Mum & Dad first published by Film4
Summary: Steven Sheil’s feature debut is a Heathrow-set riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, bringing some peculiarly English cuts to the butcher’s table.
Review: “I grew up in the shadow of Heathrow airport,” writer/director Steven Sheil tells the audience of Film4 FrightFest 2008 by way of an introduction to his feature debut Mum & Dad. “The sound that you hear in this film is the sound of my childhood.” That sound, ever-present in the film’s acoustic design, is the rumble of passing planes, and it is enough to drive you mad – literally so in the case of one family who live right under the flightpath.
Polish migrant Lena (Olga Fedori) is lured to the house by fellow airport cleaner Birdie (Ansley Howard), and soon finds herself a captive member of this nightmarish group. Mum (Dido Miles) collects children like dolls, and carves her artistic brand into them with a needle and scalpel. Not so fond of children, Dad (Perry Benson) prefers things quiet, and enforces discipline with a set of tools both sharp and blunt. Elbie (Toby Alexander) certainly likes his new sister, although he keeps his thoughts to himself, whether because he is mute, ‘spastic’ or because, as Bridie so ambiguously puts it, the cat’s got his tongue. Bridie, on the other hand, never stops talking – and she will do anything to ensure that she is not displaced by a newcomer from Mum and Dad’s hard-won affections. After all, leaving this family is even more horrific than joining it.
It could be said that domestic dysfunction and horror go together like Norman Bates and his beloved mother – but the template that Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) has set for the family that slays together has since divided itself into two distinct traditions along strictly transatlantic lines. While Britain produced Freddie Francis’ Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1969) and Pete Walker’s Frightmare (1974), America’s more influential variant came out of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Sheil’s innovation is to merge the two, making it entirely appropriate that his chosen setting should be the Ballardian interzone of an airport, where different cultures pass in the night.
Here we find the corrupted dinners and carnal sadism of Texas’ best known butchers, but also the more banal British horror of Fred and Rose West – and, adding to the film’s unhinged intensity, it is all played out as a Mike Leigh-style socially awkward tragicomedy. With a life built around theft, abduction, torture, rape, incest, murder and cannibalism, this family may be the very embodiment of perversion, but there is something in its petty rivalries, shifting hierarchies and solid cohesion when the going gets tough that will be recognisable to any family.
Sheil wisely gets down to the torment and horror quickly enough that it becomes, once the initial disorientation and shock has worn off, almost a normal, background detail, like the home’s off-colour wallpaper, there merely to offset the twisted family dynamics playing out before it. It is a strategy best illustrated in the Chritsmas lunch scene near the end, where it is difficult to know which is the more ghastly: on the one hand, truly macabre elements like the gifting of knives, the use of severed human limbs as decorations, and the presence of a semi-conscious young man nailed to the living-room wall; and on the other hand, altogether more familiar touches like the Slade-y Yuletide number on the stereo, the atmosphere of enforced mirth, the family squabbling, or Dad getting drunk even before the food has been served. You will find yourself cringing and wincing at both, and that is precisely how Sheil brings his horror into the surrreal service of broader satirical themes. In these monsters, there is a bit of everyone’s mum, dad, brother or sister – and in order to escape them, Lena must find the monster within herself too.
Whether it is a study of the English underclass, an investigation into the internal workings of abuse, or an allegory of the way Britain exploits foreign workers, Sheil’s utterly assured debut offers a disturbing slice of this nation’s life.
Verdict: Both gruellingly tense survival horror and darkly comic domestic satire, Steven Sheil’s feature debut offers fresh meat to the cannibal family subgenre.
© Anton Bitel