Paul Holbrook takes the directing reigns in this self-described B-movie throwback. Working from a screenplay from regular collaborator Alex Hollister, Holbrook re-teams with Sascha May Productions to tell the story of a prisoner of war who wakes up in a Nazi prison cell to discover he’s the unwitting test subject in a cruel psychological experiment where all is not as it seems.
Starring Livvy May and Laurence Saunders, ‘Cell’ is available to watch below.
Remember those movies in the 80s that were so bad they were good? Well here comes a short that nails being exceptionally good at being so bad it’s good. Still with us? Awesome!
After tackling social drama with A Girl and Her Gun and Sunday Worship, Paul Holbrook displays impressive cinematic range with this love letter to 80s era, straight-to-video VHS movies. Going so far as to open the movie with a low resolution VHS display and worn tape effects, Cell leans hard into being a style-driven homage piece. Screenwriter Alex Hollister goes for broke and comes up trumps with a short script that intentionally demands over the top, scene-chewing villain, while being smart enough to deliver a genuinely tense psychological thriller.
The filmmaking team are all on the same page as to the film’s objective as everything from Andrea Belluci’s John Carpenter-esque music to title font to acting choices channel the low budget sci-fi movies that serve as this film’s inspiration. Ironically, in emulating this style, Cell proves itself to be anything but low budget or second rate. Rather than mimicking a low budget style of filmmaking to save costs or cut corners, it becomes evident within seconds of the movie starting that incredible levels of attention to detail are at play. Joanna Strange’s make-up, Jon O’Neill’s cinematography and Nico Metten’s sound design among many other elements all point to an elevation of craft from the already outstanding short films in director Holbrook’s back catalogue.
Set at the height of World War 2, the Nazis make an appearance as dependable B-movie villains as they torture a British POW (Laurence Saunders) before throwing him into a cell with a naked and beaten woman (Livvie May). Events take a psychological turn as their captors, urging them to forge and almost immediately test bonds of morality and camaraderie, pit the two prisoners against each other.
Livvie May’s mysterious female prisoner, Subject 377, anchors the film. Initially presented as a damsel to be rescued, events reveal her to be much more than she initially appears. Laurence Saunders’ British POW, Subject 773, acts as an interesting counterpoint to May. Entering the film amidst a torture scene, which tells us that he is new to this facility, Saunders’ conveys the confusion and terror that makes him a fantastic audience surrogate. His rattled demeanour gives a nervous energy to the film that keeps the audience on edge. Juxtaposing this with the cowed and eerily still silence of May’s Subject 377 only serves to add to the tension as we are given the impression that she has seen horrors that Subject 773 (and we) are about to encounter.
The psychological face-off that makes up the core of the film offers up moral observations about humanity, the symbols we put our faith in and the decisions that they encourage us to make. The observation of human nature runs the risk of perhaps becoming too pointed a statement for an homage short film. Holbrook, however, keeps the tone rooted in the unabashed flamboyance at the heart of the low budget sci-fi/horror era of the 80s. This gives the film the latitude to make societal observations while maintaining the delightful darkness that the audience is there to enjoy. More than anything, this film encourages us to jump in and enjoy the ride. Whether it is nostalgia for a bygone era in home entertainment or appreciation for the work of filmmakers who love their craft, there is plenty to love about Cell.