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Saturday, 8 August 2015

CONJURING THE DEAD (2015) // Into the valley of the witch we go, with a new DVD release of a low budget/ high occult horror - shot deep in the heart of Cwmgwrach in Wales.


There may be spoilers riding in on the witch's broomstick below - watch before reading!

This low budget Welsh witchcraft horror takes place in the real village of Cwmgwrach, which helpfully translates as 'Valley of the Witch'. This was the film's original title last year, before its recent DVD release as 'Conjuring the Dead' (the title change being made to presumably link up with the popularity of all things 'Conjuring' in mainstream horror cinema right now).
Valley of the Witch/ Conjuring the Dead, however, unlike its Hollywood-possessed rivals, is a defiantly low budget, indie horror from a prolific Swansea filmmaker that, while not matching the special effects or chiselled script of bigger-budgeted witchcraft releases, is still deliriously occultish and does wonders for the Welsh countryside (in the same way the magnificent low budget horror The Borderlands fed off an effective vibe of deepest Devon country lanes and abandoned local churches as a backdrop to all the squirmy nightmares).

Conjuring the Dead  is directed, produced and - you guessed it! - written, by Welsh creative firebrand Andrew Jones, whose production company North Bank Entertainment is doing a roaring trade in low budget, déjà vu horror scripts, remakes and reinventions of (or even just a little bit inspired by, or linked by similar title alone) famous fright film classics.

In the near future, further horror releases from this blossoming studio will include: The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund; Robert the Doll; Kill Kane - and Alice. There's no horror studio quite like it, or certainly quite as active, in the UK right now in releasing mass market, superbly packaged (some may say unfairly so) crowd-pleasers that, in fairness, divide horror fans who bemoan the low budget and contrived linkage to similar Hollywood movies and those who appreciate indie filmmaking and the fun to be had in referencing current hits or trends (in the same way indie cult European filmmakers such as the wild opportunist Jess Franco or even the deliciously sleazy Joe D'Amato often liked to have fun with genre - but always with a unique and independent stamp of creativity).

There's also no doubt that Conjuring the Dead's head honcho, Andrew Jones, attracts stars that you may not expect to find in his low budget brand of Welsh horror movies, whether Vinnie Jones (Kill Kane/ 2015) or, back in 2007, EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella in The Feral Generation which directly tackled the causes of youth crime and drug abuse (Kinsella's own half-brother was stabbed and killed in a street attack shortly after).

Jones also nourishes upcoming talent, casting Natalie Martins in last year's Poltergeist Activity (soon to be seen in the intriguing-sounding 'bullying gone too far' Brit flic - 'Cruel Summer') and tipped newcomer, the young Flynn Allen in next month's especially intriguing 'Robert the Doll' (aka: just 'Robert' for the DVD release).

Expected shelf hit 'Robert' will come with the taglines: "Before Chucky . . , before Annabelle . . , there was Robert" and "He wants to be your best friend . . . forever". Well, I'm sold anyway!


Sure, some of these films are deliberately riffing on bigger budget hits but Jones has had undeniable success in writing and/ or directing versions of classic horror movies, including 'Silent Night, Bloody Night' remake: 'The Homecoming' and the unofficial, divisive (to hardcore fans of the franchise) but hugely successful 'Amityville Asylum' (a decent home video hit that also had an enviable theatrical release). Some of these indie horror hits from Jones (even those which he did not direct himself but contributed a script for, such as 'Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection' in 2012) provide defiantly different takes on familiar sinister themes from other blockbuster horror releases (the titles often reflect this) but with a uniquely Welsh edge!

Also, to Andrew's credit, his research on movies shot in a very short space of time is impeccable, and often very serious, whether interviewing Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil for a script he was working on, or homeless drug addicts (for 'The Feral Generation'). And there's something quite refreshing about all these films being shot and lovingly made in Wales; marking Welsh horror as a genuine force to be reckoned with (as it should be from a country steeped in legend and raised in mythology).
Andrew has also been able to raise interest and source effective distribution for films that may not showcase A-list names and may occasionally appear to have been made on the cost of a parking ticket refund alone. His first feature, featuring characters based on people he had met -'Teenage Wasteland' (2006) used local teens in main roles who had never acted before. It won a Best Feature award at the Swansea Bay Film Festival.


