SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

MYTHTIC MONDAY at LONDON FRIGHTFEST 2014: In which we go in search of Wild Cats (X MOOR) and Killer Mermaids (NYMPH) in Leicester Square - and find some evidence for both!


Monday, Film4 FrightFest, and it’s a day of wild beasts and mythical legends and lots of rain outside the comfy enclosure of the VUE, Leicester Square. We may not be wild beasts inside, but we sure look like drowned rats. Both ‘Xmoor’ and 'Nymph' are films that trade on our fear of the unknown and our need to imagine that something else is out there other than war, disease, tower blocks and ice bucket charity challenges (if you are reading this after summer 2014 then this will already be an outdated reference, but you get where I’m coming from).
I’ve been to Bodmin Moor, where the giant wild cat/ panther hybrid supposedly stalks all those who venture into the bracken. I never saw the cat itself, but did spot a few recreations of what it may look like in a number of tourist shops – I believe its face even appears on a tea towel. I don’t disbelieve the existence of wild cats in Exmoor. I just haven’t seen one yet. (You can find it on YouTube though.) As for mermaids, I’m convinced one exists after dark at Tooting Bec Lido. But so far – no official footage actually exists. I could, however, pass you on some grainy footage that will – if you want it – chill you to the bone. Anyway – here are my reviews of the big furry one and the slippery lady (and I don’t mean the couple in front of me in the popcorn queue). Believe!
NYMPH / Director: Milan Todorovic / UK PREMIERE
* Some spoilers may be found luring sailors to their death on the dangerous rocks below - watch before reading! *

Nymph (NOUN): “A mythological spirit of nature imagined as a beautiful maiden inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations” ~ Oxford
In which an American writer called Kelly (writing about water or something – kind of appropriate) and her friend Lucy (not writing about water, more of a holiday romance) travel to Montenegro to catch up with old college friends, including Lucy’s ex-lover Alex who is now happily married to Yasmin (but since when did that stop anyone getting it on in a movie where we get a topless girl being devoured by killer mermaid in the first few minutes?).

The three friends get together and party back at Alex’s place before deciding to visit either the local wartime submarine tunnel or the abandoned Nazi fort on a nearby island that’s a no-go area as it has a killer mer – sorry, lots of snakes and no place to park your boat (or whatever it is you do with boats). Before they head to the island of death, there's just time for the crazy gang to meet a salty seadog full of tales of doom (Franco Nero as Niko) as well as be stalked by another salty seadog with a fetish for mermaids and plunging a huge hook into the back of your neck (we don’t know the identity of this character until later in the movie).
Once on the island (of death), our four friends are covered in lime (no, sorry - that’s another island of death) and chased by that demented fisherman again - and his mermaid. Yes, there is a mermaid in this movie - the U.S DVD release, we learn at the Q/A after the screening with director Milan Todorovic, gives the entire game away by calling the movie, straightforwardly: 'Killer Mermaid'. Anyway, as our Serbo-American friends fight for their lives on fishy Alcatraz, you just know it’s all going to end in a set-up (and actually - a pretty good one) for a sequel.
Nymphs is a general term for all kinds of water ladies but it’s the singing sirens and manipulative mermaids that you really have to watch out for in this movie (sometimes mermaids do good deeds, but sirens are all bad to the barnacled bone). Let’s just call the lead monster in this movie a mermaid though - it’ll be easier all round!



