Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mum and Dad (2008)

Continuing the short series of posts on degenerate families that I started with We Are What We Are, is this 2008 Brit-shocker, the feature debut of Nottingham-based film-maker (and co-founder of Nottingham’s annual Mayhem Horror Fest), Steven Sheil. Mum and Dad was produced under Film London’s low-budget microwave scheme for £100K and provides a great example of edgy low-budget horror. Nottingham has produced some outstanding film-makers, including of course, Shane Meadows and Chris Cooke (another co-founder of Mayhem), director of the excellent DV feature, One For The Road (2002).

As a Nottingham-born lad myself, I am bound to be a fan, especially as Sheil has, in Mum and Dad, consciously drawn on British ‘domestic horror’ of the 1970s like Frightmare (1974) and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970) to create a ‘fucked-up family’ horror par excellence.

Sheil’s film closely mirrors the theme and plot of Mumsy: airport workers Birdie and her silent brother, LB, bring home unsuspecting waifs and strays to ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, who force them into perverse role-playing games in which they are the perfect family; those who refuse to obey the rules or try to escape are ritualistically murdered. One day they bring home a polish migrant, Lena, who turns out to be more than a match for the family in her sense of fight and determination to survive.

Both Mumsy and Mum and Dad are concerned with the threat posed to the traditional family by social change. But whereas in Francis’s film it was the alternative lifestyle of the hippie and the drifter that ‘threatened’ the family structure, Sheil’s film draws on contemporary fears of mass immigration and its challenge to British identity for its subtext.

The film quickly gets down to brass tacks. As soon as Lena enters the home of Mum and Dad, she is knocked unconscious, drugged and imprisoned. Mum takes sexual gratification by scarifying her with a scalpel; Dad’s proclivities are even more degenerate: he likes to dismember his victims and masturbate with their body parts. Indeed Sheil plunges us so suddenly into depravity that for a moment it becomes unclear where he could possibly take us next. It is a risky ploy (the ‘torture porn’ scenario immediately threatens to turn the viewer off) but Sheil makes it work, taking us from there into a parody of family domesticity, made all the more perverse by the knowledge of Mum and Dad’s true nature.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ attempt to play the role of ‘parent’ to Lena. She is given a pet name, ‘Angel’, and the rules of the house are explained. In effect she must submit completely to the will of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ if she wishes to survive. It becomes clear that everyone in this ‘family’ is merely playing a ‘role’: ‘Mum’ is emotionally needy and overbearing; ‘Dad’ makes the rules and punishes those who disobey; ‘Birdy’ is the favoured sibling who feels in danger of being usurped by ‘Angel’, and ‘LB’ is ‘Little Brother’, the dogs-body. Both ‘Mum' and ‘Dad’ spout cliches of parent-ism (“If you live under my roof, you'll abide by my rules”) and Shiel plays up the parody with soap/sit-com-like scenes set around the breakfast table. Think the Oxo family played by Fred and Rosemary West.

The falsity of the situation is not lost on Lena or the viewer: none of these relationships are ‘real’ (except, perhaps, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’s) and there is no real emotion except the desire to control. At first, Lena attempts to play along in an effort to win the favour of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, but it soon becomes clear that they see through this. “You have to make them love you” Birdie tells ‘LB’, but here, as in We Are What We Are, love is a masquerade for hatred. Birdie understands that perhaps the only way to gain ‘Mum and ‘Dad’s approval is by becoming like them; LB understands this too, but his sensitive nature precludes him becoming like ‘Dad’, and Lena’s sense of fight secretly reawakens hope in LB that he too might escape ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’s clutches.

As they so often do, family tensions come to a head at Christmas (and the parody of the typical British family Christmas in Mum and Dad has to be seen to be believed). Lena has it spelt out to her that she is merely the family pet. (Her outsider status as a Polish immigrant precludes her assimilation into the family – she remains an object of loathing, a perceived threat to the family structure). Realising that her time is almost up she makes a desperate bid to escape, in the process forcing all allegiances in the family to be revealed.

Interestingly, Steven Shiel has remarked that much of Mum and Dad arose from thinking about the implications of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individuals, and there are families.’ (In Mum and Dad it is therefore left up to ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ to make the rules, and there is no wider community to tell them that those rules are unacceptable.) Which, of course, is all very well unless your Dad happens to be Josef Fritzl, in which case having a society to which such people can be held accountable might just be desirable – eh, Maggie?

Shiel has just finished his second horror film, Dead Mine, shot in Indonesia, hopefully scheduled for
release later this year. Meanwhile check out the Mayhem website here


Wes M said...

Excellent stuff Jon, and I might actually check this one out now - it's on fairly regurlarly on Horror so I might change my mind and see it - I say change my mind because I usually skip these torture porn flicks (I was struggling to find another term for it, so forgive me), films I would have lapped up in my teens but as I approach my mid '30's, I prefer my Horror to have that comfortable layer of unreality. However, I'm gonna step outside my comfort zone, see it and post back my thoughts...

Jon T said...

I dislike 'Torture Porn' too, Wes. In Mum and Dad it is used fairly briefly near the beginning to set up the characters of Mum and Dad, but then the film moves into more of a family portrait. It is still a tough watch though at times!

James Gracey said...

I found Mum and Dad to be almost as stifling and claustrophobic as Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre at times. Once the aforementioned 'torture-porn' is sloshed across the screen, the film unravels as a highly stressful and compelling ride. The levels of suspense Shiel racks up towards the end are almost unbearable! It was also much funnier than I imagined a film like this would be. Lots of digs at Conservative values and ideas about the family unit.

@Wes, I hope you get a chance to check it out - I also saw it on the Horror Channel.

Great write up, Jon!

Maynard Morrissey said...

I didn't like it as much as you did, still it's a highly interesting Brit flick that shows that Torture Porn can be done in a different way.