The legend of Sawney Bean, and his cannibalistic family has been told for hundreds of years in his native Scotland, and the idea has been utilised numerous times in popular fiction. Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series drew influence in one form or another. This low budget effort is the first feature from director Ricky Wood, and - for the most part - delivers the goods.
Set in modern day Scotland, a world weary detective (Gavin Mitchell) and a young, alcoholic, reporter Hamish (Samuel Feeney) are both trying to piece together a series of murders where the only remains that turn up of the victims are the head and feet. The perpetrator, Sawney Bean (David Hayman) abducts his victims in his black cab and takes them to his family lair, a dank cave, a place of freaks, chainsaws, chickens and offal. It doesn't matter what gender you are, all that matters to Sawney is how you taste. His family don't mind either, and the hors d'oeuvres for his youngsters often include rape. Again, gender is irrelevant.
Taking the Bible quote "unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves" too literally, Sawney is a perfect bogey man. Other than his odd eye, and perpetual blood stained fingers you would pass him in the street. The family are all hooded , athletic (they inexplicably can't resist doing back-flips, even when fighting among themselves) mutant looking inbreds scurry about the cave while awaiting Sawney, who brings home the bacon. Or in this case, human for them and mother. Who they keep locked away.
Surprisingly well made, and unrelentingly visceral; the gore effects especially are well above par for a film of this budget. It doesn't shy away from throwing all manor of flesh and bones at the viewer, even when they have been ground to a slurry by the titular cannibal. The use of locations, and lack of out of place humour build the tension and atmosphere, the caves especially adding some great, claustrophobic scares. The cinematography (by the director's brother Ranald; father Rick wrote the script) certainly pays dividends on that level.
If there's anything that lets it down, it's possibly the Feeney's acting is not as accomplished as the more veteran talent of Hayman and Mitchell; but it's not so bad as to throw you completely out of the film.
It will certainly be interesting to see what Wood comes up with next. Hopefully this will do well enough to merit a bigger budget for his future films.
(note: the film has been re-titled Lord of Darkness for US audiences) 7 out of 10
If you are of a certain age, you will recall a fabulous magazine published by Dez Skinn in the '70s called House of Hammer, (and in it's later days, Hammer's House of Horror and finally, Hammer's Halls of Horror). This magazine is where many of us got our first taste of proper horror films through their comic strip adaptations of Hammer classics. There was also a strip at the back of the magazine which was more akin to the Tales From The Crypt American comics. Now, the point of this impromptu nostalgia trip is the makers of indie anthology film Grave Tales obviously grew up with the same magazine collections.
The film itself opens with a young girl, Isabelle (Heather Darcy) researching graves in an impressively imposing cemetery (which looks like it may be Abney Park, Stoke Newington). She asks an elder gentleman (the fabulous and always watchable Brian Murphy, George & Mildred, The Devils, Panic at the Casino) if he can help, as he says he's been around the cemetery for years. Instead, he offers some interesting and macabre tales of the residents of the other graves.
The first tale, "One Man's Meat" tells of rotund drunken butcher Mr Elliot (Frank Scantori), who inadvertently kills a young woman. She makes the mistake of asking for change or food, and when he tries it on with her he accidentally suffocates her (with his hand, not his weight). Well, waste not, want not and his shop has some rather fresh meat on sale the next day. His customers suffer some rather strange reaction to his prime cuts, however.
Next up, is "Callistro's Mirror" in which grumpy Mr. Baxter (Damien Thomas, best known as Count Karnstein in Hammer's Twins of Evil) spots the titular mirror in an old junk shop, and immediately knowing it's value attempts to purchase it. However, the shop owner (another Hammer star, Edward de Souza) insists it's not for sale, and a scuffle ensues resulting in his death. The mirror has a strange quality, allowing Baxter to see an alternate world of hedonistic delights.
Edward de Souza and Damien Thomas
"The Hand" tells the tale of a pair of convicts on the run, chained at the wrist. One is injured and slowing the other (played by UK porn star Mark Sloan, Doctor Screw himself!) down, so he has only one option, to cut his cell mate loose, leaving his severed hand attached to the cuffs.
The final story, "Dead Kittens" takes place in the cut-throat world of the music industry where an all girl rock group's new member may be thrown in at the deep end when they film their latest, Satanic based video. This section is of special interest, for the appearance of real (and very obscure) band The Scary Bitches (you won't believe the song you hear them play) and, type-cast as the director, Norman J. Warren (British horror royalty, as he is the director of Satan's Slaves, Prey and Inseminoid).
Norman J Warren - take a bow!
The whole thing is topped off with a suitably predictable Amicus-style ending.
Now, even from the sketchy synopsis above, fans of the aforementioned House of Horror strips will recognise that the first three tales are all ripped off, sorry, heavily influenced by strips seen in the magazine. Right down to the pay offs. This is a shame as the majority of the film was written by John Hamilton, who has penned some rather fine books on the genre (including the recent X-Cert), and there's no credit given to the original source.
Damien Thomas and Don Fearney
The film is well made for the most part, first time director Don Fearney (who pops up as a tramp in the second story) does a good job of keeping the film flowing, and the editing by the more experienced Jim Groom (director of The Revenge of Billy The Kid and Room 36) is top notch, complimented by some very good special effects, far better than you'd expect from a low budget flick like this). Where the film falls down is in the sound. Some of the foley sounds like it was recorded in a shoe box. The Hand suffers from poor acting, much more than the rest of the film, and features the least likely police officer ever. His costume looks like it's ten sizes too big, and he should still be in school.
Don't worry son, you'll grow into it..
With all it's drawbacks, it's actually a fairly enjoyable film, not least for being able to see those old comics come to life, so to speak (I just hope there's not any law suits on the horizon). At only 75mins, and packing in four stories, it doesn't over stay it's welcome and it's worth checking out, but keep your expectations low. If nothing else, Brian Murphy is in it. And he's worth watching anytime.
Find out more at the film's website. 5 out of 10
The DVD can be purchased (exclusively as far as I can tell) from the wonderful people at Hemlock books.