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The Gathering (2002)
Director: Brian Gilbert

review by Paul Higson

No more stalling, having recently watched Michael J. Bassett's Deathwatch and Merlin Ward's Dead In The Water, to then so closely follow them with Brian Gilbert's The Gathering is to raise a whole lot of hope in the new British horror film. Brit horror can be declared 'on' again. Any sense of a wave though, necessitates heavier distribution and promotion of the better of the crop. The majority of the 180 British horror films made over the last six years need not be held as important or made as readily availability as the cr�me, it's to the greater good that the wheat is separated from the chaff. Neither do the films that make it forward need be great, they merely need to be satisfactory, entertaining, good; sadly, all too difficult to come by. Both the great and the good are required for any movement, the good to supplement the great. The Gathering is better than good, and if the rating I currently apply to it does not reflect so, then that is because certain gripes prevent me from adding that additional merit, but I anticipate that with repeat viewing this is a film to warm to.

The Gathering has a superb premise that has been dropped into a sprightly and nigh nostalgic package of several strands, never far removed from each other, and tidily brought to a tapering, satisfying and sinister close. A courting couple out in the country climb a hillock on a calm night and both slip through an opening in the earth. He is impaled and she is discovered a week later, dying shortly after her rescue. The mound is fake, dating to medieval times, and covers a church, in soil of an unusually high acid and salt content, potentially corrosive that had been shipped into the country for the purpose estimated about the time of the Black Death.

Stephen Dillane is Simon Kirkman, the author of 'The Forensics Of Faith', brought in to conduct the archaeological research on behalf of the Church of England and to work alongside local priest, Luke, played by Simon Russell Beale. Disturbingly, automatically so, the statue of the crucified Christ does not face the congregation in the Church but the rear wall and a bas-relief of figures. The find is adjudicated the oldest church in England, possibly even dating to the first century AD, and the religious superiors want it hushed up. Legend has it that St Joseph of Arimathea, one of the witnesses at the crucifixion came to England and built the first Christian church in the vicinity of Glastonbury, and that this, counter to all other suggestions for sites, seemingly is that church.

Kirkman resides at Lime Court, a large house in the village of Ashby Wake, and the local social calendar is settling into preparations for its annual Summer Fair. His wife, Marion (Kerry Fox), is driving home along one of the pleasant country lanes when she runs down a young girl, Cassie Grant (Christina Ricci), who suffers from amnesia but comes out of the bonnet bounce otherwise unharmed. She is taken on impromptu as a nanny to the two charming children, Michael (Harry Forrester) and Emma (Jessica Mann) but falls prey to horrible visions in which passing strangers and the Kirkmans' young son are seen bloodied or mutilated; the local vicar smiles pleasantly, for example, unaware of his bloody empty eye socket.

Cassie's confusion intensifies in that not all of the strangers that give her the jitters are gored, their part in the coming happening unreadable. She meets a young man, Dan (Ioan Gruffudd, TV's Hornblower), who agrees to assist her as she investigates one of the locals, a man of grim expression and bearing that she is certain will play a crucial role in the mystery drama of her premonitions. They enter his woodland home to find him pursuing a grimy and clearly unbalanced way of surviving. There are clipped photos of people that she recognises, including the local vicar and the doctor that had attended her at A&E. Cuttings also reveal that Lime House was a children's home in the 1960s at the centre of a paedophile scandal, of which five men where acquitted. More disturbing than that, however, the man has a photograph of Michael and superimposed over his face is a clipped black and white photographic image of a different young boy.

A massacre is on its way and the part that each person plays in it and the mysteries of the first century church are all splendidly resolved, like the closing turns of a Rubik's cube back to the complete faces, in the closing minutes of the film. There is plenty of storyline, enough to bury parts of the plot and keep it trundling along. Writer Anthony Horowitz latches ancient Glastonbury mythology to the present laudably. I won't confess to knowing what the alternative to an "above ground church" is but Horowitz appears to act literally on the suggestion by burying his. Multiple occupations and mysteries and the opportunity to review and re-evaluate promise to turn The Gathering into a grower on the affections, like, say, Peter Sasdy's Nothing But The Night.

