Director: Martin Grof
Writers: Magdalena Drahovska & Martin Grof
Cast: Eugene Simon, Emily Wyatt, Jennifer Martin, Bethan Wright, Alastair G. Cumming, Alex Reid
Running time: 1hr 36mins
Guardian critic Phil Hoad recently pulled a number of punches during his 1-star review of Nest of Vampires. Having – justifiably – slated the film as a delusional vanity project, bereft of the self-awareness necessary to avoid having someone impersonate the Dolmio Man to demonstrate they were ‘Italian,’ Hoad concluded with the rather demure disclaimer that it “may be remiss to dump on a film that cost £30,000.”
This brings me to Martin Grof’s Sensation. A bloated, confused and bland mess of stolen ideas and botched visual stings, Sensation is bad. Is it remiss to say so because it had a budget of just £215,287 ($300,000), a sum many times larger than that of Nest of Vampires, but whichis still thought of as a ‘small budget’? I would argue that no, it is absolutely not. To suggest as much would not only be condescending to the many, many filmmakers who Indy Film Library has seen do so much more with less, but would also mean Grof and co. would be absolved of having to learn from the car-crash they have engineered here. After all, if you have a budget of less than £1 million, you can’t help but pump out an endless stream of dross.
The elevator pitch for Sensation goes something like this: “Imagine Kingsman: The Secret Service, but written by David Icke, with some impenetrable Inception-level MacGuffinthrown in for good measure.” The results of this are exactly as comical as you would expect – but played with a dour stoicism that sucks the fun out of most of proceedings.
Sensation centres on Andrew Cooper (Eugene Simon), a ‘lowly postman’ living in a huge, furnished apartment in a leafy London suburb – and cannot shrug off his upper-class drawl for love nor money – who suddenly discovers he has the genetic materials required to become Neo from The Matrix.
Gliding about London on a foot-powered scooter, complete with gigantic helmet and backpack, he is the embodiment of every ‘ironically hideously dressed’ hipster who remains hell-bent on gentrifying the soul out of the capital. Complete with his crooning Queen’s English, it is very difficult to either root for him in his early trials as a super-soldier, or muster much sympathy for him when he is inevitably double-crossed.
At the same time, he is recruited by the sneering Dr. Marinus (Alastair G. Cumming) – who is apparently absolutely not a villain despite being cosplaying as the Gestapo agent from Raiders of the Lost Ark – and despite being the archetypal moustache-twirling villain, comes across as infinitely more relatable by contrast. Everyone seems to have been dreamed up to irritate Marinus with their stupidity, and in response Cumming gives one of the great B-movie performances – not so much chewing the scenery as grinding it into a fine dust. In a film otherwise riddled with stumbling oafs, he is the point of light which the viewer instinctively gravitates toward.
One exchange expemplifies this, as the vapid Andrew stammers, “I have no idea why you’re so interested in me…” “I’m sure you’re slowly beginning to understand why,” comes Marinus’ withering response. Without this sardonic streak, there really would be nothing to cling on to – and that makes what comes next all the worse.
Unfortunately, just as Andrew looks set to become an international assassin of some kind, the film takes an extremely disappointing turn. Apparently, the production could only afford Cumming, the best thing about the film, for a single day, so he is hastily replaced by two female antagonists, each more tedious than the last. The film then manages to perform a spectacular 180 on its earlier imbecilic promise, utterly squandering the absurdist joy of its opening third by trying to rationalise why its poorly written roster of mouth-breathing caricatures routinely seemed confused by the most basic of premises, or to totally lose track of space and time.
As the two call centre managers now running the show gradually unveil an unstoppable LSD-fuelled Nazi conspiracy, what should have been a fabulously bonkers final chapter instead turns into a tedious and grovelling explanation of why Andrew is powerless to do anything to prevent their victory. Possibly budgetary restraints, timing issues, or the pandemic contributed to this hastily cobbled together anti-climax, but whatever the reason, it renders Sensations too inexorably dull to even provide meat for a so-bad-its-good night.
One of the worst cinematic crimes it is possible to commit is the “it was all a dream” ending. It is the most hackneyed of methods for excusing poor screen-writing – a crass and careless last resort for storytellers to dig themselves out of the most acutely dug holes, that ultimately means the audience’s time has been inexcusably wasted. The non-committal attitude to Sensations’ bizarre early plot strands here is contemptible for this reason – and it most cruelly denies us the chance to render the lowest minimum amount of pleasure from our viewing experience. The film could have leaned into its madness, at least to allow us some schadenfreude at its expense – but instead it sought to cover its tracks, and deny that it ever did anything wrong to begin with. What a sad and bemusing waste of time.