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A descent into Hell is triggered when "Ex-Lord" Donald Brocklebank finds that he must leave Longleigh House for London to find a way to pay for the medical treatments for his wife Nancy. Alone, his over-protected, delusional, adult son, James, fancies himself in charge of the manor house with his terminally ill mother, and barricades the two of them into the house for a series of ever more panicked home treatments, mistakenly protecting her from the arrival of Nurse Mary and any outside help. Written by
The Longleigh House location was once a World War I hospital, the Hawtreys School for young men, and then was run as a drug rehabilitation clinic. Local reports are that at least three ghosts, an old woman, a soldier, and a child who fell 75 feet while sliding down the banisters, still inhabit the Tottenham House near Savernake, England. See more »
Hello? Hello? Yes, yes I know. No, I didn't know that. No, that's not good at all. No, she doesn't know. Hmm. Hmm. Exactly. Okay, goodbye.
They going to make it?
No, they're not.
Can I look after mummy this time.
I'm not going away.
But you always say that, you always do.
Some one's at the door!
Stop James, I said stop!
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Unbearable and exhausting for all the right reasons, The Living and the Dead was a bolt from the blue that gripped me.
I think it would be fair to say The Living and the Dead had me held in some sort of blind terror for more often than not. The film is so outrageous in the places it goes and the manner in which it acts when it gets there, that it's impossible to merely put aside the watching experience having seen it. The film is a freak-show, yes, of characters; visual tricks and constructed scares, but a calculated and carefully constructed one: one that I think will tap into a nerve within, whether you're a veteran of many-a horror films or not. The film is something like a little under an hour and half long, but when it had ended, felt as if it had clocked in at something like three hours; such is the grip of terror and unease I was in. Like a hypnosis session in which you're out for the count for all of about thirty minutes, but the deep-rooted places you may have been to during that time unearthing such discomfort and a sense of feeling, that the whole process feels like half a day's gone by.
The film's premise sees it set up a perilous exchange between a middle aged mother and her twenty-something son in a large, pre-modern and isolated house in the country. She's physically unwell, suffering from some sort of extreme form of M.E. whilst he's a scatty, eccentric schizophrenic whose mannerism; movements and vocal tone is wildly inconsistent and unnerving. The mother is Nancy (Fahy), the son is James (Bill) and the family name is Brocklebank; something that I think instills a certain amount of pride into the household as father and husband of the piece Donald (Lloyd-Pack) seems to furiously defend them and their right to house there by way of a number of conversations over the phone with someone. It's this someone Donald must leave the property to venture out and see, and it's from here that most of the trouble unfolds.
The film's tone is unbearably downbeat, beginning in the present tense with a greyed out Donald covered in injuries as he observes an ambulance advance down his property's long, lonely driveway towards him. His face is glum, rueful and regretful and a perfect teeing up for the events the film covers in instilling a sense that something's up: he's thinking that leaving that final time was a big mistake. In flashing back to better times, certainly the best times either of these characters find themselves in throughout the film, it's revealed Donald cared for both his wife and son accordingly; with the early exchanges coming across as calm and methodical in their feeling and construction what with static camera work and long takes. This is in stark contrast to when James takes over as the self proclaimed "man of the house", a title actor Leo Bill does well in his character's mixture of pleading and exclaiming, in what is a desperate attempt to try and prove to his parents that he's able to take on responsibility. The danger signs in this lie within the fact his strict medication diet of various pills and vaccine shots sit uneasily with the fact he's commanded by his father to hide from visitors and avoid the newspaper, instilling a certain child-like sensibility to him and acting as triggers to stoke a fire of warning.
Leo Bill plays James as a sort of pastiche of Rik Mayall's character from popular 1990's British TV show 'Bottom', only rendered schizophrenic and far more mentally ill. Early on, I wondered if the man had an agenda; whether or not he was at all homicidal and indeed hated his mother which added to an intense element of unease. As the film switches perspectives in carer, a gradual shift in emphasis onto James becomes apparent in the conventions writer/director Simon Rumley applies. In switching from a mainly static camera complete with long takes which took prior precedence, Rumley then throws sped-up footage; bizarre angles; editing as well as distorted sound effects which amalgamate to form odd music into the mix, getting across a sense of chaos and somebody seriously ill-suited for the task. Rumley's tactics of applying a disorientating and off the wall aesthetic to most of the scenes James' acts as carer beautifully but disturbingly conflicts in a highly effective manner with this large, decrepit, centuries old manor house with which you do not associate the given conventions.
There are killings in the film; somebody gets knifed and there's a fair degree of blood running on a premise that sees it bed down in one place as terror and uncanniness plays out, but don't let that lead you to think this is a Halloween sequel or some similarly underwhelming slasher film. One sequence which goes a long way in highlighting this odd combination of techniques and conventions to actually form something half-decent occurs nearer the end when, isolated and on their own, a young female supporting character creeps through the dark passages and corridors of the home unaware of what lurks around them but knowledgeable that there's a male lead, somewhere, who could very well react negatively if he sees or finds her. The whole thing is constructed like an age-old sequence in a slasher-sub genre flick, but the film sets a bar far higher. Roger Lloyd-Pack does a superb job, banishing any lingering memory you might have of him in a prior comedic role as we observe his envisaging of what might very well have gone on during his absence. Rumley's film is not all about shocks and scares; a sequence later on in which many family members have gathered in the house's main area is shot from high on up in the rafters, the camera just too embarrassed or ashamed to go to ground level and capture these people's expressions and reactions. I found The Living and the Dead to be a smart and affecting film.
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