Reviewed by Evil Andy
Starring Roger Lloyd Pack, Leo Bill, Kate Fahy
Directed by Simon Rumley
Not unlike those with mental disorders themselves, films about schizophrenia are often left adrift in the world, homeless and neglected. Honest and necessarily dark portrayals of a disease as vicious as schizophrenia do not make for easy viewing and have historically had difficulty finding an audience. That said, horror fans are made of hardier stuff, and perhaps this is the reason The Living and the Dead is being embraced as a horror film despite its pedigree as an art house tale of familial decrepitude, disease, and madness.
The film presents an aging blue-blood family living in an all but empty mansion in the English countryside. Patriarch Donald is in the midst of an unspecified, and likely long in the making, financial disaster that necessitates frequent trips abroad lest he lose what’s left of his estate. Adding to the tragic downfall of the family is the fact that Donald’s wife, Nancy, is terminally ill, bedridden and unable to look after herself. Finally, we have Donald and Nancy’s son, James, who, it is hinted, may once have been normal but is now only able to function under an oppressive blanket of daily injections that control his schizophrenia.
The sense of dread and foreboding is tangible right from the opening frames. Director Simon Rumley stubbornly refuses to move the camera for the first twenty minutes of the film, presenting boxed-in picture postcards of the decaying mansion and those within it. It is not until Donald leaves on business and James decides that as the “man of the house” it should be his responsibility to look after his mother that we are presented with a living, moving camera via a frenetic, Aronofsky-esque sequence in which James dashes around the house, barring entry to his mother’s regular nurse.
James is wholly unable to care for himself, forgetting as he does to take his own medication, much less able to look after his dying mum. As the days wind on and James’ condition deteriorates, his mania for proving himself to his father and making his mother well becomes an obsession. As James’ frustration mounts, so does his mistreatment of his mother. Nancy becomes more a symbol for James’ own deteriorating mental condition than a willing recipient of his filial care.
Even though the film presents only three characters, the viewers are able to anchor their own fears in each of them. Clearly, Nancy’s terminal illness and her lack of adequate care is a frightening thought for all of us, but so too is the thought of watching your family disintegrate, only to be left alone, as is Donald’s fate. Finally, James simultaneously embodies our fear of the mentally ill as well as the innate fear of going mad ourselves.
Tension continues to mount throughout the film, culminating in an almost unbearably tragic climax. The film is filled with the types of mundane, believable horrors that affect an audience in ways no regular horror movie could hope to achieve. The Living and the Dead plays almost like a straight version of Cronenberg, given the film’s preoccupation with body revolt and the rebellion of one’s own mind. Unfortunately, Cronenberg himself already tried something similar with Spider, a film abandoned by both genre fans and snobbish critics alike. Here’s hoping Rumley’s film isn’t left to wither on the festival circuit vine; this powerful movie deserves to be seen.
4 out of 5