Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Knackery

Dir. George Clarke

Six contestants.
One million quid.
And a shitload of zombies.

A group of contestants prepare to fight to the death on extreme reality TV show The Knackery. With a reward of £1 million for the last player left standing, the stakes are high. They are raised even higher when a horde of flesh hungry, genetically modified zombies are unleashed to liven things up a bit…

Building on the reputation they cultivated for themselves with Battle of the Bone, Yellow Fever Productions have returned to the stripped back, no frills and no holds barred approach to filmmaking that made their debut feature so appealing.
Shot in five weeks on a budget of roughly £100, the first cut of The Knackery premiered at the Fellow Fever Independent Film Festival in Belfast last weekend.

A ‘knacker’ is one who slaughters worn-out livestock and sells their flesh, bones and hides. The Knackery is a gruesome reality TV show in which contestants must battle it out to the death in the name of entertainment. With this grimy premise of ‘people-as-cattle’, The Knackery evokes memories of early Tobe Hooper in its unrelenting vision of bloody chaos and claustrophobic mayhem. The setting for The Knackery is, appropriately enough, an abandoned knackers yard and warehouse, complete with CCTV cameras monitoring the unfortunate contestants' every move within the vast and creepy space. 13 minutes after contestants arrive to fight to the death, ‘the knackers’ - genetically modified zombies - are released to keep the players on their toes. Kitted out in white boiler suits the knackers are designed for one purpose only: to tear the flesh off the living and suck them drier than a corpses mouth.

Unspooling as a vicious satire on reality TV, The Knackery poses the pointed question - How far will reality TV go to entertain its audiences? As most of the contestants on the likes of Big Brother will only too gladly testify – some people will do anything for their 15 minutes. This goes some way to ensure they can be fully exploited in the name of entertainment and it is this very concept that pumps through every scene of The Knackery. These contestants are unaware of the very real dangers they will face however, as the show's sinister executives ensure that most of the carnage is kept off screen… Writer/director Clarke plays an undercover reporter attempting to expose the corruption and evil behind the show. If he is able to stay alive long enough to do so. The pitch black humour and caustic parodying of reality TV echoes the likes of Series 7: The Contenders, Dead Set and The Running Man; whilst its tongue may be in cheek – it is wedged there pointedly.

The show’s unhinged host is portrayed by Alan Crawford with deranged glee. His performance recalls the likes of similar horror hosts/personalities pedalling low grade and questionable entertainment, such as Coffin Joe, Captain Spaulding and Dr Madblood. His wacked out, way-too-jolly presentation has a creepy menace at times; particularly when events on the show become increasingly grim.

The immediacy of the handheld camera work brings us right into the midst of the ensuing mayhem and bloodshed and Clarke’s ‘on-the-hoof’ and guerrilla-style shooting seeps through into the grainy aesthetic of the film, completely belying the film’s lack of budget. As the story builds to a crazed climax, the already kinetic pace is whipped up into a further salivating frenzy that doesn’t let up or disappoint. Quietly creepy moments come when we see events from the footage recorded by the hidden cameras as characters silently explore their surroundings with caution, often seen walking out of shot, only to run back into it and out again as they are pursued by the marauding and foaming-mouthed zombies.

The splashy special effects courtesy of Roddy Conlon are impressive and the fight choreography is handled exceptionally well, with many of the actors performing their own stunts in the film’s numerous fight sequences. Written in one night the plot may be as light as a freshly drained victim, but The Knackery more than compensates with its relentless narrative drive and irresistible gung-ho verve.
The ethos of YFP – to do whatever it takes to realise their vision, for as much or as little money as they can scrape together – and most importantly, to have fun whilst they do it – shines through in The Knackery. The sense of excitement is palpable and what the film lacks due to budgetary restraint, it more than makes up for with its gritty panache, dogged determination and free-spirited approach to indie filmmaking.

The Knackery delivers chills, thrills and a hell of a lot of spills as effectively as a cattle prod to the testicles. A rabid frenzy of a film.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Dir. Wyatt Weed

Construction workers unearth an ancient stone cross and what appears to be a wooden stake whilst renovating a church. Removing the stake from the ground they inadvertently revive Laura (Caitlin McIntosh), an amnesiac vampire who crawls out of the earth and sets off across the city trying to remember who she is and what happened to her. As she desperately tries to piece together her tragic past, she is pursued by the mysterious Julian Hess (Jason Contini) who is aware of her true nature and hell-bent on sending her back to the grave…

Shot on a miniscule budget over the course of a matter of weeks, Shadowland marks the feature length debut of writer/director Wyatt Weed and was recently screened at Belfast’s first Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival where it received an award for Best Director. The film unfolds as the epic tale of a woman who has suffered a terrible trauma and seeks to uncover her past to piece together her life. The fact that she is actually a latent vampire comes second to the attention lavished on the exploration of her character’s complex past. Of course, being an amnesiac, Laura doesn’t actually remember that she is a vampire. Weed has fun playing around with some of the more traditional conventions of vampire movie lore and his unique creation falls somewhere between Zoe Tamerlis in Ms 45 and Jodie Foster in Nell; part ass-kicking seductress, part naïve waif.

At its full-blooded heart, Shadowland boasts a sympathetic (anti)heroine. This is perhaps one of the most innovative moves by director Wyatt Weed, and one that is enriched by a truly outstanding performance from Caitlin McIntosh in her debut film role. McIntosh commands attention, even though she remains mute throughout much of the film – due to having her throat slit in the 19th century, you see. The bulk of the film is based around her voyage of self-discovery. She is drawn to certain places throughout the town as she feels a strange connection with them. These moments trigger flashbacks that gradually piece together her fragmented and strangely sad past.