The Animal Planet channel hooked-in viewers with two documentaries (in 2012/13): 'Mermaids: The Body Found'/ 'Mermaids: The New Evidence' that blended some fact with lots of staged fiction (including actors in key roles and supposed footage of actual mermaids). One scene showed amateur footage captured on a mobile phone of a blurry mermaid sitting on a rock and sliding into the sea. A small disclaimer at the end credits stated the science fiction origins of the 'documentaries' but many still believed the publicity machine that claimed documentary footage had been seized by authorities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were forced to put out a few words of clarification to the curious: 'No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found'. So there!
Inspired, in part, by 1984 comedy 'Splash' (no really – the director said so) and of course 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' (clearly referenced a few times, including one direct recitation of that film’s title) with quotes from Moby-Dick, Homer and other literary and mythological sources, you can’t deny that the movie does promise lots of mermaid stuff - and gives quite a bit of actual mermaid, eventually, for as long as the budget allowed.
I’m not being snide mentioning the budget - Director Milan himself admits that a lot of the (clearly weaker, soap-operish) first half of the movie is less full of action and mermaid, purely for budgetary reasons. In fact, some of that budget went on hiring Franco Nero – still a real coup, and because a famous actor was needed for the movie and deliberately sought out. But to its credit, the film tries hard to fill the gaps in that weaker first half with a stonkingly seaweedy opening credits sequence with the film’s title shot in deliriously OTT block letters wobbling underwater and swaying to the tide.
The opening sequence with skinny dipping teens meeting something other than the big monster they’d both hoped might rise to the surface from under the waves is a good start too; straight out of Jaws and the fisherman with a hook straight out of I Know What You Did Last Summer, but a decent enough brief tease.
Most scenes with Franco Nero as the oracle of doom are rightly shot in close-up, giving the legendary Django actor (and many other films of importance in cult and genre cinema) full ownership of his screen time (apparently Nero thought the script was lacking when offered a role so rewrote most of his scenes, developed his character and demanded the swearing was taken out of the film as it was ‘too American’). Clearly echoing Quint from Jaws, the scenes with Nero in are easily the best. At times, the man's acting is worthier of a film with a much bigger budget, with more emotional depth - look, if Franco Nero believes in killer mermaids, I do too.
That’s not to say this sun-drenched Serbian film of fishy horror doesn’t have an impressive genre cast, because it does. Kristina Klebe, Natalie Burn and Dragan Micanovic all impress here and have fish nets full of cult horror cinema credits to their names. Of course, character development is minimal – but the main cast act suitably terrified when running around a rugged island being chased by a man with a fishhook. It’s not until the second half of the movie that characterisation - and likeability - develops. Some cast culls are welcome at the midway point.

Cult cartoon show Adventure Time features two water nymphs who spend their time telling each other jokes. A third nymph joins in later episodes. The nymphs wear bikinis and have hair like a waterfall. One of the nymphs even has a gold belly button piercing. Sample joke:
Nymph: “I’ve got a joke. What did the mermaid see a movie?”
Other Nymph: “Wh..what?”
Nymph: “Oh, I messed it up. But it’s still funny, right?”
At times, the film’s languid scenes of European emptiness, sex and swinging (though not shown in any real detail – probably a mistake; negating the supposedly ‘shocking’ rekindling of love between former lovers in the marital home, which in the end, isn’t shocking enough at all) and seasick-inducing, swooping camera lens (appropriate, of course, to this movie; like being on a boat) reminds of the studied randomness and joyful weirdness of a Jess Franco movie; if perhaps without the extreme titillation or unhingement that Franco required.
Location filming in Rose, Montengro is, in all fairness, often lovingly atmospheric and shows a respectful tapering of pace, instead of frantic cut and dice editing (though this may be down to budgetary limitations, it’s still a welcome change to syfy channel-style frantic CGI-mashups). The scenes set on the striking island fortress of Mamula too are worth waiting for. Here, after the crew strip down to their swimwear to get from the boat to the island, and the cut-off denim shorts get pulled out of the overnight bag, you just know that you are in for a rollicking wet ride of b-movie attention-seeking and the film gives just enough fishy thrills by the end to send mermaid spotters home reasonably happy (thankfully the CGI isn't too overdone). The extended exploring of barren rocks and crumbling structure allow tension to build and there's even one sploshy leap out of the water for a twirling mermaid kill that is genuinely impressive.

God of Water
The Sumerian god Enki (or Ea in later Babylonian/ Akkadian mythology) was the Lord of the Sweet Waters and often depicted with fish skin and his helpers with fish tails - as 'mermen'. Offerings of fish bones have been found at places where he was worshipped. His symbols of a goat and a fish combined to form the astrological sign Capricorn. Often depicted with flowing water around his head, Enki was also the god of semen, the Sumerian word for fresh water and semen being the same. With a playful character, a penchant for beer, intercourse and fish tails - the 'mer-myth' has not only mythological origins, but an actual ancient godlike one as well.

