Little Deaths

Little Deaths


Reviewed by: David Graham

Little Deaths is a very modern take on the British anthology flick. Where Amicus classics like Asylum and Dr Terror's House Of Horrors held true to the campfire tradition of the genre, with framing narratives and an emphasis on supernatural horrors, this triptych of tales are stand-alone films in every regard, linked only by their entwining of sexual perversion and abject suffering. Each story comes from an underground British auteur, and while the three are variable in content and quality, most importantly they work together thematically to paint a bleak but broad canvas of our society's barely-concealed depravity.

The first story - Heart And Home - concerns an affluent couple with an unhealthy interest in the homeless, forcing a horrific confrontation between the intrinsically British cinematic polar opposites of 'stiff upper lip' and 'kitchen sink' drama. Sean Hogan's piece effectively establishes how emotionally disparate the two couples at its heart are, with the vagrants displaying a real love and affection for one another while the yuppies behave like spoilt brat brother and sister. Tellingly, our homeless heroine Lucy is distrustful of rich and religious Richard's accosting her in the street, in the sort of canny role reversal the whole trilogy hinges upon. The relationship dynamics throughout this story are well-observed and constantly shifting, building to an increasingly tense and disturbing 'threesome' where the posh pair find unification in sexual and psychological torture.

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Hogan lenses this story with a variety of styles, with cold and perfectly composed shots observing the couple in their home at the start before more relaxed camerawork takes us out onto the chilly streets. An initially benevolent dinner scene throbs with palpable class tension, Hogan effectively conveying Lucy's disorientating haze as her descent into degradation begins. The score and sound design also carry a real air of menace, but it's the acting from the three leads that really communicates the seething sexual politics in their collusion. Hogan manages to be graphic without being gratuitous, keeping the suspense high throughout Lucy's seemingly hopeless ordeal. A last-minute curveball takes the situation into a completely unexpected realm; while it may initially seem cheap, it works as a cheeky reminder of the sort of film you're watching and the sort of stories that inspired it, offering a cathartic payoff that's difficult to deny after the horrific humiliation you've endured along with the piece's 'victim'.

Mutant Tool deals with an experimental drug farmed from a less-than-savoury source. Jodie Jamieson stars as Jen, a sometime drug dealer struggling to go straight after years of substance abuse and psychologically-damaging prostitution. Seeking therapy, she unwittingly finds herself undergoing pharmaceutical experiments linked to genetic mutation and crimes of the past. As the pills take hold, her sex drive shoots through the roof, her mind unravelling as she is assaulted by harrowing images transmitted from the captive source of the dodgy hallucinogen. To say much more would rob Andrew Parkinson's piece of its bizarre tone and farcically gimmicky effect, its initial dramatic thrust spilling over into Cronenbergian body horror.

It's actually something of a shame that Parkinson felt the need to take his story to such extremes, as the early scenes following Jen's attempts to sort out her life are very engaging. Jamieson emotes convincingly and proves a game conspirator as the story takes her to ever more upsetting and ridiculous places - in fact, she is so good that you almost wish Parkinson would ditch his B-movie trimmings to further develop her side of the story. That said, this would perhaps make the piece incongruous in this company, and as such, Mutant Tool just about works as a gonzo sci-fi headfuck. The fact that the narrative avoids easy explanation works in its favour, as no amount of back-story could ever satisfactorily justify the concept at its core. The segment is well shot, its harsh realism working to make its revolting conceit even more unsettling, Jen's spiral into medication-fuelled madness effectively punctuated by occasional flashes of Saw-like mania. Taken on its own, Mutant Tool is an intriguing oddity, but unfortunately in this company it's the runt of the litter, and as such probably works best sandwiched between its superior siblings.

Finally, Bitch chronicles the disintegration of a sado-masochistic relationship, giving new and disturbingly literal meaning to the term 'in the doghouse'. Director Simon Rumley has made something of a splash with his previous festival hits The Living And The Dead and Red, White And Blue; both married his gritty style with harrowing subject matter to linger in the audience's memory as poignant and powerful. Bitch achieves a similar goal but on a much more intimate scale, suiting the anthology format perfectly, even though many will agree it would deserve expansion to feature length a la Dumplings from Three Extremes. Tom Sawyer stars as Pete, a seemingly ordinary young man embroiled in a twisted coupling with live-in lover Claire. Their sexual dynamics are tied to Claire's debilitating phobia, a fear she overcomes by subjugating the less dominant Pete in kinky roleplay sessions. His resentment grows as her dissatisfaction leads to cruelly brazen infidelity and exploitation of her boyfriend's good nature. So Pete hatches a plan to teach her a lesson she'll never forget...

Rumley's tale works better than the other two because it focuses solely on a believable relationship between two sympathetically damaged souls. Sawyer and Kate Braithwaite give their all, their feelings of yearning for and disappointment in each other unmistakably etched in their characters' faces. Rumley highlights how their deviation leads to feelings of betrayal and self-doubt, the couple's seesawing between a need for and rejection of one another becoming a tragic but all too familiar motif. You really feel for Pete as he takes it on the chin time after time, and to his credit Rumley also makes you see Claire as an appealingly rounded character, dissatisfied with her boyfriend's aimlessness and crippled by her irrational fear of something unavoidable in everyday life. The final straw for Pete comes in a devastating scene of emotional sadism, Claire doing everything in her power to belittle the love of her life. His revenge is made all the more sad and uneasy for its meticulous preparation and cold-blooded execution, the film building to a deeply disturbing climax made all the more discomforting by the deliberately 'uplifting' soundtrack.

Overall, each film boasts strong acting and well-written dramatic scenes, and a very polished look that belies what must have been very tight budgets. They each also play their cards close to their chest before springing game-changing surprises that leave a refreshing amount to the audience's imagination. Oblique back-stories are subtly hinted at but the films never resort to heavy-handed exposition, their queasy intermingling of sex and suffering leaving the viewer with plenty to chew on in their aftermath. As British horror goes, this is a pleasant surprise, leavening its occasionally ridiculous subject matter with some well-played humour and adopting the cruel sense of poetic justice that characterized the old EC Comics that kicked off this genre. On this evidence, Hogan, Parkinson and Rumley are certainly ones to watch, and their fearless actors should hopefully also find their careers bolstered by these fearless performances.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2011
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A triptych of disturbing tales exploring interrelated themes of sex and death.
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Director: Sean Hogan, Simon Rumley, Andrew Parkinson

Starring: Amy Joyce Hastings, Luke de Lacey, Kate Braithwaite

Year: 2011

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2011

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