We discover that she was seduced by a mysterious stranger called Lazarus (Carlos Antonio Leon) whom she fell in love with. Her actions invoked the wrath of her disapproving parents who eventually entrusted her to the hands of the local pastor (Dale Moore) in order to save her damned soul. The pastor, a lecherous fiend intent on claiming Laura as his own bride, would eventually stake her through the heart and bury her; ensuring that if he couldn’t have her – no one could. So immense was his love for her, Lazarus has been trying to find her ever since she was, unbeknownst to him, dispatched by her pastor. Dracula and Mina eat your hearts out.

We experience the flashbacks as she does and as a result can’t help but feel concern for her as Hess closes in. Even when Laura discovers and reveals her true form, we still care about her - so much are the traditional boundaries of good and evil blurred in Weed’s provocative screenplay. Each of the characters are well drawn and fully realised through sturdy performances – all are fully fleshed, flawed and distinctly human.

Julian Hess is a contemporary Van Helsing type who works for the church slaying vampires and attempting to save souls. Hess utilises various alchemic and mystical methods to track his prey. Indeed, another interesting aspect of the film is the notion that vampires have souls too and are in need of redemption as much as mortals, in order to find everlasting peace.

Weed also has some fun with the narrative structure, and despite the film’s frequent flashbacks, the narrative flows flawlessly and consistently. These flashbacks intricately weave together the compelling story of how Laura became a vampire. She is ultimately a tragic heroine and a victim of her own desire.
The film's poster makes Shadowland resemble the vampire-movie equivalent of Gone with the Wind, and to an extent, it is. The scope of the story is ambitious to say the least, as it unfolds over decades and twists and turns around an ultimately doomed love affair and a desperate quest for self-discovery. Weed does an admirable job of weaving it all together as well as consistently offering up a few unique and surprisingly effective twists to hold your attention.

Great use is made of the St Louis locations, the director’s hometown, and the slick and polished look of the film belies its low budget. Particularly noteworthy are the recreations of turn of the century America where the flashbacks take place, and despite the film’s limited resources, are expertly realised. There is also an undeniable post-Buffy sense of irony and fun, particularly in the impressively choreographed fight scenes, with their high octane energy, style and wit. CGI is wisely kept to a minimum throughout proceedings but looks more than adequate whenever utilised.

Shadowland is a strangely touching film that, whilst certainly not lacking its fair share of chills and thrills, is more intent on conveying a compelling story that will trickle seductively into your consciousness for some time to come…

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Isle of the Damned

Dir. Mark Colegrove

Banned in 492 Countries!

Private Investigator Jack Steele (Larry Gamber) is hired by a mysterious treasure hunter to help him locate the lost treasure of Marco Polo. Steele’s quest brings him to a strange island off the coast of Argentina rumoured to be populated by a lost tribe of cannibals. As Steele and his small group of treasure hunters explore the island, they realise that the rumours are true and they must utilise all their resources to stay alive and make it off the island in one piece… But who is the bizarre recluse, Alexis Kinkaid (Keith Tveit Langsdorf)? And why do everyone’s lips move out of sync with what they’re saying!??

Screened as part of Belfast’s first Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival – and winner of Best International Film - Isle of the Damned is a deliberate and shameless throwback to 80s era Italian Cannibal movies such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox and Deep River Savages – with added satire and irascible self-awareness thrown in for good measure. The work of Ruggero Deadato is specifically mined for inspiration and lovingly parodied; most notably in the images of skewered victims and the film’s deliberately overwrought ‘social commentary.’

The mythology and notoriety surrounding the film is mainly down to director Colegrove and writer Mark Leake, who have concocted a juicy story about the making of this ‘lost film’ that slyly recalls the actual spate of events that dogged Ruggero Deodato when he shot Cannibal Holocaust back in the 80s - and echoing the similar tricks of the makers of The Blair Witch Project.
Apparently, you see, Isle of the Damned was originally released in Italy in 1980 and has since become a legendary lost film. Its director Antonello Giallo came under fire yet again by the Italian government, who were still infuriated by his earlier film Pleasure of the Damned. Can you see where this is going? Outraged by the shocking and real scenes of primitive tribal rituals and cannibalism portrayed in the film, the government sought to prosecute Giallo, who subsequently fled the country into a state of solitary exile. The film has been long out of print, but is now finally doing the festival circuit and presented in a digitally remastered form. Huzzah!

The soiled story unravels under grainy and sleazy footage of an expedition to a mysterious island to retrieve hidden treasure. However, the reason for the characters going to the island is soon overshadowed as soon as they get there, by scenes of depravity, mayhem and gore. Lots of gore. Scenes of rape, paedophilia, infanticide are unblushedly paraded before us - including the jaw-dropping moment when a woman is bludgeoned to death and her unborn baby ripped from her stomach and snacked on by a group of cannibals. Of course this only happens after said woman has been assaulted by the predatory Harold Thompson (Patrician Rosa), a nasty piece of work who also likes to sexually taunt Steele’s foster son Billy. This would all be utterly offensive and downright disturbing were it not for the fact that Isle of the Damned’s severed tongue is wedged firmly in its flayed cheek. Its so outrageous, over-the-top and ridiculous, it can’t help but incite laughter; be it shocked or otherwise.

