Monday, 25 September 2017

Here’s why I won’t be reviewing films any more

This isn’t a fit of pique and I’m not upset about anything. I love writing reviews on my website and I would love to carry on writing them. It’s just that I want to do something else. I want to write something else.

When the original version of my website was launched in January 2002, the web was still in its first decade. YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another three years, Twitter a year after that. There were only four Harry Potter books. It was less than a year since Douglas Adams passed away. The BBC had no plans to revive Doctor Who.

Since then, lots of other movie review websites have come and gone.  To the best of my knowledge, no single author film site has lasted as long as mine.

Since 2002 I have written 709 reviews and posted 321 interviews. Total wordcount: 1,655,073. That’s an average of 105,000 words every year. Or one book. If I had been working in print instead of on the web, I could potentially have 18 books with my name on instead of three. Or maybe 16 books and a couple of movie scripts.

This, my friends, is why I’m regretfully packing in the film reviewing. I will be 50 next February, and while I am incredibly proud of my three published volumes, it irks me that I haven’t written more. I have several in various states of completion, not least the long gestating biography of Elsa Lanchester, which I would love to get finished in time for the 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein.

I'm also working on a massive catalogue of all 21st century British horror films (so I’m still writing reviews, but in 200 words not 4,000). I also have several non-film-related books I want to write.

What irks me even more than my lack of literary production is that, as I approach my half century, I don’t have a feature film writing credit. Ever since I was at primary school, I have written scripts. Back in 2002 I was finishing off my Masters Degree in TV Scriptwriting – but in those pre-Who days there was no market for sci-fi, fantasy or adventure.

My scriptwriting ‘career’ has been one of near misses: an episode of Urban Gothic (promptly cancelled); an unmade episode of the Captain Scarlet remake (stories about Gerry Anderson turned out to be true, though I did at least squeeze some money out of him); a version of Xtro 4 for a guy who claimed he owned the rights but didn’t; an adaptation of The Beetle which Variety claimed I had sold to Hammer (I hadn’t); and so on. The only script of mine that ever got made was Waiting for Gorgo, a 17-minute film that spent two years in post and then wasn't submitted to any genre festivals. Sigh.

I have spent 15 years analysing what does and doesn’t work in films, particularly low-budget independent British horror films. Theoretically, I should be the go-to guy for screenplays. But not once has anyone come to me and said, “Mike, I need you to write a script for me.” (Actually a couple of people did, but neither worked out and they joined the near-miss pile.)

I know some people who want to write meaningful, artistic works, or aspire to one day write the next Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t. All I’ve ever wanted to do is write some silly microbudget monster movie that people will complain about on Amazon. That’s what I love watching, that’s what I want to write, instead of writing about.

And if you’re thinking: go out there and make the films yourself. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have no desire to direct, and have neither the business skills to produce nor the technical skills to do anything else. All I do is write. I pick the right words and put them in the right order. It’s all I’ve ever done, all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been told I’m quite good at it. It’s paid the rent, in one way or another, for 22 years.

But it seems to me that what has stopped me from writing the books and screenplays I want to write is spending all my spare time (outside my writing day job at Leicester University) writing my website. While I’ve been reviewing Zombiesaurus and its ilk, I’ve not been finishing Elsa Lanchester: Bride of the Hunchback or My Big Fat Zombie Wedding.

This website will stay live, and I’ve got a handful of reviews I’ve promised people that I’ll get up over the summer, but as of now I’m not accepting any more review copies. If you care to send me a screener, I’ll certainly appreciate it and will tweet about it enthusiastically. But there will be no more reviews. Sorry.

I’m also knocking my British Horror Revival blog on the head. Hardly anyone ever looks at it anyway. I’ll keep both Twitter accounts going. I’ll also keep writing my column for Scream.

It’s been a great 15 and a half years. Coincidentally that’s exactly how long I’ve got to retirement (if I make it that far..., cough cough) so now seems a perfect time to change direction.

Finally, I want to thank absolutely everyone who has helped me: people who sent me screeners, or invited me to screenings, or agreed to interviews, or commented, or tweeted or contributed in any way. Cheers, folks!

interview: John Williams

In January 2017 I sent four questions to 100 movie legends. Composer John Williams responded in June, sending me a print-out of questions he often gets asked. I thought fair enough, at least he was kind enough to respond. Three months later, I was puzzled to receive another envelope marked 'Boston Pops', containing the same printed FAQ. Then I noticed that some of the answers were highlighted in biro - and realised that John Williams had updated his FAQ by adding my four questions! So here's my interview with the man who has received more Oscar nominations than anyone ever (except Walt Disney):

Which technological or social development during your career has changed cinema the most?
"The use of synthesizers and of layered pre-recordings in film scores is now prevalent, but I'm still writing for orchestra. Technology has had very little influence on me. However, thanks to the computerization of post-production work such as editing, it goes much more quickly now."

Which deceased film-maker or actor do you wish you could have worked with?
"Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn."

What is the one question you’re fed up with answering in interviews?
"What was it like to succeed Arthur Fiedler?"

What would you rather be asked instead?
"It depends who's asking!"

Sunday, 23 July 2017

interview: Martin Landau

In the summer of 1999, my pal Omar Kaczmarczyk invited me to Luxembourg to visit the set of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Unfortunately Martin Landau, who reprised his role of Geppetto from the first film, had wrapped when I was there but Omar kindly arrange a phoner when I got home. In 2000 I finally met Martin Landau when I was in Cannes and spotted him in a restaurant. I approached him, explained who I was and thanked him for this gracious interview. I’m posting it now in tribute to this great actor who passed away last week.

What attracted you to the role of Geppetto in the first Pinocchio film?
“To begin with? Well, it is a classic book and the Collodi book is something that I think everyone has grown up with. And I felt that the technology had finally caught up with the ability to do it as a live-action movie with a wooden actor. I’ve worked with a lot of wooden actors in my time and this was one of the better ones! But I guess I read the script and I found it charming, I found it moving, I found it sweet. I knew the Henson group as well were very gifted, and other laboratories of that kind were extant at the moment. It intrigued me. I felt there was something classical about it. We’d all grown up on the Disney cartoon which is charming but deviated more. Pepe the cricket was Jiminy Cricket and so on. This was truer and closer to the original piece and I felt it was something I wanted to do it.

“It’s a classic part and I also found it moving and sweet. Here’s a man who has avoided marriage and avoided his love. He’s a man who would never actually have a family because he’s past that. He’s run away from life. He’s spent his time talking to inanimate objects and puppets and created a life for himself that makes him comfortable. And suddenly here this strange event happens where he is thrust into fatherhood and isn’t really ready for it emotionally. This is how I looked at it. He has this love of his life who’s crazy about him that he’s ignored his entire life, which is added to the script. There’s a nice arc and a catharsis that occurs where he becomes a much rounder, fuller, better human being through this experience that takes him by surprise.”

Given that the first film was close to the book and had that closure, what did you think when you were approached about a sequel?
“Well, I said ‘Let me see the script.’ Obviously any time something works pretty well, they want to do a second one, and usually it’s the idea of doing it as opposed to doing what. The ‘what’ is very important. When they sent me the script I said this is kind of fun, because what a turn: Geppetto becoming a puppet and Pinocchio basically on the other side of the fence. But Pinocchio still misbehaving and creating the problems that cause this strange occurrence. But again the idea of a puppet coming to life is just as whimsical and fantastic as a character like Geppetto becoming a puppet.

