Anyone who caught Nick Moran’s excellent indie turn a few years ago Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry on its self-financed, self-distributed, self-promoted tour of UK art houses will be pleased to see him continuing to support the UK independent film scene, with writer-director Hajaig showing a lot of promise in this feature-length Tales Of The Unexpected. Presenting it at Frightfest 2006 with his three leads, Hajaig implored those of us writing for the internet to talk about the film but not give away the ending, but he need not worry – there’s a fair bit to discuss without needing to divulge that particular twist.
Simon Puritan, once a journalist specialising in the supernatural, wrote a successful book, then hit writer’s block and the bottle hard. To make ends meet he runs a séance scam on the grieving seeking solace. On the verge of suicide, a mysterious figure in hat and coat saves his life, then seeks him out at home, revealing himself to be horribly disfigured, and tells him of his next client. Ann Bridges turns out to be more than just a sister seeking solace; she is the wife of fundamentalist Christian crypto-fascist Eric Bridges, whose path is about to cross with Simon through a journalist friend, and not for the better.
Writer-director Hajaig wears his influences on his sleeve here, in particular Peter Carey’s modern classic novel Hawksmoor and Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, but also classic noir films of both the US and Brit varieties, all of which he owned up to in the post-screening Q & A. However, having just finished reading Mike Carey’s debut novel The Devil You Know, as well as being a big fan of his comics work on DC Vertigo’s Lucifer, Hellblazer and Neverwhere, I was struck by the particular London-specific mood Hajaig created, through the use of key locations (late-night tube stations and Victorian housing ALWAYS work to make me uneasy), but also through his (sometimes overly) dramatic production design, lighting and scoring (from composer Simon Lambros), all elements wedded to generously-framed widescreen compositions. The cast rise to the occasion, with Nick Moran giving an excellent performance pitched somewhere between Mark Timlin’s London P.I. Nick Sharman and Hellblazer’s John Constantine, but with a much wider streak of melancholy, while Rylance, Soul and Brown have fun with rock-solid noir types – Brown in particular can do this sort of thing in his sleep. What prevents the whole thing from working for me in the end was that the one supernatural element present is far too clearly signposted early on, for those who can spot these sorts of things – so in love is he with noir tropes, Hajaig fails to provide us with enough alternative scenarios to keep the viewer guessing. Fans of Hajaig’s sources as well as of classic TV such as Tales of the Unexpected, The Twilight Zone, and Dr.Who, will have little trouble figuring out the plot twist, particularly since Hajaig ignores the single most important noir trope which, with his Hawksmoor, Ripper and rock references, he should have been fully aware of: no happy endings, at least not for the hero.
Once more, as with the other British indie films here at FrightFest 2006, I implore you to at least give these films a chance in the cinema, where self-distribution is going to put them, not simply on the eventual DVD, as for all its faults, Puritan still has the power to entertain well, and is by far and away a better bet for a decent night’s entertainment than 90% of what’s piping through your digibox at home. Productions like this once found their natural home in the cinema; later, TV gave them a home when there was no place left at the multiplexes. Now, even TV seems keen to deny them an existence in favour of hours of “reality” rubbish, and without such training grounds, we have nowhere other than adverts and music videos for our future film talents to develop their ideas and skills. Hajaig has a good eye and can direct actors well, but also has genre interests beyond the mainstream, all of which suggest he will continue to make interesting and entertaining films for some time to come, if given the funding (and better scripts!). If not, then he’ll end up doing hack work on weekly TV serials that just eat up production talent – actors may go from soaps to films, writer-directors far less so. I for one would suggest he adapt Mike Carey’s first Felix Castor novel mentioned above, as it could be the start of a solid Brit horror franchise, and his interests dovetail nicely with Carey’s. As for Moran, I take my hat off to him for continuing to support Brit indie fare, as he could have run to Hollywood after Lock, Stock… and never looked back, but has chosen instead to take the occasional US paycheck to leave him free for this sort of movie. If he is willing to put his money in, then so should we.