Wednesday 8 September 2010

The Horror Vault 3 (2010)

Directors: Kim Sønderholm, Johan A Krueger, David C Hayes, John Scott Mills, James Barclay and Dave Holt
Stars: Too Many to Count

If the four features I reviewed this last week are anything to go by, distributor R Squared Films is sure to be moving on up the ladder. Three were little gems, despite inexperienced filmmakers and low budgets, and the fourth wasn't far behind. I left The Horror Vault 3 until last though, as it's a anthology and such creatures are often hit and miss affairs. In literature it's traditional for an editor to set a theme, have writers submit pieces and then select a couple of dozen of the best to frame an anthology around. The variety is a selling point and there's usually a gem or two to be found in and amongst the rest. In movies, that couple of dozen tends to shrink down to a small number of short films, and differences in quality become massively apparent. I'd seen two of the five shorts in this set before and liked both of them, though I couldn't think of a single thing that they shared that would warrant their inclusion in the same anthology.

I guess it's all about reality and fantasy and how the two coexist in our minds, but that's a loose theme for a mere five films to dance around and the quality is far from consistent. Up first is Kim Sønderholm's A Christmas Haunting, which may not have been previously circulated. Beginning with a quote from Plato, it quickly switches to a collection of topless and blood spattered scream queens like Brinke Stevens and Monique Dupree, always a good way to get our attention but I'm still not sure quite what point they serve. The story seems to play out as a nightmare for a man named Stephen, who's spending Christmas at a cabin because of a relationship breakdown. The usual things start happening: a glass slides off the table and the shower switches on, all on their own. The bevy of bloody naked babes aren't quite so usual and I'm still trying to work out precisely why they're there. Nightmare logic is always tricky but it out-tricked me here.

This is the third and last entry in the Horror Vault series and Sønderholm is all over it like a rash. He was one of the producers who put the series together and he directed no less than four of its films: two in the first collection and one each in the others. He even makes it back later in this set for someone else's film, as an actor in James Barclay's Unchangeable. As such a key player, it's perhaps fitting that he opens this collection up but A Christmas Haunting may be the least of the selections, with some good imagery but poor lighting and some headache inducing scrolling text. Fortunately it's followed by the best, or at least the most coherent, a dark comedy from the UK that looks at the manager/worker divide in terms so extreme that they can't help but sink in. Johan A Krueger's Zombie Office replaces workers with zombies and management with vampiric dominatrices clad entirely in black PVC who literally chain their staff to their desks.

It's all about the metaphor, of course, but it's great fun to watch, as the severe and believably dominant new boss Gabrielle stalks new hire Jacob through the office while reading from his CV. She's entirely open about her every intention, but nobody questions her authority, as befits a set of mindless drones. I've met many of these in my days in tech support and they're so lacking in entropy that they're easily kept under sway. Gabrielle's approach is to just throw them a temp once in a while to tear to shreds. Of them all, only Jacob resists, armed with nothing but a stapler and his own initiative. He attempts to become Rambo but is inevitably overwhelmed, yet another victim of management's quest for control. Like any office, everyone here gets exactly what they deserve. Fortunately that includes us because the visuals are varied and fascinating, everything from vampires and zombies to eastern European dolls in fetish chic.

Undone, which previously closed out the 2008 Deadly Event, is a peach of a short for Phoenix film fans because it neatly reverses the roles we expect from Cinema Head Cheese hosts Kevin Moyers and David Hayes. When any David Hayes movie begins with a TV reporter detailing the dastardly deeds of someone called the Lollipop Killer, we can't help but see him fleshing out yet another loathsome worm of a character. After all he is the foremost screen psychopath of our times: the Terror of Tempe, the Monster of Mesa, the Scumsucker of Scottsdale. If he wasn't such a teddy bear in real life we'd all be scared to death of him. This time out though he's just Travis, who's been living inside a bottle since his daughter was raped and murdered. Helped home from a bar again by a prison guard friend, he wakes up in the morning to a couple of gifts: a taser and the paedophile who ripped his world apart, his for 24 hours. 'Just don't kill him,' says the guard.

What would you do if you were put into a situation like this, which could easily be described as a dream come true, if only it didn't follow a nightmare? Devious David and his partner in crime, John Scott Mills, who co-wrote and co-directed, conjure up a few choice things to do to Anthony Strand, the Lollipop Killer, and Mr Moyers is tasked with suffering through each and every one of them. It's a bizarre situation, most of all for we the viewers because we find sympathy for a character played by Hayes, perhaps for the first time in his long and memorable career. Then again Moyers hates everything, right? So why not give him something to hate even more, like a barbed wire enema? There are people who would pay for this sort of thing but they're not people we'd want to meet in a dark alley, only in a David Hayes picture. And with that, let's attempt to feel comfortable in our seats once more and shimmy on to part four of this collection.

Unchangeable is another nightmare, but it's difficult to ascertain what's real and what's just a figment of the damaged brain of Jason Smith. We first see him being shot in a machine shop by a man who mutters at him cryptically. We assume a nightmare sequence because as he's shot he wakes up next to his cute Danish wife, Trina, but soon discover that he woke up to a dream because Trina has gone missing and next thing we know the cops are telling him that they've found her body. I presume this set of nested nightmares are a descent into madness following a traumatic event but there are suggestions in a number of directions and I'm not quite sure which one I'm supposed to follow. James Barclay, who wrote and directed this short as a calling card while putting his debut feature together, whips up a heady mix of nightmare and paranoia but I think I need to watch it another couple of times before assuming I have the sense of it.

And that leaves Dave Holt's The Psychomanteum. 'I became insane,' introduces Edgar Allan Poe, 'with long intervals of horrible sanity,' and for a change we're thrown into a movie that fits the choice of quotation. What follows is a long, atmospheric, black and white montage that unfolds around a young lady with a few piercings waiting for important things to happen. I'm not sure if this is a dream, a trip or a transportation into another realm, but it's a freaky show that plays out like an animation, merely one in which everything is physical rather than drawn. There's very little dialogue, only what would fit as part of the pulsing electronic soundtrack; while the film thrives on a visual aesthetic it would work as well as audio. I've heard very similar things on Tangerine Dream albums and this could even be seen as a 26 minute Krautrock video. Certainly the point of it seems to be the audiovisual atmosphere manifested like a performance piece.

The inevitable question is what it all means, and I'm not sure I have an answer for that. 'Are you messing with my brain?' the girl asks at one point and we wonder the same thing. As a story it falls apart pretty quickly and if we aren't yet seduced into the bizarre world Holt conjures up, then we're probably going to give it up as a bad job. As a nightmare or an acid trip it works far better, though nightmares generally have more narrative structure. To my mind it works best as a portfolio, because the best material here is technical: the angles, the lighting, the rapid fire montages, the odd tableaux brought to speedy life then banished back to the darkness in favour of something else. It's in the imagination, which runs riot. 'This is not a dream you can wake from,' she's told at one point and that may be the best description of the film. The question for us is whether that's good or bad. It's surely a mindmelding way to finish an intriguing anthology.

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