Posts Tagged ‘mockumentary’

It wasn’t very often that Sagacious Dave, ursine chief of Advanced Self-Erudition at my last-but-two place of work, would venture to recommend a movie or TV show to me. Perhaps, given my part in taking him along to not one but two Jason Statham movies, he just felt it was difficult to make a suggestion of equivalent magnitude or quality. I don’t know. Pretty much the only things I remember him giving the thumbs up were a Ken Burns documentary series – possibly the one on the Vietnam War, I can’t be sure – and What We Do in the Shadows, which he said was very funny.

I made polite noises and never bothered to watch it. Looking back I am trying to remember why this was. Partly because it would probably have involved iPlayering the whole thing, which I only do in exceptional circumstances, but also, I suspect, because it was about vampires, which – despite my many-decades love of Hammer Films, the fact that the only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Kim Newman for Anno Dracula, and the huge pile of Vampire: The Masquerade RPG supplements in my storage unit – I am actually a little bit sick of vampires, post-Twilight. Vampires have got a bit dull and anaemic; I would quote Mr Newman’s line about vampires being to horror what Star Trek is to SF, but for the fact that I obviously do still rather like Star Trek.

However, everything has stopped, we are seemingly becalmed in this half-locked-down netherworld, and sooner or later I expect I will end up watching everything I can lay my hands on, if the electricity or my money doesn’t run out first. Thus I found myself giving my attention to What We Do in the Shadows, although it suddenly occurs to me that Sagacious Dave was probably recommending the TV sitcom, not the movie it was originally based on. Oh well!

The movie was made in 2014 and written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Both of these guys have had pretty respectable careers, one way or another, but Waititi’s has suddenly gone thermonuclear since he began his association with Marvel Studios (younger readers, ask your parents: back in the Old World they made many popular films), effortlessly transitioning from this to the acclaimed Jojo Rabbit from… good heavens, was it only the start of this year?

The premise and conceit of the movie is quickly made clear: this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in present-day Wellington, New Zealand. It seems they are there because the former lover of one of them, Viago (Waititi) emigrated to NZ and he decided to follow her there, taking the others with him. Viago is nearly 400 years old and a bit of a prissy fop; living with him are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was turned in the 19th century and is a bit of a rebel; Vlad (Clement), who was known in mediaeval times as ‘Vladislav the Poker’ and is an insane pervert; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old, somewhat atavistic, and tends to keep to himself.

The film follows the vampires through the months leading up to the main event on the social calendar of Wellington’s unexpectedly extensive undead population: the Unholy Masquerade! The status quo is thrown rather out of whack when one of their intended victims, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up being transformed into a new vampire by accident, leading to a fierce rivalry between him and Deacon and tragedy for the household (sort of). Meanwhile Viago pines over his former love (now a nonagenarian in a nursing home) and Vlad broods over his long-standing feud with his nemesis, a vampire known as ‘the Beast’…

It’s kind of implicit in the premise of the film that this is a spoof, not just of vampire movies but of the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, for there is something immensely silly about the whole notion of the film. The opening moments of the movie do nothing to dispel this: an alarm clock goes off, a hand emerges from a coffin to switch it off, and then Waititi very cautiously makes his way to the curtains to ensure the sun has indeed gone down. A mostly ridiculous ‘house meeting’ ensues in which it turns out that the vampire entrusted with doing the washing-up has been a bit remiss in carrying out his chores… for the last five years. It’s a very funny scene, and the performances by the ensemble are uniformly excellent and well-pitched, but I did find myself wondering just how they were going to sustain the film even for a relatively brief 85 minutes or so.

Well, the film continues to send up documentaries and reality TV shows (a scene where two very laid-back and matter-of-fact local cops have a look round the house is one of the highlights), but what makes the film really succeed is the fact that it isn’t just being played for laughs – there is still a real (if slightly odd) sense in which this is a bona fide horror movie. Partly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the fake blood, but there are characters who really do get killed, and the pathos of some of the characters’ situations is handled relatively seriously. It has to be said, though, that these are really just grace notes in what is still essentially a send-up, but one of notable scope and intelligence.

