❉ Keith Temple’s story of declining mental health, carnivale fantasy and giallo-tinged grue is just the ticket.
“The film can be said to be a marriage of two halves; a gory and really rather unnerving cavalcade of terror, but also a genuinely sensitive and sympathetic portrait of a woman reaching her twilight years at odds with her own disintegrating mind… and never at any point seems exploitative in its intentions to portray mental illness for the sake of horror-hound gratification”
Wyvern Hill is one of those rare beasts: an indie horror feature that boasts a strong and interesting script. This is such a surprisingly scant feat in the scene today and it doesn’t matter how technically polished or do-it-yourself the film’s approach is – many of them lack a rewarding script which operates beyond a one-note concept that encourages several angles of interpretation. Don’t get me wrong – not all films rely on strong scripts and many indie films carry enough charm and creative invention to bypass such an asset but, and this but comes with a sigh, so many indie efforts are also unable to rise above 90% of the soul-less derivative output we see flooding the market today and are bland and lacking in the exciting potentials that indie and fringe cinema can offer.
Actually let’s go further than indie and say that a decent script is rare in even the mainstream output of cinema today too. The age of the maverick writer is seemingly dead and gone. There are always exceptions, of course – and in the realm of British indie horror – writer Keith Temple’s story of declining mental health, carnival-esque fantasy and giallo-tinged grue is just the ticket. It is a film that works in layers. It can be read one way or another, or it can be everything at once. It warrants repeat viewings too – director Johnathan Zaurin scatters more than a few visual clues and ominous beats throughout the film to suggest there is something other going on behind the perceptive reality of things.
It would be a great disservice to the film if I were to walk you through the plot of Wyvern Hill. It is a film that’s best served up going in blind so I won’t describe any more than that of the film’s main concern which follows the refreshingly mature protagonist Beth (wonderfully portrayed by Pat Garrett in a turn that balances the line between agency and perplexed pawn) and her escalating state of confusion with the onset of dementia amid the backdrop of a string of gruesome murders in semi-rural Hereford. It takes a skilled director with a flare for the stylish and the substantive to juggle the strands the film offers up and Zaurin succeeds in creating a satisfying whole.
The film can be said to be a marriage of two halves; a gory and really rather unnerving cavalcade of terror, but also a genuinely sensitive and sympathetic portrait of a woman reaching her twilight years at odds with her own disintegrating mind. It is remarkable that the film manages to balance the two and never at any point seems exploitative in its intentions to portray mental illness for the sake of horror-hound gratification. Zaurin himself has seen his own family members go through the cruel and tragic process of Alzheimer’s and carries the subject with a sense of personal reflection.
The film moves at a refreshingly steady pace too. It is a slow build up which keeps us guessing as to where we are actually headed and what is in store for us. Details are teased from the beginning, but we are never sure as to what reality we are baring witness to. The second half however is where things start to kick into full throttle horror territory – and we are treated to some horiffic scenes of carnage that take their cues from Dario Argento’s primary colour infused opuses and also many a Giallo – complete with faceless black gloved assassin. The slow build-up to this gory release with all of its psychological uncertainty however, is what is interesting here. A few Italian films sprang to mind when watching – All The Colors Of The Dark (1972) and Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) were the two more prominent. Both films depicted women with shattered mental states – tormented by hallucinations, plagued by nightmares and at the centre of conspiracy that pushed them to the brink of insanity with murderous fallout.
Zaurin has had offers from distributors who ”loved” his film but then proceeded to say how they’d like to cut it down to 80 minutes so it would resemble less interesting and more generic slasher fare presumedly for a quick sell-through run. Zaurin, quite rightly, refused and is very happy to bring a slow burner running a near two hour length to the table in such an age of flashy superficial dreck and dwindling attention spans. Even us horror fanatics are lovers of intelligent and artful cinema and this is the work of such a horror fan who wants to see more of the like out on offer.
Surrounding Beth are a roster of performers 99% of which are solid in their own duties to move the narrative along and as enigmas adding otherworldly atmospherics. Notably in the latter we have Ayvianna Snow playing a younger version of protagonist Beth who visits her several times in her more hallucinogenic moments. Snow is ethereal and beautiful, but not without an unsettling undercurrent which signals that all could go very wrong at the drop of a hat.
Beth’s family serve as the younger players of the piece – some of whom don’t come across as very sympathetic to both the viewer and seemingly in their attitude towards Beth’s condition which serves to heighten her sense of isolation and her struggles to be understood. Actor Ben Manning (The Snarling) is absolutely terrifying in a role that I won’t go further into explaining but in the film’s climax which serves as a delirious mix of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Happy Birthday To Me and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – he is a menacing and otherworldly presence.
Writer Keith Temple has a history in writing for TV with various notable credits such as Doctor Who, Doc Martin, Byker Grove and TV movie Angel Cake (2006) for the Beeb. This certainly comes across in Wyvern Hill for it’s interesting structural nature. It seems as though we experience several moments of crescendo through-out that are followed by a blackout moment – as if an episode is over and we are on to the next in a serial-like fashion. This is no criticism– because of it the film appears to play out in chapters. After speaking with Zaurin he confirmed this, saying it had 6 chapters in particular with a prologue and an epilogue. Several films in recent years subscribe to this way of storytelling – even going as far as adding text headers before each chapter a la Suspiria (2018), something which Wyvern Hill does better without doing.
One overwhelming sense of achievement in Wyvern Hill‘s very existence is that it was all filmed in the midst of the current pandemic between lockdowns in semi-rural Hereford last year in 25 solid days of shooting on a budget that wouldn’t even cover the coffee bill of a Blumhouse crock (a budget I won’t disclose as it is not a thing you want distracting your overall experience of Wyvern Hill). The result is a film that eschews the isolated pandemic pictures such as the hugely successful HOST (2020) for a film full of life, colour, mind-bending set pieces, undeniable terror and even undeniable beauty. It is also the first horror film (at least in recent years) that is proudly flying the flag for Hereford, where French-born Zaurin is rooted. I love it when the more unassuming dots on our map flare up to show off their horrific wares and this is no different.
The perfect word to describe Wyvern Hill is kaleidoscopic. A film of several seemingly multifarious elements that would be lost in an explosion of ideas and no coherence in less capable hands – but Zaurin’s film manages to juggle and weave these elements into a tantalising broth that work in unison without ever giving us straight up explanations for any of it. It is no mean feat to pull off such an indelible piece of work with very little money and under such pressure but with Temple’s layered script and Zaurin’s confident eye they have done just that. Wyvern Hill is primed for the festival circuit, and distibution beyond that – of which I hope it finds its way to the heavy hitters and achieves Zaurin in getting him the next feature that he so deserves.
❉ ‘Wyvern Hill’ (UK, 2021). Director: Jonathan Zaurin. Writer: Keith Temple. Main cast: Pat Garrett, Ellie Jeffreys and Pete Bird. Production companies:Alpha Dog Pictures TX, LBS Films. Run time: 113 min.
❉ Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).