Anti Matter (2016)

Sitting down to watch an ultra low-budget genre film from a first time feature filmmaker always feels something of a lottery. More often than not, sad to say, you wind up with something that really wasn’t worth anyone’s time, and it’s liable to leave you feeling either resentful or sympathetic to the individuals who put so much of their time and energy into it. On occasion, though, a few of your numbers come up and you find yourself with a winner on your hands; not a huge winner, necessarily, but something that shows signs of a genuinely skilled cast and crew at work, limited by the means at their disposal, yet with enough creativity and vision for that not to matter too much. This is certainly the case with Anti Matter, the debut feature from writer-director Keir Burrows.

Ana (Yaiza Figueroa) is a post-graduate physics student at Oxford, and as part of her studies she is… okay, I’m going to stop right here. There is a whole lot of complex science talk in Anti Matter, and speaking as someone who only got a D in GCSE science, I’m happy to confess that a great deal of it goes right over my head. However, much as one doesn’t necessarily need to understand, say, all the intricacies of real estate sales to be caught up in the tensions of Glengarry Glen Ross, so it is that you can appreciate the drama of Anti Matter without being up to speed on all the whys and wherefores of modern science. Not that I’m suggesting Burrows is in the same league as David Mamet. But I digress.

As I was saying: Ana’s post-graduate studies take an exciting turn when, quite by accident, she stumbles upon what appears to be a means of teleporting matter. She enlists her friends Nate (Tom Barber-Duffy) and Liv (Phillipa Carson), and together the students are beyond thrilled to find their technique works; but, as they’re naturally eager to keep their discovery to themselves, and their methods are not exactly legal, the experiments are carried out in secret. After starting out teleporting small inanimate objects, they gradually work their way up until living creatures is the next logical step, and so – taking care to avoid the attention of the mobs of protesters outside, demanding an end to animal testing in the university’s science labs – they start sneaking in rats, cats and the like. You know what’s next; it’s time to try putting a person through. And, as anyone who’s seen The Fly can tell you, teleportation experiments don’t always work out so well for human test subjects.

As much as microbudget filmmaking is always a risky proposition, science fiction can be a particularly tricky one given how often the genre hinges on special effects. Anti Matter, thankfully, is more driven more by ideas than visuals, and builds the drama through keeping you guessing; although, as microbudget goes, it’s still a handsomely shot affair, making effective use of the picturesque Oxford University setting. Plot-wise, the film’s PR likens it to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, and while it’s not quite such a success Anti Matter does indeed work to similar effect, building in intrigue, suspense and paranoia as the running time progresses. After her teleportation experience, Ana knows things aren’t quite the same; she finds herself unable to recall events that have occurred since the experiment, and feels strangers watching her everywhere. The question is, how much of it is just in her head?

While Anti Matter may invite comparisons to Pi and, to an extent, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, I find myself most reminded of Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, inasmuch as both films are driven primarily by intellectual discussions of abstract concepts, all of which might have fallen flat in the hands of a less capable director and cast. As stated, much of the science talk can often feel like indecipherable babble to layman’s ears, but Figueroa, Barber-Duffy and Carson make it all sound natural enough that it’s easy to get swept up in it all. Given the strengths Flanagan has gone to since making the move to bigger budget productions, I certainly hope Anti Matter opens the door for Burrows to progress in a similar fashion. 

This is not to say that everything in Anti Matter is entirely successful. There’s a love triangle subplot which seems a bit superfluous and never entirely convinces, and a few sidesteps into action territory – a parkour rooftop chase, a wall-climbing break-in, and a bit of final act gun violence – feel like they belong in a different movie altogether. Much the same can be said for Noah Maxwell-Clarke’s eccentric copper, seemingly an attempt at comic relief which doesn’t pay off. It’s also fair to say that, after all the intrigue and build-up, the conclusion isn’t quite so surprising or effective as we might like. Even so, there’s more than enough in Anti Matter that works for it to be worthwhile viewing, and with any luck a great calling card for Keir Burrows, a filmmaker from whom I think we can expect big things in years ahead.

