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Beyond the cellar door
A UK region 0 DVD review of LONDON VOODOO by Slarek
 

If you're like me, you probably have problems taking Voodoo all that seriously, at least as it's usually presented on film. Tribal drumming, orgiastic dancing, ritual sacrifice, pins stuck into dolls to induce sudden heart attacks... it's all become the stuff of dated horror cliché. And to a modern liberal audience there's the whole issue of usually white victims of African sorcery, which itself feels like a throwback to less enlightened times, something else from the dark continent for whitey to get jumpy about. Adding to this is the recent demystification of the nature of the Voodoo religion, which is apparently nothing like the sinister magic that movies would have us believe (this view does alter somewhat if you regard all religions as sinister, of course). So by making Voodoo not only central to the plot but having the gall to announce this in the title, first time feature director Robert Pratten is taking a bit of a chance, suggesting a stylistic trip back to the heyday of Hammer, when an audience could be expected to be nervous of anything that was strange and foreign in origin.

Voodoo can still be cinematically scary – both Angel Heart and The Serpent and the Rainbow very effectively suggested that to mess with such forces is to invite serious consequences. In both of these films, as with most others in western cinema, Voodoo remained locked to a specific locale, and the hapless protagonists would have generally been fine if they had just stayed at home and not poked their noses into the business of others. London Voodoo differs in that it locates the magic in a modern urban setting, much as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist so memorably did with Devil worship and demonic possession. There, I should point out, the similarities largely end.

It all kicks off when American businessman Lincoln Mathers, his wife Sarah and their baby daughter Beth arrive at their newly procured South London house. While Lincoln is wrapped up in his new position at a Canary Wharf firm, Sarah gets to work on the cellar, and the first thing she uncovers is a ritualistic grave containing two long-dead bodies. And it's here that we run into London Voodoo's equivalent of Evil Dead's night-time walk in the woods, a plot development that only the most forgiving are going to swallow. Sarah tells hubby about the find and he is understandably shocked. Should they get the police? Sarah says no and pleads to be allowed to explore the find in her own way. This is fair enough – the opening of the grave clearly released something that has affected and perhaps even taken control of her brain, so she's acting out of distorted and unknowing self-interest. But after just a little bit of pestering, Lincoln agrees. A visitor in a foreign land finds two bodies in his cellar and after a couple of pleads from his wife he agrees that there's no need to inform the authorities, and he doesn't let the presence of the corpses disturb his sleep or distract him from his business deals. Sorry, but that's a big bloody pill to swallow.

But for the sake of argument and narrative progression, we'll nip past that one. Whatever it was that came out of the grave and into Sarah starts popping up to take control of her with increasing regularity, something that doesn't go unnoticed by those around her. Strong echoes of The Omen deliver a suspicious-seeming nanny (a heavily telegraphed and crimson coloured herring) and a holy man barking out warnings to the bemused Lincoln, an encounter more likely to prompt giggles than shivers. That Lincoln doesn't take him seriously is not surprising, but like Ambassador Thorn before him, events will eventually prompt him to change his tune and turn to the religiously inclined for help.

London Voodoo is a debut feature made on a low budget, and you'd have little trouble guessing this if I hadn't just told you. The plot lacks complexity or any real surprises and we are into the action before any serious character engagement has taken place. Self-absorbed husband Lincoln never becomes interesting enough to care much about, and of the supporting cast, only Trish Mortimer as white Voodoo follower Fiona invests her character with the sort of quiet conviction needed to sell the central concept in a more cynical age. The less said about the two builders hired to do up the haunted cellar, the better.

The saving grace here is Sara Stewart, who after a so-so start as the happy American wife takes her role of increasingly possessed Voodoo witch by the teeth and then bites. Her gradual transformation into a demonic gothic sex-pot may follow generic tradition, but it is in these scenes that the film starts to really find its feet, from her distracted patterning of a heart-shaped symbol (which bears an unfortunate similarity to the Walls Ice Cream logo) and angry outbursts in Haitian Creole, to a genuinely extraordinary moment when she bites Lincoln on the nose, seemingly on furious impulse, then spits the drawn blood into a small bottle that is instantly secreted for who knows what purpose.

