Archive for May 20, 2017

Sufficiently convinced that I had a solid handle handle on the oeuvre of no-budget UK filmmaker Richard Mansfield thanks to his decidedly lackluster 2014 effort The Mothman Curse, I nonetheless decided that my constitution was probably resolute enough to handle at least one more product of his imagination, so a mere 24 (or so) hours later, I logged onto Amazon Prime and, noticing that his latest, 2017’s The Demonic Tapes (also, it would seem, streaming in some markets under the title of Fright Christmas — though at least, as of yet, not available on Blu-ray or DVD with either name attached to it) was right near the top of the “recently added” horror queue, rather reluctantly pressed that little “play” arrow and hoped for the best. Or at least for better.

The story in this lean (as in 71 minutes) number, reportedly made for the princely sum of four hundred pounds, focuses on an unnamed man (portrayed by one Darren Munn) who, alone for Christmas, decided to force some holiday “cheer” upon his home by digging out the old artificial tree from the basement, only to have his attention diverted by a dusty old box he finds down there that seems to have faint,almost moaning, noises coming from it. Who can resist a find like that, right?

The box contains an old-school dictaphone machine and a bunch of micro-cassettes, and of course he listens to them, only to become immersed in a tale of supernatural intrigue relayed by semi-renowned London-area psychic medium Claire Reynolds (played/voiced by Alice Keedwell, who actually does double duty here as — well, more on that it a minute), who has quite a story to tell even though she’s dead  — a yarn about a spooky and vengeful entity known only as “Mr. Sheets” who, as luck would have it,  just happened to be haunting our nameless protagonist’s very own house way back in the hazy past of 2003. And at Christmas time, no less!

A return visit is no doubt in order — ghosts, as a general rule, tend to show up whenever somebody’s investigating them — but he kind of keeps to a safe distance until our “hero” decides to track down Claire’s identical twin sister, Sarah, who warns him to give the whole thing up and maybe find himself a new place to live while he’s at it. He does neither, of course — we wouldn’t have much of a movie otherwise — and that’s when Mr. Sheets (who is, quite literally, a dude wrapped in a bedsheet) decides he’d better make his move and get this nosy bastard out of the picture for good.

Folks who’ve read my review of The Mothman Curse — or, even worse, actually seen the flick — will undoubtedly spot more than a few plot similarities between that earlier movie and this one, but the good news is that this flick is far more successful when it comes to exploiting admittedly age-old horror standards. Mr. Sheets is surpsingly creepy in his utter simplicity, he comes and goes with suitably-staged mysteriousness, and Mansfield seems to have developed a solid handle on when and how to deploy his necessarily-minimal array of sound effects in a manner that accentuates the understated power of his visuals. Competent-bordering-on-good performances from his tiny, and quite obviously amateur, cast make The Demonic Tapes a far more watchable affair than its predecessor, it’s true, but it’s our writer/director’s much more confident approach to his craft on a stylistic level that makes the greatest difference here. We’re still dealing with a fairly basic, even time-worn, premise this time around, sure, but the “art-house movie minus the resources” aesthetic that Mansfield seemed to at least be trying to go for earlier is something that he actually achieves this time around, and the end result, while far from revelatory, is a well-worth-your-time ghost story that might even freak you out on occasion.

I guess the lesson here, then, is never give up on even the most seemingly-hopeless micro-budget horror director. Richard Mansfield circa 2014 looked like a guy who would be better off hanging up his hand-held camera and seeing if the local hardware store was hiring. Richard Mansfield circa 2017, by contrast, looks very much like a guy who just might have a bright future in this business after all.

The name Richard Mansfield is not, I would assume, one known to very many, but I’d been hearing a little bit here and there over the past few years about this UK-based “micro-budget” writer/director and his production outfit, Mansfield Dark Productions, from fellow aficionados of cash-strapped filmmaking,  so when I noticed that a number of his flicks were available for streaming on Amazon Prime, I thought I’d give at least one of ’em a go and see what the less-than-buzz was all about. As it turns out, I ended up watching two, but we’ll get to the other one in our next review. First up : 2014’s The Mothman Curse.