Anti-Matter is available on UK DVD now from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

Felicity (1978)

Should we ever ask, “what did we do before we had the internet?” I daresay Felicity might be as good an example as any to address the implicit underlying question.  Now that footage of just about any form of sexual activity can be found at the push of button, and mainstream TV is filled with simulated rumpy-pumpy, it may be hard for younger millennials to conceive of a time when raunchy material was not so easily accessible. This inaccessibility was not purely down to technology, of course, but also differing moral stances on what was deemed acceptable viewing material. Thank goodness, then, for the lovely, liberated 1970s, which saw the (back) doors blown wide open as pornography made its way into the mainstream. The likes of Emmanuelle and The Story of O inspired scores of low-budget filmmakers to follow suit and cook up soft-focus softcore skin flicks of their own, and one such filmmaker was John D Lamond, director of 1978 Australian sex film Felicity, which Severin Films released to Blu-ray earlier this year.

Felicity (Glory Annen, who sadly died earlier this year) is a convent schoolgirl; just turned 18, we can safely assume, or bloody well hope (in any case, Annen herself was 26 at the time). Like any young lady blossoming into womanhood, surrounded only by members of her gender who spend a lot of time showering and/or sitting around the dorm rooms in very skimpy pyjamas, Felicity frequently finds her thoughts drifting toward sex. In fact, we’re given almost no indication that she ever thinks about anything else at all. Out of the blue, Felicity finds herself invited to stay with a relative in Hong Kong for the summer, and naturally she’s thrilled to go, not because she necessarily cares that much about experiencing another culture, but more because it presents ample opportunities for all manner of coming-of-age experiences. She ain’t mama’s little girl no more, as the film’s theme song tells us (many, many, many times).

If that synopsis sounds like the half-baked fantasy of a dirty old man – well, I doubt that’s too far from the reality of the matter. The film makes no secret of its influences, directly referencing Emmanuelle and The Story of O many times, and playing out in a similar fashion. As we’ve known for time immemorial, no one watches porn for the plot, so it’s not entirely surprising that Felicity is virtually plotless, content to simply follow our heroine from one sexual encounter to the next. As per the time, Felicity barely seems to bat an eye at the blatant lechery of men young and old, taking it all with the old boys-will-be-boys attitude whether it’s a caretaker peeping on her in the shower or her greengrocer boss touching her thigh while she’s up a ladder. Once she’s on her way to the city, she seems keen to tick all the boxes: boy-girl, girl-girl, orgies, in the cinema, in the lift. And when she isn’t either having sex or thinking about sex, she seems to be perpetually on her way for a hot bath.

Along the way, there obviously isn’t much in the way of discernible character development, despite Annen’s frequent narration explaining how much of a personal revelation it all is, in a classic dirty book vernacular; lots of ‘warm tinglings in my most secret place’ and whatnot. Innuendos naturally pop up quite a bit, some more blatant than others; one doesn’t have to look too hard (teehee) to see the connotation when Felicity invites her friend for a swim with the words “let’s get wet,” but I’m a little bewildered as to how saying “let’s get into the prawns” over a Chinese meal constitutes a sexual invitation.

The choice of setting the bulk of the action in Hong Kong is a curious one. I realise the Australian and Hong Kong film industries shared fairly close ties at the time (thank goodness, or we might not have Brian Trenchard-Smith’s kung fu classic The Man From Hong Kong), and I can understand that the location may add an extra dimension of exoticism to proceedings for the domestic audience of the time. However, the setting feels rather pointless given that, by the look of things, the bulk of the interior scenes were shot in Australia with Aussie actors, and the vast majority of the characters Felicity encounters along the way – including a ridiculously flamboyant lingerie salesman, a creepy mustachioed man who rather roughly takes her virginity, and the boy toy with whom she ultimately finds happiness – are Australian. Still, there’s more than enough bare flesh on the screen to distract the viewer from any such concerns.

