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The Porcelain Man (2004)
Director: Sameer Kumar Madhar
review by Paul Higson
In the last two years 100 new British feature films of a horror bent have seen completion. Digital video has enabled this. A new generation of filmmakers are able to practice their craft almost immediately into feature-length according the minimum budget, and the next generation isn't far behind them. Many see their future based entirely in the digital medium. For some the wait has been longer, like the film fan's ambition of a credit if not a place in film history, but expounding to much time and money in the viewing experience in lieu of accruing the technical ability or financial investiture to install oneself into film production. The Porcelain Man is a case of the two, an opportunity for several media graduates to cut their teeth and for another man to fulfil the dream of a film aficionado. In most cases when someone chances their nest egg, re-mortgages their home or nervously encourages others out of their own well-earned monies, they also want to enforce their vision by also helming it, irrelevant of experience. Colin Bickley, The Porcelain Man's producer and co-writer, had the foresight to realise that the best way to commit people to a �5,000 budgeted outing, was to have a core team who with the abilities and responsibility to carry the project forward centrifugally and to completion. Crazily, a story with a lot of action, location and cast was the objective, to creative something greater than the budget might imply. Had Bickley entered into this as a... let's coin the phrase at last... 'circumstantial auteur' then he could have found himself with the cast and crew metamorphosing out of control and the film disappearing under him. Bickley was a down-budget producer with the acumen and, very possibly, the very good fortune, to gather the smallest most ardent number of believers needed to sustain production to and end product. They comprised of first-time director Sameer Kumar Madhar, editor Simon Washbrook and the actors Greg Hobbs and Scott Morton. Each brought a distinct something to the finished film, a co-efficiency and consistency of presence without which this ambitious endeavour might not have been deliverable.
A lot has been wrung out of a small budget, as the story flits from one location to the next, throwing in gun battles, car chases, airplanes and many authentic locations, uniforms, vehicles and accoutrements, but where the film falls down is in its storytelling and characterisation. The Porcelain Man is neither original enough an adventure nor sufficiently engaging in its populace. An environmental realism may have been sought but the film is peopled with stock inhumanity, cold trotting, hired killers, lab-coats and other mannequins that each in turn leave the viewer colder by the minute. There is too much quiet time during which you might consider everything from the effect of a second viewing or the obvious direction the plot might take, obvious because the ideas are never inspirational enough that they might suggest a surprise veering. The downtime is particularly apparent in the second half of the film with nothing original to tease one into true expectations. Neither is the dialogue particularly exciting or compelling or worthy of so much as jotting down. The film lacks real character, for that it needs characters, and for that it needs dialogue with some life in it. Even if budgetary requirements mean the original apocalyptic vision has been shorn down there was still time in the 11 years of script development to originate and store the dialogue that keeps it real.
The story. Murder-happy 'animal rights' protestors break into a Government research laboratory and are infected with a new virus that that results in erupting flesh, a painful death and a bloodthirsty reanimation. The unknowingly immune, and yes, handily so, anti-terrorist agent Robert Neill (Greg Hobbs) is bunged into the investigation by his superior (Anthony Campbell) to track down the culprits under that umbrella of secrecy we so often hear about and finds himself coupled up for the initial part of it with the insidious, magnificently hook-nosed Chief Inspector Michael Bowen (Scott Morton); they even, for one shot, give him long held over silhouette like a cameo in the hands of a caricaturist. They make a good on-screen double-act, the gruff and rightly worrisome hero and the sly, tapering and borderline camp conspirator. Their interaction cannot but be felt once they separate for Neill to take up the brunt of the remaining story.
Neill invites his good friend Dr John Burns (Andrew Cresswell) to analyse the scrapings of corrupted flesh taken from one of the victims only to infect him also. He fends off the occasional of the hungry dead but is chiefly pursued by government agents keen to silence him and anyone who might make the deadly error public knowledge. Meanwhile the man responsible for the experiments, Dr Nicholas Kent (David Arnold), is doing a bit of lab tidying after himself and reports of sudden mystery deaths in the scientific community around Europe hit the broadcast news stations.
As The Eliminators showed back in 1997, the professional cadger can bump up the onscreen value of a film inordinately. The makers of The Porcelain Man come near to that earlier film for onscreen value but The Eliminators was shot on film (more difficult) and played it for laughs. Comedy, unrulier, was no easier to realise but is more excusatory come the day of an audience. Despite The Porcelain Man's failings to ultimately excite in the story department there is plenty to approve of in the film. The scale of the adventure is brave. Sameer Kumar Madhar ensured that enough footage was shot, acting as one of his own cameraman, alongside Simon Washbrook and, earlier in the shoot, Tom Stringer, though few will appreciate their planning and work. Nor so rightly to go recognised will be the excellent editing of Washbrook who spent 492 days in front of the PC putting the film together. Washbrook, the editing package unknown, is like a kid in a sweetshop, wants to sample everything, could have over experimented, instead just about pulls it off and comes up with a style that is very almost his own. It is very possibly serendipitous and conceived out of necessity by the downsizing of exposition or in answer to the technically insurmountable, but it is there, a playful and occasionally confusing back and forth audio and visuals slide, the images slipping under the dialogue like tectonic plates, a junkie to the cross-cut like some editing shop bastard child of Nicholas Roeg. It doesn't always work but on balance wins out and it is identifiable and characteristic.
