Near 29 years ago, Neil Morrissey starred in a low budget comedy horror film called I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990) that was far more enjoyable than it had any right to be. And, despite having a steady career, none of us is able to remember the last thing we saw him. So the chance to watch him star in another low/mid budget vampire film The Crucible of Vampires (2018), inspired by the Hammer Horrors of bygone ages, gave me the opportunity to see how he was doing and if the all-important luck would strike twice and we get an enjoyable, if slightly campy and not to serious, film.
How wrong was I? How wrong was I?
After a black and white prologue with a Mathew Hopkins tribute act and escaped employees of a living history museum; the action jumps 368 years to Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch), a young assistant curator sent to discover the missing half of a cauldron seen in films opening. After dropping a barrel load of exposition in our laps about an ancient magical cauldron she arrives at the remote gothic hall in Shropshire owned by Karl (Larry Rew), and his family, wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and arrogantly creepy daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). As Isabelle works to excavate the cauldron she must run the gauntlet of eerie dreams, repeated drugging’s, aggressive flirting from Scarlet, and sinister locals. Doing so will allow her to discover a 200-year-old ghost story and make a passing friendship with Karl’s groundskeeper Robert (Neil Morrissey).
Then in the third half, everything turns into a nightmarish tapestry of bad editing, plot threads and continuity errors.
Right, Neil Morrissey does not have the main billing and is only in it for around ten minutes altogether but you’d think they would have used him more.
Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s begin.
The story is all over the place, trying to hit as many of the supernatural horror checklists as possible. Doing so leaves nothing hidden and, for a genre that needs a mystery to build suspense, that is the worst thing we can have in a horror film. Within fifteen minutes you know that Scarlet is the vampire. Of course, she is; the story, as they’ve laid it out, couldn’t work with her not being the vampire. Lacking any mystery we know when and how Crucible is going to end meaning any continued watching is nothing short of wasteful.
Despite billing itself as a vampire film, Crucible spends more time trying to be The Wicker Man (1973) with talk of Old Gods, magic, and localised cults built around them. Over the course of the film, we get this story going back about the powers surrounding this Cauldron, no doubt inspired by Celtic stories of life-giving cauldrons and blood sacrifices. And that would have been a much better film. Maybe drop the cult aspect because it’s been done so many times it’s just lazy now. But imagine, a ghost story, with a present-day framing device, take you through the centuries to some unknown dark power as each new layer takes us back further and further back. It might work, it might not but it would be a damn sight more interesting of a movie. Even as it stands it would be a more interesting film if they cut out the whole vampire angle. Instead, they smother the story, pouring it all over it like a litre of Thousand Island dressing.
When it remembers to be a vampire film, it just ends up as Carmilla. Without the aid of story crafting, anytime a film has a prominent female vampire and a lesbian erotica undertone will instinctively become Carmilla. It is somehow part of the laws of thermodynamics. Though undertone might not be the correct word as it is very blatant and not overtly erotic either.
Most the character roster is two dimensional and lacks any form of an arc or growth. Just a long parade of poor ideas followed by bad ideas. Isabelle, numerous times close to escaping, will turn around and run the other direction. An example is that she cannot open the front the door…the front door with a large glass panel. But it is Scarlet, the sultry vampire that I really want to talk about. She isn’t creepy, she’s a creeper. She isn’t aggressively sexual, she’s just aggressive. Maybe this was the point, to show that she doesn’t fit a gender stereotype. The idea that if you swap the genders she wouldn’t be seen as a seductress but as an abusive manipulator. But given the rest of the film, I’m sure that was the idea they were playing with when they made it. Stilted, her attempts to come off as a temptress fail and we are left with little more than a spoilt brat.
In terms of the production, the camera work is steady if somewhat bland. However, the other side of the cinematography does not match the tone of the film. Too bright and with too much saturation for horror, it doesn’t balance it out with manipulation between shadow and light. We do not need every film to be a blue and grey washout but we do need the colour palate to match the film.
I will say this for Crucible. It gets the uncanny right. Rather than having a jump scare after jump scare, when something, intentional, bizarre happens it takes its time, pacing itself not to maximise the startling effect but instead the feeling of discomfort.
So inclusion: drop the vampires, match tone and screen action, more Neil Morrissey.
Dir: Iain Ross-McNamee
Src: Darren Lake, Iain Ross-McNamee
Cast: Katie Goldfinch, Florence Cady, Larry Rew, Neil Morrissey
Prd: Amanda Murray
DOP: Richard Carlton
Music: Michelle Bee, Amanda Murray
Runtime: 96 minutes