The British Horror Film Festival, now in its second year, took place in London and Bournemouth over October 14th and 15th 2011, boasting a line-up of new home-grown genre fare. As well as the three films covered below, the festival opened with the premier of vampire thriller “The Reverend”, directed by Neil Jones (best known for boxing bio “Risen”) and starring Rutger Hauer, Tamer Hassan and Pinhead himself, Doug Bradley, and also included horror comedy “Kill Keith” and a showcase of short films.
“The Holding” might seem somewhat of an odd choice for a festival designed around showing off genre talent, given that it’s not really a horror film at all, but a tightly wound rural suspense thriller with a few touches of murder and madness thrown in. Marking the feature debut of director Susan Jacobson, the film stars Kierston Wareing (recently in “Fish Tank” and “Basement”) as its chief woman in peril, menaced by Vincent Regan (a staple bit part player in fantasy and swordplay films, having appeared in “300”, “Clash of the Titans”, “Troy” and others), with an impressive supporting cast that includes “Harry Potter” alumnus David Bradley and Terry Stone (“Doghouse”).
After a disorienting opening flashback scene that sees Wareing’s farm wife Cassie and Bradley’s hired help Cooper apparently drowning and disposing of her husband Dean, the film launches straight into a land dispute, with her trying to keep hold of her ailing farm in the face of financial difficulties and the unwanted attentions of neighbour Karsten (Jones). With Dean’s unexplained disappearance still a matter of suspicion, Cassie is shocked when one day a man called Aden (Regan) turns up at the farm, claiming to be an old friend. Needing a man around to help fix the place up, she agrees to let him stay, upping the tension with Karsten and her two teenage daughters in the process. Although she finds herself warming to her mysterious visitor, it soon becomes clear that he may not be what he seems, and as most viewers will have guessed from the start, is harbouring sinister secrets.
Although its plot may be familiar, “The Holding” is for the most part a tight and skilful exercise in escalating threat, and it makes for a fun and exciting ride. Certainly, it’s pretty clear from the start where things are going, with Regan simmering with barely concealed rage and psychosis, though Jacobson does a very efficient job of engaging the viewer in Cassie’s plight and keeps things moving with a few gratuitous, though entertaining kill scenes. Despite its low budget, the film looks great throughout, making fine use of its isolated rural setting, and when the violence does come, the special effects are gruesome and convincing. The film does have its flaws, most of which lay with the script, in particular the character of Cassie’s youngest daughter, a bizarre bible-obsessed pre-teen whose constant quoting of scripture is jarring and unconvincing. Still, on the whole “The Holding” is a great example of how a little craftsmanship can make all the difference, and the film is head and shoulders above most of its peers. Currently enjoying a highly successful run at international festivals, the film has already been released on region 2 DVD via Lions Gate, and is well worth checking out.
On paper, “Stalker” sounds like a decent prospect, being directed by Spandau Ballet member and actor Martin Kemp (who has appeared in a number of interesting outings over the years, including “The Krays”, “Waxwork 2: Lost in Time” and various British television series) and based loosely on the old 1976 video nasty “The House on Straw Hill” (aka “Expose”, “Trauma” and a handful of other generic titles), with original star Linda Hayden in a small role. The fact that the film is a remake isn’t too much of a criticism here, not so much due to the relative obscurity of the source material, but sadly as there are far more serious problems at work.
The film does follow the plot of the original pretty closely, with Anna Brecon as Paula, a novelist struggling with her second book and trying to get over a breakdown, who decides to spend some time at her isolated rural family home, Crows Hall. Unfortunately, the words still refuse to flow, at least until the arrival of pushy new assistant Linda (Jane March, who some may still remember from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s controversial 1992 film “The Lover”, in which she starred with Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Ka Fai). Although Linda seems helpful enough, she soon seems hell bent on taking over Anna’s life, slowly pushing her over the edge.
“Stalker” starts promisingly enough, with Kemp setting things up quite competently, and managing to rustle up an appropriately creepy old fashioned kind of semi-gothic atmosphere, and Crows Hall making for a fine setting. Unfortunately, the film never capitalises on this, mainly due to a weak and depressingly predictable script and poorly sketched characters. Whilst March is on amusingly over the top form and Billy Murray puts in a decent turn as a sleazy journalist, Brecon herself fails to make Paula either sympathetic or interesting, and never achieves the kind of psychological depth required to make the role work. This might have been forgivable had the film thrown in some decent scares or gore, but sadly Kemp consistently botches pretty much all of the potential shriek scenes with some leaden handling and odd shifts in pace and tone. The result is a film which, while clocking in at only an hour and a quarter, long outstays its welcome, with a final twist that even genre novices will see coming from the first act, and very little in the way of thrills or chills to make up for it.
In fairness, it should be noted that the film has found its admirers, including winning the Best Feature prize at the festivals, though to be frank, this is a little baffling – brave or undiscerning viewers may well want to make up their own minds.
Thankfully, a great deal more fun was to be had with Rupert Bryan’s “The Hike”, a nicely unpretentious survivalist shocker which follows a bunch of girls going for a weekend in the woods, only to fall foul of an unlikely gang of psychos. The film has a fine cast, headed up by martial artist Zara Phythian as a soldier just returned from Afghanistan, with support from Barbara Nedeljakova of “Hostel” fame, plus a cameo appearance from Shauna Macdonald (“The Descent”) and a brief but hilarious showing from the always welcome Tamer Hassan, who even gets to shout ‘You fucking slag!’ in his inimitable London accent.
There really isn’t anything more to be said about the plot of “The Hike”, which is the kind of basic backwoods peril seen countless times before. However, lack of originality aside, it’s a film which gets almost everything right, ticking all the important genre boxes by throwing in a respectable amount of scares, violence, gore and titillation – winning several extra points for having its attractive female cast clad in the some hilariously inappropriate hiking gear (even more so considering that the film was apparently not a summer shoot). Bryan keeps things moving along at a fast pace and shows a good knowledge of the form, with a variety of twists, moments of humour and nasty little touches to help keep things interesting. The film as a whole does have an old school feel throughout, with good performances from the cast, who all seemed to have been enjoying themselves, Barbara Nedeljakova in particular standing out. Genre fans should certainly get a kick out of “The Hike”, and it’s definitely the kind of horror product which the British film industry needs to see more of.