Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: cliched Hollywood treatment of an Australian heroine

Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)

Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.

After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.

With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.

Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.

As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.

Control: a character study on isolation, mental breakdown and psychological assault

Carroll Brown, “Control” (2019)

Filmed on a tiny budget, this science fiction horror short is an intense character study detailing the effects of long isolation in space on a scientist suffering perhaps from guilt and survivor guilt in particular. Elizabeth (Jaimi Paige) has just jettisoned the corpse of her colleague into space from her outpost on Callisto, a Jupiterian moon. She has only Mission Control for company – and that operates (supposedly) on a two-hour time delay. Not long after Elizabeth has sent her partner’s body into space through the airlock, she believes she can hear strange thumping sounds near that airlock. For most of the film, viewers believe she is hallucinating and Elizabeth, in her rapidly escalating hysteria, partly believes she is indeed hallucinating – but some of her conversations with Mission Control and a possible twist at the end of the film suggest that Mission Control may be manipulating her emotions and resilience in a sinister psychological experiment.

In a very bare setting, Paige does excellent work in what is virtually a solo outing as a frightened figure on her own on the verge of a mental breakdown in a haunted-house scenario. Voice actor C Thomas Howell as the spokesperson for Mission Control helps drive the plot with necessary dialogue that hints that Mission Control isn’t just a bureaucratic space agency, that it may have a secret agenda of its own that Elizabeth and her partner are unaware of. This becomes apparent in the later part of the film when Mission Control appears to humour Elizabeth and to reflect her emotions and fears back to her. The film becomes most interesting when the light turns off and Elizabeth begins to scream – at which point it ends, leaving viewers to imagine far worse than what would perhaps have happened had the film continued, in which case the film would have had to reveal its hand and show that Elizabeth is indeed going mad or that Mission Control (or possibly even a malign alien force on Callistio or Jupiter or elsewhere) is indeed exploiting her emotions.

The plot and its themes cannot sustain more than a 15-minute film but the time is enough for Paige to demonstrate her ability and skill as an actor to flesh out and carry a bare-bones story about facing one’s worst fears while under psychological assault.

A tale of alienation, dehumanisation and exploitation in “Upload:U”

Samuel E Mac, “Upload:U” (2017)

A creepy little short made in very sparing minimalist style, “Upload:U” may be viewed as a metaphor expressing the alienation and dehumanisation of people living isolated existences highly dependent on cyber-technology for social interactions. Disillusioned by her cubicle job at work, unable to connect with a male employee she fancies and cut off from her family, Jane (Lee Marshall) increasingly relies on her recreational virtual reality console, connected to the AI system in her flat, for entertainment and solace. One night, her avatar takes her to a bar where she meets a man – or a few men – and has sex with him (or them). She wakes up in the morning in pain, wounded and bloodied between her legs. A strange light glows white and red within her abdomen.

Reminiscent of the cult sci-fi horror film “Demon Seed” in which a scientist’s wife is held prisoner, raped and impregnated by a computer, this short can be distressing to watch as Jane, trying to get help through her AI which deliberately misunderstands her instructions, weakens and finally dies. At no time at all does Jane appear to realise that the AI has fooled and manipulated her, and in my view this is the film’s downfall. At the very least Jane could have asked or argued with the AI what it had done to her and why. At the very least Jane could have attempted to regain control over her life, perhaps even tried to damage the AI, and this would have given viewers a better indication of her character. As it is, Jane comes across as superficial, passive and undeserving of audience sympathy. The conclusion is predictable but is cut off very quickly so viewers get no idea of the AI’s reaction to the birth of the offspring.

While the film’s visual style is light, clear and minimalist, obscuring the horror of its plot, and its cinematography is very good and uses a cheap budget well through the use of unusual angles and points of view, the film overall is let down by a poor story and sketchy characterisation. To get something out of this film, viewers need to bring their own knowledge of human alienation gained from experience or philosophical study. Young viewers without such knowledge, at whom the film targets, are likely to find this film confusing. Viewing “Upload:U” as a metaphor for human alienation, as a first step towards dehumanising people and exploiting them as machines, may be helpful in understanding the film and its flaws.