Looking every bit like the one-thousand-pound (reportedly) production it is, this “supernatural thriller” certainly bases its entire shtick on the tropes one is used to from the “found footage” sub-genre, but can’t be fairly said to fit into said “family” of films in and of itself — it just looks, feels, sounds, and essentially plays out like one.

Cue lots of hand-held “shaky cam,” wildly varying sound levels, grainy-ass “night vision,” and wooden, amateurish acting. And yet Mansfield, no doubt forced to go with a “low-fi” vibe by dint of sheer necessity, doesn’t for one minute sell this as being a “mockumentary” of any sort. The story of overnight museum workers Rachel (played by Rachel Dale) and Katy (brought to “life” by Katy Vans) even, and obviously, plays the old “give characters the same name as the actors portraying them” card, but at no point are we told that they went missing and these tapes are all that was found to provide clues as to their disappearance, etc. In fact, the plot is pretty straight-line-from-A-to-B stuff. Purportedly living in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, they’ve heard tell of the so-called “Mothman,” of course — as have we all by this point — but when they begin to notice a strange and enigmatic shape out of the corners of their eyes with greater and greater frequency, they decide to to do a good and proper “deep dive” of research into the phenomenon, which apparently raises their would-be antagonist’s hackles, because he starts to make his presence more directly felt (and eventually seen) by means of crawling quickly across the ground, knocking on doors and then promptly running away, all that good stuff. He’s onto them, goddamnit, but he’s going to take his time and drive them crazy with paranoia and fear before moving in for the kill, ‘cuz that’s what spooky creatures like him do.

Shot almost entirely in black and white (with a bit of green here and there to denote when the lights have gone out), Mansfield seems to want to convince you that he’s making some kind of “art-house” flick here rather than just a cheap one, but he doesn’t strike a very convincing stylistic pose as far as that goes — I don’t know if the DVD iteration of this film available from Wild Eye Releasing features a commentary track or not, but if it does, I’d be curious to see how far he goes toward explaining/justifying this aesthetic. To me, it just looks like what we’ve got here is a guy doing some on-the-job-training when it comes to  getting the hang of using decade-old technology — which doesn’t preclude him from accidentally nailing a handful of legitimately effective shots — but who knows? Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit for trying to be a stylish visionary with next to nothing at his disposal.

Or, hell, maybe I’m giving him too much by even entertaining the “hey, this is all one purpose” possibility. After all, Mansfield doesn’t seem all that concerned with eliciting decent performances from his two principal leads — or, for that matter, from his small handful of supporting players. The Mothman him/itself is considerably more effectively realized, and the fuzzy image quality helps to no end in that regard given that seeing him clearly would probably show he’s just some dude in a cheap costume, but seriously — nothing else on offer here in terms of production values/quality gives any sort of hint that our cost-conscious autuer has any ambition to punch above his low weight class. The film seems very much resigned to its fate rather than one that looks for creative ways to seem like more than it is.

Pacing is another big problem here — I’m all for a slow burn, absolutely, but is more like a glacial fizz-out. Tectonic plates move more quickly than The Mothman Curse, and deliver considerably more “bang” when they do, finally, shift after millennia. Shit, the actors even speak slowly much of the time, essentially padding out what by all rights should be about a sixty-minute short (-ish) film to a seemingly-interminable 80 minutes, which is barely above the minimum a production can clock in at and still call itself “feature-length” with a straight face.Sure, it seems a lot longer, but this flick wastes time and stretches shit out to a degree that would make even master hustlers like Nick Millard envious.

So, yeah, getting to the end of this one was a rough slog. Watching the flagpole rust is probably a more involving endeavor. But hey — what the hell do I know? Somebody, somewhere, must have liked this, because Mansfield is still at it, presumably — hell, hopefully — honing his craft as he goes along, building a mini-“empire” that, as we’ve already established, at least enough folks are paying attention to in order to keep it going as a viable concern. Our guy Richard may even be pursuing his movie-making career on something resembling a full-time basis by now, in which case more power to ‘im.

Still, from all evidence on offer in The Mothman Curse, I don’t think a sane individual would invest another hour-plus of their existence in another Mansfield production. But a “sane individual” is something no one’s ever accused me of being —