All posts by IanW

JOHN MACKENZIE on 25 YEARS of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY

A pleasure cruiser chugs up the Thames in the mellow sunlight of a beautiful summer evening. On board, a handful of journalists sip champagne on deck, watching London slide past – the Eye, the Town Hall, swanky apartment blocks and, up ahead, that little slice of Downtown Manhattan, Canary Wharf.

“I love it,” enthuses John Mackenzie, a film director who looks like a weather-beaten version of Jeremy Beadle. “I think it’s fantastic. I love high-rise buildings. I want them to spread up the river some more.”

Having been in the business since the late sixties, Mackenzie’s best known for classic Brit gangster movie The Long Good Friday, the Special Edition DVD release of which has prompted today’s jaunt.

Back in 1980, according to Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, Docklands represented “more acutely and extensively than any area in England the physical decline of the urban city and the need for urban regeneration”.

In a word, it was a shit-hole. Mackenzie knows better than most how radically Docklands has changed. Not only was the site utilised for its grimy locations, but it was integral to the plot. The film’s antihero, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), is a gangster desperate to turn legit who sees the undeveloped wasteground as the key to his salvation. Twenty-five years on, it adds an air of prophecy to an already outstanding film.

“We deliberately set it in Docklands because we knew it was going to be huge,” Mackenzie tells Hotdog. “We didn’t know how but we knew it was going to be developed.”

We’re below decks now, in a dining area that, alarmingly, recalls the room in the film where Hoskins brutally thrusts a wine glass into the neck of Derek Thompson, who later found fame as Charlie in Casualty. He’s just one of many ‘faces-of-the-future’ that further bolster the film’s visionary credentials. There’s Dexter Fletcher, Helen Mirren, Eastenders’ Gillian Taylforth and, as a homoerotic hitman, Pierce Brosnan. Mackenzie humbly attributes this talent spotting to “great casting director”, Simone Reynolds.

“Brosnan… As soon as we put him on the
screen… click.”

“She wheeled ‘em in and I picked ‘em. I’m a great believer that some people are born for celluloid. Brosnan was. As soon as we put him on the screen… click.”

With a first-rate supporting cast and a phenomenal performance from Hoskins, …Friday was considered an unequivocal success by all involved. Except the backers.

“They thought it was unpatriotic and pro-IRA,” Mackenzie recounts. “They thought they’d have their cinemas bombed. I said, ‘If it’s pro-IRA, why would they bomb it?’ They decided they’d sell it as a package for TV and chop it down from 105 to 70 minutes.”

If that wasn’t insulting enough, the company took the astonishing decision to dub over Hoskins’ allegedly impenetrable Cockney accent.

“I was so incensed when I heard about this that I went crazy in a corner of Soho,” laughs Mackenzie. “But, as it turned out, that was our ace card because they’d just gone too far. Bob was going to sue them and he got all sorts of high-profile actors like Alec Guinness willing to stand up in court. They got scared and so, when George Harrison and his Handmade company got involved, we were able to buy it pretty cheaply.”

A modest hit when it was eventually released, …Friday has since come to be recognised as one of the best British movies ever. Its influence can be felt in numerous other films, both homegrown (Lock, Stock) and foreign (Pusher). Given its popularity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that rumours of a sequel have been rife. Surely this would ruin the film’s audacious ending?

“I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

“It would,” agrees Mackenzie, “which is why I would never do one. But I’ve been inundated by Bob and Barry [Hanson, producer]. Because you never saw Harold get killed, they want him to have jumped out of the car or something. But there’s no way I’m going to cheat like that. I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

This article appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

STUART & DUMPLINGS

Starring: Louise Jameson, Mina Anwar & Sam Barnard

Set during the current Covid-19 crisis, and filmed under lockdown using Zoom video conferencing software, Stuart & Dumplings tells the story of Stuart, a young Doctor Who fan with Down’s Syndrome who’s receiving an online cooking lesson from his grandmother, with his social worker/care manager, Khadija, also in on the call. The ensuing conversation is both funny and moving, as it lays bare the stresses and strains of life in lockdown. Written as a direct response to the current crisis, the film is designed to be shot using only laptop webcams, with all cast and crew continuing to isolate throughout.

