Nigel Wingrove, the man behind Redemption, Salvation, and numerous other video labels specialising in sensational, censor-baiting movies, is now blogging over at SCUM NATION.
If you are familiar with his output (such as the sapphic nunsploitation classic 'Sacred Flesh') then you probably knew this already, but if you have still yet to discover the joys of Salvation Films, then you really should head on over there and enjoy the wit and wisdom of a man who has had a film banned by the BBFC on the grounds of Blasphemy.
This is a man who has the hypocrisies of our banal modern society firmly in his crosshairs, and isn't afraid to pull the trigger. Be sure to check it out...
Monday, 23 November 2009
Thursday, 5 November 2009
Directed by James Eaves
I'll admit it, I likes me some vampire movies. Just like most genre flicks, I'll give any vampire movie a fair crack of the whip. Unless, of course, it's one of these 'Nu-skool' emo vampire faggotry flicks like 'Twilight', or has Kate Beckinsale in it. She's had her three strikes as far as the vampire genre is concerned, and is most definitely out.
Indeed, thanks to the aforementioned 'Twilight' and the numerous imitators/coattail riders it will inevitably foist upon us (like Cirque Du Freak's 'The Vampire's Assistant'), vampires are, like, so uber-cool right now. All the hipster kids are into the whole 'vampire thing' (or 'Vampyre' for the truly pretentious clove cigarette smokers amongst us).
Which means vampires are not actually 'cool' per se, but rather the very antithesis thereof. Which means it's the perfect time for me to start breaking out reviews of vampire flicks which the current plague of quasi-goth vampiric poseurs will never even have heard of, let alone seen.
First off the bat (pun fully intended) is 'The Witches Hammer'. Yes, I know exactly what you're thinking. Shouldn't there be an apostrophe to denote possession of the titular hammer by the similarly-titular witches? Apparently not, as said hammer (which isn't in fact an actual physical hammer per se, but instead a metaphorical one) is not possessed by the witches, but instead intended to be used against them. They could have simply avoided the confusion and called it 'The Witch Hammer', but 'The Witches Hammer' sounds that little bit cooler, plus implies the presence of more than one witch, and when you're producing low budget films you have to seize every available opportunity to metaphorically 'big oneself (and by extension one's production) up'. It's called 'production value', darling.
Head Recruiter for the Cult Of Coulter
'The Witches Hammer' tells the story of Rebecca (essayed by the suitably sultry Claudia Coulter), a vampire assassin recruited and trained by the shadowy and secretive Project 571. The atmospheric opening sequence is incredibly well done, showing Rebecca having been bitten by a vampire, being plucked from the morgue and having all sorts of medical procedures performed upon her during the credit reel. There's a wonderful sense of minimalist screen composition at play here, and it all looks extremely professional. This is why I'm such a stickler for good composition...it swiftly sorts the men from the boys and let's you know that the film isn't going to be done by three teenagers with a handheld camcorder. What's more, it doesn't cost anything to get it right either.
There's also an excellent, standout scene wherein Rebecca is tested to see whether she would prefer a glass of water or a glass of blood. It's peerless stuff all round, again starkly minimalist and wonderfully edited to crank up the tension as Rebecca's coldly detached handlers (Liza Keast and Andrew Cullum) continue to incessantly pose that most probing of questions: "Which drink would you like, Rebecca?".
It's a scene that will stay with you on both a dramatic and emotional level as well as on a technical level also. It's amazing to see how much drama can be squeezed out of so little as three actors, two pint glasses, some water and some red food dye, but they do it. Indeed, this scene is so brilliant in its' simplicity that on the BTS material we are shown Claudia Coulter doing her own homemade take on it as part of her audition reel for the role, sans the benefits of intercutting...you can check it out for yourself HERE.
Coulter has a really good look which suits the role to a tee. Her facial bone structure and prominent cheekbones allow her to look at turns both strong and imposing, yet also vaguely drawn and hungry, which is pretty much the perfect combination for a vampire I should imagine.
Rebecca begins to regret not taking out private healthcare...
One bone of contention I do have with the opening sequence is that the medical procedures are never really fully explained. We're told that Rebecca is 'genetically engineered', but there's never any real mention or latter demonstration of any benefits this genetic engineering may have afforded her. As I will go on to explain, she still has all of the traditional weaknesses associated with vampirism, so it's difficult to say what part (if any) this supposed engineering plays. We're told that her reflexes, speed and strength will be improved, but I always thought that was part of the overall package deal one gets when becoming a vampire (Indeed, this phenomenon is later confirmed in a flashback sequence wherein her bumbling sidekick Jonathan explains that his erstwhile wife's vampirically-derived 'extra strength' put him in the hospital for some time).