Essentially, the good gags keep on coming: the visit from the cops, various encounters with an unusually well-mannered pack of lycanthropes (‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’), cheery spoofs of various aspects of vampire lore and other movies in this genre (Clement is basically doing an extended parody of Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the 1993 adaptation), and so on. It is all well-played and well put-together, and is another demonstration of how even a low-budget movie can include very polished special effects these days.

I enjoyed it all rather lot: I wasn’t exactly rolling off the bed laughing throughout, but it’s clever and engaging and does have that unexpected edge of darkness that makes it just a little bit more interesting than would otherwise have been the case. Possibly this may go down in history as an early stepping stone in the irresistible rise of Taika Waititi, but it’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own right.

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Through one of those obscure processes not accessible to the likes of you and me, it seems that the back end of August has been designated that time in the calendar when films based on British TV sitcoms get released – the hipper, edgier ones, at least, for films cashing in on cosy old favourites like Dad’s Army and Absolutely Fabulous are permitted to wander off into the world at any old time. If we’re honest, the revival in this particular form is most likely down to the wholly unexpected success of the movie version of The Inbetweeners five years ago, but a revival there definitely has been.

Not much like The Inbetweeners and rather more like 2013’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa comes the latest attempt at this sort of thing, David Brent: Life on the Road, written, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais. Gervais is insistent that this film is not ‘an Office movie’, despite the fact that it shares its central character with the BBC sitcom The Office (2001-3), the show which brought Gervais to stardom. Hmm, well. The thing about Alpha Papa was that it felt (to me at least) like a film that had missed its natural moment by a few years, and one in fact made solely because Coogan’s Hollywood career was showing signs of faltering and the actor was in need of a guaranteed hit. Is the same true of Gervais’ adventures in Hollywood? Hard to say, I suppose, but I don’t recall seeing him making a prominent appearance since Muppets Most Wanted.


Anyway – The Office is so old now that it may in fact have started before I wrote my first internet film review, and was a deadpan parody of the then-ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall docu-soap genre. It focused primarily on David Brent (Gervais himself), the manager of a paper merchants in Slough. Brent almost instantly became an iconic comedy grotesque, a marginally competent manager afflicted with a wholly unwarranted belief in his ability as a great entertainer, and crippled by a pathological need to be liked by and popular with everyone around him.

Not quite the stuff of comfortable comedy, as you can probably imagine or recall. Watching Brent/Gervais crucify himself in the most cringeworthy manner imaginable worked in thirty-minute chunks, from the comfort of an armchair, but ninety minutes? In a cinema? Without the other, somewhat more sympathetic characters?

The conceit of the film is that Brent has once again been approached by a documentary crew, who want to make a ‘where are they now’ type film. However, Brent decides to turn this into a rockumentary about himself, and taking a break from his current job as a sales rep for cleaning products, where he is largely surrounded by people who pity and despise him, goes off on a tour of the length and breadth of the Slough area with a group of hired session musicians, who also pity and despise him. Brent seeks to establish himself as a rock star, fronting the band Foregone Conclusion, cashing in his pension to do so. Also along is Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), a genuinely talented young rapper who has somehow fallen into Brent’s orbit and is dragged along in a state of bemusement.

David Brent’s chances of realising his dream are not helped by the material he opts to present on his tour, for most of his set consists of well-intentioned but monumentally inappropriate songs dealing with topics such as a brief romance with a gypsy (sample lyric: ‘She said “Yes, the sex is free/But the heather’s a pound”‘), the plight of Native Americans (‘Don’t call us Indians/We’re more south Eurasians crossed with Siberians’) and the problems of disabled people (‘You might have to feed the worse ones through a straw’). The joke, of course, is that he is fundamentally well-meaning, but completely hopeless; the audience is intended to be laughing at him rather than with him throughout.

So, this is essentially a film about a rather desperate and pathetic man throwing away his life savings in pursuit of a ridiculous, impossible dream. Whose idea of a comedy is this? Well, I’m still not sure that ninety minutes of virtually undiluted Brent is really a good idea – at least in the TV show you had the bits with Gareth, Dawn and Tim to look forward to – especially when it’s not as if there aren’t other capable folk in the film who could have shared some of the load. I was particularly sorry not to see more of Brent’s useless publicist, played by Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk).

