Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme


Despite the United Kingdom being fertile territory for horror filmmakers; with its history steeped in an abundance of folklore and myths relating to ghosts, monsters, cryptids and all manner of paranormal activities; few recent filmmakers have turned to its dark terrors for inspiration. Fewer still have exclusively focused their art on these outré occurrences, which is a grand shame since Britain’s heritage boasts a number of ghoulish legends that prove far more interesting than the constant barrage of recycled horror tropes with their inspiration drawn from American culture and rehashed monster movies.

Step forward Ashley Thorpe who, under the banner of Carrion Films, has been causing quite a stir amongst horror genre aficionados with a series of creepy animated shorts that have picked up a plethora of awards on the independent film circuit. FANGORIA magazine’s Chris Alexander recently described Thorpe as “a stylist supreme” whose “weird rotoscope approach” is “matched by his respect for myth” stating that his “carefully controlled, creepy and rapturously gothic short films SCAYRECROW and THE SCREAMING SKULL really left an impression on me”.

The genesis of Thorpe’s films stem from a lifelong fascination with the macabre and especial reference to the storytelling techniques and Fortean subject matter sensationalized in the likes of the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, also known as the ‘penny bloods’ or ‘penny numbers’. These popular nineteenth century pulps would publish lurid serializations aimed at working class adolescents and featured a mixture of real and fictional characters such as The Blue Dwarf, Panther Bill, Sweeney Todd, Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampire, and Wild Will. Despite being aimed at teenagers, these fantastic examples of “Gallows Literature” soon became a staple of the gaslight subculture with their surreal and dark melodramatics proving popular reading material. The tales themselves would be retold and handed down through generations of Victorians who thrilled to the supernatural Gothics that included G. W. M. Reynolds’ “Faust” (1846), “Wagner the Wehr-wolf” (1847) and “The Necromancer” (1857; Elizabeth Gaskell’s "Lois the Witch" and "The Grey Woman”; Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas” (1864) and Carmilla (1872); and the works of E. A. Poe.

Equally important to the filmmaker’s vision are those tales derived from regional folklore surrounding the British landscape and an approbation for the Gothic legacy of the Hammer Films Studios, to which fragmentary nods and allusions can be seen throughout Thorpe’s oeuvre. Nowhere are these influences more apparent than in the director’s second short SCAYRECROW (2008). Set in 1742, this eleven-minute animation tells of highway robber Joshua Rookwood (Ashley Thorpe) who would don skeletal mask, cloak and pistols on each full moon and rob rich travelers of their gems before returning to the tavern bedroom window of his lover, serving girl Eleanor Tawney (Sue Tilbrook) where the lavish booty would be showered on her. However, Rookwood’s daring exploits have warranted a reward on his head, a sum that proves tempting to those who might know his identity.

With its skillful montage of film, sound, textured photography, art and sound, and frenetic pacing SCAYRECROW was the recipient of the Media Innovation Award for Best Independent Film (2009), as well as being an Official Selection for both the Cannes Short Film Corner (2009) and the 17th Annual Raindance Festival. Eagle eyed viewers might spot several references to horror film culture; the titular antihero’s disguise closely resembles Peter Cushing’s own “Scarecrow” disguise in the role of Dr. Syn for Hammer’s CAPTAIN CLEGG aka NIGHT CREATURES (1962) directed by Peter Graham Scott. Whilst Thorpe’s animated tavern characters bear the faces of various horror icons that include Oliver Reed, John Barrymore, and Christopher Lee. Patrick McGoohan can be seen as a redcoat (no doubt a clever nod to Disney’s spin on the Russell Thorndike characters with THE SCARECOW OF ROMNEY MARSH (1963), and fans of John Landis’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) might take note of the tavern pub sign bearing the name “The Slaughtered Lamb”.

Clocking in at ten minutes, THE SCREAMING SKULL (2008) is a quietly paced animated classic that deftly weaves a tale of terror based on the legendary ghost story associated with 84 Bettiscombe Manor, near Lyme Regis in Dorset and popularized in the short story “The Screaming Skull” (1911) by F. Marion Crawford. Thorpe relocates the action to Penraddon Hall, the ancestral home of Spencer Penraddon (Ed Berry) who returns home from the First World War to discover that his sister has succumbed to madness that has cursed the family for almost two centuries, caused by a mysterious artifact known as “The Screaming Skull”. Rumour has it that the skull is that of former Magistrate Azariah Penraddon’s loyal slave, whose deathbed wish was for his body to be buried in the West Indies, but for unknown reasons the slave’s wishes were not honoured and the corpse was interred, locally, by the family plot. Since then, the skull’s screams can be heard throughout the hall, resulting in deaths and insanity. Spencer is determined to bring an end to the ghostly happenings, but as he wanders the empty dust-shrouded mansion, the past horrors of the war and family curse return.

The director’s latest, THE HAIRY HANDS (2010), is based on the Dartmoor legend surrounding a stretch of the BB312 road that runs between Postbridge and Two Bridges. Since 1910 a number of road accidents have occurred in which several surviving drivers have reported that ghostly severed hands have grabbed their steering wheels. There have also been tales of the ghostly hands pestering cyclists and hikers, with one woman claiming the severed hands had attempted to break in through their caravan roof window whilst her husband lay sleeping. Skeptics have played down the numerous ghostly reports believing that the accidents were due to drivers unfamiliar to the area driving too fast or due to cambers in the road surface, but some townfolk in the area with attribute the ‘hairy hands’ to a local man who died in an accident on the road.

THE HAIRY HANDS boasts voiceovers by professionals Doug Bradley and Nicholas Vince of HELLRAISER fame, and a eerie score by Carrion Films regular composer, Mick Grierson. The tale follows motorist (Edward Berry) along a stretch of deserted Dartmoor road at night, his anxieties surrounding a broken relationship and tiredness begin to take their toll and it soon becomes apparent that his presence is not the only one in the car.

Featuring further nods to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, Hammer Films’ BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971), Amicus’ DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and much of the exposition resembling Marion Crane’s guilt-ridden car journey from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), THE HAIRY HANDS plays as a road movie along the lines of THE HITCHER meets THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS. There’s very much a 60s/70s feel to proceedings with a scene depicting an outdated rural garage run by an attendant who could have stepped out of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and its infusion of foreshadowing via the use of symbols of death and foreboding radio messages (THE WAR OF THE WORLDS). Despite the allusions Thorpe’s film is stylistically unique, combining the use slow moving camera, and action, bold lighting colouring techniques and stop motion with a fast paced narrative the results of which are impressive as well as damn right spooky!

Several Carrion Films are available to download inexpensively from the Carrion Films website at

http://carrionfilms.co.uk

Meanwhile Thorpe and his crew are in production with their fifth ‘Penny Dreadful’ the legend of Spring Heel Jack.

Carl T. Ford

 

Still from THE HAIRY HANDS

SCAYRECROW
Directed by Ashley Thorpe
English Language / UK / 2008
12 minutes / Colour

THE SCREAMING SKULL
Directed by Ashley Thorpe
English Language / UK / 2008
10 minutes / Colour

THE HAIRY HANDS
Directed by Ashley Thorpe
English Language / UK / 2010
11 minutes / Colour

Three Short Films by Ashley Thorpe

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