Despite the few unavoidable flaws that any low-budget feature will always contain, Father-Son duo Mick and Tom Sands deliver a taut, intelligent thriller that injects the moribund genre with a much needed dose of originality.
Holly Kane (Kirsty Averton) is an ambitious psychologist with a penchant for self-administered experiments, bouncing from one mind-bending cocktail of drugs to the next in her determined quest for the next discovery. Her dealer, confidante and best friend Jeannie Callaghan (Lindsey Campbell) aids Holly in the mission by concocting her various potions. In stumbles a twitchy, neurotic love-interest in the form of Dennis MacIntyre (James Rose)- a disheveled and shambolic conspiracist whom Holly is at first more interested in analysing than romancing. Out of nowhere, she gets a call from esteemed psychologist Marvin Greenslade (Nicky Henson), who offers Holly the funding to facilitate her pioneering research. Having been offered a very persuasive deal, she accepts with little hesitation and immediately sets to work. As she delves deeper and deeper into her own subconscious mind, Holly begins to enter into dangerously uncharted waters, with potentially devastating consequences for not only her sanity, but her life as well…
Smartly penned by Mick Sands, the script throws at us a perceptive reflection of our present world; a heady milieu of CCTV paranoia, government conspiracy, and corporate corruption – all set against the threatening backdrop of ISIS terrorism. It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere, and one which suits the narrative arc of the protagonist marvelously. The only issue lies in its second act; having as he does such an effective grasp of the whirlwind-paced, action-driven portions of the film, Sands Sr. struggles somewhat to maintain interest in the slower, more introspective moments, resulting in a second act that drags on a little longer than is welcome for what is otherwise such a quick-fire movie. His characterisation is marvelous however, as he writes a strong female lead – still a woefully rare entity in film – who is spared the mansplaining so often found in male-written female characters (this said, I may not be the fairest judge of such matters, having as I do a Y chromosome). Holly Kane is a thoroughly believable character in her stubborn ambition and emotional naïveté, both of which make her vulnerable to being manipulated by her new mentor; the ruthlessly self-interested Marvin Greenslade.
Director Tom Sands can be seen as embodying legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog’s DIY mantra: “hit and run”. Having dropped out of film school he traveled the world, making documentaries and learning his craft through real-life experiences rather than hypothetical scenarios. Masterfully directed by Sands Jr., it’s surprising to learn The Holly Kane Experiment is only his second feature (after 2014’s Backtrack), capturing the action as he does with the elegant sweep of a much more experienced filmmaker. At only 26 he displays a keen eye for detail and a confident grasp of film technique. Even more impressive is the fact that he managed to elicit such good performances from his actors on the frantic 68-location shoot, all of which they had to squeeze into only 17 days! Kudos to producer Phil Harris for pulling off such an audacious feat, the logistics of which surely boggle the mind. Utilising the occasional, well-placed Dutch angle, Sands Jr. seems to be tipping his cap to Carol Reed’s 1949 noir classic The Third Man, a film which cinematographer Haydn West later told me was indeed a direct influence on the director.
Whilst on the subject of cinematography, West has here crafted a number of exquisite frames, the tour de force of which has to be the agoraphobic crane-shot of an unconscious Holly floating in her hypnosis-tank, engulfed all around in ominous black water (featured in the teaser trailer below). My only criticism is of the film’s one amateurish aspect- the colouring. It flits awkwardly between brightly and darkly lit shots, as well as warmly and coolly hued ones, at times drawing attention to the unintended contrasts and thereby distracting from the narrative. Producer Phil Harris steps in as editor, valiantly molding a vast amount of broad-ranging footage into one taut and well-paced narrative. Trimming the initial 160 minute rough cut down to a mere 100 can’t have been an easy task, especially on a project that contains as little fluff as this one. Into the mix comes Richard Morson’s supple score, seamlessly blending traditional elements with sound design to the point where you’re no longer certain where the ‘music’ ends and the ‘sound’ begins. Seething and pulsating at points of tension, it also teases out the more tender emotional moments of the film, with equal aplomb.
Matt Western’s casting is inspired; each actor being well-suited to their role and none more so than veteran actor Nicky Henson (who once played alongside cult-hero Vincent Price in Michael Reeves’ 1968 AIP horror Witchfinder General). Bestowing his character with just the right amount of nuanced charm and suave sophistication, Henson gives easily the strongest performance of the film as Greenslade. And so you’d hope, given his experience and stature in the industry. A cast made up otherwise of relative unknowns, each actor delivers just what’s required: Averton’s Holly is believably tough, although her decision to play the role with one eyebrow permanently raised in flirty stasis is somewhat perplexing; Rose’s MacIntyre is endearingly neurotic yet admirably steers clear of ever becoming pathetic, making his descent into madness all the more harrowing; and Campbell’s Jeannie hits the comic relief just right, the chilled-out Yin to Holly’s straight-laced Yang. Possibly the second strongest performance after Henson’s however – and coming from the dark horse of this versatile cast – is that of Matthew Neal, who rides into the latter half of the film in the small supporting role of Greenslade’s stone-cold henchman Carl Gower. So chillingly effective is his portrayal that he nearly steals the show entirely in an intimate scene involving Carl and Jeannie; one which contains quite possibly the most indelible image of the whole film. I won’t spoil it for you, but keep in mind the phrase ‘nip and tuck’; it may take on a different, more sinister meaning when you see it!
To round up then, the team that gave us genre flick Backtrack (otherwise known by its rather unsavoury re-titling as Nazi Vengeance) have delivered an original and well-rounded psychological thriller in The Holly Kane Experiment. On the many strengths of this film I very much look forward to seeing their next project; Three Acts, which is currently entering into production. If you want to find out more, you can read my interview with Mick and Tom here.
The Holly Kane Experiment (2016), directed by Tom Sands, is pending distribution, Certificate TBC