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Dead In The Water (2002)
Writer and director: Merlin Ward

review by Paul Higson

A number of British horror films are slipping out onto video left to sit there as the legion of the brainwashed pick up one of the rack load of copies of Seabiscuit, or the latest Oscar nominated flicker instead, the number of copies saying it all for them. Many of the smaller films may deserve bypassing or stranding, but there are others for which it can be two years before the ex-rental two-for-one deal and it finally gets a just viewing. Let me lead you back to this one, Merlin Ward's Dead In The Water (aka: Out Of Bounds), as it is one of those films that will supplement the subgenre that is the British horror film. Low-budget but accommodating the limited number of locations and cast well, it has been sold as a supernatural thriller quoting obscure source reviews to support that aspect though anyone making a direct connection between this and the films (which I won't confound the problem by naming, they shouldn't be mentioned) cited clearly have not seen Dead In The Water. Yes, there is a hint of the unnatural, but the makers clearly don't hold any great significance in it, it is a plot point overridden by an interest in sleight of mind.
   It gets off to a promising start with the gates to Lady Margaret Oakes School for Girls, only to pull its first nasty twist on the average male viewer, it is a... girl's school, or at least most of the interns are implied to be very young indeed. The shower scenes a no-go, the timing is also perfect for keeping Equity minimum fees down to a minimum in that it is half-term and the school is down a skeleton crew. Headmistress Veronica Van Huet (Sophie Ward) allows one of the older students Louise Thompson (Sophie Myles) to remain during the half-term unaware that the true reason for the young woman wishing to stay is bedtime behaviour with Veronica's husband Matt (George Asprey), an art teacher with the genes of his famous artist father, the crippling costs of running the inherited school supplemented by his ability to fake his father's style, a secret arrangement known only to the couple, the school grounds-man Lionel (Michael Elphick) and Dr Imogen Reed (Celia Imre), who doubles as an art dealer on the sly. When the affair is discovered, the illegal operation turns to shit, not least because Matt does a disappearing act, Louise returning to the school to see his motorbike pass her by without acknowledging her. The often distant and strange Veronica claims that Matt has left for good, having taken off to Florence, telling the girl not to concern nor blame herself for events, as she wasn't the first student that he had misbehaved with. Louise is not entirely certain that she is being told the truth and the activities of the other players in the old dark schoolhouse and events less explicable, lead her to assume that Matt has been done away with and that his ghost is trying to communicate with her. I really can go no further without spoiling some rather fine twists. To this point in the film it has been routine, carrying itself on atmospherics, dark corridors and a wonderfully textured performance by Sophie Ward.
   Ward's acting and presence alone could not have saved this film had it continued so ordinarily, and though she continues the grand work she is partially relieved of duty as Ward's script begins to dip into a heady reserve of clever machinations. Neither do I intend on spoiling a single one of them for you here. I must confess to anticipating every twist but that I put down to a remarkable tuning in on the story and would be surprised if most viewers could see most of the twists coming, indeed most will get to a point where they decree that surely enough misdirection has been delivered and relax unprepared for the next. Though one step ahead throughout, I could still admire the clever scripting and this informs me that most others will also be able to re-enter this film more than once with similar appreciation. There are several bold swipes in store, not least those taken with a shovel.
   The setting, between term times at a boarding school, immediately summons to mind Fear In The Night, but whereas that had one simple idea run tiredly into the ground, Dead In The Water uses it as the first stop and proceeds to refresh it with a sleeve full of tricks during its 91 minutes.
   The Spice Factory has been consistent in its turning out of films of a fantastic nature and as long as they don't get too carried away budget wise (little sign of that), they and their common co-producing associates at Great British Films could play an important role in British horror film over the next decade or more. May 2004 saw the release of their conceptual psycho-thriller Jericho Mansions (shot in the US) to DVD and in June came the limited theatrical release in the West End of London of their medieval horror turn Anazapta, both films directed by Alberto Sciamma. The third production house given credit to this film is the promisingly named Red Barn Productions Ltd, seemingly the obscure video label that issued this to shelves. The sleeve is a shoddy blue, red and white piece of artwork that could only fail to have grabbed attention from passing video renters. (Catalogue number RB1001, I wonder if there will ever be a RB1002 and if it will be Brit horror related.) For two years now a video rental in the UK our American readers have only just received it on video (on 8th June 2004) under the even more so innocuous title Out Of Bounds (a title that has never served any of the films that have previously adopted it), taken so as not to confuse it with another recent release with a coincidence of title (in England we got both). Though not a prominent name in British film, former child actor Merlin Ward's professional turn, particularly as a scriptwriter should not be quite so surprising when it is acknowledged that he has been surviving a decade and a half on script sales.
   Sophie Ward has been written off in the past as the bland and meanderingly capable product of nepotism but family tribulations from her father's near fatal mugging and her own 'coming out' are among events that have provided her with a broad base of emotions to tap into. But that is not it alone, as this is an intelligently drawn performance that can only come with especial maturity and you will leave the film demanding more usage of this now excellent actress on film. Sophia Myles (previously seen in the Hughes brothers' From Hell) is in Ward's old shoes. She makes no great impression but her inability to distract is for the good of the film, as even when she is centre screen she invisibly becomes the eyes of the story. Myles has those routine looks that go down well with the casting agencies and I might yet eat my words as she has gone on to appear in Underworld, play Isolde in Kevin Reynolds' Tristan And Isolde (2004) and, the real tester, Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds (2004). Michael Elphick is reduced to an extra, perhaps subjugated by ill health; a role cut short. Celia Imre lends terrific support as the conniving doctor marching through scenes greedily snatching up artwork. This is not the entire cast and several other allied characters help kick in the steady rotation of incidents, including Veronica's daughter Pheobe (Kelly Salmon) and ex-husband (Richard Huw, Four Minute Mile), his wife (Julia Barrie) and with a good old-fashioned smart mouthed Detective Inspector played by Chris Humphries making a strong mark in support of the great final act. Work is also provided for genre hand Paul Hart-Wilden, here the production manager. A trickling, haunted score by Mark Ryder and C.P. Olins is subtly supportive, and P.J. Harling's concise editing ensures all the turns are perfectly set up and executed. Dead In The Water is definitely among the better British terror fare this little way into the new millennium.
Dead In The Water

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Kelly Salmon and Sophia Myles



Chris Humphreys and Sophia Myles



Sophia Myles and Chris Humphreys



Sophia Myles and George Asprey



Out of Bounds - USA
re-titled for Region 1 DVD



Out of Bounds - UK
Dead In The Water
re-titled Out Of Bounds
for Region 2 DVD retail
release in UK on
20 September 2004

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