Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…
We Brits have always been a little contemptuous of low budget filmmaking, spending our time littering the review sections of Amazon with one-star diatribes peppered with the usual embarrassing clichés like “I could have done it better myself.” Perhaps the lack of availability is to blame, because when you look back at the formative years of the post-SOV generation, much of the good stuff simply never made it to our shores.
Prior to his two recent creature features, Mark Polonia’s films hadn’t gained a UK release, depriving us of Splatter Farm (1987) and many more, while essential nineties shot-on-video fare like J.R Bookwalter’s The Sandman (1995) and Polymorph (1996) were ignored by British distros. Meanwhile, those that DID make it over here got lumped onto the Film 2000 roster. While this presented an opportunity to see these movies, they were shorn of the special features that helped you really understand the challenges of low budget filmmaking, and develop your love for the poverty row production line; David P. Barton’s Dead & Rotting (2002) and Danny Draven’s Hell Asylum (2002) being the most notable casualties, robbed of a wealth of Tempe-crafted tidbits.
There are dozens more I could add to this, but end result has been the conditioning of our cinematic expectations. Tastes have narrowed, the breadth of what we watch has shrunk, and the end result is a gaping hole in the education and collections of many a movie lover, with anything shot for chump change shrugged off as amateur hour.
However, there is some light at the end of this narrow-minded tunnel. Two of the UK’s most prolific genre filmmakers are experiencing a purple patch of creativity, which sees both their new DVDs heading into stores this week, and thanks to the backing of two good distributors you won’t be able to miss them.
“When there’s no more room in Hell…” boasts the cheeky tagline to Steve Lawson’s HELLRISER, sitting atop some of the most eye-catching artwork to adorn a DTV’er this year. When your budget is as low as Lawson’s, a little bit of plundering is acceptable – after all, it was in the Book of Revelation a long time before Dawn of the Dead (1978)! Such pilferage has long been the backbone to frugal filmmaking, and Lawson acknowledges it freely when talking about the movie, tipping his hat at the influence of Suspiria (1977), Lifeforce (1985) and the films of Lucio Fulci.
You would have thought that this litany of God-like inspirations may have crippled Hellriser with the weight of their legacy, but on the contrary, Lawson manages to craft a fine looking feature that whips along at a steady pace.
We’re introduced to Detective John Locke (Steve Dolton) at first, a crumpled mac-wearing relic from a bygone era, who could quite easily have just wandered off the set of an unnamed seventies cop show. He’s found seven bodies this month, all within a five mile radius, but the case isn’t going anywhere which leads to a pairing with Detective Terri Keyes, fresh from the online fraud unit. “That’ll be computers will it?” comes Locke’s begrudging caveman-esque reply when learning about his partners’ past-life.
All the evidence seems to point towards an abandoned asylum where the new proprietor, Dr. Unnseine (Andrew Coughlan), is conducting a peculiar style of medical research on the inmates – one of whom is Annie Dyer (Raven Lee), who may not only harbour a key to the murders, but to the doorway of Hell itself.
For the eagle-eyed among you, the presence of Annie Dyer in a Steve Lawson film will no doubt invoke memories of Nocturnal Activity (2014), but as Lawson told me this week regarding this earlier film, he just wanted to take the character and “Make something stronger, sexier and funnier,” – and he’s achieved that in spades.
Acclamation aside, there’s no getting away from the fact that Hellriser is a strange beast. At its heart, and certainly for the first reel it’s a bona fide serial killer picture, but Lawson pulls the strange move of weaving in a barrage of genres like steamy softcore, Brooksian humour (Dr. Unnseine), AND an ode to the buddy cop movie.
It’s a weird patchwork that has no right whatsoever to work, but somehow it does. From the pitch perfect spark between Detectives Locke and Keyes, to a shower sequence that manages to outdo Fred Olen Ray in his pomp, there’s a lot to satisfy the casual horror fan. If there’s a weak spot however, I’d have to lay it at the goose-stepping foot of Dr. Unnseine who did stretch my tolerance for pastiches of crazy German scientists, but it’s a minor gripe that does little to temper the positives.
Considering the gradual decline of the direct-to-video industry these days, it’s a real bonus to see so many extra features on Hellriser. Steve Lawson’s commentary is effectively a step-by-step guide on how to make a micro-budget movie, and makes for essential listening for all wannabe filmmakers. It’s especially fascinating to hear his desire to go balls-out on the lighting design, a risk that really did pay dividends to create a bold and vibrant movie that proves British indie horror is alive and well.
And there’s nobody who reinforces that more than Andrew Jones.
Fresh into a multi-picture distribution deal with Sony, the affable Welshman is still managing to crank out up to four features a year, which for the committed observer has been a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of a filmmaker.
His latest film, CABIN 28, not only boasts some of the best production values to date in North Bank Entertainment’s packed resume, but it also underlines the importance of the US market to Jones. It’s set in the States and the cast (quite successfully) all adopt American accents. “Looking at the sales figures for my last three films, it’s pretty clear that America is the primary market for us” Jones told me this week. “The UK is fine, and we do smaller deals for other countries too, but across the pond we’re going great guns. It’s an unusual scenario for UK indie films to be honest, as usually most of them die a death over there, but for us it’s the other way around.”