As such, I feel a simple line along the lines of 'As a vampire, you're already stronger/faster than a human, and with the genetic engineering, you will be stronger/faster than a vampire' would have certainly helped to clarify things. It's not sufficiently cleared up either when Madeline (Stephanie Beacham) describes her as a 'genetically engineered vampire created to destroy evil'. Putting aside the fact that 'destroying evil' is as nebulous and unspecific a concept as a 'war on terror', we are still not told exactly how this purported genetic engineering is supposed to help her in her designated task, however vague it may appear to be.
Having said that, to remove or reduce her weakness would ultimately leave her a less interesting character. How boring would Superman be if not for the existence of Kryptonite, for example? Her sensitivity to sunlight is demonstrated in a nice scene where her handlers take her to watch her husband and son playing in the park, from the comfort of a blacked-out BMW. As she leans to get a better view from an open window, her skin begins to blacken and burn.
I told you tanning beds were dangerous...
Indeed, there are a number of inventive ideas in the mix. Seconds after having completed her first mission, Rebecca is shot in the head by armed police. Aside from investing her character with a refreshingly believable level of vulnerability (this is her first mission, lest we forget), it also provides a neat way to tie up loose ends. The police aren't looking for anyone because the killer is in the morgue, which is exactly where her handlers from Project 571 collect her from once she's healed up. Ergo, she's a completely reusable/recyclable assassin (save for the obvious methods of vampire disposal), although whilst her carbon footprint must be admirably small, the same probably can't be said for the (hot) lead one.
It's kind of ironic that they're called 'miniguns', really...
There's also a nice twist in terms of character motivation. Rebecca isn't motivated to work for Project 571 out of some misplaced sense of duty, but simply because they can give her a place to stay and blood to consume. It is established in the opening act as she pays a clandestine visit to her former home that the hunger within her makes her a deadly threat to her husband and child, just as her handlers warned her it would. As such, she can no longer trust herself to be around them, and must instead settle for watching them from afar, which constitutes her 'payment' from Project 571, who keep tabs on them for her.
This reminds me of Amanda Donohoe in 'Lair Of The White Worm'
Alas, Project 571 is not long for this world, as Rebecca arrives back at HQ from one of her sentimental sojourns down memory lane to find the place trashed and her handlers murdered. It seems the attack was perpetrated by a marauding gang of vampires and witches (male witches no less, but then surely that would make them warlocks?) who are intent on completing the job and eliminating the last remnant of Project 571, namely Rebecca.
Whilst Rebecca was involved in a brief but passable scrap whilst carrying out her first mission, this is the first bonafide 'fight' scene in the film. It's not terrible by any means, and there are a few neat touches with the fight choreography involving her motorcycle helmet, but overall it seems a bit half-paced in places, to the extent that you can never successfully suspend your disbelief and believe they are fighting as opposed to going through a choreographed sequence of moves and manouvres. The key flaw for me would seem to be the editing, but then you can't edit a decent fight scene together unless you have the correct shots from either side of the 'impact line', which would appear to be the case here. But if you want a martial arts movie, go rent one. We're talking about vampire flicks here...you can get a good taste of the action contained within TWH from the BTS Featurettes HERE and HERE.
I will resist the temptation to do a pun on 'forked from behind'...
Having vanquished her foes, she is shot with a tranquiliser dart by the lurking Edward (Jonathan Sidgwick...think a bearded Jason Lee playing a hybrid of Vincent D'Onofrio in John Carpenter's Vampires and Tia Carrere's assistant from Relic Hunter, with perhaps a dash of Anthony Daniels' C-3P0 thrown in for good measure), only to come around some 12 hours later and find herself chained to a chair in the headquarters of....Project 572, headed by the ominous Madeline. It is here that the second part of the movie begins in earnest, and with it (in my opinion) the decline of the film.
By and large, the first 25 minutes or so of this film are quite simply solid gold. Yes, there are a few things here and there that I could do without, but overall it's extremely good. Were you, as a potential investor, to be shown this opening portion of the film as a premise for further investment, then you wouldn't be able to get your chequebook out fast enough.
Unfortunately, it is after this selfsame opening that the film begins to meander somewhat and drift away from the promise of the opening act. One of the chief problems for me is the inclusion of a number of overlong flashback scenes, often dealing with comparatively minor characters, which do little to actually advance the plot and instead serve only to disrupt the general narrative thrust of the film.
