Sunday 25 August 2013

Little Deaths

Directors: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley
Writers: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley
Producers: Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley, Samantha Wright
Cast: Luke de Lacey, Jodie Jameson, Tom Sawyer
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Monster Films) 

‘Little death’ is a literal English translation of petite mort, the French term for orgasm. In 1996, Ellen Datlow edited Little Deaths, a literary anthology of ‘erotic horror stories’ including contributions from Clive Barker, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane. That book has no connection with this film. (Incidentally, I used to also own a 1980s anthology of erotic horror called The Devil’s Kisses whose anonymous editor hid behind the brilliant pseudonym ‘Linda Lovecraft’! Anyway...)

Little Deaths is part of the recent resurgence in British horror anthologies which also includes Bordello Death Tales, Nazi Zombie Death Tales, Three’s a Shroud, The Eschatrilogy, The Forbidden Four, Grave Tales and Tales of the Supernatural. Like the first three in that list, this is a team effort: three directors each making a half-hour short then bolting them together. The film has taken a couple of years to appear on UK DVD (the US release was back in December 2011) which is why, in the Making Of, the directors observe that there hadn’t really been any anthologies recently.

I’ve been waiting and wanting to see this film for a while now and have been studiously avoiding any detailed reviews. All I knew was that the three tales of sexual horror are quite extreme, and I was braced for some serious unpleasantness. It therefore came as something of a surprise to find that this isn’t just a film about extreme cruelty and suffering: two of the three stories actually have some element of the fantastique to them, and all three are powerful, grippingly-told tales which fascinate rather than repel. Maybe I’m just inured to this sort of stuff but my stomach wasn’t turned and I didn’t look away. Although, to be fair, it’s a lot easier to accept stuff like this watched from one’s own armchair than it is in a cinema surrounded by horror fans.

NB. If you want the same experience that I had, then stop reading this review now as there will be some details in the ensuing descriptions, although I will try to avoid actual spoilers.

We kick off with ‘House and Home’, directed by Sean Hogan , whose debut feature Lie Still is positively reviewed by me in Urban Terrors and whose sophomore effort The Devil’s Business is in my TBW pile. Sean is the only one of the three directors I don’t know personally; indeed, I’ve known the other two chaps since the 1990s.

‘House and Home’ stars Luke de Lacey and Siubhan Harrison as a middle-aged couple who invite a homeless young woman (Holly Lucas: Holby City) into their home on the pretext of Christian kindness but actually to use her as a sex slave. something which they apparently do on a reasonably regular basis. This occasion however is not like before, and to say more would be a spoiler. I will say this, spoiler-free: although the characters, story and narrative development (call it a twist if you like) are well-handled, there was no need for the epilogue sequence, which didn’t really add to the horror or the story. I would have ended this with the car scene.

Curiously, I had exactly the same problem with Lie Still: an unnecessary epilogue which lessens the ambiguity - and hence the effectiveness - of what has gone before. Sean Hogan makes terrific films, he just needs to wrap them up a little sooner.

If I didn’t know that the second segment, ‘Mutant Tool’, was an Andrew Parkinson joint, I think I could have guessed. Way back in 1998 or so I first met Andrew when I saw I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain at the Festival of Fantastic Films and covered it in SFX. Or at least, I think I did. I know I wrote something for Fangoria. Actually, it’s all so long ago that I can’t remember what I wrote. You want to know how long ago this was? Well, I recently found, in my filing cabinet, some black and white 8x10 publicity stills from I, Zombie. It was a time when publicity images for films were still routinely sent out as monochrome prints. It was like, the palaeolithic or something.

Andy P followed the brilliant I, Zombie with Dead Creatures, then a few years later made the utterly bizarre (and sadly never released) Venus Drowning. Three and a bit films in 15 years or so is not exactly a factory production line but we are assured of quality and it’s certainly good to have Mr Parkinson behind the camera once again.

‘Mutant Tool’ is borderline science fiction, because it does actually have a mutant person in it. The story also involves psychic connections, organ bootlegging, dodgy drugs (narcotic) and dodgy drugs (pharmaceutical). Jodie Jameson is an ex-hooker, shacked up with her former pimp (Daniel Brocklebank: The Hole): wow, there’s a solid foundation for a stable relationship. She deals drugs for him now but he doesn’t know that she’s also still on the game, working through an agency. Meanwhile Brendan Gregory (also in Venus Drowning and Dead Creatures) is the dodgy doctor at the centre of proceedings, while his two employees are played by Steel Wallis and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’s Christopher Fairbank (whose roles in MindFlesh, Anazapta and The Bunker make him something of a BHR regular).

