Splice (film review)
Written by Dan Collacott
Director: Director: Vincenzo Natali. Run time: 1hr 47 mins.
Clive Nicoli (Brody) and his girlfriend and fellow genetic scientist Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) have successfully created two large moving scrotums (seriously that is what they look like) from the spliced dna of several species, fortunately the two ball bags in question also love each other. As they say in commercials here's the science bit, the two genetic hybrids don't quite manage to provide some protein that the company Nicoli and Kast need to... erm... well... I think there was something about the protein saving lives or it gives women perfect asses or something like that. The threat of pulled funding leads the twosome to introduce human DNA into their splicing, believing they have to do this before someone else does and that it will save lives (?). The result is a life form that emerges from another cocoon type ball sack, looking like a shaved rabbit with no ears, it survives and... oh come on you've probably seen the trailer do you really need me to really explain all this?
So skipping ahead, the result of their experiment grows into a young bald female type thing with goats legs and a tail. All the while director Vincenzo Natali pretty unsubtly introduces 'the female lead's mum was mentally unstable' gambit, of course this lends weight to a whole load of childhood and parenting issues, which is handy when distorting Elsa's maternal instincts towards Dren (yep she named it, oh and by this point it is making noises like Bjork and looks like and probably is Bjork). Then Clive dances with Dren and sniffs her or sees in her eyes that she is connected to Elsa, yes you guessed it the next revelation is Elsa used her own 'mad family' DNA to create Dren. Which leads to the most laughable scene of the entire film, Nicoli ends up having sex with Dren, why? I really don't know, the Elsa link? The fact he likes to shag weird genetic hybrids? Or the fact she is actually an attractive model/actor that's just wearing a face prosthesis and stick on wings? Anyway it's this scene that really undermines the credibility of the film (It's like they wheeled in Lars von Trier and said 'hey Lars why don't you add one element to this film, anything you want, seriously dude go for it') what is even more stupid is it only takes about three minutes for Elsa to get over seeing her boyfriend getting his groove on with freaky Bjork, I mean Dren.
Anyway, yada yada Dren turns evil (possibly because of the mad family DNA), the whole thing goes a bit 'Species' and despite the carnage no lessons are learnt by the evil medical corporation.
So in conclusion, the first half of the film is a truly intriguing modern day riff on the Frankenstein theme and what it lacks in substance it just about makes up with originality, but this alone can't sustain you after 'that scene' and the fairly predictable end to proceedings. I really wanted to like this film and I think when the dust has settled and I've stopped laughing at the thought of Adrian Brody having sex with Bjork with goats legs then I'll probably realise there is a half decent film in here, but sadly it is undermined by a couple of awful scenes and a massively unsophisticated plot.
Interview with Howard J. Ford
By Daniel Collacott
“I would really rather have come home in a body bag than without a film.”
Writer-director Howard J. Ford and his brother Jonathan Ford are the fast rising sibling partnership behind revered apocalyptic zombie road move ‘The Dead.’ Set in West Africa the film garnered great critical acclaim for its unique cultural take on the un-dead sub genre.
The duo first cut their teeth working on commercials, before progressing to writing and directing films. Howard followed his and his brother’s debut film Mainline Run in 94 by solo directing Distant Shadow in 2000, before the two brothers reignited their creative partnership with ‘The Dead’ in 2010.
“In reality, our commercials gave us more assistance in getting The Dead made and also the sheer amount of commercials we had shot gave us the ability to think quickly in any given circumstance and come out of even a turbulent situation with a usable shot. It’s possible that some of our cast and crew may not have been as quick to jump on board had we not made films that had been released in the past so I suppose it all helps.”
Such was the war of attrition the sibling directorial pairing fought to bring their movie ‘The Dead’ to the big screen that the story behind the making of the film is just as compelling as the film itself. This lead Howard to write a book detailing the suffering and sacrifice he, his brother and the cast went through during the movies filming in West Africa.
“I never thought I would write a book but when I finally got back from Africa after the shoot it was kind of a ‘what the hell just happened’ moment. I think it was the shock waves from all the real death we encountered and all of the horrible situations like the knifepoint muggings and being held at gunpoint! We witnessed so many horrible situations like our leading actor Rob Freeman nearly dying from Malaria and also how close to the edge my own brother became as he watched his almost lifelong dream project apparently fall apart around him! Standing in a hospital being told your lead actor is being treated on a drip but he still may die within 2-3 days was a sobering moment.”