But, if the idea of sitting for an hour and a half in a whole-body clench peering at the screen through the gaps between your fingers doesn’t put you off, there is much to entertain and enjoy here. Some of the business is a bit predictable, as is the plot, but Ricky Gervais remains a clearly extremely smart guy who can take this kind of comedy of transgression and embarrassment as far as he possibly can. The songs are extremely funny (no sign of Free Love Freeway, surprisingly enough), as well as sometimes being rather catchy too (I was humming the chorus to Native American all the way home on the bus). In fact, one of the neatest bits of sleight-of-hand he pulls off is managing to make Brent’s stage performances ridiculous while still suggesting that Gervais himself might well have some talent as a musical performer. His talents as a writer-director and actor are surely in no doubt: he gives an impressively subtle performance, with a desperate, forlorn sadness creeping into his eyes even as Brent is grinning cheesily away.

(Apparently record companies are pursuing Gervais with a view to making him go on an actual tour in-character as Brent, singing these songs. I will be slightly surprised if this happens, not least because that would surely be missing the point, and run the risk of having them taken non-ironically by people who hold exactly the views Gervais is trying to satirise. But we’ll see.)

I’m still not sure it really qualifies as a comedy though, given how excruciatingly uncomfortable much of the film is to watch. If Gervais has any kind of message, it seems to be that society has got nastier and more vicious in the last fifteen years, and this is reflected in Brent’s treatment by the people around him. The really sad thing is how much of it rings true, as well. Given that this is the case, the film has to work very hard to come up with an ending that isn’t totally downbeat and offers the prospect of some kind of redemption and happiness for Brent without seeming totally contrived and improbable. It does so, but only just; you really have to cut the film a bit of slack here.

As I admit fairly frequently, not many modern comedies genuinely manage to get a laugh out of me, but David Brent: Life on the Road did so. Maybe this was partly because I still retain some affection for The Office, which struck many chords with me at the time (I have to work hard to keep my own Brentish tendencies under tight control), but I hope it’s also because this is a very clever, well-observed film made by someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. If this is Ricky Gervais’ last outing as David Brent, then he does the character justice, as well as hopefully reminding the world what a singular comic talent he possesses. I’m very certain this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather impressive in its own way.


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My DVD rental supplier seems to be stuck firmly in Woody Allen mode (perhaps it would help if I topped up my list with films by people other than him and Jason Statham) and this week they have sent me his 1983 movie Zelig. This was one of the very first Allen movies I saw back in the 80s, preceded only by Sleeper, I think, and so I had little conception of what a ‘Woody Allen movie’ was. Viewing it again now, though, it’s easy to get a much stronger sense of what an odd beast this film is.


Zelig retains the familiar Allen font and a soundtrack making use of classic standards – but much of the music consists of specially-written pastiches, which is a clue to the kind of film it really is. These days it’d be called a mockumentary, but I’m not even sure that word existed thirty years ago. Set in the late 20s and early 30s, it purports to be the story of Jazz Age celebrity Leonard Zelig.

Zelig rises to prominence for unusual reasons, to say the least. Following a troubled childhood, Zelig seems to be living a normal, if undistinguished life as a clerk in New York City in the late 1920s, until his disappearance prompts a police search. He is discovered working in a Chinese laundry, which is a little surprising, but not nearly as much as the fact that he also appears to have become Chinese. Removed from the laundry and taken to hospital, he rapidly transforms into a Caucasian man and adopts the mannerisms and demeanour of a doctor. In short, he is a human chameleon, automatically changing his appearance and personality to blend into any social milieu.

