Saturday, 16 March 2019

READY FOR MY CLOSE UP (2019)



Directed by: Jason Read, Starring: Lynn Lowry, Charlotte Mounter, George Sweeney, Dawn Perllman, Gary Shail. Comedy horror, UK 2019, 30mins.

A Robo Films & Misty Moon Production. US premiere at Wastelands Cinema in April 2019.

Low-budget auteur Jason Read follows up his 2018 short RIPPER TOUR with a biting satirical portrayal of the devastating psychological effects of Care in the Community. No, not really – it’s actually a South London SUNSET BOULEVARD with cult genre legend Lynn Lowry playing a fading psychopathic ‘B’ movie version of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond.

Penned by Michael Haberfelner from Lynn Lowry’s concept, it’s a tongue in cheek love letter to the magic of the ‘B’ movies, and a vehicle for Lowry to bring to life various fictitious movie roles once played by her character ’Megs Topplethwaite’.

Relying on home care nurses, Megs has a penchant for takeaway food, and a rather deadly taste in home delivery men. There’s more than just skeletons in her closet, as Charlotte Mounter’s fake nurse and memorabilia thief ‘Becca’ is about to find out...

Lynn Lowry is wonderfully effervescent as she effortlessly weaves between pathos and camp, breaking the fourth wall with her addresses straight to camera and meta in-jokes about using digital instead of celluloid.  Lowry’s clearly having a ball as the gloved strangler from ‘Gloves of the Strangler’, and the other colourful incarnations she inhabits with such delicious aplomb. Director Read even throws in some gleefully pastiche ‘clips’ from her supposed ‘B’ movies for added flavour. The served up smorgasbord of delivery men include writer Haberfelner himself (afforded a nasty throat attack from Ninja assassin ‘Crystal’). Then there’s a visit from George (‘The Sweeney’) Sweeney, and a pizza delivered by QUADROPHENIA’S ‘Spider’, Gary Shail.

Considering the ludicrously ambitious 2-day shooting schedule, not to mention (but I will anyway) the incredibly modest crowd funded budget (£4k), director Jason Read, producer Stuart Morris, and the entire cast and crew somehow manage to deliver up a tastily ripe, ribald treat with their affectionate tale of mid-terrace terror.       

Paul Worts

Monday, 4 March 2019

POSSUM (2018)



Directed by: Matthew Holness, Starring: Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong. Psychological horror, UK 2018, 82mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD by Bulldog Film Distribution on 4th March 2019.  
 
Matthew Holness’ first feature is based on his short story originally written for an anthology themed around Freud’s essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (trans.‘The Uncanny’). It’s therefore a far cry from Holness’s British horror parody television series ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place’.

Receiving its English premiere at FrightFest 2018, it’s a stark, bleak, nightmarish portrayal of a man haunted by past traumas, and his despairing attempts to unburden himself of his emotional baggage. Returning to his grim, semi-condemned Norfolk childhood home, disgraced former children’s puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) clutches a brown holdall which contains ‘Possum’, a hideous marionette with tendril spider legs and a ghostly doll’s head, borne from a nursery rhymed creation drawn by Philip. Plagued by nightmares where an animated ‘Possum’ crawls towards him, Philip makes several attempts to discard the puppet, without success. He also has his creepy dishevelled stepfather Maurice (Alun Armstrong) alternating between offering him sweets and rollups and taunting him about the disappearance of a 14-year old schoolboy. There’s also a room in the old house Philip seems more than a little reluctant to enter...

An expressionistic suburban nightmare, dripping in a haunting 70’s atmosphere of dread, with jolting moments of disturbing imagery. It’s narrative light, with Pinter-like minimalist dialogue, but The Radiophonic Workshop’s evocative soundtrack permeates every frame saturating the film with a melancholic menace that beautifully conveys the somnambulist nature of Phillips waking nightmares.

The Norfolk locations are brilliantly bleak and haunting. The open marshlands conveying the spirit of M.R. James as Phillip runs through muddied landscapes pursued by the invisible ghosts of his haunted past.

Sean Harris is superb as the broken damaged ex-puppeteer, and Alun Armstrong is grotesquely effective as the stepfather from hell. 

Filmed on Kodak 35mm, the blackened grimy gloom of the burnt childhood home seemingly drips with inherent sadness and past terror, and the stark loneliness of the open landscapes offers bleak comfort as images of black balloons float in the sky.

The abrupt and literal denouement jolts the viewer out of the seductive fever dream state and feels out of step with the meticulous Danse Macabre so carefully orchestrated to this point. But, equally, they’d surely be groans of complaint were proceedings left unresolved.

