Sunday, May 24, 2009

Movies: Memorial Day weekend with the ol' parental units.

A solid and squirm-inducing entry into the "girl in a dungeon" subgenre, the filmmakers behind the microbudget Brit torture porn Mum & Dad set out to create a distinctly British Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In an interview with writer/director Steven Sheil, he's explicit about this goal. Fascinated by what he calls the "fucked-up family" trope, he wanted to give the concept a distinctly Hillingdon accent. The result is a sort of bracingly tasteless, nihilistically absurd, inky-black comedy that, while confidently executed and fully committed to its grim project, is so foul that even those horror fans with extensive exploitation and torture porn experience will find themselves wondering just why they are suffering through this.

More a horrifically surreal study of a handful of satiric character types than a "story," the plot of M&D is easy summarized. Lena is a Polish immigrant working on the night shift cleaning crew at the offices of London's Heathrow airport. One night, she meets the loquacious Birdie and her sullen, silent adoptive brother Elbie. Lena opens up to her new friend despite reservations over Birdie's very fluid sense of personal property rights and hints that Birdie's personality goes from friend to bitch with great speed and little warning. When Lena, due to some clever stage management by Birdie, misses the night shift shuttle, Birdie offers her a ride. If Lena comes home with them, Birdie's dad would be happy to drive her to her apartment. The house, she's reassured, is just a short walk away and Birdie's dad will be happy to do it.

Of course, it is all a trap and, instead of going back to her apartment, Lena ends up trapped in a nightmare house full of vicious sadists.

Before we get to the vicious sadism, I should mention that Sheil actually handles the mandatory mise en place grunt work with atypical style. Many horror films rush to get their victims lined-up or traffic in this weird sort of characterization seemingly meant to make us hate their main characters, presumably so their violent demises will be that much welcome when they do inevitably come. In contrast, the beginning of the M&D quietly and sympathetically shows tired and lonely people bonding over a fairly thankless job. Sheil's sense of narrative efficiency means we don't spend more 10 or 15 minutes on this intro, but it was well done. You can imagine that, in some other film in some parallel universe, Lena takes the cab home and lives out the rest of her life in a nice little indie drama about immigrants and working-class London social norms.

In our world and in this film, however, she's clubbed, drugged, chained to a bed in the basement, and wildly abused for the next 70 minutes or so. Here the film's plot and the filmmaker's interest diverge. The ostensible story is Lena's struggle for freedom. But what the filmmaker really wants to do is hangout with the family, using them as a sort of wildly grotesque parody of British working class family life. The result is a sort of looping narrative of chores and outrages that resembles a sort of bizarro world family sit-com. I remember when Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers came out, a film critic for the Washington Post praised Stone's creepy use of the sit-com format – complete with canned laughs – to present Mallory's backstory. Full of none too subtle references to alcoholism, incestuous sexual abuse, and regular child beatings, and anchored around a chillingly slimy performance by Rodney Dangerdfield, the scene was a standout in a film packed with over-the-top scenes. Still, the reviewer mused, the curious thing about that scene was why Fox didn't already have a show like it one the air. Steven Sheil has, essentially, made the pilot for that hypothetical television series. (The sense that you're watching some television show go off the rails must be even stronger for Brit viewers who will recognize Lena – played by Olga Fedori, soon to be in the Wolf Man remake – as a reoccurring character on EastEnders.)

The clan, in this case, consists of the titular Mum and Dad, the two siblings viewers met in the airport, and – after a long bit of suspense as to what exactly lives in the attic – the nearly vegetative Angela (the Brit analog, I guess, to the mummified attic-dwelling grandparents of the Hewitt clan). The interplay between all these characters is the real meat of the flick. Dad is a portly, brutish figure – a sort of ape-ish man boy constantly demanding a dignity that is underserved. Cruelly disciplinarian, his own lusts and drives are given free reign. Think of a fusion between Leatherface, Benny Hill, and Archie Bunker and you've got vague approximation of Dad's character. Obsessed with porn and such a grotesque sexual predator that he literally fucks the organs of one of his discontinued adopted daughters (the close-up image of the abused organ leaking his seminal fluid probably ranks as the top "thing CRwM didn't need to see" in all cinema), he is simultaneously so desperate for affection that he looks on the verge of tears when he asks Lena if she wouldn't mind giving him a foot massage. In all of his inarticulate, collapsed, furious and stupid monstrosity, Dad, played by Brit-tube vet and Sid and Nancy alum Perry Benson, is one of the most compelling villains in contemporary cinema. Assuming you can stomach watching him.

Curiously, Mum and Dad aren't a team. Though they share co-leadership duties, Mum is the more emotionally manipulative of the two. She is constantly framing her own perversions – she, like Dad, is a sexual predator (though, unlike Dad's polymorpheous sexuality, she seems more strictly lesbian) and she enjoys carving elaborate patchworks of scars into her children – as the kinder and gentler alternative the abuse Dad would bring if she were not there to "protect" her children. In a way, Mum is really the more sinister of the two in that she's just a hateful and vile as Dad, but she wants you to be grateful for what she's inflicting on you.

After spawning the barely alive Angela, Mum and Dad increase the size of the clan by "adopting" sons and daughters. Birdie, the chatterbox "daughter," best reveals the bizarre dynamic that holds "kids" to the family. Forever fearful that Mum and Dad will, one day, stops screwing them and start dismantling them, the children of the clan must play a constant game of one-up, appealing to the "love" of their parent/tyrants while making sure that their other siblings are always on the outs with Mum and Dad. Think of a game of Big Brother where those booted from the house are, instead, horribly violated pre- and post-death. Those siblings who don't make the grade either end up as sexual aids or dinner, seeing as Mum and Dad are definitely not signatories of the Asner-Struthers Pact of 1975. This puts all the siblings in cruelly untenable position. They must constantly bring in fresh meat for Mum and Dad, but any one of these new playthings could potentially figure out the rules of the game and flip the script on you, meaning that you and not the new bit of flesh is headed to the basement mattress of the dinner table. To further complicate matters, Mum and Dad's fantasy of domestic bliss requires that all this bizarre gaming of the sibling system be somewhat covert. The conflict between the expert, but perhaps too settled and complacent gameswoman Birdie and the desperate-too-survive-and-escape Lena makes for most of the drama in the plot.