Severin’s cover art proudly proclaims this to be ‘unrated director’s cut of the infamous erotic sensation,’ and it’s not hard to see how it might have been a bit of an eye-opener at the time. However, beyond some rather outdated notions about what constitutes acceptable behaviour (our heroine’s first time is quite clearly rape), Felicity is for the most part pretty quaint and tame by modern standards. It doesn’t take long to get repetitive and tedious, but as old school midnight movie material goes it certainly isn’t the worst you’ll ever see, and it’s got enough of that oddball Ozploitation flavour to give it a certain charm. Indeed, Ozploitation aficionados will probably want to pick up this Blu-ray edition from Severin, as it boasts two earlier full-length films from director John D Lamond: his 1975 debut, gonzo documentary Australia After Dark, and The ABCs of Love and Sex: Australia Style, a psuedo-educational film with its tongue so far in its cheek it’s hard to imagine anyone was ever under any illusions that it was anything but bald-face smut. And why not. On top of this we have a feature commentary from Lamond, a trailer reel of his filmography, and some outtakes from the acclaimed Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

Felicity is available now on Blu-ray in the US and UK, from Severin Films.

No guts, no glory: George A Romero’s bittersweet legacy

Whenever I see a film in which the characters are watching Night of the Living Dead – the breakthrough work of the late, great George A Romero – it inspires very mixed feelings. Such scenes are fairly common in modern horror (see Sinister 2 or XX), and on the one hand they seem a nice way for the filmmakers to doff their cap to the film to which the contemporary genre owes so much. However, such scenes also make me angry, from knowing that the filmmakers seized the opportunity to utilise iconic footage without having to pay a penny, due to the lamentable fact that Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain.

It’s a bitter sting that a tiny oversight – the accidental omission of a copyright notice under the title, as was legally required at the time – has meant that Romero received no residual payments from Night of the Living Dead, leaving any distributor with the right to reproduce the film as they see fit, and any filmmaker with the right to use the title, the premise, and of course any footage from the film, completely free of charge.  A high price to pay for a rookie mistake, particularly one for which neither Romero nor his crew may have been directly to blame (read more on the matter here).

It’s long been argued, quite rightly, that on top of giving birth to a whole new subgenre of horror and indeed playing a key role in revitalising the genre en masse, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also rewrote the rule book for filmmaking on an independent level, demonstrating that films could reach a wide audience and make big money without having the Hollywood majors involved. We can easily say that Romero’s career set in place a blueprint which, by accident or design, many others would follow in the almost half-century since; but that includes both the good and the bad, which in a sad way the tarnished legacy of NOTLD serves to underline.

As recently as two weeks ago, Romero was lamenting his inability to get new movies off the ground whilst others squeezed the juice from the fruits of his endeavours. Whenever such remarks emerged, it was hard not to at least partially write them off as the grumblings of a crotchety old man; his dismissal of The Walking Dead feels especially cutting, given the association of his old friend and collaborator Greg Nicotero. Nor did it help that Romero’s final films showed the old master losing his touch; I for one will always defend Land of the Dead (yes, it’s glossy and mainstream-friendly, but it’s great fun and still has that sharp satirical edge of Romero’s best work), but Diary of the Dead was quite possibly the worst cinematic let-down I’ve ever experienced, and after hearing nothing good I’ve never had the heart to watch Survival of the Dead.

