealing his new interest, creating tiny toy robot-like figures with sculpted human heads on them – heads Martin recognises as people in the asylum. Byron, seems quite coherent and sensible as he talks to Martin, but he soon starts to expound on how he can project his astral body from his physical body, placing it into these small figures and controlling them to do his will, with one made with his own likeness and supposedly containing miniature organs and brain. Nonsense, of course, and he becomes agitated as Martin clearly doesn’t believe him. But what if this is no mere boast of a deluded mind? This story makes much of Lom, with numerous close-ups of his face that exert a real sense of the disturbingly weird, and builds to a very satisfying climax, which also serves to bring the short tales back into the closing part of the framing narrative.

The House That Dripped Blood,
Directed by Peter Duffell,
Starring Denholm Elliott, Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Nyree Dawn Porter, Christopher Lee, Jon Pertwee, Ingrid Pitt

Bloch also performed writing and script duties for The House That Dripped Blood, again a set of four short tales, linked by a framing narrative, in this case Inspector Holloway (John Bennet), investigating the mysterious disappearance of a famous actor, Paul Henderson (the great Jon Pertwee), from the old country home he had rented while shooting a film nearby. Holloway, as he investigates, discovers the same house has been home to more than just this one mystery, almost as if it is cursed…

Method For Murder opens this collection of tales, with Denholm Elliott’s horror author Charles Hillyer and his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham), renting the house as an ideal spot for him to deal with some writer’s block and get on with a new book. But as Charles rediscovers his writing mojo and gets into his new book project, he is disturbed by hallucinations in which he glimpses Dominic (Tom Adams), the grotesque, psychotic central character of his new tale, a figure only he sees, in glimpses at first, through a window or the corner of his eye, but then closer and more threatening. Only Charles can see him, though, leading him to confide in his wife and his therapist that he fears he is losing his mind. But what if these are not just hallucinations? I was reminded a little of the much, much later Secret Window with Johnny Depp and John Turturo – perhaps these two tales would make a decent evening’s horror viewing!

Waxworks have always carried something of the Uncanny Valley about them, equally fascinating and somehow discomfiting at the same time, so it is no surprise to see a tale entitled Waxworks here. The wonderful Peter Cushing’s retiree Philip Grayson rents the house, looking for a bit of peace and quiet, and when he wants anything he drives into the nearby town, where he discovers the titular Waxworks. Drawn to it he finds himself in the Chamber of Horrors (of course, don’t we all when we visit a waxworks?), where he sees a figure of a woman who reminds him all too much of his own lost love. The owner – Wolfe Morris, exuding a deliciously creep air – tells Philip that visitors all appear to see in this figure’s face what they want to see, usually someone they have known. When Philip’s friend Neville (Joss Ackland) comes to visit his new home, he insists on patronising the waxworks in the town too, where he too is taken by the figure of the woman in the chamber of horrors, but what is it that draws them to it?

In Sweets to the Sweet we’re treated to another great – Christopher Lee – moving into the house with his young daughter, Jane Reid (Chloe Franks). Nyree Dawn Porter’s governess Ann Norton is less than impressed with Lee’s widower John Reid and the distant and seemingly puritan manner in which he treats the small girl. She is forbidden from going to school, only to be educated by Ann in the seclusion of the home, restricted from playing with other children, he even reacts furiously when Ann, growing close to the child, buys her some toys, including a doll. He maintains he has his reasons and it is hinted that they are linked to his deceased wife, but what could drive a father to be this way with his only child?

