Double Bill DVD Review: Bordello Death Tales (2009) & Nazi Zombie Death Tales (2012)
Review by Ben Bussey
Two contemporary takes on that staple of British horror, the anthology movie? Why, Don Corleone himself couldn’t cook up an offer I’d be less likely to refuse. In this instance, however, the offer came not from a mafia boss, but from a figure we web critics tend to live in far greater fear of… the director to whom we gave a bad review. True story; I was offered these films for review in the form of this tweet from co-director Patt Higgins: “Hey Ben! You almost enjoyed Hellbride! Fancy checking out Nazi Zombie Death Tales and/or Bordello Death Tales?” Indeed, over two years ago I reviewed Higgins’ earlier film Hellbride, and while it wasn’t the most scathing assessment it wasn’t exactly gushing praise either. Now, I’m not about to name names, but I’ve written reviews that were kinder and still wound up getting shit from people involved with the film as a result. As such, I have to say I sat down to watch Bordello Death Tales and Nazi Zombie Death Tales feeling tremendous respect for their co-director. It says a great deal about a filmmaker’s character that they can accept a less-than positive review and afterwards willingly present their futher work to the same writer, thereby expecting the same unsparing treatment. So bravo, Mr Higgins, the film industry needs more people of your mettle.
Of course, these films are not entirely the work of Pat Higgins. They are collaborations with two other writer-directors: Alan Ronald, whose debut Jesus Vs The Messiah I have not seen to date; and James Eaves, who I know only from his 2009 film Bane, which – again, not to mince words – I regard one of the absolute worst films I have ever reviewed for Brutal As Hell. My gut feeling going in, then, was that things could easily go either way – with a greater likelihood that they would wind up bad. Thing is, Bane’s key problem was a ridiculous premise treated far too seriously, and Hellbride’s key problems were either technical or performance-related. Happily, for the most part these problems have been comfortably side-stepped in both Bordello Death Tales and Nazi Zombie Death Tales, demonstrating good artistic progression on the part of both Higgins and Eaves, as well as marking out Ronald as a talent worth keeping an eye on too.
Kicking off our double bill, and winding up probably the most satisfactory film overall, Bordello Death Tales gives us, logically enough, three stories connected by a brothel run by the enigmatic Madam Raven (Natalie Milner, pictured above). Things kick off as they mean to go on with Eaves’ entry, The Ripper, which opens on a troupe of poledancers doing their thing to a bit of bluesy rock. However, when one of the dancers (Tina Barnes, of Bane) works her charms on weirdy beardy loner Graham (Stuart Gregory), she finds herself involved in his favourite hobby; abducting women and torturing them to death. Not long thereafter, Graham’s lust for gory sends him Madam Raven’s way, but of course the girl she hooks him up with isn’t quite what she seems. Yes, good ol’ trashy violence and sexploitation are at the forefront from the get-go, delivered with just enough black humour to make this an enjoyable chapter. The po-faced seriousness of Bane is thankfully nowhere to be seen here, with Eaves and his cast revelling in the silliness and sleaze of it all.
Next up came the section I probably enjoyed most out of the two films, Alan Ronald’s Stitchgirl, which sees the verbose Dr. Whale come to Madam Raven’s with a very specific girl in mind, who is served up in the form of a ready-made Frankenstein (or, I suppose, Frankenhooker). Shot mostly in black and white, this segment is by far the most light-hearted and nerdy of the three, given that virtually all of the dialogue is lifted directly from The Bride of Frankenstein; no, the name Whale was not a coincidence (although it may come as a surprise that he’s interested in girls). It boasts some very nice, psuedo-expressionist cinematography, and lovely performances from a heavily mannered Julian Lamoral-Roberts as Whale and a beautifully doll-like and inexpressive Eleanor James as Stitchgirl (above). None of this is to be sniffed at, given that poor aesthetics and poor acting are generally the tell-tale signs of low-budget indie horror. There’s also room found for a silly but smirk-inducing nod to Evil Dead 2.
