Tag Archives: brit horror

Heartless (2009)

2 Oct

Youth and subculture are perennial lightning rods for the delicate sensibilities of polite society, with each transmutation serving to stir the fear and suspicion that first rumbled onto the silver screen with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

The ‘Chav Horror’ motif that was used to grisly effect in ‘Eden Lake’ seems to be developing into a sub-genre of its own, with the tracksuited ‘yobs’ as our very own version of the demented rednecks in American ‘backwoods terror’ flicks. On the surface, ‘Heartless’ sounds like just this kind of ‘Daily-Mail-reader’s-wildest-imaginings-come-to-life’ endeavour, with its marauding gangs of ‘hoodies’ terrorizing communities, gang disputes spreading beyond their traditional boundaries and ominous tower blocks housing all manner of iniquity. But this is more than a crass exploitation film, channelling tabloid outrage for a quick buck.

Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is a timid photographer born with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. When not dodging the taunts of scornful youths, Jamie documents the neglected margins beyond the gentrified centre, rummaging through the detritus for pictorial inspiration. On one such excursion he comes into contact with a gang that is vastly different from the ones he regularly encounters, fleeing before he can investigate further. His foreboding proves to be well-founded when the gang kills his mother before his very eyes. Jamie’s despair at the morally bankrupt world around him leads to a meeting with Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who offers him a life free from ridicule, in exchange for assisting him in the creation of his Kingdom of Horror.

‘Heartless’ presents a hyper-stylized urban dystopia that bears as much relation to modern London as ‘Blade Runner’ did to Los Angeles in 1982; positively Dickensian in its portrayal of squalor. But this is by no means a criticism; the expressionistic lighting and gothic mis-en-scene of its doom-laden inner-city backdrop is so visually arresting that it compensates for any lack of veracity. The world presented in ‘Heartless’ is a landscape of the mind, an abstract plain filled with apocalyptic dread, the product of a rudderless subconscious, a fevered imagination seeing monsters lurking around every corner. Music is a useful adjunct to this, with David Julyan’s stirring collection of original songs articulating Jamie’s mental state like a running commentary.

The film’s unremitting grimness is countervailed to some extent by a dose of good old-fashioned British whimsy from the likes of Ruth Sheen and Eddie Marsan, adding to the ‘Mike Leigh meets John Milton’ feel that prevails. Sturgess brings an intensity and poignancy to the role of a man who must indulge in the corruption of the world to be accepted by it; a loner hiding behind the comfort of the camera lens like Mark Lewis in ‘Peeping Tom’ and sitting in his room plotting vengeance like Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’. Jopseh Mawle strikes a sinister note as the infernal Papa B. Though he serves as little more than a plot device delivering expository dialogue, he takes to the role with considerable élan, not falling into the trap of rehashing the typical Faustian tack of portraying him as a sybaritic sophisticate. Noel Clarke – the designated voice of ‘the kidults’ – makes a brief appearance as Jamie’s neighbour and reformed gangster, AJ; adding ‘street’ credibility to proceedings but little else.

The friendship between AJ and Jamie is something that could have been developed further; they appear together in a couple of scenes before AJ disappears, as does much of the cast as the film progresses. Which is the strongest indication that none of what transpires in the film is occurring outside the confines of Jamie’s head. From the stagey streets to the gaps in logic, ‘Heartless’ has the gaudy unreality of a vivid nightmare; like a Lynchian portrait of suburbia transposed to the decaying metropolis, there are elements that appear off kilter.

‘Heartless’ is certainly a cut above what currently passes for horror; writer/director Phillip Ridley clearly understands that the best horror is cerebral, dabbling with social, moral and philosophical issues while evoking an eeriness that is more effective than all the gore in the world. The film’s ultimate message is that horror is all around us; that Hell is human construct, a repository for our worst impulses and appetites, that we create the monsters and set these elemental conflicts in motion. ‘Heartless’ is that rarest of creatures; a British horror film that isn’t in thrall to whatever high-concept brutality is in vogue Stateside.

Would you hug this hoodie?

Horror Double Bill

16 Sep

The Host (2006)

When a toxic chemical from an American military base is dumped in the Han River, it creates a mutated behemoth that wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Seoul. Gang-du is an ineffectual waster who works and lives in a food stand with his demanding daughter, Hyun-seo, and long-suffering father, Hee-bong. That’s about the full extent of the set up; the monster makes its first appearance fifteen minutes in, marauding through the streets and capturing Hyun-seo. Joined by his athletic sister, Nam-joo, and astringent brother, Nam-il, Gang-du vows to escape the quarantine the family has been placed under and find Hyun-seo.

Bong Joon-ho’s monster film is something of an oddity, at turns disturbing and whimsical. It quickly becomes apparent that this is far from a formulaic creature feature. Whatever the intention of the film-makers, ‘The Host’ is, no pun intended, a peculiar creature that works on any level you choose to take it. Is it a satire on genre convention, an allegory for US imperialism, a broadside against globalization, a parable on the dangers of environmental degradation, an attack on nuclear brinkmanship? Like most effective horror and sci-fi, it is sufficiently ambiguous to project all manner of metaphor and symbolism onto.

A slightly redundant subplot aside, ‘The Host’ features an engaging set of performances, stylish cinematography and snappy pacing. My chief complaint is with the monster itself, which appears too early and often and is more ‘Men in Black’ than ‘Cloverfield’. For me, it is always preferable to see the damage cause by the creature before unveiling the beast in the final reel.

The Descent (2005)

A lesson in how to shoot monsters on a budget could have been learned from British director Neil Marshall, whose ‘Dog Soldiers’ is a master class in using technical ingenuity to overcome financial constraints.

Marshall’s next entry into the ‘civilisation Vs barbarism’ canon is an equally effective genre piece. ‘The Descent’ takes the best elements of Craven, Raimi, Romero, Hooper et al. to produce a genuinely unsettling subterranean shocker, divesting itself of the flashy effects and ostentatious set pieces to put the viewer at the heart of the action.

The film begins with a jolt when lead character Sarah (Shauna McDonald) is involved in a car crash. On her recovery, Sarah joins a group of friends on a caving expedition. As the group descends into the uncharted bowels of the earth they disturb something primeval that they must do battle with to escape the caves alive.

The chaos and confusion that ensues is fantastically captured with kinetic camerawork and frenetic editing, the lack of visibility throughout is another effective tool in ramping up the tension. A cast comprising of smart, accomplished modern women is a concerted break from the usual retrograde portrayal of females in horror as imperilled scream queens there solely to boost the body count. It is also refreshing to see a film of this ilk where the group dynamic is sufficiently complex to make their fate actually mean something.

In the face of a slew of execrable remakes that have besmirched the name of horror, Neil Marshall brings a fresh perspective to a form that has become overly reliant on repetition and convention. ‘The Descent’ plays on elemental fears – the dark, confinement, nature itself – positing that manufactured adrenaline can never compete with genuine peril and terror. Much like its illustrious predecessors, it believes that, for all our modern trappings, we are essentially no different from the cave-dwelling creatures; we are a product of our environment, acting on instincts we are powerless to quell.

All things considered, it wasn't the best weekend.