Closing out these short stories we have the great Jon Pertwee, partnered up with Brit-horror icon Ingrid Pitt. Pertwee is playing a famous actor, Paul Henderson (the one whose disappearance the inspector is investigating in the framing narrative), the classic, over-bearing, “I’m the Star” type of egotistical, “do you know who I am?” kind of actor, renting the house while shooting a horror film at a nearby studio. Paul is to play a vampire in the film, but he is contemptuous of the young director, of the quality of the set and his costume. He declares he will find something better himself and in visiting a peculiar old shop and explaining he requires the sort of cape that a “Transylvanian Vampire might wear” gets much more than he ever bargained for… This one really relied on Pertwee using his booming voice and his remarkable range of expressions, and the inclusion of Ingrid Pitt (Carmilla/Countess Dracula herself!) is the icing on the cake for any old-school horror fans.

Like many horror fans I have long had a tremendous affection for these portmanteau films – they are, in many ways, the cinematic equivalent of reading the old Weird Tales, Uncanny or Eerie comics, or the collections like the Pan Best Horror series of books, short, juicy hits with a twist in the tail (or tale). The fact you can often see the twists coming doesn’t matter in the slightest, in fact I think for some of us it is part of the fun with these films, as with the aforementioned comics and books, and of course there’s much to be enjoyed simply in the great cast assembled for these shorts, boasting a Who’s Who of Brit thespians of the period, with a number of Hammer regulars moonlighting here for Amicus (including behind the scenes talent too, such as Asylum’s Roy Ward Backer directing)

Asylum and The House That Dripped blood are both being released on special Limited Edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight Films from July 29th, with a host of extras, including Director’s Commentary, interviews, features (including vintage pieces with some of the cast who are no longer with us), a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Graham Humphreys, a reversible poster and forty-page booklet)

EIFF 2018 – The Wind

The Wind,
Directed by Emma Tammi,
Starring Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zukerman, Dylan McTee

I usually always manage to take in a late-night horror screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of my movie fest mix. This year’s viewing was a very unusual and frankly rather superbly creepy and atmospheric Indy film by Emma Tammi which mixes elements of the Horror and the Western with domestic drama, using a small cast (really only four main and one supporting actor) and a compelling, powerful contrast between the enclosed (tiny frontier cabins) and the vastly open spaces of the great prairie in 1800s America.

The first few moments through the viewer off balance – there is practically no dialogue for the first few scenes, just a view of two men pacing up and down nervously outside the rough, Frontier wooden cabin while the eternal wind howls and blows over the huge, open spaces of the empty prairies (Laura Ingells Wilder this is not!). My first thought was that perhaps the women were inside the cabin, the men waiting outside as the womenfolk tended to a birth, perhaps? And this guess proved correct, but not the way I expected -after several tense moments the door opens and Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) stands on the porch, blood smearing her apron, a small bundle in her arms.

Still no dialogue. Instead of the “you have a daughter or son” moment Lizzy just stands there, the men staring at her, at the child in her arms. A child that isn’t making any noises, none of the screaming and crying that accompanies our arrival onto this planet. It is only as the film progresses that, through numerous flashbacks, we will start to understand what just happened, and what lead towards this moment.

Lizzy Macklin and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) have had their small homestead out on the Plains for several years, all alone since previous neighbours left some time back. It’s a hard life of physical toil and almost constant isolation, until another young couple move in to fix up the cabin and farm half a mile from their home, Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles) and her husband Gideon (Dylan McTee). Neither of them seem mentally or physically prepared for the hardships of Frontier-era life – Gideon isn’t very handy (unlike Isaac), something his young wife Emma points out to Lizzy and Isaac, right in front of Gideon.

You’d think after years of such isolation Lizzy and Isaac would be happy to have another pair of souls near them, but despite showing neighbourly charity – helping the new couple fix up the old cabin, giving them a start on ploughing to get their crops in the ground – you can feel an awkward tension, especially between the women. At first it seems as if this is because Emma is simply not cut out for this hard life on the Plains, despite any help they give her, but there is also, perhaps a feeling of sexual jealousy, that Lizzy suspects Emma may harbour feelings for her husband, the rugged frontiersman.