Zelig’s rise to fame leads to his exploitation by unsympathetic members of his own family, but he ultimately finds himself in the care of psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow in the period material, Ellen Garrison in the present-day sequences). Fletcher believes that Zelig’s condition is simply the expression of a deep-seated desire to conform, and that by reinforcing his own sense of self he can be ‘cured’. A deeper bond also begins to form between the two, but the path of true love never runs smooth – especially when half the couple has dozens of other identities in their past…

Even in a body of work as sizeable and diverse as Woody Allen’s, Zelig is still a bit of a standout – at first sight, at least. 1983 was early days in terms of the development of the mockumentary as a major narrative form in its own right, but this film nails it in virtually every respect – there is a deadpan voiceover, talking-head present day interviewees intercut with faked period footage, artfully adjusted period materials, and so on. Apparently Allen used original cameras from the 20s to film a lot of Zelig, and artificially aged the negative (adding scratches and so on) to add to its authenticity. The film’s attention to detail throughout is painstaking, and even the sequences in which Allen is inserted into newsreel footage alongside historical figures like Babe Ruth and (inevitably) Hitler are impressively done.

The film’s premise is just too outrageous for anyone to mistake this for a genuine documentary, of course – the fact that Allen’s well-known face keeps popping up doesn’t help much either. A review of the film from many years ago was pretty much on the money when it said Zelig was ‘more hypnotic to watch than actually funny’, but Allen still can’t resist throwing in some off-the-wall visual gags and cracking one-liners, even though his presence in the film as an actor is quite limited. The film’s nostalgia for the Jazz Age is also, with the benefit of hindsight, something of a running theme in Allen’s filmography.

Nor is it much of a surprise, given this is 80s-vintage Allen, to find Mia Farrow present as Zelig’s love interest, although her presence is even less than Allen’s. It’s the format of Zelig which is the star, in many ways – it’s certainly not the story, which is a slight thing and largely explains the brevity of the film (only about 75 minutes).

The odd thing about Zelig, a light comic fantasy if ever there was one, is that it is oddly susceptible to serious interpretation, for all that this would probably make Allen quail. On a personal level, some have argued that Zelig is an exaggerated fictionalised version of the perennially self-effacing Allen. Certainly some of the film’s comments on the appeal of conformity have an inarguable truth to them. One might even push the boat out and suggest the film is making a more general point about assimilation – but here I think we are in danger of breaking a butterfly on a wheel. It’s quite hard to pin down exactly what kind of film Zelig is, beyond the simple fact that it’s a mockumentary, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s a very accomplished and watchable one.


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It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that foreign-language movies are much more likely to get a prominent UK release – by which I mean a release which extends beyond the doors of the local arthouse – if they’re a genre movie of some kind. Now, my memory is possibly selective – a cineaste colleague recently described me as a ‘real genre boy’ in a manner someone less easy-going might describe as condescending – but thinking back, the subtitled movies I’ve seen in the last couple of years that have been showing outside the arthouse have been Headhunters (thriller) and The Raid (headbanging action insanity). More subtle fare like Le Quattro Volte, Habemus Papam, and 13 Assassins (maybe not so subtle in the last case) have failed to break out into the mainstream.

One Norwegian film which did manage this feat, albeit briefly, was one which I was annoyed to miss last Autumn (I was busy at the time trying to teach a Syrian TV star and the national kickboxing champion of the same country how to use the past perfect). The film in question is Andre Ovredal’s Trolljegeren – anyone aware of my frequent uncertainty as to how to refer to foreign films will be delighted to learn this movie is called Troll Hunter in the UK, Trollhunter in the US, and The Troll Hunter in Canada.

This is yet another movie in the found footage style, purporting to have been assembled from some mysterious raw footage shot by three students who have inexplicably vanished. Initially setting out to make a documentary about some bear attacks, the trio cross the path of Hans (Otto Jespersen), an enigmatic and rather bad-tempered loner who always seems to be in the area when bear-related things occur. Licenced bear hunters suggest he may be a poacher, but the truth is much stranger.