Elbie's, sadly, is a bit of a dud in the equation. Intended to be a mystery, he's not given enough serious material to give him the illusion of depth. There are hints of what the character could have become, and those moments are ably handled. Seemingly sympathetic, the silent and stoic Elbie (played by a game Toby Alexander who makes the most of what little he's got to work with) reveals himself to be capable of profound cruelty. In one scene, Lena has provoked the wrath of Dad. He ends up zipping her into a piece of luggage (the whole family works at Heathrow – Dad's a luggage handler) and he wails on the canvas bag with a large mallet. He then hands the hammer to Elbie who, at first, gives the bag a few half-hearted whacks. But, as Dad watches on, the blows become harder and more frequent. Eventually, Elbie is really having at the bag, with Lena inside. He doesn't stop until Dad pulls him off and pets him affectionately. The expression on Elbie's face is at once exhausted, repulsed, fearful, and exhilarated. Is Elbie just letting out the pent up feelings that his captivity must fill him with? Does he, like Birdie, think a new sibling is a threat that must be snuffed? Is he, like Dad, just desperate for any sort of approval that he'll get it however he can? Scenes like this threaten to give his character real depth, but they are too few and far between to really build into anything.

Visually, Shiel's flick is efficient and effective. He places a premium on clear storytelling, with clear establishing shots and carefully handled traditional editing. He likes a palate of washed out lights and dark grime that places his film closer to the lavish decay of Hostel than the color-washed dark pop look of Saw or the artsy crisp look of Martyrs. That said, Shiel makes a few first-feature mistakes. Given the emphasis Shiel places on clarity of narrative, he often loses viewers in regards to the layout of the clan's house. Compare this to the film's most obvious influence. After a single viewing of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, most viewers could draw a diagram of the Hewitt House. Here things aren't so clear. In fact, after mentioning the basement several times, I'm now thinking that Lena's room and Dad's torture chamber are on the second floor of the house. Maybe.

Also, given his preference for strictly narrative storytelling, Shiel makes a few diversions into idiosyncratic narrative techniques that really stick out. Most jarring is the use of shots of planes arriving and leaving the nearby Heathrow airport. Meant to provide a sort of visual ellipses, the are unfortunately more evocative than Shiel intends. I assumed they linked to Lena's immigrant past and, perhaps, pointed to a reading of the film that posited it as some sort of absurdist nightmare about the sacrifices one makes to assimilate into a new culture. That is, I think, more than the film intends. The planes are, I've concluded, intended as mini-breathers that have been included to give an external structure to what would otherwise be too numbing and repetitive. The irony is that many viewers find the planes themselves maddeningly repetitive.

Mean-spirited, brutal, tasteless, and juvenile – it is hard to recommend Mum & Dad. Well-built, honestly consistent in its aims and effects, and containing a couple of remarkably solid performances, M&D is also the most unpleasant flick in the already universally unpalatable torture porn subgenre. It lacks neither the pop sensibility of the Saw franchise, the rigorous aesthetic polish of Hostel, or the gloss of high-minded pseudo-intellectuality of that redeemed Martyrs for many. But, in its hints of an almost Swiftian misanthropy, it suggests that torture porn may have finally found its artistic purpose: as the satiric equivalent of a Tactical Long Range Nuclear Sanitizer. That makes for an interesting theoretical development, but not a pleasant viewing experience. Watch at your own discretion.

10 comments:

wiec? said...

after reading this i'll never look at the baggage carousel at Heathrow the same way again.

CRwM said...

wiec?

If you lose a bag there, I recommend letting it just stay lost. You aren't going to want it back.

Anonymous said...

I didn't care much for Mum & Dad either, but thought it was probably the most palatable flick in the torture porn genre, since it never allowed the audience to side or even identify with the torturers, had a (admittedly very sick and often unpleasant) sense of humour that was well integrated with the torture aspects of the plot (something Roth never managed), and depicted torture in the way it should be depicted - unpleasant, revolting, and devoid of any aesthetic gloss. After Martyrs (saw both at the same festival), I also found the lack of faux-intellectuality refreshing, at least Mum & Dad is honest about what kind of film it is trying to be (and still had more profound things to say than Hostel IMO, although that's not saying much).

Sasquatchan said...

A theme of joining the family in the past few posts here.. What's got your ticker ?

Anonymous said...

Just to add another perspective - rather than grouping this in with tortture porn, it might make more sense to see it as yet another chapter in the British class warfare (togetther with Eden Lake).

Sasquatchan said...

Google just isn't helping me recall the Brit serial killer/cannibal clan from the 1800s (guessing at the date)... So the UK has some historicity for the plot, no ?

CRwM said...

Anon,

I certainly see where you're coming from. Not only am I increasingly doubting the utility of dubbing anything "torture porn" (more on that at a later date), but you definitely point to a well-defined theme that runs through the film. My only defense is that a Brit critic would most likely handle that better than I. I know its there, but have little useful or interesting to say about it.

CRwM said...

Sassy,

I just read/watch 'em as they come.

The Nobody said...

Not a very good film, but I do hate the term "torture porn".

David Lee said...

Sasquatchan -

I think you're probably thinking of the Sawney Bean clan of Scotland.