It’s not difficult to see parallels with Venus Drowning here (which also starred Jameson) though it is of course very difficult to see Venus Drowning. This is a body horror film, but not Cronenberg-ian body horror. This is Parkinson-ian body horror, which is scuzzier, more prosaic, less about shock and more about bleakness. Very much the British Horror Revival approach, which is appropriate for the man who kick-started the BHR.

Finally, we have another old mate of mine, Simon Rumley, who I first encountered when I reviewed his extraordinary talking-head debut feature Strong Language in Total Film. More recently, Simon made the amazing The Living and the Dead which is featured in Urban Terrors (as are Andrew Parkinson’s two zombie films). Simon’s story is called ‘Bitch’ and it has rightly been left to the end because it is the strongest of the three tales.

Tom Sawyer (Soldiers of the Damned) and Kate Braithwaite (who was in a couple of Bollywood pictures) are the couple here, their relationship based around a dog-related fetish that will make your eyes stick out on stalks. You will wonder: do people really do this? If they do, how does Simon Rumley know? And if they don’t, what sort of sick mind has he got to come up with this sort of stuff?

Tom Carey (Exorcism) plays the third wheel which prises the couple’s relationship apart, leading to an extended sequence of revenge - planning and execution - set to a brilliantly selected piece of music. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from the last ten minutes or so (assuming they are back in their sockets).

Aside from the slight over-extension of ‘House and Home’, it’s hard to find a fault with any of the segments or indeed the feature as a whole. Acting is top-notch, including a number of perverted sex scenes which must have been either very upsetting or difficult to do with a straight face. All three gentlemen are bang-on in both their scripts and their direction.

Rumley’s regular cinematographer Milton Kam (Red, White and Blue, The Living and the Dead) photographed all three segments superbly. Kudos also to Kajsa Soderlund (Tower Block) for some top-notch production design (I love the sly inclusion of an Emmanuelle chair in one scene!). It is interesting that essentially the same crew worked on all three stories: in these multi-director anthologies it’s more common for all three pieces to be shot separately but Little Deaths has been made as a cohesive feature, swapping it’s head at regular intervals.

Also in the cast are James Oliver Wheatley (A Dying Breed), Scott Ainslie (The Zombie Diaries), Errol Clarke (A Day of Violence) and stunt man Rob Boyce (as the mutant). Richard Chester (The Living and the Dead) and Andrew Parkinson composed the score. Dan Martin (F, Sightseers, The Devil’s Business) oversaw the special effects.

Among the various executive producers is veteran Canadian producer Pierre David - yes, the guy who directed Scanner Cop! Over the past 40 years he has been involved with such notable titles as The Brood, Videodrome, The Vindicator, Dolly Dearest, The Dentist, Wishmaster and, on the BHR font, Gangsters, Guns and Zombies. Mostly though he has executive produced scores of DTV thrillers with interchangeable titles: The Wrong Woman, Never Too Late, Marked Man, Alone with a Stranger, Her Married Lover, Living in Fear, Blind Obsession, A Woman Hunted, The Rival, Demons from Her Past, My Daughter’s Secret, A Lover’s Revenge... I wonder if even Pierre David can tell these things apart.

So, to conclude, what themes can we see in Little Deaths? Well, obviously these are stories about sexual transgression, but each takes a different tack. The sex in ‘House and Home’ is straightforward, even if non-consensual: the transgression there is a moral one. In ‘Mutant Tool’, the transgression is physical: what sex acts we see are actually almost incidental to the story but the mutant himself is physically transgressive. In ‘Bitch’, the transgression is behavioural: these two people do some very odd things, but they’re not hurting anyone.

Then again, we could consider the three central relationships. The middle-class couple in Hogan’s story are the happiest, enjoying a stable sexual relationship until that fateful night. In Parkinson’s tale, the central relationship is in tatters and there was little enough there to begin with. Rumley’s couple start stable, or at least they think they are stable, but we watch them fall apart. All three couples share secrets, but not necessarily all their secrets. Only the first couple are open and honest with each other, trusting each other and working together as a team. the second couple don’t trust each other, they each have other activities that they don’t tell the other about. Once again, Rumley’s segment is the most complex: it chronicles how trust breaks down, creating new secrets that are not shared.

It’s all good stuff, it really is. Don’t be put off by the rather alarmist marketing that seems to sell Little Deaths as some ultra-extreme hardcore nastiness. It’s actually a trio of imaginative, thought-provoking, dramatic stories skilfully told by three of the best indie directors working in Britain today.

Incidentally, the marketing image of a woman with glass shards in her back, like some sort of S&M stegosaurus, is just that - a marketing image - and not related to any of the stories.

MJS rating: A-

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