Tuesday, 23 October 2012

DVD REVIEW: The Harsh Light of Day (2012)

This review contains spoilers.

This recent independent British supernatural revenge thriller adapts the exploitation themes of the home invasion flick to suit the current post-Let the Right One In art house boom conditions enjoyed presently by a culturally renewed vampire genre, wherein contemporary urban locations are often requisitioned to provide a mundane (and in this case chav-inhabited) backdrop for some deliciously warped occult horror happenings. The result here is a conceptually intriguing potpourri of genre elements, not always entirely satisfactorily realised on the film’s ultra-low budget, but suggestive enough to imply the notion that some degree of thought has gone into the presentation of the motivations and actions of the characters whose lives it follows, and even, to some degree, providing a philosophical basis for them. Young, British first-time writer-director Oliver S. Milburn and producer Emma Biggins -- both graduates of Bournemouth University film and production courses, who embarked upon this project soon after obtaining MAs in their respective disciplines – have been as savvy in their marketing campaign for the film since its limited theatrical release in June 2012, as  they have with their genre-splicing choice of material; a fascinating internet blog focusing on the production processes involved in low budget independent film-making (including their travails and pitfalls), being just one of many online tools they’ve since utilised to conjure up visibility in an overcrowded marketplace.
The film itself reveals Milburn’s implicit feel for genre and makes the most of its picturesque Dorset coastal cliff-top locations and the contrast such idyllic surroundings makes with the grim-looking Bournemouth and Poole housing estates, shown by sodium-drenched night at the top of the film -- their looming concrete tower-blocks saturated in a pall of sickly neon luminosity amid environs inhabited by the vaguely feral-looking hooded figures who roam their dimly lit underpasses and flyovers. It’s from these dank, benighted urban locations that the violence which sets the main events of the film in motion is eventually seen to emerge, marking this initially as another entry in the distinctly British but much reviled ‘hoodie horror’ sub-genre category. The tensions invoked by the ambiance and character of these two very diverse settings as they're juxtaposed during a chronologically fractured opening sequence which inter-cuts between two very different social worlds (the film benefits greatly from some intelligent editing by David Spragg), and the image this creates of the contrasting lives and values of their respective inhabitants, provides an unspoken reminder throughout of the other conflicts and dichotomies being dramatised by the dialectically driven narrative -- the main one being the moral relativity which is implied by the positing of a world that’s uncomfortably split between two irreconcilable realms – the supernatural and the material.

The airy, comfortable, middle-class safeness of the lifestyle enjoyed by occult researcher and writer Daniel Shergold (Dan Richardson) and his loving wife Maria (Niki Felstead), stands in marked contrast to the dreary, rootless transience of the hoodie wearing, semi-criminal thirty-something yobs who are about to smash the comforting certainties of the couple’s existence apart. While Jeremy Howard’s sombre piano score implies a dark fatalism to the violence and brutality which is about to envelop the couple’s quaint, countryside cottage locale, the editing scheme used here sets up a thematic collection of parallel pairings which act as an illustration of the opposition between, say, the secular and the occult, lightness and darkness and the rural and the urban -- suggesting Daniel as a figure who is about to find himself precariously balanced between all of them.

At its core this is a traditional Faustian pact narrative, which begins when Daniel and his wife Maria arrive home from the publishers’ launch party celebrating the publication of the author’s new book about the occult, entitled Dark Corners, and are subjected to a harrowing Clockwork Orange-style invasion of their home by silent black-clad masked figures wielding iron bars, who proceed to film the murder of Maria on camcorder while Daniel is forced to watch her demise, powerless to intervene, his spine having been shattered during an attack which subsequently leaves him both bereaved and wheelchair-bound -- craving a vengeance he is never likely to obtain in his newly embittered state. The killers leave no clues behind them, and the police investigation soon peters out (‘no CSI magic,’ Daniel bitterly intones). One of the contributors to his recently published book, a mysterious unseen voice on the telephone called McMahon (Lockhart O’Gilvie) whom Daniel seems implicitly to trust, arranges a home visit from an enigmatic stranger by the name of Infurnari (Giles Alderson), who in turn claims to be able to offer Daniel the chance to find and then take his revenge upon those who have wronged him – but only for a special price, which unfortunately doesn’t involve the transference of money …

