Monday, July 5, 2010

The Living And The Dead: Things Fall Apart

Horror movies don't just evoke horror, as I probably beat to death in my last post. Horror is sometimes described as a combination of fear and loathing, and if you break that down into its component parts, there are a lot of variants and nuances on those two feelings. Maybe it's more tension or anxiety, or maybe it's more disgust or revulsion. It could be a sudden realization, it could be slow comprehension.  There are a lot of ways to be scared.

What The Living and the Dead does - and does very well - is use escalating feelings of helplessness and disorientation, along with sharply drawn shame and tragedy, to broaden horror's vocabulary.

The film opens with a graying, stubbled man staring blankly out of a window. In the distance, an ambulance approaches. We will keep returning to this moment throughout the movie. It takes the entire movie for the ambulance to reach the man at the window. The Living and the Dead operates in a space where time and experience are out of joint. It is a world in free fall.

The man at the window is Donald Brocklebank (the former Lord Brocklebank). He is staring out the window of the ancestral stately home, Longleigh House. Something terrible has happened. There is no light in his eyes. This is a man surveying ruins. Before we can ask even the first question about this man, the scene shifts to a more vital Donald, trying to make arrangements and conduct business while leaving his house for a trip. Donald is the former Lord Brocklebank because his family's estate is very close to being bankrupt. All he has left is the ancestral home, his wife, and his son.

The home is stripped bare - empty, echoing rooms, scuffs on the walls mark where paintings once were. The estate has been sold off piece by piece, and Longleigh House will go soon. His wife, Nancy, is gravely ill with what seems to be terminal cancer. Their lack of money means that Nancy cannot get an operation and Donald is going into town to sign away Longleigh House to pay for her surgery. Before he can, though, he must arrange for someone to look after his son, James. James is fully grown, but profoundly mentally ill. He requires a great deal of care and medication on a strict schedule. James is incapable of caring for himself, but insists on being allowed to act as the man of the house while his father is away, a grown man whining and throwing a five-year-old's tantrum. Donald explains, with the patience of a man who has said these same things over and over and over again without end, that the visiting nurse will be taking care of both him and his mother while he is away.

If this were some sort of commentary on Britain's class system, it would be so obvious as to be painful: The stately home with nothing on the inside, the lord with nothing left but a title, the dying mother and the idiot son. But that isn't the point, fortunately. It's just the setting. It could be any family in dire straits. It could be a far-flung McMansion in a half-developed planned community after the housing bubble burst. What's important is what comes next.

The visiting nurse is running late but Donald has to leave to get to town before offices close. So, reluctantly, Donald leaves before the nurse arrives, after carefully and patiently explaining to James that he is to let the nurse in when she gets there. Instead, James locks the nurse out, so that he can prove to his father once and for all that he is capable of being the man of the house.

Nancy - close to terminal and bedridden - is now at the mercy of a man who cannot even function at the level of a small child without powerful doses of antipsychotics and sedatives.

This is when things go very, very bad, and our understanding of conventional time and narrative begin to slip. James has little to no sense of time, and once the doors are locked, we are in his world. Time does not move, unless it moves at a manic blur. It is not a world of dosing schedules. It is a world where James cannot remember if he took his pill or not, or if he gave Mum her pills or not, so maybe everyone should get more pills, just in case. Maybe Mum should get James' pills too, because if they help James, they should help Mum too. Nancy is barely hanging on as it is, and in a series of hours, in a few rooms, she is tortured by the last person who would ever want to hurt her, and nobody can do anything about it.

Everything spirals further and further away - time peels away, causality peels away, rationality peels away, until all that is left is feverish psychosis, a tortured scream, and the still center. If this were the entire story, it would be horrifying enough, but there are twists and then there are twists, and throughout, we return to Donald, a face at the window, a man for whom everything has fallen away in one moment. There are no ghosts or monsters here, but the house and the man within are no less haunted. And we are no less frightened by all of it.

IMDB entry
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Available from Netflix


  1. Hey, you should check the message boards at this movie's page on imdb. There's actually a huge twist that I guess you didn't notice here - and neither did I on the first watch, tbh.

  2. Sweet Jesus, I hadn't even thought of that. Now I have to go back and watch it again. Thanks for the heads-up, Anonymous!