RUNNING TIME: 16 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Monster Kitten are a female punk band heading for their last gig of their tour. Some sweet talking from their manager gets them onto a flight free except for giving the pilot a bottle of whisky. However, he and the ladies were entirely unaware that some boxes with Oriental writing on had just been loaded on to the plane, boxes with some kind of creature inside. They can be calmed down by a lullaby played on a tape recorder, but then the tape is damaged when the band’s singer tries to get it on with the co-pilot….
It’s hard to believe that it was over two and a half years ago when I interviewed director Geoff Harmer and writer Peter Hearn about their short entry into the air-born terror sub-genre, a sub-genre not generally known for its quality. Their passion for the project was undeniable, but in the many months between then and now, there were moments when I wondered if I was ever going to see the result – and boy did I want to see it, because first of all Puppets, Punks and a Plane sounded like a sure recipe for fun, and because the plan is to eventually expand Dead Air into a feature. In fact one of the curious – but in a good way – things about this 16-minute film is that it works as a compact little piece in its own right, but is also full of so much that could be expanded upon. Yes, Dead Air, to use a dated and overly used term, rocks, easily making the long wait worthwhile. It’s a great example of what can be achieved with very little money but lots of enthusiasm and talent. And it’s also a example of horror comedy done right. Films that attempt to combine terror and chuckles are a dime a dozen, but not that many really succeed, often because one element drowns out the other, or because the film-makers don’t have the skill to create fright and therefore go down the the easy route of mockery. Examples that mix the two anywhere near as well as the likes of Bride Of Frankenstein, An American Werewolf In London and Re-animator are very rare, though they did seem to have the knack of doing this pretty well throughout most of the ’80s, and Dead Air very much takes its cue from that era, when many horrors managed the knack of being genuinely frightening yet were also able to mix in the laughs at all the right places without detracting from the scares.
Some female punk music plays over the nifty animated title sequence that introduces the cast members and their characters, then sets up the story. Doing the latter as a cartoon is a neat way of doing something that the film-makers otherwise probably wouldn’t have had the money to realise. We see a van with MONSTER KITTEN written on the side, an airport, a meeting between two people ending with a bottle of whisky being handed over, and most ominously some boxes with WARNING: HANDLE WITH CARE plus some Oriental writing printed on them. Once on the flight, we’re introduced to everybody, and something that Hearn does very well is give a sense of everyone’s characters with just a few lines of dialogue, aided immensely by the performers whose standard of acting is far higher than you may expect and who are therefore able to add a great deal with their expressions and reactions. Charlie Bond, Kate Davies-Speak, Johanna Stanton and Stacy Hart are especially good, they’re pretty believable as the punk band members. They seem to display the right attitude and interplay with each other. Of course all this is just as well because there was hardly any time for lengthy introductions, but the economy employed here is very praise-worthy. I did find myself sympathising with the pilot that,“music soothes and all that, but not their music” – though that’s probably more a matter of personal taste than quality, and there’s another decent electronic score to enjoy from Dan Hall, who did similar duties on Hearn’s directorial effort Scrawl.
There’s not even a toilet on this plane, just a [shared] water bottle to piss in, though that’s nothing compared what soon takes place. We see the co-pilot playing a lullaby on a tape player to calm down some unseen things in the boxes, and then, where said co-pilot is about to get it on with the singer [the band member who “can’t keep her pants on“], the tape is dropped and a box is opened. “Okay cutie” says the singer as she notices what indeed might look rather cute to some, a ball of fur with a mouth, but two seconds later and she’s totally changed her tune [sorry]. Harmer has been pretty good at building tension, but now we have the cue for all hell to break loose, and a hell of a lot to happen in a very short space of time. The creatures will immediately remind many of both Gremlins and Critters, and if you’re of a certain age this will take you back to a time when computers were only used to assist in huge movies such as the Star Wars trilogy, and people hidden under a table operating puppets whose legs you hardly ever see was considered to be more than good enough. And I mean this with no disrespect: I miss those days, and I always say that there’s one thing in particular with CGI that irritates me; when a film has bad practical effects I can still enjoy it even if I’m laughing at it more than I intended, but when a film has bad CGI it just looks really ugly and consequently my enjoyment diminishes considerably. Fortunately the puppets in Dead Air certainly do the job, and there’s also some delightfully creepy makeup [those mouths!] elsewhere to enjoy as well, the only CG I noticed being the eyes. Harmer is even brave enough to give us some external shots of a surprisingly convincing miniature plane. I’d go as far to say that the CG plane in my last cinema viewing experience, the big budget Hollywood effort Gemini Man, looked more obvious to me.
Gore is mostly off screen due to cost, but there’s some spattering blood and look out for a rolling severed head. The cinematography from Tom Allen uses a lot of stylish lighting, often green but with some pink and purple here and there, almost giving the impression that you’re watching a Mario Bava film even if I’m not sure if that was intended – and if you’ve been reading me for long enough, then you’ll know that’s very high praise indeed. I’m not sure that some slow-motion during the climax really works, after all it’s not United 93 that we’re watching – though I guess that may have been the point, enhancing the absurdity of what we’re watching. The only thing that frustrates is something that’s unavoidable due to its very nature as a short film; it feels quite truncated, even if you’re the type of movie watcher who is happy for things to go unexplained, and it almost seems like you’ve just watched a very extended teaser. But that only really came to my mind when the film had finished, and the fact that you may then find yourself wanting to know so much more about nearly everything could also be tantamount to how well it still works in 16-minute form, and tantamount to how rich a vein of chills, chuckles and charm Harmer and Hearn may have struck here, a vein that’s highly nostalgic yet still seems somehow rather fresh and of the ‘now’. I think that a feature length version has a hell of a lot of potential to be both good and popular [and if you think the latter seems silly, just marvel at how, for example, that flop at the box office The Dark Crystal has returned very successfully replete with puppets]. And you might be remembering the line, “they won’t harm me because I stink of piss” for some time after.
Dead Air is currently touring festivals. We will inform you if and when it’s released on home viewing formats.