Actors are kitted out with the worst wigs and beards imaginable, 70’s moustaches, retro-kitsch outfits and more deliberately bad dubbing and ludicrous dialogue than you can shake a fistful of innards at. Even the lengthy and at times utterly irrelevant dialogue and the many scenes of pointless and trite exposition are expertly and lovingly realised – recalling the often tedious scenes that unfolded between the scenes of carnage and violence in the original films. And let’s face it, the moments of gore, cannibalism and violence are what made those films so infamous in the first place and the reason why so many flocked to see them. Toilet humour and a raised middle finger to political correctness also ensure the satire in Isle of the Damned is sharper than a savage’s spear.

The SFX are pretty impressive and stir up memories of the early work of Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero to name a few; with buckets of brains, blood, guts and spunk.

The winning soundtrack is yet another throwback to the heyday of the progressive music that accompanied 80s euro-sleaze and Mondo-exploitation fare. The likes of Libra, Fabio Frizzi, early John Carpenter and Goblin are evoked and particularly stir memories of Riz Ortolani’s folksy compositions for Cannibal Holocaust, as gentle guitar ballads are strummed out over shots of wildlife and jungle-scapes. Amusingly, animals that are not even native to that part of the word (off the coast of South America) are featured, including rhinos and cheetahs. A yawning lizard and a rubber spider provide yet more guffaw-inducing moments of giddy glee. The rest of the soundtrack comprises of wizened synthesiser drones and echoes of Italo-disco beats.

All of the things that made those original movies so notorious are recreated here with ease and a wry smile – the sleazy, creepy tone, copious splashy gore effects, casual racism, brutal scenes of murder and rape, lengthy and irrelevant scenes of exposition to pad out the story and the quite often tenuous subtext: the question ‘who are the real savages?’ This social commentary is kicked squarely in the teeth, dragged out of the subtext and randomly spouted by the badly dubbed actors – ‘we’re the real savages!’ in appropriately overwrought and out of sync fashion. Adding to the absurdity of this, is the overacting combined with the bad dubbing that often contradicts the manner in which the dialogue is delivered.

A celebration of schlock that manages to exude a perverted charm all its own. Anarchic and likely to offend those of a somewhat sensitive disposition, fans of 70’s/80’s cannibal exploitation flicks won’t want to miss this. Best enjoyed with friends and liquor.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Dead Outside

Dir. Kerry Anne Mullaney

A mysterious neurological pandemic has ravaged Britain. Seeking refuge in a solitary farmhouse in deepest, darkest Scotland, Daniel (Alton Milne) a young man reeling from the death of his family, meets April (Sandra Louise Douglas), a secretive young woman who has been living in isolation for some time. The two eventually forge a tenuous relationship until the arrival of a stranger throws them into turmoil. As well as dealing with serious trust issues, the three survivors must also contend with the infected population besieging the farmhouse on an increasingly frequent basis…

The Dead Outside, a stark post-apocalyptic psychological horror film, was screened in Belfast recently as part of the Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival. Intelligent and thoughtful, at times it resembles a sort of pared down, thinking man’s 28 Days Later. Filmed with a miniscule budget and fully utilising what is essentially one location, the film plays out as a claustrophobic two-hander dealing with issues such as trust, loss, suffering and solitude. Moodily shot on DV, with washed out visuals and a deliciously bleak looking aesthetic, events unfold with an irresistibly slow-burn approach.

The story begins six months into the neurological pandemic, and director/writer Mullaney plunges us into a nightmarish world almost immediately, and then leaves us gasping for information as she ever-so-slowly reveals tantalising morsels of what has occurred. The quietness of the opening scene is disarming. We see Daniel calmly packing up his car and driving off. One distressing encounter with an infected person later and Daniel soon runs out of petrol. He eventually comes across the seemingly deserted farmhouse and explores it as the effectively creepy and paranoia-inducing soundtrack works its way insidiously into your brain. Everyday objects are rendered strangely sinister in these scenes, and seem to drip with ambiguous menace; the propped up wheelchair in a cluttered room and the various pieces of torn clothing caught on the barb wire fence surrounding the farm flutter ominously in the breeze.

Daniel decides to stay in the farmhouse and beds down for the night. He wakens to a rifle aimed at his face and the barer, April, tells him he must leave. Despite what she says though, it becomes apparent that April could use a little company, so she agrees to let Daniel stay. The two begin a cautious relationship – each wary of the other. The sense of isolation is palpable, aided in part by the limited sets and locations of the farmhouse and the surrounding countryside. This is particularly effective during the scenes at night, when we see the house from a distance; surrounded in darkness and bathed in nothing but the cold and pitiless light of the moon.

Things begin to disintegrate rapidly when a third survivor joins April and Daniel in their haven. Kate (Sharon Osdin), a nurse, began searching for other people when her mother passed away. Or did she? The introduction of this character will blight the already brittle bonds of trust between April and Daniel.
Eventually Kate does something that reveals our darkest suspicions and sets in motion a series of tragic and disturbing events that will leave their bloody imprint on all concerned.

The Dead Outside craftily tackles current social anxieties such as infections and outbreaks and the unquestioning trust we put in those meant to protect us. To add to the somewhat chilling ambiguity is the lack of explanation of where or how the strange affliction originated. All we are left with is the aftermath. It is something that ‘just happened’ and spiralled out of control. Interestingly, it is hinted that the government knew about the infection long before it took hold, but they took too long to act and therefore were largely to blame for its uninhibited spread.