Infurnari looks at first glance like a sales assistant more likely to be found behind the counter of an electrical goods store, dressed in his short -sleeved shirt and jumper combo. The demonic red eyes soon give the game away though. The word vampire is never used at any point in the film (and fangs are conspicuous by their rarity), but the gory, torturous, glimpsed-only-in-flash-frame transformation process (which has a sadomasochistic element to it, highly reminiscent of some of Clive Barker’s work) that Daniel eventually agrees to undergo at Infurnari’s hand, leaves him with an inability to tolerate sunlight while nursing a deep craving for human blood that has to be sated at all costs. On the other hand, crucifixes are easily endured and Infurnari seems little detained by the vagaries of Catholicism, or any  religion for that matter, assuring Daniel that they're all just human constructions used as a device for framing a human-centric morality that means nothing to his kind, and which will soon have to be abandoned by Daniel as well.
The transformation (and this is the crucial part) also restores the use of Daniel's legs, and endows him with the handy ability of being able to pick up psychic traces and sense impressions which will help to track down the perpetrators responsible for Maria’s murder just by his being able to sniff out their sweat or traces of their blood, and to pick out other olfactory clues that the killers may have unwittingly left in their wake, but which are invisible to ordinary mortals. There’s an effective scene at this point which acts as a powerful allegory for the state of mind endured by those who are cursed by the need for vengeance: when Daniel examines the bedroom in which Maria’s death occurred, looking for a lead using his newly acute powers of perception, he is forced to relive the moment over and over again, as though he were being physically transported back to the time of the event; the deductive investigation process consequently becomes a painful and emotionally harrowing one, which keeps the wounds raw and fresh and stokes the fires of vengeance with even more fuel.
The supernatural world which Infurnari occupies is a gateway existence that represents the replacement of one set of moral values and standards with that of another, separate but apparently equally valid one; values which are visually represented by the vampiric abandonment of the daylight world, and its replacement with an existence exclusively conducted under the cloak of night. Infurnari claims that his race have never warred and never individually fight with each other, and that their occult, secret society of the supernatural is the realisation of a Utopian dream that’s far removed from and infinitely superior to anything in the human world, which is defined by the ugly horrors its peoples are capable of inflicting upon each-other almost as a matter of routine. To emphasise such a claim, the film also follows the progress of the three housebreaking masked intruders responsible for Maria’s murder, and reveals them not to be the imposing, diabolical satanic creatures of the night they appeared when they were kitted out in their all-black hooded uniforms and expressionless white masks, but instead merely a bunch of opportunistic, moronic small-time villains -- out to make a quick buck by peddling homemade snuff videos to a fat, greasy-haired gangster called Roy (Tim J. Henley).

In many ways, these three unkempt villains, played by Paul Jacques, Wesley McCarthy and Matthew Thorn, are the best thing in the film: a brutal, emotionally stunted trio of louts who even get ridiculed and chastised by their equally unbecoming ‘business partner’ for still dressing like chavs even though they’re all now well into their thirties! The fact that one of them (the nominal leader of the troupe) looks disconcertingly like Carl Pilkington is just the icing on the cake that spells out ‘losers’ in large sugar-coated lettering. These unlikable yobs have their own distinct code of conduct which sets them in opposition to anyone outside their enclosed estate of cramped tower block apartments and late-night dockside meeting places. At one stage the group ponder who they should make the subjects of their next ‘snuff’ project after having filmed a series of street muggings in their local vicinity at night, and end up deciding that they won’t prey on ‘their own kind’ anymore -- meaning those others who dwell amongst the twilight maze of underpasses and flyovers which surround the blocks of flats on the housing estates in which they themselves live.
People such as Daniel and Maria on the other hand, lead a life so far removed from their own that the gang have next to no empathy with them as human beings, and think nothing of carrying out the kinds of atrocities we’ve already seen result in Maria’s death and which later become voyeuristic material for Roy’s clientele. They’re the ‘underclass’ of tabloid mythology rendered here larger than life: out to 'happy-slap' you for delinquent kicks; lurking on darkened street corners waiting to follow you home. Except that their latest little money-making venture takes them right into the heart of the well-heeled existence of their middle class prey.
The street gang’s inability to empathise with people from other social strata can be parallelled with Infurnari’s lack of moral feeling for the human beings whose lives he needs to extinguish in order to perpetuate his own existence. In this version of vampire lore, humans can’t be turned by being bitten (that requires the special occult processes of bodily reconstruction which were seen being performed on Daniel earlier) – instead they are merely a source of nourishment and food. Infurnari compares his attitude to humanity to that of most people towards animals: we might entertain a certain fondness for our furry friends, but in most people that fondness exists perfectly comfortably alongside the idea of killing other creatures for their meat, without causing any moral disquiet whatsoever. But this, of course, is not true for everyone; and Daniel finds himself attempting to balance on a precarious moral seesaw thanks to the conversion process which has allowed him this opportunity to exact a bloody revenge upon his wife’s unrepentant tormentors, but which also obliges him to feed on sometimes perfectly innocent human beings in order to continue to exist at all.