“So I said, ‘Well, this is in keeping with it in a certain sense. And again it is a morality piece. It’s about not paying attention and being penalised forbeing remiss in life. I also found it kind of fun and cute and again it’s a switch, particularly at the end when the two of them are puppets and have to be reconstructed into human beings. But Geppetto is also kind of enjoying the experience. I just sort it was kind of whimsical and sweet.”

What did you find were the biggest differences between the two films?
“I do pictures with different directors all the time, and different cinematographers. Also though the fact that it’s a different period historically. I don’t know whether you know that or not - this is a much later time. This is 19th century and the other one I guess was 18th century. So, jokingly I say this, Genevieve Bujold’s character didn’t manage to last that hundred years! So it’s still a period piece - it’s not a modern piece - but they felt it would be truer to the Collodi piece in a way if they brought it into that century. So there were differences in wardrobe and differences in design, by and large, but not radically.

Michael Anderson is a wonderfully professional director. He did Around the World in 80 Days among other things. So it’s not like going into a black hole. There’s a solid core to this production. Of course, a first-time director I would have qualms - because it’s complicated. It’s not an easy picture, when you’re dealing with these special effects. In terms of today, you think of car crashes and explosions and fireballs. But this is a very subtle kind of thing; it has to be believable and done well. And you need a director who can handle it because it’s really character driven. Pinocchio 1 was a character-driven movie, albeit that one of the characters is a wooden puppet, but very human. And it’s a human tale. And I think that’s why they wanted to have someone who can recognise the humanity as well as the technical areas at the helm of this. You need a good skipper. So when I heard it was Michael Anderson I was very pleased.”

Had you worked with him before?
“No, I’d worked with his son on The Greatest Story Ever Told, Michael Anderson Jr, as an actor. But I knew Michael. We’d met on a number of times but I hadn’t worked with him. I’d worked with a lot of ‘classmates’: people like Hitchcock and a lot of his contemporaries.”

Did you find that the technology had advanced much since the last film?
“Clearly technology continues to grow and people are working on all kinds of things. The technology was pretty damn good in the first one. It’s probably made some positive steps since then but we’re not talking about George Lucas’ company. It’s close-ups on puppets. In the first film, that puppet had a lot of expression, a lot of subtlety, a lot of sweetness and wickedness, and all the things necessary. So I think maybe things are a little better in that area, but it was pretty good the first time around is what I’m saying.”

Have you advanced the character in the second film from what he was in the first?
“Well, I think he’s essentially the same guy. I don’t want to do anything radical that would disturb people; he is the same guy. It’s a hundred years later but he’s still very much the same guy. The script allows for different areas to emerge in terms of where he’s ‘coming from’. You see different sides of Geppetto but it’s the same guy allowing other colours to come into his behaviour.”

How did you find working in Luxembourg?
“I liked it. I found it very clean and clear and pleasant. It’s not very big and if you’re in a long train I think the front of it is in one country and the back of it’s in another. But I found the people friendly. I found that the crews at the studio were very professional, and the studio itself. I think Gertrude Stein said ‘a sound stage is a sound stage is a sound stage’: you don’t know where you are until you walk outside and see a street with foreign signs.

“I worked at Pinewood for years on Space: 1999 and I felt very much at home there. Having done as many films as I have and shot in as many countries as I have, I’m quite adaptable. Because when you’re inside a sound stage you really don’t know where you are. You’re in that world. It’s only when you go back the hotel that you realise other languages are being spoken.”

Space: 1999 is quite topical because the Moon gets blown out of orbit in about four weeks.
“I know. A year from now it will be a period piece!”

When you made that series, 1999 was way in the future.
“Well, it was 25 years ahead exactly.”

As the date approaches, what are your thoughts on the series now?
“It was a valiant effort. It’s not easy to do that kind of a show on a weekly basis, and I also think that our special effects at the time were really amazing. If you look back they still hold up very well. Star Trek was a wonderful series but their effects were certainly much more primitive than ours. People like Brian Johnston wound up working with Lucas on projects. Our unit at Bray was really doing miraculous stuff and tying it into the main stuff we were doing at Pinewood, and I felt it was quite seamless and quite well done. Some of the stories of course were not as dramatic or little lacking, but some of them were excellent little movies. Again, I don’t know any series that’s consistent and wonderful all the time, but I think it was a valiant effort to do something on a different level than had been done before.

“When I say ‘hadn’t been done before’, the concept of the Moon being blown out of orbit and not being able to affect your trajectory and being at the whims of fate. In other words these 300 people from different countries not actually in control of their destiny, and able to stay alive because of hydroponics but not being able to procreate until they found a planet - this was the concept initially - that was compatible with our needs so we could continue the human race. And that idea is a good idea.

“Everybody’s a critic and people compared us to Star Trek. We didn’t intend to be Star Trek. It was a differently textured show, and there were episodes that I would proudly screen for anybody. I just think it was time well spent and we did some very, very interesting work at that point in time. Again, it’s 25 years ago. If you look at those shows they don’t look as if they were made 25 years ago; they look as if they were made yesterday. We don’t suffer from the styles of the day.

“Last night I hosted a screening of North By Northwest at a theatre here because Warner Brothers is re-releasing the movie with brand new sound and a restored print. It’s impeccable and beautiful. I did a question and answer and I did some anecdotes on the stage for about an hour last night before the screening. Well, that picture holds up. The cars are old and the suits are ‘50s suits and the hairdos too, and the ties are skinny, so you’re reminded continually of the ‘50s when you watch it. Whereas in Space: 1999, you’re not. It’s as new and futuristic today as it was then.”

The fans often cite a big difference between the two seasons of Space: 1999.
“Definitely, because Freddie Freiburger came in and as I say, everyone’s a critic and everyone was second-guessing the show. I liked the first season better. I felt if it could have evolved from that point it would have become a much, much, much richer and better show. I felt there were things in the second season that were inconsistent and sometimes the characters were made inconsistent because they did things unilaterally that they wouldn’t have done - to accommodate the storyline as opposed to the storyline accommodating the characters.”

A lot of old shows have been revived. Do you think there’s room for Space: 2099?
“Well, I’m not in charge of that. I’m sure there’s always room for something that’s well done. There’s a nucleus of followers of that show who would be interested in that show and those people could introduce their kids to the show because of the nostalgic aspect to it. But it takes a certain amount of money. Space certainly didn’t have the success that Star Trek had - though Star Trek was a failure when it was first on the air.

“Because I was doing Mission: Impossible at the same studio at the same time, and we were very successful and they were a struggling show. They only did three seasons and we did many more. And I was offered Spock before Lenny and passed on it to do Mission, so I understand, I’ve been close to that. I knew Gene Roddenberry because Gene Roddenberry’s office was right next to Bruce Gellar’s office at Desilu Studios which ultimately became Paramount. So I sort of grew up there: we were on stages 7 and 8 and they were on 9 and 10. Those numbers have changed because of Paramount’s acquisition of Desilu, but we were side by side. We had the two stages next to the Star Trek stages, and Lenny’s dressing room was in the same building as mine. I knew Bill Shatner and all of them very well; we’d see each other all the time in the commissary and visit each other’s sets and the like.