Early David Lynch, Jan ┼ávankmajer and even Pete Walker could be considered as influences in this disturbingly assured first feature. It will be interesting to see just what Holness pulls out of the bag next.   

Extras: None on the DVD/Digital HD release, but the Blu-ray has an audio commentary with director Matthew Holness and cinematographer Kit Fraser, an artwork gallery and two early short films.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017)



Directed by: Bill Watterson, Starring: Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Nick Thune, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak. Comedy Horror, US 2017, 81mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and also premiering on Arrow Video Channel on Prime Video Channels 28th January 2019. 

Charlie Kaufman meets Jim Henson courtesy of Doctor Who (except it would be churlish to complain about the cardboard sets) in director/co-producer Bill Watterson’s indie debut feature.

Returning from an out of town trip, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) opens the apartment door to find that her frustrated artist boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has constructed a cardboard fort in their living room – and he’s trapped inside it. Boasting TARDIS-like dimensions, the fort contains an extensive labyrinth maze of corridors laden with cardboard booby traps and a Minotaur. Annie, together with Dave’s best buddy, gamer nerd Gordon (Adam Busch), and a disparate collection of characters including a reality-TV film crew and a couple of Flemish tourists, ignore Dave’s warnings and enter the maze in a quest to rescue the architect.



This quirky art house film fest favourite is an a(MAZE)ing feat of production design ingenuity. And whilst it’s largely populated with paper-thin characters delivering lines which occasionally fall flat(packed)(sorry), there’s still much to admire in the visual rendering of Dave’s cardboard prison. Employing a variety of old-school non-CGI techniques such as stop-motion, puppetry and in-camera forced perspective trickery, Dave’s maze boasts an impressive array of threats and creative conceits. Stop-motion origami creatures flutter around Dave and his ragtag band of liberators, whilst RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-like traps are triggered by giggling anthropomorphic tripwires. (The resulting carnage is amusingly conveyed by red lace and silly squirty string). Whilst sliding down a drain pipe to avoid pursuit by the Minotaur, Dave’s party are briefly transformed into hand puppets before having to duck and cover to avoid paper blow darts.

Dave (Nick Thune) delivers a couple of half-hearted attempts to rationalise what’s really going on here (a desire to actually complete something for once?) but frankly neither this nor Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears seem overly concerned to fully explain, if indeed they actually know themselves, and it’s left up to individual viewer interpretation to assemble anything remotely solid.

Meera Rohit Kumbhani displays an unfathomable degree of patience as Dave’s long-suffering girlfriend Annie, whilst Adam Busch’s geeky Gordon gets to wear a t-shirt boasting an increasingly less pixelated version of himself on the chest as he completes each level of challenge in the labyrinth. (So at least someone gets a character arc). I did admire James Urbaniak’s unblinkingly focused mercenary TV director Harry, grinding out interviews and character reactions whilst seemingly oblivious to the surrealist paper and card nightmare enfolding around him.

Ultimately, DAVE MADE A MAZE is a film which can be enjoyed with a wry appreciative smile. The odd laugh out loud moment pokes through the holes in the script, and the level of artistry and detail in the construction of the sets could offer repeat viewings a degree of reward making this cardboard fantasy worth recycling.

Extras: A veritable Amazon-like delivery warehouse of features has been assembled for this release. The audio commentary with writer/director Bill Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears together with the making-of documentary chronicle the extraordinary lengths the designers and crew went to in order to get the film realised. A couple of deleted and alternate scenes are included along with ‘The Worst Fundraising Pitch Video Ever’ (in the end it wasn’t crowd funded). There’s storyboard and concept galleries, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices and for the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Anton Bitel.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts



This Review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Monday, 17 December 2018

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)



Directed by: Fred Walton, Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley. Horror, US 1979, 97mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, download and on-demand on 17th December 2018 by Second Sight Films.  

Restaged and expanded to feature length from his original short film THE SITTER, director Fred Walton (APRIL FOOL’S DAY) helmed arguably the definitive retelling of the babysitter-in-peril urban legend with one of the most suspenseful, taunt, minimalist and ruthlessly efficient opening thirds in the sub-genre. Vulnerable wide-eyed babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), alone in a large suburban house with her two young charges (supposedly) fast asleep upstairs recovering from heavy colds, starts to receive increasingly disturbing phone calls whereby the caller repeatedly enquires: “Have you checked the children?”

It goes somewhat against my nature not to tip-toe around potentially spoilerific territory, even though 39 years have passed since 1979’s non-iPhone mobile world. Can first-time viewers nowadays fully appreciate the palpable frisson of fear generated in cinemas on its initial release or on subsequent VHS home-viewings when the origin of the landline telephone calls - the chillingly simple deus ex machina – is revealed?  Clearly the distributors have abandoned any pretence to hide the twist as it’s detailed in the pre-release blurb! 

