RUNNING TIME: 83 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A girl scout, obviously badly injured, staggers down a road and falls down, whereupon she is ran over by a car. Loners Simon and Joe have written a comic book featuring characters from their daily lives. The comic is a horrific nature, which is something of a problem when a murder on a beach means that events from the comic book are starting to happen for real. Simon and Joe must try to prevent a bloody massacre in the woods that evening that occurs on page 21, but where do Annie, who has a very strange way with a camera, and a creepy floor of an apartment building populated by monsters, fit in?….
It was actually over a year ago that I first had the pleasure of viewing writer/director Peter Hearn’s Scrawl, a microbudget independent production which is the product of collaboration between industry professionals and in-training actors and technicians of Andover College, though Mr Hearn wasn’t totally satisfied with the cut of the film that premiered at the Lights Theatre, so I opted not to review it then. Much time has been spent fine tuning the film, which admittedly was a little rough [though of course some films, especially horrors, benefit from not being slick whatsoever], especially with regard to its sound. Now I certainly don’t remember everything that has been changed, but the film seems so much smoother now while still not loosing that raw indie feel. The first cut dragged somewhat around the middle which didn’t seem to suit this particular story, but this re-edit, though I don’t remember exactly which particular scenes are now missing, re-edited or moved around, certainly moves quite a bit faster, giving some urgency to the race to stop a massacre which I don’t remember it having before. I suppose it’s a shame that this version wasn’t the one first publically shown, but there was still certainly a pretty decent movie in there, and now we finally have it.
Hearn has described Scrawl as ‘Big meets A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 – Dream Warriors‘, which now I’ve thought about it is fairly apt, though I have to say it didn’t really occur to me when I watched the film. In any case, Scrawl is a highly original work that for me stands out in the crowded horror marketplace today. While Hearn clearly loves his horror movies, he dares to be different with his film, and his quite dense script requires some concentration as to what is happening, compared with the increasingly bland formulaic genre norm at the moment, which seems to be just rehashing the same stuff over and over again and is largely just jump scare after jump scare. Hearn has taken a slightly more sophisticated approach with the tale he has concocted, and he has obviously had to write parts for quite a large cast, something which made the film a little hard for me to follow in the first few scenes, but then some of that may be due to horror films not tending to have a large cast of principal characters so I’m just not used to it! In fact Hearn is quite ambitious with his film, and, while the story sounds like something you would need lots of money, especially for special effects, to properly realise, he proves that determination and enthusiasm is sometimes all that you need.
So this is a horror film, but with a wonderfully black sense of humour that surfaces every now and again, something that is apparent right from the opening scene of the wounded girl scout, introduced via some very effective close-ups, lying down in the ground, and a great aerial shot shows her lying down, maybe dying, before a car suddenly runs over her leaving no trace except some blood and a cap! You’re not meant to take Scrawl seriously, but the film refuses the temptation to laugh at itself [except for maybe the final scene] and takes its story, and its large cast of people, seriously. After some very cool titles which seem to mix images from the film and the comic book at the centre of the narrative, we spend a while being introduced to its characters and the various relationships they have to each other. There’s the two boys who write the comic, some romantic entanglements and desires, a baby who just might become important in the narrative, and a drunken homeless father who keeps showing up, but the person with whom we seem to spend the most time with after Simon and Joe is Annie, who appears to capture souls with the camera and who is badly affected by something which happened in her past. Then there’s the floor of the apartment block inhabited by monsters, a really eerie setting made so by the simple but always effective device of having the lights flicker on and off repeatedly. Personally, I wanted to learn more about this place and its two creepy owners the Caretaker and Leonard and it’s interesting to note that the original conception of the film was set mostly in this location.
Hearn has a nice way with believable, straight to the point dialogue even when strange stuff begins to happen, while there’s a slight melancholic feel to the film, with none of its characters seeming happy and a real sense that they live in a dead-end place [actually a combination of several locales] which they need to leave. The first principal scene of horror, a killing on a beach, really comes out of the blue and, while Hearn is not one for cheap jolts, is quite unnerving. After this Scrawl really picks up the pace and it final half hour is a very well sustained series of fun and games set mostly, though not entirely, in the woods. The forward momentum is expertly sustained as we have people becoming monsters [there’s even a….well, I’d say he’s closer to being one of Sam Raimi’s Deadites then your normal zombie], Annie with her magic camera, and a whole load of gory killings. With little money for gruesome effects, Hearn’s camera tends to mostly cut away from graphic detail, and sometimes relies on a laugh [like one killing which cuts to a pile of tomato ketchup bottles], but there are some memorable kills nonetheless and you won’t believe the number of characters [in fact most of the cast] who are killed off. The plot does end up making sense and concludes itself in a very ironic fashion suitable to the film.
Hearn’s approach to Scrawl is quite different from the laid back style of his earlier two pictures Cross Eyed Waltz and Appleseed Lake, being far more energetic in nature. Scenes tend to be short and to the point. He adopts some nice Nicolas Roeg-style editing to link past, present and future which I guess may seem odd to some viewers but certainly made me happy. Despite all the running around in the second half and much handheld camerawork, Hearn thankfully refuses to go all shakycam on us – even if he can’t fully realise moments due to his budget, he wants us to see as much as we can. The best shot moment is when we first see the Caretaker and Leonard, their forms blurry and indistinct as they come creepily up the stairs. Generally Scrawl has a fairly naturalistic look, and the camerawork tends to emphasise the characters rather than the settings, but it still has a moody and compellingly odd atmosphere due in part to Dan Hall’s score which is heard throughout most of the picture. The simple piano and synth main theme may get inside your head, while elsewhere there’s a pleasing echo of Goblin, some of those currently very common plucked violins, and even some [very appropriate] usage of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic Song tune!
The cast mostly do a good job considering some of them have never acted before. I was very impressed by Liam Hughes as Simon – he has an unassuming, natural screen presence. Annabelle Le Gresley convincingly evokes Annie’s pain in what was probably one of the hardest parts. Of course the main reason some of you will see Scrawl will be because Daisy Ridley, soon to be seen in Star Wars, plays a role. She’s not as prominent as you may expect but her character Hannah is quite an unnerving presence nonetheless. The filming of Scrawl was hit by the death of Derek Jones as the Caretaker, requiring much altering of the script, but he’s very menacing in his two brief moments. I’m not going to pretend that Scrawl is the next horror masterpiece, but it’s still a very impressive piece of work considering the circumstances of its making, and is certainly very different to much else that is out there at the moment. I hope Scrawl goes places – there does at the time of writing seem to be some distributor interest in it – because the strange, amusing but really rather compelling world of Scrawl is one I’d like to return to. Or maybe, when Hearn hits it big, he could remake it with a super dooper budget, but the version we have now will definitely do for now.