In similar films we are usually present at the instigation of the outbreak, or are at least filled in with news reports, newspaper headlines or radio broadcasts. The Dead Outside offers none of these comforts. It plunges us straight into the stark reality faced by the survivors in their bleak new world. At various times the characters are seen wearing face masks, mirroring similar actions by people during the SARS outbreak. Is the virus air-born? Is it transferred through touch? A vaccine is also mentioned, and at one stage Daniel is seen administering himself with it, however April maintains it doesn’t work and only slows down the onset of symptoms of the virus.

Intrigue is soon swirled around the character of April. Why does she go out at night alone? Where does she go? Why does she never seem to get sick, even though she comes in contact with the infected? Is she immune? She is a troubled girl, and though she and Daniel manage to build up a somewhat fragile and tentative relationship where they both tolerate each other, she still keeps herself dangerously to herself.
The attention paid to characters and the multifaceted performances of the actors really help to enhance the experience of The Dead Outside: here are characters that we genuinely care about and therefore we invest ourselves in and root for them; even during the darkest hours when it seems that all hope is lost.

There is some vague talk of the infected – whilst they resemble zombies, they are not actually the living dead: they are the still able-bodied and very much alive victims of the infection. Their minds however are completely gone. One character states ‘Their heads went bad, then they got violent.’ The simplicity of this is chilling in its resonance.
The screams and cries of the infected are most unsettling. At times the pathetic beings simply repeat jargon over and over again: the infection causes complete mental breakdown. This proves disturbing and oddly poignant as they can retain their ability to speak and to scream and sputter sentences without rhyme or reason.
They are presented in a strangely disjointed manner – at times they are briefly glimpsed standing still in the distance and other times they are shown frenziedly chasing the uninfected characters. They are psychotic and uncontrollable but they still retain fragments of their former selves in the deranged mutterings they spout. Are they still human? This is a question addressed by Daniel and April several times throughout the course of the story, and one that both have distinctly different opinions on.

The sound design throughout the film is incredibly effective; even during the quietest scenes, a constant wind eerily howls as if to heighten to the sense of isolation and impending hopelessness of the characters. Some of the imagery is undeniably that of typical zombie film tradition, but the film side-steps the pitfalls of subscribing completely to ‘zombie film’ conventions and strays down its own daring and dark path. The frenetic editing of the latter scenes whips up a frenzied pace as events turn nastier and rapidly spiral out of control. The disturbing flashbacks of Daniel and particularly April, lace the story and serve to heap more flesh onto the bones of these well written and believable characters. Both are haunted by their pasts – Daniel helplessly fled when his wife and son became sick, whilst April harbours some distressing memories of her abusive grandparents and her time in a psychiatric hospital.

A provocative film that poses more questions than it chooses to answer, and in doing so remains a powerful, bleak and deeply upsetting experience.

Award Winners of YFIFF 2009

Wyatt Weed for Shadowland

Situations Vacant

Somebody To Love

Isle Of The Damned

Diarmuid Noyes from Situations Vacant

Lynette Callaghan from 8.5 Hours

Death In D-Minor

One Last Love Song

Bodyguard A New Beginning

Belfast’s First Annual Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival

The first annual Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival kicked off this weekend at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Despite its brief duration of a mere two days (22nd-23rd) the festival managed to cram in an impressive array of film screenings, workshops, Q&A sessions with filmmakers and a whole host of other exclusive events that had film fans positively foaming at the mouth.
Whilst numbers were quite modest, they certainly weren’t bad for a local independent festival’s debut - the first of its kind in Northern Ireland – particularly when one considers the shoestring budget with which it was put together, the fact that only five months of preparation was available and the unfortunate and rather notable lack of support from local big-hitters such as NI Screen, who could easily have lent some support, financial or otherwise. Those in attendance were nonetheless treated to a memorable event and will hopefully spread the word to ensure next year’s event will be bigger and even better…
Festival organiser and founder of Yellow Fever Productions, George Clarke, set up the event as a means to support and promote local independent filmmakers and provide them with a platform to showcase their work and get some recognition; as well as giving those in attendance the opportunity to see what other independent filmmakers from around the world are producing. Soon after visiting the Freak Show Film Festival in Orlando, Clarke began to take steps to make the YFIFF – something he was thinking about whilst shooting Battle of the Bone back in 2007 - a reality.

Kicking off proceedings was the short film Injected. This film was shown to audiences as the Screening of Recognition and served to highlight the work of a local film maker who the festival organisers believe should be recognised as a future talent of Northern Ireland. Directed by 15 year old Aidan Gault, Injected is the unsettling tale of a mysterious experimental human drug trail gone awry with disturbing results.
The Screening of Recognition is one of two new traditions that should hopefully carry over to future YFIFF events. The second tradition is the closing event; the exclusive premiere of a brand-spanking-new YFP feature film. This year’s premiere was a screening of The Knackery. Made in five weeks with a budget of around £100, The Knackery unfolds as a darkly humorous critique of reality TV shows, featuring a small group of unfortunate contestants pitted against rabid zombies and a fight to the death on the titular show.

The jaw-dropping line-up of other exclusive screenings included a broad range of genres including drama, action, horror, comedy and martial arts. Lots of martial arts.
Feature titles included the stylish vampire flick Shadowland - which played alongside Battle Of The Bone in Orlando in 2008, 80’s Italian Cannibal movie throwback Isle Of The Damned, Chee Keong Cheun’s slick Hong Kong/UK action flicks Underground and Bodyguard: A New Beginning, the utterly charming Irish comedy Situations Vacant, affecting Irish drama 8.5 Hours - which also screened at the Cannes Festival this year, and the atmospheric and insidiously creepy Scottish horror The Dead Outside.

