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Stalker (2010)
Director: Martin Kemp

review by Paul Higson

Martin Kemp's Stalker struck up some early noise when originally touted as a remake of James Kenelm-Clarke's thriller The House On Straw Hill (aka: Exposé, 1976). There was momentary outrage until horror fans remembered that there wasn't much to trump in the original. It was, after all, more notorious for the hard body of Fiona Richmond and a masturbating Linda Hayden than it was for any frights. Black & Blue Films prefer to avoid the label of 'remake' and instead tell us that Stalker is inspired by the older film.

Stalker may not be the identical story but it is closer to its source than some remakes. Tonally and structurally it is there. A similar size of cast, an unpretentious film style, moderate in its aspirations, of a like pace and geographically, balance between the city, the summer foliage and the household is comparative. The two films are seasonally matched and on the gore score it's a score draw. It's also got Linda Hayden. Both tales involve successful authors and writers block... it is all so close, and yet, in its favour, different.

If anything, it improves a little on The House On Straw Hill and is only missing one key element from the first film, and that is the sex. Martin Kemp has taken seriously the careful composition of his debut feature, inviting advice and ideas from an experienced cast and crew. There is something almost brave about the almost reluctant objectives of the film. There are moments of very bloody horror but extreme it is not. Stalker chooses to sway hypnotically like a cobra mesmerising us with its clean cinematography and polite editing. The days are bathed in a purifying light and the nights reveal exactly enough information. There is clarity throughout the telling. The performers are ideally framed and presented, and the performances are intrinsic with not a jot of emotional detail eschewed or lost.

Screened at Manchester's Grimm Up North horror film weekend, there were several running motifs over the four days, one of which was the profusion of great female performances and several appear in Stalker. Most noteworthy of these is the performance given by Jane March who plays Linda, personal assistant to a successful author Paula Martin (Anna Brecon). March's Linda is initially pretty but incongruous, but as the film progresses, dominates both Paula and the film. Paula's first novel was an enormous hit and there was talk of a nervous breakdown removing her from public view. Now, her agent Sarah (Jennifer Matter) is pushing her to complete, for Christ's sake, even begin that second book and prompts her to go into retreat at an old family residence in the country where in the relative peace and quiet she can get on with it.

Inherited staff, including a cleaner Mrs Brown (Linda Hayden), intrudes on Paula's concentration and her first attempts are not only pitiful in the authoress' own estimation but leave the audience to wonder too. The first dictated words leave the audience resolutely unconvinced as to how she could have attained her revered status. The character is too frail and unimaginative and though this is a deliberate ploy in order to set up a later twist, it also imports too much doubt too early, delaying plausibility, and resulting in the film taking a little longer to take hold. It's a connivance that might be appreciated more on a return viewing.

Linda tampers with the first chapter and Paula, discovering her in the act, explodes with rage. But again, uncertainties hover over the film as Paula relents to Linda's rewrite and we lose interest in Linda as her decision to allow ghost-writing on what is, reasonably, presumed to be a fictional work. Again, this is part of the parcel for the set-up for that coming twist, but Kemp, in his knowledge of where the story is going, has lost perspective on how it unfolds for the naked viewer. Stalker rescues itself in the second half as Linda begins to dominate the household and the bodies pile up. The educated film aficionado has foreseen the direction that the story will take and the twist is unlikely to be a surprise, but that doesn't harm the film, as this allows the viewer to appreciate the skill with which it is done.

Jane March is still best known as the 'sinner from Pinner', who was barely out of school when she romped with John Lone in The Lover before starring opposite Bruce Willis in the highly entertaining turkey, The Colour Of Night. Neither of those films sold March as an actress and there was little expectation accompanying her appearance in Stalker. But March is impressive here in psychotic mode and a genuinely scary presence, shouting at and belittling Paula, turning murderously on any interloper.

Speaking at the screening, the actress was effusive, intelligent, clearly delighted with the opportunity given to her by the role. She may have appeared as a goddess in the higher profile remake of Clash Of The Titans, recently, but that is of scant concern when they cut her scenes to nought and this little film provides her with something the big movies currently do not. Billy Murray and Colin Salmon are among the reliable support in a small cast and Brecon must take similar kudos for a role that is largely pathetic but which must eventually be consumed by a similarly dramatic edge.

This is a step in the right direction for Black & Blue Films and a necessary improvement on the mediocre and poorly shot Dead Cert. Although it's not one of the most formidable titles to come out of this country, Stalker has its place and it is still a quality British horror film.


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