Despite all this, it was never hard to see where Romero’s complaints were coming from. Hollywood would remake films with his name on them (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Crazies), and they’d trade in on the iconography he created (literally any modern zombie movie you could mention), and yet they wouldn’t fund the films he himself wanted to make. Phil Nobile Jr at Birth Movies Death notes that in the 1990s – a decade in which Romero’s only directorial credits are Two Evil Eyes (1990) and The Dark Half (1993) – the filmmaker was “paid more to develop projects that never happened than he was ever paid to actually make all his other films put together.” On the one hand, we might say that’s nice work if you can get it. When I had the good fortune of seeing and briefly meeting Romero in person at New York Comic Con in 2006 (yes, that’s me with him below), I seem to recall him remarking in a Q&A that he couldn’t really complain too much about how the industry had treated him given how well he’d done financially. Even so, surely no artist wants to work on a project only for it never to come to fruition.

 

Of course, we can’t fail to note that after he finally got back on the horse with 2000’s Bruiser (a film I must sadly confess I haven’t seen to date), Romero went on to produce nothing but zombie material, both in his aforementioned latter-day Dead trilogy (Land/Diary/Survival), and the Empire of the Dead comics series. The question remains as to what extent the industry wouldn’t let Romero out of that reanimated corpse-shaped box, or whether he remained there by his own volition. I’m sure I can speak for many fans when I say that I found his apparent resignation to the title of ‘the deadfather’ really quite dispiriting, given the great work he’d done outside of the living dead: Season of the Witch is a flawed but fascinating blend of early 70s occultism and feminism (and a film which, in 2006, he said he was considering revisiting); Martin is one of the finest and most frequently overlooked of all vampire films; Creepshow is the best live action approximation of the EC Comics format that we have, not to mention one of the best films Stephen King has been involved with; and, while my feelings on Arthurian hippy carnival biker movie Knightriders are somewhat mixed, there’s no denying it’s a distinctive and unique vision.

We might consider the possibility that Romero’s latter-day difficulties with Hollywood were less to do with the filmmaker himself being pigeon-holed, and more endemic of the broader struggles faced by older directors in the contemporary marketplace; witness David Lynch’s on again/off again retirement from film due to his frustrations with the industry, or the fact that Martin Scorcese’s next film The Irishman looks to be headed straight to Netflix despite the ridiculous wealth of talent attached.  Even so, it’s clear that Romero never had the desire or inclination to play the game, preferring to make his own films by his own rules. An admirable approach, and one which gave us several of the best and most influential horror movies of all time, which have inspired both the output and the ethos of countless scores of filmmakers since. Yet it’s bittersweet when we consider how much more Romero could have given to cinema, and how much more cinema owed him in return.

 

Space Babes from Outer Space (2017)

Microbudget indie film company Bandit Motion Pictures are very much following their own path. The partnership between filmmakers Scott Schirmer and Brian K Williams produced two of the most unique and impressive horror movies of 2016: the erotically-charged Harvest Lake and backwoods nightmare Plank Face, both directed by Schirmer. However, as should be apparent from the title alone, Space Babes from Outer Space is one giant leap in a different direction. This time around directing duties go to Williams (previously responsible for grindhouse movie Time to Kill), and the largely serious tone of Bandit’s last two efforts goes out the window in favour of a raucous sci-fi sex comedy which, thirty years ago, one could easily envisage Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer taking the lead roles in. And if you’re in any way an admirer of the work of that iconic B-movie trio, you will surely find plenty to enjoy here.

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Show Pieces (2014)

Does mastery of one particular art form ever guarantee success in another? There are numerous instances of literary figures moving over to film, some very successfully (say, Clive Barker), some a bit less so (say, Stephen King); but for a frame of reference more specific to the subject of Show Pieces, we might consider the great comics writers – or, if you’re that way inclined, graphic novelists – of the 1980s. Neil Gaiman seemed to move with relative ease from master of comics to one of the most justly acclaimed fantasy novelists of our time, plus some modest success as a screenwriter (Beowulf, Mirrormask), whilst Frank Miller got off to a roaring start on the big screen with Sin City, even if he fudged the landing on The Spirit. Ah, but then there’s that undisputed titan of the field, Alan Moore, as renowned for his groundbreaking masterworks in the comics arena as he is for his unabashed contempt for Hollywood and its appropriation of his creations (not unreasonable when you look at From Hell, Watchmen or most pointedly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although I daresay the V For Vendetta movie isn’t half bad). Given his outspoken contempt for most mainstream media, the idea of Moore getting into film at all had long seemed unlikely, so it’s little surprise that when he chose to do so it would be very much in an independent capacity, on a trio of short films with director Mitch Jenkins. The question is, what would the mighty imagination of Moore bring to the screen, and how well could this be realised on a microbudget?