Written by Ian Winterton, with input from actor Sam Barnard, who plays Stuart, the film is being made to raise awareness and funds for the Down’s Syndrome Association. A spokesperson for the charity said:

“After reading the charming script we are really looking forward to watching this short film. We think many people will relate to it as the story reflects what many families have experienced in recent months. We are very grateful to the Stuart and Dumplings team for deciding to make the film freely available but asking their audience to donate to the DSA – thank you.”

The film also stars Louise Jameson (Doctor Who, EastEnders) as Grandma, and Mina Anwar (The Thin Blue Line, The Sarah Jane Adventures) as Khadija. It is directed by Gemma North, produced by Lauren Sturgess and James Steventon of Bamalam Productions and, for Room 5064, Ian Winterton. Executive Producer is Gareth Kavanagh, Creative Director of Room 5064 Productions.

INTERVIEW: DIRK MAGGS on ‘SANDMAN’

ENTER SANDMAN

With Audible’s Sandman adaptation due out in July, Ian Winterton spoke to radio drama pioneer Dirk Maggs about his 30 year quest to turn Neil Gaiman’s ground-breaking comic book into an “audio movie”.

“I will show you terror in a handful of dust.”

These words, featured in print adverts in 1988, introduced the worl d to a new comic book series from DC’s Vertigo imprint: The Sandman. Written by a then largely unknown Neil Gaiman, it told the tale of Dream, known to many as Morpheus, one of the seven Endless. A dizzyingly brilliant blend of mythology, history and fantasy, it quickly transitioned from cult hit to mainstream success and Gaiman, along with Alan Moore and Frank Miller, became part of the late-80s graphic novel renaissance.

Unlike countless other comic book creations, Sandman was never adapted into other mediums – until now. But it’s not a film, or a TV series or a video game, but an audio drama, with no less a legend than Dirk Maggs at the helm. A pioneer in

the field these past 30 years, his innovative and varied body of work includes radio versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and Judge Dredd.

“I discovered early on,” he says, “in the late 80s, early 90s, that I had a knack for taking comic book material and editing and massaging it in such a way as to make driving, exciting audio which sounded just like a film but had no pictures – which were created in the listener’s brain. We expanded into Dolby Surround, we introduced especially composed scores – it was all happening.”

Of all the superheroes getting what Maggs describes as his “audio movie”, there was one above all others that he was desperate to adapt: Sandman.

“DC at that time were based in New York City,” Maggs recounts, “and I hit it off especially well with their Business Affairs Manager, Phyllis Hume, a feisty no-nonsense Brooklynite who had a wonderfully dry sense of humour and didn’t waste praise where it wasn’t earned. She told me to read this ‘amazing’ new series coming out on DC/Vertigo. I read the first issue and was blown away. It was a monumental work of literature written for a 22 page comic book –punchy, direct, uncluttered by stereotypes, and exactly the sort of material I knew I could turn in amazing audio.”

He pitched it to the BBC and… they passed.

“It was frustrating,” he sighs, “but Neil wasn’t the figure he is nowadays and they were wary about having too much comic book entertainment – wary of ‘dumbing down’,  perhaps. It made no sense to me because it was ready made for the audience the BBC networks – particularly Radio 4 – supposedly wanted to attract: anyone under 50, basically. I pitched it several times over the years, but they just couldn’t see it, not even when Neil became a respected and applauded novelist and screenwriter.”

Disappointing though this was, Dirk’s correspondence with Gaiman turned into a friendship – and they discovered that they had both been close to Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who died aged just 49 in 2001.

“Neil was mentored early on by Douglas,” says Maggs, “while he changed my life when he chose me to adapt his later Hitchhiker novels for radio.”

While Sandman remained elusive, Maggs’ friendship with Gaiman bore other audio fruit as the years 2013-2017 saw BBC radio commissioning audio movies of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Stardust, Anansi Boys and, co-written with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.

This flurry of activity coincided with one of the stranger consequences of our internet age: the return of audio drama. Though it had never gone away for UK citizens, thanks largely to BBC Radio 4, audiences across the globe rediscovered this lost artform. And were willing to pay for new content.

Enter Amazon’s audiobook arm, Audible, brandishing chequebook. Maggs, with his reputation for turning properties with cult cache into unmissable radio, was tasked with adapting Alien spin-off novels. The results were astounding and, as many reviewers noted, far superior to the dreary prequels being churned out by Ridley Scott at the same time.