“So I’m aware of the Star Trek phenomenon but it took a long time to happen, remember. It wasn't overnight. And the show barely stayed on the air from season to season. It was on the basis of a lot of letters and very zealous fanatical fans - that’s a little redundant, but... - that kept that show on the air. It just scraped by, whereas we were riding high. It was a wonderful concept and well done, but when it comes to special effects it couldn't hold a candle to Space.”

When both shows were prepping for their first seasons, what attracted you to Rollin Hand over Spock?
“Well, I’m an actor who likes a wide range of stuff, and to play a lobotomy, which is what Spock was to me, someone without emotion, did not interest me. It’s not why I became an actor. I could see the fact that it could be very successful: pointy ears, and a guy who knows all the answers in the 1960s is like a pothead of a certain kind, and I felt that would be very successful. Whereas on Mission I played everything from Adolf Hitler to Martin Boorman, to myself younger, older, every accent. I was a one-man rep company actually, and that interested me. To this day I would not want to do Spock if you handed it to me and offered to pay me a million dollars. I wouldn’t do it. The character does not interest me. My answering machine has more expression.”

What did you think of the Mission: Impossible movie?
“I thought it had nothing to do with the series. The series is a team of people who get in and get out, having accomplished what they did without anyone ever knowing they were there. In the movie, the team is killed early in the picture, the Phelps character is turned into a double agent, and everyone knows Tom Cruise is there because he’s announcing it all the time. It’s a different idea. Tom basically played the same character I played, but the idea was not to let them know we were infiltrating. When you’re a movie star I guess you have to let people know you’re there.”

One of my favourite films is 12:01. What do you remember of that?
“I remember Jonathan Silverman and Jack Sholder, I remember working on it. Jack Sholder: I had done his first picture ever, a picture called Alone in the Dark, which was one of New Line’s very first pictures. I got to know Bob Shea and all of those people. I just remember that I had a good time. Helen Slater and Jonathan. I also did an HBO movie with the same director called By Dawn’s Early Light, in which I played the President. Kind of a catastrophic event, with Washington blown up by atomic bombs.”

Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to Pinocchio.
“I think it’s going to be quite charming, and I know Michael Anderson is very happy with it. I’m going into a dubbing studio for the next little bit to post-synch a bunch of stuff with the puppet. It’s the first time I’ve done that with a puppet, but as I say I’m not generally thought of as a wooden actor.”

RIP Martin Landau 1928-2017

Friday, 30 June 2017

Zombiesaurus

Director: Milko Davis
Writer: Michele Pacitto
Producers: Michele Pacitto, Andy Haman
Cast: Andy Haman, Mia Klosterman, Cooper Elliott
Country: USA
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD (101 Films)

When I first encountered Zombiesaurus it was just a listing on Amazon. Just a title. But what a title. Boy, that’s how you sell a movie. I knew I had to see it.

A little later, the sleeve image appeared. It was obviously misleading and hyperbolic in the grand tradition of B-movie marketing. After staring at the design, wondering why it rang a bell, I realised that 101 Films had used exactly the same stock library dinosaur illustration that 88 Films (who are presumably either 13 places higher or lower on some sort of arbitrary scale) had already used for Steve Lawson’s Killersaurus.

This week I was in Morrisons, browsing the video shelf as is my wont, and there it was. Zombiesaurus. Five quid. Into the basket it went. It had only been released that very day. Bought it on Monday, watched it on Tuesday, started the review on Wednesday, finished it on Thursday, posted it on Friday and I’ll stop now before people mistake me for Craig David.

I’m not going to lie to you. Zombiesaurus is not a good movie. However you measure it, this is pretty terrible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Genuinely entertaining. Not in a snide, so-bad-it’s-good, mocking way. Regular readers know that I would never approach a film like that. No, Zombiesaurus is considerably entertaining in a bizarre and strangely fascinating way, and frankly it’s not without its occasional moment of genuine cinematic cleverness and quality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty much exactly as bad as you expect, just not in the way that you expect.

I think the people who made this can be proud of what they have created. I’m just not sure they know what it is they have actually created. Because it certainly beats the hell out of me.

The core of the story is pretty simple and straightforward, and original too. There’s a bunch of people being chased around a sort of military/scientific/industrial building by a fiercesome, hungry dinosaur. The unique schtick is that this dino can’t be killed because it’s already dead (hence the green, glowing eyes). Furthermore, anyone unlucky enough to become dino-chow returns from the dead as a zombie, also with the green, glowing eyes. That’s pretty much the second half of the film right there.

I have no problems with the second half. Well, I do in fact have a whole bunch of problems, but we’ll come to them in due course. But let’s start with the first half, which really makes very little sense.

We start with a man we will come to know as Dr Wojick Borge (Cooper Elliott) – bearded and bald with a rather alarming cauliflower ear – who is making a shady deal in a car park in the middle of the night, for some reason, with some guy. The guy gives him a box containing some hypodermic needles, each of which has some sort of green, glowing liquid inside it (green and glowing is a recurring motif in this motion picture). Borge accepts this consignment and has, for no apparent reason, a living dinosaur under a tarpaulin on a trailer.

Wait, what?

Never mind because one year later Dr Borge, resplendent in lab coat and bow tie, is teaching a (small) class at a university. Let’s just listen in to some of the lecture he delivers to a dozen or so bored-looking students:

“Why not break the chain? The chain that causes the expiration of life. Why not expand on Darwin’s theory of evolution – and push further? I stand before you today, representing and educating the idea of progressing life. I want to eliminate the thought that forces us to believe that life must end. Remove the gauge.”

Anyone? Anyone got any ideas? Any suggestions what on Earth any of this is supposed to mean? No? Oh well. At least it’s not just me.

It’s not exactly clear what subject Borge is teaching, but it involves a dead cat at the front of the lecture theatre. He injects this with some of the green, glowing stuff and it comes back to life, to the shock and horror of the students. For this misbehaviour, Borge is chewed out by the Dean (Mary Jo Mauro) and given the boot. He will return to our story later. But for now, he’s crossing the road, getting hit by a car and swearing vengeance on humanity.

Cut to a shot of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, with the curious caption ‘0515 HRS ZULU TIME’. I looked this up and apparently ‘Zulu Time’ is what the US Navy calls the time at the Prime Meridian, so they have a single reference for their ships around the globe who don’t have to wonder whether a given time is ten o’clock in New York or ten o’clock in San Francisco. Except there’s already a perfectly good name for this. It’s called Greenwich Mean Time. Silly Yanks.

Ten minutes in, we finally get the opening titles, which introduce us to five quasi-military types in a Humvee, driving through the desert accompanied by a CGI helicopter. There’s Duque (professional bodybuilder Andy Haman), the muscle mountain leader who someone later says looks exactly like Duke Nukem. There’s Spivey (Shale Le Page), the cocky, slightly crazy one. There’s Stick (Ruselis Aumeen Perry) the thankfully not wisecracking or hiphop-loving black one, Cuchilla (UFC fighter Raquel ‘Rocky’ Pennington) the taciturn, sword-wielding, kick-ass female one and Swat (Juan Gonzalez) the other one. The titles provide the lead actors’ names and tell us ‘Screenplay by Michele Pacitto’ but in defiance of tradition don’t mention either the producer(s) or the director(s).

