The Living and The Dead is two movies, actually, but there's no dividing line. There's no easy way to say 'here's a terrifying look at life and its awful inevitabilities, and here's where slavish idolatry and a curious performance make me want to poke myself in the eye.' Often times it's easy to see where a movie goes off the rails. And though scientifically, there's an empirical point between living and dead, this movie has one wheel on the rails and one off for the entire run-time. Dividing audiences, it fits the bill of an honest movie made with heart, strength, and intention - sometimes my favorite movies fall in the 'love it or hate it' category - and whether you love this or hate it, you will not be unaffected.
Simon Rumley's movie finds a fading empire in the Brocklebank house, an estate large enough to house 30 families, but with only a few bits of scabrous furniture, the down-on-his-luck Lord Brocklebank, Brocklebank's abjectly infirm wife and his mentally handicapped adult son. Called away to London to scare up some much needed cash, father leaves son James alone to wait for wife Nancy's nurse, who is supposed to care for Nancy and James. The nurse is a day late, enough time for James to go off his meds, sending both mum and son into a delusional hell.
The Living and The Dead tackles two intertwined themes on a highly metaphorical level - the decay of the body and the mind. It's heady stuff, and the movie had been mismarketed as a horror movie, disarming and disappointing many punters. While horror and terror are attendant, drama and tragedy are the true lords of this manor. But there are two other warring factions: the brave, almost heroic performances of Kate Fahy as Nancy Brocklebank and Roger Lloyd-Pack (who brings new meaning to the word haunted) as Lord Donald Brocklebank and the wildly out-of-control performance of Leo Bill as son James.
Fahy weeps, wails and clutches to dignity through numerous indignities - soiled bed sheets, force feedings of pills, near-nude wallowing in filthy bathwater - while uncoiling countless tangled emotions. What does one do when the body fails? How does one face death while parenting a handicapped child? What if that child, in his mania, is hastening one's demise? Serious stuff that can't help but slap the viewer silly, making us beg for as many healthy years as possible. These are realities we never want to face, even in the form of 'entertainment.'
But Rumley's severe Requiem For A Dream fixation, with a mania for syringes, fast-motion photography, disorienting music and other loving tributes to Aronofsky's film (body horror, base physicality, fumbling with capsules and tablets) will prove difficult to swallow for many. Addiction (even prescribed, necessary addiction) and breakdown are the order of the day, and a few less stylistic nods to Requiem would help Living and Dead to stand on its own. On the other hand, Bill's over-the-top romp as James, while wholly impassioned, brings to mind outtakes from the BBC comedy The Young Ones more than anything else. It's a performance so full of mania - a twitching body hooked to electrodes - that it constantly threatens to overturn the movie.
The Living and The Dead is marketed as horror, but it's horror of a different kind. It's the horror we all eventually face; the helpless breakdown of the systems that keep us alive and sane. Alzheimer's Disease, dementia, incontinence, these things are coming for almost all of us, and they are brutally hard to face. A brave and unflinching look at suffering and death, The Living and The Dead creates a hypnotic and disturbing reverie, one that asks you to think about losing the ability to think. Super-similar in style to Requiem For a Dream, and with an outrageous lead performance that keeps tearing us away from the movie, The Living and The Dead is a fascinating near-miss.