24 Lies a Second: Gore by Gaslight

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Gore by Gaslight

A new horror film from Alex Garland certainly deserves the attention of anyone interested in the genre: it was Garland, after all, who wrote 28 Days Later, arguably the most influential horror movie of the century so far. Since then Garland has established himself as a writer and director of stylish, usually unnerving and intellectually dense genre movies and TV series, all of which I have admired even if they have sometimes seemed hard to love.

This continues with his new movie, Men, which at first seems like the director exploring territory he hasn't visited before. Jessie Buckley plays Harper Marlowe, a young woman from London who has decided to take a short break in the depths of the English countryside, to help her recover from a traumatic personal event. Already, perhaps you can discern that we are surrounded by a virtual thicket of genre conventions – variations on this same set up form the premise of Midsommar, Arachnophobia, The Stepford Wives, and too many other films to mention. The drive from the city to the village where most of the film is set is likewise the same symbolic journey that happens at the start of Dracula: a departure from the 'ordinary' world, and an entering into a place of Horror.

It soon becomes clear that Garland is very comfortable with laying it on thick, both with his use of genre tropes and when it comes to some rather obvious symbolism – virtually the first thing Harper does when she arrives at her rented country house (it's a bit too grand to be a cottage) is pick an apple off the tree in the garden and tuck in; within minutes this is explicitly described as 'forbidden fruit', just to drive the allusion home. This comes from the gentleman renting her the house – Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a posh and hearty country-squire type, who manages to massively patronise her while still seeming outwardly quite genial.

Once she has got rid of Geoffrey, Harper settles down to enjoying her break – flashbacks to what preceded it make it very clear just how badly she needs some respite – which includes a long walk in the nearby woods. Here she comes across a disused railway tunnel, which she has some fun making echoes in (the sound design in this scene, and indeed most of the movie, is terrific). However, this seems to awaken, or stir up, something inside – a shadowy figure appears, and Harper finds herself fleeing home, catching sight of a naked man apparently following her out of the woods.

She ends up calling the police; a female constable is helpful and supportive, her male colleague rather less comforting. The local vicar proves to be unexpected handsy and likewise not much help: all the men in the village suggest that, whatever she thinks she's been the victim of (and this extends to other events in her life), she's either imagining it all, or is in fact actually to blame herself. Although this display of toxic male solidarity may be a bit less mysterious considering that all of them – Geoffrey, the vicar, the policeman, a young boy, the naked man, everyone in the local pub – are played by Rory Kinnear, using various wigs and prosthetics and bits of digital wizardry. Harper doesn't seem to notice this, but soon comes to the conclusion that the men of the village seem to be conspiring together and that this is not the safe retreat she thought it would be…

It would be a brave person who attempted to suggest that Men is not, in fact, a genuine horror movie – there are some lavishly gory moments, not to mention a climactic sequence of such extravagant, semi-gynaecological grotesqueness that it's bound to be known as 'that film where Rory Kinnear [spoilers redacted] himself' for years to come. Certainly Garland sprinkles it liberally with motifs and imagery redolent of the British folk-horror tradition. The verdancy and vibrancy of the countryside is almost palpable, and much use is made of the imagery of the Green Man, a folkloric figure symbolising fertility and rebirth, not to mention that of the sheela na gig, a cryptic figure appearing in carvings on older British churches.

However, while Men does a good job of looking and sounding like a folk horror movie, I think this is really camouflage for a quite different and rather more contemporary film. The conceit with Kinnear in multiple roles is almost played for laughs – 'The League of Gentlemen directed by David Cronenberg' is one critic's slightly reductive take on the film, while others have compared it to Kind Hearts and Coronets – but it's there to express a straightforward (and perhaps even slightly simplistic) idea, that all men are the same.

Certainly Harper has to deal with the same manipulative nonsense from every male character in the film – the only one not played by Kinnear is her former husband (Paapa Essiedu). She is consistently patronised and gaslit, and of course the question is whether this is a conscious conspiracy or whether it is the instinctive behaviour all men engage in. The casting conceit does essentially reduce the entire male gender to an amorphous, oppressive gestalt intent on causing her misery, usually while claiming the opposite. Needless to say this is very on-message for some elements of modern culture, and the notion is convincingly put across by the film, helped by effective direction from Garland and some very strong performances.

However, the problem with Men (the film, not the gender) is that this is the kind of piece of work where it makes perfect sense in terms of its subtext and moral premise: some of the symbolism may be a little obscure, but the message that Garland is trying to put across is absolutely clear. The problem is that what's happening in terms of the narrative, the actual story, is not. The movie only works as a rather obvious allegory or fable; as a piece of fiction it is badly wanting.

Nevertheless that central metaphor is viscerally brought to life and Garland handles the surrounding trappings of a more traditional horror film with deftness and skill: parts of the film are repellent, others are genuinely suspenseful and creepy. It is a polished and memorable package – but even if you agree with the message at the centre of the film, there remains the sense that this is a film where the subtext was the main, possibly only consideration; certainly a satisfying narrative seems to have been very much a secondary concern. As a result I can imagine it infuriating and annoying as many people as it entertains.

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