A bizarre caption now appears – on screen and read aloud – which I think is worth reproducing in full (complete with incorrect apostrophe):

During a great time of peril on Earth, a deranged scientist emerged and took control of a secret military bunker deep in the desert…
Evil would unleash it’s monstrous secrets to destroy Earth…
Five commandos set out to eliminate the threat…
Out of the five commandos…
Two survived…
Out of the two…
One told the story…

What? I mean, what? I mean, right at the start: “a great time of peril” – do you mean a time of great peril? Has this been translated from Japanese?

Now we meet yet another set of characters: four young people in a car, also driving across the desert. Roxanne (Nicole Goeke) is a bimbo, her boyfriend Gunnar (Ben Johnson, who has played Superman in several Justice League fan films) is a jock. In the back seat are Sadie (Mia Klosterman) and her boyfriend Cameron (Adam Singer) who are kind of stoner gamer nerds.

Despite the somewhat simplistic descriptions that I’m using here, one thing the movie has going for it is characterisation. There are nine main characters and they are all different and distinctive. They all speak in different ways and act in different ways and have enough depth to them that they feel like individual, semi-real people, not just off-the-peg cardboard cut-outs.

Except for Swat. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about him. But that’s okay because – fuck spoilers – he’s the first to get killed.

As the kids’ car is overtaken by the commandos’ Hummer, Spivey waves a gun at them and throws something horrible onto their windscreen. And another shot of  that asteroid assures us that there’s just three minutes to impact. And whaddaya know, exactly three minutes later – in both real and movie time – it does indeed hit Earth. Causing untold devastation and destruction and…

Nah, it causes a bright, large, quiet explosion in the background which the kids in the car don’t even notice. It also causes an electromagnetic pulse which takes out their phones – and the car (which is not, as far as I can tell, electric). But evidently it doesn’t affect the Humvee and its occupants who overtook them three and a half minutes ago.

Somewhere up ahead the Hummer has stopped, the commandos get out, the CGI helicopter lands in the background and promptly explodes. Spivey’s rant at this (“Are you fucking kidding me?”) contrasts with his oppos’ insouciance in one of those genuinely clever and enjoyable moments which I referenced above.

Leaving their vehicle, the four youngsters trudge off across the desert (Sadie has an R2-D2 rucksack!) until they come across a CGI bunker in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a security fence. The EMP has evidently cut off the electricity to the fence. Apparently it has also cut off the barbed wire around the top since they climb over with nary a scratch. The door is slightly open, so in they go.

There’s then a considerable amount of creeping around, intercut with shots of the five commandos also creeping around, plus shots of someone (it’s Dr Borge – remember him?) wearing a hooded cowl and a mask that makes him look like the missing link between Bane and Palpatine. For some reason he’s listening to an old vinyl record.

There are canisters of something, labelled in Arabic. There’s a digital countdown timer with 47 minutes still to go. A green gas emerges from some pipes, which prompts Cameron’s helpful instruction “Back up. Don’t inhale that gas.” After which he and his three companions avoid its toxic effects by putting their hands over their mouths.

Elsewhere, poor old characterless Swat, who has somehow become detached from his team, omits to put his hand over his mouth when similar gas pumps out at him – and becomes our first actual zombie. Meanwhile, Duque and co find an old scrapbook, which Stick identifies as “Arabic codex pentagram (something)”, which contains drawings of dinosaurs and some convenient newspaper cuttings:

“Infamous for accidentally releasing toxins into the Colorado River during a stint at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Wojik Borge’s government career ended when he was terminated by the US Department of Energy for mental instability and obsessive claims of conspiracy.”

Spivey identifies this as “more of that Illuminati mumbo-jumbo” while Stick avers “I’ve seen some messed-up stuff but this is off the chain.” And the viewer just comments: “What?”

“Borge says,” continues Stick, reading with ease some tiny handwriting in a dark room, “that he has calculated the impending hit location, approximate date and time of impact, but government authorities have repeatedly warned the public to avoid his apocalyptic workshops and events as opportunistic fear-mongering.”

What’s really great here – and it’s only just occurred to me – is that this is an infodump scene which, because of the obtusely unfathomable script, completely fails to dump any actual info.

After Gunnar shoots zombie Swat, the two groups meet up. Then a hologram of a coughing Borge appears to tell them that a meteorite has hit, just as he predicted, and “every major electrical grid in North America will be down for months. There will be mass hysteria and the tartans will be released.”

Listening to that again he possibly says ‘toxins’, but given how little sense this all makes, it might well be ‘tartans’. He also assures them that “the Jurassic monster will be reanimated and America will destroy itself.” Throughout the past ten minutes or so we have had recurrent cut-aways to a large metal crate suspended on a chain being slowly lowered to the floor. Now the hatch on the front of the crate slowly opens. A pair of green, glowing eyes can be seen within. Out emerges… zombiesaurus!

And you know what, I’m going to give some serious props here. This film may have cost about ten bucks and change, it may have a script written by someone who had smoked way too much weed, it may feature large amounts of over-acting so ripe that it just falls off the tree… but the dino effects are pretty damn good. Not Jurassic Park good obviously, but better than SyFy movie crap. It’s a therapod, about eight feet high at the hip, portrayed by an effective mix of puppetry and CGI. Much of the time it seems to be a full-body costume (inhabited by Jason Hagan). Honestly, it’s way better than you expect in something like this. There are nice, Harryhausen-esque movements: the tilt of the head, the swing of the tail. I really dug the dino.

But not as much as I dug what happens next, which is that Duque, cowering behind oil drums with the others, decides to stand up, put down his big-ass gun and walk right up to the beast. He then proceeds to punch it repeatedly around the head until it falls unmoving to the ground, spilling a handful of teeth.

This is my absolute favourite thing I’ve seen in a film this year! It’s only a few seconds but it is awesome in its audaciousness, reminiscent of the gag when Mongo lays out a horse with one punch in Blazing Saddles. Honestly, it’s moments like this which elevate a film like this from crap to ‘Holy crap!’

That’s at the 40-minute mark. It’s followed by 26 minutes of the characters trying to escape the building while avoiding (or not) the not-as-dead-as-they-thought dinosaur and their zombified friends. Highlights include a touching moment between Roxie and zombie Gunnar, an unexpected gunshot fatality in the gents’ toilets, Stick sliding between the dino’s legs then shooting it up the arse, and the astoundingly bloody and protracted destruction of zombie Duque. The pace is well maintained while the editing and camera-work in the fight sequences are genuinely well-handled.

Eventually our three survivors burst out of the building in a (different?) Humvee, just as the countdown timer reaches zero, unleashing a chain reaction of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads across the cities of the world. There is a final incomprehensible, rambling monologue from Dr Borge which I can’t be bothered to transcribe here. Hopefully by now I have whetted your appetite enough that you are determined to view this surreal masterpiece for itself. I want to leave you a few unspoiled moments.

The final scene is these three driving across the desert, only now they all have zombie eyes and voices. Except that they have black and white contact lenses, not green glowing eyes. Now I’m really confused. The whole film lasts 69 minutes before the end credits appear under an extremely autotuned song, starting with a shot of each character that freezes and turns into a comic-book image.