There’s more to it than this interpersonal possible rivalry though – Emma starts to talk about seeing something, dark shapes, hearing voices at night. It’s just that constant wind that sweeps those huge, open spaces, Lizzy tells her, it can drive people a bit crazy, make them think they can hear something. But Emma seems to keep getting worse, even when she falls pregnant, the pregnancy that leads to the disturbing tragedy in the opening scenes of the film – is the isolation, the rough, hard life and those vast, empty spaces damaging her fragile psyche?

But then we also have scenes where Lizzy thinks she hears something, sees dark shapes. She’s pursued by wolves in one scene, one even forcing its head right through the door, snarling like a devil, till she shoots right through through the wooden panels. When she ventures out they are gone, but the claw marks on the outside of the door, those marks go up as high as a person, not a four legged wolf would reach… As Isaac has to ride several days to the nearest town she is on her own, and at night she hears things, sees movement outside her windows even though she knows there isn’t another soul in the valley.

Imagine being in this vast wilderness, the only person there, and then, in dark of night, hearing a knock on the door. Imagine fearfully opening it, gun in hand to find… nothing. But later another knock. Or looking out into the black night of the empty valley and observing lanterns flickering into life in what used to be your neighbour’s home half a mile away, even though you know they are long gone and there isn’t another human being around for dozens of miles. It’s a simple device but damned effective at raising the spooky factor.

The Wind is wonderfully creepy and spooky and unsettling – so much is suggested, and it mostly happens around the two women, who both, coincidentally, share the same penny dreadful booklet, The Demons of the Prairies, and neither of their husbands see these things happen when they are around. Is it all in their heads, is it a form of “female hysteria” as 19th century doctors used to (mis)diagnose? Or is it real and only prowls around the women, at night, when they are alone? The film very much revolves around the two women, the men almost secondary to events.

Tammi crafts so much tension and outright fear from suggestion and inference, small glimpses, and a really clever use of the soundscape, which here is really essential in crafting that creeping atmosphere of unease and dread, right from that word-free, disturbing opening. This is a very unusual, highly effective slice of period American Western Gothic and supernatural (or is it???) terror, with a rich aural soundscape and inventive visuals, and a brooding sense of unease that grows throughout the film and the flashbacks into something that frequently spooked even this seasoned old horror hound. Highly recommended.

EIFF 2019 – The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die,
Directed by Jim Jarmusch,
Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Danny Glover

Welcome to Centreville, “A Real Nice Place!” After his vampiric outing with Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch turns his distinctive style on the all-prevalent zombie genre, with this very enjoyable and self-referential movie. Jarmusch takes many of the great horror tropes – the small, quiet town where nothing ever happen, the local sheriff used to dealing with complaints of farmers having chickens stolen rather than homicides (let alone undead homicides) – and a gleeful barrel full of references to other horror films, his own film works and an increasing amount of fourth wall breaking as it becomes clear that the characters are aware that they are, in fact, in a Jim Jarmusch movie (leading to a brilliantly deadpan dialogue duet between Driver and Murray).

The world has been titled off its axis by “polar fracking”, which naturally energy corporations and the US government insist are entirely safe and create cheap energy and jobs. The first signs of anything wrong in this sleepy little rural town are small-scale – animals start to go missing, both household pets and farm animals. Not stolen, actually disappearing, even the cows flee their usual fields to take cover in the dark forest. And then there’s the little matter of it still being light when it should be evening, or dark when it should be morning, and watches and phones not working properly. “This isn’t going to end well,” opines Adam Driver’s deputy, a statement he returns to several times as events go from curious to threatening to full-on zombie apocalypse, and the various characters we’re introduced to in the first half fight – with varying degrees of success – to survive in the second half.

However to explain the basic plot here is, to be honest, a trifle redundant. And I don’t mean that in the bad way – this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and a synopsis of the main plot really doesn’t give you much of an idea of the film with Jim’s works, his films are experiences of style and attitude, a mixture of the unusual and the mundane, the suddenly gritty and nasty with the whimsically fantastical and humorous and elements of almost dream-like sensations in places. Those of you who, like me, are long confirmed Jarmusch fans, will understand what I mean when I say I can try to describe some of the film, but really, like any Jarmusch movie, it simply has to be experienced to really get it.