Kitanya: The First Witch
The first of these flashback sequences tackles the genesis of The Witches Hammer itself, written by the first witch Kitanya (the fetching Magda Rodriguez) back in the days of yore. Whilst I feel that this flashback is fairly needless (in truth, the whole thing could have easily been conveyed by 2-3 lines of dialogue from either Sidgwick or Beacham with perhaps a few seconds of flashback footage) and needlessly long, there is an even greater problem with it in that it simply does not make sense.
A visiting Holy Man converts Kitanya's village and steals and sacrifices her baby. Overcome with grief, she seeks to kill herself, but just as her life is ebbing away, she changes her mind and something 'From The Other Side' hears her plea and bestows life (of a sort) upon her again, and presumably magical powers to boot. You can see a 40 seconds snippet (a sort of 'edited highlights') of it HERE, but the actual flashback is around five minutes in length.
Kitanya prepares to deliver her own unique take on 'Hammer Horror'
So, in revenge, she dispatches the slumbering Holy Man with a pleasingly-large sledgehammer and then slits the throats of all the children in the village. Now, we can all agree that slitting the throats of children is evil, even if they are screaming, bratty ones, but anyone can do it if sufficiently disposed towards it. It's an act which doesn't require any magical powers or occult knowledge to perform, so we see no manifestation of her witch powers (if indeed she has them) even though we have seen how she purportedly gained them.
Writing the Kitanya Sutra?
After fleeing from the scene of her crime, Kitanya takes refuge in a deserted shack and begins to write the Malleus Maleficarum, AKA The Witches Hammer. That's correct...the first witch decides it would be a good idea if she writes a book detailing the myriad ways in which mere mortals can 'do her in', plus sundry spells and whatnot (There's also a glaring continuity error as Kitanya is shown writing the book in green ink with a quill in some sort of archaic language made up of symbolic ideograms and suchlike, yet when the book is opened at two points later on in the film, the contents are shown to be neatly typeset in black, in the standard alphabet).
That Kitanya should write the very book containing the prescribed methods used to torture, test, and kill innumerable witches throughout the ages may sound illogical at first, but one can perhaps view it as her being overcome with remorse and regret for her deeds and thus creating The Witches Hammer is her way of stopping others like her should they ever arise (although this motive is never actually given or implied). It's doubly puzzling because she cannot possibly know how to kill herself successfully without actually doing it, as if she is indeed the first witch, then she has no previous frame of reference for her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, nor are we given any demonstration that she can perform the feats of magic she now writes about.
Things are further compounded when she is cornered at her ramshackle hideaway by the angry villagers and summarily killed with some very basic agricultural tools like pitchforks. This, of course, beggars the question: If it's this easy to bump off a witch (without them returning in some way, shape or form), why would you need The Witches Hammer at all?
Why indeed? Suffice to say, this occult tome is apparently required to kill off a vampire called Hugo Renoir (Tom Dover, whose quasi-Vanilla Ice haircut is hilariously explained in the BTS featurette). We are told that a page from the book was copied whilst it was in the possession of The Church, and a spell has been cast over Renoir making him 'unkillable', lest either the original caster of the spell be killed or the spell is reversed with the aid of The Witches Hammer.
Edward & Rebecca: The Decidedly Odd Couple
Anyway, Rebecca and Edward set out to obtain the book, and do so easily. Indeed, too easily if we're honest (The problem of challenges being overcome far too easily is unfortunately a recurring one in TWH, as I will go on to address a little later in relation to some of the significant vampire villains).
The current owner of the book, 'Le Cardinale', proposes a trade of the book for the gift of vampirism, something Jonathan has apparently agreed with him in advance, hence Rebecca's presence. However, this gives rise to a bigger question...given the number of vampires after the book and involved in the central conspiracy of the storyline, why recruit Rebecca to do the job? Indeed, some of these vampires, such as Victor (Miguel Ruz) have a far purer bloodline, so one would think they have much greater 'worth' to anyone contemplating becoming a creature of the night, as 'Le Cardinale' is.
True, in the short term you'd probably rather have the less vampirically-thoroughbred Rebecca nibble on your neck instead of some guy with a dodgy moustache, but you've got to look at the long term picture as well when all is said and done...and I've no doubt the villains of the piece could easily source a similarly-sexy vamp to seal the deal with 'Le Cardinale' in Rebecca's place. That way, they could also have used the 12 hour period in which Rebecca was drugged to move her to their remote hideaway in preparation for the resurrection ceremony.
Having secured the book, our dynamic duo take the train to Renoir's remote lair, and Rebecca has to ride in the luggage car in a wooden crate. A nice touch, but when you consider the alterntive for Edward would be riding on the pillion of Rebecca's bike whilst holding on to her, you can't help but feel he's been rather shortchanged on the sexy front.
