A young American couple move to London and become entangled in an ancient battle between good and evil. The wife is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead voodoo priestess and her soul is truly on the line as the husband is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about his own beliefs in order to bring her back.
It could be the plot of ten horror movies. A hundred. The average horror fan, upon reading the above synopsis, will undoubtedly have visions of fire-dances, eviscerated chickens and CGI spectres swirling about the tied-down, half-naked body of whatever nubile young thing is playing the wife.
But London Voodoo couldn’t be further removed from the garish trappings of the “typical” low budget horror. Rather, it’s a quiet, stylish and desperately creepy film that gradually grows to an uncomfortable and claustrophobic climax. It’s exceedingly well acted and photographed, thanks, in a large part, to the careful consideration of director and writer, Robert Pratten.
Voodoo, of course, has been used and abused to various ends in horror fiction and films, the trappings of zombies and blood/sex magic exploited time and again by quick-buck writers and couldn’t-care-less producers. For an example, one need look no further than “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, Wes Craven’s train-wreck of a supernatural film based on the thoughtful Wade Davis non-fiction book. For “London Voodoo”, Pratten worked hard to avoid the Hollywood clichés.
“The original or working title for the movie was “Ferryman”. It was going to be about a man who drags dead bodies out of the Thames. I thought what if he dragged out the body of someone from West Africa and maybe stole things from their pockets—perhaps a cursed voodoo talisman. So then I started researching voodoo and I discovered a much misunderstood religion. I started on the web doing desk research but then my wife and I travelled to Cuba, Miami & New Orleans to find examples of how people had integrated the religion into their everyday lives.”
Pratten continues, “And that was when I decided to do something completely different! I like films from the early days of horror – the Roman Polanski-type psychological horror films and I thought, well, there’s a lot of blood and guts out there, why not go back to the roots? As a film maker I’d like to use my films to say something about the way I feel about the world and I decided I could use “London Voodoo” to tell the audience that work is evil! Seriously, I wanted to remind people to enjoy life and find some balance— don’t spend all your time working.”
Pratten had his work cut out for him with his first feature. Eschewing the gory trappings meant isolating himself from a large part of his audience—younger American gorehounds who have little if any working knowledge of the vast history of their favourite genre, and thus are unfamiliar of the “quiet horror” like early Hammer, or even earlier Val Lewton fare.
To say nothing of the fact that, for his first feature, Pratten would be shooting in the heart of London, trying to get themes—rather than visuals—across to his audience. Still, he felt up to the challenge. And miraculously, has little to tell along the lines of disaster anecdotes. “We didn’t really have too many problems to be honest. We’d spent a lot of time planning and trying to head-off disasters before they happened. We got a bit of a surprise though on the first day of shoot when the electrical system caught fire. It was spooky because a voodoo priest had offered to bless the set but he was asking for too much money so I said no. Of course, with the fire everyone thought we’d been cursed.
“The climax scene at Blackheath was fraught with problems because of the cold, the rain, the additional rain machines, smoke machines, traffic, stunt people, safety divers and an electrical generator that stopped working. We couldn’t get permission to stop the traffic because it’s quite a busy road so we hired Stop/Go signs from a prop house, put on some yellow traffic overcoats and just pretended to be working for the council. Funny how if you look the part nobody ever questions your authority.”
With a great love for entertainment, and no little experience in the matter, at least the director didn’t go into “Voodoo” blind. “I started making films five years ago when I quit work and went to film school in London. I’ve always been a little creative—I draw a lot and used to play in a punk band, writing & recording my own songs. Somewhere along the way though I got into the whole corporate thing and then one day I woke up and decided to take my life in a new direction.”
Still, horror is a tricky business. With almost 100 years worth of previous ground to tread, there is always the fear that, not only has everything been done before, so much as been done badly that audiences can be predisposed to dislike a horror movie before the credits are through rolling. On the other hand, you have the rabid fans who only want a certain “type” of horror movie. Granted, the same can be said for any or all of the entertainment genres, but horror tends to get the most scrutiny.
But there’s no evidence that any of the above weighed in on the director’s mind as he began work. He set out to balance the technical end with the “emotional” (i.e. “actor’s”) end of the spectrum of directing and got down to business. “I [had] certain set pieces or shots that I’d like to get because I think they’ll look cool, but then I allow the actors to find the route to that shot. It’s really important that the actors believe in what they’re doing and that the moment is real for them (and hence the audience, of course). If I can’t get the shot I want because it’s not believable then I just change the shot.”
One caution that must have registered in preproduction was for the danger of over-acting. The part of “Sarah” offered ample opportunity for a lesser actress to take the role and run with it—through the scenery, across the street and onto a nearby roof, only to strip topless and screech “Look at me!” Metaphorically speaking, of course. Actress Sara Stewart never even approaches the red on the overacting needle—delivering nothing less than an even, quiet and, consequently, chilling performance. For that matter, co-stars Doug Cockle, Michael Nyqvist and Trisha Mortimer are pitch-perfect themselves. So surely the danger was on many minds.
“Firstly, it’s in the casting,” Pratten says. “I’m only interested in actors that don’t go over the top—it’s film, not theatre. Then, I’d like to think that Sara’s arc was in the script—in the way the scenes were written. Finally, we talked about which scenes took her ‘madness’ or possession a step higher and notionally had a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of 1 equals normal and 10 equals full-blown, foreign-tongued psycho. The rest was up to Sara. I think that when the actor trusts the director and the director has created the right environment in and around the set, the actor is free to use their skills unencumbered—and that’s when the magic happens.”
Preparation, planning, willingness to take risks, and working with top-notch talent. These are all wonderful ingredients that may not always make a successful film, but take a lot of guess-work out of the proceedings. In the case of “London Voodoo”, add to that mixture imagination, restraint and patience, and the result is nothing short of a wonderful film. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and the DVD has done quite well for the distributor, Heretic Films, who were behind the film one hundred percent.
“Reaction has been really good. We’ve won six festival awards now and on the whole our reviews have been great. People who don’t like the film tend not to like it because there’s no enough nudity or violence—and I think that’s principally a matter of taste.”
With “Voodoo” on the shelves and the production behind him, Pratten has turned his sites on the ever-important sophomore effort, something “Voodoo” fans will be anxious to see.
“My new script is about a female genetic scientist that operates on her husband, without his consent, and gives him a pig’s heart. It’s a full-on film that’s pretty violent and disturbing but because that’s all in the script, the actors once again don’t have to go over-the-top to hype it up. And although there are some crazy prosthetics in this one, it doesn’t rely on them for the shocks and there’s no ridiculous computer-generated effects—which always turn me off. I’ll probably start casting after Christmas and, that age old problem, I need to find the money—about US $6-$8 million would be nice. Still low-budget but big enough to afford some known cast.”
Check out “London Voodoo” at the Heretic Films website.