"Wishbaby" is foremost noteworthy for apparently being the first black British Horror film. It seems remarkable that this should be the case, but I can't immediately think of another British Horror film the cast of which have been predominantly black, so it just might be true! But if that weren't selling point enough, the film has recently been made the subject of some notoriety in certain sections of the British press (strangely enough, on the eve of the release of the DVD. Funny that!) after its director, Stephen W. Parsons, became involved in a dispute with the BBFC (British Board of Film Certification) over the excessive amount of violence the film contains.
But this dispute did not take the form you might at first imagine.
Long gone are the days when the BBFC once held the lowly Horror flick to be the harbinger of all earthly evil, either banning or slashing to ribbons virtually any low grade Slasher or gore flick that came its way with a zeal that bordered on the religious. These days, so blasé is the climate at the Board, that it seems virtually impossible to get yourself banned. Hard core sexual scenes have been passed with an 18 certificate ("Nine Songs"), and when one looks at the level of gore and sadism on display in your local multiplex curtesy of the slew of 'torture porn' that followed in the wake of the success of "Saw" and "Hostel", it makes the comparatively minor transgressions of all those low budget '80s Fulci flicks seem rather feeble ... almost charming, in fact!
Moral panic has its fashions just like everything else, and the powers that be are so preoccupied at the moment with violent computer games, pedophiles and internet porn that it seems there simply aren't enough hours in the day left for worrying about silly old horror films. So when the Board came to pass "Wishbaby" they examined its scenes of violent youths 'happy slapping' an old woman in an underpass; its gory deaths involving (for example) a teenager being repeatedly stabbed in the eye with a hat pin and a young man attacking his mother by attempting to suffocate her with a piece of plastic sheeting before clobbering her several times in the face with a hammer; they also looked at the nudity and simulated sex scenes — and they concluded, after carefully reviewing all this material, that the film was worthy of ... a 15 certificate!
For a low budget, independent horror flick, a 15 certificate might well be the ultimate death blow to commercial success. It virtually ensures you'll be condemned to sink indistinguishably into the morass of bland, unremarkable (and usually unremarked upon) genre product that gets tossed out of the chute each month, barely to cause a ripple on the surface of public consciousness. Not surprising then that Parsons petitioned the BBFC's decision, demanding that the film be 'upgraded' to an 18 certificate in view of his film's "graphic scenes of torture and sexual violence". The Daily Mail, Tuesday 14th of April, reported Parsons concerns that children as young as 12 and 13 would be able to view the film and that "one of the scenes, which involved a character being filmed as he was tortured and the footage being sent around via mobile phones, could have incited copycats."
Yes, this is the weird looking-glass world we now seem to inhabit: directors actually want you to think that their film might turn you into a deranged, violent killer, mainly because the tabloid 'outrage' generates fantastic publicity! Of course, the board themselves are perfectly aware what really lies behind this topsy-turvy turn of events: "on some occasions" — a spokesman for the board says — "film companies and producers prefer a higher rating because it makes the film appear more graphic or frightening than it is." Parson's complaint was upheld though, and the DVD duly released with the requested 18 certificate. All those 12 and 13 year olds are happily now protected, then.
Unless they have an internet connection, of course — in which case they can presumably order it online, bypassing the whole irrelevancy of certification completely!
So what will all those youngsters — probably now clamouring for their copy after all the publicity telling them what a danger to their morals this film constitutes — find when they finally slam the disc in the player? Certainly not the shocking, gory assault on the finer sensibilities that the sensationalistic tabloid coverage would have you believe. What emerges is a not wholly successful but still very intriguing urban tale that sets the contemporary themes and issues raised by its cast of poverty-stricken young black characters, squatting in an abandoned office block in Muswell Hill, South London, not in reality-based 'kitchen sink' drama, but in a surprisingly classic 'strange tale' inspired by an old Arthur Machen story called "The White People" that deals with traditional elements associated with the Uncanny, and unfathomable voodoo-like cosmic forces that come to manifest in a run-down area of modern London - playing, all the while, more like a story from an Amiucs anthology film or an old Hammer House of Horror episode.
Parsons turns out to be quite a knowledgeable exponent of classic Horror fiction; even the ugly digital video derived visual aesthetics of this film can't stop these deeply ingrained influences leaking through into the odd, fractured narrative of the screenplay and the strange, vaguely unsettling and slightly absurd images and fantastical ideas that come to predominate -- all vying awkwardly with the prosaic world of antiseptic shopping centres, alcoholic errant mothers and East European pimps which ostensibly provides the backdrop and make up the subject matter of the film. By the way, the violence really doesn't seem that explicit. Although awful things may often be occurring on screen, you don't necessarily see them in great detail. Rather than "graphic scenes of torture and sexual violence" the primary impression one is left with is of a strange little 'weird' tale — a "savage fairy tale" as the film's publicity tags it. This may not be the stuff of publicity-generating headlines, but it is certainly more interesting than this certification scandal suggested.
