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Haunting of Harry Payne, The

aka Evil Never Dies

D: Martyn Pick / 73m

Cast: Tony Scannell, Graham Cole, Anouska Mond, Fliss Walton, Katy Manning, P.H. Moriarty, Neil Maskell, John Mangan, Louis Selwyn

These days, British horror – Hammer’s recent resurgence aside – is almost entirely the preserve of low-budget filmmakers.  Within the broad spectrum of horror movies that are being made, there is a sub-genre involving a rural setting and a lot of blood-letting.  The Haunting of Harry Payne fits the mould quite nicely, and adds a gangster back story for its troubled title character.  It’s an awkward mash-up, but it is at least an attempt to do something a little different, even if the end results are as unstable as the movie’s chief villain.

Harry Payne (Scannell) is released from prison after serving ten years for the murder of his friend and gang boss, Eugene McCann (Moriarty).  He leaves London for the Norfolk countryside and the sleepy village of Rayleton, where he is the new owner of the pub.  He’s also able to visit his wife, Susan (Manning), who lives at a nearby sanitarium.  On his first night in Rayleton a young woman is brutally killed and dismembered.  Payne is immediately accused of the crime by Detective Inspector Bracken (Cole) who knows about Payne’s gangster past.  Along with Detective Sergeant Churchill (Walton), Bracken does his best to implicate Payne in the murder but doesn’t even have circumstantial evidence to proceed, just an intense dislike for Payne and his history.  When another murder occurs, Payne becomes embroiled in both the murders and the local legend of a Lady in White, a ghostly apparition that may or may not be responsible for the deaths.

To complicate matters, Payne has violent headaches that leave him with no memory of what he’s done, and flashbacks to his days working for McCann.  McCann was an extremely vicious gangster with a penchant for torture and cold-blooded murder.  This back story impacts on the events at Rayleton in a surprising fashion and leads to revelations that affect Payne and his wife, Bracken and Churchill and local occult store owner, Angela (Mond).  There’s a further twist to proceedings which I won’t spoil by revealing here, but it adds a little depth to the storyline, and gives Payne an extra layer of characterisation.

Haunting of Harry Payne, The - scene

From the outset, The Haunting of Harry Payne shows evidence of its low-budget origins and continues to do so throughout.  The flashbacks to Payne working with McCann are shot in large, open warehouse spaces that feature little or no props or set design.  The roads outside Rayleton are actually the same road through the woods each time, plus the same village road is used (but is shot from different angles).  There’s too much footage of a predatory presence prowling through the woods at ankle height, replaying the roving camerawork from The Evil Dead (1983) and dozens of other horror movies from the last thirty years.  And the gore effects are reduced to the results or after affects of an attack, making the various blood spurts that are seen almost abstract in their presentation.  The painfully short running time is another clear indicator of the movie’s low budget, though it does mean that the movie doesn’t outstay its (potential) welcome.

The script, by Mangan (who also appears as pub manager Tark), packs a lot in, but sacrifices characterisation and effective dialogue for a melange of ideas and plot contrivances in an effort to hold the audience’s attention.  Events happen quickly, almost overlapping themselves at times, with Payne striving to make sense of what’s going on, and in particular, how the Lady in White fits into everything.  The filmmakers’  ambition should be rewarded; however, in its execution the movie falls flat, and it’s like watching an am-dram attempt at making a gangster/horror movie.

Director Martyn Pick (better known as an animator), fails to rein in his cast’s preference for hamming it up – Moriarty and Cole are the worst offenders while Manning misjudges her role completely – and his inexperience leaves the movie looking distinctly ramshackle and visually unappealing.  He’s aided by John Fensom’s scattershot editing – some scenes look and feel like they’ve been taken from a work print – and an overbearing score courtesy of Alex Ball.  As Payne, Scannell looks uncomfortable throughout, as if he’s having second thoughts about being in the movie, and leaves what little acting kudos there is to Mond, who takes a severely malnourished character and makes more of her than would seem possible from the script.

With so much of contemporary British horror lying in the doldrums, The Haunting of Harry Payne could have been a welcome addition to the rural terror sub-genre, but its botched attempts at creating menace, and its awkward shoe-horning of McCann’s evil nature into the scheme of things serve only to show – once again – that horror is incredibly difficult to get right, and especially on a low budget.

Rating: 3/10 – with so much crammed in, it’s no surprise that The Haunting of Harry Payne lacks focus, or that it often looks rushed; at best an interesting failure, at worst a terrible mess that ought to be missed off everyone’s CV.