Following Hans, the students discover that he is (and the title of the movie may have given you a clue in this direction) a troll hunter. Or, to be more precise, the troll hunter. Hans works for the ultra-top-secret Troll Security Service agency of the Norwegian government. Trolls exist, as a widely diverse group of peculiar creatures, most of them extremely dangerous. As long as they remain in the preserves the government maintains for them, they are tolerated – but should they wander into human territory for any reason, it falls to Hans to put them down. Initially incredulous, the students agree to film Hans as he goes about his work, regardless of the danger this may place them in…

I’m usually loath to lapse into that lazy shorthand of describing a film in terms of ‘it’s X meets Y!’, but I’ve been racking my brains and have yet to come up with a better description of Troll Hunter than the one concocted by Dr K when the film was released – he said it was ‘The Blair Witch Project as made by Frank Oz’ (Oz is, of course, the ex-muppeteer and former Miss Piggy turned director of rather variable films). It certainly falls into the same odd category as a cluster of recent films like Apollo 18 and Chronicle, in that it’s a film which utilises the ‘instant verite’ quality of the found footage/mock documentary style in the service of a story which is utter fantasy. There’s no danger of anyone being taken in for a second, runs the standard objection to this sort of thing, so why bother at all?

Well, Troll Hunter is a bit less open to this kind of criticism than the other two films I mentioned, in that while it may be a fantasy, and at times border on being a horror movie, it is also a comedy. It’s a comedy of a very particular and extremely deadpan kind, and the grave captions introducing the film and outlining its supposed background are part of this.

The film’s best jokes come from the juxtaposition of the fantastical nature of Hans’ work and the tedious minutiae of what it actually involves – having turned a troll to stone by using a UV lamp to mimic the rays of the sun, Hans has to break it up with a pneumatic drill and sell the remains off as gravel. He agrees to participate in the film not because he thinks the public will be interested or should know, but because he’s unhappy with the terms of his contract and (it’s implied) enjoys winding up his superior, who’s in charge of covering up his activities. We get a brief, hilarious glimpse of a DEAD TROLL REPORT form, a very authentic-looking piece of bureaucratic red tape he is required to complete on a regular basis.

This kind of thing will quite probably not be everyone’s idea of a rip-roaring yuk-fest, and neither will the film’s other main area of interest, which is to enthusiastically attempt to come up with a scientific rationalisation for all the fairy tale characteristics trolls traditionally have – turning to stone in the sunlight, being able to smell the blood of Christians, and so on. Even when it can’t manage a proper rationale, the film still incorporates these ideas in a peculiarly logical way.

It may be that this sort of thing is the height of broad comedy down Oslo way, but for me it had a rather unusual flavour – I suspect there is a lot of topical and cultural Norwegian satire going on here as well, a lot of which obviously went right over my head. Some things do travel, though – there’s an amusing scene in which it is revealed that the Troll Security Service has been forced to subcontract out some of its work, at which point a van full of enthusiastic but not especially effective Polish migrant workers turns up.

On the whole, though, this is a rather strange film in the way it mixes fantastical ideas and full-on CGI with subtle black humour and downbeat naturalism. The CGI is obviously very good – there isn’t a huge amount of troll screen-time, but when they’re on they’re very convincing. The cast also do well to bring as much reality to the story as they manage. But it is still essentially a one-joke film, and the mockumentary format starts to get a little bit weary after a while, with perhaps a few too many scenes of the cast wandering around after dark in the Norwegian woods. While the film has moments where it almost generates real suspense or tension, the found footage style somehow manages to get in the way of these.

I was happy to finally catch up with Troll Hunter, which indeed turned out to be the rather bizarre movie I had expected – interesting, technically impressive and drolly amusing, but really lacking in a strong central narrative. Nevertheless, I understand that, inevitably, the US remake rights have been sold. The mind boggles as to what Hollywood will do with a film like this one, but I’m prepared to bet it won’t be pretty.

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Well, folks, as long-term readers will know, I like to keep NCJG a broad church when it comes to film reviews: just as I’ll go to see just about anything (with the possible exception of modern mainstream American comedies and a certain flavour of horror film), I’ll happily write about it as well. Nevertheless it occurs to me that anyone coming here specifically intent on learning about micro-budget redneck cryptozoological docu-drama of the 1970s will find themselves with very little to go on, and in an attempt to plug this gaping hole in the site’s coverage I thought I’d have a look at Charles B Pierce’s magnum opus of this particular genre, 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek.