True story: back in the early 80’s, (when I was 13 years old), I somehow persuaded my form teacher to allow me to screen the film for my classmates under the dubious auspices of ‘media studies’. We got as far as the conclusion of the opening act, at which point the girls screamed so loudly the screening was terminated with immediate effect (heh heh heh...)

Unfortunately, after a gripping tight opening third, the proceeding middle segment (set seven years later) feels loose and saggy in comparison. It’s certainly not without interest mind you - but inevitably it’s the filler sandwiched between the belting opening and the final third where director Walton (presumably) felt obliged to pull a visual rabbit out of the hat and stages a sleight-of-hand set piece which succeeds in being both audacious and implausibly corny all at once.

Brit actor Tony Beckley, who sadly died shortly after the film premiered, portrays the aforementioned stalker/caller, Curt Duncan, an English merchant seaman, newly arrived in the US, who instead of embarking on the usual touristy sightseeing decides instead to randomly murder two children in their beds with his bare hands and scare the crap out of a college student. Captured literally red-handed (in a very brief but disturbingly graphic flashback) Curt Duncan is incarcerated in a state mental institution. Unfortunately, it’s one with “less than perfect security” it so happens, perhaps it’s one with a similar level of security as the Smith's Grove Sanitarium as featured a year earlier in a rather successful indie horror film which also featured babysitters in-peril...

Glimpsed only in silhouette in the opening third, director Walton and co-writer Steve Feke then present Duncan front and centre as he struggles to cope with life on the seedy downtown streets. Attempting to chat up Colleen Dewhurst’s barfly character only results in a beating by a fellow patron whilst the barman, (played by future ‘Michael Myers’ Dick Warlock no less) watches nervously on. It’s a testament to Tony Beckley’s performance that despite the previous atrocities he has committed, the disarmingly exposed vulnerability he brings to the character fleshes out a role that could so easily have been limited to mindless one-dimensional bogeyman. When former cop now turned private investigator John Clifford (the reliably superb Charles Durning) hunts for Duncan along the rows of beds at the hostel he has sought refuge, the scene is played as a role reversal with the stalker becoming the stalked as the terrified killer tries to evade not capture and re-incarceration but termination.

Having built up this uneasy disquietingly picture of a man who has undergone “rather forceful” therapy - which we are told included 38 sessions of electric shock treatment before his escape - the final segment requires Tony Beckley’s damaged, untethered character to once more take up the mantle of the ‘boo’ provider. This shift in tone and focus feels inconsistent and incongruous with what has gone before it and appears to have been shoehorned into achieving a slightly ill-fitting circular arc for Carol Kane’s now married with children character.

Watching the film again now it’s not hard to see the influence it has exerted on the genre, Wes Craven’s SCREAM(1996) being the obvious example with Drew Barrymore’s deadly horror trivia phone quiz. The score by Dana Kaproff pulls out all the stops, or rather strings to squeeze and enhance every sinew of suspense (key beats reminded me of the THX sound effect crescendo!) The use of optical zoom free-frame as jump scare hasn’t aged well however. 

This limited edition release also includes Walton’s 1993 made-for-TV sequel WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK. Following a similar three act structure, the opening third finds another young babysitter, Jill Schoelen (THE STEPFATHER, 1987), being terrorised by an unwelcome visitor to the front door claiming his car has broken down and asking to come inside and ring the vehicle recovery company. It’s altogether a slicker production, not as effective in the tension stakes, but it boasts a unique (and equally implausible) denouement, enhancing the original’s final bow concept, and returning Carol Kane gets to kick some ass teaching self-defence as a crisis centre counsellor now who is the only one to believe Jill Schoelen’s character. The original short feature THE SITTER is also included which is a fascinating watch to see just how close Walton stuck to the original concept when turning it into the opening of the feature. It also contains this hilarious time-capsule criticism of the babysitter: “You’re so straight, you go to a private school, you wear a bra...” 

The limited edition package also includes a 40-page booklet, original soundtrack CD, poster and reversible sleeve. There are yet more goodies in the form of interviews with director Fred Walton, Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff.

I would have given this release more than 3-stars were it not for the grain levels in the brand new scanned and restored HD transfer for WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. Whilst the sequel and the original short both boast excellent visual presentations, I found the almost constant gauze-like veil of grain masking the clearly excellent picture behind it at times distracting and, for this reviewers fussy old eyes at least, it lessened my enjoyment of a film that I championed as a young teen. 
   
*** (out of 5*)
Paul Worts
This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.