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Cold Light of Day (1989) [Limited Edition]

Arrow Video // Unrated // October 27, 2020
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 13, 2020 | E-mail the Author

In 1983, UK police arrested Dennis Nilsen, who would go on to confess to at least twelve murders, making him one of the notorious British serial killers of all time. Cold Light of Day is simultaneously a fictionalization of Nilsen's killing spree (it cuts out almost 12 victims, focusing instead on the three killings that Nilsen committed right before he was caught, and suggesting psychological motivations for his crimes), and yet it also feels chillingly faithful, in that writer/director Fhiona Louise captures a haunting verisimilitude about the actual act of the murders and covering it up. It's a polarizing movie (it simultaneously won an award at the Venice International Film Festival and unfairly marked the end of Louise's filmmaking career), but those who are prepared for the tone and style of the movie should find something to appreciate.

In the film, Nilsen is reimagined as Jorden March (Bob Flag), a gay man who works in the unemployment office and lives a lonely life. He picks up a young man, Joe (Martin Byrne-Quinn), in his local pub, first just as a hookup and later as something of a boyfriend. The relationship is rocky, however, thanks to the volatile combination of Jorden's neurotic neediness and Joe's impatient selfishness. Correctly suspecting that Joe is cheating on him, Jorden finally strangles Joe with his necktie, and hides the body under the floor. Although there is the sense that the murder was emotional and impulsive, March then starts to seek out other young men who can serve as further victims, and the bodies begin to pile up.

The most striking thing about Louise's vision for the film is how small it is. March is a small man, barely eking out an existence in a small, dingy flat lit with a single lamp, with a kitchen full of rust-covered appliances, a mattress without a bedframe, and little in the way of other furniture or possessions. Externally, he dresses professionally, he is relatively kind to his neighbors (including an elderly man in the basement of his apartment building who is on the verge of needing a full-time nurse), creating the facade of normalcy, and yet there is the sense that March has no other future, that without the killings, he would've withered away in that tiny room, a version of his elderly neighbor with nobody to take care of him.

Combined with a flashback scene of March as a child on a countryside trip with his grandfather, as well as Joe's hostility, one could make the case that Louise is sympathetic to Nilsen/March, but her actual approach is more matter-of-fact. It seems less that the audience is supposed to think March's loneliness and frustration prompted a nice man to do something evil, but simply to observe the realities of his limited existence. Louise's straightforward approach also applies to the movie's chilling murder sequences, which are sweaty and desperate and require a brutal amount of effort on March's part, as well as the gruesome banality of his attempts to live with, dismember, and dispose of the corpses -- not to mention his use of them for sexual purposes.

In addition to the film's small nature and matter-of-fact gruesomeness, the 16mm film stock is the final touch on the movie's overall atmosphere. With scenes that play out in something close to real time and the grainy look of the movie, Louise creates an almost documentary-like sensation that makes the film even more chilling. She is also especially blessed when it comes to Flag, who is perfect for the role of March. He has an interesting face, a specific attitude, and combines the best aspects of a leading man and a character actor. Imagining another actor in the role is nearly impossible. The only discordant note in the film is the role of a police interrogator in the film's frame story, to whom March is confessing his crimes. Scenes of him screaming at March about his crimes are an odd fit with the rest of the film (although it would come as no surprise to hear that Nilsen's behavior was greeted with the same anger).

The Blu-ray
Cold Light of Day arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow. The copy provided to DVDTalk is the "Limited Edition," which features a booklet by BFI curator Jo Botting, an interview with writer/director Fhiona Louise, and some history on how Dennis Nilsen was covered by the press. The edition has a matte slipcover, which may be part of the LE package, which is one of the rare slipcovers that does something interesting with the art. The front shows a wood floor with a shadow of Jorden March peering down at a hole in the floor, through which we can see some body parts lying on plastic. The hole is cut in the slipcover, and removing it transforms the art into a picture of the same body parts, now visibly dismembered, the plastic laying on a tile floor, with March's shadow in the same place. Very clever, albeit gruesome. The sleeve itself is reversible, featuring some extremely dated theatrical art that does not "work" with the hole in the slip.