The Professor and the Madman: a deeply emotional film about obsession, suffering, forgiveness and redemption

Farhad Safinia (P B Shemran), “The Professor and the Madman” (2019)

Adapted from the novel “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” by British-American journalist Simon Winchester, this film is a dramatic retelling of the early creation of the Oxford English Dictionary as a historical dictionary tracing the origins and development of the English language through its individual words and the changes that occurred in the meanings and usages of these words over time. The film focuses on the editorship of James Murray (played by Mel Gibson) who accepted the position in 1872 from the Philological Society, a group of intellectual men in London, after previous editors had given up due to the enormous scale and complexity of the task. Murray’s solution to the problem is to recruit eager amateurs (in a Victorian equivalent of crowd-sourcing) through London booksellers. Eventually one very eager amateur, submitting several thousand entries of words with their histories and quotations demonstrating their use, is one Dr William Chester Minor (Sean Penn). Murray is keen to visit this prolific contributor and his curiosity takes him to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum where he discovers Minor is an inmate who has been committed there because he had murdered a man.

The film tells the stories of both Murray, coming to the editorship of the OED and bringing his wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) and family to Trinity College to work on the dictionary, and of Minor, from the time he murders someone he mistakes for a Civil War deserter whom he believes to be following him to his incarceration at Broadmoor, in parallel. Murray must contend with the pressure and complexity of the OED project itself, and the pressure from Oxford University Press publisher Gell (Laurence Fox) and Oxford University administrator Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) to deliver a dictionary more to their liking than to what Murray believes it should be. His wife Ada and their children are neglected for long periods of time, though as the film progresses some of the children become involved in their father’s work. Minor labours under the burden of guilt for having killed an innocent man and leaving the victim’s widow Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) and her seven children destitute, as well as past traumas from his time as an army surgeon during the US Civil War (including apparently having to brand a man as a deserter) that induce paranoia. A third sub-plot, not very convincing, involves Merrett meeting Minor at Broadmoor and over time the two becoming romantically involved after Minor offers to teach Merrett how to read and write.

Though the various sub-plot threads might be too much to handle for a first-time director, Safinia (credited as P B Shemran due to a legal dispute with the production company Voltage Pictures over the control of the film’s production, leading to Gibson and Safinia dissociating themselves from the project) does a very deft job keeping the parallel tales of Murray and Minor balanced. This viewer did not find having to follow the sub-plots confusing. The mostly sober acting carries the film all the way through; even actors in minor roles, in particular Ehle as Ada Murray and Eddie Marsan as Broadmoor prison warden Muncie, do excellent work in giving their characters substance, warmth and humanity. As Minor, afflicted by his guilt, traumas and maybe other psychological undercurrents, Penn delivers an outstanding performance in portraying a man who, despite the demons that torment him, finds love, acceptance and redemption.

The film does play a little hard and fast with facts – it creates a fictitious and implausible scenario in which Minor saves a prison guard’s life, receives a book from the other guards as thanks and discovers Murray’s appeal for contributions to the OED project inside the gift – and nearly 30 years are compressed into 124 minutes of film, during which Minor ages but the Murray and Everett children remain much the same. The fictional additions and the chronological irregularities however do not disrupt the overall narrative in which obsession, undergoing extreme ordeals of suffering as tests of faith, and Christian forgiveness and redemption are strong themes. Cinematography is very good and the attention to period detail, even to prevailing social mores of the late 1800s, is excellent. If there is one major fault of the film, it must be that the villains – the aforementioned Gell and Jowett, and Dr Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) with the sinister interest in phrenology at Broadmoor asylum – tend to be character stereotypes with Andrews in particular frozen in yet another effete English aristocrat character sketch. Significantly the all-English villains have a common interest in control of one kind or another: Gell, Jowett and their fellow intellectuals are keen on controlling the English language as a language of imperial power; and Dr Brayne tries to control and manipulate Minor using phrenology and torture. In wresting the OED away from the English intellectual elite and saving Minor from Dr Brayne’s ministrations, Murray becomes a hero of the common people.

For a film of its length, with the somewhat intellectual and dry subject matter it has, this movie turns out to be deeply emotional (even a bit sentimental) and concentrates audience attention very well.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.

WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster: a profile of a company and its founder peddling an unsustainable vision and business model

Dagogo Altraide, “WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster” (ColdFusion,2019)

Some workers probably wish their employers would make their working lives fun for them by sending them to fun fairs once a week perhaps to ride on roller-coasters for free. Few of them would probably opt to work for a company that is a virtual roller-coaster all the time. This though has been the role of tech company WeWork in the last few years. Founded in 2010 by Israeli-American entrepreneur Adam Neumann, WeWork provides office space with a funky hipster atmosphere to pop-up and start-up ventures and freelancers, the aim being to foster a collective collaborative culture that will spark creativity and new ideas to pitch and market to target audiences. Over the next several years, the company grew very rapidly and expanded overseas to the point where it owned 840+ properties in over 120 cities around the globe and rented them out to up-and-coming entrepreneurial ventures. In 2017, Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, who was besotted with Neumann’s vision and plans for WeWork enough to commit billions in investment in WeWork. This enabled Neumann to set up and splash out mega-bucks on subsidiary firms like WeLive, a service that buys furnished residential property (usually following the then current fashion Zeitgeist) and leases it out, and an experimental school for preschoolers and kindergarteners – provided their parents can fork out the yearly equivalent in fees of a lower middle-class income.

