LIFF 2010: THE LAST EMPLOYEE review

What should a horror film accomplish? Whichever way you look at it, The Last Employee fails - sometimes abjectly - at everything it sets out to do. It's never remotely unsettling, much less horrifying, a would-be twisted psychological chiller where both plot beats and scares end up glaringly obvious, even unintentionally funny. The dull, leaden story never once evokes any sympathy or concern for anyone involved, bar the cast members desperately trying to lift their lifeless dialogue out of the bottom of the bucket.


David Böttcher (Christian Berkel, Black Book, Downfall, Inglorious Basterds) is a liquidator, employed to resolve failing companies' affairs after showing their staff the door. Long out of work for reasons that become clear later in the film, when he's offered the chance to wind up one firm in a gloomy office building downtown he jumps at the chance, knowing how much his family needs the money. But one employee, Frau Blochs, seems especially distraught at losing her job and her emotional reaction to the news sets a chain of increasingly disturbing events in motion.


It's a moderately interesting premise, basically, the promise of which The Last Employee then proceeds to squander in just about every way possible. Director Alexander Adolph seems to want to shoot the film as a homage of sorts to the classics that started the J-horror boom, but this is less Nakata or Shimizu than the Zucker brothers. Too harsh? Arguably not. Adolph knows how to order a camera around, or start and finish a story, but there's little else to credit.


There's nothing that suggests any real artistry. Right from the start, the production values seem unduly cheap, even shabby - whatever the reality, DP Jutta Pohlman gives every exterior light source an ugly halo of cable TV bloom. None of the locations are especially distinctive, and though this is admittedly the point, no-one seems to make any attempt to present them in any kind of eye-catching way, or suggest their lack of identity is part of any kind of symbolism. Dour, soul-crushing office blocks and drab, lonely apartments thus become doubly tedious.


With nothing to catch the viewer's attention every setpiece becomes all the more predictable. It's hard to imagine anyone could ever find The Last Employee particularly unnerving - Adolph has the J-horror playbook down pat, to the point he telegraphs even the smallest jolt a mile off. The sudden explosion of unrestrained anger, the mysterious phone call, the inhuman posture, the movement under the bedclothes; with each one it's grindingly, frustratingly obvious what's about to happen, even if we don't completely understand why.


Though the why is ultimately as underwhelming as the how. The film attempts to raise the possibility David might be hallucinating all of this, though it never really takes effect. He's simply not well-rounded or convincingly human enough to arouse any empathy, for all the hints about past psychiatric problems and embarrassing family secrets.


Yet Adolph treats the backstory like holy writ. The Last Employee is largely (bar a couple of moderately funny lines) a bleak affair, not pretentious - it's clearly aware of its limitations, at least - but certainly portentous, with each new setup delivered as if every moment is Serious Business. All this does is make the whole thing seem all the more ridiculous. Treating something as rudimentary as a door handle refusing to open as cause for flailing arms, panicked expressions and blasts of dissonant audio doesn't automatically move the viewer to dread. It's like the Pang Brothers without a shred of subtlety or restraint.


The cast do try, particularly Berkel (who's far better than the material deserves), but the film is so ludicrously straight-faced, so artless, there's no saving it. When David howls in what's meant to be naked, animal terror it comes across as more of a parody of excess than anything else, and when his family act as if they might be part of the supernatural web tightening around him the idea doesn't seem particularly plausible so much as a pantomime back-and-forth. The gore is especially hilarious, orchestrated with so much baroque zeal it's nigh-on impossible to take remotely seriously.


Given The Last Employee would evidently like the viewer to take it very seriously, its whole heavy-handed approach just feels overly affected, even patronising - as in, you actually think I'll find that frightening? Beyond the basic animal reaction to any jump scare, there's simply nothing here worth caring about, and what substance we get is presented with so little style or finesse it's a struggle to sit through without yawning. This is the final indignity, really. If Alexander Adolph's film were a trainwreck, it would at least be entertaining but as it stands, The Last Employee even fails to be incompetent enough to make any real impression, and can't be recommended.


(The Last Employee was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)

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