Like the minigun scene, this dream sequence is ideal trailer-fodder...
Still, it does afford an excuse for dialogue (and yes, you guessed it, another flashback sequence, this time for Edward) and it's not like she could ride in one of the passenger cars in her full light-tight biker gear without looking like that girl from the Zovirax advert, after all.
Who's afraid of the big bad Wolf?
Having taken the train as far as it will carry them, they decide to stop in a bar and take in a performance by surprisingly tolerable (by rock band in film standards) all-girl rock band 'The Lilettes'. Obviously neither of them subscribes to the maxim that a moving target is harder to hit, and they are soon learning the error of their ways as they are attacked by the masked and mysterious multiplying assassin designated by Madeline's Tarot as 'The Wolf' (replete with ominous, Overfiend-style vocalisations), plus the little and large duo of Charlotte and Oscar.
The masked man who literally can go forth and multiply...
The fight between Rebecca and her masked assailant (all three of him) is probably the best in the film, all told, and it's extremely pleasing to see Wolf's multiplying effect is performed practically rather than digitally. It's all the more impressive when you learn that this character is in fact an eleventh hour addition to the mix due to Sally Reeve, the actress who plays Charlotte falling pregnant and thus being unable to risk any fight or stunt work as per the original plan. You have to give them ten out of ten for improvisation here. Reeve's condition also contributed to the inclusion of a wonderful drinking straw joke, and also necessitated the somewhat disappointing off-camera kill that her character is subjected to, but I will get to that in a moment.
You've heard of Good Charlotte? Well, here's the evil one...
There's a great sight gag involving kitchen knives, stabbings with forks and a full-on battering with a cast iron frying pan (which could really benefit from better editing and sound effects)...Charlotte and Oscar are very much the comedic relief of the film, although sometimes I think the tendency to play for laughs with other characters aside from Charlotte & Oscar is somewhat jarring in terms of the overall tone of the film. Ultimately, that's just a matter of personal taste though, one man's wine being another man's poison and all that jazz...
"And the Oscar for Best Axe-Wielding Psychotic Vampire Dwarf goes to..."
Having dealt with their would-be killers and stolen a sporty red Ferrari, Edward and Rebecca finally make it to Renoir's lair, and the inevitable showdown commences, although not in the manner which they have been led to believe.
"Tie me Vampiroo down, Sport..."
The final act again left me with more questions than answers. Apparently, genetically-enhanced vampire Rebecca (or at least her genetically-enhanced body) is now to be the vessel for the return of Kitanya's spirit. Given the fact that the inter-species enmity between vampires and witches has already been hinted at earlier in the film, it's a bizarre choice akin to transplanting Hitler's cryogenically frozen brain into Sammy Davis Jnr.'s black Jew body. Who's going to be the idiot brave enough to hand them a mirror, post-transplant?
Perhaps the plan is to put her in a vampire's body so that she inherits the traditional weaknesses of a vampire, such as burning in sunlight? This might be a partially workable idea (although it is never stated that this is the aim), but we would then have to overlook the fact that Rebecca is arguably one of the most powerful and deadly vampires on the planet thanks to the efforts of Project 571. If the villains are looking to keep the resurrected Kitanya on a short leash, then they could surely find a far less formidable vampire to transplant her soul into.
Further confusion abounds when the crux of Renoir's scheme is revealed. Having resurrected Kitanya, Renoir intends to use her to control the otherworldly trio known as the Souls Of The Damned (portrayed by three extremely impressive 12 foot tall puppets). Yet it is these very selfsame Souls who furnish Renoir with the urn containing Kitanya's spiritual essence with the understanding that he will resurrect her. I'm at a loss to understand the logic here on a number of fronts, as I will go on to explain.
If Kitanya does present such a threat to the Souls Of The Damned, why would they hand her over and seek her resurrection? More to the point, given that the Souls Of The Damned are shown to be more than capable of effecting the physical world (with deadly effect!), one wonders why they do not perform the resurrection themselves?
It's never made clear what sort of yoke or control either party expects or believes they might have over the resurrected Kitanya, nor how they intend to bend her will to their own ends. Gratitude, perhaps? All I know is that transplanting the soul of the first and most powerful witch into the body of a genetically-enhanced vampire killing machine, and then expecting said super-powerful hybrid to simply do your bidding on a favour-for-a-favour basis is asking a hell of a lot, and displays a naivete that borders upon suicidal.
