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London Voodoo

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Release Date: 
Trisha Mortima
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Directed by: 
Robert Pratten
Doug Cockle
Sara Stewart
Vonda Barnes
Trisha Mortima
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 First-time director Robert Pratten's debut low-budget feature, aims to recapture the low-key creepiness of classic psychological horror along the same lines of "Don't' Look Now" (Nick Roeg's synchronous editing style is an obvious influence as the film progresses), "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Shining", but actually comes closer (perhaps, without intending anything such) to reliving the domestic horror sub-genre created in the late-seventies by British exploitation guru Pete Walker. Although the film's London-based Voodoo practitioners turn out to be the good guys by the midway mark, the opening montage includes a sequence which is classic Walker - with the camera pulling back from a heady, exotic, voodoo ceremony that turns out to be taking place in the front room of someone's London flat, its participants made up of a combination of working class housewives, middle-class professionals and elderly pensioners of all races. Creating horror out of the mundane and everyday material of life was Walker's forte for a brief few years, during which he directed films such as "House of Whipcord" and "Frightmare"; indeed — as if to emphasis the connection — the cast of "London Voodoo" includes Trisha Mortimer ("Frightmare", "Schizoid") who crops up as a  local historian who provides the main protagonists with historical background exposition while furnishing the viewer with a sympathetic understanding of the titular religion in the portrayal of her mourning of her dead West African husband through the rites of Voodoo. Pratten avoids the exploitation angle of much of Walker's work though: yes, we get sexually voracious possessed housewives and a crazy nanny plotting nefarious deeds against her employer, but the only nudity comes courtesy of the male lead's buttocks (Sara Stewart gets to keep her purple bra and pants on in her "possessed seduction" scene) and the cabal of modern-day voodoo followers are simply attempting to lift a curse that no-one else will believe in.
Shot on 16 mm film which has been blown up to 35 mm, the film has a downbeat television drama look to it which helps to capture an atmosphere of the drizzly blandness of contemporary Metropolitan life. The film quickly builds up a depressing picture of workaholic yuppies in their soul-numbing workspaces (represented by the downheel-at-heel office towers of Canary Wharf) and the relentless grind of the white-collar rat race. When telecom analyst Lincoln Mathers (Doug Cockle) moves into a quaint Victorian terrace in the heart of London with his American wife, Sara (Sara Stewart), and his infant daughter, Beth, he is immediately plunged into a bottomless pit of modern working hours that stretch long into the darkening evenings. So-much-so that he barely has time to be bothered when a Voodoo burial site is discovered in his cellar! Two mouldering skeletons together with an assortment of menacing voodoo figurines and artifacts are discovered, and Sara is soon possessed by the spirit of a woman warrior, from Benin in West Africa, called Assangan, who was condemned to death by the king she was supposed to protect from invading French forces in the 1890s, after falling in love with a young French officer. Now the couple lay together in the house that used to be owned by slave traders, waiting for Assangan to find a body for her dead lover so that he may also be reborn.
The film develops quietly with minimal gore for much of its running time; contenting itself with building up a tense psychological atmosphere as we follow the overworked Lincoln's bewilderment at the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife. Sara Stewart, who plays Sara Mathers, does a fine job of holding the film together during this central section as she begins to experience blackouts, memory lapses and strange zombie-like behaviour during which she performs odd rituals and surreptitiously collects hair, nails and blood from her husband; not to mention a weird, smouldering sexuality that is all the more effective for avoiding explicitness. Meanwhile Lincoln is distracted by a difficult Swedish client and the couple's  scheming psycho nanny (a brilliant debut performance from ex-Madison member Vonda Barnes) who is out to seduce Lincoln, toys with killing-off Sara by exploiting her nut allergy, and tries to brainwash Beth into replacing her as her mother! Unfortunately, the young temptress has bitten off more than she can chew and ends up on the receiving end of a rather severe scalping at the hands of her warrior-possessed employer! The body count remains resolutely low all the way through, yet the collision of Fatal Attraction-style passion and the "home-threat" plot line (both of which occur frequently in the "Yuppie Nightmare" sub-genre) gives the film an effectiveness that neither element would have on its own; and Pratten's script is very good in playing with expectations and wrong-footing the audience's prejudices. This film has probably been eclipsed in the years since it was first released by others in the recent British horror revival that have had higher production values and more explicit material, but it makes for a fine home-based drama that goes some way to summing up contemporary mores — much as Walker was able to do in the Seventies. Steve Severin delivers an atmospheric ambient score that adds a delicious haunting quality to the proceedings.
Nucleus Films give the film a fine outing on UK DVD with a disc that presents a nice anamorphic transfer with the choice of 5.1 Surround Sound and 2.0 Dolby Digital track, and a director's commentary that gives a detailed account of the ideas behind the film. A hour-long video production diary covers just about every aspect of the unglamorous process of film making, from the script writing, the organisation of studio time, to the trials and tribulations of shooting on a tight budget and schedule. There is a twenty minute explanation of the beliefs and history of Voodoo by a Western priest of Voodoo, plus an excerpt from a regional television programme in which the actors and director are interviewed at the film's premiere. There is also an assortment of trailers and deleted scenes to round things off.

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