Just before the UK premiere of Simeon Halligan’s Manchester, England set cannibal film ‘Habit’ at Grimmfest 2017, I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about the film and the festival itself. So, let’s get into it…
Location seems to be a strong recurring theme in your films, is this purposeful and why choose Manchester to set your latest film ‘Habit’?
It wasn’t really a deliberate decision to do that, I happened to set my first two films in out of the way places… the Wilds of Wales in ‘Splintered’ and the Scottish borders in ‘White Settlers’ and I realise that was something that happens a lot in horror movies – people going off into the wilderness and then terrible things happen, and I just thought it would be interesting to do something in an urban environment instead because there aren’t actually that many horror movies set in that kind of location. I also wanted to do something in my home city because I’ve lived in Manchester for a long, long time and it’s a great city, so it suddenly occurred to me – ‘why aren’t we using this place to make movies?’… I’ve also got another movie that I’m going to make very soon also set in Manchester – a very dark Film Noir type piece. And also ‘Habit’ is set in Manchester because I’d read the book that it’s based off with the same name, written by Stephen McGeagh and I really liked it and thought it would make a really good film and it’s set in a really gritty Manchester. As I read it, I pictured a Manchester I recognised – this world reminded me of Manchester 15 years ago – the grotty Northern quarter as it was before all the trendy bars and cafes cropped up. It’s a different vibe now, but you can still find those seedy back streets if you look for them and that’s the kind of world the film takes place in.
Manchester is a city with lots of different faces. Did you want to reflect that aspect in the film?
Yes, it’s almost a film of two halves or sides, I wanted a real and gritty drama style in the first part, almost like a Ken Loach film, using that kind of colour palette amongst other things, and then when Michael, the main character is introduced to the bizarre underworld that both the film and book suggest exists, we wanted to change the tone and style of the film and it becomes very much a night-time film… set mainly at night with these seedy back streets and we wanted to capture that neon lit atmosphere. I think that atmosphere does exist to a certain extent in reality and we just heightened it with lighting and the kinds of camera angles used. Some of the streets of Manchester look a lot like New York City and have actually been used as New York in several other movies. We felt it was very cinematic with the old fire escapes and Victorian Buildings and a good environment for a dark, spooky film.
You mentioned the tonal shift in the film, was it your intention to make a film that mixes genres?
Well, I never saw ‘Habit’ as a straight, conventional horror film anyway – and it really isn’t. It’s not your usual shocks and suspense kind of horror movie. Strangely enough, it’s more of a coming-of-age drama, but with horror elements in it, because the character Michael is searching for identity and a family. He’s essentially a kid who is lost. He’s had a bit of shit life – he lost his mother in a tragic way when he was young and his sister is a bit of a mess so he is like a rudderless ship. Then he meets these people who suck him into their world. They manipulate him a little, but they also see something in him – a desire. They also recognise that maybe he is one of them, which leads Michael to meet the devious punters that frequent the massage parlour that they occupy and also discover the dark goings-on in the room underneath it.
The main protagonist Michael is played by Elliot James Langridge. What did he and the rest of the cast bring to their respective roles?
Elliot came to us really late on in the day. The rest of the cast was already in place and he literally came in a few days before the shoot, which was tricky and hard for him, but despite that he really embraced the character and did a fantastic job. The thing with Michael’s character is that he’s a man of few words, instead he reacts to things around him and is dragged into a crazy new world. He isn’t hugely pro-active like you traditionally find in movies where there’s a massive character arc and they end up as a different person by the end of the film… he does end up as a different person, but in a more subtle way. This is a hard thing to do without a lot of dialogue but Elliot did it using looks and his eyes and face and the way he holds himself and it takes a great performer to be able to do that in a nuanced way I think and I’m very please with his performance. I hope that the audience can identify and connect with him because he goes to some dark places and does things that most people would consider immoral. And surrounding him were lots of other great actors, like Jessica Barden, who plays Lee in the film – she looks very young in the film and she’s been in ‘Penny Dreadful’ and ‘The Lobster’. Also, William Ash who is a very recognisable face. He plays Ian who runs the massage parlour and was in ‘The Tunnel’ and a really good 2008 horror film called ‘Hush’. Roxanne Pallett, another well known person, plays Alex, a worker at the massage parlour, who is no stranger to horror – she was in ‘Wrong Turn 6’ and ‘Devil’s Tower’. There’s also Andrew Ellis, who plays Dig and provides comic relief and Sally Carman playing Mand, Michael’s sister, who is really good and the whole cast in general were great. I was very lucky, they all make the drama and characters real, which is very important for the audience.
And lastly, you’ve been involved in running Grimmfest since 2009. Does it get any easier each year and what do you enjoy about it?
(Laughs) It does get a little easier each year and bigger each year too… more support and the films get bigger. It’s exciting… we love to put on great films for people and we hope people enjoy them. The biggest thrill is getting feedback from fans. When people come to you and say “I love that film… I really enjoyed it… it was fantastic” and things like that, that’s when you know you’ve done your job well.
This reporter on behalf of Horror Movies Uncut would like to thank Simeon Halligan for his time and his very warm welcome.