A plethora of short films were also screened at the festival and these included the Hong Kong/Ireland romantic action comedy Somebody To Love; One Last Love Song - which unfurls as an ageing songwriter reminisces about the inspiration behind one of his songs (this short, with its breathtakingly lush black and white photography won the award for Best Cinematography); the blackly comic serial-killer musical Death In D-Minor (which received the award for Best Local Film) and the beautifully lensed documentary The Northern Lights.

The special guest at this year’s festival was Mike Leeder, Far Eastern editor of Impact Magazine and producer of independent movies such as Underground, Left for Dead and 10 Dead Men. Leeder hosted a number of workshops providing exclusive insight into the workings of the independent film industry and offering advice to those keen to become involved in filmmaking.

As well as a shed-load of film screenings, the festival was also home to the independent Arts Market and the White Dragon Tattoo Room; where anyone who felt inclined to do so could indulge in a little body-modification. The Arts Market provided the opportunity for local artists to promote their work. Amongst those present were Art Not Names, Spiral Threads, Divinus Photography and Big Hammer Productions.

The ethos of the weekend was about realising one’s dreams and ambitions, socking it to The Man and generally saying a big ‘fuck you’ to all naysayers seemingly intent on making life difficult for aspiring independent filmmakers. Providing not only inspiration, Yellow Fever Productions also offer up practical advice and support for those who long to immerse themselves in the world of film making. YFP consistently prove that all you need to realise your ideas is the self belief, grit and determination to succeed. With a mantel like that, let’s hope they are around for a long time to come and keep doing what they do best…

Click here to visit the website of Yellow Fever Productions and click here to sign up to the YFP social networking forum.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Fall of the House of Usher

Dir. Roger Corman

When she returns to her family home after their engagement, Madeline Usher is visited by her fiancée Philip Winthorpe, who wants her to return to Boston with him. Her brother, the severely depressed Roderick opposes this suggestion with every inch of his brittle body. Philip discovers that the Usher lineage has been afflicted by an all consuming malady and that the siblings, the last of the Ushers, believe they are cursed to descend into insanity like their ancestors did before them. A series of morbid incidents unfold over the coming days as events seem set to reach a horrific climax bringing an end to the Usher bloodline, once and for all…

It suddenly occured to me, as such things usually do, that it’s been several months since I last watched anything featuring Vincent Price. Disgraceful. So, after I severely reprimanded myself, I poured a glass of Russell’s Cellar’s finest cheap red and settled down to watch Roger Corman’s first Poe adaptation, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Setting the standard for all his other Poe adaptations, Corman weaves a delightfully morose tapestry of gloomy sets, swirling dry ice and matte-painting back-drops that were no doubt used in many of his other shoe-string budget productions. Influenced by the likes of Mario Bava's Black Sunday and much of Hammer's output at the time, Corman's Poe films pertain to literature and high-art, whilst still providing the requisite chills and spills you'd expect from such a highly regarded and prolific schlock-meister. The opening images depicting Philip (Mark Damon) as he makes his way to the Usher’s house through twisted fairytale trees, wizened foliage and a grotesquely parched landscape, set a prescient that will continue to float wraith-like throughout the rest of the film, wrapping everything in a dank and unshakable melancholy. Corman actually filmed the opening scene after a brush fire in the Hollywood hills had been extinguished; the charred and still smouldering earth instantly evokes a mood of desolation and despair. The house itself when we see it, is oppressive and dark, steeped in a faded grandeur of long past decadence.

Price is as striking and resplendent as you’d expect. His portrayal of Roderick Usher went some way to map out similar mentally tortured and anguished individuals the actor would portray in Corman’s Poe cycle; from Nicolas Medina in Pit and the Pendulum to Verden Fell in The Tomb of Ligeia. These are but a few of the roles that Price will forever be remembered for – tragic, morose and utterly doomed men who are as much a danger to themselves as they are to others. We soon learn that he has ‘an affliction of the hearing’ and that sounds of any exaggerated degree cut into his brain like knives. You can imagine then, what histrionics will ensue when his dear sister is buried alive and her petrified screams rip through the house from the family vault below, as she helplessly pounds and scratches on the inside of her sealed coffin lid…

The film is rounded out by a small but solid cast. Mark Damon is dashing as Philip Winthorpe, suitor to Roderick’s sister Madeline. As Madeline, Myrna Fahey gives a quietly assured performance – her character, while she still has it in her, delicately fights against the encroaching madness of her brother and insists that they must forget the past and get on with living their frail lives. These siblings are THE original Goth-kids – lazing around out of the sun, overly preoccupied with morbid thoughts of death and despair. In the second half of the film, when she has become utterly deranged from the experience of her premature burial, Madeline skulks crazily through the house like a creature possessed: all wide-eyed and screeching profanities.

The only other character is Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), a faithful manservant to the Ushers and has been at the family’s beck and call for generations. Bristol’s character, or rather the function of his character (to gradually shed more light on the dark secrets of the family he works for) reappears throughout Corman’s other Poe films in the form of Kenrick in The Tomb of Ligeia, Bartolome in Pit and the Pendulum and, whilst not part of Corman’s Poe cycle, though it was certainly cut from the same cloth – The Terror’s Stefan. Each of these faithful servants is condemned to die because of their unyielding loyalty to the various unconventional family-units they serve. Some thanks for a lifetime of servitude, eh?