The book entitled ‘Surviving The Dead’ is an emotive, detailed and cathartic account of how the film was made. Illustrated with never before seen stills from the shoot, it shows and describes in vivid detail what the cast and crew had to endure to bring The Dead to our screens. Be Warned, the material recounted - is not for the faint hearted!
“We all witnessed a lot of grim things and I simply had to get it all down on paper onto a physical form. I even thought I might burn the document once I had done so – it was either that or an exorcism of some kind! But then during the process of writing something strange happened. I started to realise that some of the ridiculous situations we had ended up in were actually ironically quite amusing - some of the fights between crew members that seemed so stressful at the time made interesting reading in hindsight.”
The whole cast and crew found the poverty and suffering they encountered extremely hard to swallow. Despite this they were able to give something back to the people and communities they worked with. In fact some of Howard’s fondest recollections were from his encounters with the villagers who became part of the film’s cast and story.
“The upbeat moments were nice to recall, like how happy the guy with the disability was who plays the very first Zombie in the desert. He had a leg that bent right back due to polio (we just added the prosthetic bone effect for the shoot) and in real life he worked really hard for coins each day carrying bags for a little guest house in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. We come along and he gets paid enough to live for three months for just walking from point A to point B as a Zombie. He simply could not believe his ‘luck’. So Ironic I know but he came with us for three days in the desert to reach the location and to him it was like the best holiday he’d ever been on. He was on a ‘jolly’ and my translator told me he was so happy that he could dance. That was an image I didn’t want to see but I was so happy to see him smile the way he did.”
One thing that stands ‘The Dead’ out from other zombie survival movies is the sheer scale and bleakness of the film. Bringing the un-dead to a new cultural setting within West Africa gave the brothers the chance to tell the story from a unique angle and context. The cinematography alone is stunning, the use of vast barren desert landscapes and long shots of the shambling un-dead locals is as unnerving as it is awe inspiring.
‘The Dead’ moves the traditional city based survival movie to a less confined setting, although the constant presence of zombies in almost every camera shot means that the size of the journey doesn’t in any way detract from the feeling of impending doom.
“Jon and I had wanted to do a zombie film since teenagers and even the classic ones that we loved - we got a little frustrated with as they all eventually seemed to have people hauled up in one location. We loved the bits before this inevitable containment, where characters were on the road and trying to get supplies etc. So we swore our zombie film would ALL be on the road. That’s kind of where it came from. Jon had made a lot of notes even more than 20 years ago about a stranger in a strange land of zombies but it was later we discovered Africa due to some commercials we shot there. That was the first moment I got palpitations of excitement at the thought of all the additional meanings our zombie film could have.”
The film unites a US serviceman with an African soldier in the fight to reach the safety of a military base across hundreds of miles of barren landscape. This partnership is central to the core of the movie and one that switches the focus away from the usual fall of law and morality that apocalyptic films usually opt for.
“We just felt that too many zombie movies concentrate on the characters themselves becoming the problem or the danger to each other and we wanted to say that mankind does inherently have good qualities and would want to help where possible. We also wanted to show the African people as very much working together to help each other. It’s all about two different cultures coming together to fight a common enemy. I hope that is positive. It’s probably why it’s so frustrating when someone sees the trailer online and just says ‘it’s a white guy shooting black people in the head’! It’s not at all about that.“
The popularity of The Walking Dead TV series and the swathe of high budget but profitable horror remakes has prompted a lot of film companies to look at the zombie genre in a whole new light.
“For a decade or so before this if Jon and I mentioned the desire to make a zombie movie, we were literally laughed at. Jon always found this particularly frustrating as making a zombie movie was all he really wanted to do.”
Despite the newfound acceptance of the apocalyptic zombie film, the brothers didn’t have backing from a large studio, ‘The Dead’ was independently made and the budget meagre despite the high production values ($150 thousand dollars of which a reported $30 thousand of which went on corruption & bribery). Although Howard notes that there was something positive to come from horror films becoming more mainstream.
“The fact 28 Days Later, which is not really a Zombie movie but is perceived as one, and also Shaun Of The Dead were financial successes, may have been a factor in people having confidence to be attached to such a project (as The Dead). “
Such was the extreme events encountered it is a wonder the entire crew were able to survive the film’s creation, the book describes one such horrific accident that nearly ended proceedings and lives.
“There were some pretty scary moments like the near death from a head on collision with a bus which we then read in a paper the next day killed 66 people in the ‘worst road collision in Burkina Faso.”
It is also a miracle that the two brothers didn’t quit the entire project, especially when their entire crew where at odds with each other and with them.