Then it happened – DC contacted Maggs and Audible: would they like to adapt Sandman?

“I many ways it’s perfect that we’ve had to wait,” is Maggs’ philosophical take. “Neil says he’s glad, too, because we’re better at what we do. The Sandman is like a good wine – it grows richer and more complex the older you leave it, and I don’t think I could have brought out half of its quiet complexities 25 years ago.”

And there’s the added bonus of Amazon-Audible’s deep pockets, which enabled Maggs to assemble a huge cast, including many “very famous” actors – none of whom Maggs can yet reveal.

“Strictly embargoed, I’m afraid,” he says. “But all I’ll say is it’s strange we didn’t record in Los Angeles considering the Hollywood talent we secured.”

Of Dream, himself, Maggs won’t be drawn, except to say that the actor in question was his first and only choice.

“Oh heck, what can I say? He was always there. He has exactly what Dream needs to come to life … and he is amazing.”

Recording was divided between London, New York and Atlanta, Georgia – the location of The Walking Dead’s production base. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from that, Maggs is keeping his lips firmly zipped. Either way, it’s “by far the biggest cast” Maggs has ever had on a single project.

“I make it 70, on a quick head count. All are brilliant, there really are no exceptions. Everybody brought their ‘A’ game. In the ensemble sessions last October we had up to 15 people at any one time in a studio built for a third of that number. But everybody was so into the material, and the characters and stories themselves are so gripping that where possible I ran the whole story in one go, recorded voices-only to the mics. It was absolutely enthralling to hear it performed like that. And it wasn’t just the stars who made it sing – the whole ensemble absolutely soared into the realms of Dream. Listening to it now, in post-production where I’m currently labouring, it’s all sounding amazing.”

One cast member who has been announced is Neil Gaiman himself, on board as the narrator. To create the narration, Maggs made the inspired choice to draw, not only on the words printed in the comic books, but Gaiman’s actual scripts.

“It is one of the most exciting things about this project,” Maggs enthuses. “The scripts are  a window into what is going on in Neil’s mind, as he is writing the stories. And they are poetry. There’s a scansion to his writing, a rhythm that can be gentle or formal, from blank verse to iambic pentameter – and of course Will Shakespeare does feature in two of the stories in this first series. Part of the joy of the process was to hear our actors – some senior Shakespearian ones too – breathing life into these lines, lifting them off the page, giving them that rhythm. There were times in studio where shivers ran up my back as dialogue I had only ever read off the page burst into vibrant, living existence.”

Maggs even incorporated a passage from Gaiman’s private papers.

“It’s never been heard, or read by anyone but Neil,” Maggs explains. “He wrote some background on the creation of Dream’s talisman, his Ruby, and I placed it during the confrontation with Doctor John Dee, because it’s the subject of the story and it is beautiful and riveting.”

The whole experience has been a “privilege” says Maggs. And not, it would seem, just for him. Gaiman himself has quietly expressed a joy at revisiting stories he wrote 30 years ago, though he doesn’t recognise the person he wrote them as himself. Maggs says:

“At the end of a particularly good mixing day a short while ago I emailed Neil and said, ‘This stuff just comes alive – damn, you’re good.’ He came back saying he’s not sure he recognises the person who wrote it because it was so long ago. I assured him that whoever that person was, they had created magic – and it translates beautifully into our strangely visual realm of pure audio.”

A slightly shorter version of this feature appeared in SciFiNow in April 2020.

INTERVIEW: ALAN BENNETT, RICHARD GRIFFITHS & JAMES CORDEN on ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’

“Leeds back then was very black and sooty,” says Alan Bennett. “When I first went to Cambridge, it just seemed like something out of a fairy story. It just looked so wonderful.”

Though these words might not be altogether loyal to the city of his birth, Bennett has done more than most to put Northern England, and Leeds in particular, on the map. With a few notable exceptions, his plays, monologues, screenplays and novels are distinctively Northern. The History Boys is no different, telling as it does the tale of seven working class Northern sixth formers who are studying for places at Oxbridge. Bennett admits that the story has its roots in his own life.

“I went to Leeds Modern, a state school, and they didn’t normally send students to Oxford or Cambridge, although it did often send pupils to Leeds University. But the headmaster happened to have gone to Cambridge and half a dozen of us tried and we all eventually got in.”