The Dead Don’t Die brings together a bunch of Jarmusch’s regular collaborators, and let’s be honest, most of us welcome these actors in anything we watch – Billy Murray (with his remarkable hang-dog expressions and uncanny, almost Gene Wilder-like ability for timing and pauses), Tilda Swinton, one of the great Queens of the World in my book, here clearly having fun with her bizarre, katana-wielding funeral home director, recently arrived in this small community (when pointed out she’s rather peculiar one character simply notes “she’s Scottish”, which got a good laugh from the Edinburgh festival crowd, and no offence taken as Tilda has lived here quite a lot, so we count her as one of us and therefore fine to lampoon us).

Adam Driver’s deputy worked brilliantly alongside Bill Murray’s sheriff – with a quiet character like Murray’s Cliff the temptation could have been to have the opposite for his deputy, someone loud, or panicky. Instead Driver essays a calm, almost laid-back approach to the building horror, much like Murray’s older character, and this worked nicely in my opinion. Tom Waits prowls the woods around the town as Hermit Bob, spotting the early signs (birds migrate early to flee, ant colonies go mad, cows run to hide in the woods, then bigger clues like dead bodies erupting from graves), and providing the occasional bit of narration to the events, all delivered in that gravelly, unmistakable Tom Waits voice. Others like Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez and Danny Glover all get some nice character moments too, it’s a well-played ensemble piece.

The references to other films, both in the horror genre and in Jarmusch’s own body of work, are littered throughout the film and prove to be highly enjoyable little gems for fans, the natural world going crazily out of tilt mirrors a couple of scenes from Only Lover, for example, or Adam Driver’s character having a Star Destroyer key-chain in a hint to his Star Wars role. The increasing conceit of the characters starting to talk about being in a Jarmusch film is played well for comic effect as the film builds towards its climax, and the film isn’t shy of giving even more famous names a grisly demise (in fact it seems to relish doing so rather gleefully, and I suspect the actors enjoyed it).

It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s horror, it’s fantasy, it’s comedy. If you aren’t a Jarmusch fan then I doubt this will convert you, but for those of us who look forward to any new work from Jarmusch, this has all the Jim ingredients we love, mixed and baked nicely, while the ensemble cast are obviously enjoying playing together in a Jarmusch film. I left the cinema with a huge smile on my face, among a very busy and very happy-looking film festival audience.

EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Cymera

From 7th to 9th of June I was at the very first Cymera festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. I was chairing a triple-header with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth Powell, which turned into a very enjoyable event with the guys discussing their own work and space opera in general, as well as how they approach creating their works, from plot to characters to world building.

Richard Morgan at Cymera 01

On the first evening I saw Richard Morgan, who I haven’t seen in person for years. Some chums and I were early supporters of his work when his first book, Altered Carbon (now adapted by Netflix, with a second series on the way) came out back in the day (I still have my signed first edition).

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Richard Morgan at Cymera 06

I caught a great discussion by Samantha Shannon – I liked her Bone Season, and several of us in the bookshop have been eager to have a look at her new standalone book (it may eventually be joined by other books, she said at the event) The Priory of the Orange Tree, the only problem being it is a huge tome and if I start on that (and I do want to!) it means several others books waiting on my pile.

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Obviously I couldn’t take any of the event I was chairing, but here are Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky about to sign for readers after our panel:

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This is Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, and SJ Morden being interviewed by Andrew Lindsay at Cymera:

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Charlie Stross and Jonathan Whitelaw being interviewed by Andrew J Wilson:

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Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 03

I hadn’t read Helen Grant, Clare McFall or Rachel Burge’s books (yet), but their panel on supernatural fiction sounded pretty interesting and I had a gap in my schedule, so I decided to check it out (trying new creators is part of going to festivals, surely?), and it proved to be very intersting (and a little spooky!)

