SXSW 2011: LITTLE DEATHS Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor
There's sick and twisted, and then there's Little Deaths, a film that transforms bodily fluids and troubled relationships into 90 minutes of cheeky dementia and dramatic soul-searching. Admittedly, not everybody will be "entertained" by some of the extreme activities depicted, but the core element of self-destructive behavior that runs through all three episodes marks Little Deaths as more than the ordinary horror flick.

The three episodes were each written and directed by, in order: House and Home by Sean Hogan, Mutant Tool by Andrew Parkinson, and Bitch by Simon Rumley. (All three made films that played at Fantastic Fest in 2006.) The episodes are all set in modern-day London, but otherwise appear to have no relationship to each other. (Well, except the obvious "death" connection. And other stuff that comes up after you watch all three one after the other.) The sequencing of the episodes is exactly right.

House and Home starts off as kind of a chamber horror piece. Richard (Luke de Lacey) and Victoria (Siubhan Harrison) are a married couple who are a little bit off; Vi refuses Richard sex, and the two talk about something they've been doing as "just a bit of fun ... nobody gets hurt ... much." It seems that whatever their nefarious activity might be, it's evidently something that brings them a measure of sexual satisfaction. Richard recruits a young homeless woman (Holly Lucas) to come home for dinner with the immortal pickup line: "Have you come to know Jesus?" She says her name is Sorrow, setting up an evening featuring food, wine, bodily fluids, blood, and guts.

Mutant Tool also features a couple who are having problems. Frank (Daniel Brocklebank) is helping Dr. Reece (Brendan Gregory) collect gooey, er, stuff (we're not quite sure what it is at first), while his girlfriend Jennifer (Jodie Jameson) is having trouble adjusting to a new lifestyle. She's a former drug addict and prostitute; Frank sends her to Dr. Reece to get help, and the good doctor prescribes medication. The tablets produce unpleasant side effects for Jennifer: she starts experiencing weird visions. Meanwhile, a parallel tale unfolds as two grungy technicians care for an unfortunate person who has "something special" (the titular "mutant tool") and is chained up behind a plastic curtain.

Finally, Bitch revolves around still another couple -- yes, there is a theme here after all -- with an off-beat relationship. Pete (Tom Sawyer) and Claire (Kate Braithwaite) play sexual power games with one another at home, with Claire in the dominant position and Pete very much a submissive. Out in the world, they go clubbing and work their jobs, seeming very much like any other couple, but once they get home, all bets are off. We get the sense that Pete is tiring of Claire's dominance, even though he appears to be a willing partner.

The individual episodes could stand on their own as very good short films. Each filmmaker takes a different approach to their material, allowing the viewer to compare and contrast their treatment of horror subjects. House and Home is probably the most straightforward -- dare I say conventional, despite the yucky bodily fluid spraying? -- as a horror piece, but it plays around with mood and tone. There's a certain point at which things get ugly, and the moment has impact within that scene. At other times, it's almost merry. Hogan previously made Lie Still, which played at Fantastic Fest in 2006 (and subsequently was retitled The Haunting of #24 for DVD release). That film freely reimagined Roman Polanski's The Tenant in a way that made it very distinctive and suggestive. House and Home is different, an enjoyable riff on an idea that's taken to the logical extreme.

Parkinson's 2006 FF entry was Venus Drowning, which I described as "a unique, early-period Cronenberg variation with a perverse mind of its own." (Jodie Jameson also gave a very good performance.) Mutant Tool also reminded me of Cronenberg (which is funny, since I forgot that comparison until I looked up my earlier review), though not in a derivative manner. It's hard not to think of Cronenberg when the issue of body horror comes up, yet Parkinson maintains a dramatic, unsettling edge to his episode. And I must confess, every appearance of the "mutant tool" made me laugh, which probably says more about my juvenile nature than anything else. Still, that gives the episode added depth for me, even though it's a dramatic tale.

Rumley exploded onto the scene for most of us with The Living and the Dead at Fantastic Fest in 2006, a viewing experience I will never forget, mostly because it hit way too close to home for me in its depiction of an unqualified son trying desperately to care for a sick parent. Red White & Blue followed last year, with its long, quiet stretches that set up a very disturbing resolution. Neither film is easy to watch.

Bitch, however, is more reminiscent of Club Le Monde, from 2002, which was the concluding entry in his "Youth Culture" trilogy. That film felt bouncy and vibrant, centering around the patrons of a hip and happening night club. Peter and Claire bounce in and out of a music club, too, and their interactions are lively and animated. The film itself, the shots and editing, makes it more playful and less overtly intense. Yet the emotional intensity is still present, and when it emerges, it's powerful.

Little Deaths made me grimace at the bodily fluids (I'm sensitive that way), laugh at its audacity, and, in general, simply enjoy three different, yet complementary, visions. That probably shows how sick and twisted I am. If so, blame Hogan, Parkinson, and Rumley.

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