Unlike the characters in his play, the film version of which hit cinemas last week, Bennett couldn’t have cared less about Oxbridge.

“It wasn’t the Holy Grail,” he says, “in the sense that I’d never been to Oxford or Cambridge. Also, unlike in the play, the masters at my school had no idea what was expected of us during the entrance exam so we just had to busk it, really.”

The History Boys has been an incredible adventure, and not just for Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also worked on play and film of Bennett’s The Madness Of George III (famously renamed The Madness Of King George for its cinematic release, lest dull-witted Americans think its the third in a trilogy), it was an instant hit when it played at London’s National Theatre. A film version was greenlit, starring every principle actor from the stage version. Once shooting was over, the production moved on to a triumphant Broadway run, garnering awards galore, including a Tony for Richard Griffiths. His troubled teacher Hector, who believes in learning for the sake of learning, is an astonishing creation. Was it, like many of Bennett’s parts, written with him in mind?

“No,” says Bennett. “I had no idea who could play Hector, no notion, really. And then Richard came to see us. As soon as you’ve chosen somebody, it obscures anybody else who you might have thought of. It’s like going to a place where you’ve never been and having a picture of it in your head and then going there in real life and having that picture wiped out by reality.”

Griffiths does indeed inhabit the role completely, although his own experience of academia is a million miles away from Hector’s.

“I went to the drama school at what became Manchester polytechnic,” he says.  “I was working in Littlewoods in Stockton-on-Tees and handling money and being very good at mathematics. They sent me off to college to get some qualifications so I could come back and be a manager. I did an arts course instead. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just blundered into it.”

That blundering led to a celebratory career that has seen him become one of the UK’s best known actors. And, with The History Boys’ success in New York – which garnered Griffiths a Tony Award – he’s set to become famous in the States for more than just being Harry Potter’s nasty uncle. But the child-hating side is something he likes to play on. He talks of his eight young co-stars with mock vehemence:

“I don’t think those boys know the meaning of the word respect. There was certainly no visible demonstration or awareness of the word. The insults they used were usually fairly scatological and involving issues of personal hygiene and sexual mores. I would have them all beaten regularly.”

Of the eight boys, the best known is James Corden, a familiar face from films such as Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing and Kay Mellor’s TV drama, Fat Friends. Cheeky and confident, he’s the very embodiment of the youthful impetuousness that Griffiths pretends delights in finding so infuriating. As Corden explains, it was all done out of love:

“When you find yourself working with people who have had such an impact on you growing up,” he says, “there are two things you can do: you can either put them on a pedestal or you can take them down a peg or two. We thought the best way to show our love and respect was to be absolutely vile and horrible to them.”

Bennett finds this both hilarious and understandable.

“The writer is quite low down on the hierarchy, really” he says, “but the fact that they took the piss out of Nick, who is also the director of the National Theatre, I would have thought was slightly more risky. They might never work again.”

Considering the success of The History Boys, this seems unlikely. Indeed, even if the film isn’t a huge box-office success, their lives will never be the same again. Corden is philosophical.

“Whatever happens in the future, I know that we’ve had this amazing time and I’ve spent two years working with seven other people who will be my friends for life. And that’s not just luvvie speak, that’s genuine. If we didn’t all get on, none of us have been contractually obliged to go with the project all the way; none of us had to go to New York, none of us had to sign on to do the film. But we all did.”

 

He does admit that there have been a few arguments.

“You’ve got eight young egos thrown together – you’re bound to have a few fights. There’s been a point when I’ve hated every single one of them, but it never lasts long. One thing is, if you’re throwing a fit, you’ll have seven people laughing at you and calling you Diana Ross.”

For Bennett, it takes him back to his own early career in the 1960s, when he first became a household name writing and acting in Beyond The Fringe.

“I spent three and a half years working closely with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and, even though we didn’t see each other that often afterwards, whenever we did we went back to that relationship because we had that shared experience. That wasn’t so good for me, because back then I was always the one who got sat on.”

Though he delivers this last with a wry smile, one senses that he’s acutely aware that everyone in his anecdote is dead. Always of a morbid bent and a notorious hypochondriac, Bennett seems more aware of mortality than ever, especially given his recent revelation that, back in 1997, he almost lost his life to colon cancer. He’s even unwilling to properly enjoy the success of History Boys.