The initial meeting of Hobbs and Morton takes place in a hospital corridor, importantly a genuine one, and is a classic example of film technique taken for granted but is still in desire of some commentary. Though there is a commentary available on the DVD this sequence is not discussed in terms of technique. The scene is shot from three angles and they are constantly cut between, but I would be fascinated to know if that was three cameras running simultaneously, or the same camera employed for three set-ups (unlikely, because of the time and location, and the perfect fitting of the edited sequence, though I might well be underestimating them). The full digital effects palate is irresistible to Washbrook. For a drunken memory the image is embossed cutting back to our hero in a momentary double-exposed trail as he drunkenly lolls in his seat.
A tender romantic scene between Burt the activist (Jamie Sutherland) and his girlfriend Sarah (Crystal Bates) is bleached out for a green-noir effect that may sound terrible but is actually an appealing hue that may have served better in use for the entire film.
The bloody welts and gore effects are of that rare effectiveness but rare also in that the action in the film appears of greater consideration to anything else. For a zombie film the makers appear ultimately afraid of them, unwilling to grant them enough screen time lest they become too unintentionally comic. It is true that no matter how much technical proficiency is in evidence it only takes a few badly acted and/or shot scenes on digital to catapult the entire enterprise to a poorer relative and the zombie scrap in the graveyard does bring to mind the schoolboy video toying of Andrew Harrison's Zombie Genocide, even if, to this day, several films on, Harrison is unlikely to produce a sequence like The Porcelain Man's car chase, another laudable and masterful exercise in shooting and editing. The scope on a budget might also bring to mind the work of David Kent-Watson but he too would have failed in producing some of the more skilful sequences in this film like the car chase and The Porcelain Man is never quite so often as stilted as say, Eye Of The Devil or G.B.H., though to be fair to Kent-Watson, he did not have digital technology to hand in his day and the video technology on which he depended had its cumbersome limitations. One low-budget auteur who has gone unmentioned as yet is Michael J. Murphy but there is oddly little comparison to be made as it is the work of the others mentioned that points out where the appeal lies in Murphy's work... it is in his intimacy that his films are inviting, it is through his characters that he visits the premise while others bypass the characters for the action.
Kumar Madhur's original score opens with a ponderous sub-Goblin promise, but the dialogue coming in so late is an early worry, as is the early stages insistency of that musical soundtrack and the intentional camera jitter and frantic focusing. It is all a bit much given that Washbrook springs upon us also that brash, original editing style of his during the pre-credits sequence (which runs six and a half minutes). Another early off-putter is the unlikelihood of a newsreader pronouncing that, "Security remains tight at the scene of the doctor's autopsy."
The acting varies. Hobbs is a solid presence and rightly, interestingly, shows fear when up against the viral unknown. Scott Morton could be a terrific mainstay of independent genre cinema as a villain for hire, part Valentine Dyall, part John Neville, with just a touch of Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Andrew Cresswell is cumbersome and not comfortable as an actor and David Arnold is a little stiff in the role of Dr Nicholas Kent. The producer also takes a role in the film but, first time out, it can be a little confusing with the large number of characters to determine whom be whom and I was never certain which of the passing many was his character, Kendall. The younger actors, brothers, Jamie and Matt Sutherland who play the young activists, and Crystal Bates are promisingly fine but their screen time is short. Matt is also the creative artist at Waveform the company that provided the film with its quality promotional material and DVD design. A band by the name of RX Bandits is given a break on the closing titles with a rousing rock number for the closing titles with a track called VCG3.
Additional cost has been shaven by selling this directly to the public and that is not going to be easy. They are really going to have to announce their product and battle through a lot of other outside distractions to convince people in their direction. "This motion picture has not been classified independently, but is not recommended for children and young persons" is what the 'classification' states on the DVD. Information on the DVD purchase can be found at porcelainman.co.uk. The DVD includes the aforementioned commentaries though recorded as a gang of four (Bickley, Kumar Madhar, Washbrook, and Hobbs) somewhere other than a soundproof studio. The sound is a little lower than is normally professionally recorded and there are occasional background interruptions. It gives a good impression of the shepherding and quick thinking required by the makers as people failed to make themselves available and how substitute people, locations, scenes and script pages needed be found at short notice... few of such problems show in the finished film. It may have been better to have two commentaries with Kumar Madhar and Washbrook together on one to discuss the technique and on-set dilemmas. Additionally, there is a trailer and the disc is usefully chaptered to 24, though if you leave the commentary and try to return by a later chapter then you have to switch the commentary back on each time before accessing the chapter. The feature disc labelled at 94 minutes, it actually runs 92 minutes and 33 seconds and is formatted to aspect ratio of 1:85:1.
Perhaps the producer's good sense can be further applied next time and a script with more originality and a writer with more quirk and imagination sought for film two, otherwise, Messrs Kumar Madhar and Washbrook will almost undoubtedly be moving on to greater things, while Bickley could be up for a repeat of 12 years per film. For some this is a terrific showcase. For others it is a footnote in an indefinable future.
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