After all, let us suppose that the newly-resurrected Kitanya decides that she doesn't fancy taking orders but instead prefers giving them out? Can The Witches Hammer be used to control her? I honestly don't know, but it seems unlikely that Kitanya would write such an entry. She seemed easy enough to kill the first time around (although she wasn't a genetically-enhanced vampire back then, as she will be if the transferance is successful, so it's hard to say how or if traditional witch killing methods would work on her newly-resurrected self), but then killing her would rather defeat the object of resurrecting her, wouldn't it?
It's all the more baffling when Renoir asks Madeline if she's sure Kitanya will want to join them, and Madeline replies 'Who wouldn't?'. If I'm honest, it's a bit too much of a leap of faith to expect them to go ahead with their scheme without any real method of controlling Kitanya in place (whether it works or doesn't), nor any other such guarantee of compliance. It's like jumping into the lion cage at the zoo after they've been fed. They're probably not hungry, but that doesn't mean they won't maul you to death all the same.
Stephanie Beacham as the mono-ocular Madeline
Without spoiling the plot, it is revealed that Edward has been used by Madeline because, as a researcher, he has access to various rare books. Yet we are also shown that Madeline can, with a blink of her eye or twitch of her finger, completely befuddle and bewilder her opponents (as she does with her would-be assassins Charlotte and Oscar). Now, if she can do this to deadly vampires, what prevents her from performing the selfsame trick on a humble librarian, for example? Or on 'Le Cardinale', the man who has The Witches Hammer? No reason is given or apparent save for rank bone idleness. There's just no need for her to resort to the classic ploy of the stalking horse to achieve her aims.
The explanation given makes no sense either, when Madeline opines that 'The book (TWH) would never surface to someone like me'. No reason is given as to why this should be the case, or even if it is the case, and as such no sense can be gleaned from it.
In Germany, it's called 'The Vampire Hunter'
There's also another massive continuity error involving Rebecca's revolver and the amount of bullets it contains. She fires six in her initial skirmish with the extremely light-sensitive Variak vampires (a good concept well executed), before the gun is knocked from her hands. Later on, Jonathan finds the gun and shoots a Variak with it, then proceeds to the chamber where the resurrection ceremony is taking place and shoots the urn containing the soul essence of Kitanya, then levels the gun at Madeline before she forces it from his hand by way of magic (the very fact that she does this would suggest that the gun is not empty and she is under threat), but this would then mean that a standard six-shooter suddenly holds at the very least nine rounds, possibly more.
Where do these extra bullets come from? It's never shown or explained, and a cursory look at the gun confirms that it is indeed your standard six shooter. It's ultimately a continuity error that should have been dealt with at script level, as one can see that the filmmakers had access to various prop weapons (including pistols) which have larger magazine capacity. Given that Rebecca is shown using automatics throughout the rest of the film, it's rather odd that she should suddenly resort to a revolver. Again, it's one of these little things that don't quite add up.
Rebecca prepares to cut a swathe on the dancefloor
It's these kind of gaps in logic which tend to expose the tenuous nature of the plotline. Perhaps I'm just nitpicking, but there are just too many parts which don't make sense within the overall context of the storyline. I can more than happily overlook things which would be considered unrealistic in real life but are acceptable within the internal reality of a given film (like Rebecca being able to take her Samurai sword into a bar, just like The Bride in Kill Bill Vol.1 is allowed to take her sword on a passenger plane), but the truth is there are too many things in TWH which I can't seem to let slide. Too much time is spent settng things up which have no real discernible payoff.
Charlotte in her Pre-vampirism days...
In the cases of vampiric foes such as Victor and Charlotte, both are given flashbacks explaining their genesis as vampires, and each has their unique characteristics. Victor apparently has "strength and invulnerability of the purest kind" due to having been bitten by a pure blood vampire (in addition to being a trained killer in his pre-vampiric incarnation), whilst the larger than life Charlotte cannot apparently be killed with a regulation stake through the heart because apparently her heart is "so small and so deep that she can never be killed", suggesting a mere stake will not penetrate deep enough into the chest of the plus-sized villainess (as demonstrated in a brief altercation with Madeline). In their defence, when Edward is relaying the information about Charlotte, he does preface it with "It is said", which as anyone who watches Penn & Teller:Bullshit! can tell you means that whatever follows is pretty much an outright lie, but it seems the obvious response to such a challenge is either 'get a bigger stake' or 'chop her head off instead'.
Indeed, an outright lie is what these backstories are proven to be as both vamps are dispatched in fairly short order, much like every other vampire in the picture. At no point is Rebecca made to think outside the box, or draw upon some information she may have learned earlier vis a vis the respective weakness or achilles' heel of either of these vamps (physical or psychological), or think on her feet and improvise some ingeneous method of killing them, by turning the situation or environment to her advantage. It's just business as usual for these vampires we have been led to believe are somehow a little more dangerous than the average vamp, but sadly prove to be anything but. Still, as I alluded to earler, I can forgive this incongruity with regard to Charlotte for the off-camera reasons listed above which rather tie the producers' hands behind their backs. They may very well have had a much different plan in mind before the situation was effectively taken out of their hands.
