Those expecting the film that they are watching to be Dominic Brunt’s Wolf Manor might be surprised to see a title at the beginning for Crimson Manor, directed by Derrick Francis. There is a blood moon, and lightning over a country mansion, as inside a man hammers a stake into the heart of a screaming, coffined wench (Fionnuala Milligan). Derrick (Rupert Procter) calls cut, first AD Fiona (Thaila Zucchi) argues with producer Peter Castle (Stephen Mapes) over the actress blinking (“We’ll fix it in post,” insists the latter), and it becomes clear that this is a film location, as cast and crew race through the night to get pick-up shots, one day over schedule, and also a day past the time that the trustees of Talbot Manor near Bridgnorth in Shropshire had permitted them to use the property.
“People don’t even watch these stupid gothic horrors anymore,” complains Derrick, in one of many lines that offer self-aware commentary on the film(s) that we are watching. He may be right, despite Peter’s insistence that such films do well in the East and that “blood and gore will always sell” – but what gives Wolf Manor the edge over, say, Crimson Manor is that it offers the additional reflexive pleasures of metahorror. For, like Wes Craven’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream 3 (2000), Shin’ichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) and Kevin Kopacka’s Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes (2021), this layers one horror film within another, while blurring the boundaries between them, to create a hall of mirrors that constantly refers to itself and its hybrid, hammy, Hammer-y forms. Brunt may be in the driving seat, but he cameos as a local cabbie who refuses to go anywhere near the manor at the centre of both films. Everything is ironised and postmodernised.
The cabbie’s passengers are ‘Phantasmagoria Magazine’ reporters Simeon (Damien Matthews) and Sam (Nicky Evans), in the village for a set visit – and so struck are they by the similarity between the local pub (‘The Blue Moon’) and its unfriendly inhabitants to the opening sequence of John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London (1981) that they imagine Peter has set this all up as a ‘prank’. Before they can even stray from the road on their way to the manor, the two hacks come under violent attack from a lycanthropic beast (Morgan Rees-Davies) who is soon literally tearing apart the already fractious film crew. Meanwhile Oliver Lawrence (James Fleet), the anecdote-addicted luvvie and lush who has for years been lending his dwindling gravitas as an actOR to productions like Crimson Manor, finds himself once more, despite all his drunken bumbling, the unlikely hero in this horror scenario, surviving the night, subduing the beast, and even, against all odds, getting the girl. Still, there is always scope for a(nother) sequel.
Written by Joel Ferrari and Pete Wild, Wolf Manor is less broad than Brunt’s earlier Attack of the Adult Babies (2017) – even if one of that film’s sexy nurses makes a slight return for a dream sequence here – but it is still very much a comedy, making fun not just of a certain kind of old-school English horror film (not unlike Wolf Manor itself), but even more prominently of the behind-the-scenes chaos on a low-budget horror production (again, not unlike Wolf Manor itself), where the director is craven (and, given the werewolf theme, also Craven), the producer is only out for himself, the star is dead drunk, and the lowly 1st AD (and a property manager) are left to pick up the pieces.
At one point, upon hearing from his stunt double Harry (John May) about the strange history of the Manor’s former owner – the stage magician the Great Mascalini – Oliver comments, “It’s beginning to sound like the backstory of one of my films,” adding, “No one’s really interested in backstories, best to keep them brief, and vague.” Here the backstory eventually comes backloaded, in a post-credits sequence of expressionist monochrome where make-up artist Shaune Harrison plays alongside the veteran actress Rula Lenska in a scenario that will reecho and multiply down the ages.
Wolf Manor had its world première at FrightFest 2022