Friday, 5 June 2015

The Prey

Gut Reaction

The Prey
The Springhead Film Company 
UK 2015
Directed by James Webber
Coming Soon

I’ve seen a couple of James Webber’s short films over the past two years and I have to say, I do look forward to getting to look at each new one as it becomes available. Once again, I was lucky enough that the director let me see this new short ahead of its official screening and release dates and I’m, as always, very greatful for that.

This movie takes a totally different direction for the director, both in subject matter and tone. It’s nice to see this guy tackle a horror movie for a change and I was kinda curious as to how that idea would work out because the genre is not often noted for the subtlety of its emotional expression or less direct approach to traditional storytelling, which is something Webber’s Driftwood (reviewed here) and Soror (reviewed here) both have in spades. I knew I’d have no reason for concern though because he has a very direct way of communicating through a visual space and The Prey is nothing, if not direct. It also uses his understated and sly camera gaze to catch the profundity of what are, to be fair, broader but still quite amazing performances by the lead actors here... James Alexandrou, Sam Gittins and the amazing Rebecca Van Cleave.

The film has a strong opening with a car drive from an unsuccessful Halloween party switching back and forth between both of the occupant's view from inside and a shot looking in through the front windscreen. Which, okay, is nothing too special perhaps but it’s actually made quite potent by the way the sound design, sans music, kicks in and cuts away to the title of the movie. As the driver, Ethan (James Alexandrou), shouts at a man dressed as a skeleton, the film cuts to the credit with the sound of Ethan’s voice still echoing on the soundtrack, giving it a certain amount of power which I’ve not, consciously, been aware of having seen accomplished in this way before. So that was a bit of a surprise and much credit to Helen Miles, I guess, for the sound design on this thing.

This is all happening in the middle of an argument in the car dissecting the evening, between Ethan and his wife/girlfriend Mel (Rebecca Van Cleave) which, actually, gives a certain amount of foreshadowing as to the events that are about to unwind in the picture and, if you like this movie, I would recommend you going back to look at this little opening quarrel, with all it’s hostility and warning signs, again. This is, of course, a standard ‘horror movie set up’ because we then get the girl leaving the relative safety of both the car and her ride home, to go off and brave the journey alone and on foot, instead.

So then we have the start of what could be Mel’s long walk home through the night life of the urban sprawl, with Webber taking full advantage of the colours, with seemingly enhanced lighting throwing up different hues and backgrounds for the actress and her... watcher. A shadowy guy played by Sam Gittins who comes complete with a fast food carnality/predator metaphor and has his already cool performance enhanced even more by composer Richard Keyworth’s scoring kicking up into sinister mode.

There’s a brilliant moment here where Webber uses what I would call a directorial signature where the character is kinda honed in on with both camera movement repeats and the perceived proximity to the lens. We start off with an establishing shot of the character eating which is then followed by a tighter shot of him, with the camera panning to the right as his eyes track Mel walking along the opposite side of the street, going past. We then cut to an even closer shot of this urban predator’s eyes, with almost a Sergio Leone kind of intensity, but the camera is still moving in the exact same direction and the eyes are still tracking the girl... both at the same speed as the previous version of the shot.  We then get a few other variations of that kind of thing going on to further enhance the point and it’s a beautiful piece of focusing in on the sinister intentions of the guy which goes into the brain at an almost subconscious level. Seriously, a cool piece of almost imperceptible, yet powerful, cinematic shorthand there.

Gittins follows Mel with the obvious intention of doing her some harm... whether that be rape, murder, robbery or, you know, a thrilling combination of all three... but there is a moment during this next sequence that will surprise some of the audience and involves both predator and victim in a brilliant, almost wordless dialogue of the lead in to grisly death. The scene is beautifully done though, with a certain naturalism and throw-away quality to the performances of both Van Cleave and Gittins which gives the scene a certain reality and helps the viewer suspend disbelief… always a neat trick if you can pull it off and one of the first hurdles that lesser horror films fall at, a lot of the time.

The brilliant thing about this one is the amount of humour within the pay off scene too, as one of the three characters in the movie goes through a little transformation and both players in this sequence go through that nice little bit of non-verbal back and forth which says everything about the quality of the actors in this. The special effects and make up here by Mark Greensmith, Annie Tagge and Frances Darvell White are truly wonderful elements and the humour created with the unreality of a certain gory moment in a shot (involving someone's intestines) in terms of the way it's timed… another little throwaway which tiptoes the line between badly edited and, like it is here, edited with the tongue firmly in the cheek and as a shout out to fans of the genre… really made me chuckle. Of course, as far back as films like Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, humour has always been a good bedfellow to the horror picture, and if thoughtfully done as it is here, the two opposing attitudes can enhance each other nicely.

The follow up moment to this, by one of the actors is, frankly, like a goryfied Wiley Coyote reaction in an old Warner Brothers Loony Toons cartoon but also mixed in with a gritty denouement and.. ahh… it's just brilliantly timed both in performance and cutting. I seriously don’t get why Webber isn't being picked up by Hollywood to waste his time on blockbusters by now. He’s a phenomenal director… no two ways about it.

The creature make up is both brilliant and the, presumably, odd moment of CGI involving the eyes of one of the characters, is quite phenomenally restrained yet gorgeously handled. There are little things done which elevate it past the monster effects on most modern movies I've seen… to be honest (something I really didn’t expect to find myself saying in regards to a short film). I was stunned and, frankly, it's rare that I get that excited about any monster design since the original Creature From The Black Lagoon so… this was a really nice thing.

As usual with Webber, the film is beautifully framed with the director using the actors placed within certain sections of their environment to highlight both them and the attitudes/atmospheres the director is trying to communicate. The film doesn't have the emotional subtlety of either Driftwood or Soror but, to be quite honest, it doesn't need it and it's obviously been deliberately jettisoned in a few sequences. There are certain things the music does well with backing up the underlying sexuality of the main pay-off (sex being another common bedfellow of the horror genre, of course) featuring a musical release after the foreplay and orgasm of the main sequences with a shot of one of the characters walking along to a musical piece faintly reminiscent of Dick Dale and the Deltones version of Misirlou... a piece called Stuck In The Swamp by The Creepfreaks. The instant it started, I felt like I was watching the post-victim, James Webber horror film version of somebody smoking a cigarette after sex… which is another thing which brought a smile to my face.

The film finishes with a nice, unpretentious punchline which doesn’t devalue the main feast of the film, like some writers manage to somehow do, and then we are at the end credits and Webber’s job is done. That job being to show the audience a thoroughly entertaining, mini horror film that looks outrageously fantastic on the kind of low budgets these things are made on and puts some modern horror film directors to shame. One day, I’m sure, I’ll find that Webber has made a movie which I don’t care for but, frankly, this film isn’t it and, like the two previous movies, the whole thing put a spell on me and kept me pulled in and entranced for the whole length of it. So... a James Webber directed short horror movie? Job well done!

You can see a trailer for The Prey here...

James Webber is on Twitter here and The Springhead Film Company’s facebook page is here...

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