But wait, just as you’re expecting ten minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits, there’s an extra scene of Stick being interviewed by TV host Cara O’Nightly (Julie Crisante) about a book he wrote about what we have just seen. Or something. Even in and of itself, this little coda makes no sense. She says, “I’m speaking of the fact that the journals had been stolen in the aftermath and were sold for profit.” He replies, “Cara, no-one really knows the full story. I am a soldier and I can say this with confidence: everything written in my bestselling thriller Z Rex – available in hardcover and paperback – is true.”

Seriously: what?

And that is indeed followed by nearly seven minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits. Director Milko Davis is credited with ‘story’ (and with ‘miniatures’) but not, so far as I can tell, with directing. A bizarre snafu on the Inaccurate Movie Database means that his name is listed there as ‘Milko Davis Main Director’! Davis has two previous features to his credit: Raiders of the Damned and Tsnambee: The Wrath Cometh.

As per Stick’s book referenced in the epilogue, before release this film was variously titled Z/Rex: The Jurassic Dead and also Z-Rex: Jurassic Apocalypse. But fair play to 101 Films, their new title is both more commercial and just plain better. Zombiesaurus. Love it. Filmed in Colorado in February 2016, the movie had a local premiere screening in April 2017, then this 101 Films disc on the other side of the Atlantic seems to be its first actual commercial release. It is, incidentally, an utterly vanilla DVD without even a trailer or chapter selection.

So let’s cut to the chase here: why does Zombiesaurus work as a movie, despite all expectations (and a fair bit of evidence) to the contrary? First, although it’s not a comedy or spoof it certainly doesn’t take itself seriously. Second, although it doesn’t take itself seriously, one can see that cast and crew took the making of it seriously.

But mostly I think it’s that the film has – more by accident than design, I suspect – found a perfect balance between on the one hand unpretentious, well-made, lightweight scifi-horror action and on the other a batshit insane scenario/context. What the hell is all that about the meteorite and its strangely selective EMP? Why does the helicopter explode? What are all the oil-drum canisters and why are they labelled in Arabic? In what sense does any of this take place in a “time of great evil” (or even a “great time of evil”)? Why do the survivors have different scary eyes to everyone else? What’s all that stuff about Stick writing a book? Why does Dr Borge reanimate a dead cat in front of his students? What is the Arabic Codex Pentagram (something)? What happens when the tartans are released? And above all, where the hell has that dinosaur come from?

I really, really don’t understand the story of this film. I understand the bit in the middle, the bulk of the second half when the dinosaur and zombies are chasing them – that’s cool. But I honestly don’t know what bigger story the film-makers were trying to tell. And I really honestly do have to wonder whether they do either. What were they trying to make? What do they think they’ve made? What have they actually made? I don’t know the answers to those three questions but I’m pretty sure they’re all different.

I get sent a lot of films for free, and pick up others cheap on eBay or in charity shops. Only occasionally do I buy a brand new film on DVD, and when I do the question to be asked is: do I want my money back? Or did I get good value? In the case of Zombiesaurus I can state with certainty that I got way more than five pounds’ worth of entertainment. Just the literary enjoyment of spending two evenings writing this review has been worth a fiver.

Somehow, in some way, Zombiesaurus transcends simple dichotomous concepts of good/bad or sense/nonsense. It's an extraordinary, amazing film. Should you buy it and watch it? Hell yeah.

MJS rating: A-

Thursday, 29 June 2017

interview: Warren Dudley

In June 2017, Warren Dudley kindly answered some questions about his film Cage.

What are the practical pros and cons of shooting a film with one actor on one set?
"I have to say the best thing about working in one location and with one actor on screen is that you can shoot the whole movie in order. You NEVER get to do this usually. It makes telling the story so much easier because you can see it happening right in front of you. The downside I suppose is that you can all get a bit stir crazy after ten 12-hour days in a damp warehouse with just a cage in it -  so you need to really get on with your crew... this was put to the test a few times!"

I’m assuming you wrote this with Lucy-Jane Quinlan in mind. What did she bring to the role and the film? 
"I worked with Lucy on The Cutting Room and thought she was massively talented... and almost as importantly a right laugh. I didn’t audition anyone else for the role which probably goes against all the rules a bit but it just seemed right. Luckily for me her performance was incredible. To bring so much emotion to the part whilst also pulling off an immaculate US accent is quite an achievement. In short - Lucy-Jane Quinlan should be famous and it confuses me as to why she isn’t yet."

What did you learn on The Cutting Room that you were able to use when making Cage?
"Write to your budget. The budgets on both films were similar (about £20K) but with TCR we had multiple locations and a big cast so it gets spread a bit thin. Saying that I am still really proud of it – it still gets some nice reviews around the internet. With Cage I wanted to put all the money on screen. So between Lucas (DOP), Lucy, the talented crew and myself I think we succeeded in making something that looks like it has a bigger budget.

"One Amazon viewer, attempting to be rude, said – ‘If this is all that Hollywood can come up with we’re in trouble’... I took this as a massive compliment! Little did they know it was shot in rainy Newhaven in an old warehouse."

There are two endings on the DVD. Why did you decide on the ending you chose? (I will spoiler-protect your answer!)
"Lucas and I talked and debated for hours on which ending to use and went with the one we did just because we both felt the film may lose some of its impact if you suddenly introduced lots of other characters at the end. I think of all the people who have mentioned the endings it’s about 50/50 so I still don’t know if I made the right decision!"

What aspect of the film are you most proud of? What would you change if you could?
"I like to think that it stands up as a legitimate piece of film-making and not a well-meaning low budget effort. The twist at the start of the third act is something I am pleased with but has really split the audience – some thinking it’s a stroke of genius others informing me that it’s incredibly offensive... often in not such polite terms. I think it’s the former obviously!

"What would I change? I think if I could I would have gone for a metal cage. Once again, we toyed with it for ages but decided that the wood would be so much more beautiful on film... and it is. A lot of people (yourself included) have mentioned that she could have tried to escape with a bit more vigour so in hindsight I would have added a couple of scenes early on with Gracie attacking the cage..."

What are you working on now? 
"I wrote a screenplay called The Bromley Boys which was made last year and stars Alan Davies and Martine McCutcheon. It’s about a young lad in the early '70s who supports the world’s worst football team. I’ve seen the film and it’s amazing – I really hope the footballing public agrees. I think they are hoping for a cinema release late in the year... very exciting.

"Personally, my next one will be another low budget horror called Prankz starring Betsy-Blue English – a film about a pair of YouTube pranksters who get in to all sorts of horror film trouble. We start filming in late August."

website: www.sixty6media.co.uk

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Cage

Director: Warren Dudley
Writer: Warren Dudley
Producer: Warren Dudley
Cast: Lucy-Jane Quinlan, Patrick Bergin, Jake Unsworth
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD
Website: www.cage-movie.com

Cage is not the first British horror film to have a single on-screen actor. For accuracy’s sake, it’s worth noting that there was Cam Girl: The Movie and Lady of the Dark: Genesis of the Serpent Vampire. However, they were both Philip Gardiner joints. Despite Cam Girl being an early, atypically not completely terrible effort, neither is what you could call good. Or adequate.