More puzzling still is that during the altercation between Rebecca and Victor, Victor is killed by Edward just as he is about to administer a deathblow by way of a sword through the heart of the fallen Rebecca. Of course, had he succeeded in landing his intended coup de grace, then Rebecca would explode in a shower of sparks (just like all the other vampires), but it would also put a rather significant fly in the ointment of the villains' nefarious scheme to transfer Kitanya's disembodied soul into Rebecca's body, as there would be no body left to use. Again, the internal logic of the script is a tad awry here.
Ultimately, what is true and what is lies becomes frustratingly blurred as the viewer is constantly being told one thing but then shown another.
US Cover, I believe
The truth of the matter is that the 'Witches Hammer' plotline (i.e., that which comes after the bravura opening reel) is in fact something of an insubstantial, wafer-thin affair when all is said and done, a fact which I believe is chiefly responsible for the filmmakers' decision to try and overcompensate by way of numerous flashbacks and divergent sub-plots for peripheral supporting characters, as if to try and disguise the overtly linear simplicity of the story arc, which can be readily summarised (with apologies to a certain band) as Get Book. Bring Book. Kill., yet it still manages to remain enjoyable.
Away from plot-based concerns, the decision to shoot on film must surely have been something of a poisoned chalice before, during, and after production, but it's one I think the filmmakers will be glad they decided to take a chance on (I certainly am). As much as I like the freedom afforded by digital, film simply looks better. Perhaps one day the digital bods will be able to accurately mimic the mythical 'film look', but until that day dawns film is king.
As such, when Eaves and DP/Cinematographer John Raggett (another name that will undoubtedly be familiar to readers acquainted with the films of Johannes Roberts) get it right, the decision to shoot on film really pays off. It looks 'proper' for want of a better word, and belies the budget of the film. On the other hand, there are instances where the budget is more evident, or shot composition is a little less than what it could be (as you might well expect for a highly-pressurised low budget shoot where time is of the essence), and the choice of film mercilessly exposes them, like the analogy of a Ferrari with a lawnmower engine. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad by and large, thus vindicating the decision (and extra expense/work involved) to shoot on film as opposed to digital.
With so few films in this budget range shooting on film, it confers something of a unique selling point to the film and thus adds marketability. Another such factor is the inclusion of Stephanie Beacham in the cast, and let me just say that whatever they had to pay or whatever hoops they may have had to jump through to get her, she was most certainly worth it. Aside from the added bonus of having an internationally-recognised name above the title, she injects an unerring gravitas into her scenes. It's just a really smart casting decision that pays off in spades, quite frankly. Check out some BTS footage HERE.
Rebecca in ceremonial garb at the film's finale...
Less obvious, but equally well done, are things like the costumes and music. Normally, the maxim is that if such things are done properly, then you don't notice them at all, but there are certain outfits such as the ceremonial gown or most of Madeline's wardrobe (including the eyepatch) which really catch the eye. Clever little touches like Madeline's custom Tarot cards or the paintings in Le Cardinale's lair simply add that certain extra something to the proceedings. These things don't make themselves, after all.
Promo Art...she doesn't have these weapons in the film
Bizarrely, for all of the gripes I've listed above, I still enjoyed it immensely. Like I say, I like vampire films, and this one has something about it. The people behind the latest incarnation of Hammer would have probably been better off sinking their money into something like this as opposed to the execrable 'Beyond The Rave'. It's not going to topple Razor Blade Smile from atop its' lofty perch as King (or Queen?) of the low budget British vampire flicks, but it certainly has a bloody good go at it. If you liked RBS, then you'll most likely enjoy TWH (but then, if you liked RBS, you probably already own TWH already...).
The parts are ultimately greater than the whole, but then there are admittedly some great parts of it, especially the opening segment. Even the flashbacks are good...as much as I feel there are too many of them, and that they're too long, I certainly can't say that they are poorly done. It's apparent that a great deal of effort went into the period flashbacks for Kitanya and Charlotte (including 'scratchy' black and white film and title cards), but my gut feeling is perhaps too much effort (and thus reciprocal screen time) was expended on them. If they were on the DVD extras as deleted scenes (or extended version of cut-down flashbacks actually in the feature itself), I'd probably think they were incredibly cool little bonuses. As it is, I think they're very well done, just used inappropriately.