“There was one moment during all the things that were going wrong and I was desperately trying to make it work with a lot of what I felt like personal sacrifice, when a kind of ‘committee’ formed and I kind of ‘stood accused’ by some of the crew for the pain they were going through."
“For those that read the book, they will see just how far Jon’s emotions went out of control during the production and it was purely because of how personal this was.”
In many ways the book serves as a warning to other would be filmmakers about the pitfalls and problems of filming in foreign locations, but Howard was keen to draw out the positives of the whole experience.
“We have all learnt so much sadly from what went wrong. I certainly would not do it again with so little money and I would take into account that getting anything done in Africa takes you four times as long as you could ever imagine.”
The book also serves as not only an account of what happened during the filming, but also places a spotlight on the lives of those that live in the region.
“I had promised some of the local crew members in Burkina Faso that I would ‘tell the truth’ about the corrupt local police and other goings-on, it suddenly became a book.”
Both Howard and his brother have a passion for travelling and even though their time in Africa pushed them both dangerously close to the edge, it hasn’t quenched their wander lust and love for the continent itself.
“Even after all that happened, I would like to film in Africa again – of course with more money, more armed guards and more assistance on all fronts. Africa is such a beautiful place full of lovely people and just because some people in uniform are somehow forced to be corrupt to put food on their families table doesn’t mean people should refrain from going there. I urge people not to let their lives go by without experiencing a journey in Africa. Although you could just watch The Dead instead and stay relatively safe in your seat!”
Howard is currently working on a supernatural thriller called ‘Indelible’ which has been optioned for a shoot in the US later this year. His brother Jon is writing a revenge movie, which as Howard points out ‘is a subject he is very passionate about!’. But despite what it took to make it, the brothers may not yet be finished with ‘The Dead.’
“There is still talk of a follow-up and if so we would definitely re visit the same key characters. There are some aspects of the story we couldn’t cover first time round so if enough people buy the first one, we will have to go back!”
You can check out the book Surviving the Dead which is available from most good book stockists.
Rambock: Berlin Undead (film review)
by Dan Collacott
Director: Marven Kren – Run Time: 59 min
As a massive fan of the genre it pains me to admit that there are far too many zombie films being churned out at present; but if every zombie film produced was as accomplished as Rambock: Berlin Undead then there could be no complaints from me.
Director Marven Kren’s take on the zombie film has a distinctly old school feel to it. Where many undead flicks revel in excessive gore, mass destruction and emphasis on the scale of the outbreak, Kren sacrifices these elements for a more fast paced, linear and story driven plot.
Lead character Michael (Michael Fuith) has come to Berlin to attempt reconciliation with former girlfriend Gabi (Anna Graczyk). But instead he finds Gabi missing and the block she lives in (and the block opposite) under siege from white eyed rabid frothing mouthed zombies. Aligned with plumbers assistant Harper (Theo Trebs) Michael and numerous others in the blocks try and survive and escape the situation as the whole of Berlin falls to the epidemic.
Now the plot sounds quite simple, but there are plenty of nice touches and subtle twists on the zombie genre to keep you as captive as the survivors in the film. For one the make up and effects is superb and the setting and sound track suitably creepy enough to maintain the tension and sense of threat throughout (the zombies don't squeal or make dumb noises like cornered farm animals).
The story itself focuses solely on Michael and his fairly tragic situation, the other characters are really collateral and the speed of the plotting doesn’t really allow you any time to worry about this. The whole thing is superbly shot and the balance between character and plotting is spot on. The zombies are of the fast running rage variety, but their own weaknesses and the format of the virus itself has been given a subtle make-over (no spoilers here). The acting is pretty good and feels vey naturalistic and believable also.
The ending itself is both clever and touching and helps set this film apart from the others currently munching over the horizon. Kren should be credited for creating a traditional zombie flick that has all the best ingredients an undead horror film should have, with a few rather cunning modern tweaks.
Priest 3D (film review)
How do you ruin a film like Priest?
Review/Discussion By Dan Collacott
Few people I know went rushing to see Priest 3D when it hit the cinemas in May of this year. Quickly dismissed as ‘predictable b-movie action dross’ by most critics, the film really didn't get a fair crack of the whip.
On the surface Priest has all the elements it needed to be a successful and impressive take on the bad future horror genre. It had some really good ideas, a wealth of story to cherry pick a script from and a half decent cast. Yet the end result is pretty much a disappointing mess. There is much promise in the film's opening quarter mins but beyond the 20min mark it reverts to a poorly cut, generic paint by numbers brainless action movie. It would be all to easy to dismiss Priest as another big on budget low on substance movie purely made with the aim of making money and not impressing critics!
