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Dead Cert

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Steve Lawson
Craig Fairbrass
Billy Murray
Steven Birkoff
Lisa McAllister
Dexter Fletcher
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There is a scene mid-way through the new gangster-meets-vampire British-made flick, “Dead Cert”, in which the wife of the lead protagonist, played by Lisa McAllister, answers the ring of her front door bell, only to be confronted by a posse of fanged, undead intruders, who then proceed to menace the terrified woman and her visiting best friend in her own living room. This juxtaposition, with the utterly fantastical  – here taking the form of gleefully snarling, large-fanged vampires – materialising in the prosaic surroundings of an ordinary front room in a staid suburban setting -- with its flat screen TV and tasteful beige carpeting – makes the sequence feel somehow more unsettling than the sum of its parts would suggest it should have been. It is precisely this kind of vibe that the makers of this low-budget, quickly-shot, but reasonably professional-looking small British film (mostly shot in a warehouse in Dagenham) should have been aiming to create throughout the rest of movie, but unfortunately they don’t quite manage It; and “Dead Cert” becomes merely well-made, reasonably entertaining, but in the end distinctly average, rather than the truly great revival of old-school horror -- re-shod in the urban context of popular East End ‘Brit Grit’ gangster movies -- that it should have been.

The film brings the kind of production and casting ingredients to the pot that would seem to guarantee something of worth being brewed up at the end, so it’s not surprising that there is still much to admire here: the cast list reads like a Who’s Who of leading lights and luminaries of the contemporary British crime movie, and producer & story consultant Jonathan Sothcott comes to the film as a former researcher and writer on the classic British Horror cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and will doubtless be familiar to many as a moderator on sundry DVD commentaries for such films in the past. ”Dead Cert” certainly kicks off in a fairly confident, convincing vein; newbie director Steve Lawson introducing the grimy, gritty machismo of contemporary cockney gangland with a great deal of cinematic flair. We’re in the same surroundings, here, as the sorts of inhabitants that populate your average Martina Cole bestseller: a lucrative world of drug smuggling rivalries playing out amongst seedy strip-clubs washed in a glaze of pink neon, Illegal betting syndicates and vicious bare-knuckle boxing pits. And, of course, family connections and loyalty to one’s pals are the most important values – or so it would seem!

A group of actors who’ve virtually made their livings solely by representing this world in numerous low budget British flicks over the years, is headed by Craig Fairbrass, perfectly cast as burly, hard-as-nails ex gangster-gone straight, Freddie Frankham. Fairbrass has that crucial ‘tough-but-gentle’ persona -- a beloved cliché of the people who think up characters for “EastEnders” – down pat: he can be the gentle giant one minute, when attempting to go straight in a legitimate business (a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ called -- rather ironically given what happens  -- “Paradise”) for the sake of his pregnant wife, Jen (Lisa McAllister); or a balls-to-the-wall, ‘let’s-kill- ‘em all’ tough guy when the shit hits the fan, the next. His brother-in-law Eddie (“Lock Stock …” actor Dexter Fletcher) is still inextricably involved in the shadier parts of the underworld, though – principally, peddling a new drug called ‘Bliss’ for some ruthless East European business partners, and disposing of any rivals for them who might try to move in on their territory.

A plethora of actors, usually to be seen in the latest Guy Ritchie offering or similar-styled gangster flicks, surround these main players: Roland Manookian (“RocknRolla”) is Eddie’s weasely sidekick Chinnery; Perry Benson can always be relied upon to provide the foul-mouthed comedy cockney wise-cracks, and he does so here to perfection as the bespectacled Magoo; and what Gangster flick would be complete without an appearance at some point from Jason Flemying or Danny Dyer? Well, this one’s got them both! (Although admittedly only in brief cameo roles.)

Caught between the desire to escape his former world of criminal violence for his wife’s sake, and the wheeling & dealing of her brother Eddie, Freddie Frankham is also involved in promoting the boxing career of Jen’s younger brother Dennis (Danny Midwinter). So when Eddie’s sharp-suited new business partners, led by sinister Dante Livenko (Billy Murray) ask for a meeting with Freddie, in which they make clear their wish to buy the Paradise club, his rejection is met by an offer to make it part of the stakes in a three-million dollar boxing match between Livenko’s muscle-bound man-mountain challenger Yuvesky (Dave Legeno) and an enthusiastic Dennis, instead.  The club is Freddie’s only ticket out of the crime world, but he also feels honour-bound to do right by his younger brother-in-law, and so he agrees to the fight taking place, Dennis promising that he will finish the job and keep the club safely in Freddie’s hands.

