Raising the Dead — The Reanimation of the British Horror Film Industry
Day with the Dead
Sunday morning at 10 o’clock is traditionally a time for sleeping in my household, but today I’m going to drag myself out of bed, traipse to a cul-de-sac in Twickenham and be a zombie for the day. I tell myself the early start will be worth it, even if the shoot is horribly amateurish and disorganised, simply because of the pleasure I’ve had explaining my plans for the weekend at the pub the Friday before (“No, I don’t mean I’m going to be tired and hung over, I’m going to be a zombie.”).
I’m here because I want to see what goes on behind the scenes of a low-budget British horror movie. I’ve long been a fan of the genre and I want to see how a production company, which claims to work with almost no budget, goes about making a feature-length zombie film.
The movie is Colin, first feature from low-budget company Nowhere Fast Productions.
“The film is about a guy who’s bitten, dies and comes back to life. This all happens in the first 10 minutes of the film. The rest of the movie is from the zombie’s perspective,” director Marc Price explains. “I think the best stuff that can be done with the genre has already been done, and so the best we can hope for with this film is to show an alternative perspective and make something that’s kind of interesting, and also challenging.”
From their Myspace page they seem almost evangelical about the fact that they have no financial backing:
“Nowhere Fast Productions is about as cheap as it can get. Most of our projects are made for under £20. […] It was very important to us from the start to attempt to make this film using nothing more than the enthusiasm and inventiveness of those involved.”
Horror films seem to lend themselves to low-budget filmmaking; in horror history, films like The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to name two seminal American examples, have been highly influential and were made for very little money.
Despite notable exceptions, such as 28 Days Later, Severance, Neil Marshall’s excellent movies Dog Soldiers and The Descent, and of course Shaun of the Dead, the British film industry seems to be some way away from its heyday in terms of producing internationally renowned horror movies.
I asked Adrian Hennigan, of the BBC Film Network (a BBC website that hosts and showcases new British filmmaking), about the types of submissions they get.
“Generally, we're inundated with comedies, gritty dramas and cheap 'n' cheerful animations (in that order), but only receive a handful of horror pics,” he says. “Sadly, most of these seem to be inspired by Hammer Horror and believe that the secret of horror is to have someone being pursued through woodland by an unseen killer.
But new British filmmakers like Price could be about to inject some new life into the British horror genre.
At the heart of low-budget filmmaking in the U.K., there’s Raindance. Raindance runs training courses for low-budget filmmakers as well as the Raindance film festival and Raindance Film Productions. Its founder, Elliot Grove, thinks horror can be a natural avenue for ambitious filmmakers without a budget.
“Horror films can get a release without name actors based solely on the concept of the ‘horror,’” Grove says. “And horror films, in a peculiar way, are easier to film on a low budget simply because horror suits itself to low-budget effects (and people will excuse cheesy effects.) With the right script, audiences can easily be asked to suspend their disbelief.”
Sadly, as a film reviewer I’ve seen numerous examples of low-budget horror films that seem to think nothing of sacrificing acting ability, decent effects, characterisation and narrative structure, perhaps precisely because of low expectations of the genre. However, when I looked at the clips and shots available on the Nowhere Fast MySpace page, “low-budget” isn’t what struck me at all. What I saw was big-cast crowd scenes, beautifully made up zombies convulsing among convincing body parts, a stake emerging from a man’s chest and a haunting image of hideously blinded girls crawling out of a basement, all backed by a John Williams-esque score.
Price is full of smiles and enthusiasm, and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache. He tells me he’s grown it so he can be in the film as an extra if need be, but I’m not sure I believe him. Some of the cast and crew are already here, including chief make-up artist Michelle Webb. Before Colin, Webb was living in Los Angeles, working on music videos for the likes of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Simpson and on high-profile blockbusters such as X-Men 3. Needless to say, she’s not getting paid for this job and is supplying all her own equipment.
Webb has no trouble getting paid work — she’ll be chief makeup artist on a much bigger budget zombie movie later in the year, and is soon to take on the role of art director for a her first feature. I ask her why she’s agreed to do this. She tells me she thought it would be a nice opportunity to meet some new people and get some new experience.
“I think whoever you are and whatever you do, you can never know everything,” she says. “It’s always good to try new things.”
While she carefully gives me a full 'Chelsea smile', complete with broken teeth (fragments of extra-strong mints) poking out of the side of my face, I grill her about Hugh Jackman (lovely man, apparently).
Hollywood ambition, British heart
(Below: Trainee grim reaper, Joe, and his friends in Soul Searcher)
Marc Price is certainly not the only British filmmaker who hasn’t let a lack of budget suppress his ambitions.
After three years in the making, at age 24, Neil Oseman completed his epic fantasy/sci-fi movie Soul Searcher . With this film, he managed to create spectacular setpieces, including an impressive sequence with a fight on a moving train (the Train to Hell, no less), which subsequently explodes. The film looks amazing, and has had some critical success. He achieved this for only £26,000 (peanuts in the filmmaking world).