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James Oswald (and his trademark pink jacket) is best known for his bestselling crime fiction (with a supernatural element), but his first love was fantasy and he began writing with his Sir Benfro series, which he discussed here with writer, tutor and former 2000 AD editor David Bishop:

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I really liked this element of Cymera – Brave New Words. Before the events in the main theatre new writers were given a few moments to do a reading from their work, a nice way to support new talent. Here’s Justin Lee Anderson –

Cymera 2019 - Justin Lee Anderson

Den Patrick, Leo Carew and Rebecca Kuang discussing their fantasy worlds:

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I really enjoyed Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard’s talk, which took a different angle from more common Western cultural tropes. Tade’s debut novel Rosewater made my Best of the Year list for 2018 and the sequel Insurrection, out just a couple of months ago, is even better (reviewed here). I have Aliette’s books on order…

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Organiser Ann got a suprise ceremony and gift at the very end of the weekend as thank you for the whole festival. It was pretty damned amazing, especially for a first outing – I talked to a lot of writers and readers, and they all enjoyed themselves. Hats off to everyone who took part and organised it, fingers crossed it becomes an annual event.

Cymera 2019 - Ann Landmann

Death Trench

Death Trench,
Directed by Leo Scherman,
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Shaun Benson, Ted Atherton

Mixing the horror genre with the war film is not a new, and even in recent years we’ve had examples such as Overlord and Outpost, and of course anyone who reads the Hellboy comics will be familiar with mad Nazi scientists that dabble in the dark magics. Death Trench (aka Trench 11) takes a slightly different tack, being set in the final days of the First World War rather than the second. Canadian Lieutenant Berton (Sutherland), is a miner, a tunneller, a sapper who has spent the war not in the trenches but under them, the old Medieval tactic of undermining a fortified position has come back in this statics war of attrition.

After a terrifying cave-in which he barely survived, he’s enjoying some well-deserved R&R and spending time with his French girlfriend. He is none too happy when some military police come looking for him to drag him back in for another mission. Allied intelligence has gotten wind of a secret German underground complex – not bunkers amid the main lines, but miles behind the front lines. As the German lines are starting to crumble and they know it has been hastily abandoned – it isn’t a fortification, they think it is a secret chemical weapons lab. They know one of those involved is a ruthless German scientist who has been one of those developing new strains of previous chemical weapons. With the chaos of retreat there is a chance to investigate and find out what they were doing in this underground lair, and Berton’s tunneller skills are required, along with the intelligence agents and a small escort group of American Doughboys, who are none to happy with being assigned to this mission when they all know the war is coming to an end.

What they find is a secret research bunker, a complex of claustrophobic tunnels and rooms, which should have been destroyed when abandoned, but the demolition charges failed to blow. As the small team, already at loggerheads with one another, descend into the world below they don’t know that Herr Doctor Reiner (Stadlober) is leading a German team back to salvage experimental materials then destroy the complex before the Allies find it. And that’s the least of their problems – German soldiers they are used to dealing with, but some of the test subjects of those secret experiments by Reiner are still down there in the dark, waiting…

The set-up here is fairly simple: two groups of enemy soldiers that will come into contact with one another, but find there is something far, far worse, something that doesn’t care what uniform you are wearing. It may not be the most original plot, but it carries along quite well. The small budget actually works for them in having those small, closed, underground sets, which are budget-effective but also pretty damned good for generating that enclosed, trapped sense of mounting claustrophobia, even before the Bad Things start to appear, and the effects for the experimental subjects is also well-handled.

Sutherland’s war-weary tunneller and Stadlober’s ruthless scientist are the stand-outs here, and they get much of the screen time (I had the feeling Stadlober was relishing playing the seemingly urbane, civilised scientist who is actually totally amoral and determined to finish his work). It’s also interesting to see World War One used instead of the more common Second World War – while not mind-blowing this is still a decently solid addition to the horror-war genre.

