Ashley Lister

About Ashley Lister

Ashley R Lister is a UK based writer. Aside from being a lecturer in creative writing and an occasional performance poet, he is also the author of the horror novel Raven and Skull. When he's not writing, Ashley likes to unwind in front of quality horror movies.

Dolly Deadly (2015) Review

Dolly Deadly (2015)

Starring Justin Moore, Kimberley West-Caroll, Jay Sosnicki and Dana Nelson.

Written by Heidi Moore and Cassandra Sechler.

Directed by Heidi Moore.

Out now on Vimeo Demand and on DVD/Blu combo in North America from LC Films

A young boy from the trailer park can’t take another moment of ridicule from his family and peers. With support from his beloved dollies, he sets out for blood.”

The word ‘sad’ used to be a buzzword insult in the UK that was so overused it lost its meaning. Back in the 80s, rather than meaning ‘unhappy’, ‘sad’ was used as a synonym for ‘pathetic’. And yet, without intending the word to be an insult here, ‘sad’ seems the right word to describe Dolly Deadly. Sadness seems to be the prevailing theme in the movie.

I say this because Benji’s home life in the opening credits is sad to the point of being bleak. Benji is a pre-toddler with a chain-smoking mother, Tina Lyn, played by the superb Dana Nelson (Soul Doubt). Benji and Tina Lyn live in a trailer home filled with grimly-loved dollies. They exist on a diet of nicotine and Doritos. When his mother’s head explodes due to an accident with a home hair-colour kit, (that is a sentence I never thought I would type) Benji is taken into the custody of an uncaring grandmother. The bleak prospects of his future become even bleaker.

dolly1All Benji has, as a reminder of his mother’s love, is her collection of tattered dolls. Grandma Mitzi, played by Kimberly West-Caroll, is neglectful. Grandma’s boyfriend, Donald, Jay Sosnicki (Ride the Lightning, Interior. Leather Bar and Slaves of Hollywood), is unpleasant and psychologically abusive. The children in the neighbourhood are brats. They are both psychologically and physically abusive. There are other people who have an influence on Benji but the influences are seldom positive. And all of this neglect and abuse is very grim and difficult to watch. The concept of Benji’s need for vengeance is painfully sad.

Despite some of the comedic notions that are mooted, such as exploding hair products and talking dollies with their murderous suggestions, the idea of neglect is disturbing because the presentation here is horribly real. Obviously, as is suggested by the teaser, Benji’s relationship with his late mother’s dolls becomes a motivation for him to go on a killing spree and acquire vengeance. However, the main question you have to ask when you come away from this film is: why did it take him so long? Given the horrible people he’s associating with in this movie, any sane serial killer (if that’s not an oxymoron) would have started on a vengeance spree much earlier.

dolly3There are some clever things going on in the background here. Benji’s mother dies because of faulty cosmetics. This motif of the treachery that comes from cosmetics recurs throughout the film. Grandma sells dodgy beauty products to parents in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood children force Benji to wear cosmetics as part of their persecution of him. Benji then makes diabolical use of one of the dubiously strong anti-aging/acid peel products that Grandma sells.

All of which suggests the horror here could be seen as a reflection of the relationship between our aspirations for doll-like perfection and the grim realities of our unmade-up lives. Heidi Moore is a director with a strong history of producing respected short films (Mommy, Showgirl Style, Wurms, Soul Doubt, etc). Along with Cassandra Sechler, she is the co-writer of Dolly Deadly which is a story that is an original and entertaining example of indie horror.
The strength of this film is that the viewer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. There are no Hollywood plot constructions or cookie-cutter characters. This is innovative writing with unconventional approaches that might leave some cold but it will shock and horrify others.

dolly2That said, because of its bleak subject matter, this is not a movie I’m likely to revisit. The sadness was close to being a little too heartbreaking for my delicate sensibilities. However, for anyone who enjoys the thrill of a slasher, the inexplicable eeriness of dolls or the heady schadenfreude that comes from enjoying the sadness of others then Dolly Deadly is a film that needs to be experienced.


An Interview with Director Declan Shrubb by Ashley Lister

mmmvtza1An Interview with Director Declan Shrubb by Ashley Lister

Declan Shrubb is the writer and director behind the hilarious zom-com-romp Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse which stars the amazing talents of Jim Jefferies, Greg Fleet and Alex Williamson.

UKHS: You do a lot of work in the comedy genre (M.I.P.S.T., Risk, Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse, etc). What’s your fascination with humour?

