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Written In Blood (1998)

It’s safe to say that I approached my DVD of Written In Blood with a fair amount of trepidation. For one thing, it is probably the lowest budgeted film I’ve ever reviewed for this site (which is saying something). But of more immediate concern was a Union Jack graphic on the back of the box which forcibly states “Support British film makers – watch British films”. Now, I’m all for a bit of patriotism, but this smacked a bit of the 1970s to me. The phrase “Buy British” means just one thing – the Austin Allegro. People only drove Austin Allegros because they were British, there can have been no other reason to purchase such an ugly, unreliable gargoyle of a motor car. Yet drive them they did, all over the bloody place for at least a decade, proudly sporting their red, white and blue stickers which might have said “I bought British”; but simply communicated to the outside world: “I am a myopic, stubborn fuckwit who would rather spend half my time kicking my heels on the hard shoulder than scrap this rusty piece of shit and buy a reliable foreign vehicle”. I mean, for God’s sake, who buys a fat car?

Honestly.

So, there was a worry that this film would be an Austin Allegro of a film – a flabby, badly made, hard to look at piece of nonsense which would be lucky to limp to the end of its 96 minute running time without me sticking my foot through the screen. But ever the optimist, I gave it a go. Perhaps it would at least be a Morris Marina. Or if I was lucky, a Ford Cortina…

Written In Blood (formerly known as Driven) never secured a cinema release, but it was made as a proper, bona fide film (albeit one with a tiny budget). First time director Simon Cox scraped together the money for a promotional trailer through an advert in the back of Empire magazine, then hawked it round the business until he secured enough backing to make the full film. So 10 out of 10 for effort, then. Somehow, he also managed to attract a cast of faces which, whilst not troubling Hollywood, would make most other cash-strapped British filmmakers foam at the mouth. Familiar fizzogs from British television abound, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a brief cameo by one of the most iconic British horror film stars around (no, not Peter Cushing’s grinning corpse).

“I’d like to tell you a story,” some bloke tells us. “It’s about the dark and what lurks there. It’s about death… because I know about death…”

It’s London, 1999, and the world is going down the tubes. There’s rioting on the streets of the city, and the police are cracking down with evening curfews and heavy weapons (remember that? Funnily enough, neither do I). In a high rise block a couple of chaps are having a barney, throwing pieces of paper around and grabbing each other’s lapels. They are Andrew and Martin Harris, brothers, and for some reason Andrew has a problem with his author sibling’s latest novel. He stomps off in a huff, and before you can say “first victim” Andrew (Ben Shockley, the actor who played Martin in the promo, apparently) has been pursued through the concrete jungle by a shadowy knife-wielding figure and brutally stabbed to death.

His brother Martin (Grant Masters) channels his grief into work and finishes the book in record time, delivering the manuscript to his publisher and describing it as containing “enough blood to drown in”.

“The next one will be the clincher,” the surviving Harris promises. “I’ll put you right there in the mind of the killer. They’ll eat it up… even The Times.”

Judging by his previous works’ Shaun Hutson-style covers (and the Shaun Hutson-style content which is alluded to throughout the film) this promise seems on the rash side (when was the last time you saw Mr Hutson on the television? On second thoughts, don’t answer that…). But we appear to be viewing a parallel world, where Millennial angst has really taken hold, and nasty, James Herbert-style shocker novels still sell in their millions.

At his brother’s funeral, Harris meets up with grumpy Inspector Hatton (Gary “Eastenders” Beadle), who is in charge of investigating the murder, and his old flame (and former analyst!) Caroline (Sharon “Inspector Lynley Mysteries” Small). “I don’t need you picking around inside my head any more,” he tells her. “I never did.”

“Don’t get lost in the dark, Martin,” she tells him, darkly.

But it seems that warning might be a little late – the novelist is plagued by disturbing visions, where it seems his dead brother is urging him to finish his latest book. And when Harris brings this manuscript to his publisher, he gets a surprising reaction – this time he seems to have gone too far. He has written the whole thing from the point of view of the serial killer at the centre of it, a recurring character in his novels simply called “The Slayer”. There’s no moral, no let-up, no happy ending. But he insists that the public will lap it up.

Caroline, however, has just bought and read his last book (which the publisher had no qualms about selling, remember), and she rushes round to see him. “This is not the work of a balanced personality,” she complains.

“It’s make believe bullshit for the sicko suckers,” comes the harsh, if realistic, response.

The new book, “Driven”, is published – to a critical panning but public acclaim (shown very neatly with a Paul Verhoeven style media montage of a cheesy promo and clips of talking heads). However, Harris can still hear his brother calling to him, seemingly screaming in agony. His visions are becoming more disturbing, and in them he is now visited by a man dressed in Victorian garb, who identifies himself as Doctor McRayer (Francis “also in Eastenders” Magee, doing his best Ian Paisley voice). What is more, the headlines are screaming about the brutal slaying of a young girl called Anna – a death which Harris wrote about almost word-for-word in the book.

