**** out of ****
Simon Rumley’s “The Living and the Dead” is nearly indescribable in the elaborate, graphically striking ways that it manages to transcend typical genre classification and identification. I guess you could call it a horror film, but then again, the horror is all naturalistic; as they say, terror starts at home. But then, there is a very emotionally engaging dramatic story that draws us in and possibly away from the negative energy that the film gives off, pushing us closer to more positive ones. But then again, therein lies one of the best traits of the horror movie. To elicit responses both good and bad from the viewer. Bad, as in we are at the mercy of the film, and good, as in we are forever thinking about what has us at the edge of our seats. This is just how I feel, and it might not be the truth, but if it is; then I will declare this film a masterpiece. I’m not easily shaken or broken, so I can safely say that – without a doubt – Rumley has made one of the most effectively unnerving motion pictures that the modern times has to offer. It is exceptional not only as a mood piece, but also as an emotional investment. It is sad, painful, violent, frenetic, and difficult to stomach. The squeamish be damned.
This is the story of James (Leo Bill). He lives in a fancy ol’ mansion on the British countryside with his father (Roger Lloyd Pack) and his bed-ridden mummy (Kate Fahy). James has schizophrenia and must remain medicated each day to be able to claim at least (and at most) 50% of his sanity for the full twenty-four hours. He is extremely child-like, as is made obvious by the decorations set up in and around his room and his actions as well, likes to answer the phone almost obnoxiously, and loves both his parents very much; even if dad, a once-wealthy aristocrat now facing bankruptcy, does not show him the same affection in return. James tends to spend most days inside the house, locked away from the rest of the world; but both we the audience and dad know, this is for the best. On his meds, James is passive at best; but when off them, he could be a danger not only to those around him but also himself. His life is a tragic one.
Dad must go away for a few days to answer the call of what seems to be a heaven-sent bid that he hopes will ease the current financial burden of the family. He leaves James and mummy alone at home; trusting that mummy’s nurse will arrive to take care of her. Instead, James locks all the doors and insists that he take care of his mummy on his own. He’s out to prove something to his dad; something that dad would never have believed. But he hasn’t got a clue how to properly assist his mummy in everyday activities. As the days go by, the chaos gets more and more severe. James stops taking his meds, and gives mummy an overdose of her own, and so begins his downwards spiral into madness and self-destruction. James soon becomes a danger to everyone in the same room as he is. A violent mess – by the end – if you will.
What is the root of all evil? For some people it is money. For others it is politics. For the Brocklebank family, it is James’ illness. He is the subject of much embarrassment and public humiliation for his father, which is why he ceases to let his son be a part of the outside world. James means well, but he is irresponsible and should not have been trusted to stay at home with his mother and the nurse who never arrived one time to begin with. Dad was kind of foolish, in that sense. But this is not about his mistake. The film is ultimately about the deterioration of the family, in which the source is schizophrenia. How long-lasting are the effects of the disease on the ones who witness first-hand the internal horrors that it brings with it? Does the impact ever go away? Or does it remain with those whom it has so deeply reached forevermore?
The film is best in its depictions of schizophrenia as well as the atmosphere of the household. The mansion is large and expensive, but inside it is old and decadent. Nobody has cared to repair the walls that have been torn, but perhaps they are metaphorical of the blows that the family as a collective unit has endured over the years, the wounds that cannot be healed. Leo Bill is absolutely outstanding as the James character and easily gives one of the most realistic schizophrenic performances in cinema that I’ve seen to this date. It’s not one of the Hollywood/sugarcoated portrayals, it feels like the real deal from start to finish. Never does Leo feel the need to over-act or over-do the character; and he feels like a natural. And look at that; for once we get a movie about schizophrenia that really dives into the psych of its fascinatingly troubled character as well as his world of warped hallucinations. His mind-set is illustrated quite wonderfully by frantic time-lapse sequences that have James running about the house, simply getting from one place to another, and sometimes staying in one spot, but his mind is ever-racing.
Mainstream movie-going sensibilities would have you believe that movies such as this one should not be made at all. “The Living and the Dead” is a thoroughly depressing picture without a single redeemable positive emotion to it; everything it shows is either ugly or just plain grim. Rumley has made one of the most unconventionally uncomfortable films I have ever seen, and for that, I tip my hat to his work here. His desire was to disturb us and that’s exactly what he did. But the film lingers in the mind long after it is done. You hear the desperate echoes of James’ voice as it travels down the hallways of the mansion; you see the sad face of the older man who keeps appearing in the middle of events in the narrative; and you feel the dark presence of the estate as it looms over you. This is not a film that I will ever forget. I’ve watched it twice already; so it’s debatable whether it’s one that I’ll ever want to see again either. But such questioning is just a part of why it leaves its mark with such raw emotional passion.