“Being a writer, you’re always thinking about what to do next,” he says. “It’s much easier to follow something that hasn’t been as successful. Success slows you down, really. But at the moment I’m very conscious that I’m getting on a bit. I just want to get as much done as I can.”

This feature first appeared on the FilmFour website in 2006

NETFLIX UK FILM REVIEW: ‘EXTINCTION’

Everything is not what it seems in Netflix’s surprising, though-provoking sci-fi actioner.

On the back of the woeful Cloverfield Paradox and the disappointing How It Ends, Netflix latest sci-fi commission at least has the distinction of being watchable. It’s no masterpiece, though. The plot is smart, in a sort of sub-Philip K Dick short story sort of way: in an unspecified near(ish) future family man Peter (Michael Peña, excellent) is beset by nightmares of an imminent alien invasion that – when a murderous attack fleet descends from the sky – he comes to believe are, in fact, prophetic visions. The truth is more complex (and pleasingly clever) with a series of great reveals at and after the midpoint.

Before that, this is more of a straight-forward action flick, as enemy foot-soldiers go door-to-door in Peter’s apartment block, gunning down everyone they see. It’s brilliantly done and the tension is palpable as Peter, his wife (Lizzy Caplan) and two adorable kids (Amelia Crouch, Erica Tremblay) battle their way from the block down into the city’s tunnels and, they hope, to sanctuary with Peter’s boss David (Mike Colter). But on their tail is an apparently vengeful soldier, intent on recovering the gun Peter stole from him during an early altercation.

To fully discuss Extinction would require a mahoosive spoiler, but suffice to say everything is not quite what it seems on the surface. Anyone thinking this is just another War of the Worlds re-run will be surprised at the destination the movie takes us to. It’s deftly plotted and all the jigsaw pieces slot into place come the closing few minutes, with an ending that’s morally complex and thought-provoking. It’s all done and dusted in 95 minutes, which would normally be a big plus point. Here, though, you’re left feeling they could have given us a little more breathing space to digest the twists and turns; instead, in hurrying to its conclusion, it snaps the audience away from the story just as they’re getting their heads around it.

This is a far cry from truly masterful sci-fi chamber pieces such as Ex Machina or Moon, but there’s lots to recommend, not least the cast and the visual effects.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘DEAD NIGHT’

For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

A favourite of the horror festival circuit this last year, Dead Night is an entry into the much-crowded sub-genre of splatter-gore. Very 80s in tone, it delivers its palpably nasty sequences with glee, providing chuckles along with some very effective jump scares.

The plot is corny, of course: a wholesome family unit – Dad recovering from cancer – head out to a remote cabin in the woods, built on a spot renowned for healing. Suffice to say, not a lot of healing takes place. The set up for the ‘bad stuff’ is unnecessarily complicated, beginning with a prologue taking place in 1961, which, with a gruesome murder and a horrific scene of demonic childbirth, sets the pleasingly nasty tone – it’s hard to achieve an R-certificate these days, but Dead Night gets there in its opening minute. From 1961, we fast-forward to 2015 and meet mom Casey Pollack (Brea Grant, best known as Daphne in TV’s Heroes; excellent) as she drives her husband James (AJ Bowen), two teen kids Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman). Accompanying them is Jessica’s buddy, shy Becky (Elise Luthman).

From this very standard set-up, Dead Night does try something different structurally. We’re suddenly shown a TV, flickering out in a clearing in the woods, that’s playing TV show Inside Crime – a documentary detailing the butchering “three years ago” of the Pollacks by notorious “axe mom” Casey. While it apparently lets us know early on that nobody makes it out alive, nothing is quite as straightforward as that – especially when a woman named Leslie Bison turns up at the cabin.

Played with trademark élan and menacing camp by horror legend Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, You’re Next amongst many others), Bison first appears as a prospective candidate for senate in 2018 during an ad after Inside Crime, but we then see how she infiltrates the Pollacks’ cabin and unleashes hell. It’s all very silly, and becomes increasingly ridiculous – and less frightening – as it progresses. It does deliver some fantastic scares and lashings of gore and 80s-style body-horror, all achieved with impressive old school, in-camera effects – heads crack apart, zombie-things shuffle along with broken limbs and weird blobby-spiky things bury into people’s necks. In short: it’s nuts. For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD’

Using restored and colourised footage, this soldiers’ eye view of The Great War is astonishing and moving.

Dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the British Army 1910-1919, Peter Jackson’s documentary is both an astounding piece of filmmaking and a moving tribute to the millions of men who fought on all sides during World War I.

The film begins in straightforward manner, with the voices of veterans overlaid on familiar grainy, black-and-white footage of the period. We hear of the outbreak of hostilities, the clamour to join up, and the comradely holiday-camp feel of basic training. It’s absorbing and fascinating, and, at first, one doesn’t quite notice the tone change: panic creeps into the veterans’ narration and, suddenly, as the fear hits – this is “deadly warfare” – the image on screen enlarges and the scene of troops marching through muddy fields becomes saturated with colour.

This double-whammy – the breathtaking images coupled with the emotional impact of hearing real men recount their experiences – continues throughout. It makes They Shall Not Grow Old one of the most important and effective wartime documentaries ever made.

Jackson’s team of CGI wizards – taking time off from rendering Gollum or King Kong – have performed miracles here. For anyone whose expectations of colourised black-and-white stem from unhappy experiments on Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin movies, it’s suffice to say that this is several thousand times more sophisticated. The colours here are as lush, varied and detailed as they would be in real life. In addition, the frame-rate has been slowed down, so we’re treated to WW1 soldiers moving as they would have done at the time, not in the jerky, speeded-up fashion seen in news reels.

As well as some 3D effects being used on the images to breathe even more life into them, the coup de grace is Jackson’s decision to add sound too. As with the moving images, the attention to detail employed on the soundtrack is jaw-dropping. Not only have the foley artists excelled themselves – every boot-step, neighing horse, rumbling tank-track or exploding shell sounds as though it was recorded along with the pictures – but we hear the men speak too. Making the audacious but genius decision to use lip-readers, Jackson gives voice through actors to men who have been silent for a century. The result is to bring to life small exchanges that would have previously been unnoticed. There are dozens of contenders but one stand-out sequence sees a smiling Tommy ask a German POW: “Want yer ‘at back?” It’s a tiny moment, but one full of humanity and warmth in the midst of such horror. What’s more, it’s not just a dramatic reconstruction – a hundred years ago this happened, exactly as we see it.

As the film progresses through the war, we’re drawn inevitably to the horrific maelstrom of all-out battle. We’ve seen these sequences before – soldiers gassed, troops stumbling over the top, trenches filled with the dead and the dying, tanks rolling over shell holes – but rendered here with sound and colour is like seeing them anew. Most of all, the sight – and now sound – of shell bursts, so close to whoever is holding the camera, is truly shocking.

As we commemorate a century since the Armistice, this brilliant film is essential viewing. It’s a respectful memorial to the men who served and died, yes, but most of all, it’s a reminder that they lived and breathed and laughed and cried. Just like us.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

SHUDDER UK MOVIE REVIEW: ‘THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW’

Scary, unsettling, eerie and moving, this haunted house chiller is a slow-burning treat.

Indie director Andy Mitton delivers a fresh take on a well-worn genre with this haunted house chiller. Initially, his tautly written screenplay presents us with an emotionally icy world, as middle-aged Simon (Alex Draper) takes his estranged 12-year-old son, Finn (Charlie Tacker), out to his newly acquired fixer-upper – a rambling and downright spooky manse in the middle of rural Vermont. He tells Finn he intends to do it up so he can “flip it” – sell it on at a profit – but in reality, he wants to create a dream home, so he and Finn’s mother (Arija Bareikis) can get back together. Suffice to say, none of this is going to happen.

As they soon discover from a neighbour (Greg Naughton), the house already belongs to someone else – the titular witch, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), who died in her rocking chair some years before, gazing unnervingly out over the desolate landscape. Worse still, as Simon and Finn begin repairing the house, Lydia’s spirit seems to grow stronger. As it dawns on them that the ghost is both real and malevolent, Simon faces the prospect of either giving up his dream and his investment, or repairing a house while under attack.

