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By midlandsmovies, Apr 1 2020 12:58PM

The Jack in the Box

Directed by Lawrence Fowler


High Fliers Films

Antique and vintage toys are awful. They’re all painted wood and cracked porcelain and not a Transformer in sight. And of all the vintage toys, the jack-in-the-box is definitely the wost. Its not a toy, its a jump-scare machine.

You crank the handle, a cheap mechanism mangles Pop Goes the Weasel and then BAM! Face full of creepy ugly clown. Just the worst. Unless the box houses an evil demon, in which case it’s much more fun.

The Jack in the Box is the latest horror film for Northampton’s Up A Notch Productions, written and directed by Lawrence Fowler. When Casey (Ethan Taylor) turns up for his first day of work at a museum in a stately home, he and new colleague Lisa (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) discover an antique jack-in-the-box with a deadly secret – the clown is a demon, and once freed it’ll prey on all around it unless Casey can find a way to stop it.

Two things are apparent right away. Firstly, that this is was shot on a low budget. Secondly, that Fowler won’t let a little thing like that get in the way of making a good film. Every penny was put to good use – this film looks great. It’s slick, it’s creepy, and it uses its limitations to great effect. Shot mostly on location at Abington Park Museum, the setting works great as the demon’s hunting grounds as victims get trapped in dark rooms and twisting stairways. It’s lit perfectly, and Fowler ramps the tension up in most of the right places. In fact, in its direction I’d say The Jack in the Box is head and shoulders above its peers and even rivals some of the lower-end mainstream horror fare.

The special effects are also really well done. The box itself is remarkably creepy, and the way it moves to reveal its handle is very much like a Hellraiser puzzlebox and the clown inside is, as many characters remark, absolutely hideous. In the best way, of course! Jack looks much scarier once he’s out of the box, of course. What looks at first glance to be a standard clown mask is, on closer inspection, a really effective creature effect considering the budget.

A lot of low budget films have shaky acting, but almost everyone here is great. Taylor and Quinlan work well together, with the latter stealing her scenes with an effortless realism, making up for her character not having much to do until near the end. But the real standout is Robert Nairne as Jack. He cuts an imposing figure as he stalks his prey, walking like Doug Jones and generally have a whale of a time. He gives the monster a sense of genuine glee that’s fun to watch.

There are some bum notes, inevitably. The story’s a little basic and predictable, but no less fun for that. The pacing’s a little rushed at the beginning too, but it settles down and learns to take its time. At the beginning there’s over-reliance on slow-motion montages with people speaking silent as the music plays over it – once would be ok, but twice in one act is a bit much, especially as the music is what lets the film down the most. It’s too… earnest? Overwrought? I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s trying too hard and could do with being a tad more subtle. It makes the film feel cheesier than it needs to be, which is a shame as all the other aspects of the film don’t need to work as hard to be effective.

In all, this is a very fun film. If you’re looking for so-bad-it’s-good low budget flick then you may want to look elsewhere, as this is a genuinely good horror film to be enjoyed unironically. It’s a hard genre to pull off cheaply, as evidenced by all the poor attempts out there, but Lawrence Fowler does it with ease. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

Sam Kurd

Twitter @Splend

By midlandsmovies, Mar 31 2020 04:04PM

I Want For Nothing

Directed by Keir Black


An eclectic and fantastical comedy drama called I Want For Nothing comes from regional director Keir Black and follows the anxieties and connection between two young women and how they explore life.

Daisy is a very shy girl and after a musical introduction we see her in a grassy meadow watching intently towards a sociable group of friends from afar. Day-dreaming she is part of the group, she imagines herself having a laugh with the gang before putting her foot in it and being glared at for her misstep.

The film uses these sequences to suggest an outward anxiety. Daisy longs from afar to join in but her imagination creates a series of awkward encounters that prevent her from doing so. Returning to reality, a look of disappointment crosses her face as the friends continue their fun outdoor afternoon.

Next up is Jill who appears to have a fixation on her weight and eating. She crosses path with Daisy and the two start up a strange afternoon speaking as they do through a series of cones and sweets.

