Review: THE HARSH LIGHT OF DAY

On the one hand, we're going to have to be cruel here. There are first-time directors who rocket straight to the top of the heap with the skills of someone twice their age... and then there's the rest of them. On the strength of low-budget vampire flick The Harsh Light of Day, Oliver Milburn is over with the rest of them, way back in the cheap seats. Let's be blunt; technically much of this is tacky, amateurish stuff, with Milburn's editing, visuals and general direction largely mediocre. Anyone who's seen more than a handful of recent vampire films will get exactly where this one's headed.

Yet on the other hand, whisper it softly, but shock, horror - as a piece of storytelling The Harsh Light of Day is actually damned good. The cast tend towards some slightly stilted performances more suited to TV, but they can clearly act. Despite the cut-down running time, Milburn's script is still fairly solid - he manages enough decent characterisation to get some real tension, even fear out of the plot beats. The ending may have been done before, but it's done well enough (if somewhat rushed) to pack some proper dramatic weight, and a sense of actual melancholy out of all proportion to the budget.

True, it doesn't make the greatest first impression. The plot is a mash-up of 1980s clichés; Daniel Shergold (Dan Richardson) is a writer who's just finished a book on the occult that's been launched to rave reviews, only his evening of triumphal sexytimes with his lovely wife is interrupted by a terrifying home invasion. A group of masked intruders burst in, murder Daniel's wife and leave him in a wheelchair. The police can't find the attackers, and Daniel's reduced to a miserable half-life of snarling at his care worker, drinking himself insensible and starting at shadows. Then a friend offers to send someone over who can facilitate Daniel getting revenge - but there's a horrifying price to be paid.

Again, it's difficult to overstate how sloppy The Harsh Light of Day looks (or at least the screener supplied certainly does). Think of the most slapdash cable production you've ever seen, and you're probably getting the idea. Colours are over-saturated, there's bloom lighting everywhere - Milburn doesn't weigh too heavy on the gore, but it still looks laughable, and the token sex scene feels uncomfortably close to softcore porn. The man knows how to use a camera, obviously, but there isn't a single shot that seriously catches your eye, nor any rhythm or artistic flair to even the simplest jump cuts or long montage sequences. None of it is outright awful, but it reminds you that sometimes a film by a young, inexperienced director looks like just that.

Stick with it, though, and you have to admit to yourself that for all Milburn's shortcomings he plainly does have a very solid grasp of what goes into a good story. And not just how to write one, but how to get other people to help him tell it. He may not be a particularly good visual director - at least not yet - but The Harsh Light of Day does show real dynamics, actual emotional highs and lows beyond simple fanservice. When Daniel's rolling around his darkened house trying to escape the nightmares of his wife's death, yes, it looks awkward; yes, Richardson can't quite sell Shergold's terror, but the way Milburn quietly shows his lead's just pissed himself in fear is the kind of human touch countless films never manage.

The home invasion is another example - on the surface it's the stuff of gratuitous exploitation and yet for all the embarrassment of the earlier sex scene, Milburn spends most of the attack on what happens to Daniel. And as character development, it's crude, but it works, from Daniel's demons to his answerphone message ("Don't bother leaving my wife any messages, she's dead"). When Daniel's visitor turns up, offering him a chance for payback, actor Giles Alderson weighs a bit heavily on the upper-class speech patterns - we pretty much know what the guy is already. But their back-and-forth honestly feels like a broken man reaching out for help, even if it's from a monster.

While Alderson stumbles a little with some of the monologuing, Milburn's script manages to make 'Infurnari' seem genuinely inhuman. It's not exactly Let the Right One In, but The Harsh Light of Day does evoke some of the same sense of brooding menace, the idea this diabolus ex machina is putting Daniel's soul in peril. Eighty-some minutes is not really enough to fully flesh out their relationship, but Milburn still makes Infurnari's darker side shocking enough that The Harsh Light of Day earns its ending, however rushed. It feels like the character making an informed decision, not just the film winding up that way to please the audience.

Milburn even humanises the attackers, to some extent. Working-class thugs filming snuff videos for a quick payday could have been a disaster, but all the Mockney bickering, neon city streets and low-rent brothels never feels wholly sensationalist or ridiculous. It's still cheap and tacky - not entirely in a good way, either - but it's a world away from the woeful unintentional comedy of misguided dross like The Reverend. This is credibly grimy, seedy, at times even actively disturbing, for all the throwaway production values, and come the climactic showdown you genuinely feel for the poor idiots, for all the hideousness of their crimes.

Make no mistake, The Harsh Light of Day talks a much better game than it can actually play. Some of the best directors in the world have worked miracles with little more than a few handheld DV cameras: right now Oliver Milburn isn't remotely on that level. The Harsh Light of Day looks ugly, it's been very haphazardly put together and it's not particularly original ("A vampire film like no other", claims the PR - uh, not so much). But if you've got the patience, there's a genuinely gripping, haunting little story in here, with a cast who work hard to sell it. Milburn may not be the next big thing, but The Harsh Light of Day suggests that giving him the money to keep making movies could be a very smart investment.
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