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Short Sharp Shocks: Worst Fears on DVD

  David McGillivray had been a fixture of the British exploitation film ever since the early nineteen-seventies when come the twenty-first century he decided to try his hand at producing with a string of low budget horror shorts between 2004 and 2006, each lasting about a quarter of an hour or just over. He fully admitted that nobody on these were actually paid anything, being a collection of his friends and acquaintances happy to do him a favour, but they were not exactly widely seen either, that was until Nucleus Films brought out a DVD compilation of them under the title Worst Fears, which saw them gathered into a loose anthology complete with linking segments from a compere. As McGillivray had written extensively for the likes of cult favourites Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren, many were glad of the opportunity to see him return to the horror genre after a while penning comedy, often for stand-up Julian Clary.

First on the menu was The Tincture of Vervain, a tale of village witchcraft in a quiet English hamlet featuring Lady Jill Freud, wife of former Liberal MP Clement Freud (who appears for a couple of seconds as a chauffeur), as the leader of a coven. She wants to be taken up as the leader of witchcraft in the country as a whole, and has planned to replace the current head, played by Fenella Fielding who has some bad news for her once she deigns to meet her gathering, and also some distinctly bizarre news about who the actual replacement will be. It’s not exactly Carry On Screaming, though you imagine McGillivray would be glad of the comparison even if this was more macabre and less joke-filled than that much admired horror comedy, but it did offer the feel of an episode of Tales of the Unexpected, especially with the shot on video look. Albeit with a shade more blood and gore than would have been allowed on Sunday night viewing for ITV fans of Roald Dahl.

Second was Wednesday, which continued the theme of the evil of the elderly by casting Anna Wing (still best known from her stint on EastEnders) and Victor Spinetti (of Beatles movies fame) as a couple of old folks up to no good, although precisely what their motives are remain obscure even as the short ends. It spun the yarn of an Eastern European immigrant who has been scraping by as a cleaner, and when she gets the job at Wing's house she eagerly goes along in spite of being warned by her boss that she will be working for an utter weirdo. We are shown just how weird it gets over the course of the afternoon, though there is the possibility the cleaner has gone to the wrong address, and what it plays out as is mere eccentricity and fussiness for the most part, right up until things get bloody. Unfortunately, while you could detect an irony in the ageing Brits using their prejudice as an excuse to behave badly, it did come across a little uncomfortably like the film was endorsing their bigotry when their victim has so few means to assert herself.

In the Place of the Dead was third, which as if as a corrective to what we had seen in Wednesday depicted Brits at the mercy of the foreigners when a middle-aged couple head over to Marrakesh for a holiday. When we catch up with them the wife is accusing her husband of being a letdown for not giving her any children to raise, so off he goes to explore the city, though we quickly discover he has an ulterior motive for travelling here, and that's because he can get sex cheaply from the local rent boys. He does meet McGillivray himself who points him in the right direction but warns this day is a special one, not holy exactly but the product of superstition, so there is really only one person who can accommodate him, a rather overage-looking gentleman who makes this look as if it's on course to get very seedy indeed. That it didn't was perhaps less restraint and more than if you're getting people who are working for free, then there's just so much they'll agree to, but once you know there's a spirit, a djinn, on the loose you'll be ahead of the plot.

Next, we had Mrs Davenport's Throat to contend with, more sinister foreigners as the production had moved to Portugal to shoot, or sinister foreigner singular at least as a woman is picked up by a driver at Lisbon airport and taken to her destination, the journey comprising a good half of the story. This was more of a thriller than a horror, though there was a degree of bloodletting, making the resemblance to those Dahl adaptations for television all the more marked, that said of course it wasn't only Dahl whose writings were adapted for that series, so this instalment was more akin to a later episodes when his originals had run out and he wasn't introducing them from an armchair before a roaring hearth anymore. A cautionary tale of not taking things for granted or indeed at face value, this was as much a lesson for the audience as it was for the characters when events did not unfold quite as you'd anticipate from the opening half, and the lack of star names or recognisable faces in the main roles meant you could not necessarily be sure who had the upper hand.

For the fifth tale of the, er, unforeseen, there was Child Number Four, pressing into service the idea that scarecrows are the object of unease as a couple drive out to the countryside to celebrate their upcoming divorce with a glass or two of champagne. They have their son in the back seat, deemed the child of the wife since the two before that the husband wanted she "got rid of", and as they bicker he wanders off (he never speaks) into the fields to get away from his parents for a while. As you may have noticed, if there were three children counted in the dialogue, that meant we were due another one, and the way that is brought about was an item of rural chills with the aforementioned scarecrow that for a change did not employ much black comedy, intentionally or otherwise, this was more keen on dramatic irony that perhaps succeeded better on its own terms. There remained the symbolic yet somehow unlikely development of the couple having one last fling when their son could have returned at any moment, not to mention their professed hatred for one another, but no more troubling than what happened with the scarecrow.

Sixth, there was After Image, a somewhat stodgy sketch about a photographer who hasn't upgraded to digital cameras yet, nor will he ever after what we see happens to him, but is less interested in that and more in what he can do to help his girlfriend. There was a very obvious call back to a major Hollywood blockbuster in the premise of this, except that had laid its cards on the table from the outset and in this case it was more building to a twist, but once you realised all was not as it seemed and the girlfriend was upset for a very good reason, or a very bad one more exactly, and you had a minor account of the supernatural where you could well understand why it had been left to the penultimate section to be included.

Finally it was We're Ready For You Now, like the others shot on video and looking unmistakably like somebody's home movies given a sheen of accomplishment thanks to the presence of professionals in front of and behind the camera. This too adopted the twist in the tale set up, and it was one of the more predictable shorts into the bargain as two young women arrive at a holiday apartment in France, one who is present because she has recently broken up with her boyfriend and needed to get away from it all, the other because her best mate let her down at the last minute after she'd booked a vacation for two. But the first girl keeps suffering what appear to be premonitions in the form of her dreams, or nightmares, that there may be a sinister influence happening which gives this the excuse to pull the "is it a dream or is it real" gambit, only delivered with the far less inspired "then she woke up and it was all a dream" arrangement. A bit more gore in this one, and maybe this was closer to an episode of Tales from the Darkside, only set on the Continent.

[Nucleus Films offered a selection of extras to go along with the main feature, including a half hour interview with McGillivray who goes into the background of how these came about, another half hour documentary called Horror Icon on his career which isn't what it appears, deleted scenes, bloopers, a gallery and an interview about it from that, and a trailer for Worst Fears.]
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006