This movie purports to be an account of the Foulke Monster, a giant hominid native to swampland in southern Arkansas. Various local characters pop up to recount their encounters with the hairy enigma, which are reconstructed for the benefit of the viewer. Initially the creature seems to have been rather reticent around people, though not above scaring the odd kitten to death, but after being actively hunted and driven into the heart of the inaccessible swamps for nearly a decade, it returned with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, engaging in a number of increasingly aggressive (one might even say preposterous) assaults on property and people in the area.

Hum, well. Just so we’re all on the same page here, I’m willing to entertain theories of many a cryptid but as far as Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Beaman, Grassman, and the rest of the tribe go, I tend to go with the prevailing consensus. This is that north America has no history of indigenous primates other than humans, so there’s no explanation of where these creatures could have come from, and that there is no way that breeding populations could survive undiscovered in a modern first-world country, so there’s no real explanation of what they are anyway. So there.

Nevertheless a Bigfoot movie is basically what this is, and probably the best-known (after Harry and the Hendersons, anyway). T’internet says that, barely credibly, this very low-budget, extremely clunky movie was nevertheless the 22nd most popular release of 1972, which if nothing else goes to show you how different things were back then (just for comparison, the 22nd biggest movie of last year was Super 8, a major studio release). Whatever profile it enjoys in the UK is probably down to the fact that it was actually shown on national network TV at tea-time, at least twice in the early 1980s. That’s when I first saw it, anyway, as the arse-end of a short season of ‘monster movies’ (they showed King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Mighty Joe Young and then kind of ran out of steam).

This was obviously a different kind of film but it did have an effect on me: parts of it are, simply, very memorable if you’re the right age. The opening sequence, in which a young boy runs desperately across fields while, in the woods behind him, something inhuman howls and shrieks, is brilliantly conceived (if not executed). A later scene, in which the monster lunges in through the window of a house to grab someone, was a genuine shock moment (and one which seems to have warped my memories of the end of the film).

But, for all of that, this is a very primitive piece of work, clearly cobbled together as the film-makers went on. The Bigfoot suit is reasonably good, and carefully filmed to maintain credibility (for the most part, anyway), but much of the rest of the film is barely competent. It’s probably a bit of a moot point as to how much of this is documentary and how much is actual hoax, but most of the reconstructions, where people with names like Herb and Corky and Lloyd either relive or make up their moments of glory, feature that very special kind of appalling acting you only get when non-professionals are at work both in front of and behind the camera.

This isn’t a long movie, clocking in under the 90 minute mark, but even so you sense the film-makers scraping around to find enough material to bump the film up to a workable duration. As I mentioned, there seems to have been a bit of a rethink partway through, when something previously fairly sober becomes rather more lurid and exploitational, but in another way this is responsible for giving the film much of its atmosphere, which is probably responsible for whatever success it achieves.

Initially this seems like a rather reserved and thoughtful film, opening with three minutes of voiceless shots of swampland and only the sights and sounds of nature. Later on, the narrator provides lengthy and rather poetic descriptions of Foulke, the surrounding countryside, and the lives of the people there. In hindsight these are all obviously present to pad out the script, but they’re well written by someone called Earl Smith and well delivered by one Vern Stierman. Stierman has a very mellow and mellifluous delivery which makes one instantly well-disposed towards whatever he’s currently on about, although he does have his work cut out at one point when describing the travails of one local woodsman: ‘Herb walks with a limp,’ he informs us pleasantly, ‘after he shot off part of his foot in a boating accident.’ Shot off part of his own foot. In a boating accident. Right. One of those 150 proof accidents, I bet.

(The narration is a bit weird, to be honest, as it’s never completely clear who the narrator’s supposed to be, beyond an unspecified local man who’s grown up hearing stories about the monster. And when he actually shows up at the end of the film, he’s played by a different actor. Oh well: it’s a useful framing device, I suppose.)

The only time all the padding really grates and you wish that the guy in the monster suit and the terrible non-acting reconstructers would all come back is about half-way through, where the whole thing grinds to a halt so the audience can be forced to endure not one but two separate musical numbers. One of these is (conveniently) entitled ‘The Legend of Boggy Creek’ and is (so far as a uke player like myself can tell) a waltz-time number, featuring immortal lyrics such as:

Here the Sulphur River flows

Rising when the storm-cloud blows

And this is where the creature goes

Safe within a world he kno-ows

Perhaps he dimly wonders why

There is no other such as I

To touch, to love, before I die

To listen to my lonely cry.