While the creeping realisation of the truth is brilliantly handled – Simon and Finn’s response is that of real people, not characters in a scary movie – where The Witch in the Window really excels is its emotional core. The scenario is expertly tied to the underlying theme of fatherhood and family, with the relationship between Simon and Finn evolving from frosty exchanges (“I was hoping to get you on the good side of 12,” says Simon, as it becomes apparent Finn is already a moody teen) to a genuine warmth. By the time we reach the shocking midpoint – which will scare the bejeezus out of everyone – Simon and Finn are two characters for whom we’re desperately rooting. It’s this that places The Witch in the Window very much in the same company as recent intelligent chillers such as The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

The cast are quietly fantastic too, bringing Mitton’s well-drawn characters to three-dimensional life. While Draper is the heart and soul of the piece (the film was apparently written with him in mind), a special mention should go to child actor Tacker who displays a great range here; if there’s any justice, he should have a great career ahead of him.

As should director Mitton. With a number of well-regarded movies already behind him, The Witch in the Window is his best yet. As well as drawing first-rate performances from his small cast, his pacing is masterful. And, as a set piece in chilling suspense, a scene in which our hero is inexorably drawn down an almost endless corridor towards the chair facing the window is one of the most accomplished sequences in the genre for many a year.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

INTERVIEW: LENA HEADY on ‘IMAGINE ME & YOU’

“It wasn’t about ‘I’m a big lesbian!’” laughs Lena Heady, of her latest film, Imagine Me & You. “It’s just about love.”

Heady, a resident of Huddersfield, was actually born in Bermuda in 1976.

“That always sounds very exciting,” she says, “but I have a British passport. My family are from Huddersfield. My father was a policeman and he was sent out there to train. I don’t have any memories of Bermuda. I’m quite glad, because I’d probably be very cynical about the British weather.”

Set far away from Huddersfield, in London’s leafy Primrose Hill, Imagine Me & You is the sort of romantic comedy that, ever since Four Weddings, Americans lap up. While it won’t play as well over here, writer-director Ol Parker does at least have fun with the genre’s clichés. Not least because, for once, the requisite unrequited love is between two women. Heady plays Luce, a lesbian florist, who falls for Rachel, played by the beautiful Piper Perabo.

“We’d just shot The Cave together in Romania,” says Heady, “and then both got to play Luce and Rachel together. That was good for bonding – if you spend any amount of time with anyone in Romania you’ll bond. It’s pretty harsh out there. I was a vegetarian, but I’m not anymore.”

The Romanians broke her?

“The Romanians broke me, yes,” she chuckles, adding in an Eastern European accent, “‘You must have the dog-stew or nothing.’ I’m joking.”

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job. And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Lena Heady in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ (2005)

This wasn’t the first time Heady’s dietary choices had caused trouble on a film set. While shooting The Brothers Grimm in Prague, Heady had a run-in with the film’s director, Terry Gilliam. He had a rabbit bought from a pet-shop and was going to have it killed so Heady’s character, a huntress, could gut it.

“I rescued it,” Heady reveals, “and took it back to the shop. The owner said she loved him [the rabbit] although she may have put him in a pie for all I know.”

Reading between the lines, it seems as though she and Gilliam didn’t get on at all.

“I don’t think Terry and I will be spending time together anytime soon, let’s put it that way,” is all Heady will say. “For me, Brothers Grimm pretty much lived up to its title. In fact, it was hideous.”

Lena Heady and Ian Hart in ‘Loved Up’ (1995)

Heady first came to mainstream attention following Loved Up, a 1995 TV film about the highs and lows of the rave scene. Critically acclaimed, it was the first screenplay by none other than Ol Parker.

“It was a sort of launch pad for me and Ol and [co-star] Ian Hart,” says Heady. “People remember it which is always a good accolade. I think it was a great piece of work.”

Since Loved Up, Ian Hart has worked with the likes of Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Tony Scott and Michael Winterbottom and Ol Parker, having set up camp in Los Angeles, married Thandie Newton. Heady, though she’s never been out of work, hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success.

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job,” Heady cheerfully admits. “And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Even if the TV series isn’t forthcoming, Heady has no shortage of work. She’s soon to be seen playing Queen Gorgo in 300, Zack ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s ultra-violent Spartans v. Persians graphic novel. (“I’ve got some funny eye make-up in that one,” confesses Heady).

Above all, she obviously loves her job.

“Oh yeah. I mean, in Imagine Me & You, I get to stand on top of a car, in a full traffic jam, and shout ‘I love you!’ in front of loads of people. There’s something lovely about getting to do something you’d never do in real life.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2006.