Maxine (Tiana Benjamin) and Jeanette (Leona Ekembe) spend their days playing truant from school, hanging around their local shopping complex. Maxine lives with her brother Colin (Doc Brown) in an old office block, now abandoned. Their mother has disappeared and Social Services are constantly on their backs for Maxine's truancy. One day, Maxine and Jeanette save an eccentric old lady with a pram from being mugged by a gang of youths in a graffiti daubed underpass. Maxine takes her back to the old woman's dilapidated old Victorian dwelling in South London, where the woman, Eve (Fenella Fielding), shows her the occupant of the pram: a battered, creepy-looking Victorian blue-painted doll which she callls a Wishbaby. Eve explains that if one makes and brings to life one of these 'Wishbabies' with love, they develop the power to make their owner's wishes become a reality. She tells how she was introduced to these strange practices by a Governess who looked after her at the end of the last War. Maxine isn't too convinced at first, until she witnesses Eve asking her Wishbaby to "make those boys [meaning the gang that attacked her] sorry."
The next day, a group of her friends show her some mobile phone footage they've been sent: the boys who attacked Eve are being chased by a doll-face masked assailant; one of them repeatedly stabbed in the eye with a large hat pin. Maxine persuades Eve to show her how to make her own Wishbaby. Stealing money from her amphetamine-addled brother while he dozes in front of the TV, Maxine buys cans of blue spray paint and a plastic doll from the shopping complex, and makes a rather grotesque-looking object of her own with an oversized blue head! Eve buries it overnight in the overgrown, candlelit grounds in front of her house. The next day, the position of the doll has clearly changed from the night before — its arm sticking out of the mud!
But some other force from beyond has also come back to haunt the locality. The Wishbaby's commands are carried out by a spectral, black-clad Governess in '40s garb (Claire Cox) who seems to have an evil agenda of her own. Soon Maxine and her Wishbaby are unleashing death and horror all around the estate. Colin starts having Opium-derived fever dreams in which the Governess materialises to offer him advice; time and place begin to fracture, and when Maxine wishes for their mother to come home to look after her, what returns is something far more sinister and violent.
The initial fairy tale structure of the film begins to unravel somewhat in this final act. Parson's cites "Phantasm" as a model for this, but I'm not sure the resultant incoherence and obliqueness works quite as well as it does in Don Coscarelli's increasingly dreamlike series. The interesting aspect of the film comes from its mixing the professionalism of trained actors with the rawness of non-actors' performances: the mannered thespian staginess of Fenella Fielding ("Carry on Screaming") or the reliability of ex-"Eastenders" actor Tiana Benjamin (who is quite a revelation at times in these fantastical surroundings) versus the instinctive unpredictability of Doc Brown and the scary Ann Faulkner, who plays the very unnerving mother who comes home to dispose of the bodies that have accumulated over the course of the movie. By the end, there seem to be just too many things going on though, the fairy tale story versus urban drama gives us a ghostly woman in black who talks to people in dreams; an expressionless masked Slasher; odd-looking blue dolls sat in miniature rocking chairs that conjure up memories of those disturbing old Czechoslovakian animated films some of us may remember from our childhood; not to mention a mad, frizzy-haired zombie mum who takes rather a shine to the doll!
There are about three different films going on at once here, none of them ever quite fully developed. Fenella Fielding, in particular seems rather wasted, her character being written out before her story gets to be fully explored. Parsons is also battling some pretty nonexistent production values, managing to extract some marvelous material at times, particularly in a single shot sequence employing a crane to pan across from above as the night-time ritual in Eve's garden, meant to bring Maxine's Wishbaby to life, unfolds. Mostly though, the dreamlike, magical elements of the story sit uneasily with the more contemporary material. This is still a great deal more interesting than 99 % of digitally made low budget Horror films out there, though. Many of which seem content to rely on the same crop of flesh-eating zombie clichés.
The DVD is pleasingly loaded with extras. A commentary by Stephen W. Parsons turns out to be very entertaining, the film scorer-turned-director proving quite knowledgeable about the origins and development of the Horror genre in both literature and film. He has an assistant read out questions which have been provided by various associates, and this works well to keep the commentary descending into the kind of banalities that sometimes plague these extra features. The other extras all take the form of short films, the main one being a TV pilot, written (but not directed) by Parsons, for an unmade BBC series called "Rough Magik" which was to be based around HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. This seems to have been made a good few years ago, the production values looking pretty thin. They certainly wouldn't cut the mustard these days. The forty minute film also seems quite slow by today's standards. It's good to see Paul Darrow ("Blake's 7") back in action though, his mode of controlled melodramatic theatrical gravitas seems perfectly suited to this type of material. The background, which centres on a shadowy group of agents called Night Scholars, who attempt to use Magik to prevent an apocalypse being precipitated by 'sleepers': human agents controlled by a race of ancient gods who have been reawakened from ancient slumbers, is intriguing enough, but this pilot about weird goings-on on the Falkland islands during the British army's attempt to retake the islands after the Argentinean invasion, seems confused and plodding. The other film is a 17 minute effort directed by ex Spandau Ballet musician and actor Martin Kemp and starring his brother Gary, called "Karma Magnate". This is a tale which appears to owe a lot to the Hurely back story in "LOST", and sees Gary Kemp playing a TV chief whose inveterate good luck always seems to bring disaster to those around him.
"Wishbaby" is a respectable micro-budget effort from a director who promises much in the future if he can continue to find ways to bring his unusual visions to the screen. This DVD release is worth checking out for those who like their horror offbeat, strange and unpredictable. Those expecting the gory feast of violence promised by the Daily Mail will only come away disappointed, however.