Of course, things don’t run quite so smoothly, and after a catastrophic bare-knuckle face-off, during which Dennis dies – beaten to death in the ring -- the club ends up in Livenko’s possession after all. The drug peddling foreign gangster promptly sets about tramping all over the reputations of the club’s former owner, smashing up Magoo’s favourite Paradise Club sign outside the venue and re-naming the venue The Inferno, and forcing the girls who work there into agreeing to provide ‘extra services’ to the clients that go way beyond just dancing for them.

Freddie and his family and friends are all seething at this and decide to take matters into their own hands. In traditional gangster flick fashion they tool up on crowbars and baseball bats and set off to smash the place up and kill all their rivals in a classic violent gangland punch-up. There is only one problem none of them counted on though: Livenko and his henchmen, and their vixenish female hangers-on, are really all five-hundred-year-old vampires, come to reclaim the sacred site (the Paradise Club) they were forced out of during the Great Fire of London!

The idea of mixing the traditional British gangster flick with a horror ingredient is an appealing one, and it’s a wonder there have been no high profile examples before. The film’s horror influences range from “The Lost Boys” to a transformation sequence which very clearly derives its inspiration from “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London” (although limited time and budget means it can’t really compete with either of those and it’s the source of some degree of mockery on the accompanying audio commentary). It’s disappointing that the actual story is relatively banal in the final analysis, and there are few surprises in the delivery. Once all the Vampire-related pyrotechnics are in full swing, the film becomes a cheaper-looking “From Dusk Til Dawn” clone -- surrendering completely to a series of gangsters vs. vampires battles inside the neon-lit club where the exotic dancers have now, of course, all become fanged predators, and one-by-one Freddie’s stocky pals (there are quite a few ex-boxers-turned-actors filling out the cast, as well as the usual gangster-actor suspects) also get turned.

Perhaps there is a limited saving grace in the unlikely but welcome presence of one-time Hollywood villain Steven Berkoff (filling in at short notice for Sean Pertwee, who was originally cast but was forced to drop out). He plays the traditional Van Helsing role as Kenny Mason – the one man who has all the information on Dante ‘The Wolf’ Livenko, and turns up just in time with a school satchel full of wooden stakes for the beleaguered boys, who end up holed up in the club basement.  Berkoff manages to inject much gravitas into a role which is principally there to fill in a huge amount of back-story with several long exposition scenes; but he does get a cool death scene at the hands of Billy Murray’s imposing vampire villain, though – although Murray’s performance doesn’t gain a great deal from the annoying voice effects which have been added to the soundtrack in post-production. There are some other pleasing performances elevating the film just a notch higher than it would have been otherwise; in particular, gorgeous Jennifer Matter, who makes a rather fetching blonde vampire villainess called Tatiana! The film was shot in high definition digital video and graded to within an inch of its life to give it a fairly convincing filmic appearance, which is aided by screening it in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The DVD from Momentum Pictures comes with a commentary featuring actors Craig Fairbrass, Billy Murray and Lisa McAllister, and producer Jonathan Sothcott. They all sound pleased to have been involved in the project, but it is clear that the five week shoot wasn’t enough to get the film into the kind of shape they would have preferred, and none of them are circumspect about pointing out areas that could have done with some improvement – which is certainly a refreshing change from the usual white wash commentary tracks. For instance, at one point someone notes that it probably wasn’t a good idea to bathe the entire club set in red lighting during one particularly bloody scene because the blood doesn’t really show up as a result! Billy Murray’s transformation scene, in which he is meant to be turning into a menacing wolf, gets the most flack though from Fairbrass -- who mentions on numerous occasions that it looks more like a giant mouse. His ‘eek eek’ noises and squeals of ‘I want cheeeeeeeeese!’ during the actual sequence itself make it virtually impossible thereafter to view it with a straight face!

A much more conventionally complementary Making Of documentary, which runs for half an hour, is also included, featuring a nice mix of behind-the-scenes footage showcasing some of the make-up effects being created (courtesy of the much lauded Millennium FX, who do a lot of the effects work for “Doctor Who”) and stunts being arranged, as well as on-set interviews with cast and crew, many of which seem mainly to be concerned with pointing out the talents of the young director Steve Lawson.

“Dead Cert” is certainly an enjoyable, undemanding and fairly dynamic little low-budget flick, but whether it can stand out in a flooded market for vampire movies and cheap indie gore flicks remains to be seen. There is plenty of talent here, but this film doesn’t really fully capitalise on the potential of the subject matter anywhere near as much as it could have.

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