Last September I was thrilled to sit on the film jury for Austin's awesome Fantastic Fest. My jury cohorts were Swedish movie producer Christian Hallman and Texan actor Wiley Wiggins. I mention these things not to get pointlessly nostalgic, but to let you know what we decided was the Best Picture of the festival: It was Simon Rumley's bizarre, chilling and strangely hypnotic The Living and the Dead -- which isn't a "horror movie" in the most traditional sense, but is a thoroughly disturbing experience all the same. And by "disturbing," I mean: Really twisted, unique and fascinating to puzzle through.
What's most engaging about the decidedly off-kilter The Living and the Dead is the way in which writer/director Rumley mixes the realistically tragic with the darkly absurd. This is a horror movie about mental illness, drug abuse, loss of parents, fear of abandonment, and the ways in which cancer can erode a whole lot more than just one person's body. The film takes place in a fascinatingly dank and isolated mansion, one that's populated by only three people: Defeated patriarch Donald Brocklebank, his mentally-challenged son James, and his cancer-afflicted wife Nancy. Strapped for cash and with the family estate on its last legs, Donald must travel away from his crumbling estate in an effort to raise some much-needed health-care money. The plan is for Nurse Mary to check in and tend to Nancy's needs, but the over-medicated James has, ahem, other plans. Suffice to say that James sees himself as a completely reliable member of the household, when the truth is actually that ... he's not. Like, at all. Well-intentioned but unquestionably unhinged (and more than a little irresponsible), James refuses to let the nurse take over, choosing instead to care for his withered mother's needs all on his own -- and to say that James is entirely unprepared for the job would be a big (neon-flashing) understatement. And the longer Dad stays away, the deeper James will sink into a spiral of guilt, fear and just plain lunacy.
Clearly this is not a horror movie about haunted mansions or axe-wielding maniacs, but it's as coolly disconcerting a thriller as you're likely to come across. Death of a parent, impotence in the face of an unbeatable disease, the awareness of one's own dementia, the fear of being left, alone, unwanted... These are the things that Simon Rumley wants to address, and he does so with a powerful intensity with The Living and the Dead. Heck, as much as I appreciate the film, it's not one I aim to re-visit any time real soon.
The dank and captivating setting (Tottenham House, Wiltshire, UK) helps set the tone a whole heck of a lot, as do all three of the lead performances. Roger Lloyd-Pack and Kate Fahy deliver some great work as the parents, but it's Leo Bill as the slowly disintegrating James that commands the most attention. Most actors play "mentally handicapped" with a stock set of established tics, tricks and gimmicks, but this actor does something that not even Sean Penn could pull off: The "retarded" character is actually a three-dimensional, conflicted and entirely sympathetic anti-hero (anti-villain?) -- even when he's committing some really unpleasant acts.
Most certainly not for all tastes (I'm expecting a few "what were you thinking?" emails on this flick), The Living and the Dead is a devious and admirably twisted little mind-bender of a genre flick. I hesitate to call it a true blue Horror Movie, but there's no denying that the movie packs a few meaty punches -- and if you stay with it till the end, I bet this flick will stick with you for at least a few hours. Whether or not that's a good thing is entirely up to you.