Pat Higgins is a British independent film-maker whose work thus far has remained resolutely entrenched within the ever-growing ultra-micro-budget region that is home to a quarry-sized land dump-full of badly thrown together home-made horror efforts that look as though they were shot on a camcorder in someone's back room. The difference between his stuff and most of the inept and cheap-looking dross that increasingly crosses my path is that at least he seems to have a few new ideas to try out instead of rehashing the same tired old slasher formula for the umpteenth time, or bunging out yet another variant of the flesh-eating zombie flick. In fact, Higgins seems to be part of an emerging small band of UK film-makers who, despite having literally no money to finance their self-produced cine-efforts and even less time to complete them in, are branching out in interesting new directions and unearthing unexpected wrinkles in the genre, whilst at the same time honing and gradually building their creative skills as film-makers. So, while a film like "Hellbride" is in many ways as poor as most of the sludgy, poorly conceived and amateurish efforts it accompanies on budget-priced UK label Brain Damage Films, it does at least inspire some degree of sympathy from this reviewer, occasionally showing flashes of creative genius when its ideas come off in a sort of haphazard way, even if the whole thing doesn't really hang together as a whole quite as you'd want it to.
"Hellbride" is the third film to be released by Higgins, although the second to be shot after the execrable "Trash House". He's since shot "The Devil's Music" as well, which was better than both of them. Like all of his films, it has some good moments, a lot of original and fine ideas and some fairly witty, self-aware dialogue. There are one or two stand-out performances from his expanding repertory company of regular actors that lifts it above the norm for this sort of cheaply made indie flick, but the film still displays its amateur nature on its sleeve at every turn. It leaves the likes of "Trash House" behind as thankfully only a dim and distant memory, but is in the end only slightly more coherent than that no-money mess of a film, and once again, Higgins' ambitions far outstrip his capacity for realising his vision. This is a lesson he has since learned with "The Devil's Music", but "Hellbride" sees him repeating many of the mistakes of "Trash House", with the whole thing only being saved from oblivion by there being a fairly decent kernel of an idea at its centre.
"Hellbride" is a horror-comedy. Now -- this is a very, very difficult sub-genre to pull of successfully at the best of times. When it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. Any indie film-maker attempting to pull off such a feat as the horror-comedy is asking for a whole heap of trouble before he's even picked up the camera. But Higgins hasn't just written a straightforward horror-comedy, here. No. "Hellbride" is a romantic comedy and a horror film. When I say romantic comedy, I don't just mean that it has a relationship theme built around a recognisable horror sub-genre, as did, say, "Shaun of the Dead". I mean it actually tries to accommodate the conventions of a traditional romantic comedy alongside those of a gore-soaked supernatural horror movie.
I will tell you right now, the thing doesn't really work. How on earth could it? What were they thinking? But you do have to admire the attempt! Someone had to try such a thing, if only to prove once and for all that it was always a really stupid idea to begin with.
The film starts with an attractive-looking prologue told in comic book-style panels of inked line drawings (added afterwards to flesh-out the under-running 57 minutes the crew had in the can to a far more respectable 70 minutes), accompanied by an over-the-top voice-over that lays out the one-hundred-year-old legend of a certain Josephine Stewart (Eleanor James). Upon discovering the infidelity of her fiancee, this dark-haired beauty embarked on a kill-crazy rampage on her wedding day, slaying the mistress and everyone else in the chapel, before doing away with herself as well. Her cursed wedding ring is picked up by an eccentric collector of strange and unusual objects though; and upon his passing away it eventually ends-up in the window of a small Jeweller's shop on a Southend-on-Sea high-street, where it then gets sold on to budding stand-up comedian Lee Parker (James Fisher), who plans on proposing to his girl-next-door-ish lover, Nicole (Rebecca Herod). The jeweller (Neil Andrews) gets murdered on his living room couch (he's watching the "Trash House" commentary, the fool!) by a hunched, darkly cowled figure (the film's DP, Alan Ronald) in a grotesque gonk mask, who excitedly claps his spidery hands together with glee after gouging the poor fella's eyes out in a extravagant Fulci-style display of ocular violence. Plans for the wedding proceed though, but young Nicole starts having scary visions and horrid nightmares of both the cowled killer and of a blood-smeared Josephine herself. The vengeful spirit seems determined to make Nicole's wedding day as eventful as was her own. But that's not all. Nicole's dad, Lesley (James Kavaz) has got himself hopelessly in debt to a local gangland boss, and, even worse, has 'accidentally' shot the boss's sneery long-haired son in the head (it's an easy mistake to make). The gangster isn't very impressed, and he too is intent on making the day of the wedding one to remember for a lifetime ... a very short lifetime!