Death Trench is released on DVD and digital from May 6th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,
Directed by Robert D Krzykowski,
Starring Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller

Several things drew me to this film: it went down well at its FrightFest debut (always a good sign), it features the excellent Sam Elliott, and, well, come on, really, how could I resist a film with a title like that?? Other than those things though, I knew very little about this film in advance, which is something of a rarity these days, and I really didn’t know what to expect at all – high-jinks? Satire? Crazy silliness? With that title you can see why you might suspect that sort of approach, but actually no, this is a very unusual piece of film work that ploughs it own furrow, at its own pace and with its own style, and I applaud all involved for sticking to their approach, because it delivered an absolute wee gem of a film (and naturally some quality Filmic Moustache from Elliott!).

Calvin Barr (Elliott), is an older gentleman, a World War Two veteran now living peacefully in a small town in New England. As with many of us, as the years advance he finds himself more and more thinking of the past than the present, much less the future, and while his body may sit in his favourite armchair or the bar stool of his local pub, his mind is increasingly elsewhere, thoughts drifting back to his youth, to what he had to do during the war, and also to his pre-war life, the quietly satisfying peace of his small town, falling in love with local teacher Maxine (Caitlin Fitzgerald from Masters of Sex), with Poldark heart-throb Aidan Turner playing the younger Calvin.

It’s into this present-day, quiet, fairly lonely life that agents of the US and Canadian governments intrude, asking him to take on a new mission – the legendary Bigfoot exists, and appears to have become infected with a deadly virus that it is spreading. For now it is contained in an isolated wilderness area, but if it escapes this containment the disease will spread, and they have no cure – they are looking at a possible end of civilisation-level pandemic. No others have been able to track and kill the Bigfoot, none have returned, and so this former special operations soldier, the man they sent to assassinate Hitler, is the only one they can turn to, despite his age, he is, once more, tasked with defending civilisation.

And yes, he did indeed complete that mission and kill Hitler – and no, that’s not a spoiler, given it is in the title of the film! You may well wonder how is it that he could have assassinated the Fuhrer since that clearly deviates from recorded history – so is this an alternate history reality? A time-travel paradox or similar? Nope, and I am not going to spoil it for you by explaining how they can have had Calvin kill Hitler in the 1940s but still be true to history, save to say they do come up with an explanation that works fine, allowing the film its conceit of a soldier killing Hitler without contradicting real history.

However, those two strands of the narrative – the wartime exploits of young Calvin and the present-day mission to find the Bigfoot before it can spread the virus – are not really what The Man Who Killed Hitler is about, they are just the narrative framing on which Krzykowski paints a gently-paced exploration of a man’s life, his younger self’s hopes, his older self’s regrets, and the way life can change everything you wanted, everything you planned, especially where war is concerned. “I never wanted to kill a man,” Calvin tells his brother Ed (Larry Miller), “Even if he had it coming.”

As we see more memories of the wartime mission, and the pre-war courting of Maxine contrasted with Elliott’s older Calvin we piece together his story and how the war changed everything, taking him away from the woman he wanted to marry and settle down with, how it lead to this quiet, thoughtful man having to kill and discovering he was good at it, quiet, methodical, making him a good agent even though he hates the idea of it, how it was never the same again afterwards. There’s an echo here in older Calvin of William Munny in Unforgiven, an older man carrying a lifetime of regret for past deeds, although in Calvin’s case he was battling the forces of evil, not an outlaw like Munny, but killing still takes a toll regardless, even if in a righteous cause.

