Voodoo cellar

London Voodoo

Voodoo dance

Voodoo ceremony

LONDON VOODOO is the debut of writer-director Robert Pratten, and is the winner of numerous international film awards including Best Feature Awards at the Boston International Film Festival, Warsaw's Horror Fiesta and Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films. It stars Doug Cockle (REIGN OF FIRE and BAND OF BROTHERS), Sara Stewart (BATMAN BEGINS), Michael Nyqvist (TOGETHER) and, the film’s one link with Britain’s “golden age” of horror, Trisha Mortimer (she appeared in Pete Walker’s SCHIZO, 1976 and FRIGHTMARE, 1974).

Now recently the “possession-movie” sub-genre reached its absolute nadir with the seemingly endless debacle that resulted in Renny Harlin’s EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. So the idea of a mature, gore-less and psychological approach to a similarly themed film seemed to make sense. A possession movie without floaty, cursing demons and CGI dingoes - but one which cites DON’T LOOK NOW, THE EXORCIST and THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW in its publicity, sounds promising on paper – but does it work?

Director Pratten was partly inspired by the apparent ritual killing of a boy in London; in September 2001 the hideously mutilated torso of a small black boy was found floating in the River Thames. The boy's arms, legs, and head had all been hacked off. The police investigation of the case led them to West Africa and of course to voodoo. All fascinating and macabre stuff, but none of this background material actually makes it into LONDON VOODOO.

In his book ‘The Devil And All His Works’, occult author Dennis Wheatley described voodoo as, “One of the vilest, cruellest and most debased forms of worship ever devised by man”. In an attempt to reclaim voodoo from its negative image Pratten presents us with a modern form of voodoo; the film opens with the image of a burning “voodoo dolly”, which fades into shots of London and office buildings inter-cut with voodoo dancers in a house. We are then introduced to the Mathers family.

Lincoln Mathers (Doug Cockle) is an ambitious, workaholic analyst. He has recently moved from New York to London with his attractive wife Sarah (Sara Stewart) and their baby daughter. Lincoln slaves away for his company at the expense of his family life. In the midst of closing a big deal, his first action in the new house is to install a fax machine in the living room. All too often his ringing mobile interrupts a cuddle, and Sarah refers to his firm as “the great evil”. Apparently all work is evil to her as she is stuck at home all day but still employs Kelly (Vonda Barnes) as an au pair.

Everything seems to be going well for the Mathers, until Sarah uncovers a tomb in the cellar of their new house and convinces Lincoln to keep the discovery a secret. She cracks open the cellar floor, and in a particularly unremarkable scene, becomes instantly possessed. Lincoln is impatient with all this; he believes Sarah should be spending time with their child, rather than desecrating graves beneath their house. However, he begrudgingly gives up a corporate game of golf to help her board up the cellar.

Occupied with his work, Lincoln fails to acknowledge the changes going on around him and his family – food is beginning to rot at a rapid rate, flowers wilt and die more quickly than usual, and Sarah has begun to develop increasingly overt sexual cravings. Worse still, she continually draws heart-shapes in piles of sugar and rice, attempts to bite off Lincoln’s nose, becomes a francophone new-age hippy, and pisses into a saucepan. After some much-deserved sexual taunting (Sarah parades around in black lingerie whilst he reads a business document and wields a golf-club), Lincoln finally realises that something is amiss.

Sarah's strange behaviour and the mysterious happenings in the house soon attract the attention of a kindly bohemian woman, Fiona (Trisha Mortimer), along with a pair of local voodoo practitioners, Ray (David Webber) and Ruth (Jacqueline Boatswain). The latter are convinced that the spirit of a dead African warrior now inhabits Sarah's body but Lincoln is understandably sceptical and condemns their suggestion that an exorcism needs to be performed. In the film’s most hilarious scene Ray shouts to Lincoln through the letterbox, “Her soul is in danger - your wife is possessed". Then, weilding a talisman he says, "Put this under her pillow when you make love to her”. Understandably, Lincoln doesn’t believe him, so Ray suggests to Ruth that they try more direct action!

Meanwhile the increasingly sadistic Kelly becomes obsessed Lincoln. She seems intent on driving Sarah mad, and running off with her rather dull husband; at this point it becomes rather difficult to determine who is supposed to be possessed. But at least we are treated to the closest thing to a gore scene we're going to see, as Kelly carves the word Lincoln into her upper-thigh with a dining fork.

News of an unexpected death and Sarah's madness force Lincoln to consult with traditional dark forces in the form of local historian Fiona, who lives on a houseboat festooned with voodoo paraphernalia. She tells him about slave traders in Greenwich, the voodoo religion came with the slaves. She hopes to rejoin her dead husband through voodoo. Later, when Lincoln asks Ruth why she cares, she replies, “Because I believe in Love”.

The director had wanted to make a psychological horror film. He thought voodoo had received a bad press in past films, and so from the outset of the film we are presented with a new variation of voodoo. The title LONDON VOODOO appears over a shot of London Bridge. No longer relegated to the jungle or the plantations – voodoo is in the city, a city in which the bokor and the banker share the tube each morning. A dichotomy is formed between the post-industrial world of work and finance representing evil, and the colonial world of voodoo with its belief in love and the afterlife. These are admirable sentiments indeed, derived from the Catholic aspects of voodoo, but not the stuff to sustain the interest of your average horror film fan for very long.

In sanitising voodoo the director has taken away the fear element. Voodoo, to me, is magicians sticking pins into dolls, and calling the dead to walk. But in LONDON VOODOO the ceremonies are about as unnerving as a rave. By all means remove possession-movie clichés, but you need to replace them with something else. Maybe a little more taken from the ritual slaying story that inspired the film would have helped. To be fair Pratten is up against some stiff competition; the Italians have cornered the market in scary tombs and cellars in films like Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, and Damiano Damiani’s AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION. In fact it seems to be left to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ bassist Steve Severin (wrongly referred to as the Banshees’ guitarist in the extras) to provide the entire mood for the film with his splendidly atmospheric electronica.

Since the recent British renaissance kicked off with the black comedy SHALLOW GRAVE, we’ve seen some of the best home-produced horror since the1970’s. LONDON VOODOO however, is not one of them. Anyway have a preview:

Audio commentary by writer-director Robert Pratten
The Voodoo Diaries (The Making of LONDON VOODOO)
Interview With a Voodoo Priest
Deleted scenes
"Reel North" at the premiere of LONDON VOODOO
Dolby Digital 5.1
Dolby Surround 2.0
English subtitles for the hard of hearing.