Warren Dudley’s Cage on the other hand, starring Lucy-Jane Quinlan, is pretty damn brilliant. An impulse buy in Morrisons, where it is currently on sale for a princely three quid, why wouldn’t I take a chance on this? The boy is at his drama club, the wife is at her mother’s, I have a couple of hours to myself. Hell yeah, let’s pick up a bargain-priced new British horror about which I know little more than that I plugged the Amazon release on Twitter and added it to my master list recently.

The premise is simple. Gracie Blake is a 27-year-old in Seattle, earning a crust as a chat-line girl. It’s 2001, before the technology existed for cam girls to be a thing (even YouTube was still a few years away). Back in those days, it was all done over the telephone. Or so I’m told.

Unwisely, Gracie agrees to meet a client named Peter (voice of Patrick Bergin). She knows she shouldn’t, but he offers her a lot of money. When she wakes up, she’s in, well, a cage. Stout wooden two-by-fours. Whole thing about ten by ten by ten feet so room to stand up and walk about a bit. Five-digit combination lock on the door. Chain on her ankle. There’s a camp bed, a bucket and a week’s worth of food, water and bog roll. Plus Gracie’s bag, containing her cellphone.

The reason this needs to be set 16 years ago is because it enables Gracie to talk with Peter, and other folk, but she has no other communication (except texting). If she had a smartphone, she could pinpoint her location, she could email, she could take photos, all sorts of plot-inconvenient convenience. Plus: dumbphones – and I speak as the proud owner of a phone that cost me £2.99 from Tesco – have batteries that last for ever. I charge my phone about once a month.

Other film-makers would do well to notice how this benefits the plot. Perhaps we’ll start to see a rash of horror films set in the early noughties, recent enough to not worry too much about clothes, cars and hairstyles but just before the personal communication event horizon when everyone suddenly decided they had to be in constant contact with everyone else all the time.

Except me.

Sheeple.

Any road, Gracie is a prisoner. The cage is inside some sort of warehouse and her only clue to the location is the occasional sound of an aeroplane, so she’s somewhere quite near an airport. But there are a lot of airports in the US. Is she even still in Seattle?

She receives occasional phone calls from Peter (number withheld of course) who warns her not to call the police. She also sends and receives calls from her mum (voice of Sharon Drain) and her boyfriend Eddy (voice of Jake Unsworth: Eden Lodge, The Awakening). The former she has to lie to, because explaining her situation would mean explaining how she earns money by talking dirty to men whacking themselves off. The latter knows about her income stream so she can tell him. He does call the police, but Gracie counts as a ‘missing person’, and then only after 48 hours. People go missing in America all the time. It’s not a priority. Gracie, who is on some sort of medication, also has a young daughter from a previous relationship, currently in foster care.

After the initial ineffective screaming and yelling, she becomes resigned to her fate. Peter tells her he’s flying around the country and he will visit her soon, before her supplies run out. We never really find out anything about Peter, and that’s a strength of the film. Bergin plays him as a calm, rational, organised man. No creepy voice, no bouts of anger. He won’t say why he’s locked Gracie up but he assures her it’s not sexual. The fact that he’s not an obvious nutter makes him far more scary and disturbing than he might have been if he was frothing at the mouth.

Things take a turn for the worse when Gracie’s father (voice of Andy Costello) has to go into hospital. At this point she does call the cops, but then wakes up to find her food, water and phone outside the cage as a punishment.

And then, an hour into this eighty-minute feature, as Act Two turns into Act Three, there is the most audacious plot twist I have encountered for a very, very long time. A real ‘shout at the screen’ game changer that will leave your jaw on the floor. I’m not even going to give you a hint what it is. Some other reviewers have, which I think is unfair.

The film’s ending, which obviously I’m not going to spoil for you, is commendably ambiguous. The disc also includes an ‘alternate ending’ which doesn’t contradict the existing one but puts an entire new spin on the whole story, a final narrative jab in the guts that works brilliantly as a coda to the main film. (I recommend avoiding the movie’s IMDB page before watching as that gives a clue about what you’ll see.)

Cage is very good indeed, thanks to a fine script and adroit direction by Mr Dudley and an absolute belter of a performance by Ms Quinlan. Warren Dudley’s first feature was The Cutting Room which, entirely coincidentally, I watched last week. And it’s a measure of the difference between these two films that, when I checked his filmography and spotted that title, I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it. It is a thoroughly generic and forgettable found footage, and it’s genericity and forgettableness were literally all I could remember. Fortunately, I wrote a capsule review (for the next book) so could read what my week-ago self thought.

It has three students – one played by the busy Lucy-Jane Q – making a documentary about cyber-bullying for their A-level media studies. They talk to the father and ex-boyfriend of a local missing girl and then somehow end up in an abandoned army barracks where a masked psycho spends the final acting chasing them up and down dark corridors. The film’s only notable moment is the final reveal of the killer’s identity which is well-handled (albeit completely obvious).

I guess The Cutting Room is the sort of movie that a young film-maker has to get out of their system before progressing to better things. Rest assured that Cage is definitely better things. Obviously the budget has been kept very, very low. One location. One costume. One actor. Patrick Bergin’s a name but it doesn’t cost much to get even a name actor into an audio studio near their house for a day. When actors play a ‘phone voice’, sometimes they can even literally do the role over the phone.

Despite the constraints of the set and minimalist cast, Dudley never lets the film feel static or repetitive. He uses the geometry of the cage and its shadows to create impressive effects, including a stand-out spinning shot where the bars behind Quinlan whizz past like a zoetrope.

Of Lucy-Jane Quinlan, the first thing to note is that for an actor to take on a role like this, alone on screen for 80 minutes, takes extraordinary confidence and courage. LJQ steps up to the bat magnificently, imbuing Gracie with real humanity and with a range of credible emotions from determination to despair and all points inbetween. I first encountered Quinlan when I watched and reviewed Weaverfish. I see that my comment was “Quinlan gives a particularly fine performance, balancing Charlotte on a fine line between vulnerability and resilience.” So (a) I’m slightly proud to have spotted this talent early and seen my critical assessment confirmed with Cage, and (b) I think we’ll see a lot more of this actress.

Quinlan has an extensive IMDB page already, with lots of short films, some of them fantasy/scifi/horror. She is in mega-anthology 60 Seconds to Die (but then, who isn’t?) and she has an ‘additional voices’ credit for Anthony Woodley’s virus-on-a-plane feature The Carrier. We’ll see her soon in the remake of Unhinged and in Warren Dudley-scripted football comedy The Bromley Boys. She is also attached to Kindred, an upcoming horror feature from David Bryant (Dead Wood) alongside Jane Asher and Mark ‘cast MJ Simpson if he’s unavailable’ Benton.

A quick aside on the old Inaccurate Movie Database folks. First, it’s clear that Warren Dudley has really, really pissed off someone because the User Reviews page for Cage has a series of one-star reviews, mostly by people who have never reviewed anything else, and most of them with suspiciously similar style, language and tone. I surmise that Dudley has made an enemy of someone whose childish idea of revenge is to troll his film with bad reviews. In terms of user rating, Cage is 4.0 from 149 votes while The Cutting Room is 3.9 from 310 votes, which just shows that such things are arbitrary and not reflective of actual quality. Apparently a couple of months ago the IMDB nerks managed to delete Cage from the system entirely, which hasn’t helped matters, wiping out early positive votes from festival audiences. Good grief.

