Habit (2017)

Habit first published by Sight & Sound, August 2018

Review: Adapted by Simeon Halligan from Stephen McGeagh’s 2012 novel, Habit follows the template established by Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) of starting off as one kind of film before jumping the genre border – in a sex club – at the halfway point. Even the title, slyly borrowed from Larry Fessenden’s thematically similar film from 1995, hints at where things are headed, while the presence at the helm of Halligan (director of Splintered, 2010 and White Settlers, 2014, and founder of Manchester’s Grimmfest) brings expectations of horror. Yet for a while, Habit offers a portrait of deprivation and exclusion in a readily identifiable mode of social realism, as we watch Michael (Elliot James Langridge) – very much the damaged product of childhood tragedy – drifting fecklessly between dole office and pub, and ever towards escapist excess and trouble. His older sister Mand (Sally Carman) is his lifeline and his ‘guardian angel’, occasionally helping him out for money and keeping him more or less on the straight and narrow – but just as Mand starts losing her patience with his drunken irresponsibility, Michael meets strange young stray Lee (Jessica Bardem), and through her finds a new family for himself in the Manchester underworld.

“I’m not hungry,” Michael insists when Lee buys hims some chips – but he is soon devouring them with her. For in Michael’s palpable sense of abandonment and loss, Lee is quick to recognise a kindred emptiness and appetite. This will be filled by the seedy massage parlour Cloud 9 – a house of orgiastic, carnal pleasures – managed by Lee’s uncle Ian (William Ash). Soon Michael is manning the door and being integrated into the small community that works there, in spite, or perhaps because, of his awareness that the parlour operates beyond the legal and moral norms of a society in which, for all his sister’s best efforts, he has never fit anyway. As such, it is clear that Habit is a noir-tinged allegory of Britain’s marginalised underclass, left to its own devices, living hand to mouth and running (on empty) very much outside the system. The vehicle of this allegory certainly gestures towards familiar horror tropes, but the film never quite crosses over to the supernatural, ensuring that its essential naturalism can remain relatively intact. 

Here the hunger, though somewhat vampiric or cannibalistic, is less an innate or transmitted condition of monstrousness than a special kind of dog-eat-dog communion amongst society’s excommunicated – a bond of transgressive indulgence through which the dispossessed find mutual connection and feed their desperation for empowerment. One might suppose, because of the brothel setting and the ensemble of female sex workers, that this will fall into the tradition of low-brow contemporary British comedy horrors like Phil Claydon’s Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), Steven Lawson’s Dead Cert (2010), Jonathan Glendening’s Strippers vs Werewolves (2012) or Christian James Fanged Up (2017), designed to appeal to a certain “lads’ mag” sensibility. Instead, with its serious tone and subtextual heft, Halligan’s neon-lit film is more akin to Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2012), and the better for it.

Synopsis: Manchester, present day. On his way into the job centre, feckless Michael encounters Lee getting kicked out. Later, Lee asks if she can stay on the floor of the apartment that Michael shares with the even more irresponsible Dig. That night out clubbing, Michael disappoints his older sister Mand with his drunken behaviour. Lee takes Michael to Cloud 9, a massage parlour cum brothel managed by her uncle Ian, and asks Ian if he has work for Michael. Later, Michael returns to see seductive masseuse Alex, but is interrupted when another client staggers in with his throat slit. Horrified, Michael wants to go to the police, but relents when Ian offers him the doorman’s job. Michael likes the cash in hand and his co-workers, who Lee insists are now ‘family’ (Michael’s own mother committed suicide when he was a child). Gangland boss Grant sexually abuses Lee. Michael sees Ian, Lee and the other staff devouring a client in the basement, and though sickened, joins in the orgiastic feasting. Learning that other local clubs also hold illicit feasts, Michael attends one instead of answering a call for help from Mand. Depressed, Mand dies of an overdose. Michael agrees to help Ian murder Grant, but his hesitation lets Grant phone his henchmen before being killed. Armed henchmen come to Cloud 9 and shoot Ian and Alex. Michael and Lee flee, helped by a cannibal cabbie, and catch a train out of Manchester.      

© Anton Bitel