It's unfair to criticise the low budget template still in place for Conjuring the Dead as it's used to its best advantage. Any gore is kept to a minimum and brought out only occasionally (or unexpectedly) and the ominous shots of quiet countryside around Cwmgwrach (where some of the film was shot) and down eerily silent, single file roads provides a self-built rural soundstage that replaces the need for any more elaborate sets.

The low budget is most obvious in flashbacks of witches burning at the stake, which could have been toned down or referenced rather than shown so much, but are still often joyously crazed. And there's a nod at times to Ken Russell's legendary and effectively tragic, contemplative epic of religious fervour, loss and excess; his masterpiece - 'The Devils'. Even if the product we get with Conjuring the Dead isn't as good as the packaging promise and subsequent wishful thinking, at least director Jones clearly gives a damn about what he thinks we may like and does his best to give it to us.
The best horror directors are also ringmasters too - showmen. And there are a good number of horror fan-pleasing touches in Conjuring the Dead (although I do still rather love the original title of 'Valley of the Witch'; it reminds me of Spanish cult film director Jess Franco's, luridly-titled 'Naked Super-Witches of the Rio Amore', that I don't recall being about witches at all!).


Conjuring the Dead starts out (after aforementioned bout of historic witch-burning) with a newly divorced Kristen (Rachel Howells) moving far away from her home and ex-husband back in London to her recently deceased (and rather timely so!) grandmother's house in the aforementioned Valley of the Witch - or, the less easier to spell; Cwmgwrach.
Here she meets a white witch neighbour and her two best friends; a bearded tunic-wearing weirdo (but very friendly with it) and his partner - a doe-eyed, hippy with stars in her eyes. The way they sit next to each other with forced grins on their faces makes you wonder if, at any given moment, they just may break out into a bout of tender 70s porn on that sofa, but instead they soon get more animated warning of dark forces running wild in the Welsh countryside. They may not just mean this man's pecker!


A local copper (a damn fine steely role for Lee Bane) and priest (a tormented, woeful, red-rimmed eyed and bloody brilliant Jared Morgan as Father Jennings, who steals the whole show) try their best to solve the mystery of why the descendants of witches and witchfinders are going belly up of late and getting bad visions (without even eating the local Caws Cenarth cheese). Pretty soon, ever increasing numbers of friendly locals are talking doom and gloom (or envisaging bloody toy dolls loitering at the end of their bed) before killing themselves in increasingly creative ways (such as one middle-aged man running out in front of a car after waving at a little girl at a bus stop - hey; deserves what he gets or what?).


The question is, amongst all this dreamlike chaos (psychedelic and mashed up visions of old scary film clips and Pink Floyd/ Syd Barrett era-style screaming witches burning at the stake in garish woozy bleeding colours; all familiar bloody Argento reds and sickly greens enlivening the odd touch of naughty negative) which of this lot is a witch? And which of them ain't. It all goes very Pete Tong, or (perhaps rather more accurately) a little bit Wicker Man, in a dawn-rising witch-burning that is quite harrowing when it happens, and also includes a mask revealing worthy of dark art Scooby Doo.

Not enough masks come off in the finale though (which is also a bit rushed) although, like Christopher Lee and friends in The Wicker Man; we pretty much know which villagers are behind all the masks anyway, long before they get taken off. By the way, I really liked all the white, expressionless mime masks used throughout this sequence - they are actually far more creepy up close, and get freakier as the movie progresses; far more than I expected upon a first appearance in a graveyard in longshot.

Conjuring the Dead may overdo the witchcraft flashbacks but this is a film that still treats the viewer with respect and allows you to overlook its limitations, like the aforementioned rather fake burnings at the stake (or on the cross more accurately) and the overdone screaming of witches. However; you may be into that, and if you are - there's lots of it! And nothing is ever quite so low budget or unconvincing as to ruin the fun . . . 

