I have come to find as of late that films directed by non-genre filmmakers are often scarier than those made by seasoned genre veterans. Not to say that horror directors have lost their touch, but I think there is some part buried deep within the subconscious of every horror aficionado that silently attempts to steer their films toward the standards of what is traditionally considered scary, to secretly make them more like the films they were afraid of growing up. Unless these intuitive influences are intentionally ignored, even the most extreme exercises in terror still have somewhat of a similar horror movie ?feel? to them.
Filmmakers who don?t normally work within the boundaries of the genre don?t seem to have that problem, most likely because they don?t necessarily think within the confines of what customarily needs to be in a scary movie. Since they?re not as concerned with inserting familiar conventions to please long time fans, they?re free to explore the depths of what they find truly scary, whether it lives up to horror film expectations or not. Such is the case with writer/director Simon Rumley (whose prior work has mainly been comedy and drama) and his film The Living and the Dead, a dark, disturbing foray into death, terror, and mental illness.
Donald Brocklebank has a lot to deal with. Not only must he care for his wife Nancy, bed ridden after being stricken with a terminal illness, but he also has to look after his son James, who suffers from an advanced degree of schizophrenia and is required to take copious amounts of prescription drugs in order to retain some degree of self control. When Donald is forced to leave for a weekend in order to try to sell the dilapidated rural estate they inhabit, he entrusts them both into the care of the family?s medical attendant, Nurse Mary. Unfortunately for everyone involved, James decides not long after his father leaves that he will prove to his parents that he is responsible enough to be the ?man of the house? for the weekend, in charge of both himself and his mother, and locks all the doors so Nurse Mary can?t gain entrance.
He stops taking his medication, meanwhile increasing the dosage of his mothers, thinking that the more pills she takes the quicker she will regain her health. Things then begin to spiral rapidly out of control as James leaps back and forth from mind racing hyperactivity to near comatose blackouts, his grip on what is real and what is not slipping away in the process, leaving him in a state where he is completely unable to care for himself, let alone his mother.
Director Rumley conceived the idea for the plot while watching his own mother battle with terminal cancer and that level of personal experience with the subject definitely shows through in the film. Only someone who knows the emotions involved with making sure a loved one is given proper medical care first hand could have written them here in such a true to life manner. The feelings depicted are incredibly authentic, such as the frustration felt by Donald as he tries his best to balance his responsibilities and hold the family together, and James, who wants only to be a normal person and make his parents proud. It?s the conflict between this very natural need for approval and the affliction which keeps him from being completely capable that makes the film so frustrating (in a good way). No one can blame James for wanting to help take care of his mother, yet we know from the start that it will only make things worse.
This idea of James? mental instability being the antagonist responsible for setting the horrific chain of events into motion, the films monster essentially, is a rather innovative concept. While some viewers might feel as though it doesn?t seem entirely fair to those who are actually afflicted with a mental illness, considering it is a disease and something over which they have no power, it?s nevertheless that same lack of control which really drives home the truly troubling nature of the scenario.
What makes the film so unsettling is its realism, as though events not entirely identical, but very similar, could (and at some point more than likely did) happen. The final plot twist, however, does come off as a little unnecessary and excessive; with Rumley trying to make more than certain that the lives of every single character are ruined. The film also incorporates some nice stylistic touches that accentuate the frantic shift in pacing between James? mental ups and downs as well as a good dose of spooky gothic atmosphere, a la psycho chillers like Dementia 13, provided by the backdrop of the crumbling mansion.
Those looking for a little something extra in their scary movies should definitely consider The Living and the Dead. It?s the kind of film which will leave something with you; a small part embedding itself in your brain to come back and haunt you later. Not only is it an unnervingly eerie psychological thriller, but also a complex, thought provoking look at the very real horrors of mental illness.
The Living and the Dead is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.