'Come and have a dance with Andy'
Dom Rotheroe’s Exhibit A isn’t often the first found-footage title that springs to mind, but Duncan Gates argues that it stands head and shoulders above a number of better-known contemporaries…
‘All I’m talking about is better understanding.’
t’s only when sitting through 90-plus minutes of slow-building tension that you realise jump-scares (however expertly done) are in fact cathartic release mechanisms for cowards. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998), The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988), all the ‘top dogs’ are ones that never really leave you, and today I found another one: Dom Rotheroe’s 2007 Leeds-based found-footage chiller, Exhibit A.
I know, you’re wondering how all those words could possibly come together into anything more than a diverting curio, let alone one of the best British horrors of the 21st century, and to its credit, I think Exhibit A is very aware of this.
It roots itself firmly in a lower-middle-class setting that’s evocative of the early part of Ghostwatch (Leslie Manning, 1992) – a bit of a nondescript house on a nondescript street with generic-ish family doing generic-ish things. We get an early sense that daughter Judith King (an excellent Brittany Ashworth) is the closest to a disruptor, sheltering behind her new video camera, and largely forcing the narrative perspective, initially oscillating between her closeted attraction to a neighbour, and the oafish antics of older brother Joe (a less-visible but highly impactful Oliver Lee).
In short-ish order, the action transfers to a comparatively bleak and windswept coast, where sits the larger, older, boarded-up house that the aspirant King parentals Andy (Bradley Cole) and Sheila (Angela Forrest) are hoping to buy. A less interesting film would have lingered here, soaking up the faintly Woman In Black atmosphere, milking the ‘welcome’ that the incomers will receive, but in fact, it’s a bait-and-switch: Rotheroe takes us back to suburbia almost immediately, confirming that the coastal pile is a dramatic Cherry Orchard, rather than a Hill House.
Cole and Forrest take over driving the action, and they’re both superb. Andy King in particular is an iconic middle-English creation, all classic comedy references and wacky aprons, straining away from the ‘serious’ approach that Sheila eye-rollingly points him towards. They’ve assimilated so thoroughly into their ‘2.4 children’ roles that you feel they no longer know who they are, but it’s only later in the film that you realise exactly how cold and dark the gulf in their knowledge is of themselves, and each other.
A series of incrementally awful decisions made to maximise property value and expedite the Kings’ move takes its toll on all the family, but especially Andy. You will see in him someone you’ve known, someone driven by the purest intention to be the patriarchal ‘everything’ to his family, whilst all the time he’s actually pulling them closer to ‘nothing’. In the latter stages he takes over the camera, but Rotheroe allows him no pathos. Andy obsesses over his family’s secrets, tearfully incapable of understanding how he can be ‘the baddie’, and when the truth comes, it doesn’t set him free.
In Andy King is a type of lethally-dangerous everyman that’s still far too rare in horror cinema – he’s done the right things, made the sacrifices life has seemingly wanted him to make, been the dad, the mate, the husband that society wants, and he gets no reward but an empty pool staring back at him.
In Sheila also there’s something poignantly recognisable – a resignation that she’s making the best of what was probably the wrong decision many years ago, and a deep drive to power through the lows as they multiply. There could have been a more misogynist reading of the narrative that makes her antagonistic, even complicit, but really her tragedy is that she’s so used to ‘coping’ that she can’t manage to properly pull away.
Exhibit A isn’t perfect – there’s perhaps a trope and subplot too far – but it’s ultimately streets ahead of most of its better-known contemporaries. I got a little bonus chill from this 1-star Amazon review by ‘Tim C’, who misses the point so entirely it takes on a sort of magnificence:
‘Whilst the film was realistic, I just don’t get how a loving father could… That is surely more the way a serial killer behaves.’
Tim, I have to tell you that in the real world the call is never coming from inside the house – it’s someone yelling to you from the front room.