The Dark Ditties gang serve up a zombie apocalypse with a supernatural twist. Ellis Reed reviews Dad, their fifth production...
For the uninitiated, Dark Ditties Presents… is an independent anthology of films that feels more like a cinematic universe than a mere brand. This is partly due to the shared mythology, which unites a collection of otherwise very disparate tales, and partly due to the marque’s promotional artwork, which, to my untrained eye, is really quite special.
So far, Dark Ditties have given us The Offer, where seven strangers are invited to a mansion and forced to play a deadly game; Mrs Wiltshire, where an elderly woman is trapped with the ghost of her abusive husband; Finders Keepers, where a pair of ne’er-do-wells find a body attached to a briefcase; and The Witching Hour, where the hosts of a paranormal TV show get out of their depth. With their fifth and most ambitious outing, the team not only reaffirm themselves as one of the most interesting marques in British indie horror – which is no small feat in itself – but even manage to outdo themselves. I’m certainly not immune to zombie fatigue, but Dad is a distinctive, very worthy entry in a crowded genre, with plenty of surprises and lots of depth.
On paper, it’s a sort of sequel to The Witching Hour, but it works perfectly well as a standalone feature. The zombies turn up right at the start, and that’s all you need to know for most of the runtime. Although the film links to the others, you can easily infer or gloss over the backstory, which – as with all of the ‘Ditties’ – is a fairly small part of an otherwise self-contained narrative.
Once the undead arrive, we jump forward in time, joining David (Corin Silva) and the dementia-stricken Terry (Ian Gelder) on the other side of the zombie apocalypse. David is trying to start their car – a life or death emergency in the ‘new normal’ – while Terry struggles to grasp the fact that he can’t go home because it isn’t there any more.
After David wrestles with a lone zombie, they band together with another group of survivors, played by series regulars Neil Cole, Simon Bamford, and Bruce Jones – better known as Coronation Street’s Les Battersby! – before getting attacked again. Following this second near-miss with the living dead, they take refuge in the home of a crazed religious zealot (Mark Wingett) and his more approachable daughter, Beth (Jamila Wingett) – which is where the meat of the narrative unfolds.
There’s more to Dad than the usual zombie antics. Whenever he’s unconscious, David finds himself in the study of a mysterious doctor (Michael Higgs), having cryptic conversations that reflect either his own troubled thoughts or supernatural shenanigans. This extra layer helps to distinguish Dad in a very crowded genre, and it’s not the only thing going in the film’s favour. A lot of low-budget films fail to do zombies convincingly, but Dad makes them feel like a genuine threat – especially in the cold opening, when they paw at the windows, or around the 25 minute mark, when they chase the heroes into the house. As an exercise in indie horror, the film is tense, atmospheric, and very well executed.
Lastly, and most importantly, the film has genuine emotional depth, explored through the characters’ backstories and relationships with each other. The heart of the film is a very affecting performance by Silva; he commits fully to the role, playing the part without even the faintest whiff of ham. Bruce Jones, who’s done some great comic turns for the franchise – and a very chilling one in Mrs Wiltshire – is far more grounded than normal, continuing to show his versatility as an actor. All of the principal cast do great work, supported by an engaging script and a good story with high stakes.
Tonally, this latest ‘Ditty’ is something of a departure, or at least an expansion of range. Normally, the franchise is distinguished by OTT characters, brought to life by a repertory cast; the performances often have more in common with the stage (sometimes even a sitcom) than serious drama. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s all part of the charm – and it means that anyone who likes Inside No. 9 should feel right at home. However, Dad is, by a comfortable stretch, the straightest story so far. The closest comparison is Mrs Wiltshire, and, while that was very sad, the titular role was written with an element of caricature – ‘I don’t like foreign food’, asides about the merits of malt vinegar, and so on – that’s completely absent from David. That’s not a criticism of either episode; just a note on the increasing tonal diversity of the ‘Ditties’, which is a strength of the series, rather than a weakness.
It’s also worth noting that the flashes of dark humour aren’t entirely missing here. There’s a gag about toilet paper that wouldn’t be out of place in Finders Keepers, and the whole cold opening is classic Dark Ditties. If the brand continues to deliver a mix of theatrical farce and haunting drama, then Amazon Prime will be all the richer for it. Make a beeline for Dad when it lands on the platform, or, better yet, start at the beginning and stream them all. If it’s your kind of thing – and since you’re reading Horrified, it possibly is – then you might just discover a new favourite. Recommended.