One unexpected aspect of Cabin 28 is the rare sight of Jones outsourcing screenwriting duties, with the honour falling to Canberra-native, John Klyza. The Australian’s name is perhaps most synonymous with the Sleepaway Camp (1983) series of films. As editor of the official website back in ’98, Klyza was one of the key figures behind the series’ resurgence, when in 2002 he was invited to Los Angeles to assist on the production of the superb Survival Kit DVD boxset for Anchor Bay. In the wake if this success, he then spent four years as a producer on Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor (2012), where he supervised the painstaking reconstruction of Jim Markovic’s unfinished film footage.
In the years that followed it’s clear to see why Klyza caught Jones’s attention, with the two filmmakers sharing an obvious affection for similarly themed genre movies. Their unconnected riffs on Theodore Gershuny’s lovingly scuzzy Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) both deserve a look, with James Plumb lensing Jones’s script of Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming (2013), while Dustin Ferguson shot Klyza’s screenplay for Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival (2015).
“I think the appeal of Andrew’s films is that they are contemporary concepts utilizing the more traditional beats of the genre” Klyza mused to me recently. “I noticed North Bank Entertainment as a prolific up-and-coming production company since day one. Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection (2012) was a ballsy remake, which implemented a modern commentary about smartphones. When the news made the rounds that Andrew had sold it to Lionsgate (US), then I knew he was one to watch.”
Both Klyza and Jones had discussed a number of projects over the years, with the bulk of the discussion centring around Sleepaway Camp, although when Cabin 28 surfaced, things fell into place with the requisite speed of a North Bank production. “It was simply a case of right place and right time” remembers Klyza, “He had already been greenlit on the project, but as usual he was working on about twenty other movies at the time! So, he asked me to write it, and with the Sony Pictures deal in place, I felt really confident heading into it.”
Based on the true story of the infamous Keddie Murders in California, an unsolved quadruple homicide that occurred back in 1981, Jones goes all out retro in recreating the sparsely populated hamlet. Utilising the lush setting of Treglwys in Powys, his opening drone-shot aerial sequence underlines the isolated nature of the location as we’re introduced to Sue Sharp (Terri Dwyer, looking very Grace Zabriskie), and her five children.
Sue is a single mother, and with such a large brood is desperately trying to contend with the desire of her eldest daughter Sheila (Brendee Green) to spend time away from home, as her son Johnny (Sean Rhys-James) wanders the town drunk with his friend Dana (Derek Nelson). Meanwhile, in the swirl of such chaos she’s desperate to protect her young twins, Ricky and Greg (Lucas and Alexander Bradwell).
Respite comes in the form of Tina (Harriet Ress), loyal in nature and an obvious source of sanity for her mother, but in the absence of Sheila and Johnny one night, and with her mother asleep in bed, Tina’s quiet evening spent watching horror movies on the TV is about to be interrupted in the most savage way imaginable.
Andrew Jones doesn’t really do violence. The majority of his films to date, while fitting snugly into the horror genre, have relied more on suspense, atmosphere and cinematic sleight of hand. Cabin 28 rips this reputation to shreds with scenes of wincing brutality as masked hoodlums wage a campaign of bloodcurdling depravity on the Sharp family.
The build-up is the real jewel in the film though, as a delicately nuanced – and quite lengthy stand-off plays out between Tina and the silhouette of a threatening stranger as he stands outside the screen door of the cabin. “That’s my favourite scene” admits Klyza, “The mental fight between the two, as he nonchalantly offers excuses as to why he’s stranded, while she replies with reasons why she can’t let him in. He naturally starts snuffing them out and breaking her down, but the whole scene plays on her face and you can see her mind ticking away under the pressure.”
If there’s a criticism to the film, then I must admit its structure was a little tough to contend with. Reaching an armchair-clenching crescendo two-thirds of the way in, the fifteen minute interview-based denouement was difficult to adjust to from a mental perspective. It’s akin to switching from the thrill of the ghost train to the calm of the rocking horse at the fairground; it’s hard to cap your adrenaline to focus. Still, on second viewing it was a little more organic, and such nit-picking shouldn’t diminish the praise for what’s a very impressive home invasion movie.
It’s a summation that’s echoed by Klyza, who can’t hide his satisfaction at the final film. “Andrew gave me the freedom to hit the story from any angle, so long as it would fit neatly alongside Halloween (1978), The Strangers (2008) and You’re Next (2011). I did so much research during the writing process, as it’s vital to know your subjects well, even if a lot of it doesn’t end up on the page. It was streamlined a little as the production had to play within the confines of location and budget, but I like to say that scripts aren’t blueprints to make a film from, they’re more like road maps! And who doesn’t enjoy exploring a few side routes on a road trip?”
Hellriser and Cabin 28 were both released to UK DVD on Monday 16th October
John Klyza has since written another movie for North Bank Entertainment which will be announced in due course, and he can be found at http://www.klyza.com
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