Sunday, 10 February 2019

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE (2019)

Now available in the UK on the Screenbound label, Crucible Of The Vampire is director/writer/editor Iain Ross-McNamee’s second full-length feature. It cleverly utilises the topography of a bucolic Shropshire landscape as well as the history behind the manor house used as the film’s primary shooting location, in order to evoke beautifully the golden era of British horror. But the film is a transparently low budget affair, so brilliantly steeped in a mix of the early‘70s folk horror tropes of Tigon British and the racy lesbian vampire action that writer Tudor Gates made a cornerstone of Hammer Films’ Karnstein Trilogy  -- The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1972) -- during the same period, that it really is a mystery why Ross-McNamee also allows proceedings to deteriorate, towards the end, into a mire of cheapo CGI digital effects and choreographed fight scenes. Such tactics quickly ruin the genteel air of old school charm that defines the diffident sort of British exploitation it was presumably intending to mimic the tone of in the earlier portions of the picture, only to replace it with a crude low budget aesthetic that’s a dime-a-dozen everywhere else you look in indie horror circles. Nevertheless, before we reach that final act when it goes slightly off the rails, there’s plenty else here for aficionados of 1970s Brit horror to recognise and doubtless appreciate.

The story itself will seem instantly familiar, being entirely built from tropes and narrative strands that appear countless times throughout the genre and are central to many of David McGillivray’s screenplays for British horror movie directors such as Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Ross-McNamee and his two co-writers, Darren Lake and John Wolskel, do a particularly convincing job in the first half of the movie of channelling their interest in Hammer’s ‘70s vampire output and the ‘Big Three’ associated with the Folk Horror subgenre, into what essentially becomes a re-working of Warren’s Satan’s Slave, from 1976 -- with witchcraft, necromancy, a dysfunctional family with a dodgy history and an attractive innocent who is led unsuspectingly into a carefully prepared trap set by devilish forces. This gets combined with an awareness of the methods of construction of supernatural tales by the likes of M.R James and Arthur Machen, which are often uncanny historical palimpsests that reveal their concealed layers through an exploration of architectural and landscape history.  


The film begins in a traditional fashion for this genre, in this case with a black-and-white 1649 prologue in which John Stearne, the main associate of the real-life Civil War-era Witchfinder Mathew Hopkins, hangs an old peasant called Ezekiel Fletcher (played by Brian Croucher of Blake’s 7 fame) from an Oak tree in the Shropshire woodland for the crime of necromancy. His next act is to break into two pieces the cauldron suspected of being used by Ezekiel for his sorcery. Ezekiel’s dead daughter had been seen roaming Jacob’s Wood at night, which is more than enough reason for finding the old boy guilty on the spot without further examination of the issue. Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, though, and one half of what has subsequently become known as the Stearne Cauldron now rests in the University Museum of a young assistant curator called Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch). Conscious that the owners might be attempting to scam the university to pay for repairs, her supervisor sends her to a Shropshire manor house being renovated by a family who claims to have uncovered the other half of the cauldron in their basement while preparing to lay a new gas pipe. It is Isabelle’s job to examine the artefact and decide whether or not the claim is genuine.

Karl (Larry Rew), the owner of the house, tells Isabelle about the history to the building, which was originally built by secret Catholics during the reign of James I, then adapted and expanded during the Victorian era. When he mentions in passing how the Neo-Jacobian pile was formerly a Girls’ School, it sounds like a knowing line included in the script with the intention of it being picked up on by viewers as an obvious reference to Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire from 1971. In fact, a little light research into manor houses in the Shropshire area unearthed the film’s shooting location to be one Acton Reynald Hall: ‘a Victorian mansion incorporating parts of a building dating from early to mid-17th Century’. The building was the home of the Corbett family for generations; but they first moved there in 1644, after their former home became a Royalist garrison during the English Civil War and was destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiery. It was expanded on in the early 19th century by Shropshire architect J.H. Haycock, when the entire village of Acton Reynard, along with several farms, were demolished to make way for the surrounding park. In 1919, though, the building actually was turned into a Girls’ School, and remained one up until 1995! One of the nice things about Iain Ross-McNamee’s film is how it manages to incorporate little bits of the local history of the area into its B movie plot about sorcery, witches and vampirism. At one point Isabelle finds a diary written by a former owner of the house during the Victorian era, which prompts a flashback in the style of M.R. James, where we find out how the half of the Stearne cauldron now buried in the basement was discovered. Jeremiah Cain (Charles O’Neill) describes being led by an unearthly melody floating on the wind in the woods, to the site of the hanging of Ezekiel Fletcher, seen in the 1649 prologue.  It also leads him to the cauldron, which he then takes back to the manor, only to unleash a ghostly presence in the form of a pale, ghostly woman in a black dress who comes to be known as the Dark Lady.
By this point, Isabelle has also been experiencing similar visions of a scary ghostly woman in the night. And there are also countless other odd episodes to deal with involving the, frankly, strange inhabitants who are Isabelle’s hosts up at the mansion: Scarlet (Florence Cady), the rebellious daughter of Karl and his foreign wife Evelyn (Babette Barat), steals Isabelle’s phone and even some of her underwear. And Evelyn insists on providing Isabelle with mysterious bedtime drinks and then hanging about to make quite sure she drains the glass before leaving. These mysterious ‘tonics’ seem to prompt erotic dreams (or are they dreams?) involving white horses and the ghostly pale woman. Even a trip to the local pub results in Isabelle meeting the gardener who works on the estate (played by Neil Morrissey) who then tells her about the terrible fate of his predecessor. The former gardener’s seemingly hostile son follows her back to the mansion along a moonlit path after she leaves the pub that night (providing an opportunity for some very Hammer-like day-for-night photography) issuing incoherent warnings about what might happen to her if she stays at the mansion any longer. Karl himself also becomes more suspect, refusing to allow Isabelle to remove the cauldron from its present site in the manor’s basement and demanding that she arrange to have the museum’s half of the artefact brought out instead to Shropshire in order to find out whether or not they fit together. 