The heightened reality in the short attempts to bring up a number of interesting issues including embarrassment, anxiety and a fear of what others think. But is also covers positivity in unusual communication methods and finding friendship amongst personal idiosyncrasies.

The sound, with a focus on the music, is one arena that could have worked better. As eclectic as the visuals, the musical choices are suitably strange to create an unnerving atmosphere, but they aren’t particularly mixed well with tunes coming in at random at different volumes. Often too loud it has to be said.

The film’s weirdness is part of its charm though, and it always keeps you on your toes. From road cones to garden tools, a strange set of props help create a surreal atmosphere. And the director uses everything from POV, fruit montages and subtitles to create an energy that means you never know quite what is coming next. And before the end we also get some fantastic animation. It's not short on variety that's for sure!

However, the film could do with some additional tweaks in cinematography (or a colour grade) as it has a slightly amateur feel – but in many ways this makes it a more personal take given its quirky themes.

In the end I Want For Nothing meanders all over the place for me. One minute a take on dark issues, it then leaps to comedy and then scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Reeves & Mortimore sketch. So give this one a chance if you want to experience something a little weirder than the norm.

And although not to everyone’s taste, if the unusual and odd are particular curiosities you seek, then you may find them in the bizarre journey this film takes you on.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 30 2020 08:25AM


Directed by L.J. 'Stark' Greenwood


What lurks in the forest at night is a question posed in the opening of new short horror film Snarl from L.J. Stark Greenwood.

Well we find out as the chirping of crickets dies down and we stumble upon a half-naked man (Jay Podmore as Elijah) chained and tortured in a cave-dwelling. The man conducting this horridness is called Clyde (Troy Dennison) and accuses him of being a “devil”.

Two local villagers (Charlie Clarke as Faye and Jack Knight as Benjamin) wait for the torturer to leave before ignoring the “no trespassing” sign. They sneak in and seek to comfort and release the abused man who by now is covered in cuts and bruises.

The film is well shot and the story beats easy to understand in Snarl. The script is clear but delivered in a slightly Hammer-inspired way. The archaic dialogue with its hints of Victorian prose harks back to classic gothic literature. I hope this is deliberate as no one speaks like these characters do in real life that's for sure.

With the villagers and their rescued man now on the run, Clyde returns to find his captive gone and a chase ensues in the woods. Stumbling through the undergrowth, they attempt to flee but the injuries are taking their toll on their progress.

Low budget films tend to film in places with easy access (i.e. the woods). And horror action tends to be “chasing”. When these two are overdone you can far too often see these being overused with huge swathes of a short’s time being eaten up by that action in that location. However, although it edges close for a moment, Snarl thankfully ends just the right side of this horror trope. But does veer that way for a moment.

What doesn’t work so well is day-for-night shooting. The appearance of a full moon at the start hints on the horrors about to take place after sunset, but a blue filter appears to stand in for proper night-time shooting. This makes the film feel like it’s taking place in the less-than-scary early evening. A small point granted, but one that could have been altered for some more darkly visceral scares.

However, things turn worse later when Elijah reveals his true self - SPOILER - in the form of a werewolf. The low budget has forced Snarl to show very little of the transformation but, as so often with horror, it’s about the fear of what you don’t see, not what you do.

But the influence of the classic wolf shapeshifting in An American Werewolf in London is clear to see and the effects and make-up used are very impressive and filmed well.

Snarl ends then by playing on the thrill and the fear of the unknown and the short’s bloody atmosphere is one of constant dread. If a little too long given its content and narrative for me personally, what is shown is the filmmaker’s passion for classic retro horror beats with a love for the genre - as well as some excellent artistry from the make-up department.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 28 2020 09:39AM

The Reunion

Directed by Pixel Moore


Howdy! The sun rises across the plains as we step into the old American West for new film The Reunion from Pixel Moore which tells the tale of a man’s past catching up with him.

Set on a farming ranch, a lonesome woman (Rebecca Hanssen as Abigail) undertakes her chores before heading to the wilderness to collect water from an old pump before finding her father (Tony Hamilton as Frank) shot in the abdomen.