It’s not hard to see Calvin as representing so many young men who answered the call from small towns in America, Canada, Britain and so many other lands, young lads who had been brought up decently, who had been taught Thou Shalt Not Kill but then were forced to do just that again and again during the war to protect the free world. Young lads who came back as men who had seen and done too much (those that got to come back, at least), changed inside, rarely talking about it but forever altered by the memories and guilt. Elliott has a way of carrying a quiet, reserved, dignified air to his characters and that works perfectly in this role (so much so I wonder if the role was written for him?) – no anguished emotional outbursts here, instead Elliott signifies the inner turmoil of Calvin through tiny expressions and body language, some great acting craft here using such little movements to express so much of the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

This is a wonderfully unusual gem of a film, a richly emotional palette of hope and regret, youth and old age, carried very much on the shoulders of Elliott’s quiet performance, unfolding a piece at a time at a satisfyingly gentle pace, slowly bringing us into the world of this reserved veteran.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot is released by Sparky Pictures on digital from April 15th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 6th.

Leprechaun Returns

Leprechaun Returns,
Directed by Steven Kostanski,
Starring Taylor Spreitler, Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Linden Porco, Mark Holton

The original 1993 Leprechaun was a fun piece of horror laced with comedy, very much in the style of this mid 80s to 90s US horror flicks (and it also boasted a pre-Friends mega-fame Jennifer Aniston). Naturally like many other 80s and 90s horror flicks it spawned a franchise with another six outings over the last couple of decades, and like similar franchises (think what happened with Freddy or Jason) it was often a law of diminishing returns. Leprechaun Returns, made for the SyFy Channel, rather wisely appears to be ignoring the many sequels and instead sees our pint-sized folkloric nasty resurrected some twenty-five years after the original movie, even boasting an appearance from Mark Holton as Ozzie from the original 1993 film (a nice touch).

A group of students have decided to set up an eco-friendly sorority house off-campus in the rural farmhouse from the first film, an off-grid house with solar power and drawing water from, yes, you guessed it, the old well where the Leprechaun was supposedly killed and banished, and has been for the last quarter of a century, everything fine. Lila (Taylor Spreitler) is the daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s character from the first film, moving in with her sorority sisters to fix the old place up. She experiences some premonition-like dreams on the way there, but she puts this down to the stress of recently caring for her terminally ill mother, and continues her college plans and moving into the house with the others, unaware that the little, green, mean, rhyming monster has been awoken from his twenty five year slumber (in a pretty gruesome but darkly funny “rebirth” scene).

Lila heard her mother’s stories, but understandably never believed her tales of some murderous leprechaun with a gold fixation and a penchant for bloody killings, and her first encounter with the leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco) she is convinced for the first few moments that she is seeing things, it’s all in her head, stress from caring for her mother in her last days mixed with those stories she never believed in, but it doesn’t take long to realise he’s very real. Her sororoity sisters and a couple of visiting boyfriends, fairly understandably, think their new friend is crazy, but not for long.

This cracks along at a fair old pace, from the set-up and introducing the new characters we get to the rebirth of the leprechaun himself pretty swiftly, which is good as that’s when the fun begins! Bad rhyming and black humour mixes with some inventive blood-letting as the leprechaun decides some killing – and finding his precious gold, of course – will help to regenerate his powers (he has some ‘performance’ issues with his first attempts after his incarceration).

Okay, you know this isn’t Shakespeare, but so too do the film-makers, and Kostanski delivers a decent mix of dark humour (including some nice touches like the leprechaun taking in the changes since he was last above ground, like mobile phones and selfies, or making fun on an electric car) with the gore and deaths (I won’t spoil them by describing any of them – sure, you can see them coming, but that’s part of the fun in this kind of flick), and ignoring the previous sequels and leading right on from events years before in the original is a good move, as are the nice touches linking the new film to its progenitor. Porco seems to be relishing the role, wicked grin through the grotesque make-up as he delivers blood and bad puns and rhymes, and there’s also a small but welcome sub-theme on gender empowerment.

This is a fun popcorn horror flick, and with Lionsgate releasing this in a double-pack with the original 1993 film this is a good Friday night double-bill slice of horror – set up the snacks and drinks and sit back and have some fun!