Director Todorovic tells us that he wanted his mermaid to be less a topless girl on top and fish tail at the bottom and more an inclusive creature – "like a dolphin"! The sleek lines of the mythical beast are well-realised for a small budget and the chase through underground tunnels and across the creature’s lair, are worth cheering for. Unlike the rest of this cast, Zorana Kostic Obradovic, who plays our nymph, has only this one role so far to her credit, and is suitably alluring. A final confrontation on the quayside between leading cast members (especially Franco Nero – given his moment to shine and coda the proceedings) is queasy, surreal (as if the rest of the population is in bed while the mermaid confrontation outside their rotten shutters reaches an epic, ahem - scale). The film allows for a sequel in a refreshingly epic, no holding back on state of intent (and reasonably chilling) way.
Nymph is what is: killer mermaids and queasy beastly (and human) love stories and crazed fishermen with hooks on secret islands where nobody else goes to (except film crews on a budget). There’s a fair amount of toned and bronzed flesh, both male and female (OK, mostly female - though it’s Boban who gets the most objectified as male totty) to spice up the scenery and a shot of breaststroke from an angle I’ve never seen attempted in a movie before (probably for reasons of good taste).

But this movie is all about the island and the girl with a tail, and for most of the second half, you get what you came for. The women have less to worry about from the mermaid (though she is fairly indiscriminate in who she eats) but I can’t help wondering if the makers of Nymph are missing the most glaringly obvious shift of gear here, one that most of the FrightFest crowd also seemed to be considering (resulting in plenty of stifled giggles) when a line of dialogue on screen explained why a mermaid only captivated and was able to hypnotise (with her sweet song) only some of the group on the island, as being: “Because they are men”. Oh come on, not even Django would say that line out loud!
XMOOR / Director: Luke Hyams / WORLD PREMIER

* Some spoilers may be lurking in tents on the moor below - watch before reading! *

Deep in darkest Exmoor, a crazy crypotozoological wild cat with the appearance of a black panther is supposed to stalk and kill sheep and breed in the rugged terrain.
Whether you believe the stories or not, I suppose you could say this film is ‘based on a possibly true story’. In fact, some inspiration is also gained (director Luke Hyams tells us at the FrightFest Q/A) from real life serial killer cases and the idea that police procedural restrictions require bodies to be removed from the scene of the crime – but if you leave them where they are, eventually the killer will return to the site, with more. So - one way to catch a cat? Or has the cat caught the cream of fast rising British acting talent?
Young documentary makers Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and Matt (Nick Blood) set out for Exmoor to track the beast of Bodmin Moor. Encountering dead sheep and a lying, psychotic junky contact holed up in a (brilliantly decayed and authentically dangerous looking) derelict farmhouse along the way it’s clear that it’s going to be a wild ride out on the moor that night. Actually, when Georgia tries to interview the rambling semi-nude junky beast-spotter in the farmhouse, I kind of had a flashback to FrightFest interviewees in the VUE foyer standing against that huge white background that burns your eyes out and makes you think you are hallucinating the existence of some kind of zombie heaven.
Just joking!
The interview doesn’t go too well, Georgia looks close to abandoning a career in documentary making and considering a lifetime in farming instead. Even the local kids, when not driving burning cars at her, seem to want to do something else to her that would most likely get the film banned by the BBFC if they actually did. So it’s with some relief that a kindly, mysterious silver-haired man called ‘Fox’ (not the kind of name you think will keep him safe from a giant killer cat on the moor) turns up as Georgia’s contact and possible ex-lover (you can tell Matt is thinking) who she met in a pub.

Instead of asking her back to his place for a coffee, Fox asks Georgia to join him on a night hunt; to track down the beast of Exmoor - one hell of a chat-up line! (Fox is played by Mark Bonnar, an actor with plenty of film and TV experience behind him compared to his younger co-stars - though Melia Kreiling has come straight from this year’s sci-fi hit Guardians of the Galaxy and is currently the hottest property among the cast.)
That’s the premise - and the rest of the movie is spent on location, up on Bodmin Moor. Except it isn’t; the film was shot in Northern Ireland where the director tells us he had to work hard to find a place where a woodland meets wide open space abruptly and that isn't being used by the Game of Thrones production team.