Daniel’s attempt to reconcile his disgust with the moral vacuity of the killers he seeks out during the final act of the film with his own lust for the blood of the young care assistant, Fiona (Sophie Linfield) (who has so assiduously looked after him previously, during his anguished convalescence), and Infurnari’s insistence that he should give up any thought of possessing a moral obligation to humans now that he has been made anew, is the dilemma which lies at the heart of the film: for if Daniel were to truly extinguish all human sentiment, as Infurnari demands of him, then he would no longer have any compulsion to make the killers pay for the crimes they committed against his wife – and that is still what drives him onward, even despite an ugly scene, staged in his own kitchen, in which he is forced to gut and drain an unfortunate innocent of their life-blood.

This low budget offering addresses some interesting concerns, but doesn’t in the end entirely quite follow them through satisfactorily and settles for merely enacting clichés several times too often. I would also have liked more background on the Fiona character; she is perfectly sympathetic as far as she goes thanks to Sophie Linfield’s performance, yet the character is always overshadowed a bit too heavily by Daniel and Infurnari’s vaguely homoerotic relationship; we never get to know anything of her life outside her apparently boundless concern for Daniel’s welfare, which as a trait becomes just enough to allow her to play the role assigned to her in the script as a possible victim who is quite plainly entirely undeserving of the potential fate Infurnari would mark out for her; yet she is never allowed to become fully rounded enough to make the dilemma as acute and as impossible for Daniel as it should be. I found Giles Alderson’s Infurnari a bit too clean-cut and wholesome for someone who is supposedly a representative of a Nietzschean super-race of occult beings and the inexperienced cast also occasionally struggle to sell some of the gauche dialogue which has a tendency to clatter out of Milburn’s typewriter.

Other irritations revolve around the use of wholly unrealistic CGI blood splashes (the film would have been infinitely better off with no blood at all rather than the unconvincing animated variety seen here) and some missed opportunities to expand the narrative with regard to the Sean McMahon character, who is described at the start of the film as having been Daniel’s most forthcoming contributor of occult materials during the author’s researching of his book, and who even gets a thank you at the launch party. He is also the one who fixes up Daniel’s meeting with Infurnari  over the phone after the death of his wife, yet there is never any more of an explanation than that regarding the nature of his involvement in proceedings. Right up till the final moments I was expecting a last minute twist of some kind in relation to this character, but it never comes!

Nevertheless, the film comes over as a professional production despite its evident low budget giving it the air of a TV drama episode from about ten years ago. Jeremy Howard’s score is effective and the film even gets a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a sound design that helps considerably to sell its low-rent effects. On the commentary track, which is included on the DVD from Monster Pictures, Milburn and Biggins talk about the difficulties they encountered  on this, their debut effort and offer advice to other first-time filmmakers on script writing, casting and location scouting. The picturesque stone cottage which provides the location for Daniel and Maria’s countryside home was only found a week before the start of filming, which resulted in any storyboarding already worked out by Milburn and director of photography Samuel Stewart having to be thrown out. To be fair, most of their problems seem to have been the result of a very low budget forcing them to dispense with the services of casting directors and location managers etc., so their anecdotes can only serve to relay a summary of the kinds of problems anyone attempting to make a film with very little money will inevitably also have to expect to encounter.

The DVD also comes with trailers, goof reels, deleted scenes and an interview with the director accompanied by some behind-the-scenes footage, again designed to act as a mini demonstration reel for the budding director just out of film school, in which Milburn expounds on his own experiences of the casting process, his attitude on set during the shoot, the post production process (including editing and sound designing) and the kinds of problems one can expect to encounter on a day-to-day basis when shooting any low budget film.  The disc also includes Milburn’s comedy short Speechless which was long-listed for a BAFTA in 2012 and has won numerous awards since its release on the international festival circuit last year. It demonstrates the director’s talents are developing fast and is in fact a much more confident production than the main feature. If Milburn continues to work in the horror genre we could be seeing great things from him in the near future.



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