Review: Worst Fears

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Depending on your taste in movies, David McGillivray might be best known as the writer of several gritty, nasty 1970s horror films for directors like Pete Walker (House of Whipcord, Frightmare, House of Mortal Sin, Schizo) and Norman J. Warren (Satan’s Slave, Terror)… or as the writer of 1970s softcore romps like White Cargo, The Hot Girls and I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight. In more recent years, he’s worked in the theatre, been Julian Clary’s scriptwriter, authored the definitive book on British smut movies, Doing Rude Things and most recently produced retro gay porn spectacular Trouser Bar.

Less well known – until now – are the short horror films that he made (as producer and writer) in the mid Noughties, and which are now gathered together in an Amicus-style compendium as Worst Fears. Shorts, of course, have a tendency to vanish without trace once their festival run is over, so it is good to see these films given a new lease of life – and, in the process, reviving that traditional British horror format, the anthology of several stories.

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Like an Amicus film (think Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, The House that Dripped Blood), Worst Fears is a mixed bag of stories with a twist in the tale, all short enough for audiences to put up with even if they don’t like a particular story, safe in the knowledge that another will be along shortly. And in that sense, Worst Fears works very well – there is nothing here that is terrible, and much that is excellent, all linked together with new footage of a sinister Storyteller (McGillivray himself) introducing the tales in an empty theatre.

Sensibly, the stories are not presented in chronological order, instead chosen to give the film a flow. So it opens with the last one shot, Tincture of Vervain. This, I have to say, is the one story here that didn’t do much for me, despite an entertaining appearance from Fenella Fielding. A tale of a village load of ageing witches (or are they?), it felt a little too much like a mid-afternoon TV play, with hammy performances and a lack of involvement for my tastes. Fun, but inconsequential.

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Thankfully, the rest of the stories are rather impressive. Wednesday sees a Polish cleaner (Rebecca Santos) falling victim to a pair of geriatric eccentrics (played by Anna Wing and Victor Spinetti), in a witty and darkly humorous tale enhanced by Wing’s delightfully eccentric performance.

In the Place of the Dead, which deservedly won film festival awards, has a man in a failing marriage trolling for rent boys in Marrakech on the worst possible day, summoning a Djinn in the process. With a building atmosphere of creepiness and a genuinely unnerving ending, this is strong stuff.

Mrs Davenport’s Throat sees a woman (Celia Williams) collected by a sinister character (Luis Castro) in Lisbon Airport, only for things to not turn out as anyone expected. This might be the best of the stories – a simple yet effective set up that has a growing sinister atmosphere and a twist that you only realise has been telegraphed once it is revealed.

Child Number Four follows the unwanted offspring of an unhappy marriage, as he stumbles upon a living scarecrow who seems to be a new friend, until things turn nasty – slight but effective, this is a satisfyingly creepy story.

We’re Ready For You Now features two English girls visiting Nice, only for one of them to start having nightmares about robed Satanists and murder. It’s gory stuff, though perhaps a little too close to many of the other horror films of the period where bad things happened to tourists to really stand out, and so is a little less involving than many of the other shorts here.

Finally, there is After Image, which was actually the first of the films to be shot – and the only one not produced or directed by McGillivray. A slight ghost story, it’s perhaps a little too sedate and determinedly arty – it feels a little like a student film. But it has a certain atmosphere and style that works well.

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All the films are directed by Keith Claxton, allowing a flow of style that again reminds the viewer of an Amicus film – too many anthologies these days are multi-director affairs and never feel like a coherent whole. Only the presence of opening titles on individual shorts spoils the illusion that this could actually be a genuine portmanteau piece. Claxton’s style is basic and unflashy, but that works here, allowing the stories to develop effectively – a blessed relief, given the pretensions and pomposity of so much British horror these days. And for short films, these are slick affairs – the exotic locations alone – Lisbon, Nice, Marrakesh – give them a gloss you might not expect, and the cast of recognisable names also adds a sense of class. You’d never guess that these were, effectively, zero budget affairs.

Also included here is Horror Icon, an eccentric, amusing short that is part ‘Making Of’, part comedy roast of McGillivray (or, more accurately, a fictional version of him), with cast and crew, friends and associates lining up to tear him apart with tales of him incompetence, unreliability and criminal activity. It perhaps tells you a lot about McGillivray’s self-deprecation and sense of humour that he would make this Re-edited from the original, uncompleted footage by Jake West, this is a fun addition to the main feature. There is also a more authentic interview with McGillivray on the disc, in which he talks through the making of the films in detail.

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McGillivray has suggested that this is probably his last horror film. If so, that’s a pity – he has an affinity for the genre and is, despite his protestations, one of the best horror screenwriters we have. Worst Fears is a tasty, scary and stylish return to the sort of horror film that we just don’t seem capable of making any more, and if you’ve enjoyed McGillivray’s earlier works, you’ll eat this up.

DAVID FLINT

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