More to the point, at time of writing, the IMDB lists the current state of Cage (which played a festival in Toronto in November 2016 and is currently on sale in UK supermarkets, remember) as ‘post-production’. Meanwhile on Patrick Bergin’s page, When the Devil Rides Out is also listed as ‘post-production’ while Grindhouse 2wo is apparently ‘completed’ – despite neither of them existing outside the fevered imagination of Richard Driscoll. Bergin has been in a lot of stuff over the years (including Driscoll’s magnum opus Eldorado) but to me he will always be Victor in the early 1990s David Wickes version of Frankenstein.

Cinematography and editing are credited to Lucas Tucknott, who should take significant credit for his contribution to the film’s success. His other genre gigs include Cruel Summer, kid-friendly cryptozoology flick Young Hunters: The Beast of Bevendean and unreleased horror oddity 301 Troop: Arawn Rising (which the IMDB confidently describes as ‘announced’ even though it was at least partly shot back in 2013). Also important is the make-up job which convinces us that Gracie has spent two weeks stuck in one place without washing. Full marks to Sophie Brown (Blood Moon, World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen, The Carrier) and Ruby Lonsdale (Carnivore: Werewolf of London) for that.

If I’m going to pick a hole with Cage (because no film is perfect) it seems a little unlikely that Gracie doesn’t put more effort into attempting to escape. The cage is solid (not ‘flimsy’ as that IMDB troll would have us believe) but nevertheless it is wooden, and wood can be chipped. If I was her I would have been at one of the bars with a fork, picking away. But to be fair, she’s in a bad place mentally, not helped by missing her meds. Who can say what any of us would really do in such a situation? We can only say what we would like to think we would do.

Shot in November 2015, Cage was released on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms in April 2017 and came out on DVD the following month. There was a one-off screening (with director and star Q&A) in Seaford (East Sussex, apparently) in March 2017 to raise funds for a local theatre.

A gripping, clever horror-thriller with a bravura central performance, Cage is a fine film that deserves more attention than it has received. Get yourself down to Morrisons or Asda (or Amazon) and grab yourself a copy now.

MJS rating: A-

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grave Tales

Director: Don Fearney
Writers: John Hamilton, Mike Murphy
Producer: Don Fearney
Cast: Brian Murphy, Edward de Souza, Damien Thomas
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: DVD

“This British, feature-length, anthology horror film is the first one of its kind in over twenty years” says the DVD blurb of this exercise in cinematic nostalgia, which obviously isn’t true. Shot in 2011, copyrighted 2012, released (sort of) in 2013, this was preceded (albeit not by much admittedly) by Bordello Death Tales, Nazi Zombie Death Tales and Little Deaths. Even if Don Fearney wasn’t aware of those movies, and assuming that he had no knowledge of the work of Jason Impey, Kemal Yildirim or Tom Rutter (not many folk do, to be fair) he has still contrived to pretend that Cradle of Fear doesn’t exist.

What this tells us is that this is a film made by – and for – people whose knowledge of British horror movies kind of peters out after To the Devil a Daughter. Which is fair enough, I suppose. Know your audience and all that. But it does contrive to make Grave Tales a curiously anachronistic film of very limited appeal.

There are four stories, plus a linking tale in which a young woman (Heather Darcy: Till Sunset) exploring a graveyard meets an aged gravedigger (or is he? da-da-dum!) played by the somehow still living legend that is George Roper, the one and only Brian Murphy. Murphy was 79 when he made this and he shows no sign of slowing down. His actual horror credits are pretty much limited to a small role in The Devils and, um, this… although the feature film version of Man About the House was a Hammer production of course (and remains one of the most enjoyable sitcom spin-off features of the 1970s). More recently Murphy was in the brilliant, long-gestating Room 36, which shares several cast and crew with this film. He is a national institution and we love him and why isn’t he at least an OBE?

Anyway, the gravedigger tells the young woman the stories behind four nearby graves. The first of these, 'One Man’s Meat', stars the sadly missed Frank Scantori (Witchcraft X, Kill Keith, May I Kill U?, Room 36) at his oleaginous best. He plays Norman Elliot, an alcoholic butcher who accidentally murders a homeless girl (Johanna Stanton: Nightmare Box). Riven with guilt, he disposes of the body in the obvious way, putting down to the booze the vampire fangs which seem to appear briefly in the girl’s mouth as he chops her up.

A family who bought this meat – who seem to be his only ever customers – come back for more, but they have become infected and want something a little rarer. Miles Gallant (who does a one-man show about Stan Laurel), Darby Hawker (Stardust, Room 36) and Chloe Ann Withey play the family, and Clifford Allison (Landis’ Burke and Hare) is a doctor from a local institution who comes looking for the girl, an escaped patient who believed she was a vampire.

There is simply too much crammed into these 20 minutes for the story to work, despite Frank’s sterling performance. It would have been better without the doctor, who delivers no useful info and basically just bleats on the same “Have you seen her?” schtick for five minutes. But Frank is great because Frank was Frank, and the neck wound after the first cleaver chop is an impressive prosthetic.

The second story (and they’re none of them particularly memorable so it’s a good job I made notes) is called 'Callistro’s Mirror'. Damien Thomas (Twins of Evil, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) stars as Mr Baxter, a collector who spots a mirror in an antique shop, instantly identifying it as having once belonged to a notable sorcerer, four centuries earlier. It’s not for sale so he kills the shopkeeper (Edward de Souza: The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Vampire) and sneaks back to his flat where he discovers – quelle surprise – that he can see something in the mirror.

What he sees is a bald guy (Ric Truman) being pawed by two topless lovelies (Katie Langford and blogger/poet Jade Moira Lawrence). Baxter is pulled into the mirror and, after some tussle, the previous incumbent escapes, taking over Baxter’s body, leaving the poor bloke to face centuries of torment at the hands of the two young ladies (who are vampires, apparently, possibly because there were some spare teeth left over from the first story).

It’s another pretty obvious and basic story, which is at least in keeping with the Amicus tradition towards which Grave Tales aspires. There’s some irrelevant stuff about Baxter’s late wife, and Don Fearney himself plays a tramp outside the shop. The highlight of this story – and arguably the whole film – is Kiki Kendrick (Sanitarium, The Stomach) having a ball as Baxter’s blousy landlady. It’s a rare moment of enjoyable characterisation in a film which is for the most part pedestrian and prosaic. More Kiki Kendrick in stuff, that’s what we need.

Tale number three, 'The Hand', is slightly shorter than the others, giving the whole film a running time of 75 minutes. Porn actor Mark Sloan (who also played a barman in the first story) is Stanton, a prisoner on the run who has legged it while handcuffed to another jailbird, Duggan (composer/pianist Marc Forde). Peter Irving (moderator of the Kiss of the Vampire DVD commentary) is a nightwatchman – though it’s not clear what he’s actually nightwatching – among whose equipment Stanton finds an axe. And when the handcuffs prove impermeable to the axe blade, an alternative solution presents itself.