Written by Midlands filmmaker Louis Brough it is again honourable to see local projects tackle Hollywood-style genres that surpass the limitations of a low budget and often very restricted resources.

Brough has previously tackled the fantasy genre in his film Aurora (our review here) as well as another American drama set on the rail tracks of America in Runaways (our review here). Filming in the UK, the short does it best to convince you it’s actually the colonial past and the excellent wardrobe also sells the illusion.

From your standard cattle clothing to pioneer-era sun bonnets, the film’s costume is a highlight with its authentic look to create a cowboy-feel with rustlers, horses and a ‘yee-haw’ atmosphere.

That’s not to say it’s a comedy pastiche. From the desolate trails to the wooden barns, influences come from classic Westerns and when a stranger in black arrives (Michael Siegel as Uncle Jared), the short takes a dramatic turn which reunites family, and a dark past.

The Reunion then is clearly a genre piece and from the accents to the outfits, sells the audience a genuine slice of rodeo-inspired drama.

In addition, the solid performances and slick editing has the narrative gallop along to a powerful and bloody conclusion. So get off your horse, drink your milk and settle in for an impactful Western short with plenty to recommend.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 26 2020 08:17AM

Pieces of an Adolescent

Directed by Renecide


The passing of time represented by the tick-tock of a metronome opens a new short film called Pieces of an Adolescent that deals with the troublesome and tough times of growing up.

An experimental piece, the short is a mixture of styles that tell the background of the filmmaker and the struggles they face.

“I used to be happy when I was younger”, says the young man as he shares personal experiences of depression, loneliness and even suicide.

A mixture of voiceovers and brief interviews stand alongside images of a radio, text messaging and an interesting use of titles giving us snippets of a life.

The editing is haphazard but is a great technique used to show the conflicting and confusing thoughts that go through a vulnerable person’s head. The black and white handheld camera adds a personal touch and an interesting use of titles attempts to create a sort of structure amongst the chaos.

From CCTV and Skype footage, the differing media continues randomly yet about halfway through we switch to colour. Alongside this comes a more formal documentary style as the protagonist’s life starts to come together. A clever switch I enjoyed, the use of film technique to again represent the “pieces” of this person’s life from disorder to stability.

And with a dash of religion sprinkled in, as well as questions around personal identity, the topics ensure a certain weight is given to the multifaceted themes.

On a personal note I found the short quite long as the experimental style is not something I’ve ever warmed to. Narrative cinema is more up my street and although the short has interesting concepts, they come and go almost at random. The differing styles gives glimpses into a time of life but for me they don’t coalesce into a complete whole and the point is made realtively early on.

An honourable piece, the film certainly tackles hugely complex and difficult issues in a sensitive and very personal way with a style that represents the young man’s fractured mind. However, the style may not be up everyone’s street but if you stick with it, the second part somewhat explains the first half and the interesting use of styles shows promise and technical expertise to be admired.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 25 2020 08:13AM


Directed by Brandon Marples


An older man waking up in bed to the sound of birdsong is a gentle start for this new 3-and-a-half-minute short from Midlands writer-director Brandon Marples.

The unidentified man (played with subtle and emotional nuance by local actor Melvyn Rawlinson) stares at the ceiling and then at the empty pillow next to him in a well-chosen God-shot.

From the outset, the film shows someone missing in this person’s life. The absence of dialogue is a bold choice but works well to show an inner sadness. Also, the beginning emphasises how this loss begins even as you wake up, at the forefront of your mind from the start until the end of every day.

Beautiful cinematography from Ed Radford help captures the man’s turmoil and the film conveys the loss using small but important moments from the morning. We see one pair of shoes in the hall and we see the man at an empty breakfast table too.

There are some moments of levity however with the man smiling at a hand-holding couple in the park. A shot of a large oak showing the passage of time as the man deals with his grief and appears to reflect on his life. A sad scene of tooth-brushing has our protagonist close to tears as the day ends. And as per the start of the day, he once again returns to bed alone.

Born and educated in Derby, Brandon Marples is an East Midlands based film director and has captured a deep sense of loss in Coping. The man is carrying on despite his situation yet a melancholy hangs over him throughout this day.

