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

Red Kingdom Rising

Red Kingdom Rising is a very intriguing new British Indy horror from Navin Dev, and one which, I am delighted to say, avoids the far too easy route some less skilled new film-makers take in creating a horror flick and thinking sudden jumps or needless splatter or sadistic torture equals genuine horror (not that I mind a bit of splatter but too many use it or torture in horror in place of creating story or atmosphere rather than to serve it). No, what Dev has done is crafted a delightfully dark dream world of a film, inspired by Lewis Carroll (which appeals to me as Carroll is one of my favourite writers of all time).

Mary Ann (played by Emily Stride) is a troubled young woman, haunted by dreams that seem to leak out into her waking life, creating real problems for her everyday life and work, dreams that seem to be wrapped around tales of Alice in Wonderland and more specifically the figure of the Red King that her father used to read to her against her mother’s wishes. But what parts are dreams of the book, which are perhaps dreams of her father who has just passed away, and do they mean something? We begin with a quite dark, disturbing nightmare – is it childhood memories mixed up with guilt over her father’s recent death surfacing in her mind, or do these dark, blood-red dreams signify something else, some aspect of her family life of childhood that she has repressed or ignored.

Reluctantly Mary Ann decides to return to her family home and her distant mother; it’s clear she didn’t grow up in the most conventional, loving family environment. As she settles back into her old room the dream become more vivid – the sleeping (now awakening) Red King, a small girl in period costume called Alice, who, disturbingly has no real face, just a face shaped blank visage which reminded me of some of the wonderfully creepy moments from the old Sapphire and Steel show (which is a compliment). The waking world and the dark fantasy of the dream state become increasingly tangled like the roots of an old, gnarled tree, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one from the other – a moment with her rather odd mother in the kitchen seems like it may be the real world, albeit it very strange but then the mother’s behaviour is strange, but then it suddenly feels more like the dreams/nightmares are crowding into the scene – portents and symbols litter the film, both in the waking scenes and the dreamstate, and really you cannot separate either strand of the film, both are a part of Mary Ann’s damaged psyche, held together (barely) for years into early adulthood but now bleeding out into the open and forcing her to find the source and confront it.

I won’t spoil it for you by delving any further into the plot, but I will say Dev creates a very assured slice of fantasy-horror on a small budget, deftly weaving symbols and literary references into the story and treating his audience as intelligent enough to understand the symbology and the dream-state scenes without spoon-feeding them. The waking world and the dark dreamstate become increasingly hard to tell apart and in truth you shouldn’t even try, they are all part of Mary Ann’s attempt to understand the roots of the nightmare figure of the Red King that has haunted her since childhood – who is he, what does he represent? Who is the small, faceless child Alice? A guide, an ally or a mischievous spirit?  Red Kingdom Rising is a beautifully-made horror-fantasy moving through dark, dream waters that run deep, crafting genuine, disturbing horror not from shocks or OTT effects but by constantly layering up an in increasing sensation of claustophobia and building sensation of dread, of there maybe being now way out – is there a genuine source to these troubling nightmares or is Mary Ann simply mentally ill? Is there any rational way to approach dream logic to unravel the meaning? Dev has produced a confident, elegant dark fantasy of a film that engages you into a brooding atmosphere that will appeal to anyone who enjoys intelligent, elegant horror such as the early works of Del Toro.

Sadly at the moment, as is often the case for independent film-makers, getting the resources together to make a film is a real battle, but having managed to achieve that and make the film there is a whole second battle to be fought to try and get the attention of distributors to get the film widely shown. I know I often see very fine Indy films of all genres at the Edinburgh Film Festival and it can be months, sometimes years or even never before I see them get a distibution deal to be shown to the general public in cinemas. At the moment Dev is doing special screenings and the film festival circuit to try and build word of mouth and create awareness of Red Kingdom Rising, so sadly you won’t be able to see it easily right now in your local cinema, but do check the official site for news of special screenings (I’m told the excellent Kim Newman was at one recently and liked what he saw, which is a good indicator to those of us who enjoy good horror) and festival showings, because when someone makes an intelligent, atmospheric Brit horror movie like this they deserve some support. And distributors, you should be looking at this film and getting it out to audiences.

 

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog