Cult Screenings and Dead Mouse productions have been at the forefront of horror documentary for a few years now, with their mammoth nine-hour love letter to the first two Hellraiser films Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (2015), and the considerably shorter but no less extensive in its research and watchability You’re So Cool Brewster! The Story of Fright Night (2016). Now Chris Griffiths and Gary Smart, with writer Neil Morris, have turned their creative attention to fiction with The Offer, the first in an anthology series of the aptly named Dark Ditties.
The Offer follows a group of strangers who are invited to a desolate country house with the promise of an opportunity to win an extremely large amount of money, and all they have to do is to spend the night, and play a little game – simple, no? Of course, these things never are, and in the time honoured tradition there is a rather more bloody caveat required in order to get one’s hands on the cash. The sinister, deceased host Maximilian Francis Benoit (Kenneth Cranham) tells our heroes through video footage shot before his death that in order to be with a chance of winning the money they must decide who among them is guilty of each of the seven deadly sins. There is no nice consolation prize of a new toaster and some Waterstones vouchers.
Watching The Offer I was certainly put in mind of the Amicus anthologies of the 1970’s, mixed in with some suitably more modern Hostel style bloodshed (the tarot cards used to fulfil the character’s fate certainly has echoes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors). The idea of nasty little secrets coming back to haunt you is a well-trodden path in horror and is executed well here, keeping the audience, as well as the characters, guessing as to what terrors their malevolent host has conjured up for them, and whether their grisly denouncements are deserved.
Acting wise, main accolades go to Coronation Street star Bruce Jones as Michael, a used car salesman whose ignorant, loud-mouthed facade hides a much more pathetic creature. He is certainly the most fleshed out character of the seven game players, and while it’s nigh on impossible to feel empathy for any of the characters, by the end of the film, thanks to Jones’ performance, one manages to almost summon up a scrapping of sympathy for him. The confines of the running time means that some of the other characters don’t evoke the same response, and due to lack of background and personality, tend to fall into cliched stereotypes – the slimy banker, the camp actor, the ‘street’ speaking young black guy, the fresh-faced ingénue etc. – all well written and acted with aplomb, but cliched nonetheless. I do have an inkling, however, that this was intentional on behalf of the film makers, harking through the horror genre all the way back to Agatha Christie and her tales of various archetypes of the day trapped in an isolated mansion with a killer.
Smart and Griffith’s love of the genre spills out from every frame, with a reunion of sorts from various Hellraiser alumni (Barbie Wilde, Simon Bamford, Kenneth Cranham, Nicolas Vince and Oliver Smith) and hints of deeper depravity beyond the one room of the vast house the characters are gathered in that would be very much up Pinhead and Co’s alley. The direction is tight and the action rattles along at a fair old pace, even if this at the expense of characterisation and a fully satisfying ending. The filmmakers make the best use possible of the limited budget by investing plenty of passion in the story, with a proficient use of visuals and special effects, utilising the age-old technique of making the audience use their imagination as to what horror might be happening on screen during the fast edits and blackouts.
Very nearly adding up to the sum of its parts, The Offer is, for the most part, an entertaining, arch, tightly woven, gruesome little tale that marks a good start to Smart and Griffiths’ career as the purveyors of Dark Ditties.