Battle of the Bone

Certificate: 18
Running time: 90 mins
Director: George Clarke
Starring: Shane Todd, Alan M. Crawford, Laura Jenkins
Genre: Horror, Action, Martial Arts
Country: Northern Ireland

In preparation for the Grindhouse style screening at the Dublin Road Movie House Cinema on May 2nd of Onus and Splash Area we’re winding the clock back to 2008 and arguably the most ambitious independent horror film little old Northern Ireland (pronounced Norn Iron) had ever seen.

It’s the eve of the twelfth of July in Northern Ireland and when a drugs heist come deal goes wrong it sets in motion a chain of events that will put tribal rivalries of green and orange aside to fight for the only colour that matters, red.  As things get bloody three friends find themselves in a fight for their lives that threatens to change the landscape of Northern Ireland forever.

What works for Battle of the Bone narratively is the simplicity of the story.  Some of the best horror movies to have graced silver, home and drive-in screens have had a great premise and deliver on it without getting needlessly complex.  Take Halloween for example, extract the slaughter from the Hallmark calendar day and transfer it across the pond to cloudy little Northern Ireland and what you have is a film that transcends culture, a film that is universal and therefore universally acceptable.  That’s what makes BOTB instantly memorable, and enjoyable but what makes it great is the little narrative touches that run contradictory to this idea of universal narrative.  The little touches of Norn Ironisms that give the film a character of it’s own that is distinctive and charming.  Clarke’s writing delivers some excellent set pieces that would be impressive in a film one thousand times it’s scale.  The use of parkour and martial arts in the set pieces are a wonderful touch.  It’s not just a horror movie, it’s an Asian horror movie that just so happens to be set on the left hand side of Europe.  The practitioners are incredible, powerful, confident on screen and daring.  The hood-rat chase sequences across the Lagan foot bridge and the industrial silos are expertly executed, choreographed and framed.

The film’s score is, like the screenplay, well tuned and atmospheric.  It carries several key elements throughout the film and it’s tone/repetitive stylistic is a true signature.  Chris Logan clearly understands what makes a memorable score and does a marvellous job in creating a heartbeat that runs throughout the film, aids the actors and heightens the audience experience.  

In the early stages of production Clarke had pencilled himself to play the lead role of David (Shane Todd) but fears over a tight shooting schedule and a limited crew saw him retreat behind the camera to manage all of the directorial and cinematographic responsibilities.  It’s an excellent decision as Todd gives a great performance.  In some of the earlier scenes he’s a little quiet, perhaps even unsure but he quickly grows in his lead role with all the screen presence and confidence of a seasoned professional.  Alan Crawford (as Scott) is similarly impressive and has a great on screen chemistry not just with Todd but with Laura Jenkins who makes up the hapless trio without being the helpless damsel, seemingly Clarke’s movies share more than fighting style with Eastern cinema as Jenkins’ physicality has echoes of Savage Sisters to it and breaks that generic model that too many horror films find themselves falling into.

There is one thing above all others that’s truly impressive about Battle of the Bone and it’s something that you don’t often find in indie cinema.  All too often just because you can afford to make a film doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.  There are an plethora of indie horror movies out there in the big bad cinematic world and all too often the dialogue is stinted and the camera work, basic, uncomplicated, cinematically illiterate.  Battle of the Bone is not one of these films.  From the outset one of the most impressive things about the film was the cinematic language of the camera.  Clarke’s camerawork, his set up, alignment and framing is nothing short of remarkable.  The cinematography is never more impressive than when it’s at it’s most difficult/complicated during set pieces.  The chase through the laboratories at the beginning lives somewhere between Woo-ping Yuen and Brian DePalma as the camera is an essential character, running, moving, tracking.  Cinema is a visual medium, it tells a visual story above anything else and it’s present in Battle of the Bone in abundance.  It’s a genuine skill, one that raises the medium out of the functional and into the world of art and regardless of what any 101 class will tell you, it’s not something that can be taught.

As a horror film Battle of the Bone is hugely impressive, as a martial arts film likewise but as a debut film made by an independent director for less than a catering budget it’s a seminal piece of Northern Irish cinema and unbelievably entertaining.

Donate [here] to help Yellow Fever Productions make Onus II.

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