The country landscapes are painterly fabulous, so impressive that I am planning a holiday to England next year... hang on a minute, oh yeah, I live here, it isn't real. The cinematographer is Martin Fuhrer. Marc and Peter Samuelson and Steve Clark-Hall have been trying to get horror and science fiction films off the ground for over a decade, compelled instead to complete quality films outside of the fantasy genre. Now we have an idea as to what we may have been missing from them. The Gathering will be of considerable appeal to British horror film fans as it evokes the best of the genre, from the unmistakable English hills and greenery to the cast of top-notch actors.

One of the essentials it has in common with Deathwatch and Dead In The Water is that strong mix of professional actors, names from the screen and stage, the established and the up and coming. Robert Hardy plays the bishop, and he and Simon Russell Beale have a number of good scenes together. Cultist appreciators of Don Sharp's Psychomania might like to take it as a good omen that Hardy is not the only cast member returning in The Gathering, though it is hardly a reunion as he and Roy Evans don't share scenes in either film. Evans was living dead Nicky Henson's first victim in Psychomania and in this he is one of the, so-named, 'Gathering'. Another of the group of ideally cast morbid onlookers is Mackenzie Crook, and though neither actor has any lines these are still important roles and their weathered faces are of tragic fantastic countenance. A shot of the collective as they ease their way into the cornfield has a creepy excellence to it to the point that if nothing else had gone right in the film that one scene would stand memorable.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with The Gathering. The title is soft, perhaps had it been less embarrassed and unapologetic and been titled 'The Eyes Of The Accursed', or 'I'll See You At The Atrocity', it might have appeared in cinemas over here before now. I for one certainly wouldn't have been disappointed paying a cinema ticket on this, particularly not this year. Is there still time to get it in movie theatres before Halloween? The bigger peeve is Christina Ricci, unnecessarily and illogically American in voice. I can actually write in a vague explanation for the American accent but it really needs spelling out and I wouldn't blame anyone for not buying it. At the very least Ricci could have attempted an English accent, as despite the west country setting it is fairly clean speak throughout. Our Gwyneth would have swum it.

Ray Bradbury is one of the few to tackle the theme of 'the crowd', but whereas in his story it was an ambiguous idea, here we are provided with a complete theological concept for a very special band of ambulance chasers. The only other relatable film is David Twohy's Timescape that approached atrocity sightseeing from the science fiction perspective though that had its own terrific premise, wholly separate from the take in The Gathering in terms of genre, character motivation and character reaction. Timescape is perhaps most similar in terms of the irreversibility of what occurs, though even here, in the one it is retrospective and in the other it is fated. In Timescape the observers obnoxiously absolve themselves of their guilty viewing choice, whereas in The Gathering, "No, there's no thrill. Can't stop the inevitable."

The stand-in for the fictional Ashby Wake is a little village named Northleach and if it evokes the Midsomer Murders then it ought to as the fictional Midsomer is chiefly filmed in nearby Charlbury and the filmmakers undoubtedly pop into Northleach from time to time to set up the occasional corner to the village. Horowitz, clearly picked up on the legend of St Joseph of Arimathea while working on the series for which he wrote six of the feature-length whodunits and Siobhan Hewlett, the victim in the opening scene, appeared in one of those six episodes.

I have heard tell of bad reviews for the film, ignore them Brit horror fans, they are the words of recent minds with limited reference point that see M. Night Shamalayan's hand in everything from Brother Bear to a re-issue of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Make your own judgements, but ask for the film now and perhaps it will take the place of something less deserving in a cinema projector near you.
The Gathering poster


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Click images to enlarge...

Gathering on staircase
Simon Russell Beale
and Stephen Dillane




Gathering in mirror hall
in the hall of mirrors




Gathering - landscape
painterly English
landscape




Gathering - bas relief
bas relief in the church

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