Tag Archives: British horror

Casting a Spell


by Hope Madden

We’re afraid of the woods. We likely always have been—the Brothers Grimm may have collected wooded tales of witches, elves and wolves both big and bad during the 1800s, but those stories had been passed down for generations.

Those who told the old fairy tales saw the forest as a mysterious place of wonder, temptation, confusion and danger.

Writing/directing team George Popov and Jonathan Russell follow that same bumpy trail into the woods with their first feature, Hex.

Made on little more than a thousand dollars, Hex proves the duo to be a competent set of craftsmen and effective storytellers.

Two soldiers separated from their companies in the 17th century during England’s Civil War chase each other into a deep forest. The rebel Thomas (William Young) is young, soft and open to the dark poetry and doom of witchcraft. He’s not long in the woods before he sees his true enemy is not the countryman behind him with his sword drawn.

Richard (Daniel Oldroyd) fights for King and Country, strident and single-minded, logic keeps him from believing until he has little choice.

Hex draws quick comparisons to Ben Wheatley’s 2013 experiment A Field in England, but where that film felt fanciful and indulgent (though entertaining), Hex feels a bit more like a stage play taken to the woods.

The film is slow-moving, sometimes frustratingly so. Though Popov and Russell’s technical skills are solid, their instincts for pacing and tension-building are less honed. The slight plot relies immensely on an atmosphere of supernatural dread for its success, but it’s here that the filmmakers have some trouble.

The flaw is hardly insurmountable. Even with sometimes obvious budget restrictions, the film looks good. Popov and Russell let light from a campfire spark the imagination, edging frames with shadowy dangers.

Hex sounds great, too, working the nerves with the effective noise of blades unsheathed or the diabolical tinker of a nearby brook, all enriched with Nino Russell’s appropriately bewitching score.

There is more happening here than you realize, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that you only recognize the film’s purpose when they are ready for you to do so. The result is a satisfying tale with more power than just magic.

Maniac Baby on Board


by Hope Madden

Anybody with any sense at all is afraid of pregnant women.

I myself all but pushed a man down a flight of stairs while I was pregnant, and still don’t see the problem with it.

With unassuming mastery, Alice Lowe pushes that concept to its breaking point with her wickedly funny directorial debut, Prevenge.

Lowe plays Ruth. Grieving, single and pregnant, Ruth believes her unborn daughter rather insists that she kill a bunch of people.

With her characteristically dry, oh-so-British humor, Lowe exposes awkward moments of human interaction and then forces you to stare at them until they become gigglingly unbearable.

Why such bloodlust from Ruth’s baby? Lowe, who also wrote the script, divulges just as much as you need to know when the opportunity arises. At first, there’s just the macabre fun of watching the seemingly ordinary mum pick off an unsuspecting exotic pet salesman.

And then on to the saddest, most pathetic 70s-loving disco club DJ of all time.

With each new victim we learn a bit more backstory and a little more about Ruth, who’s on a path that’s funny, bloody and just touching enough to leave a mark.

Lowe’s blackly comic timing as an actor is well proven, particularly in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 gem Sightseers, which she also co-penned. Wheatley’s picture predicted Lowe’s ability to zero in on anxieties around social awkwardness and exploit them for all their squirm-worthy horror and comedic worth, as well.

She ably showcases these skills and more in Prevenge, this time mining larger themes of grief and pre-partum depression with a weary authenticity. (Lowe, like her character Ruth, was 7 months pregnant during filming.)

Rarely gory (DJ Dan does get it pretty good, though), the film barely registers as horror, but as a comedy it treads some dark territory. It does so with authority, good will, subversive insight and a laugh.

It’s a thin plot requiring the ability to suspend disbelief, but it also announces a very fresh voice in horror.



Don’t Knock At All

Don’t Knock Twice

by Hope Madden

Two Thomas the Tank Engine writers team up with fledgling director Caradog James to talk of witches, urban legends, estranged children and doors.

They just don’t do it very well.

Do you ever watch a horror film where a storyline leads to a jump scare, and then characters move on with their lives as if no spindly legged giant demon woman just crawled out of their closet toward them? They just go to the next scene?

Frustrating, right?

Welcome to Don’t Knock Twice.

The film follows a recovered addict turned successful sculptor (Katee Sackhoff) as she tries to regain custody of the teen daughter she gave up years ago. Chloe (Lucy Boynton – who was so good in last year’s Sing Street) wants nothing to do with her mum until buddy Danny goes missing and Chloe suspects the long dead neighborhood witch is to blame.

A mishmash of horror tropes follows as Chloe and her mother believe idiocy and do ridiculous things.

There’s a Baba Yaga – nice! Now there’s a fresh idea.

There’s also a beautiful foreigner spinning hocusy pocusy nonsense, which is straight out of every “her husband left town and something supernatural is happening” piece of garbage ever to be set to film.