With a lovely performance from the lead, the film is a portrait of looking after oneself despite life’s struggles. Grappling with a bereavement, Coping shows both the difficulty of dealing with death but also focuses on the day to day struggles many face.

A poignant picture with excellent technical aspects, the film is heart-breaking but not without some heart-warming too, hinting as it does at a universal message to take care of each other one day at a time.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 25 2020 07:45AM

Rubber Johnny

Directed by Matt Williams


Rubber Johnny is a new music-based video from West Midlands animator and film director Matt Williams which tackles a rather serious subject in the most amusing way possible.

Rubber Johnny – a British slang for a condom if you were unaware – is an important thing to learn about in school sex education class and Williams has taken this sensitive and difficult to talk about issue and made a very entertaining short about it.

The film is an animated music video with lyrics related to its use, its history and with an emphasis on bright colours and smiley faces that makes it accessible to a youth audience.

That’s not to say it’s only educational, however. With fantastic vocals from singer Caitlin Johnson and a simple accompanying acoustic guitar, the song is as catchy as hell and has plenty of laugh out loud moments as well.

With the history of animated music videos in mind, from Yellow Submarine by The Beatles to the anime stylings of Daft Punk’s Discovery album, the film has echoes of White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl where a locked off shot was used to show the band playing using child favourite LEGO.

More apt perhaps is Peter Gabriel’s famous Sledgehammer video as Williams has chosen an older ratio (1:1) for his video with the very colourful animation all happening in this one square window.

From inflatable cocks to anthropomorphic smiley-faced condoms, via some real-life footage of trouser zips and plasticine sperm, the sexual connotations are there but always amusing and more importantly never crude or used exploitatively.

In the end, its simplicity is its key factor. A winner for Best Music at the 2020 Midlands Movies Awards, the video displays the lyrics enabling you to sing along to its uber-catchy chorus. “Oh, rubber johnny” will be stuck in your head all day and young people will get entertaining info on where to stick the other thing as well. A superb silly willy of a film.

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 24 2020 01:27PM

Living in Crime Alley

Directed by Rob Ayling


A frustrated father contemplating an eviction notice opens this new Batman fan-film from Midlands writer-director Rob Ayling who takes the dark knight in new directions in his 9-minute short.

Played by Vincent Jerome, the father puts on a brave face in front of his daughter (Bella Champagnie) who is dressed up in a fancy-dress Batman costume. Explaining that he needs to leave, his support for his offspring’s playtime is undercut as he pockets a pistol and heads out onto the streets.

The film has its actors use (very convincing) American accents and the well-shot streets are suitably dark and oppressive as seen in other classic incarnations of the caped crusader. The intense score also helps sell the big-screen aspirations of the film, covering up its Midlands roots but also keeping us firmly in the seedy world of Gotham City.

A Batman and DC fan-film may be quite a rare proposition for local filmmakers but not so much for the Midlands it seems. Living in Crime Alley is the second such film which sits alongside Sophie Black’s Growing Shadows (review here) which took a different angle on Batman lore focusing as it does on Poison Ivy.

Appearing to have no other option, our father dons a balaclava to hold up a convenience store. This sequence is cleverly cut with the daughter who is playing and throwing batarangs back home, still dressed as her favourite hero.

From strong shadows, intense lighting and some city special effects, the film does a fantastic job of taking us into the world of Batman and associated iconography. When Batman does finally show, an excellent (and expensive looking) costume harks back to the classic Tim Burton outfit worn by Michael Keaton.

With a strong vision, Living in Crime Alley is a superb short with the director’s love for the world showing on screen every step of the way. And as well as the usual crime-based aspects of the DC world, Ayling adds in some emotional heft using the father-daughter relationship and giving a more rounded portrayal of a man forced into crime – and the effects on his daughter.

For most, it’s a great portrayal of a classic superhero but for fans, I recommend you certainly tune in at the same Bat-time and on Rob Ayling’s YouTube Bat-channel and check out this exciting tale featuring Bat-fans’ favourite watchful protector.

Michael Sales

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