And finally (for BDT, at least), the moment of truth: Pat Higgins’ segment, Vice Day, in which a webcam girl (Danielle Laws) finds herself in an online one-to-one with a prominent politician (Cy Henty) which – needless to say – gets a bit weird. Under the circumstances, it really does pain me to say this, but this was easily my least favourite of the three. Playing for the most part as fairly stagey duologue between these two people from different walks of life, discussing the implicit parallels between politics and the skin trade, it actually loses a lot once the obligatory supernatural element is introduced, as it just doesn’t feel natural to the story. Vice Day also takes itself a bit more seriously than the first two segments, which doesn’t help; not that there’s anything wrong with a shift in tone in a film of this nature, but in this instance it means things go out with a bit of a damp fizzle rather than a bang. Still, Laws and Henty turn in decent, suitably melodramatic performances.
So, one toilet break and dash to the fridge later, and we’re straight into follow-up Nazi Zombie Death Tales (AKA Battlefield Death Tales), which sees all three writer-directors return along with many of the same actors. However, this time around the thread linking the three segments is rather more tenuous. Yes, World War 2 is a common theme, but don’t get too excited by the Nazi Zombie thing; they only pop up once or twice, and are tangential at best to the main thrust of the action. Drawing most heavily on the goosestepping-dead is James Eaves’ opener, bearing the pun-tastic title Medal of Horror. Centring on a soldier sent on a secret mission doing battle with a deadly female Nazi occultist who is resurrecting the dead to aid the German war effort, it’s by far the silliest segment, not least in a woodland scene when an impromptu fight between two zombie soldiers made me ponder whether we’d suddenly cut to a Seiji (Alien vs Ninja) Chiba film. The fun is boosted considerably by a sexy and sadistic turn from Tina Barnes as Hitler’s harlot, Jezebel; after all, who doesn’t love a lady in uniform? (On which note, you might also recall Ms Barnes’ brief appearance as a police officer in F.) Unfortunately David Wayman makes for a less-than inspiring hero, but it’s all nicely photographed and pretty well paced.
Again the second chapter comes from Alan Ronald, and again it’s the most unexpected and probably the most fun: Harriet’s War, in which paranormal investigator Harriet Price (Lara Lemon, below) comes to a small English country town which has been hit by a number of mysterious murders. Again, not too much war-related here, but it’s lots of fun in a steampunk Sleepy Hollow kind of way, with Lara Lemon giving a very endearing performance, really seeming to enjoy all the 40s affectations. We’ve also got nice, very different performances from returning actors Cy Henty and Julian Lamoral-Roberts.
Rounding things off once again is Pat Higgins, and once again I’m sorry to say it’s the least entertaining chapter. (I’m not doing this on purpose, honestly.) Devils of the Blitz features a daughter, mother and grandfather in a London house during the Blitz, who find they have more to worry about than German bombs. Not unlike his entry in BDT, Higgins again strikes a somewhat more serious tone and keeps things very character-based, with more emphasis placed on the family tensions than on the bizarre (and distinctly non-zombie related) supernatural threat. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Higgins’ approach here, but it feels like a bit of a down note on which to close a portmanteau which is otherwise playing things mostly for mirth.
Let’s face it; this kind of underpriced schlock horror is never going to be to all tastes, and many will undoubtedly be put off straight away by the low production values and largely stilted performances. But hasn’t that generally been the case with British horror movies over the decades? Isn’t that theatrical, unreal quality part of what makes it work, flaws and all? In honouring that tradition, and the format that was so prized in British horror in particular back in the 70s, these films have a real charm that we don’t find in a lot of contemporary genre fare. It seems the plan is to keep on making Death Tales anthology films, and I for one certainly wouldn’t say no to more. Apparently they’re open to suggestions for further concepts to go with, so thinking caps on everyone…
Bordello Death Tales and Nazi Zombie Death Tales are both out now on Region 2 DVD from Safecracker Pictures.