Whether London Voodoo works as a whole is a matter of opinion. The restrictive location and studio work does develop a cumulatively claustrophobic feel, and Voodoo itself is at least presented in a less lurid and racially singular manner than is the cinematic norm. Had I been more involved with the characters I may well have been more unsettled by Sarah's transformation (though it still has its moments), but I'd still have hoped for a little more plot than "She's possessed, let's exorcise her." There seems little doubt, though, that with the right material and actors, director Pratten could produce a genre work of some note, and occasionally here, as in the oddly effective scene in which Fiona returns to her houseboat, eerily scored by Souxisie and the Banshees guitarist Steve Severin, there are signs of the stranger, creepier film he may yet make.

sound and vision

Given that the film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the image here is surprisingly crisp and detailed – in the accompanying documentary, director Pratten states that after doing a blow-up test they were sold on the idea of shooting on 16mm because it looked as good as 35mm. There may be noticeably more grain than on the better 35mm stocks, but otherwise I'd have to agree, at least on the evidence here. Colour and contrast are both very impressive, and the black levels are solid. The DVD cover claims 1.85:1 framing, but it's closer to 1.81:1. The picture is anamorphically enhanced.

Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are on offer, and for punch and its more immersive nature, the 5.1 is definitely the winner, especially for its reproduction of Severin's score.

extra features

As so often with low-budget independent works, the DVD release is better featured than many of its big studio counterparts, and there's not even a hint of the "special edition" label that would be instantly slapped on the box if a mainstream release had even half of the features included here.

Commentary with Director Robert Pratten
As new to commentary tracks as he is to feature directing, Pratten is sometimes a little hesitant, and several of the more common ticks of filmmaker commentaries are intermittently evident here – stating the obvious, describing what's happening on screen, beginning sentences with "I love this..." – but there is also some useful background on the cast and the technical aspects of the production.

The Voodoo Diaries (58:53)
Subtitled "Behind the Scenes – The Making of London Voodoo," this is a rough and ready but interesting mixture of video diary, interview and behind-the-scenes footage that follows the making of the film from the first script phone call through the pre-production and rehearsals to the shoot itself. Although framed 16:9, a few of the shots have clearly been shot 4:3 and stretched to fill the screen. There are brief shots in which storyboards have been included and are strangely blurred out.

Interview With a Voodoo Priest (18:49)
The too-perfectly named Ross Heaven provides a history and outline of the Voodoo religion and its practices and particularly the spiritual element. It demystifies what has been largely sensationalised in the media, but will do little to convince the sceptical.

Deleted Scenes (14:03)
A number of cut scenes, which have been edited and scored. Picture quality is not up to that of the feature, suggesting they were transferred from slash prints or video masters. It includes a brief "Thank You" montage of those whose roles were lost in the final edit.

Trailer 1 (2:00) and Trailer 2 (1:32) do an OK job of selling the film (2 does it better).

Reel North: Premiere (4:57)
Extract from a TV programme covering the premiere of the film at the AMC in Manchester. Includes interviews with director Robert Pratten, actors Sara Stewart, Doug Cockell and Vonda Barnes (who plays babysitter Kelly) and composer Steve Severin.

There are also trailers for other Nucleus releases Between Your Legs, The Ugliest Woman in the World, Gwendoline, Fausto 5.0 and Death Ship.

summary

I have to admit that London Voodoo didn't really work for me, despite some effective moments, a pleasingly low key approach and Sara Stewart's performance. But the film definitely has its admirers, and I'd suggest that horror devotees weary of the shouty, big budget approach of most recent western studio attempts at the genre should give it a look, as they may find themselves one of them. Certainly Nucleus have done well by the DVD, which has a decent transfer and a reasonable set of extras.

London Voodoo

UK 2004
99 mins
director
Robert Pratten
starring
Doug Cockle
Sara Stewart
Michael Nyqvist
Trisha Mortimer
Sven-Bertil Taube

DVD details
region 0
video
1.81:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Director's commentary
Voodoo Diaries making-of documentary
Deleted scenes
Trailers
Premiere news item
distributor
Nucleus Films
release date
5 February 2007
review posted
15 February 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews