Who knew on a bright summer’s day when writer and director Luke Jeffery was scouting the location of his paranoid psycho thriller Hell’s Bells that we’d end up in a world where the doomesday clock was ticking forward.
But then arguments over Britishness and national identity had been ranging and paranoia is such a rich vein to mine. Luke has managed to meld the issues with a deft prescience that’s sure to have an enduring appeal.The film opens with the idyllic scene of a British summer-time fete, but there’s a malign presence hiding in plain sight, with bells on… literally.
Hell’s Bells is a fairly simple story: young woman gets involved with a crowd that her parents are suspicious of being a cult, so they call on help to debug her.
And it’s in that central relationship that the yin and yang of the story lies. The urbane outsider with his ‘scientific’ steps of recovery is at odds with Earth-old mysticism of the Morris Dancers. Charlie Coldfield as de-programmer Howard Webb has a probing detachment as he attempts to get through to Magda Cassidy’s inscrutable Rosie Dean.
Coldfield presents a solid front, but there’s more to his psyche – why’s he here, what does he know, is he a Van Helsing type? It’s a depth that is only hinted at in the space provided, but helps layer the emotional depth of the film.
In terms of emotional journey, Dean’s is far more fraught – from disengaged, to acolyte with a smouldering cauldron of passion and violent anger occasionally bubbling to the surface.
The transformative scene is when Magda encounters Morris Dancer Arthur, played by Josh Fedrick with such malevolent pomp and darkly sexual allure (yes! from Morris Dancing!), it’s difficult to know where to look.
The deal is sealed when Magda is confronted by The Green Man (Philip Kingslan John) in a mind-bending scene that seems to unleash Magda’s anger.
One of the strengths of the film is the way it deals with the Morris Dancers – as much as anything it’s a celebration (albeit skewed for the purpose of the story). And the Dartington Morris Men seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially The Fool, Matthew Lawrenson.
It’s a film of contradictions: from hiding in plain sight, to the bright summer days contrasting to the dark spaces of initiation.
Hell’s Bells looks beautiful, thanks to DoP Ross Gill and the art direction of Sarah Vigers, again offering a crispness to a murky tale. It’s the soundtrack by Bizarre Rituals that signals the deep unease, with disturbing echoes resonating throughout.
Luke cites influences from filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Richard Ayoade, but it’s probably 1973’s The Wicker Man that has the stronger overtones. Hell’s Bells shares the paranoia of early ’70s flicks – there are some dark forces at work out there, people.
Hell’s Bells was premiered at Two Short Nights in Exeter. It was recently at Push and you can catch it various film festivals throughout the country – follow the film’s social media for details. Facebook, Twitter and website.