In a way, Simon Rumley’s “The Living and The Dead” is as schizoid as its protagonist. By no means is it meant as a horror movie, yet it’s more of a horror movie than a thousand Screams or Blair Witch Projects; and because it is so genuinely horrific and unrelentingly sad and grim, many people will not have the stomach for it.
The film begins by introducing us to Ex-Lord Donald Brocklebank and his son James as they wait for a delivery in their huge ramshackle English manor. Kindly put, the boy is unwell. Though it’s not explicitly stated James seems to suffer from a nasty combination of mental retardation, ADHD and schizophrenia, with a touch of full blown psychosis to add to the fun. Actor Leo Bill (as James) and writer/director Rumley make sure that you never ever think of James’ as humorous. He may careen around all over the place like Adam Sandler after a couple of speedballs, but it’s never played for laughs. James needs constant supervision and from the looks of it should be in a home where he could be watched over 24/7. However, pride and love for his child keep Ex-Lord Donald Brocklebank from taking that step.
Funny how he keeps referring to himself as Ex-Lord isn’t it?
Things are not going too well for the family. In fact, they are rapidly spiraling out of control. Ex-Lord Brocklebank walks around with the look of a man who is only able to keep his composure because he’s in the eye of the hurricane and too frazzled and exhausted to even be able to think about tomorrow, much less about the inevitable crash and burn he seems heading towards. His calm exterior is more a result of denial and British stoicism than of peace of mind. I’d bet that inside he’s like a rat in a maze desperately trying to find its way out; but there is no way out. Beyond James’ condition, his bedridden wife Nancy has cancer and is dying. Also, the estate they live in, Lonely House, is falling apart. It looks one debt away from foreclosure. The Ex-Lord’s finances are such that he has to immediately go on emergency business leaving his sick wife and son to be cared for by a temp nurse.
Proof that the Lord’s mind is juggling too many worries for its own good is that he leaves James alone with his dying wife BEFORE the nurse arrives. This sets in motion a series of events, each more harrowing to watch than the next, where James locks the nurse out of the house and tries to take care of his mother and make her “better”.
I love Rumley’s handling of the material. A less thoughtful writer would have had the nurse simply shrug and walk away once she found the doors locked, perhaps thinking that she was sent for by mistake. Not here, the nurse knows something is up, she’s not stupid. And she doesn’t smash any windows heroically trying to get in; she does what any normal person would do. She gets the police. Still, that gives James too much time alone with his invalid mum. One other thing that sets this film apart is that Rumley is as appalled as we are by what happens and never needlessly lingers on any one scene longer than he has to in order to make a point. The result is that when the film ends you’re left with a feeling, not of disgust or fear, but of sadness. Those poor people.
I’m glad I saw it, it’s hard to watch but one of the best films I’ve ever seen… and now that I’ve seen it, I never want to see it again. I don’t think my heart could stand it twice.