The Cine-Excess International Film Festival:
Black Lizard Tales
words by Ellis Reed
The second film we saw at Cine-Excess was Black Lizard Tales, which is a triptych of horrors by lecturer and filmmaker James Newton. The tales unfold on a university campus and focus in turn on a young woman (Bethan Louise), a mysterious nun (Leona Clarke) and a professor of Psychology (Paul Richards). A second academic, played by Tony Mardon, appears in all three stories to complete the dramatis personæ.
The feature is shot in dazzling black-and-white, which was partly a creative choice and partly a pragmatic one. “You’ve always got this mix between the logistics and the creative drive,” said Newton, speaking about the choice in his festival Q&A. “I love black-and-white, I love the monochrome aspect of it, I think it can look really really beautiful… but also, the more mundane reason is I’m shooting on locations I don’t have full control over.” Using black-and-white was a way to neutralise overbearing colours, such as a green exit sign or orange flooring, which he didn’t want in the mise-en-scène.
Far from being a regrettable compromise, stylish photography is one of the film’s biggest strengths. There are long passages where it feels like an obscure arthouse classic rather than a microbudget feature—bearing in mind that, according to Newton’s own estimate, it cost about £500 to make. Many of the shots are superbly executed and make stunning use of chiaroscuro. The nun is a fantastic study in monochrome; some of the shots reduce her to white shapes stencilled on a wall of gloom, but her habit is always recognisable. As far as visuals go, other highlights include establishing shots of corridors, an eerie encounter in the stairwell, and brilliant close-ups of faces. The film is worth seeing for these alone.
In terms of stories, as per the blurb, Black Lizard Tales can offer “ghostly visions, demon worship and serial murder.” There’s no framing narrative because the tales intersect, and the third gives closure for all three—or, at least, as much closure as the film is willing to provide. As a narrative, it falls somewhere between dream logic and traditional storytelling, which is by design rather than defect. “It was inspired by dreams I was having,” Newton explained. “I shot a load of material, and I wrote a load of material, that made sense of some of the narrative gaps, and I ended up cutting it all out because it wasn’t then true to the original idea.”
Fortunately, the result isn’t an hour and a half of mere texture. Each chapter tells a definite tale, and the narratives are almost—just not exactly—fully-formed. In the first, a stage-hand begs a professor for help, believing herself to be haunted. In the second, a nun indulges in a surprising pastime. In the third, our professor struggles to keep secrets of his own. It’s arguably less an anthology and more a single story told out of sequence from three different perspectives. However, each chapter has its own peculiar side-streets. Odd sequences intrude without being explained. Not all our questions are answered by the end. This might frustrate some viewers, but for others, it will only heighten the sense of general unease.
As well as the eerie and often dreamlike imagery, sound and editing are used to great effect, continually drawing us in only to unsettle us. The best scene is a dialogue between Mary and Dr Talon; as we view their faces in close-up, a ticking clock seems almost unbearably loud. Another highlight is a scene where the sleazy Dr Miller (Mardon) takes the nun aside for a quiet word. She sits meekly before a large mirror, answering his questions in Latin—which he translates for us, luckily—while he peppers his own speech with apparent non-sequiturs (“Have you ever been photographed…?”). These scenes, like much of the film, have an atmosphere of anxiety dreams. In terms of specific horror devices, all three chapters draw on horror staples—the haunted doll, the sinister nun, the hook-wielding slasher—but the overall effect is novel and distinctive.
Understandably for such a low budget feature, not all scenes are equally effective. The first exchange between Mary and Dr Talon seems a little artificial, and a late scene of the latter with Dr Miller, filmed in a corridor, suffers from quiet audio. However, the wobbles are in the minority.
Overall, Black Lizard Tales is an often unsettling, always compelling movie. People who prefer straightforward stories will be disappointed by the (deliberate) loose ends, but it’s worth taking Black Lizard Tales on its own terms because it’s a great example of microbudget filmmaking.
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