Thursday 24 October 2019

HARPOON (2019)

Directed by: Rob Grant. Starring: Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra, Christopher Gray. Horror, Canada 2019, 82mins, Cert 18.

“If he dies, is he edible?”

Director Rob Grant steers his dark-humoured nautical indie reworking of Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962) through some claustrophobic choppy (and bloody) waters. 

Rich short-tempered brat Richard (Christopher Gray), convinced by a text exchange that his slacker best friend Jonah (Munro Chambers) has slept with his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra), bursts into the film, and Jonah’s apartment, and proceeds to pulverise Jonah into a bloodied pulp. Luckily for Jonah, referee Sasha arrives in the nick of time to call a halt to the proceedings. Explaining the texts were really about buying Richard’s surprise birthday present (a spear-gun, the subject of a running gag where it’s constantly referred to as a harpoon), Richard tries to make amends by taking his friends out on his yacht for a day-trip on the open seas.

But this is an ill-fated love triangle which couldn’t be any more ill-fated if they’d sailed straight into the Bermuda Triangle. An omnipresent narrator (Brett Gelman, ‘Stranger Things’, ‘Fleabag’) drily fills us in on the morally questionable back-stories of our three protagonists. The camera peers down from on high in judgement before focusing in on a makeshift ‘SOS’ sign and a blood trail on the deck of ‘The Naughty Buoy’.

Given its UK premiere at this year’s Arrow FrightFest, this crowd pleasing three-(deck)-hander wrings every salty drop of tension from its modest premise. Although neither Richard, Jonah nor Sasha are remotely likeable, it’s a testament to the cast and filmmakers that their respective fates still manage to maintain our morbid curiosity.
Kudos to director Grant and co-scripter Mike Kovac on their gag reflexing riff on survival strategies to stave off dehydration, and the constantly shifting character arcs which refresh the narrative whenever the story threatens to run-aground.

HARPOON (“It’s a spear gun!”) briskly and efficiently navigates its way through its seafaring tall tale of dysfunctional friendships turned septic with a commendable degree of aplomb. It may not land huge breaking waves on the genre’s shores but it certainly generates entertaining ripples on the surface. 

Paul Worts

***(OUT OF 5*)

This review was first published by FrightFest.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

FRIGHT (1971)

Directed by: Peter Collinson. Starring: Susan George, Ian Bannen, Honor Blackman, Horror, UK 1971, 87mins, Cert 18.

‘How do you spell that word “psychotic” sir?’ 
“You might have to spell it M.U.R.D.E.R., murder if you don’t get someone over there quickly!”

Who’d want to be a babysitter in a horror film? 7 years before a Captain Kirk mask would become the iconic face of a babysitter-stalking bogeyman, and 8 years before Carol Kane would be invited to go upstairs and check the children, doe-eyed Susan George assumed the mantle of the vulnerable teenage babysitter in Peter Collinson’s very British proto quasi-slasher. (A pertinent follow up question therefore might be: who’d want to be Susan George in 1971 given she went straight from this to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS...?)

On the anniversary of her divorce from psychotic (check spelling) ex-husband Brian (Ian Bannen), Helen Lloyd (Honor Blackman) and new hubby Jim (George Cole) decide to go into town for a celebratory prawn cocktail at a mock Tudor pub. Needing someone to take care of 3 year-old son Tara - played by the director’s real life son – (who should have got himself a better agent after this), and with their usual nanny unavailable, (too busy making her husband’s supper apparently) – instead along comes cute blonde college student Amanda (Susan George) arriving at the creepy isolated old gothic mansion. Unfortunately, Helen’s deranged ex-husband (and biological father to her child) has escaped from a nearby mental institution and is making a beeline for an unwelcome family reunion...    

Director Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING), together with writer Tudor Gates (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, TWINS OF EVIL) map out a basic template of tropes for the babysitter in peril sub-genre which, whether coincidentally or not, have been imitated, refined and regurgitated ad infinitum ever since.

Accompanied by an unsettlingly ominous song entitled ‘Ladybird’, our scantily-clad college babe Amanda (Susan George) walks through the sprawling overgrown grounds of the Lloyd’s country house stalked by the camera as it peers through the spiked gates and railings. Collinson and veteran cinematographer Ian Wilson carefully frame her behind bars at every opportune moment, whether through these gates, through the bars of the child’s crib or the bars of the stair banisters – foreshadowing her impending entrapment. A grandfather clock’s reflective pendulum is also deployed as a ticking reminder of fate (for both main protagonists). There’s also a nice little additional wink of foreshadowing in the discarded child’s doll with the slash on the right cheek discarded in the kitchen.