Unfortunately this mix of generous investment funding and Neumann / WeWork has led to a very precipitous rise and equally steep fall in WeWork’s fortunes as documented by Cold Fusion TV, an Australian online media company helmed by founder Dagogo Altraide (who made the video under review and also provides voice-over narration), in a very calm and straightforward, rational way that makes following the ups and downs of WeWork’s recent history quite easy for viewers, even if the highs and lows are dizzying. The documentary makes clear that WeWork’s abstract business model is financially unsustainable and resembles an elaborate real estate Ponzi scheme, in that the people who rent space from WeWork essentially become the company’s employees as well as tenants. As long as WeWork provides a place for freelancers and contractors to work in, all is well for them; the moment WeWork decides to sell the property, these people have nowhere to go and become effectively unemployed. They could perhaps go to their local libraries or the Starbucks coffee shop to work as long as those places offer free WiFi but then they could have done that initially and not gone anywhere near WeWork. In addition, WeWork’s business model can only work if property prices are rising and interest rates are low, in a real estate environment where perhaps few people are able to afford their own homes because banks keep lowering interest rates to encourage property speculation and thus pump money into the economy, leading to a situation where people end up borrowing big. As one interviewee in the documentary says, the moment property prices start going down and interest rates start going up, WeWork’s business model starts to rack up huge debts quickly and alarmingly and the company starts sacking people.

What doesn’t help WeWork either is its founder Adam Neumann’s bizarre and narcissistic behaviour, verging on sociopathy, in the way he misuses the billions invested in WeWork by SoftBank, preferring to splash money on private jets and a luxurious and wasteful lifestyle. Meanwhile his employees must tolerate his abusive behaviour and tirades, his lies, his drinking and his frankly unhygienic habits. The documentary makes clear Neumann’s shabby treatment of WeWork employees and SoftBank’s trust and investment in WeWork.

The last part of the documentary is interesting in its demonstration of how WeWork’s failure and collapse without even having come as far as going public on the New York City Stock Exchange exposes the fragility and instability of the US financial system centred around Wall Street. Public confidence and trust in large investment banks doing the right thing by the bulk of their shareholders and by the public generally undergird the banking and finance industry; if confidence and trust are lacking, the banks potentially face failure and closure if companies they invest billions in fail and the banks are exposed. They would then have to call in their loans and other companies start to fail, setting off a contagion of runs and further losses of public confidence and trust in their operations.

The documentary is well made, relying on a mix of static photos and occasional moving picture videos. The pacing is steady and easy-going, and Altraide speaks with a reassuring air and confidence. If Altraide is furious at WeWork for peddling a false New Age / Age of Aquarius vision of people in offices wearing comfy casual clothes, quaffing coffee and sitting in colourful open-space settings while they work, his voice remains remarkably free of bitterness and anger. The story Altraide tells is structured in clearly defined segments, with perhaps the most interesting segment being about Neumann’s self-centred arrogance and sense of entitlement.

What the ColdFusion video ignores is why and how a company selling an abstract feel-good hippie vision and similar tech firms promoting a work culture of fun and supposed high ethical ideals end up being not only wasteful of investment money but also turn out to be deeply corrupt and hypocritical.

Wrong Number: a study of fear and anxiety and their projection into reality

Tiago Teixeira, “Wrong Number” (2018)

An odd little film with just two characters, “Wrong Number” is a study of anxiety and the tension that come from premonition, culminating in psychological, perhaps even spiritual projection. A woman (Ellie Woodruff-Bryant) wakes up early in the morning from a nightmare and is too frightened to go back to sleep. Her husband (Nicholas Anscombe) asks her what the dream was about and she replies that it was foretelling the immediate future in which something very bad has happened to them both. She eventually returns to bed anyway, he wants to know if she is in the mood for love-making but she declines.