Lucy Boynton has talent. Katee Sackhoff, as far as Don’t Knock Twice exposes, does not. Her flat delivery never suggests the maternal devotion meant to drive her character’s actions and her chemistry with the rest of the cast is nonexistent.

The main trouble, however, is James. He cannot create a cohesive mythology, which is especially important in supernatural horror. Very little holds together and even less holds your attention.

It’s a mystery, you see – one that routinely mentions doors without ever really doing anything with that; one that returns repeatedly to clues just to pretend they mean something different this time; one that asks you to accept that a conscious human could find a box of evidence in her own art studio and not ask, “Hey, how did this get here?!”

It’s bad, is what I’m saying.

And worse yet, it’s dull.


Are We Not Men?


by Hope Madden

Aah, the precarious position of the alpha male. Oh should I say Aaaaaaaah!? Because that is the delightfully appropriate title of Steve Oram’s feature directorial debut.

An absurd horror comedy, the film offers no dialog at all, just grunts, as humans – devolved into ape mentality – go about their poop-throwing, territory marking, television smashing daily existence.

It’s the kind of overly clever premise you expect to wear thin, but honestly, it doesn’t. Much credit goes to a game cast (including Oram) that sells every minute of the ridiculousness, and to Oram again as director. He keeps the pace quick, his images a flurry of insanity you need to see more than once to fully appreciate.

Oram has more in store than a wickedly bloody send up, though. His film wisely deconstructs our own human preoccupations and foibles in a way that’s strangely touching, even sad at times.

The lack of dialog suits the experiment in the same way Steven Soderbergh’s meta-dialog suited his weirdly personal 1996 effort Schizopolis, or the way Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s use of unsubtitled sign language fits his brilliant film The Tribe. While Aaaaaaaah! is far lighter and more madcap than either of these, it still asks you to use another means of understanding character actions, which allows you to see humanity on a more jarringly primal level.

It wouldn’t even be a horror movie were it not for all those severed penises.

Oram and his appealing cast keep you interested as seemingly divergent stories blend and reshape, and domestic hierarchies shift. Lucy Honigman is particularly compelling, but every actor has surprising success in articulating a dimensional character with nary a word to help.

A familiar face in British comedy, Oram stood out in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 horror comedy Sightseers. He’s playing against type here as the threatening male presence, but he’s equally hilarious. The talent has to rely primarily on sight gags, obviously, and Oram has a flair for presentation. His quick 79 minute running time helps, but there’s never a dull moment in this jungle.


Day 27: Kill List

Kill List (2011)

Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in the genre bending adventure Kill List.

Hitman Jay (a volcanic Neil Maskell) is wary to take another job after the botched Kiev assignment, but his bank account is empty and his wife Shel (an also eruptive MyAnna Buring) has become vocally impatient about carrying the financial load. But this new gig proves to be seriously weird.

Without ever losing that gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities. (The often impenetrable accents don’t exactly help with this sleuthing). The “What the hell is happening?” response to a film is rarely this satisfying.

As Kill List drifts toward its particular flavor of horror, Wheatley pulls deftly from some of the most memorable films of a similar taste. But because the less you know about this film the more fascinating it is, I won’t cover those here except to say: Nicely done!

Performances are disconcerting but well played. Michael Smiley, in particular, offers an outstanding supporting turn as the likeable mate. His longing, good nature, and conflicted religious leanings make not only for an intriguing gun-for-hire, but also an emotional anchor for the film.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Day 13: Eden Lake

Eden Lake (2009)

It’s crazy this film hasn’t been seen more. The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.

Kids today!

The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. And though James Watkins’s screenplay makes a couple of difficult missteps, it bounces back with some clever maneuvers and horrific turns.

Sure, the “angry parents raise angry children” cycle may be overstated, but Jack O’Connell’s performance as the rage-saturated offspring turned absolute psychopath is chilling.

There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.

Don’t expect spectral terror in this one, though. Instead you’ll find a bunch of neighborhood kids pissed off at their lot in life and taking it out on someone alarmingly like you.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Your Film-a-Day Guide to October! Day 18: Severance

Severance (2006)

Genuinely funny and exhaustingly brutal, Christopher Smith’s British import Severance offers a mischievous team-building exercise in horror. A handful of would-be execs for global weapons manufacturer Palisade Defense are misled and slaughtered in what they believe to be a mandatory weekend excursion in Hungary to build corporate camaraderie.

Smith and co-writer James Moran’s wickedly insightful script mocks corporate culture as Smith’s direction pays homage to the weirdest assortment of films. The result is an uproarious but no less frightening visit to an area of the world that apparently scares the shit out of us: Eastern Europe. (Think Hostel, The Human Centipede, Borat.)

An epically watchable flick, Severance boasts solid performances, well-placed bear traps and landmines, a flamethrower and an excellent balance of black humor and true horror. To say more would be to give too much away, but rest assured that with every scene Smith and crew generate palpable tension. It erupts with equally entertaining measure in either a good, solid laugh or in a horrible, disfiguring dose of horror. How awesome is that?!