London Horror Festival
I’m old enough to remember the excitement of what, at the time, was the ground-breaking Blair Witch Project; a film about three young filmmakers heading into the woods, with nothing more than a handheld camera, to make a documentary. While all involved with Anarchy Division’s Birdwatching are surely way too young to appreciate how important that film originally was, on some level it still possibly had an influence on them. Why? Well, here we see three young filmmakers head into the woods to record scenes for their horror movie. It just screams Blair Witch!
And our three filmmakers? First there’s writer and director Harris (Alfie Noble), deeply protective of his script, which causes friction whenever anyone questions it. Cameraman and stand-in actor Pete (Arno van Zelst) is softer, more considerate, and even though long time friends, very much the target for much of Harris’s ire. And third is last-minute replacement Amy (Karen Barredo), star of countless low budget gorefests, so with plenty to suggest about Harris’ project.
Miranda Barrett’s script is packed full of every cliché expected in slasher horror. It’s an absolute delight to pick them out and wonder whether they’re relevant or red herrings to distract. They start immediately, as Harris announces there is no phone signal – because mobiles are the bane of horror; after all, you’d just call for help otherwise! The nearby lake is, oh-so obviously, a former toxic dumping ground, while the sharp looking axe they find in their cabin in the woods is waved about excitedly. It’s all very deliberate and all rather enjoyable.
The relationships between them are well thought through. Barrett regularly plays two off against one, but the two constantly change, keeping you wondering just who will eventually be victim and who will turn evil. And as we wonder, we witness all three slowly descend into their own madness, hearing and seeing things that aren’t there. Van Zelst’s repeated ramblings about the broken heater as the others sleep are especially wonderful, turning his mild-mannered persona into one obsessed over the smallest of things. Although all three can stake a claim to irrational obsessions.
The big problem for Birdwatching is inconsistent tension – tension is everything in horror. We should be edging forward on our seats, holding our breath, ready to jump. But we just aren’t and it’s a real shame. The play’s short snappy segments might help motor the story along, but they also kill any suspense. Constant scene changes see the three actors regularly don and remove coats, lay out and roll up sleeping bags, walk off stage then back on, and this simply drags out the transitions. Just when things feel a little ominous, we’re interrupted with the next scene change and we can all relax again. That tension never really builds. In its defence, we should remember Birdwatching is part of London Horror Festival, so playing alongside other shows. Allowances should therefore be made in that they cannot take over the stage with scenery because everything needs to be quickly moveable. Even so, more thought is needed into how to keep the audience on edge.
However, even tension free, we do still get a rather enjoyable thriller, as we eagerly wait to see just where Barrett’s script eventually takes us. All those clichés mean we are never quite sure how it’s going to end for any of our three young filmmakers. Nor are we sure who will actually make it to the end in one piece, or whether we are going to ever see the footage these three have been making of their creepy descent into madness in the woods. Blair Witch would be proud of where this one goes.
Written by: Miranda Barrett
Directed by: Lydia Harper
Produced by: Justin Treadwell
Birdwatching plays at The Space as part of London Horror Festival until 24 October. Further information and bookings via the below link.