If you're a vampire completist, I wouldn't hesitate to say "Go out and get it!". I'm not going to suggest it's the greatest vampire film ever made, but for all of the above faults it's not the worst either, and it does have some inventive little touches which serve to differentiate it from the pack.
Another variation on the cover art...
Ultimately, TWH is two-thirds of a very good low budget vampire flick, and one-third tantalising glimpse of what could have been with a little more time and money (which, in filmmaking terms, are by and large the same thing at the end of the day anyway). As the Icarus-like ascent and subsequent descent clearly illustrates, it is demonstrably capable of hitting the giddy heights but for whatever reason simply cannot maintain them, a symptom, I feel, of the compensatory over-ambition that affects many lower budget independent films and leads to the inevitable problem of resources being spread too thinly, and visibly so. To paraphrase a oft-quote truism about love, perhaps it is better to fly and crash than to never have flown at all. Having said that, it's probably better to fly and land uneventfully than either of the preceding choices.
When all is said and done, for all the faults, it's still extremely watchable. As a visual 'calling card' of sorts for Amber Pictures, it certainly does the job. It's telling that in this BTS clip HERE, Eaves is asked "What made you go for such a big 'scoped' film on a low budget", to which he replies "Stupidity". Having checked out the trailers for Amber Pictures' follow-up project 'Bane', it looks to be more of a constrained, claustrophobic and altogether tighter picture than the somewhat more sprawling TWH. It appears he's learnt his lesson, and made a tidy little film in the process, one which has certainly whetted by appetite and has me now eagerly on the hunt for a copy of 'Bane'.
Alas, I received TWH as a screener so cannot honestly make my usual comment as to whether I consider it to be value for money or not. If you can get it for a tenner or preferably below, my advice would be to bite their hand off. Again, like most of the titles under the Blackhorse Distribution aegis, it seems to crop up on Ebay at a vastly inflated Buy It Now price from time to time (I have a sneaking suspicion that someone is currently sitting on Blackhorse's back catalogue)...very rarely do you see individual sellers part with their copy, which should pretty much tell you all you need to know. My copy certainly won't be finding itself on Ebay anytime soon, I can tell you...
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Directed by: Bill Hellfire
Produced by: Bill Hellfire & Cherry Moonshine
Distributor: Alternative Cinema
(This review refers to the 'Naughty Edition' DVD released on the After Hours Cinema label)
Lesbian lovers Olivia (Misty Mundae) and Jackie (Katie Jordon) are in a tight spot. Two months behind on the rent and facing eviction, they hit upon a scheme to keep the roof over their heads.
The two girls start to put on sexy shows for their lecherous landlord Richie (Joey Smack) in exchange for the rent. It seems like the perfect arrangement until Richie starts to demand kinkier and edgier shows, including strangulation and breathplay. Just how far are they willing to go?
This is ultra low budget filmmaking, shot in one day with a cast of three and a crew of four (one of whom also happens to be in the cast, so seven in all, including genre notable Johnny Crash). It's an amazing achievement considering how little time and how few people were involved. Indeed, you can't help but wonder how much better it could have been if they have shot it over 2-3 days with a little more money. In short, if I were in charge of the 48 Hours Film Project, I'd bar Bill Hellfire and the Factory 2000 crew from entering, because on this evidence they'd clearly piss it without breaking a sweat. Indeed, as I shall explain later, it seems he doesn't even need a full 24 hours to shoot a passable movie.
At just under an hour, it's not quite a feature, not quite a short, but the running time feels just about right. If anything, there are a few moments where the sex scenes begin to drag a little, something I think could have been remedied with a few more cutaways to Richie as he watches, using him as a sort of visual barometer for the scene's progress. This is done in one of the latter scenes where Richie gamely slaps, scratches and punches his face as the asphyxiation action unfolds before him, and it works like a charm.
It's a relatively simple tale (as the budget, schedule and cast would necessarily dictate) but told well and planned better. Of course, the key aspect that persuades the viewer to overlook the budgetary limitations is the inclusion of erstwhile Seduction Cinema figurehead, Misty Mundae (AKA Erin Brown, from the Masters Of Horror episode, 'Sick Girl').
The versatile quality of Mundae's face is such that she is able to seamlessly shift from being the seduced to being the seductress or just goofing off (as is so often the case in some of her more spoofy Seduction output) with no loss of believability. The fact that this is allied with a pleasingly natural figure reminiscent of classical sculpture makes for a heady combination and an undeniable screen presence. She's every inch the star, and none of those inches owe anything to botox, collagen or silicone. Her deal is real, so much so that she even has pubic hair. In short, the perfect antidote to the stereotypical softcore sirens who fall off the 'peroxide and plastic' production line.