The real village of Cwmgwrach is steeped in actual mystery and legend and exterior shots in and around the village are reverentially effective and ethereal (I love the iconic old wrought iron symbol of the witch in the heart of the village). There's an earthy, natural feel to shots along country lanes, in dreamlike rooms, and in sparse local pubs where even the bottles of beer come laced with cobweb, and it all adds a real air of menace at times. Sets also come drenched in a John Carpenter's 'The Fog'-like haze (even in a living room; behind a priest, with a bright light behind his head accentuating the effect, this fog exists for no real reason - but it sure looks great!).
The dream sequences are sometimes too obliquely weird and random, typical of low budget horror filmmaking, but mostly work fine and are in context. The burnings are upsetting but with the likes of The Wicker Man, The Devils or even Hammer House of Horror's own truly manic witchcraft episode out there, there's a lot of great witchery and religious persecution in films to compete with and be truly unique alongside, when working on a low budget.

To the credit of Conjuring the Dead, the hammering in of nails into hands is an efficiently nasty touch and when blood spatters subtly onto white masks without needing to show the effects of the hammer's target, the horror gets smart, witty and even just a little bit artistic in a Jean Rollin (whose dreamlike, starkly visual French vampire movies made youthful horror sassy and poetic) kind of way.


Anyone familiar with the previously mentioned late, great Jess Franco's films will also know that even low budget, dreamlike, shaky zooms or blurry obtuse metamorphosis of random subjects and bodies on camera can be effective in auteur filmmaking and re-evaluated at a later stage as, if not quite the mark of a beast, certainly of a certain kind of genius.

When the flashback visuals get more trippy and weird in Conjuring the Dead, interest admittedly rises and those low budget filmmakers of old, like Jess Franco, would probably have approved. But this film is more chaste and less sinful than Franco's work. More earthy and direct; more like Nic Roeg's majestic Puffball, a film that's set in rural Ireland and imbued with themes of superstitious magic to be found in the countryside; right under the undergrowth where you walk and within the womb - or behind those so often closed doors.
I can also feel the pull of modern horror movies in Conjuring the Dead (the title itself gives that away), but there's also a quite old-fashioned feel to proceedings; at times almost retro in approach and sensibility.
There's a good general sense of threat throughout too, and it's great to have a hooded menace (actually, quite a few) prowling the countryside again in a British horror movie. A local blue-haired shop girl is sinister and saucy-eyed in equal measure (played by Anastasia Catris, who in real life is a popular graphic novel and comic book illustrator) and her role could have been enlarged - maybe even taken a lead. She's really good! As are most of the cast to be fair, with some very well-realised characters that are sorely missed from the action when they get killed off (mentioning no names). The odd reasonably aggressive strangling and a nasty stab by pencil in the neck also enlivens the runtime, but this isn't a sex and gore film by any means.



Director Andrew Jones is never shy to shoot from angles you don't expect (a low angle zoom-in down a local road as a character steps out of a car, having first focused on a motionless body lying in the distance, is especially effective and shows that some class and creativity beyond the call of duty is present and correct). The soundtrack too is very effective; indie folk and piano-led, it adds an often gorgeous, rustic touch.

'Conjuring the Dead' then, is an often effectively atmospheric and lovingly shot rural, small town, witch-fest. Many will scratch their head once or twice at the meandering demonic plot and ask someone sitting next to them what it all means, and there's a feeling that with a bigger budget and extension of some of the more interesting subplots that don't have time to fully develop (more on the identity and purpose of the villagers in the white masks and a longer chase across farmland before the human prey is caught at the end, would have been fun, for instance) this could have become cult viewing.


It could still become cult viewing. If only for such memorable moments as the clearly sexually-bursting at the hip, middle-class hippies, sitting nice and rigid on the sofa, or the creepy girl at the bus stop! There could be more too, maybe in a sequel, on the significance of the strange rituals on dolls (only seen in flashback). Or more of the further adventures of spooky smiling shop girl with her candy floss-blue hair and evil gaze when your back is turned while browsing tins of beans (cult heroine in the making or what?).

Someone needs to give Andrew Jones a bigger budget - and soon. He could do something really extra special, very soon. But for now, he's actually doing pretty alright, thank you very much!

I can now end this review by saying that, after watching 'Conjuring the Dead', I've fallen in love with the village of Cwmgwrach - a place that I can't wait to go and explore myself. I realise that not all the film was shot in the area, but I don't care. I can't wait to encounter the legend of the witch and explore the many other mysteries and legends that some locals I've read, in reaction to the film's release, have spoken about existing all around them. Having lived myself in North Wales for a time, I can also confirm - some of these legends are real!

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer



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