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Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright has carved a fairly unique niche for himself in the contemporary film landscape, as the creator of original, mid-budget productions which have made him the toast of critics and fan circles, without necessarily alienating the broader mainstream audience. Just look at how Baby Driver, his fifth major movie (sixth overall, counting his little-seen DIY debut A Fistful of Fingers) is hitting cinemas in peak blockbuster season, with a marketing push to rival that of many a studio tentpole release; a show of remarkable confidence on the part of Sony/TriStar, given that the film in question is a fairly odd fish that doesn’t neatly fit into any pre-existing barrels. We can also hardly fail to note how heavily Baby Driver’s marketing his been based not so much around its cast – even though it boasts two Oscar-winners in Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, as well as esteemed TV stars Jon Hamm and Jon Bernthal – but around the name of its writer-director himself. Again, a bold move, particularly as Baby Driver is in some respects quite far removed from anything Edgar Wright has done up to this point; but at the same time, his calling cards are so liberally littered across every minute of film that there’s really no mistaking it for the work of any other filmmaker working today.

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GLOW (2017)

There’s a scene in episode 5 of GLOW in which the director Sam Sylvia pitches the show to a network exec, explaining that it will be “deeper” than your average junk food TV, showcasing women “wrestling with their own female stereotypes, metaphorically,” arguing this will “really resonate with the female audiences.” And of the male audience, he remarks, “let’s be honest, they’re going to watch because girls wrestling is fucking hot.” It’s hard to imagine either incarnation of GLOW – the original Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling TV series, or this new dramatisation – being pitched any other way. And in each instance, it’s hard to imagine it was difficult to sell. It’s a real have-your-cake-and-eat-it concept, allowing for a wide berth of nuanced female characters – something there has, not unreasonably, been increasing demand for in recent years – whilst also presenting an unabashedly low-brow, sexualised spectacle. Plus it’s set in the 1980s, and for some reason we can’t get enough of that recently; so really, there was no way GLOW could fail. And it hasn’t. These first ten episodes – and I strongly doubt they’ll be the last, even though Netflix has been a bit swift with the axe lately (Sense8, The Get-Down, Girlboss) – are addictive stuff, perfect for the now-obligatory binge viewing, and bound to leave you clamouring for season 2 ASAP.

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Traversing the minefield of social justice and fandom

The other day, I had what I feel I can best describe as a uniquely millennial moment. I was watching Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo & Juliet for the first time in many years, and it reached the scene in which Dash Mihok’s Benvolio quizzes Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo about the sadness that lengthens his hours. Romeo remarks that he loves a woman, to which Benvolio rather sneeringly replies, “I aimed so near when I supposed you loved.” Immediately I recalled studying the play as a teenager, and that line seeming fine as a droll witticism at the time; but hearing it today in 2017, I was not unreasonably struck by how homophobic it came off. A nanosecond later, this thought gave way to, “oh shit, Shakespeare was a homophobe;” and a fraction of a nanosecond after that, “does this mean it’s not okay to like Shakespeare anymore?”

For myself, I rapidly rejected this as a small-minded reduction. However, there’s not a doubt in my mind that many others could watch that scene today and latch onto the notion that Shakespeare is homophobic – and, by extension, so is Mihok for delivering the line, Lurhmann for directing it, and DiCaprio and everyone else involved in the film for being complicit in the promotion of homophobia. This would inevitably extend to every telling of Romeo & Juliet before and since. And so with a wave of a hand, the legacy of countless figures – chief among them, the single most influential writer in the history of the western world – would be dismissed as bigoted poison, and therefore of no cultural merit whatsoever.

