Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but I absolutely love films dealing with schizophrenia. For some reason, I really enjoy the journey through a fragmented mind many of these films take me on. Or it could be because so many of the films dealing with the subject are just so damn good. Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven, and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence are all honestly among my favorite films of all time. So it was with great anticipation that I went into Simon Rumley’s The Living and the Dead. While I never believed it would be on the same level as the aforementioned films, I did have high hopes, and my expectations were pretty much met. Surprisingly enough, if not for a couple of missteps along the way, the film could possibly have been a classic.
Donald Brocklebank’s life isn’t exactly an easy one. His wife Nancy is severely sick and bedridden, and his son James is a schizophrenic with a myriad of mental health problems. On top of that, the financial burden of taking care of them has caused bankruptcy to come knocking on the door, and he’s forced to sell the manor in which they live to keep his head above water. Donald must go to London to finalize the deal, so he arranges for the family nurse, Mary, to look after his wife and son while he’s away. James is insistent on taking care of his mother while his father is away, as the only thing in the world he wants is his father to be proud of him. Donald refuses however, knowing that James can barely take care of himself due to his illness.
With Donald gone, James decides he’s going to prove that he’s more than capable of being the “man of the house”. Once his father leaves, James deadlocks all of the doors so Nurse Mary can’t enter the house, and proceeds to take on the job of caring for his mother. He lies to his mother, saying Mary called and couldn’t make it, while in reality he’s taken the phone off of the hook. Without Donald there to supervise, James begins skipping his medicine each day, and starts a downward spiral into delirium accompanied by terrible hallucinations. With the doors locked and the phone off the hook, no one knows what’s going on inside the house, and how much danger James and his mother are truly in.
The Living and the Dead is easily one of the most unnerving and disturbing films I’ve come across in some time. The decent into madness the viewer is led down alongside James is nothing short of harrowing, and will leave a lasting impression for some time after the credits roll. This is in no way a feel good film; it’s not something I would ever recommend to someone looking for a fun time. But that’s not really the films intention…it wants to be distressing and it wants to get under your skin, and it does so amazingly. The subtle nature of the film, and the way much of the cinematography is stationary, makes you feel like a helpless spectator to events in which you have no control over.
A film about mental instability really hinges on whether the actor that plays the role of the disturbed individual can pull it off or not. For the most part, Leo Bill does a wonderful job of pulling you into the lunatic world of James. He successfully manages to create a believable man-child without it coming off too forced or artificial. His maniacal mood swings are chillingly convincing, and his moments of lucidity and compassion are heartfelt. Bill has managed to create a character that you’ll feel a host of various emotions for throughout the films runtime, which is certainly a very admirable achievement. There are some moments where the performance does feel a touch over-the-top; it will really all depend on how immersed you find yourself in the character. Even if you do find bits and pieces of it to be contrived, there’s always something absolutely torrid around the corner that will quickly make you forget about any nuances that didn’t sit well with you.
Director Simon Rumley completely nails the films atmosphere by way of location, which is vital to a claustrophobic film like The Living and the Dead. The manor in which they live, named Longleigh House, takes on the role of a fourth main character. The house is so vast that certain rooms are in terrible disrepair, there are winding corridors, and badly lit underground passages that one must pass through to get to various other locations in the house. Seeing James make his way around the house is almost like watching a physical manifestation of his scattered thoughts and emotions as they slowly sink deeper and deeper into madness. Likewise, the house is isolated, tucked away on a massive piece of land that seems to be void of all human life outside of the family that resides there. Just as the viewer will feel like a powerless voyeur, the characters are also trapped inside their own little corner of the world.
With everything that’s so right with The Living and the Dead, it’s a real shame that a couple ill-advised choices mire an otherwise incredible experience. To convey James' rapidly deteriorating psychological welfare, he chose to use the hyper-stylized techniques used in Requiem for a Dream’s drug-induced scenes. I would have forgiven it if it had been used sparingly, but it’s used repeatedly, and it quickly loses all impact. To see James moving about the house in this fashion, it comes off a lot more comical than anything else, and seems like it was ripped out of a skit on The Benny Hill Show. It seriously began to intrude on my enjoyment of the film after the first few times I was subjected to it. The atmosphere of the film and the excellent performances from all involved were more than enough to get the films point across without having to resort to cheap camera trickery. It’s just too bad no one was able to tell Rumley otherwise, as the film would have been much better off without it.
Regardless of this gripe, The Living and the Dead is still a bleak, frightening, and affecting film that anyone with a remote interest in films dealing with mental illness will find adequately rewarding. Some will surely find the subject matter to be daunting, and those willing to absorb themselves within the narrative will need to do a bit of puzzle-solving to get the most out of it, but it’s ultimately a worthwhile trip into dementia.
TLA Releasing’s DVD of The Living and the Dead, released under their Danger After Dark label, is quite the nice package. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks wonderful. Audio comes in both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The 5.1 track does a nice job of immersing you in the world of the film, with a lot of ambient background noise. The 2.0 track may be a touch crisper when it comes to dialogue though.
There’s a good amount of extras, starting off with a making of featurette that runs under a half-hour. It seems like a special that may have been produced for UK television, like the “sneak-peek” deals we get here in the states on channels like HBO and Showtime. Narration of the feature is rather dry, but the portions featuring Rumley are quite good. He explains that he made the film due to his mother dying of cancer, which really gives a nice insight on some of the themes played with during the film. Also included are some deleted scenes, which are mostly just extended takes of scenes present in the final cut, as well as a short film directed by Rumley entitled “Laughter”, which tries way too hard to be arthouse for its own good. A stills gallery and trailers for the film as well as other TLA releases close out the disc.
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