DS: I’m just a big comedy nerd. Huge fan of sketches, stand up, improv, sitcoms and comedy films. The first DVD boxset I bought, when I was 13 and got my first job delivering junkmail was ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT season 1! That’s why getting to work with world-class comedians like Jim Jefferies and Greg Fleet – guys I’ve been a fan of for years – was such an incredible experience for me! Getting to riff jokes with them and see them perform my lines is something I’ll never forget.

mmmfleettoiletUKHS: Given that you’re trying to simultaneously amuse and shock audiences in Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse, how difficult was it to create a comedy horror?

DS: Getting the tone right is really hard. We decided early on that this was a comedy film first and a zombie film second, so we really focused on character over plot, knowing that the comedy would come from the interactions and responses to the situations that we put our characters through. I always knew that the movie would have basically no “scares” or true horror moments, and that was the concept from the beginning: how do blue-collar funny Aussie blokes react to being in a situation as horrific as a zombie apocalypse. The answer we came up with was that they sit around, talk shit, drink beer, play cricket and try to forget about their impending doom.

mmmSCREW_DRIVER_ZOMBIE_02_2-webUKHS: Aside from being a writer and director, you’re also a musician. How much influence do your musical tastes have on your film-making?

DS: I think it gives me a heightened sense of pace and rhythm, particularly with editing and joke timing. I wrote all the music to the film with my best friend (and band-mate) Morgan Quinn, and we got to use music in totally different ways to the way we do with our band Pleased to Jive You. Suddenly we’re writing pieces to help tension, or undercurrent emotional beats, or even to help jokes hit. It was really fun writing music which is different to our usual funk-rock-pop-hip-hop hybrid stuff.

UKHS: You had some highly respected comedians and comedy actors in the cast of Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse. What’s it like working with such a broad array of successful comedic talent?

DS: I really enjoyed it and would love to work with more comedians. They’re interesting people, because they spend most of their time analysing the world and communicating its odd intricacies, so they’re very introspective but they also tell the most hilarious and gripping stories. Because they come from a live performance background, they’re all great at understanding audiences, they have comedic timing down and they really get what you’re going for with a joke straight away. They can also really act their asses off. I was surprised at well they could all learn lines and add new bits as soon as I’d suggest them. But it makes sense when you know their history: Greg Fleet studied at NIDA, Australia’s premiere acting school. Jim Jefferies just came off starring in his own TV show LEGIT. And Alex Williamson has really perfected his comedic acting through making hundreds of great, short little YouTube, Facebook and Instagram videos.

mmmjimjefferiesUKHS: What makes a great film for you? What qualities do you look for in a movie? Which films would you cite as the ones that, for you, are outstanding classics?

DS: I really do like a bit of everything, but I primarily love seeing stuff I haven’t seen before. I love twists on conventions and flipping tropes on their head. And I also love filmmakers who take chances and even though they’re rich and successful and could easily keep making the same film over and over, or take paychecks doing studio films they don’t care about, they keep taking risks and generating their own work. I really admire people like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, James Wan and Kevin Smith. I’m sure their influences bled through me on the making of ME AND MY MATES VS THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.

mmmwilliamsonshootingUKHS: You’ve worked as a writer, producer, director, editor, composer, cameraman, to name just a few of the roles you’ve taken. How has the broad scope of knowledge you’ve gained from these different roles impacted on the way you approach film-making?

DS: I think that it stems from the necessity of making your own stuff when you first get into film. As a kid, when you get a camera and a bunch of friends together, you don’t really think about the specific jobs, you just get out there and come up with ideas, shoot them, edit them, put music underneath.

After a while, you realise that each one of these is a specific job you can specialise in. On smaller projects, I’ll do a lot more of the jobs myself, but on a big project like this, I love working with people who I know are better than me at each job. I know Morgan’s a musical and production genius, so I liked to give him the music responsibility while I sit next to him and help come up with ideas, grabbing a guitar if I needed to.

Same as editing, I normally edit my own stuff, but I worked with an editor for the first time and it meant that I could focus on production while he logged all the footage and started assembling scenes, then after production I sat next to him and we cut the movie together for months. If I hadn’t edited my own things before, I wouldn’t have developed my taste of rhythm or pace and it also meant that I could jump on the avid and move frames to help illustrate my vision.

mmmADELE_VUKO_as_EMMA_beheads_ZOMBIE_1UKHS: What do audiences want?