In my humble opinion, this – as I should hope my tone makes clear – would be an absolutely absurd position to take. However, I see this kind of mindset at work with increasing regularity of late, and frequently among people whom I would generally regard kindred spirits.

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UK indie horror comedy The Book Club needs you

Since we made the big switcheroo from Brutal As Hell to Warped Perspective, we have consciously stepped back a little from the indie horror scene – but every so often, a new project will pop up that we just have to share the news about. Such a project is The Book Club, set to be the first full-length feature from director Jamie McKeller and Red Shirt Films, the York-based team behind long-running web series I Am Tim Helsing (which can be found on their official Youtube channel). Pitched as ‘Great British Bake-Off meets The Silence of the Lambs’ with a hint of Brexit-era satire, it centres on a man who, having felt disenfranchised with the status quo, has his home legally seceded from the UK, leaving him free to live by his own laws. So naturally, he decides that murdering one’s annoying neighbours should be legal.

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Blu-ray Review: All the Colours of the Dark (1972)

Pardon me for opening on what will sound like a splurge of smug self-congratulation, but… as a lifelong film enthusiast with a master’s degree in cult film and television, and almost a decade’s experience publishing horror reviews online, some part of me will occasionally feel I warrant being classed as a genre expert of some description. However, then a Blu-ray release like this will come along one to remind me of just how ignorant I remain in so many areas. Giallo has always been one region of the cult/horror realm that has always felt somewhat alien to me; while I’ve liked some of those I’ve seen, and can appreciate why the genre resonates with so many viewers, for whatever reason I’ve never quite been able to connect with them in that same way. Still, among the giallos (gialli? See, I don’t even know the correct pluralism) that I’ve most enjoyed was the fabulously titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, from director Sergio Martino, with a striking supporting turn from Edwige Fenech. As such, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to look at Shameless’s new edition of All the Colours of the Dark, an earlier collaboration between the actress and the director.

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Review: The Mummy (2017)

The Universal monster movies: a time-honoured brand for which there is so much love, which the studio have tried so hard and failed so miserably to resurrect time and again. 2004’s Van Helsing, 2010’s The Wolfman and 2014’s Dracula Untold had all been pitched as launchpads for a new monster movie universe, but none of them won over the crowds or the critics. This time around, Universal have gone for broke and declared their new take on The Mummy to be the first chapter in the Dark Universe (ugh, we’ll come back to that title), with promises of a Bride of Frankenstein reboot next and many more to follow. Alas, The Mummy arrives to widespread critical condemnation, and potential audience apathy in the wake of unexpected smash hit Wonder Woman. So, have Universal bitten off a bit more than they can chew here, and is The Mummy really the disaster-in-waiting that many are expecting?

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DVD Review: Short Poppies (2014)

Rhys Darby is one of those comedy actors who, even if the name doesn’t automatically ring a bell, you’ve most likely seen in something. On the small screen, he’s surely best known for his supporting role in Flight of the Conchords as Murray, the inept manager who handles the band on the side of his day job at the New York branch of the New Zealand tourist office, whilst movie fans may know him for his brief but memorable cameo as leader of the werewolves (not swear-wolves) in What We Do in the Shadows. Short Poppies, an 8-part comedy series from 2014, puts him centre-stage as he plays a succession of characters living in a nondescript New Zealand coastal town, where filmmaker David Farrier (a real-life journalist, so I’m told, appearing under his own name) is putting together a documentary series. It’s a promising idea, and makes for around 3 hours of harmless fun, but all in all I’m sorry to say it left me feeling that Darby is perhaps best utilised in a supporting capacity, dealing out his distinct comedic persona in smaller doses.

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