First published in S&S June 2012
Synopsis: After the launch of his book on the occult, Daniel Shergold is left for dead (and his wife Maria beaten to death) by a gang of three masked home invaders – Tom, his brother Steve and Randall, who are videotaping ‘snuff’ assaults for gangster Roy. Four months later, house- and wheelchair-bound Daniel is still traumatised by nightmare flashbacks and bitterly enraged, with carer Fiona his only link to the outside world. Late one night, on the recommendation of an occult research consultant, Daniel lets in the enigmatic Infurnari, who offers to deliver the ‘monsters’ who ruined Daniel’s life – at a price. Daniel accepts – and wakes up alone. The next night Infurnari visits again, warning Daniel to dismiss Fiona. After devouring some raw meat from the fridge, Daniel awakens standing, but collapses before a ray of sunlight, and sleeps all day. That evening, Fiona is amazed to see Daniel walking. Daniel resists attacking her, and she flees – only to be killed by Infurnari. Daniel is horrified, and after reluctantly drinking Fiona’s blood, asks Infurnari to stay away.
Using supernatural predatory powers, Daniel tracks and kills Steve, leaving a message for the others to come finish what they started. As the gang enters Daniel’s dark house, with Randall still opportunistically videotaping events, the unnaturally fast Daniel picks off several henchmen in the dark. Shot in the head by Tom, Daniel does not die and, now bound, survives multiple stab wounds. Infurnari appears and helps Daniel overpower and kill Roy, Tom and Randall. His bloodlust now sated, Daniel refuses to join Infurnari’s circle, preferring instead to scatter Maria’s ashes and mingle with them as the dawn sun disintegrates him.
Review: The Harsh Light of Day joins a growing number of recent British films – Philip Ridley’s Heartless (2009), Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), Christian Solimeno’s The Glass Man (2011), Sean Hogan’s The Devil’s Business (2011) – that bring social and psychological realism into a Faustian pact with more genre-bound motifs. For in Oliver S. Milburn’s feature debut, Daniel Shergood (Dan Richardson), author of a newly published occult study entitled ‘Dark Corners’, is about to find himself pushed into his own, as a trio of masked ‘snuff film’ makers, drawn to the lights on in his cosy middle-class cottage, leave him widowed, crippled, and bitterly fixated on exacting bloody revenge. Little wonder, then, that this troubled, down-trodden man, like the bullied Oskar in Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008), should conjure up a dark stranger to help sort out his problems.
Whether Daniel’s enigmatic visitor Infurnari (Giles Anderson) is real flesh and blood or merely a product of the author’s shadowy imagination, this creature of the night becomes a convenient dramatic vehicle for the psychological and moral conflicts faced by Daniel, and so ends up, to borrow the description of Daniel’s own writings by his publisher in the film’s opening scene, “not so much disproving myths as showing their importance as fictions.” With his newly acquired aversion to sunlight, his superhuman invulnerability and his predatory bloodlust, Daniel has half-willingly been turned by Infurnari into a vengeful vampire (although the word ‘vampire’ is never uttered in the film). It hardly matters that Daniel continues to have a reflection, is unaffected by crucifixes, and suffers from a condition that Infurnari himself insists is “not a disease… you can’t get it from a bite.” For Daniel’s particular brand of revamped vamprirism serves as an effective metaphor for his marginalisation and impossible craving for violent retribution – and what really counts, once Daniel has willingly entered his deal with the devil, is his struggle to remain human and to expose his darkest fantasies to the titular ‘harsh light of day’.
Daniel’s long dark night(s) of the soul will take him from the isolated country house and coastal cliffs that are his natural haunts to the altogether less rarefied urban locations where he goes to hunt his prey. These contrasting settings (both containing their own ‘monsters’) demarcate a clash of class and genre, as the naturalism of lowlife criminality collides with the supernaturalism of high gothic, and the intense snuff drama of Gareth Evans’ Footsteps (2006), the revenger’s tragedy of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and the home invasion thrills of Paul Andrew Williams’ Cherry Tree Lane (2010) are all ‘turned’ into undead allegory. It is ironic, then, that Milburn’s supposedly grittier dramatis personae – the trio of camera-happy housebreakers (Paul Jaques, Wesley McCarthy, Matthew Thom) and their gangland boss (Tim J. Henley) – prove far less convincing as characters than Daniel or even the otherworldly Infurnari. They are not helped by their perfunctory dialogue and cartoonish performances which might, if one were feeling particularly generous, be regarded as reflecting the poverty of Daniel’s own imagination in fleshing out his masked assailants’ existences. Yet if newcomer Milburn is at times let down by his own writing, he shows real talent in using chronological disjunctures and evocative match cuts to create an uncanny (and economic) mode of visual storytelling where in-camera trickery and intelligent editing are privileged over invasive special effects or gratuitous gore. Here vampirism is less an actual affliction than an idea of inhumanity, dispelled into thin air as reality dawns.