Stanton heads off through some woods and hides in a small lake, for some reason. Four police officers (one of whom looks about 12) spot him from a summer house, but he goes underwater and doesn’t come up. Subsequent investigation by a police frogman finds Stanton’s drowned body chained to Duggan’s hand. Is it gripping that underwater branch, or just wedged? (It’s gripping the branch. There’s nothing subtle here.) For the record, the coppers are played by Marcus Taylor, Russell Barnett (Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit?), Adrian Annis  (Dark Rage, Survivors, My Guardian Angel) and Josh Parris; the frogman is Ross Ericson (writer of The Unknown Soldier, a play which was a  big hit at Edinburgh in 2016).

The final segment is 'Dead Kittens', starring British horror favourite Marysia Kay (who gets an ‘And…’ in the opening credits). She plays Vicky, who is (without explanation) selected to be the new lead singer of pop trio the Dead Kittens. Louise Houghton (Wilby Park) and Nieve Hearity (whose name is spelled wrong in the credits) are the other two. Celia Carron (who sidelines as a Pilates coach) is record producer Sadie and Aubrey Wakeling (apparently now in the States making things like Jurassic Wars(?)) is Mr Varley, the talent scout – or manager or something – who finds Vicky.

After a quick bash in the recording studio, they all head off to Varley’s massive country house to shoot a pop video, directed by none other than dear old Norman J Warren, helmer of Satan’s Slave, Prey etc. Rhiannon Ellison Sayer (who had a bit part in Burton’s Sweeney Todd) is Varley’s posh daughter, who tries to warn Vicky that something is up. The video involves Vicky lying down on a stone altar while everyone else pretends to be Satanists. Wait a minute…

A coda suggests it was all a plot to sell more records because dead pop stars shift units. Which doesn’t make sense because Vicky hasn’t had a chance to become a pop star, has she? Marysia turns in her usual reliable performance but, like most of the actors in this movie, she doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with. Scripter John Hamilton is one of the Satanists, along with George Hilton (Beyond the Rave, Cockneys vs Zombies), Moyb Ullah and Tom Levin.

One of the strengths of 21st century British horror is its diversity and the scope for every sort of movie, however unlikely. So I suppose it’s only fair that there should be a movie which tries to recreate the days of old. But that’s the film’s biggest problem: it is a recreation. It’s not an old 1970s Amicus anthology, just a pastiche of one. Technically it’s competent, though the sound recording (also credited to John Hamilton) isn’t consistently brilliant. But there’s nothing special here, nothing celebratory, nothing to impress (unless you’re enough of an oldtime Brit horror fanboy to just get wet at the thought of a new Edward de Souza movie – there are people like that). Grave Tales is the cinematic equivalent of a pub band playing 1960s covers, featuring a guy who used to be in Herman’s Hermits.

Don Fearney, the motive force behind this film (as well as producing and directing, he is also credited as production designer) is a name in Hammer fan circles. He has organised numerous fan events and also produced several DVD documentaries, often narrated by de Souza. The script is jointly credited to Mike Murphy (editor of the excellent Dark Terrors Hammer fanzine back in the 1990s) and John Hamilton, author of such hugely impressive horror history tomes as Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Films of Tony Tenser and X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film 1951-1970. Murphy wrote the first tale, Hamilton wrote the other three plus the framing story.

Except that’s not strictly true, is it?

'One Man’s Meat', 'Callistro’s Mirror' and 'The Hand' all started life as Van Helsing’s Terror Tales, the back-up comic strip that ran in most issues of House of Hammer magazine in the 1970s, a fact which goes completely unacknowledged in the credits of Grave Tales. Which is odd, because the very specific audience this is aimed at – ageing Hammer fanboys – are precisely the sort of people likely to own old copies of House of Hammer, and quite possibly have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the magazine’s content. If you don’t have any old copies of House of Hammer lying around, fear not. You can find digitised versions of all 30 issues on archive.org. 'One Man’s Meat', written and drawn by Martin Asbury, was published in issue 5. 'Malvoisin’s Mirror', written by Chris Lowder, art by Brian Lewis, was in issue 6. 'The Hand of Fate', written by Parkhouse, art by Goudenzi, was in issue 22. The settings and other details are different, but the basic stories are identical.

Whatever else one might say about the strengths or shortcomings of this film, for Fearney, Murphy and Hamilton (all of whom I believe to be honest gents) to simply lift someone else’s creative work wholesale and base their own on it without any hint of acknowledgement is reprehensible.

Martin Asbury drew strips for TV Century 21, Countdown, Look-In and TV Comic, and took over Garth in the Daily Mirror after Frank Bellamy died in 1976, drawing and occasionally writing that strip until it ended in 1997 (the current version, running since 2012, is a reprint of Asbury’s strips). Nowadays he is one of the UK’s top storyboarders with credits that include Bonds, Potters and Batmans. I wonder whether he has any idea that his IMDB page should also list a ‘story by’ credit on this obscure indie flick.

Chris Lowder wrote for Action, Tornado, Starlord and 2000AD under various pseudonyms. He also edited several anthologies of dark fiction and even wrote some Sexton Blake stories. Nowadays he’s a freelance editor/writer/bibliographer and seems happy pottering about in amateur theatricals and running his local parish council. Again, I wonder if he knows anything about this film and his uncredited contribution to it.

Parkhouse is Steve Parkhouse, another prolific name in British comics with extensive credits in 2000AD and Doctor Who Comic, for whom he wrote Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctor adventures. He has also worked for Marvel and, slightly bizarrely, wrote a graphic novel about the Sex Pistols. It’s probably safe to assume he is likewise in the dark about one of his old stories having been adapted for film.

Given the minuscule budget of Grave Tales and the nature of British comics – which, historically, paid writers and artists a flat fee with no rights and fuck you – I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of the above three writers have been ripped off and should have been recompensed. Who knows who owns the rights to the original comic-strip content from House of Hammer? If indeed anyone does. But it does seem very remiss not to acknowledge the source material and the original writers. (Slightly complicating matters, there was a short-lived horror anthology comic called Grave Tales in the early 1990s, published by Hamilton Comics. However that was Bruce Hamilton, not John, and has no connection with this film.)

Among those whose contributions do get acknowledged on screen are editor Jim Groom (director of Revenge of Billy the Kid, Room 36 and various Hammer DVD extras), composer Scott Benzie (Room 36, Soul Searcher, Ten Dead Men, Fear Eats the Seoul) and DP Jon Nash. Make-up is credited to Gemma Sutton, now one of the top wedding make-up artists in the UK, with ‘special FX make-up’ by Ben Brown. Richard Dudley and Don Fearney are listed as executive producers in the credit block but only Dudley gets name-checked on screen.

Grave Tales was first screened at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington just before Halloween 2010 and had an official festival premiere at Southend-on-Sea the following April. At both those screenings, there was a clip of Christopher Lee (as himself) included in 'Dead Kittens' but this was removed before the film appeared on (uncertificated) DVD.

In June 2013 Grave Tales was made available from Hemlock Books, where I was employed as a monthly blogger. I bought a copy with part of my pay-cheque but have only just got round to watching it.

It’s just a curio really, of principal interest for its ageing cast list (and a nice role for the late Mr Scantori), but loses a point for not crediting Asbury, Lowder, Parkhouse and House of Hammer.

MJS rating: B-