DS: It really depends on the genre. I’ve learned a lot from ME AND MY MATES, especially about audience expectation. They want the promise of the premise. If you give them a genre film, you better show respect to the other great works of that genre, and give them what they expect. If it’s a zombie film, they want gore and creative kills. If you make a zombie film and don’t blow up some zombie heads, audiences will turn on you! If it’s a comedy, there has to be consistent laughs. It’s been very interesting to see the amount of horror blogs and reviewers that have watched the movie, because there just isn’t that same kind of fan out there for generic comedy films. We’ve been seen by many people who would never care about a low budget Aussie comedy, but because there’s zombies involved, fans are suddenly interested. If we ever did a sequel, I would work hard to satisfy the audiences expectations.

mmmgroupUKHS: What’s the next project we can expect to see from you?

DS: I’ve got some half hour comedy scripts I’d love to make and I’m developing a couple of new features at the moment, neither of which are comedies. One’s a suburban horror, in the same vein as THE BABADOOK. The other is an indie-sci-fi-thriller that I’m really excited to crack. Here’s the basic pitch: In a world where aging is cured and people can be regenerated from a baby, a tenacious man must traverse a dark societal underbelly with his 6 year old son-father to find his long-lost sister who could now be any age from 7-40.

I’m also working on are a new record with Pleased to Jive You and a collection of original radio sitcoms that I’ve been writing, directing and performing in. They’re these little 10 minute comedy anthology episodes that we’re probably going to put out on Soundcloud and iTunes for free. We’re still figuring it all out, but it will be under the name “Quippurb” and we’ll have the first five episodes out before the end of the year.

Thanks so much for the questions, it’s been great talking to you.

  • Huge Thanks to Declan for his time and for some amazing behind the scenes photos!

Me and My Mates vs. the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) DVD review

mmmvtza1Me and My Mates vs. the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

Starring: Jim Jefferies, Adele Vuko, Alex Williamson, Matthew Popp, Gregg Fleet and Andy Trieu.

Written & Directed by Declan Shrubb.

Out now on UK DVD from Matchbox Films

Three Australian telecom tradesman find themselves trapped in a telephone exchange during the onset of a zombie apocalypse.”

It’s a brave writer who takes on the zom-com. Given that any film combining zombies and humour is going to be compared to Shaun of the Dead (2004), an established masterpiece of humour and horror in the niche that is the zom-com genre, the chances of doing something that exceeds what has gone before are somewhere between slim and negligible.

And yet Me and My Mates vs. the Zombie Apocalypse does its job very well. It doesn’t go beyond Shaun of the Dead, but it doesn’t look out of place in such respected company. It’s a comedy horror that manages the rare feat of being both comedic and horrific.

The film was written and directed by Declan Shrubb, a screenwriter, director and musician.  Shrewdly Shrubb has populated his comedy film with comedy actors and comedians including Alex Williamson – Alex Williamson Live (2014), #7DaysLater (2013-); Greg Fleet, Thai Die (2012), Die on Your Feet (2013); and Jim Jefferies – Freedumb (2016), BARE (2014), Legit (2013 – 2014).

mmmvtza2As the blurb says, the story follows events during the onset of a zombie apocalypse where Australian telecom tradesmen are trapped in a telephone exchange. The language is heavily expletive-laden but, if I was trapped in an Australian telephone exchange during a Zombie Apocalypse, I think my language might also be pretty colourful.
I’ve seen Jeff Jefferies in Alcoholocaust (2010) and I Swear to God (2009) and expected him to be the centrepiece of this film. He delivers his standup with a persona of typical brusque Australian pragmatism. His routines are hilarious because of his simple ability to cut through the Emperor’s-New-Clothes complexity of our contemporary world. Invariably he does this with a reductive and misogynistic observation. Jefferies is the comedian who said, in Fully Functional (2012), “I could never be gay because I could never f**k something that I respect.”

However, the actor who stole the show for me was the brilliant Alex Williamson who plays the hapless Darryl. Darryl has aspirations to be included on the local cricket team and survive the zombie apocalypse and his goals are probably ranked in that order of importance. Cautioning Roy (Greg Fleet) against hitting Lachlan, (Andy Trieu), Williamson says simply, “You can’t hit an Asian. That’s a hate crime.”

And this is the post-modern humour that runs through the film. The characters aren’t particularly sophisticated. They’re regular people trapped in an irregular situation. They want to escape and survive, but they also want beer, sex and a place on the local cricket team. It’s that juxtaposition of their acceptance of the supernatural, played against the way they rail against the irritations of everyday minutiae, that make this whole film work so well.

mmmvtza3Credit also needs to be given to the special effects department. It looked as though they were employed more for their exuberance in providing guts and gore, rather than because of their technical knowledge of anatomy and trauma. When a zombie is mowed down by a vehicle in this film, it seems right that the overflow from a well-stocked butcher’s shop is strewn across the road in its aftermath. However, in a zom-com, this excess of visual viscera is essential.

