The Farmer Takes a Knife
THE COTTAGE is a new British horror film from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, who had a critical and commercial hit in 2006 with LONDON TO BRIGHTON.
Backstory: after trying for three years to get THE COTTAGE made, PAW approached producer Rachel Robey and offered her the script of LTB, provided she got the budget (£65,000) very swiftly — he was sick of waiting.
They shot the thing with private investments, then got completion money from The Film Council’s Paul Trijbits (Richard Stanley’s bête noir) and had a festival hit on their hands.
I haven’t seen the result, but Fiona has and was very complimentary — she expected to hate it, as it’s that kind of low-budget “gritty realism” much in fashion in the UK and especially Scotland, seemingly because nobody has any idea what else cinema can be. But it also has a gripping narrative hook, and is a thriller and sort-of road movie. Fiona saw the thing at the Edinburgh Film Fest in 2006, where she attended one of the big parties and saw Rachel R being spanked by Brian DePalma (he tried to get her to sit on his lap, she refused, and received swift bottom-related justice from de palm of DePalma). Fiona relayed this gossip to me that night, and I was glibly recounting it to a friend the next day when I realised to my embarrassment that the subject of the story was sitting behind me. But Rachel is a very good sport.
After scoring with his feature debut, PAW suddenly had no trouble finding support for THE COTTAGE — The Isle of Man paid him to come to their benighted land mass to shoot it, and The Film Council stumped up a considerably greater sum. Yet Williams has sounded rather muted when “promoting” his resulting dream project in interviews.
The film is a mess. Two incompetent kidnappers (Andy “my precious” Serkis and Reece Shearsmith of TV comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen) come to the titular cottage with sweary hostage Jennifer Ellison. It’s immediately clear that the film is madly off-target. Jokey credits that fly in from all directions for no damn reason (and without any of the wit of Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST titling) and 10th generation Danny Elfman rip-off music (LOUD! HEAD-ACHY!) give way to mismatched performances from the annoying and unsympathetic characters. Serkis and Ellison are relatively naturalistic, but Shearsmith is shrill and “comedic”, which might be more appropriate to the kind of film this is, but stands out as unconnected to the other players, and is rather tiring on the ears and nerves. Inexplicably, the two kidnappers are brothers, sharing a house since childhood, but Serkis is cockney and Shearsmith clearly from Hull. Similarly, Ellison is Scouse but her step-brother, who’s in on the caper, is a soft southern bastard and amusingly middle-class to boot. Played by Steve O’Donnell, he’s the only funny one, with his constant mild air of failure although he’s party to all the “these characters are unbelievably stupid” stuff, which is a major part of the film’s massive irritation factor.
Plot holes… so many, and so glaring. Starting with the title — it’s called THE COTTAGE, and there is a cottage fairly prominent in it, but the centre of terror proves to be a farmhouse. Ellison’s gangster dad is forever on his way to wreak mayhem, but never turns up — a stab at Waiting For Godot? (Fiona’s diligant research turns up the fact that Stephen Berkoff cameos in this role after the end credits — somebody was optimisitc enough to hope the audience would stick around). The farmhouse’s occupants have some kind of backstory that’s hinted at in diaries, photos and news clippings, but it never makes sense or adds up to anything evocative. A bog-standard TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE set-up is all we really get. The role of farmer’s wife wastes the excellent Scottish actress Katy Murphy, so maybe there was more material originally. Another lacuna involves the brothers and an incident in a greenhouse from their past — referred to several times, never elucidated, and never acquiring any resonance from being kept mysterious. One character has a moth-phobia. Of course he’s confronted by masses of moths at one point, but the effect is a big “so what”? He isn’t destroyed by his fear, he doesn’t triumph over it, he just leaves the room.
Subjecting the characters to their worst nightmares is what the film is all about, I suppose. But it’s all so unimaginative — they get bones broken, bits lopped off, other bits impaled, they eventually die. It’s like a literal execution of brain-dead “script guru” Dov SS Simmons’ dictum, “send seven characters into a house and chop them up.” Not very enlightening. The complete lack of character sympathy negates suspense and helps kill laughter too. PAW tries to find some compassion for the central duo about ten minutes from the end, by which time it’s an exercise in pointlessness on a par with the rest of the film. Everybody in the story is a stereotype and they behave accordingly, with only the tiniest amount of development permitted, and no surprises anywhere. Inexplicably, the kidnap victim is portrayed as the most unpleasant of them all, in keeping with a pervasive tone of misogyny that’s completely unexamined by the script and direction.
A proper film.
It’s not FROM DUSK TILL DAWN — the music and overacting tip us off to the intended genre shift before the story’s even started. It’s not EVIL DEAD II — the violence is graphic and unpleasant, rather than cartoony and funny. It’s actually worse than CREEP, which was also full of plot holes and lacked any kind of explanation, but took itself seriously, which at least allowed for a small amount of dramatic tension.
What we have is a combination of the two genres beloved of The Film Council, genres it has consistently failed to master — the gorefest and the mockney gangster romp. Everybody got sick of the latter about eight years ago, with only SEXY BEAST winning any friends since, through its sheer demented originality. Suturing a brainless crime comedy onto a mindless splatter film does NOT make anything new or different or interesting.
I can’t work out what’s gone wrong with PAW — my best guess is that, having made LONDON TO BRIGHTON he actually found a style and tone that suited him better than his intended “crowd-pleaser”. Given the opportunity to make the film he’d hoped for, he found suddenly that it held no interest for him, was shallow and devoid of humanity compared to what he’d found himself capable of. He couldn’t bring the depth and passion of LONDON TO BRIGHTON to it because the whole idea lacked any weight or relevance to the real world (the inbred serial killers inhabit a yokel village an hour outside of modern London), was just a compendium of horror clichés put together with no love for the genre or affection for the characters. It would be torture porn only it lacks any actual sadistic relish, which in the context of this deadening mishmash would actually constitute a redeeming feature. And it’s flatly made in a joyless televisual style that confirms again the serious lack of visual literacy in the UK film industry.
I don’t LIKE using Shadowplay to be mean about films. I want British genre films to be made with love and to deliver pleasure to people who care about cinema. I can even just about tolerate something that’s mean-spirited and nasty if it shows a love of CINEMA.
Michael Powell had an expression he’d use when he saw a disappointing film, and it’s apposite here: “He didn’t teach me anything.”