The Video and Audio
Neither the 1.33:1 1080p AVC-encoded image or the LPCM mono track on this disc is especially pretty, which kind of fits with Cold Light of Day's whole milieu. Shot on 16mm, heavy grain swarms around a fairly soft picture, with a limited amount of depth and color that only come alive in bright daylight scenes. Crush is an issue in shadow or low light, and there is the specter of chroma noise swarming within the grain (although compression seems pretty good), not to mention a few moments where the color fluctuates oddly every few seconds, which does not seem intentional. I also noticed a vertical line in the image for a second or two, and maybe one or two flecks. Dialogue is fuzzy, with environment-based distortion and noticeable limitations based on the actors' proximity to the sound recording equipment (for example, take the film's framing scene, in an interrogation room, in which the voices are quieter and more distant). Other than the sound of a ringing church bell, there is very little music in the film. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included. No doubt all of these shortcomings are based on the original source, and I can't imagine previous home video iterations being watchable, but viewers should keep their expectations in check as to how much this new 2K presentation can do for the film.

The Extras
"Playing the Victim" (15:49) is a new interview with Martin Byrne-Quinn, who played Joe, March's first victim. He talks about how he first met Louise, how he approached the role, Fhiona Louise's style of directing, what it was like working with Flag, filming Joe's death, playing a corpse, and the differing experiences of watching himself on the big screen for the first time and seeing the new remastered edition. It's a charming interview, with the soft-spoken actor modestly bemused at the whole experience (and it's also sort of surreal to see him in crisp, modern HD compared to the film's 16mm grittiness). "Risky Business" (5:25) catches up with actor Steve Munroe, who has an extremely brief, uncredited role as a drug dealer (whose lines aren't even audible). Given his tiny part in the film, he only has so much insight to offer, but he has a funny story about having to speak to the police, and relates what information he can about working with Louise. Louise herself appears in "Scenes of the Crime" (12:38), in which she and Blu-ray producer Ewan Cant visit locations that appeared in the film. I'm not usually one for location tours, but this is a reasonably interesting one, perhaps because the bulk of it is the converation between Louise and Cant (including a chunk that has nothing to do with locations at all, but unusual interactions with fans of the film and what movies inspired Louise) rather than focus on the locations themselves, which have largely been modernized and commercialized beyond recognition.

The package wraps up with three short films. The first is actually a miniature promotional version of Cold Light of Day (4:39), designed to help raise money for the finished version. Like the finished movie, this also stars Flag as March and Byrne-Quinn as Joe, and looks like it was shot and sourced from videotape. It plays a little like a trailer, with a voice-over. On the other hand, Metropolis Apocalypse (9:16) and Sleepwalker (3:29) have no direct connection to Cold Light of Day -- they both star Louise. The former is a monologue about society, man! that plays over black-and-white footage, and the latter (the better of the two) seems like some sort of metaphor for trauma.

Finally, the disc sports not one but two audio commentaries, the first by film historians/writers Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette, and the latter by writer/director Louise, moderated by Arrow's Ewan Cant. The first track is mostly factual, focusing largely on Dennis Nilsen and his crimes and how the film fictionalized his killing spree, as well as touching on Cold Light of Day's place in British film history, and a bit about the making of the film. On that final point, the two men have no idea what happened to Louise, and Cant opens the second track with a reference to their bewilderment (I'm guessing Louise agreed to participate in the disc after it was recorded). Louise, who is almost as soft-spoken as Byrne-Quinn, recalls the origins of her filmmaking career, her interest in Nilsen and the process of fictionalizing his story for the film, the socipolitical environment that alowed him to kill without being caught, her roots in photography, gathering financing, technical issues making the movie, casting Bob Flag, and more. In terms of learning about the making of the movie, easily the most substantial of the disc's supplements.

A tonally misleading re-release trailer for Cold Light of Day is also included.

Cold Light of Day is not a "fun" film, nor is it traditionally "scary." It is dry and methodical, which in some ways matches the way Nilsen is described, and even at only 80 minutes, it's understandable that many will not want to spend the kind of awkward, personal time in the world of someone like Nilsen or March. At the same time, there is clearly a vision behind Cold Light of Day, and it is nice that Arrow has preserved Louise's single film in a relatively comprehensive package. Although my literal advice would probably be to rent the disc first, the quality of the film and the disc earn it a recommendation.

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