The zombies in this film, or ‘rotters’ as the cast call them, are the slow and lumbering incarnations rather than the fast and the furious variety. They’re more closely related to the slow-but-sure creatures from Night of the Living Dead (1968) rather than the rage-fuelled ferocities from 28 Days Later (2002).

Jim Jefferies, when asked how Australian humour translates for British or American audiences, dismissed the notion of humour having any need for translation. “Funny’s funny,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter where it’s from.” And watching Me and My Mates vs. the Zombie Apocalypse, his point seems valid. In this film you have strong acting, a sufficiently decent plot to engage, and lots of blokey humour.

All these points combine to make Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse a great film to watch, and you don’t even need to be chilling with mates after enjoying a fair dinkum Barbie with a couple of tinnies.

Well worth watching. 8/10

Hollows Grove (2014) Review

hollows1Hollows Grove (2014)

Starring: Mykelti Williamson, Lance Henriksen, Matthew Carey and Sunkrish Bala.

Written & Directed by Craig Efros.

Expected UK DVD Release 14th Nov 2016 from High Fliers Films

A young filmmaker documents his ghost-hunting, reality show friends as their routine investigation of an abandoned orphanage turns into a nightmare from which they can’t escape.”

For me, the charm of any found-footage movie is the subtle claim to realism that lays beneath the framing of its narration. The conceit behind The Blair Witch Project (1999) was the notion that the film was made up from footage left behind by missing documentary students. In Grave Encounters (2011) the crew of a ghost-hunting reality show lock themselves in an abandoned mental hospital and the subsequent film comes from the video they left behind. And, here, we have the same premise supporting Hollows Grove (2014). The story is being told through found footage from the combined camcorders left behind by a documentary maker and the producers of a ghost-hunting reality TV show.
And that subtle claim to realism works.

hollows2I’ve sat through hours of ghost-hunting reality shows. Not because I believe in ghosts, or because I think I’m ever going to see proof of a ghost whilst watching one of those shows. But my TV station is jammed onto the ghost-hunting channel and I’ll sit through anything whilst I’m trying to get drunk.

I’ve even been on a ghost-hunt. Locally, there’s an abandoned cinema. A team of professional ghost-hunters took me and some other gullible marks through darkened backstage areas and disused cinema lavatories as they told us about untimely deaths and alleged sightings. I didn’t see anything that didn’t have a rational explanation (except for people calling themselves professional ghost hunters). However, I did spend the night entire in a state of trembling anxiety as I expected to see something other-worldly leaping out at me from the shadows.

This is why the premise of Hollows Grove works so well. We watch ghost-hunting TV shows, not for the people in front of the camera, but for any subtle anomalies that occur in the background. Did that shadow move? Was that a face at the window? We go on ghost-hunts not to have the supernatural proved or disproved but simply to enjoy the rollercoaster thrill of venturing into the unknown. Hollows Grove is certainly a rollercoaster thrill.

hollows3My one issue with Hollows Grove was that it took a long time establishing it’s premise. Given the simplicity of the idea (potential victims are trying to film ghosts in an abandoned orphanage) I thought the concept could have been presented more succinctly. It’s framed with a suggestion that the film is being presented by the FBI, trying to understand what happened to the cast of the TV show. This framing is then further framed by a storyline where a documentary maker is filming the cast of the reality TV show. When you realise the cast of the reality TV show are trying to film the story of the ghosts, it becomes a Russian Doll of a story that seems more complex than it needs to be.

By way of comparison, consider the effective way that [REC] (2007) gets us into the action with a TV reporter filming a fire crew. The same events are effortlessly conveyed in [REC]’s English-language remake, Quarantine (2008). Or there’s the camcorder conceit used in Cloverfield (2008). And the ubiquitous CCTV footage that makes up the Paranormal Activity (2007 – 2014) movies. Each of these films managed to convey its premise with a stylish simplicity that moved it above the awkwardness of Hollows Grove.

hollows4That aside, if you can stay with Hollows Grove for the first fifteen minutes, you’re going to be entertained by a movie that has enough scares to make you spill your popcorn and some seriously eerie effects. The nuance of the ghost-hunting TV show is well-utilised. Night vision cameras can make the most normal of locations look like a place where Ed Gein would fear to tread without an adult holding his hand. Shadowy backgrounds, cleverly used to foreground the impending supernatural encounters, are well-crafted and neatly employed. The acting is credible and the characters are rich with the typical horror movie duality where most of the good guys are so despicable the audience wants them to suffer a brutal and horrific death.

Definitely worth watching. 7/10