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Mum & Dad (2008)
28th Dec 08
In a house situated at the end of a Heathrow runway, a bizarre family keep a young Polish immigrant girl against her will.
How great it felt to have been a member of one of the first audiences to witness this giant leap for homegrown, low budget horror. At Frightfest 08, Steven Sheil's kitchen sink carnage received the warm reception it rightly deserved; the brutally riveting horror debut had the audience stunned with its sordid take on family values and I wasn't the only one giving the thumbs up when I had a video camera pointed in my face afterwards.
At a Heathrow airport terminal, we are introduced to Lena, a Polish immigrant cleaner, who strikes up a rapport with her chatterbox colleague, Birdie. When Lena misses the last bus home, Birdie invites her to a little house just past the end of the runway to meet Mum and Dad, and her life will never be the same again. Once inside, she is knocked unconscious before being injected in the throat with a chemical which prevents her from screaming (or talking). She is then chained up in a dilapidated room and subjected to sadistic treatment by Mum, which includes the insertion of knitting needles through folds of her flesh, and slicing through her skin.
This isn't simple 'torture porn' (as an alarming amount of critics have labelled it), but a cruel behavioural modification programme, tried and tested previously on Birdie and her 'brother' Elbie, to create Mum and Dad's seriously fucked-up vision of the perfect family. Their objectives are as simple as their techniques are perverse, and soon Lena shows signs of conforming into their vision of the perfect daughter; it's in her best interests, otherwise she'll undergo the wrath of Dad, who has a penchant for shutting her up inside a suitcase and bashing it with a mallet. Thankfully, Lena still has some fight left, therefore full integration into the atypical household may not be her only option...
Sheil's powerful and provocative debut doesn't make for easy viewing, and while it features the kind of shocking violence you may have seen in genre pieces from other countries, its realistic depiction is refreshingly new. This is mostly down to the urban, working class context in which Sheil sets his story, recalling the work of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, albeit with less wholesome characters. Credit for this not only goes to Sheil (who also wrote), but the outstanding small cast he has assembled; it's so great to see Perry Benson flexing the flab as Dad; everything about him makes you feel uneasy as a viewer (even when he's being nice, which isn't often), while Dido Miles also excels as Mum, twisted nurturer and unorthodox skin artist.
The first venture for Microwave Films (is that why there are loads of microwaves in the kitchen?), a new UK based company aiming to bring home-grown films in at under £100,000 a piece, Mum & Dad is a triumphant starting point which will be hard to top. The film makers haven't aimed too high here, or attempted to venture beyond what the meager budget allows. Which essentially means all us horror fans don't have to sit and wretch while being shown two-bit CGI effects which do more harm than good. Rather, we happily wretch at grimly realised old school gore, never inappropriately portrayed with comic-style extravagance, seeming every bit as authentic as those torn, plastic carrier bags stuck to the barbed wire at the end of the Heathrow runway.
Sheil's unique location for the tale is a masterstroke, lending a firm identity to what could be just another genre film. The small, terraced house is just off the busy runway, the almost constant sound of rumbling jets overhead serves as a bleak reminder of the setting, even being used to maximise impact during moments of extreme terror (the sound of popping bubble-wrap is another highlight). Details in sound design like this help Mum & Dad shine; a reminder of how resourcefulness can eclipse budget limitations.
You're likely to find yourself laughing nervously in defence when confronted by Mum & Dad's unrelenting brand of unpleasantness, but this certainly doesn't appear to be unintentional. There is just enough pitch black humour running throughout the script to momentarily give you relief when your senses are feeling pummelled by Dad's favourite mallet ("Not that one, the big one!"), especially during the uniquely memorable Yuletide celebrations in the final reel. Credit must also go to production designer Jess Alexander here, for creating the deliciously macabre Christmas decorations, not to mention the rooms upstairs.
Parallels to sublime celluloid ‘family’ nightmares like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre haven’t gone unnoticed by the general public, but I guess if you’re going to draw from any influences, then why not start with the best? While Mum & Dad doesn’t showcase masses of originality, it manages to conjure a relatively unique vision from the first time director. If home-grown horror was always of this calibre, we wouldn’t need to look elsewhere. Though I’m sure we would, anyway. Because we're worth it.
Mum & Dad will be released in UK cinemas, as well as on rental and retail DVD, Sky Box Office, VoD (FilmFlex) and Internet Download (BlinkBox and Love Film) on 26th December 2008.