Much talk of the physical decay, rotting psyches, ill health and malignant obsession that has plagued the family for generations peppers the script. The screenplay by Richard Matheson richly enhances and indeed fills out the short story it’s based upon, without ever feeling like desperate attempts were made to pad it out to feature length. The language he uses feels appropriately ornate and formal.

The concepts of decay and moral desolation within the family bleed out into the very building that provides them with a home; the house seems steeped in the same gloominess that shrouds their family history and is rotten to the core. As the story progresses the house becomes more and more unstable, with various parts of it disintegrating and crumbling away into the dank moat that surrounds it, wonderfully showcasing the instability and rapidly fracturing mindsets of the Usher’s themselves. Roderick and Madeline are the last in a line of tainted individuals bearing the Usher name. Heavily reclining in a state of perpetual and stifling melancholy, they are a fragile and brittle pair and despite Philip’s best efforts – they are ultimately doomed.

Giving Philip a tour of the house (and Corman the opportunity to fully utilise and show off his exquisite production design courtesy of Daniel Haller) Roderick shows him a room full of portraits of the motley Usher clan. ‘The history of the Usher’s’ rasps Roderick, ‘Is a history of savage degradation.’ The sordid and fiendish family portraits are a revelation and Corman commissioned painter Burt Shonberg to provide the lurid depictions of past Usher family members in all their morose glory.

This scene also features a debate between Philip and Roderick that wouldn’t be out of place in any Poe story – the subscription to the belief that the sins of the parents and of the past hang over and dictate the lives of the children. This idea that individuals can never escape their past, or indeed their gloomy destiny, is typical of Poe and further entrenches the film in a mood of hopelessness and despair. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink. Hic.

As with the bulk of Corman’s Poe films, The Fall of the House of Usher is largely made up of scenes in which the ‘outsider’ protagonist wanders around vast and imposing sets, furnished lavishly with heavy drapes and chaise-lounges, usually in the middle of the night, candelabrum in hand, investigating strange noises or half-glimpsed shadows. The look of the film belies its low budget and hasty shooting schedule and is testament to Corman’s flair and ability to wring the most out of his limited resources to tell a compelling story in a stylish way.

Aside from all the highly evocative dialogue trimmings waxing lyrical about death and melancholia, the film also contains a couple of highly unsettling scenes, such as the nasty shock in the crypt when Madeline shows Philip her coffin (what a tease) and her mother’s body comes tumbling out of the dark for a impromptu reunion from beyond the grave. Another distressing scene unfolds as Roderick and Philip are mourning the ‘death’ of Madeline in the family chapel. Her open coffin is positioned at the forefront of the shot as the two men sit on the pews behind it. Madeline, clearing suffering from some form of catalepsy, begins to move her fingers. On noticing this, Roderick stands and closes the lid of the coffin, instantly sealing the doom of his family forever.

As in Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher features a tripped-out dream sequence where Philip is accosted by Roderick when he tries to free Madeline from her premature internment, and boasts all manner of disturbing imagery unfurling beneath garish colour filters and dry ice.

A highly atmospheric and Gothic melodrama that Poe himself would be proud of. Beneath the gloomy opulence and resplendent foreboding, lurks a nasty subtext including incest and hereditary insanity. This film kicked off Corman’s love affair with Poe adaptations and is certainly one of the best of these.

A severely melancholic Vincent Price, catalepsy, creepy mansions, enough dry ice to chill a nice Sauvignon Blanc and premature burials. What’s not to love?

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Devil Bat

Dir. Jean Yarbrough

Dr Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) devises a plan to extract revenge on his employers, the owners of a cosmetics company, who he believes have exploited him and become rich as the result of a product he created. Concocting a new aftershave (!), he offers it to the sons of his employers and then releases an electrically enlarged bat, trained to hone in on the distinct aftershave (!!), and slaughter its wearer. The series of mysterious deaths sparks the interest of roving reporter Johnny Layton (David O’Brien) and his loyal sidekick and photographer, One-Shot McGuire. The two set out to investigate the murders and put a stop to the diabolical mastermind orchestrating them, before they too become victims of the ‘death-diving’ giant bat.

The Devil Bat was produced by PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), one of the more modest production studios of Hollywood’s ‘Poverty Row.’ PRC produced mainly low budget B-movies, particularly horror films, westerns and melodramas.

The film comprises of scenes in which Lugosi dips stuff in lotions, stirs potions, cackles evilly to himself, hangs a bat on a coat hanger and through the power of cross-fade editing, enlarges stock-footage bats to gigantic proportions. He then persuades his various victims, the shockingly dim sons of his employers, to try out his new aftershave; before releasing his giant death-bat to track them down and rip out their throats. Repeat, ad-nauseam. This all goes according to plan, strangely enough, until our intrepid reporter Layton catches a whiff of something sinister and jumps on the case. He and his sidekick, One-Shot McGuire, bulk out the rest of the story as they try to solve the case. In one scene they attempt to drum up some interest in the sensational story by faking a photo of a giant bat. Cue montage of spinning newspaper headlines. They are rumbled by a giant bat-expert on the local radio station however, when said expert examines the photo and notices a ‘made-in-Japan’ label on the fake bat…

The Devil Bat is one of the many poverty row films that Bela Lugosi starred in during the downward spiral his career experienced after the international success of Dracula. The film is competently made, and whilst neither really good nor really bad, hovers somewhere in the beige department and proves to be an entertaining if somewhat forgettable experience. Which is perfectly fine. The tragic actor obviously relished playing the oddly sympathetic, yet utterly cuckoo Dr Carruthers, and delivers his lines with the sort of fiendish aplomb we know and love him for. Unfortunately, once the murder investigation begins, Lugosi doesn’t feature onscreen much, but when he does, he exudes all the charm, dark elegance and over-zealous eyebrow-acting you would expect him to. We are also privy to his inner monologues, as he bitterly waxes lyrical about his disdain and disgust for his employers, who he believes have paid him a measly amount of money for his contribution to their cosmetics company. This serves to vaguely flesh out an otherwise typical ‘mad-doctor’ character and imbue him with the faintest touch of pathos.