Later in the morning he leaves for work and the rest of the day passes uneventfully. She texts him about work – he is working on a late shift – and he confirms he’ll be home when she has gone to bed. Sure enough, when she wakes again at 3 am in the morning, he’s beside her in bed and they have sex. Some time later she wakes up and finds herself covered in blood. Startled, she puts on her housecoat, walks into the lounge-room and sees a shadow in the vague shape of her husband standing in the corner.

Most of the film takes place in the early hours of two mornings so it is very dark and viewers can just barely make out the actors’ faces and forms. The shadowy look of the film, its emphasis on blue and dark blue colouring, emphasises the nearness of death, the dissolution of the boundaries between the living and the dead, and the fear and dread that can be aroused when one has just awakened from a nightmare and is still in a twilight zone between being fully conscious and aware, and being sleepy with your mind and emotions open to external psychological phenomena. Woodruff-Bryant does good work as the woman quite literally caught between two worlds, one of the living and one of the dead, but the limited and narrow nature of the plot does not allow her to do a great deal more than worry or express fright.

While the acting and the atmosphere are good, and the film does give a good sense of the grey zone between the living and the dead, in which the living and the dead may actually meet (with very alarming results), the plot is so vague as to be confusing for viewers. Does a meeting really take place or is the woman projecting her fears about her husband into actual physical form? The film deliberately leaves this question open to viewers. It may be asking too much of them.

The Stylist: a beautifully made character study with a basic plot and sketchy psychology

Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian, “The Stylist” (2016)

Never did a psychotic serial killer look more fragile or seem so worthy of our compassion and sympathy as Claire (Najarra Townsend) working in a hairdressing salon and waiting for a late-running client. Claire appears a very helpful and kind hairdresser who doesn’t mind staying back and keeping the salon open for a special client. She offers a glass of wine to Mandy (Jennifer Plas), the late businesswoman client to help relax her while Claire washes, dries and brushes her hair for a special evening event that Mandy is hosting for her boss. Mandy hopes that this special favour she does will help elevate her career so she has to look “perfect”. Little does she realise when she sits down in the seat before the mirror that Claire has other ideas for Mandy … or rather, Mandy’s perfectly coiffed blonde hair …

The story is beautifully told with atmospheric, melancholy music and a cinematographic style that at times distances the two women, as Claire attends to Mandy’s hair, from the viewer at unusual angles, bird’s eye point-of-view among them. To some extent this mitigates the horror once Claire pulls out a pair of scissors to start working on Mandy once the customer has fallen unconscious. Some viewers may find the body horror quite gross and others may find it laughable. Special mention should be made of the climactic scene that takes place in Claire’s home which she shares with a pet chihuahua: the boudoir, lit by soft romantic candlelight, is furnished with an array of wigs of various colours sitting on model heads, and all of them with tell-tale brown lines around the edges. Donning her recent blonde acquisition, Claire stares at her reflection in the mirror, tries to imitate someone but fails, and begins to cry.

The character study of a shy lonely woman with deep-seated psychological issues, who finds refuge in work that is clearly unfulfilling, and who may even have a deep-seated hatred of apparently successful and wealthy women (even though these women also suffer in their work lives, simply because they are women and must work twice as hard as their male colleagues to prove their worth) is intriguing. Townsend was born to play Claire with her expressive face over which a thousand emotions flit and each and every one of those registers with the viewers. Unfortunately the film does not provide Claire with a motive or a background that would plausibly explain why she does what she does and how and why she works in hairdressing even though her heart is not really in that type of work. What is the anguish, the inner torment, that drives Claire to scalp her customers and take their hair for her own without compensating the women?

As it is, the film with the basic plot and sketchy characters can only offer hints of possible themes and motifs that should become clearer in a future movie feature in which Townsend will reprise her role under Gevargizian’s direction. Loneliness, the need to be accepted for what one is, the competition between women for love, success and recognition, the influence of the past on people’s present decisions and behaviours, obsessive actions, revenge and the fragility of one’s identity may be likely themes that will help to flesh out Claire and other characters, and to shape the plot.

Malacostraca: personal and career inadequacy, family breakdown and resentment leading to tragedy

Charles A Pieper, “Malacostraca” (2018)

Playing like a conventional creature-feature horror flick with all the inconsistencies the genre often attracts – how on earth does the mother manage to survive nine months being pregnant while the father descends into full-blown derangement without being endangered herself? – this film initially invites laughs at main character Chris (Charlie Pecoraro) as he sinks further into career crisis with his writer’s block and his paranoid suspicions about the baby his wife Sophie (Amber Marie Bollinger) brings into the world. Seen a second time, the tragedy that befalls the entire young family as a result of Chris’s derangement replaces the silly laughs. Fears about his own inadequacy as a writer, husband and father, the resulting isolation he falls into and draws around himself, the decreasing contact with reality: all take their toll on Chris’s emotional health and stability and he projects his fear and resentment onto his and Sophie’s baby.

