Grimm Up North 2011: STALKER (2011) review

Stalker, Martin Kemp's debut as a director, is a little like watching a man make his way through a pitch-black room by feel. Best known for his starring role in The Krays, and to UK TV audiences for a long-running stint on the soap opera Eastenders, Kemp's first feature behind the camera was originally planned as a remake of the 1970s video nasty The House on Straw Hill. Stalker follows Paula (Anna Brecon) a struggling writer trying to pen her second novel at a country retreat who finds Linda, her new assistant has some horrifying ulterior motives for wanting to help finish the manuscript. Part Single White Female, part Hammer Horror camp, part artsy, would-be giallo shocker, all on a shoestring budget Stalker is a mixed bag, to put it kindly but Kemp's professed love of his various genre influences does carry it quite some way. What ultimately hauls it down to a good effort - rather than a good film - is equal parts the director's first-time jitters and the fact some of the people he's picked just aren't up to the task at hand.

It's made plain fairly early on Paula is suffering from severe writer's block as a result of the pressure to follow up the success of her first book. Sarah, Paula's sympathetic agent (Jennifer Matter) urges her to revisit the house she grew up in for a working holiday, assuring Paula the peace and quiet will get her back into a creative routine. The rest cure doesn't seem to take, at first, despite the solicitous attentions of the housekeeper (Hammer actress Linda Hayden, who also appeared in the original). Then Linda turns up on the doorstep, all selfless attention, promising to get Paula back on track and professing to have her best interests at heart. But as the days go by it seems the other woman has a more than professional interest in the unfinished novel and a willingness to do whatever's necessary, no matter how terrible, to keep Paula writing - not to mention that Linda's troubled psyche might well be linked to the dreams keeping Paula awake at night.

Stalker lives or dies with the two female leads, in other words, and Anna Brecon as Paula is the big surprise here. For a British TV actress with nothing that notable on her CV she turns in a startlingly good performance. It's part raw talent, with Brecon switching moods from quiet reflection to panicked hysteria to manic aggression with transparent ease, and partly a relaxed, informal quality to her reading of Paula that becomes genuinely winning. On that note, Brecon also does a capable job of never taking any of Stalker too seriously. It isn't that she seems to be looking down on the material, but she's patently aware this is at least partly a tribute to the glory days of British scream queens with some fairly over-the-top gore and moderately gratuitous nudity. The rest of the cast play well off Brecon, too, from newcomers like Matter - who makes a good impression as Sarah - to veterans like TV actor Billy Murray, also clearly relishing his role as a sleazy reporter after an exclusive interview.

On the other hand, unfortunately Jane March as Linda doesn't repay Kemp's investment in casting her. March never really escaped the stigma of her early roles in widely ridiculed erotic thriller Color of Night or The Lover, the adaptation of Maugerite Duras' semi-autobiographical novel. Regardless of anything else on her resume, though, she's simply not up to what Stalker asks her to do. While she also benefits from playing off Anna Brecon, too often March goes for the easy option, playing Linda's growing mania as nothing more complicated than bug-eyed stares, unhinged yelling and rigid, inhuman body language. Kemp's direction doesn't help, deploying Dutch angles and other tired clichés at the worst possible moments but he was at least willing to publicly admit (post-screening) he felt some key scenes didn't really work. And where Brecon finds pathos and wit in a fairly workmanlike, often silly script March is utterly lost, spending most of her screen time floundering.

Nonetheless, there's still a lot to enjoy about Stalker. When its disparate parts, gore, psychodrama, camp et al come together it does suggest Kemp could have a really good horror film in him somewhere down the line. The big reveal doesn't carry much weight on paper, but the performances make it a lot more haunting than it sounds, which like several recent attempts to revive British horror (see also: The Reeds, 13Hrs) could describe a great deal of what goes on here. There's a charm and a naturalistic, almost unscripted quality to the best moments between the cast which works as very effective foreshadowing quite apart from all the dark basements, black cats and ominous sunsets. At its best - like the better moments in Ben Wheatley's Kill List - Stalker takes the let's-put-on-a-show approach common to so much low-budget British TV and turns it into something meaningful, almost profound. It's just a shame that then Jane March flushes a cat down the toilet, say (yes, you read that right) and the mood takes yet another hit from which it can never fully recover.

Stalker is not a good film, then, but it is a laudable one, where you can still appreciate the work that went into it and politely roll your eyes during the bad parts, or giggle at the points it dips into unintentional comedy. It's not a good film, but it was still clearly made by a man who genuinely loves the cinema and wants to make sure his audience has a good time. One excellent performance, some haunting atmospherics and a supporting cast plainly having fun all do a lot to make up for Martin Kemp's missteps, and Jane March's unfortunate inability to do more than pantomime villainy. It's not quite best of British, but if you don't mind your horror dabbling in TV tropes and you're prepared to forgive some very rough edges for the pleasure of seeing a film made by fans, for fans, there's every chance you should still give Stalker a try.

(Stalker was screened as part of Manchester's horror film festival Grimm Up North 2011, which ran from 6th-9th October at the AMC cinema, Manchester, UK.) 
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