Once he’s got our babysitter alone in the creepy house, Collinson wastes little time in deploying the gamut of spooky stock sound-effects: creaking doors, dripping taps, rotating washing-lines (ok maybe that one’s not standard). Then there’s the face at the window, the unseen passing silhouette outside, but strangely enough the family cat is not enlisted to provide a fake jump scare (too soon?) As Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wasn’t in the public domain back in 1971, Amanda watches PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES on the TV to calm her nerves. (Given scripter Gates’ credits, perhaps he wanted a change from vampires?)

After necking back some sherry, Amanda immediately brews a cup of tea, which made me feel a tad queasy if I’m honest. Not as queasy however as I felt when Dennis Waterman’s charisma-bypass of a boyfriend pitches up as the red-herring intruder wearing an implausible cardigan and suffering from a severe case of blue balls syndrome as Amanda isn’t putting out. (Can’t possibly see why she wouldn’t wish to lose her virginity to such a suave suitor courting her with such enticingly come hitherto compliments such as: “"I reckon you got a lovely pair of Bristols!".)      

Whilst the basic suspenseful set-up is workable, the film begins to lose its way and falls down once psychotic (check spelling) Brian shows up, at which point it’s all over the place. Contriving to gain the trust of Amanda by conveniently showing up as a concerned neighbour (really?) just as she’s taken delivery of a blood battered boyfriend (reminding me of how Betsy Palmer’s Mrs Voorhees initially ingratiates herself with final-girl Alice Hardy in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)), the hitherto threat of the unseen stalker is somewhat dissipated by Ian Bannen’s countenance. To be fair he makes a half-decent stab (no pun intended) at it until he starts to call Amanda by the name of his ex-wife.

What built up tension remains is then further diluted by Collinson cutting back to the excruciatingly naff scenes at the pub where an overwrought Honor Blackman and an underwhelmed George Cole dance groovily to mutual career-lows. Their ‘fun’ is soon cut short however  thanks to their psychiatrist dinner companion, Dr Cordell (John Gregson) who is treating Blackman’s nutty ex-husband. Firstly he tries (unconvincingly) to reassure that strangler Brian is safely incarcerated in the mental institute, and then, upon checking, discovers he’s actually escaped,but not to worry there’s absolutely no way the mad ex would think about heading to the house. (Dr Loomis he certainly isn’t).

Meanwhile, back at the house where psychotic (enough of that joke now) Ian Bannen’s Brian is pretending to massage the supposedly stopped heart of Amanda’s boyfriend, events are about to get decidedly and uncomfortably nasty when our babysitter wants to check on her little charge upstairs. What follows is a troubling scene in which Susan George’s character is sexually assaulted (partially off-screen) in the child’s bedroom. Thankfully, although highly unlikely, youngster Tara appears to sleep right through undisturbed as Amanda’s piercing scream heralds her violation. 

However, Tara (Tara Collinson) is not spared further potentially disturbing scenes, notably where a large shard of glass is held to the child’s neck. Although the child was the son of the director, and actress Susan George had carefully crafted a rapport with Tara prior to filming, these must surely have been questionable choices even so, and they certainly elicit sharp intakes of breath when viewed today. 

The final third disintegrates into a frankly laughable siege scenario involving the most inept police marksman ever portrayed on screen, and some dreadful dialogue such as: “What about the gas gun?, “Well it’s easy enough to lob one in but it just might hit the kid”. Time has also not been kind to the sight of ‘Trigger’ from TV’s ‘Only Fools and Horses’ as a moustached police constable. At least the George Cole and Dennis Waterman ‘Minder’ association is limited to Cole stepping over the bloody corpse of his future co-star. Cole for the most part under-eggs his ostrich-in-the-sand husband role, whilst, on the other hand, Honor Blackman over-eggs to the level of omelette with her ‘terrible secret’ nervous ticks right from the get go. When Amanda asks her: “Is there anything I ought to know Mrs Lloyd...?” I half expected her to suffer an aneurysm from over-acting.

Susan George is of course poutingly gorgeous as the screaming-at-hanging-laundry babysitter-in-peril, although what attracted her to what rapidly descends into an increasingly lurid sexist piece of exploitation (beyond loyalty to a director who helped kick-start her career) will remain a mystery. Actually, I may have answered my own question there.

Whilst it lacks any sort of body count, overt gore, or even actual scares, Collinson’s unique mise en scène fashioned a modest visually arresting fore-runner for better known and more celebrated directors to hone the urban legend of the escaped killer and the vulnerable home alone teenage babysitter blueprint.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.