Monday, 6 June 2011

Tony: London Serial Killer

A recent British film that shows the effects on the psyche of economic hardship is Tony: London Serial Killer. Directed by Gerard Johnson on a budget of £40k the film is shot on location in Dalston, Hackney (very close to where I live as it happens) and follows the life of the socially inadequate Tony as he tries to connect with the people around him in the bleak urban environment of London’s East End. Unfortunately the only way he seems able to do this is through murder.

The film has been compared to Taxi Driver and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a study of social alienation and in my opinion is worthy of the comparison. At the heart of the film is a startling performance by Peter Ferdinando as Tony, a character loosely based on real life London serial killer, Dennis Nilsen. But whereas Nilsen, by all accounts, was a dominant personality, Ferdinando plays Tony as a timid, passive-aggressive rather ‘nerdish’ man who vents his anger and frustration by quietly, and sometimes unexpectedly, hammering, strangling and suffocating his victims to death.

Like Nilsen though, Tony seems both sexually and socially confused – one is never quite sure of his orientation – if he has one – and over the course of the film we see him variously trying to make sexual/social contact with a prostitute and a gay man who picks him up in the pub he frequents. What Tony clearly is though, is desperately lonely, and the great insight of the film is that it makes clear how human relations suffer in such dire economic circumstances. The only people Tony encounters are all equally desperate as he is and see him as someone to use and abuse. In a darkly humorous sequence, Tony tags along with two junkies as they go to score some heroin and then invites them back to his flat for a beer and a smoke. However by the time the two scag-heads have zonked out on the settee, Tony has had enough and out come the plastic bag and duck tape.

The theme of exploitation is extended to the portrayal of authority in the film. In one of the most effect sequences, Tony (who perhaps not surprisingly is long-term unemployed) is sent for an interview by the job centre to work as a billboard man for a tanning shop. The owner of the shop wants Tony to work fourteen hours a day for a pittance and threatens to have the Job Centre cut off his benefits if he refuses. In the next scene Tony visits an east European prostitute who rebukes his offer of five pounds for a ‘cuddle’. The clever juxtaposition of these two scenes deftly underlines the exploitation that faces people like Tony and the prostitute who are living on the fringes of society.

Although Gerard Johnson shies away from labeling Tony as a horror film, preferring instead to describe it as a work of social realism, the film quietly gets under the skin. Less overtly shocking than Man Bites Dog, the shock here is ideological and thus creeps up on you. As Tony wanders aimlessly through Kings Cross at the end destined only to repeat his actions, I was left wondering if in Tony: London Serial Killer I had seen the true face of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

4 comments:

Wes M said...

Excellent review Jon, this one is new to me. I'm sure this turns up on the Sky's Horror Channel from time to time - if I'm correct I shall set my HD box to stun next time I catch it in the listings... You mentioned Dennis Nilsen in the review Jon, which reminded me of another British serial killer film, 1989's Cold Light of Day, a film I know by name only...

Jon T said...

Thanks, Wes. I thought of Cold Light of Day as well. Not sure if it is on DVD. Must check.

Wes M said...

I finally caught up with Tony this w/end Jon (some 8 months after your original post, better late than never!) and I must say I was impressed - a great performance by Peter Ferdinando (reminding me of a young Gary Oldman), and fine direction by Gerard Johnson made this compulsive viewing. The storytelling was a bit ragged in places, but the subtlety of the film was commendable - Johnson could have easily filled the film to the gills with bloody carnage, but the film is all the better for concentrating on the everyday violence of inner city living - the kind of thing that really does unnerve. By the way, I noticed the excellent soundtrack is done by none other than The The and the sharing of surnames by director Gerard Johnson and The The's Matt Johnson seemed too much of a coincidence - I checked it out and they are in fact brothers. I would pick this up on DVD, it's a film I would revisit again...

Jon T said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Wes. It's great when a film has the courage of its convictions, like Tony has. I didn't know about the Matt Johnson-Gerard Johnson connection. I thought THE THE's music worked well though.