Yup, it’s a romantic ballad about the broken heart of Bigfoot. And not even an especially well-written one, but it’s still better than the second offering, a folksy number about the joys of rustic life apparently entitled ‘Nobody Sees The Flowers Bloom But Me’, but built around the repeated line ‘Hey Travis Crabtree’. (Travis Crabtree is a local kid whose main pastime is keeping Herb supplied with ‘tobacco’ and ‘sugar’.) I think I would rather shoot off part of my own foot in an unfortunate ‘boating accident’ than listen to it too many times.

Doing my research for the review of Doomsday not long ago, I found that Neil Marshall lists The Legend of Boggy Creek as one of his guilty cinematic pleasures. Guilty, certainly, but a pleasure? It is, as I think I’ve made clear, much too obviously cobbled-together to really work as a proper film – but on the other hand, this same approach has given it some really weird and interesting features: the atmosphere, the real sense of a particular place and time, and – if we really must – the songs. How all these things managed to get into what’s basically a G-rated horror Z-movie is a much bigger mystery than anything depicted in the actual film.

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As the damp cold of Autumn replaces the damp cold of Summer with all the inevitability of an Inbetweeners sequel being announced, one thing at least can stir the spirits and perk up even the most jaded filmgoer: at least we get a quirkier class of genre movie this time of year. Doing its best to be several things at once is Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s Apollo 18, a this-ain’t-gonna-fool-anyone mockumentary about the titular moon mission. (Insert your own joke about missing the first four sequels to the Tom Hanks movie here if you really must – I nearly did.)

What’s that you say? Apollo 17 was the final manned moon launch? Ho ho, think again. Supposedly made up entirely of footage shot by people involved in the mission, principally the three astronauts, this movie reveals that in 1974 the go-ahead was given for another, classified mission, carried out in secret under the auspices of the US Department of Defence. The initial stated objective is to set up surveillance equipment at the south lunar pole to monitor Soviet activity.

The flight and landing go according to plan but the lunar module crew find their sojourn on the moon plagued with small, inexplicable equipment failures and other odd happenings. But all these are instantly forgotten when they discover the remains of an unreported Soviet moon mission, including the corpse of a cosmonaut who has died in very strange circumstances indeed…

Well, from this point the film follows a fairly predictable arc – grim revelations as to the true nature of the mission, contact, contagion, paranoia, madness, and carnage – and the SF horror element of the plot is really nothing very original. To this extent the movie operates very much in the shadow of Alien, and it’s possibly just a bit too vague about the nature of exactly what the astronauts discover on the lunar surface (some of the CGI is perhaps not quite up to the highest standards, either).

However, the movie scores very heavily when it comes to verisimilitude. Historically, opinion has been divided about how easy it is to convincingly fake a moon landing in a film studio, but the film-makers do a very neat job indeed. Do you emerge believing they shot it on location in orbit? No, of course not – but your disbelief is comfortably put, if not into zero gravity, then at least one-sixth G. The period setting is also skilfully and credibly achieved.

Things are helped by the innately claustrophobic and primitive nature of early Seventies space technology. One possibly unintended consequence of this movie is that I emerged with a much greater appreciation of the tremendous courage of the genuine Apollo astronauts for doing what they did – I also found myself wondering why the actual Apollo 11 flight hasn’t been the subject of a movie yet, as it would surely be at least as engrossing as a genre movie like this, no matter how well it’s been made.

Oh well. You’re never in much doubt as to how this story’s going to unfold, but Lopez-Gallego’s direction and the performances of the actors playing the astronauts (Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen carry most of the action) make this an entertainingly creepy and uncomfortable movie to watch. It is, in the end, a movie built around a brilliant conceit, which tells its story in a very effective way. A good movie to sit on the ‘Truth about NASA’ shelf next to Capricorn One and Alternative Three, but a fun movie in its own right as well.

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