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Moonchild (1989)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

Michael J Murphy is one of the unsung heroes of British independent cinema, a man committed to the making of feature-length films on his own terms. The storylines may be predominantly conventional, though that is hard to profess because no film watcher has seen more than a fraction of his back catalogue, but it also means that they are devoid of pretension. When you learn how low the budgets on the films are you realise that each is a minor miracle. His ambition and dedication are admirable, and when the full story is out it may well embarrass, inspire and initiate others into action. If the stubborn Mr Murphy can do it each time in film then the rest of us can at the very least stop talking about it and do it digitally. I had actually heard of Moonchild, without knowing it was directed by Michael J. Murphy, without realising it was another film, even. It was one of a number of his films released to HVC on British cable television but was only a title in the television listings and I would have assumed it the diverting 1972 Alan Gadney film of the almost identical title (split into two words as Moon Child to help us differentiate between the two now that we know).
Moonchild - on location
This was one of three films that the Portsmouth based director made in 1989 but Murphy has never been a lax individual and has something to show for virtually every year. Sarah (Judith Holding) is a young woman arriving in a summery English village where she has been employed as a personal assistant to Professor Lucan (Patrick Oliver), an authority on the occult. Lucan is suffering from an unspecified debilitating illness, reliant on a Zimmer frame, and later a wheelchair. He is putting together his latest tome and as Sarah types up his notes she becomes informed of and unnerved by his findings on ritual practices. The new girl in village she becomes popular amongst the young men. The local priest, Daniel (Philip Lyndon), is there on more platonic grounds, while Morris dancing local pet store assistant Tony (Greg Clark) is a pleasant enough fellow who becomes the victim of her increasing paranoia. Both at least are infinitely more preferable company than Steve (Alan Janson), nephew of the nurse, Kelly (Therese Hickland). Steve is a cocky runt who perceives the perfect night out to be a violent squabble with other locals before a bit of carnal trampoline. If the thuggery is supposed to impress her into bed, well, on this occasion it fails. She begins to trust only the priest and the gardener, Davies (Neil Goulbourn), who is the quintessence of country life, thick accent, well run-in clothes, plucking dead birds and chortling knowingly. Sarah learns that Lucan's previous assistant has been deposited in a local Sanitarian and a visit reveals that she too is named Sarah (Catherine Rowlands), is blonde, from the same part of London and shares a birth date down to the year. That birthday is also only a few days away. The panic and the bad dreams heighten and an outsider friend, Jan (Jessica Day), goes missing on leaving the village. The viewer has seen her graphically murdered. The day comes and as anyone familiar with classic paranoia horror plotting will know she is clearly going seek protection with the wrong person, and possessed by the devil he is. That is not the only revelation though and it is now on the real protectors to race to her rescue before the fall of the blade.
   Though it is a formulaic plot, it contends with filling the running time relatively well. It has the feel of being shot in sequence with actors giving poor performances near the beginning of the film, a terrible distraction to the viewer, who appear to become more comfortable as the film progresses. Other niggles are apparently addressed along the chronological way. Hopefully without being too rude to Miss Holding, she is not an outright beauty nor particularly photogenic, but with the nudging of her hair onto her face, possibly some other make-up or lighting solution, and, in particular, to the actress's own credit, the natural delivery of her dialogue, we warm to her. Most of the male leads come out of it on the appreciable side also, particularly Patrick Oliver, who has a great voice, perfectly suited to the horror film genre. The poorest performance comes from the immensely irritating Alan Janson as the devilish asshole Steve.
   Steve's fight sequence was clearly designed as one of the major set pieces, an imposing dare from Murphy to himself, with a lot of camera set-ups and a lot of motion, that had to be heavily storyboarded. It does not work, is too complicated a sequence, all of the shots are accomplished but Janson's terrible acting, the deliberately over-the-top nature of the combat is too much and is laughable and the speed of the fight under-cranked, one presumes because a lack of a sufficient choice of successful alternative or second takes in post-production. Otherwise, the moderate pace of the film poses no problem to Murphy and his crew, camera shots well placed and adequately paced, there is very little drag time.
   The scripted dialogue too often slips into clich´┐Ż but the improving interaction gradually pushes it back into quantifiably interesting. The device of feeding the occult threat to her through her transcription duties is a good one successfully incorporated, though one is suspicious that the occult passages have been plagiarised by screenwriter Steve Newcombe (one of several film non-de-plumes for Murphy). It could be that the failure to give credit was at least unintentional but then the inclusion also of the Hughes Mearn's The Psychoed without the correct nod reappoints that failure of due record. For those who don't recognise it by name, the poem runs: As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn't there, he wasn't there again today, I wish that man would go away. Also known as The Little Man and Antigonish, the film's use of the poem beats James Mangold's 2003 use of it in Hollywood hit Identity by 14 years. In Moonchild, the use of the poem is blatantly for the uncanny effect that the wonderful ditty always has and bears no true relevance to the plot, but it's great that the recital fell to Oliver and his tones.
Moonchild - behind the scenes
Coming as it did at the tail end of the 1980s, Murphy relaxed on the necessity for bloody excess in such difficult times for film releasing. Having said that, the periodic episodes of graphic horror are there and are managed to superior effect. The gore does its job, is unsettling, and there is nothing coy in it, with mutilated legs here and a torn out chest there. The throat-slitting does raise a rare gasp and it cannot be imagined that the budget and shooting schedule would have allowed the Andrew White Studios team too many takes, it is that the gruesome slaying is committed in so leisurely a manner that it appals in the way it does. It reminds one of the similarly shocking throat slashing found in Stanley Long's 1981 short Dream House. And the rituals in her nightmares are the oddest in a British film since Vernon Sewell's The Curse Of The Crimson Altar in 1968. A sequence at the sanitarian combining a quick tempo score with the twosome ambling in the grounds and the frantic Sarah racing through the corridors of the interior of the building, nearly works. There are bladder effects and if the optical effects make you shake your head in the closing supernatural battle, well it was no different with any number of higher budgeted films in that day.
   Moonchild is degraded by the limitations of script and budget, but for the most part holds your attention over 84 minutes, be it for reasons right and wrong, and surely, this has to be the only time in film history in which the hero is a Morris dancer.
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L - R: Therese Hickland
and Judith Holding on
location for MOONCHILD.











































































































Director Michael J. Murphy
checks the gore make-up
on actor Neil Goulbourn in
MOONCHILD.

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