Director, Jean Yarbrough - who would later go on to direct the likes of King of the Zombies, She-Wolf of London and several episodes of The Addams Family – handles his duties with rudimentary competence. The film is overtly silly, yet highly enjoyable, and often wanders into bizarre comedic territory – intentional and indeed otherwise. The only moments of genuine creepiness come as the bat is released from its attic dwelling-place and, as some day-for-night stock footage of a large bat flying past the same trees over and over again plays out, the bat omits a chilling scream that proves genuinely unnerving. The scenes featuring the bat ‘death-diving’ its victims have to be seen to be believed. Never before have such a gaggle of stiff-upper-lipped young men waved their arms around so much while a giant rubber bat falls on them from above. Great stuff.

A random and pretty irrelevant exchange between Johnny Layton and his boss reveals that Johnny is a bachelor, who ‘took a girl out once’ but didn’t think much of it. Now, this might be the wine talking, or my over-active ‘sub-textual’ readings of cheap B-movies, but I could swear there was the mildest hint of ‘queer’ subtext lurking in this aspect of the story. Adding credence to my hypothesis is the fact that Layton doesn’t get together with the film’s token female character Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), the daughter of one of Carruther’s employers. In fact, I found myself wondering what this character was for. She doesn’t appear to do much in the film except narrowly avoid falling victim to Carruther’s hair-brained revenge ploy when she decides to not wear some new perfume that mysteriously appears on her dresser. Character such as her’s usually only appeared as a love interest for the All-American protagonist or to be rescued by him. Or both. She performs neither function. And whilst this might be refreshing had she actually served some other relevance to the plot, alas, she does not. At the film’s climax, she and Johnny hug each other platonically (as opposed to the usual stiff embrace of 40’s era B-movie lovers) and just as it seems he might give her a playful punch in the arm, the end titles roll. Let’s not forget the handsome but dim sons of the company owners; all single, all immaculately groomed and preened and unable to say no to a splash of exotic cologne. All visit the similarly single creator of colognes and perfumes, Carruthers, who lavishes them with gifts of top of the range man-scent – albeit so he can dispatch his trained killer bat to rip their delicate throats out. No? Ok, must be the wine talking. Moving swiftly on. Some viewers may very well recognise David O’Brien from his roles in such classics as Spooks Run Wild (also starring Lugosi) and Reefer Madness – he’s the guy who implores Mae to play her piano ‘faster! Faster!’ and orders her to ‘Bring me some reefers!’

The Devil Bat is in the same league as the likes of The Vampire Bat, though it doesn't seem to take itself so seriously. Whilst thoroughly ludicrous, it is also pretty solid entertainment and, at a skimpy 72 minutes, far from outstays its welcome. It is best enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon whilst draped across your couch, surrounded by the remnants of the night before. Endearing hokum.

First Annual Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival

Yellow Fever Productions is an independent production company based in Belfast. In 2008 they produced the award winning Battle of the Bone – a zombie flick set in Belfast on the Twelfth of July featuring two rival communities forced to put aside their differences and come together to deal with a marauding horde of the living dead.
Written and directed by Yellow Fever founder George Clarke, Battle of the Bone was screened at The Freakshow Horror Film Festival in Florida, October 2008. Amongst those on the panel of judges was none other than George Romero, who heaped praise on the film. Battle went on to scoop the Audience Choice Award at this festival.

Not content to produce award winning films, Yellow Fever have organised their own independent film festival right here in Belfast. The event kicks off on 22 August and is sure to provide audiences with much to salivate over.

In a recent interview with Culture Northern Ireland, George Clarke revealed that he was inspired to set up his own independent film festival after he took Battle of the Bone to the Freakshow Film Festival in Florida. The young director is keen to encourage other local filmmakers and create a platform for them to showcase their work. The festival will screen a horde of independent features by filmmakers from, amongst other places, Hong Kong, America, Ireland and the UK. The line up includes a whirlwind tour spanning genres such as horror, comedy, martial arts, drama and action. Titles include Shadowland, Isle of the Damned, Death in D-Minor, The Dead Outside and Underground. The festival will also be premiering the new feature from Yellow Fever, The Knackery. With a budget of £100 and a shooting schedule of 5 weeks, The Knackery promises more of the same spills, chills and thrills that Battle of the Bone provided.

Amongst the film screenings on offer, those attending will also be treated to exclusive workshops, an art market featuring a range of artwork and crafts created by local artists, Q&A sessions, tattooists (!) and a number of special guests including Mike Leeder, who has worked as producer and casting director on films such as Rush Hour 3, The Mummy 3, Fearless, Blood The Last Vampire.

Against the odds – there is a distinct lack of funding for independent projects such as this in Northern Ireland – Yellow Fever have organised what will hopefully be the first of many independent film festivals.