“The best resource you have as an indie filmmaker is your own drive, vision and determination.” Oseman tells me. “I was far better off making an ambitious fantasy-adventure movie that my heart was truly in and which I'd stop at nothing to complete, than a typical microbudget three-actors-and-one-set character piece that was going to bore me to tears.”
“Although, on paper, I've made three horror movies, they aren't particularly alike,” he says.
“From my point of view, I've made a midnight movie (TrashHouse), a dark thriller (KillerKiller) and a romantic comedy (Hellbride). They all just happen to feature the elements that make them easily definable as horror films.”
He tells me that in terms of visual style, he tends to work very instinctively. Higgins’ movies have had their fair share of set pieces, too, including a large-scale wedding scene in Hellbride, which combines complicated hair and make-up with a couple of monsters and a great deal of blood. He says he thinks dialogue is paramount to a good movie.
“It can bring you back to a movie time and time again, which holds true with everything from Casablanca to Clerks, and I try to never forget that,” he says. “Even when I'm having characters get stabbed through the head by undead cheerleaders with bladed pompoms.”
Bloody faces and bloody kids
Back on set, by mid-morning, the zombies are made up and their human opponents have chosen their weapons (including a golf club, a catapult and a wallpaper scraper). We’re going to have a zombie/human street fight. Our first shots involve a lot of shuffling from the zombies and a lot of running around shouting from the humans. At one point, a “bomb” goes off in our zombie throng — Leigh Crocombe, Price’s housemate, regular extra (he’s played 11 different characters in the film) and general dogsbody, creates a blood splatter effect by spitting a mouthful of fake blood full-on into lead actor Alastair Kirton’s face.
Kirton trained at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), one of the biggest and most influential drama schools in the U.K. I’ve seen him act before — he was critically acclaimed in Gone, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which won best play in The Guardian Fringe awards at the Edinburgh Festival. Later, he’ll be lying in the road having his head staved in with a hammer.
A group of neighbourhood kids have gradually gathered to watch us film. One girl of about six comes over with her mother. Apparently, she’s upset by the body parts strewn around the street. Price picks up half a Styrofoam leg and shows her that it’s not real. He lets her look at the camera and explains how he sets up a shot. She’s placated, but perhaps still a little unsure. I give her a big grin, forgetting it probably won’t help.
By 2.30pm, Kirton needs half his head blown off. We sit in a crew member’s living room watching Big Brother and playing with a small dog, while Price films some dialogue shots with another LAMDA-trained actor, Justin Mitchell-Davey, who’s playing a zombie slayer for the day.
When we return to the street, Kirton’s face suitably messy, the neighbourhood kids are all very curious. One girl comes to call in her brother, who’s been quietly watching us film for almost an hour. He protests he wants to watch the zombies.
“Your room looks like a zombie’s been in it!” she tells him, and he follows her indignantly.
At last, my big death scene comes. I’m to be shot in the head by a £1 coin with a razor blade embedded in it, fired from a catapult by Mitchell-Davey’s character. I’m in the background of the shot, but I still give it my all, throwing myself to the floor dramatically as the imaginary missile strikes me in the forehead. Later, I’m allowed to stay in the background, dead with eyes open and draped across the curb while, in the foreground, Kirton rises from the street, half his face missing. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had lying in the road in shirt sleeves in January with a couple of extra-strong mints glued to my face.
By 4.00pm, we’re all getting a bit tired. The neighbourhood kids are throwing hobnobs at the cast, the catapult has broken and the makeup and latex on my face is starting to itch. Webb is trying to glue half a Styrofoam hammer to Kirton’s head, but it won’t stay. They’ve tried professional glue and latex and now they’re discussing the possibility of sellotape. Eventually, more latex and a secreted elastic band seem to do the trick.
Price is still running around outside with various cast members, cheering encouragement. When Kirton shows him his head, complete with hammer, Price laughs uproariously.
“You’ve glued the wrong side of the hammer to your head,” he says.
They’ll have to lose the effect.
As far as I can tell from my day as a zombie, Colin is a feature made with an enormous amount of care and love from all participants. Although Marc Price hardly has a budget himself, he’s managed to get a cast of professional actors, an experienced and talented head makeup artist, some decent equipment and awful lot of support. This seems to be partly because of the company’s professional approach and partly because, despite the budget, there’s a fair chance this film is actually going to be quite good. These things, along with Price’s enthusiasm and apparent eye for detail mean Colin could well be worth looking out for when it’s complete.
Marc Price, Pat Higgins and Neil Oseman are among British filmmakers who love film, love Hollywood, love spectacle and want to make their own original, ambitious and exciting movies. And they could be just what is needed to reinvigorate the horror/sci-fi genre in this country.
“I'm hoping to take set pieces that would be complicated to manage with a budget of a few hundred thousand and work out a way of doing them with absolutely no money.” Price tells me. “At the same time, I want to make the film look like a lot of money has been spent on it, and on top of that try to tell an engaging, emotionally-charged story that an audience can really enjoy.”
He sums it up: “It's a bit tricky, but I'm optimistic.”
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