Crucible of the Vampire

Crucible of the Vampire,
Directed by Iain Ross-McNamee,
Starring Katie Goldfinch, Florence Cady, Neil Morrisey, Larry Rew, Babette Barat

We begin this new British horror with a flashback, in monochrome, to forest clearing where a man is stirring a large, bubbling cauldron. He is surprised by several soldiers in what looks like Civil War-era uniforms (a nod to Witchfinder General, perhaps?), the officer in charge grabbing him and accusing him of witchcraft; his dead daughter has been seen by several witnesses walking again after her burial. The cauldron, he claims is being used to create a potion which is fuelling her resurrection – the officer takes one of the soldier’s swords and cleaves the old cauldron in two, before ordering the accused man to be strung up from the nearest tree.

We move to the present day, and Isabelle (Kate Goldfinch), a young museum curator, is called into her director’s office, where he explains that renovations in a remote, rural country house have turned up one half of the cauldron glimpsed in the prologue. The museum has had the other half for some years and is understandably keen to obtain the other segment for study – in fact Isabelle is surprised that her boss is asking her to head out to the house to verify the find instead of going herself, but of course she can’t say no.

Arriving at the once-grand but now partly dilapidated country house she is met by Karl (Larry Rew), his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and their strange, pale daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). She is welcomed in, given a room to stay in, invited to dinner, all the signs of hospitality are there and yet… Yet there is a distinct feeling right from the beginning that something is simply not right here – the family (especially Scarlet), there is something unsettling about them, and there is a feeling around the house that builds unease, a sensation heightened by first hearing someone walking around at night then later seeing Scarlet prowling the dark halls at night, even following her to the bathroom and at one point sneaking into Isabelle’s room (and rather strangely showing a keen interest in the other woman’s underwear), and there is the question of a strange music which haunts her.

A visit to the local village pub builds this feeling of wrongness – a disgruntled younger man seems to be stalking her, warning her not to return to the estate or it will go badly for her. A threat? Or a warning? The family’s gardener (played by popular actor Neil Morrisey) seems friendly, although his story of the previous gardener (incidentally father to the angry young man following Isabelle) who was found with massive throat trauma and blood loss in the woods (passed off as a freak accident) again raises Isabelle’s concerns about staying in the house.

Karl seems keen for her to finish her work and verify the find; she assumes he is just after money for the artefact, but Isabelle starts to wonder if there is another, secret motive. When she finds a hidden journal entry in the library in the house, detailing a former owner’s encounter with the cauldron fragment, and his subsequent series of nocturnal visitations, visions and what sounds very much like the same mysterious music she has heard herself. It seems this 19th century owner was trying to warn future occupants of the house, but what was he warning them against, and does it have anything to do with the cauldron she is investigating?

This was a pleasure for me to watch, Iain Ross-McNamee has crafted a film which draws heavily on old-school British horror movies. Crucible draws on some classic Hammer inspiration – the creepy, old house surrounded by dark woods, the host who on the surface is welcoming but you just feel is hiding something. There are numerous other homages and references worked in here, notably a nod to Carmilla/The Vampire Lovers, and includes some nice phantasmagorical images and visions that, while this is very much a modern film, also gives it some of the airs of the 19th century Gothic novel. In a world where too many horror movies rely on sudden jump-scares or OTT gore, Crucible of the Vampire takes its time to build an increasing atmosphere of unease and a slow-burn of ever-increasing tension, laced with some beautiful cinematography and imagery, while upcoming young talent Goldfinch and Cady are especially good.

A modern horror that draws on classic, older Brit horror film traditions, while also mixing in a touch of ancient folklore and Celtic myth, there’s a lot to love here, especially for those of us still in love with Hammer.

Crucible of the Vampire is getting a limited theatrical release by Screenbound on February 1st, and will be available on DVD and on-demand services from February 4th