The festival runs from 22-23 August at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, and tickets are £20. For more information or to book tickets, click here.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Queen of Blood

Dir. Curtis Harrington

1990. Scientists on Earth receive a distress call from an alien ship that has crash landed on Mars. A small rescue team made up of scientists and astronauts are dispatched to rescue the alien crew. Only one survivor is found, a strangely beautiful female with lurid green skin. Back on board their own ship, the scientists discover that their guest has an insatiable appetite for blood and it isn’t long before she begins to pick off the crew, one by one…

In the 60s Roger Corman’s production company AIP bought the rights to quite a few Russian sci-fi films and wrote new stories around the various special effects sequences; reusing the expensive footage in new low budget films. Queen of Blood is one such film and reuses footage from Russian sci-fi epics Niebo Zowiet and Meshte Nastreshu. These scenes provide a number of the film’s highlights, as much of Harrington’s footage, particularly in the early scenes, with their kitschy ideas about how the future (1990) would look, are pretty dated and cheap looking.

The script, also penned by Harrington, displays surprising intelligence and features a number of provocative debates on issues such as morality and logic. After the alien gorges herself on Paul’s blood, the reactions of the other astronauts are most interesting. Allan and Laura claim that the alien is a murderer, however Anders argues that the others shouldn’t impose their moral codes on her as she is not human – her race may very well have different moral standards. He goes on to say that this doesn’t mean that they are any better or worse than the human race: just different. The alien is clearly only reacting to her instinct to feed.

The rational discussions that pepper the screenplay are really quite refreshing; in a lesser film the humans would no doubt decide that the alien was nothing but a killer and blast her out of the nearest airlock. The screenplay at times suggests that scientific advancements such as space exploration can be dangerous – and unfolds as a cautionary tale of Frankensteinian human ambition that could result in dire consequences.

Queen of Blood, much like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires bears an uncanny resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Alien and appears to have had no small influence on that particular classic. The tale of a small research crew answering the distress call of an alien ship, only to find the dead body of an alien life-form but managing to bring one surviving alien creature back to their own ship, is uncannily similar. Of course when our intrepid scientists ‘rescue’ the alien creature and bring her back to their own ship, she begins to prey on the crew and devour them one by one. As highlighted in the plight of the crew member who must remain behind on the alien vessel as there isn’t enough room for him on the vessel making the return trip to his own ship (!), the crew, much like the crew of the Nostromo, are completely indispensible. Their mission is to retrieve a ‘specimen’ from the alien ship at any cost to bring back to earth for scientific research.

The discovery of a batch of alien eggs prompts more thoughtful discussion from the crew. While they see how dangerous the alien was to their own wellbeing, they still understand that their discovery is extremely important and they have little or no right to annihilate the spawn of another species. When Allan reveals his plans to destroy the alien’s eggs, Laura is quite shocked and exclaims ‘That’s not our decision to make.’ Scientific detachment must be adhered to, even if it goes against one’s gut instinct. That’s not to say this is an intellectually stimulating movie of the highest calibre – it is not without its awkward, guffaw-inducing moments. Luckily, these are few and far between and mainly come courtesy of the lack of budget or rare instances of trite dialogue and eye-brow acting. Which I’m sure you’ll agree with me, is quite often endearing and not without its place.

Events unfurl languidly, taking time to develop the characters and create a creepy atmosphere ripe with menace and mystery. Harrington’s cinematographer Vilis Lapenieks bathes proceedings in an otherworldly sheen and the film, despite its low budget, at times looks rather beautiful. The scenes onboard the scientists’ ship are beautifully lit and prove quite striking. The impressive special effects footage from the other films is effortlessly inserted into the story and enhances proceedings effectively rather than jar them.

One notable scene features the alien advancing towards Robert along a dark and moodily lit corridor. As he struggles to see who is approaching, she keeps vanishing and reappearing; each time moving ever closer to him. Another eerily beautiful moment occurs when the alien, fresh from guzzling Paul’s life-juices, turns slowly to look at the camera, her eyes glinting seductively as they reflect an otherworldly light. Florence Marly as ‘The Queen’ is quite a sight, with her green skin and beehive hair: Marly exudes a strange sexuality, and while quite alluring, is still insidiously sinister.

Queen of Blood boasts a rather impressive cast roster including John Saxon as Allan, Dennis Hopper as Paul and Judi Meredith as Laura. All provide sturdy performances particularly the young Hopper as the slightly eccentric Paul, and Meredith manages to fully flesh out her character; the ‘token’ female that is usually relegated to the status of purposeless eye candy. Laura, much like Ripley in Alien, is a positive female character in a genre infamous for portraying women as helpless damsels in distress. She is self assured and strong willed. In a clever subversion of the usual conventions, it is Laura who eventually rescues Allan from the clutches of the blood-thirsty alien.

Queen of Blood is an effective little thriller, full of moodiness and perverse charm. As mentioned it is also way more intelligent and thought provoking than it has any right to be, considering its origins and low budget. A testament to the power of a good story, great writing and the knack of making the most of one’s limited resources.

Behind the Couch is a ‘Great Read!’

Congratulations to Mykal over at Radiation Cinema! whose blog was recently presented with a Great Read Award from I Like Horror Movies. Mykal mentioned a few other blogs that he reads and loves, one of which was Behind the Couch. His kind words are much appreciated.

It’s great to see Radiation Cinema receive some well deserved recognition for all Mykal's undeniable enthusiasm and expertise. I plan to crack open a bottle of something red and drink to his good health.