The film’s plot is predictable, the characters are not well developed and their house with its dark colours and blue hues tends to scream “creepy!” all the way through. The baby is always portrayed as a crustacean and it is only in the final frames of the film that its human nature becomes apparent. The look on Chris’s face as the awful realisation dawns on him that he has just killed his own child as the culmination of the story he has been writing to overcome his writer’s block is priceless.

The actors do their best with what they have been given and it is they, in the strident manner required of them, who give the film its heart and soul. The crustacean puppets that portray the baby – we see the pregnancy and the baby from Chris’s point of view – are not very realistic but are cute in their own way. Through Chris and Sophie’s interactions, we see that their marriage has lacked warmth and closeness for a long time, having been replaced by conflict. The state of their relationship finds a parallel in Chris’s writing, inspired by a dream he has about Sophie being impregnated by a yabby or giant shrimp, both miraculously reviving at about the same time. This perhaps might say something about the nature of creativity, that it needs an environment of love, warmth and connection to others in order to thrive.

At risk perhaps of being seen as derivative of Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror film “The Shining” which also deals with writer’s block and the delusion of a writer, this short horror piece could be stretched into a longer work lasting some 90 minutes with better character development and a deeper exploration of both Chris and Sophie’s motives and commitment to each other. Sophie would have to risk her life to save the child. A sub-plot involving either of the couple will be needed that draws out the film’s themes of parental anxiety, individual inadequacy, family breakdown and their consequences.

Locksmiths: a parable commenting on the decay and degeneration of Western society

James Kwon Lee, “Locksmiths” (2015)

Behind the laconic, even mundane title is a surprisingly taut and unbearably suspenseful story with a heartbreaking climax in which two parallel narratives collide with messy and tragic results. Two robbers (Jose Luis Munoz and Joe Fiske) masquerading as locksmiths checking people’s front doors and windows go from house to house in a rich neighbourhood in LA. One of the robbers is tired of scamming people and wants to lead a normal life fixing regular folks’ locks; the other fellow persuades him to do one last job before they retire permanently from a life of crime. They pull up at a mansion and enter the premises where they encounter the sole resident, Tadashi (Yuki Matsuzaki), a well-dressed and well-spoken gentleman, dragging behind a huge plastic garbage bag full of … hmm, dare I say … fresh human body parts …

From here on, chaos erupts and one of the robbers is brought down by the serial killer before he can reach the front door. Viewers can guess which robber got clobbered by the croquet mallet. The other robber calls the cops but the police have already been alerted by the robbers’ previous victims so when the constables arrive, they promptly taser the second robber and bundle him into their car. Just before the police officers leave, one of them (Garikayi Mutambirwa) gazes at the mansion with a long hard look as if his instinct might be telling him that behind the building’s doors and shuttered windows, horrific crimes are being committed.

Kwon Lee skilfully runs two stories together – the short actually begins with Tadashi measuring a victim’s face – to generate a high level of suspense and tension. The setting in an upper class neighbourhood where the robbers prey on wealthy socialites helps to highlight the class differences between the hucksters and the psychopath they unexpectedly run into, and viewers can quickly guess who the police will go after. The cinematography is superb in emphasising the emptiness behind the material wealth of the robbers’ victims and the lack of real warmth and humanity in Tadashi’s life and nature (reflected in the mansion’s furnishings) which may have driven his wife away initially, setting in train the tragedy that befell her and the subsequent trail of crimes Tadashi commits to reconstruct her face and body.

The acting is excellent with Matsuzaki playing the elegant killer as the highlight in his smooth and exact movements as he measures his victims’ faces, his sudden moments of aggression as he lashes out with the croquet mallet (that most genteel of murder weapons) and the changes of expression in his face as he picks up his wife (is she dead or alive?) to dance with her. The banter between the robbers and their subsequent actions when they realise they have met a serial killer delineate how very different they are from each other, one of them a fellow with a conscience and the other who literally leaves him for dead.

In this short film, we see a parable on the society the United States and other Western nations have become, where material wealth and surface gloss hide decay, degeneration and criminal predation, and where those institutions and people who should protect the innocent and vulnerable from evil forces instead serve those forces.