Psychological horror seems to be a tricky genre to breathe new life into. It is also a fertile breeding ground for up-and-coming, independent filmmakers with a low budget. It is hard to make a film, for sure. And it must be even harder to steer clear of being derivative; avoiding becoming one of swathes of imitators, emulating what has come before, rather than forging one’s own path. What can perhaps be meant as homage comes across as pastiche.
And so it is with As a Prelude to Fear (2021), the work of director, co-writer, editor and - in true John Carpenter-style - composer, Steph Du Melo. It is clear from the outset that the film is content to rest on the well-worn tropes of the horror genre. As the film opens, we witness the torture and murder of a captive woman in some kind of dungeon by a mysterious hooded figure with an electronically disguised voice. We soon learn she isn't the first and, potentially, isn't the last victim of a notorious criminal called the ‘Pied Piper’. It's a promising - if grisly - start, if you like that sort of thing.
The strongest performance... comes in the form of Lara Lemon as Eve Taylor, a young cellist next in line for the Pied Piper’s dungeon.
DCS Barnbrook (Francis Magee) is convinced the perpetrator is unpleasant local music teacher, Giles Corcoran (co-writer Roger Wyatt) who, he assumes, is luring young girls into captivity under the auspices of giving them cello lessons. The film follows the attempts of Barnbrook and his colleague DS Dobson (Lucy Drive) to catch him red-handed and bring him to justice. Magee is typically gruff and is clearly the most experienced actor in the film; but he is given such vapid dialogue that he (and the rest of the cast) struggle to make the lines on the page sound like anything other than lines on a page.
The strongest performance and, arguably, the most interesting character comes in the form of Lara Lemon as Eve Taylor, a young cellist next in line for the Pied Piper’s dungeon. We meet her as she is on her way to her first 'lesson', accompanied by her boyfriend Jamie (Jamie Langlands). Alarm bells should ring for both Eve and the audience when she arrives at a dilapidated old outbuilding - not the most auspicious venue for an innocent music lesson. Eve is chloroformed and taken captive, leaving Jamie to embark on an ineffective one-man mission to locate her, becoming something of an irritant to the police investigation. Lemon does a good job with the material, carrying the scenes she is in and switching between terrified and defiant with very little effort. More of Lemon’s character would have been welcome, but the stodgy script tends to sideline her in favour of the police investigation.
There are a couple of decent twists and turns that kept me guessing.
As a Prelude to Fear straddles two genres: psychological horror and police procedural. Indeed, there are moments of the film that are atmospheric and it can be quite effective in its menace when it chooses to be. However, too much time is spent with Barnbrook in his office, bottle in hand, lamenting the state of his life to Dobson. For Barnbrook, the Pied Piper is a classic case of ‘the one that got away’. It is in these moments that the film almost grinds to a standstill. These scenes may be there to act as character development, but the characters as written do not have the necessary dimensions for us to go deeper with them. Again, just lines on a page.
I applaud Du Melo for getting a film made in the first place, particularly during these recent, pandemic-struck years. As a Prelude to Fear has an interesting premise on paper but, sadly, it doesn’t come through on screen. The problem is that, despite their best efforts, the cast seem less and less convinced about the whole thing as the film progresses, valiantly working their way through scenes of long, clunky, expositional dialogue that prevents the film from gathering any pace. To be generous, the film does a fairly decent job of slowly accelerating towards some tension in its latter third, there are a couple of decent twists and turns that kept me guessing, and Steph Du Melo certainly knows his way around an effective camera shot but, overall, the performances and the script’s bland dialogue just aren’t strong enough to truly convince.