Some would say the whole thing was doomed from the start. Priest was in production for years with numerous cast and directorial changes pushing it to the fringes of the abyss. If that wasn’t bad enough then there was the obligatory ‘why don’t we try and make more money by making it 3D’ revelation from some yea-sayer in the studio funding the project. Those efforts and last minute tinkering resulted in… well a few fairly pointless 3D scenes on motorbikes!
To be fair even though the 3D was shoehorned in at the end and pointless - it doesn’t really harm the film in terms of how the viewer experiences it (although I am sure others would argue that point). It is also worth pointing out that the film’s cast all do a very competent job with the material at hand, Paul Bettany (as the titular Priest in question) carries on where he left off in Legion. Karl Urban (Black Hat) makes a pretty good if slightly hammy fist of the cowboy vampire bad guy. Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q and the stellar Christopher Plummer also make up a solid supporting cast… and yet none will be remembered for those performances.
The film is based on a series of long established Korean comics of the same name by author Min-Woo Hyung. As you would expect the story within the comic has been watered down for sake of the film, but remnants of Hyung’s highly conceptual vision of a semi-Orwellian religion obsessed bad future remains in tact. The onscreen reimagining of what vampires are and how mankind has struggled against them historically is a selling point.
The problem is the film makers have been forced to edit the story down to just 87mins when I’m sure there would have been enough material and story to make something much more epic in time and scale. In fact there is probably several hours of footage out there that hit the cutting room floor hard in the final days of post-production.
As a result, when watching Priest you can’t help but notice the fact that the entire film has been hacked to pieces. Dialogue feels stilted, character development rushed and any back-story is glossed over. Most scenes feel short or cut down or like there was some context missing or some more compelling narrative once introducing them. For example (Priestess aside) Bettany’s fellow ass-kicking priest posse actually only feature for one major scene. His side kick for most of the picture (Hicks) talks a lot of hot air about how tough he is and what he can do - but we never really see him do any of it, in fact he makes Batman’s 1960s Robin look macho by comparison.
But it sounds like I am taking the easy route here and just slagging off the film, which is not the point of this at all. For one the film’s dark future setting is wonderful and the take on the vampires and their history is as i've already said pretty darn cool. In fact the film’s concept/angle is as interesting and refreshing as the ideas presented in ‘Day Breakers’ and ‘Nightwatch’ except the makers of those films had the conviction/balls/permission to realise their vision. In all fairness though I’m sure with Priest it was just a case of two much interference and too much time spent in development hell. I’m sure the directors and writers of Priest weren't happy with the film that was actually put out.
It looked a Priest 2 was planned or at least that’s what ‘the war is only just beginning’ quote at the end suggests. This never came to be.
The Awakening (film review)
Director: Nick Murphy - Runtime: 107 mins
Review by Dan Collacott
Us Brits love a period drama, the decadence of a society with all its manners, values and a fresh pot of tea with scones has become a national draw. The traditional ghost story is a cherished part of our past and with a 1921 post war setting, horror thriller The Awakening is a welcome change from the loud gore and high concept brutal torture flicks of recent times.
Troubled hoax exposer and author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is drawn from her London home to a boarding school in the country by teacher and ex army man Robert Mallory (Dominic West). Cathcart is charged with the task of dispelling the paranormal myth around a recent child's death, bringing fact and reason where fear and anxiety have taken hold. Her own bereavement and the weight of her surrounds and situation cloud her judgement as it proves the school has more than smoke, mirrors and ghostly suggestion at its cold heart.
Director Nick Murphy has deftly put together a psychological period suspense thriller very much in the mould of The Others and The Orphanage. More importantly it is a classic ghost story that builds the tension in subtle layers rather than bludgeoning its audience with gore and cheap jump gimmicks. Murphy certainly knows how to scare though - weaving some chilling set pieces subtly into the film's polite narrative. The scenes featuring Florence looking through the windows of the model school doll's house had my heart climbing out of my chest!The whole picture is beautifully shot, benefiting greatly from the lush aesthetics of the 1920s countryside and Gothic architecture of the boarding school at the heart of the picture. The highly emotive themes of loss and loneliness work to suppress the more predictable and cliche elements that surface towards the end of the film.
The performances of Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton are highly accomplished and the scripting tight. My only criticism is some of the plot elements didn't sit well together, the mix of science, scepticism and paranormal meant that Murphy struggled to bring a balanced end to proceedings. In fact I felt like I was seeking out one last cruel twist of fate before the credits rolled.