When Isabelle reveals to a barmaid at the local pub that she has just broken up with her boyfriend because he couldn’t accept her religiously derived belief that there should be no sex before marriage, it doesn’t take a genius of a viewer to figure out that Isabelle’s virginal state might have also had some ulterior Wicker Man-style role to play in her being selected to come out to the manor house in the first place. The latter thought is made rather more explicit by the exceedingly forward behaviour exhibited by Scarlet who, not content with confronting Isabelle with the knowledge that she is attempting to seduce her while wearing Isabelle’s own purloined underwear, ends up exploiting a particularly disturbing encounter Isabelle has with the Dark Lady in order to successfully initiate her into the pleasures of Sapphic love!


The plot elements and the sometimes theatrically antiquated performance styles of some of the cast members make it quite plain that Hammer’s trio of films that were very loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla are the main models for the narrative, and for the lightly eroticised style of the movie. The problem with any attempt to recreate this bygone era in the present day is that actors of the personality and stature of Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt are not around anymore to do what they so often were able to do for Hammer Films: bring a degree of prestige to the productions they worked on that elevated those films beyond their nominal worth. For instance, the role of head of household Karl is played perfectly convincingly by the performer tasked with the job here, but you can’t help noticing that his role is precisely the kind that would have at one time been played by someone like John Carson if this were a real Hammer film -- and once you see that, it immediately draws your attention to the fact that the actor taking his place can never be an adequate substitute. 

That being said, Florence Cady does make a seductive might-be-a-lesbian/might-be-a-vampire antagonist; and newcomer (and Brie Larson-look-alike) Kate Goldfinch is a suitably engaging lead, although she inevitably struggles with the inconsistency of character that is demanded of her by the script when she goes from being a naïve, out-of-her-depth academic who falls for the same ‘drugged drink’ trick twice in close succession, to an ‘arse-kicking’ superwoman, slashing throats and crushing heads with seemingly no problem whatsoever, who manages to take out a coven-full of robed cult members about to drain her of her virgin’s blood so that they can fully restore their vampire-witch queen to her full glory. Neil Morrissey receives top billing on the cover of the DVD, but in truth turns up for only a handful of scenes, mainly concerned with delivering exposition. He is also given a scene at the climax of the movie just to make it worthwhile his turning up presumably -- although his role in the events depicted is, to be honest, rather minimal. In his director and editor roles Iain Ross-McNamee makes evocative use of the exterior and interiors of Action Raynard Hall to deliver many atmospheric moments in the build-up to the easily predicted climactic reveal; and a dream-like sequence that takes place in total silence and in slow motion is directed (probably unintentionally) like an ethereal Jesus Franco fever dream -- although there’s nothing in the film that's anywhere near as pervy as what ol’ Jess would have presented us with, I’m sure.
But if you can ignore the terrible digital FX, one or two weak performances and a resolution that seems to aim for charged ambiguity but just ends up feeling slightly unsatisfactory instead, there’s still an overall old-school feel about Crucible of the Vampire that is undoubtedly attractive, and will please many fans of the classics of 1970s British horror. It does, in the end, draw many strands of influence together in a way that feels utterly natural and convincing. It’s just a shame the pay-off seems rather rote, and plays by the rules of a more modern breed of horror rather than having the courage to stick with the original low-key style it began with. Screenbound Entertainment has just released the film on dual format Blu-ray/DVD and on digital platforms after it garnered many festival plaudits and awards, so this is a film that will definitely be of interest to many, despite its flaws.                 
         

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