While it ranks as one of the greatest horror movies every made, few make the connection between familial dysfunction and the core criminal conceits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We horror fans don't care about the Sawyer clan's constant bickering. We are more enthralled by hulking homunculus Leatherface and his obsession with power tools. We don't understand the father/son/grandpa goofiness going on - we're in it for the last two parts of the title. So when British filmmaker Steven Sheil argues that his miscreant mother and father film, Mum and Dad, is "in the tradition of" the '70s grindhouse gem, he's reaching. Sure, there is a reject brood using their isolated home as a waystation for all kinds of cruel perversions, but what Saw has that Mum and Dad doesn't is originality. While based on the life of Ed Gein, no one had seen anything like the splatter drive-in classic when it came out. Sadly, for this film's sake, we've witnessed lots of this brand of cinematic sluice over the last four decades since.
Lena has recently emigrated from Poland. She's landed a job cleaning offices in Heathrow Airport. Alongside co-workers Birdie and Elbie, she is forced to navigate a garbage dump of human debris. When she misses her bus one night, her new found friends invite her to stay at their place. It's close by, as they live right off the runway. When Lena arrives in Birdie and Elbie's house, she is suspicious. No one is around, and the place seems filled with packed boxes. Before she knows it, she's knocked unconscious. Waking up in a dilapidated room, she instantly recognizes that she's been kidnapped. Even worse, she's the apparent sex slave prey of Mum, the matron of this deranged household. Along with Dad, who spends his time killing tourists and cutting up their bodies, she will be tortured, abused, and brutalized for the sake of this faux family. While she wants to escape, Birdie makes it hard for her new "sister". Only Elbie, who has grown fond of Lena, is willing to help...maybe.
There is nothing inherently wrong with first time filmmaker Steven Sheil's Mum and Dad. Again, it wants to take on frightmare familial dysfunction just like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and British films like Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, and again, there is no 'crime' in cribbing from such source material. But the big difference here is in the approach. Tobe Hooper opted to use violence and physical brutality to offset his sleaze. Sheil, on the other hand, dives right into the debauchery and never once comes up for air. This is Mum and Dad's biggest flaw - the nonstop sense of sexual loathing and grimness. Had he taken a more exploitive view of the subject, saving the more reprehensible acts for the viewer's fervid imagination, we might have a consistent cult winner on our hands. Instead, there is a level of discomfort and degradation present that predetermines our response. When a young women is molested, then cut with a blade under the promise of much, much worse to come, there is no other reaction but repulsion.
And yet this is how Mum and Dad functions. This is gross out shock value for the sake of same, Nekromantik without Jörg Buttgereit ballsy bleak worldview. When a character is caught masturbating into a bloody human heart, the blasé nature of the sequence's treatment reveals the true nature of this project. Indeed, Sheil seems imbued with the good sense to balance his brazenness with a little narrative, but once we've established the 'fictional' nature of the family and Dad's proclivity toward serial killing, a kind of stasis sets in. By the time Birdie does her third about face and double crosses Lena, we no longer care. All terror has been stripped from the staging and suspense leaks out as we realize where this narrative is headed. All we need is the escape hatch, the parameters of such a struggle, and the final given 'gotcha' and we're off to the redundant races. Had it stayed more within its 'anything can happen' Hellsapoppin' horror approach, Mum and Dad would definitely succeed. As it stands it's a curiosity and not much else.
Unless, of course, this kind of grimness and gratuity is all new to you. You see, this critic's reaction to Mum and Dad comes from decades as a fan of all kinds of marginal movies - the Something Weird catalog, the Italian gore masters, the American indie fright generators, and all types of outsider and avant-garde auteurs. To take Sheil seriously, or conversely, to grant him the benefit of the doubt, a kind of terror tabula rosa approach to everything he's doing has to be taken. With experience comes perspective, and with said viewpoint a kind of veiled suspicion. At first, you wonder if Mum and Dad is trying for some sort of Peter Greenaway like parable, a Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover like metaphor that means more than its scatological sleaze. Then, you recognize that there's not much to the symbolism, the ever-present airplanes less of a link to escape and more a product of the nearby location. Then when you hear the commentary, only to conclude that this is Sheil's take on '70s drive-in fare, your hopes slowly diminish. Copying such schlock is not easy, as many have proven since. Mum and Dad is just the latest example of such oversized ambitions.
The 1.78:1 transfer is terrific, the anamorphic widescreen image loaded with sickening greens and drab as drudgery grays. Sheil has a remarkable eye for composition and framing, and the digital format showcases it wonderfully. While there are occasional glimpses of the film's limited financial resources, the overall picture is exceptional.
Offered in a typical Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, the aural aspects of Mum and Dad are very good. There is some creepy atmosphere built on the use of ambient noise, and the rare musical score subtexts everything quite well. The dialogue is always clear, even with the sometimes saucy accents, and the overall presentation is polished and professional.
Bloated with a bevy of added content, the DVD of Mum and Dad does a great job of supplementing and complementing the often unclear desires of the filmmaker. The full length audio commentary finds Sheil and producer Lisa Trnovski defending the film, referencing classic British horror, and explaining the pitfalls that come with a ₤100K production. There is also a collection of onset interviews with the cast and crew, a solo Q&A with Sheil, a Frightfest after-screening session with several involved with the film, and a basic behind the scenes featurette. In addition, there is a short film "Through a Vulture Eye" and the trailer. In total, they create a clear picture of a film being filtered through a mutual admiration for all things old school and seedy. While the results are middling, the dedication is definite.
This critic is of two minds when it comes to this movie. It is well made, well acted, expertly crafted and manages to push as many buttons as it smartly avoids. It leaves the viewer breathless and challenges one's conception of what a standard scary movie really is. On the other hand, claptrap is claptrap, no matter how you sugar-coat it, scholarly or intellectually. So how exactly do you rate such a schizophrenic situation? Do you give the Recommended rating and feel guilty about it, or offer a Skip It and sense you are being far too negative on something that it trying really, really hard. About the only compromise is something akin to a Rent It - with caveats both pro and con. After reading this review, if you believe Mum and Dad is the kind of rebellious rejection of Hollywood the horror film needs, you'll hit the local B&M and buy a copy post haste. If you're unsure, then a mere outlay of a few bucks will appease your needs. Either way, remember one thing. Mum and Dad wants to be terrifying. That it's also tacky and tawdry as mere byproducts of its unfortunate fright night decisions.
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