Mum & Dad
by Jason Coffman
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I’ll say this right up front: Steven Sheil’s Mum & Dad is a difficult film to watch. I honestly can’t remember the last time a movie made me cringe when a character was about to open a door, just out of sheer animal horror at what might happen next. It says a lot about Sheil’s talents, though, that I found myself compelled to watch and see it through, even felt a weird responsibility about sticking it out with the film’s heroine. Mum & Dad keeps driving forward relentlessly, with a jet-black sense of humor buried under all the depravity. If you can stand to watch it long enough to dig that deep, that is.
Lena (Olga Fedori) is an immigrant working at a UK airport as a cleaning lady. On her first night she meets chatty Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and her shy brother Elbie (Toby Alexander). At the end of the night Lena misses the bus home and Birdie offers to let her stay at her parents’ home. Located just past the end of a runway, the house is a very convenient commute to anyone who might work at the airport, and the constant noise of the airplanes is good for… other things. Once inside the house, Birdie and Elbie disappear, and Lena is knocked cold. When she wakes up, she’s chained to a bed and her voice is gone, and the first thing she sees is Dad (Perry Benson) burst out of a room covered in blood while Mum (Dido Miles) tries to calm him and explain to Lena how the rules of the house work.
This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes. The film opens with a montage of planes taking off and landing with the credits displayed over them, but with no music— just the screaming of the jet engines. Before the film even properly starts the viewer is in a pretty agitated state, and the film takes very little time before it starts delivering the shocks. And shocks are guaranteed, make no mistake. There’s at least one shot that’s sure to disgust even the most jaded horror fan in the early going, and the film regularly delivers something disturbing throughout its running time. This includes what has to be one of the most disturbing Christmas party scenes in film history.
But that Christmas scene, unsettling as it is, also reveals what it is about the film that is so compelling. One thing is that deep vein of bleak humor, and another is the fact that inside the house, Sheil has created an entirely convincing universe. Everyone has their function in the family, and everything in the house reflects its inhabitants uneasy mix of working-class living and serial-killer morality. Porno films play on the television while the family has breakfast, Birdie delivers small items she steals on cleaning duty, one room is dedicated to sorting the items out of stolen luggage, and on and on. The tiny details of everyday life give the film a weird “kitchen sink” feel, although in this case it’s a sink full of unidentifiable meat.
Mum & Dad is unquestionably a film that some people are not going to be able to stomach. Despite its subtle humor, curious attention to small details, and solid performances, the gruesome violence is going to put off most audiences. For those willing and able to follow the film into the depths of its sick world, though, Mum & Dad is well worth seeking out. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Mum & Dad was released on DVD and VOD 5 May 2009. DVD features include a commentary by writer/director Steven Sheil, an interview with the director, Q&A with the cast and crew, short film “Through a Vulture’s Eye,” making-of featurettes and trailers.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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