Harris now confides that in his latest book, “The Slayer” kills seven times, and each death means the death of a virtue. By the time he has finished, with all virtue gone, the world will spiral into an Armageddon of despair. The murder of the girl signals the end of innocence. The next death, according to what has already been written, will be that of a doctor. And lo and behold, Caroline’s boss is killed by a shadowy apparition.

The penny drops for Harris (“I thought it was Andrew driving me to finish the book, but it was something else…”), as he realises that what he thought was a money-spinning piece of exploitation is actually a blueprint for the end of the world (oops). A quick check of the records of every newspaper and magazine ever written (which films, no matter how big budgeted, always makes out to be the easiest thing in the world to do) turns up an interesting snippet of information – a Doctor McRayer was accused of a series of grisly murders across London back in 1899. For some reason (mainly plot expediency) they never gained the notoriety of those by Jack The Ripper. “It’s happening again…” gasps Harris. “The pattern is repeating itself!”

Well, der.

McRayer now appears before him in all his glory, giving full vent in his broad Northern Irish brogue. “You are the enunciator of the new order,” he yells. “A new century beckons… they are doomed because of you! Wealth and fame are yours because of the book… did you think there would be no price to pay?”

The pace of the killings then accelerates – a priest, London’s Chief Constable (played by horror legend Doug Bradley, sadly showing that he’s really only any good when striding around wearing a rubber dress and with six inch nails hammered into his bonce), a do-gooding pop star (after an interminable, awful song – frankly death is too good for him) and an MP tipped to be the next Prime Minister.

Meanwhile the police are becoming convinced that Harris is to blame (at first they thought it was a copy cat killer) – mainly because he keeps turning up at every murder scene wide-eyed and covered in blood. Even Caroline is beginning to have her doubts, and eventually helps them to arrest him.

But as the world begins to descend into chaos it becomes apparent that there might be something in what Harris has been banging on about, and eventually Caroline, and even the cynical Inspector Hatton, decide to help him. Although it might be a bit tricky to sort the problem out. “Find his resting place,” pleads Harris from his Victorian-style cell. “The place where his spirit resides. Then you’ve got to… well… stop him. Somehow.”

Written In Blood is actually a pleasant surprise. Whilst not great when compared with the true greats of Hammer or Amicus, it is a solid, worthwhile little film which shows what can be achieved with a little bit of money, some decent actors and a lot of dedication. Everyone gives it their all (apart from Bradley, who looks like he’s sleepwalking through his brief role), Beadle especially looking like he’s loving every minute on screen – particularly when he gets to let loose with a shotgun. The tiny budget is occasionally evident in the tight framing of the actors and the lack of anything “big” happening (scenes of violent civil unrest are alluded to but never seen), but the final scenes look remarkably expensive. The makers show that the script is the thing – there are some lovely ideas going on throughout, and although the stakes are huge (the end of the world) it doesn’t seem that the ideas have exceeded the cash available.

The only real problem is the lack of humour – at times it seems just a bit too po-faced. The only member of the cast with any funny lines is Beadle’s Inspector Hatton, and I only counted two of those (the final one, and the final line of the film, is a cracker, though). The rest of the players all play it ridiculously straight, with a lot of anguished “hair acting” (Small pushes hers behind her ears when she’s aggrieved, Masters gives his the full fingers-through-the-Brylcream treatment throughout to show how upset he is) and stomping around with grim looks on their faces.

But they are only minor quibbles - for a low budget film it’s an absolute cracker, far exceeding its peers in ideas and scope. Cox, the director, shows a remarkable ability to put as much as possible on screen - a prime example is the “Illustrated London News” – style magazines through which Harris discovers the history of McRayer, which are absolutely gorgeous. Many films with a higher budget would not have gone to the trouble of producing such accurate props. It’s little things like that which set it apart, and I for one would like to see what he could do with a bigger budget.

But all that said, what kind of car is it? Well, certainly not an Allegro. I’d go as far as to say Written In Blood is a Ford Capri – cheap and cheerful, with the ability to deliver performance but lacking the budget to do it. How’s that for a review with a theme?

Director Simon Cox is currently working on a new film, a sci-fi one this time. Fancy being in it? Visit his website for more info.

Last updated: February 27, 2010

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All photos, posters, sounds and videos are reproduced in good faith with the sole intention of promoting these films. Why should I be the only one to suffer watching them? If any film makers feel particularly strongly about abuse of copyright on the site, they obviously haven't got anything better to do. You could try Watchdog, but frankly, I think they've got bigger fish to fry...