"Hellbride" proceeds in a bewildering muddle of light romantic comedy moments mixed with over-the-top gore and macabre League of Gentleman-esque humour. The performers have a huge job on their hands trying to make sense of it all, and many of them seem to be essaying such diverse acting styles that they end up seeming like characters from several different genre films shoehorned into the same script. But you can't blame them for that -- that is the way it's written, after all. Higgins can write some snappy dialogue and about 60 % of it works quite well. He seems to be aiming for a Tarantino style full of knowing, film geek humour, with his romantic leads having extended conversations about favourite death scenes in movies and such like. James Kavaz is an excellent Ray Winston-like figure, giving an hilarious dead-pan performance as the harried London wheeler-dealer, but the whole sub-plot involving his daughter Nicole and he disposing of the body of the gangster's dead son doesn't really belong in this context and would have been better developed as a separate film; it gets rather thrown away here amid all the other stuff that's going on. The steely Nicole we see happy to dispose of a body in plastic sheeting in order not to disrupt her wedding day, seems like a completely different person to the one we see engaging in dreamy romantic walks with her comedian boyfriend in the rest of the film. Perhaps this whole idea could have been made to work on a decent budget, but Higgins is forced to resort to the 'point and shoot' method of film-making more than once, with long scenes playing out boringly in a single shot. A few nice crane-like shots and some nicely composed imagery are not enough to make up for the frequently dodgy lighting and a lack of coverage that leaves a lot of the film looking dull and partially edited. An added sequence involving actor Cy Henty as an outlandish and perverted occult expert called Sinclaire shows that Higgins has quite a flair for writing distinctive humour in the style of "Psychoville" or "The League of Gentlemen", but, once again, it sits uneasily among the surrounding material. I would like to see Higgins pursue this area in the future though; he has a real talent for it and Henty has a distinct Adrian Edmonson tinge to his comic performance. I also liked the Japanese horror pastiche involving the attractive Eleanor James, with the black-haired spirit of Josephine Stewart dressed in white like a pallid J-horror spectre, crawling threateningly along a bed and then stitching closed the mouth of its occupant with needle and thread! Alan Ronald's bizarre masked figure, which plays the role in the film of a kind of witches' 'familiar' who accompanies Josephine on her hauntings, was a nice added macabre touch as well.
As was the case throughout "Trash House", things tend to get a bit ropy and cheap-looking at the end, with Higgins and co burdening themselves with too much to do on too little money, the script calling for a major shoot-out at the church (when the commentary informs us that they only had one gun prop at their disposal!) and some half-decent special effects when the demonic Josephine Stewart is meant to wreak havoc. Again, they palpably did not have enough time or money at their disposal to achieve any of this in anything like an adequate fashion.
The UK DVD from Brain Damage Films offers far more in the way of extras than we usually see on their releases. A commentary track by Pat Higgins and director of photography Alan Ronald benefits from the writer, director and producer's loquaciousness and the two men are very funny together, both of them perfectly happy to point out the mistakes and inadequacies of the work while also providing an insight into the atmosphere of the shoot and the problems they encountered trying to get the concluding wedding scene in the can before the power on their broken camera finally ran out! The disc also features a blooper reel featuring just one scene involving Jim Kavaz trying to get a particular sequence in the bag but failing miserably each time. There is a short behind the scenes featurette with footage from the shoot and comment from the likable and always enthusiastic Higgins. Then some minor deleted scenes and a trailer round off a fairly decent swag of extra features, and at £2.99 or less this is one of the better offerings from the Brain Damage roster of releases.