There have been many reported sightings of the Beast of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall (which many believe to be an escaped 'big cat' - maybe a puma - from a private collection or zoo) over the last few decades. The sightings and occasional blurry photographs or video were taken seriously enough  for the government to launch a search in 1995. The report concluded there was no verifiable evidence for the existence of the big cats being spotted by locals but also admitted their existence could not be disproved. A video clip of the supposed 'beast' was filmed in 1998 and seems the most important evidence to date. Speaking to The Independent in 1995, a local farmer said: "And the way they kill.. If it's a dog there's wool and trouble everywhere. A cat goes in, kills and eats. Very little mess."
Sightings of the other big cat - the 'Beast of Exmoor' have been made since the 70s, with farmers reporting the slaughter of many sheep (though like the Beast from Bodmin, sightings became more common in the early 80s). In the late 80s, the Ministry of Agriculture called in the Royal Marines to search the Moor and some sightings were reported, although no shots were fired for safety reasons. Another inconclusive study was carried out in 1995. Some believe the release of a big cat in the area followed the 1976 Exotic Pets Act, restricting the keeping of any dangerous wild animals. Guess what the owners did with their 'pets'!
Sophie Harkness plays Kara, the junky 'big cat victim' (with limited characterisation, she conveys real desperation and – eventually – fear and isolation) and appears on stage at the Q/A to tell us how cold it was filming in November/ December in the wilds of Northern Ireland and with the crew seeing her bare behind on at least one occasion (despite the director denying they had!). The shoot, despite the cold, was still an enjoyable one, Sophie tells us, and we have to believe her.
Luke Hyams admits that his mother was in the audience with him for this World Premier screening and kept nudging her son throughout and tutting at the horror on screen. Also, her mobile phone went off in the middle (must admit, I was sitting behind them and didn’t hear it) Luke tells us, and jokingly adds that he will "have a word with her" when they get home!
The addition of the Beast of Exmoor was something of a late addition to the plot that is framed by the search for 'the beast'. Instead, there's a focus on whether the two young film-makers are being led into something more fearsome than any standard cat chase could be, by the mysterious Mr Fox. The possibility of a big cat being out there adds a touch of subliminal shock-expectation that may or may not rear its furry head.

Tension raised throughout the film is in having two young innocents trapped in a wood in the dark and cold with a man who may or may not be entirely sane (while out hunting a mythological beast). You never really know who is going to scratch who – or strike someone down dead. When the reality starts to worsen, new hunting territory - a new dangerous game -  is introduced and it’s a tense, unrelenting fix of a thriller that follows (with occasional added 'beast').

The sparky banter between young Georgia and Matt is sharp and genuine, and the character of Fox adds real menace and authority to proceedings. Olivia Popica as Beast victim Vanya, who the team meet later, is also suitably petrified and the story grips and doesn’t let go – like a mouse clasped to a domestic cat’s paw. Red herrings (or red-splashed undergrowth) lead us to expect something horrible on the marshland or in the woods, and you won’t be disappointed.
Xmoor may be a little too cleverly worked out for its own good; may try too hard to bend convention and does – at times – repeat the thrills of the chase (and could have worked as a TV drama, though the stunningly-shot landscape cries out for a big screen) but it’s something different and has a smart premise and an especially effective and enthusiastic cast to make the frights especially cruel and distinctive in the horror genre.

Add a little girl with a little fork and a bad eye along the way (a possible victim of the beast) played by Jemma Obrien (who steals the show) and Xmoor, while not providing all the answers to the existence of big cats, and not being a definitive last word on the subject (and about as inconclusive as any official government report has been) at least tries its best to end at least some of our nine lives out there in the woods. And as one climatic scene (involving - not claws, but antlers) testifies (at least from the audience member in front of me who put her head in her hands for at least a minute without looking up) – sometimes it does this very bloodily indeed.
The horror of Exmoor may not be a proven one, but it's not the only bad thing living out there in the wild. I'm not surprised it keeps itself to itself. But one day, maybe one film crew, looking for evidence, or filming a horror movie about giant cats in the bracken - will get to meet something nasty when nobody else is looking. And become just another part of the myth . .

words: mark gordon palmer

@ Film4 London FrightFest 2014, VUE CINEMA Leicester Square.

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