Running time: 76 mins
Director: George Clarke
Starring: George Clarke, Graeme Livingstone, Iain Boden
Genre: Horror, Action, Martial Arts
Country: Northern Ireland
The Knackery or Zombie Games: The Knackery if you live in the New World and are sitting down post-Walmart DVD haul remote control in hand is the sophomore feature film from George Clarke (Battle of the Bone) and his independent production company Yellow Fever Productions. Set in a near future, The Knackery is a reality based television programme that pits not just human versus human but human versus genetically modified zombie in a battle to the death for one million quid (that’s Great British Sterling for those outside of the UK). As a reporter comes close to scooping the story behind The Knackery he’s confronted with an “innocent” who stumbles into the battlefield and an almost certain death without his assistance.
Fans of The Knackery will be excited to hear that the film has had something of a face lift and unlike many of the surprised/haunted faces you see post surgery it’s one for the better. The colour palette of the film, and the overall aesthetic has been manipulated to give it that aged look that’s so intertwined with Exploitation cinema. Several countryside scenes have a great richness of green ground, blue sky overhead and a feel that the print has been manhandled by too many sausage fingered projectionists in too many small cinemas across too much of the country. It’s a great look, it’s one that envelopes the film with a powerful history of cinematic connotations and grounds the exploits in a much under appreciated heritage. This is fitting given the relationship between writer/director Clarke and the money-men of “Northern Irish cinema” who seem more than happy to spend the public funds attracting projects from Hollywoodland rather than nurturing what could be a promising National cinematic movement. Regardless of this The Knackery’s new look is wonderful, powerful and calls forth from the graveyard of forgotten cinema comparisons with titles like Kung Fu Cannibals, which if you’ve read much on this site you will know is the highest of compliments.
The cinematography of The Knackery showcases a different side of the directors skill set. With Battle of the Bone the camera glided and danced through sequences, it moved like so many of the young free-runners cast to exhibit their skills. In it’s follow-up the camera work is a lot less of a showcase as it pushes in on the performances and lingers. Visually, apart from a handful of exposition shots in and around homes in Belfast, the majority of The Knackery is shot on a location that doubles as a lot/compound where the reality based television show is set. The cinematography induces a degree of claustrophobia that would not be present with cranes shots and sweeping dollies inhabiting the mise-en-shot. No, where Clarke’s cinematic eye was the star of BOTB it’s successor’s most impressive trait is the director’s choreography. It was clear in BOTB that Clarke is a fan of the Asian cinema but The Knackery draws several jaw-dropping lines under that fact in ways that are almost inconceivable if you haven’t witnessed them. Several scenes stand out, the fight sequence between Contestants Four and Five (Clarke and Gary Whelan) is extremely well put together, mapped out and shot. There are even a handful of sequences in it that come right out of the Jackie Chan handbook (from his pre-Hollywood days). Similarly Clarke’s sequence with The Kid (Peter Meehan) highlights a different pace and sensibility to the director/writer/choreographer that sets him apart from the chasing pack. As a fan of Kali Eskrima I love nothing more than a fight sequence that uses non-traditional weapons and there’s a great one between two contestants, one with a two-by-four and another with two arms of what looks to be a broken chair. It is in these moments that the understanding of how to shoot close quarters pieces is demonstrated to it’s most impressive, and praise for this must go to the first A.D as for many of them Clarke is in front of the camera.
The film is also layered with performances of different levels of intensity that helps to fill out a conceptual narrative which had to be trimmed back in order to achieve the best possible film on the most restrictive of budgets. Clarke is great as the softly spoken reporter, Craig Thompson and Gary Whelan give differing ends of the sociopathic spectrum in their performances. Thompson – more sly and willing to wait in the shadows while Whelan pulls out all the parkour skills he has in his wheelhouse to raise the level of intensity beyond what you’re traditionally told to expect from independent cinema and back into the health and safety free days of shooting in Manila and all the broken bones that came with it. The stand out performance of the film comes from Alan M. Crawford (Eugene). As the brash, loud mouthed presenter of The Knackery he gets to showcase everything that is wrong and ugly about the media, and especially television entertainment that appeals to the lowest common denominator and threatens the death of the writer. He’s great and it’s a fitting reclamation for the performer over the presenter.
The Knackery is more than a horror film, it’s more than an action movie with corn syrup and high flying kicks. On one level it can be read as pure entertainment, but on the other it's a critique of the disenfranchised male of Northern Ireland. Gone are the Troubles and in it’s place are a limited amount of creative opportunities that are held out of reach from the majority of people who have been good enough to fund them much to their frustration and disillusionment. In most countries after times of war/conflict is when they create their greatest pieces of cinematic work. Post World War 1 Germany gave birth to Weimar cinema offerings like Nosferatu, the Soviet’s offered up Montage cinema with Strike!, post Franco Spain saw the emergence of Pedro Almodovar, while after the Algerian conflict France championed not just Jean-Luc Goddard but cinema as a way of living. It’s been almost twenty years since the gun muzzles cooled in Northern Ireland and yet nationally we have a cinema that’s less sophisticated that many African nations, less challenging and ambitious than Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1970’s. He makes movies for with what he can raise and like great Exploitation directors Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Nicart raises the finished product above the economic restrictions to transcend genre and flirt with art.