In Silk Stocking Strangler, the producers have created an interesting visual dichotomy by having the Mundae, who looks like the archetypal girl next door (although I'm sure few of us have ever lived next door to a girl that was anywhere near her particular ballpark, looks-wise) play the pragmatic and somewhat avaricious character, whereas the decidedly more edgy and vampish-looking Jordon is cast as the reluctant moralist who is uncomfortable with the entire proposition. Appearances, it would seem, can indeed be deceiving, and that is a suitable metaphor for the film as a whole.
On the surface, one can choose to view it as what it is, namely a softcore stroke-flick wherein numerous sexual kinks and proclivities are acted out by Mundae and Jordon for the entertainment of the voyeuristic viewer, which is nominally Richie, but in reality us. Stockings and suspenders, smoking, sapphic sex sessions, strap-ons, and strangulation are all par for this particular course. A wide range of fetishes are catered for and duly indulged, and in fine style too.
Then there is the aspect of escalation in the sort of activities that Richie wishes to see the girls perform or partake in for him. Whilst it makes sense to increase the stakes from a purely narrative viewpoint, it also mirrors the oft-aired belief that consumers of pornography will ultimately become jaded with the level of a particular pornographic act in question and thus seek something more extreme, dangerous and degrading, ad nauseum, until they arrive at snuff.
Suddenly, we become aware that Silk Stocking Strangler is not in fact mere masturbatory fodder, but instead 'meta-pornography' which is to say it is pornography (albeit of the decidedly softcore variety) which passes comment upon pornography. The medium truly is the message here.
Of course, wherever and whenever the subject of pornography should arise, the question of exploitation is never far behind, and indeed who is exploiting who. Some (mostly hardcore misandrist/feminist types) would argue that pornography exploits women, whilst giving no thought to the male performers whatsoever. There are others who would argue that pornography exploits men (as consumers) and male weakness, and these themes are touched upon briefly in the film. Is Richie the exploiter? Are the girls the exploiters? Is Olivia exploiting them both for her own ends? The notions of power and control, in their varied forms, are present throughout, and it's only at the finale that we discover who's really in control as opposed to who thinks they are in control.
The climax of the film is a curiously satisfying one. On the one hand, you have the inevitable result of the constantly increasing level of danger injected into the sexual peccadilloes that Richie wants to see explored before him, yet there's an unexpected twist beyond that as well. In short, you're given exactly what you'd expect, and a surprise as well, but I'm not going to ruin it for you...leave us say that the viewer is left in no doubt as to who has really been using who.
One aspect of the film that really stuck out as being well done was the music, both incidental and the slightly-erotic-yet-still-creepy signature theme too. It compliments the onscreen proceedings to a tee.
In terms of extras, there are the usual features one would associate with releases from the labels under the EI Cinema (now Pop! Cinema) label, plus a revealing behind-the-scenes featurette, shot, I believe by Johnny Crash and Cherry Moonshine. As Misty Mundae is applying some makeup in the bathroom and chatting about how early she had to get up to make her call time, the camerawoman opines that she has got 'a long day ahead of her', to which Misty replies 'Well, Joey's Mom gets home around four, so we'll either be done by then or...who knows?'.
I guess we should thank God that Joey Smack's mother didn't get off work early the day they were filming...could you imagine your mother walking in as you filmed two scantily girls performing a variety of kinky sex acts, or perhaps while you were hanging a semi-naked masturbating girl by her neck? Me neither. Still, it would probably be slightly less embarrassing than a Jason 'Pie Fucker' Biggs scenario, as at least there are naked girls present.
So, is it worth the money? Despite the short running time, I'm very much inclined to say yes. It's a pleasingly detached, creepy and unsettling little oddity which isn't quite what you'd expect it to be. Failing that, there are naked girls too. Frankly, you can't lose either way.
On a final note, I should add that I am uncertain as to the legality of owning a film like this in the UK since the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill under the auspices of our former fat, corrupt, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (she's still fat and corrupt, just not Home Secretary any more). The asphyxiation scenes are not to dissimilar from the type of content you'd find on various 'Faux-Snuff' fetish websites which have since been proscribed somewhat under British law. So, if you do decide to order it, I've no idea whether UK Customs would allow it to pass (should they inspect it).
Having said that, the fact that you can order it from such mainstream outlets as Amazon should probably go some way towards getting it in 'under the radar', so to speak.
It should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that being a resident of the UK I totally do not own a copy of this film, either in a physical or digital format, and have never even seen it. The above review is just an astonishingly accurate guess as to the contents of the film and the themes tackled therein.