Exit is the feature-length début of Michael Fausti, who unveiled it at last year’s Horror-on-Sea. Graham Williamson takes a look...
Maybe it’s inevitable that, when your last name is one letter away from Faust, you’re going to end up telling stories about people striking sinister bargains. Exit (UK, Michael Fausti, 2020) begins with a sinister figure on the phone to an unknown accomplice, gruffly ordering a hit on two ‘continentals’ whom he derisively nicknames ‘Snow White and Prince Charming’. It could be the set-up for a British gangster film, except there’s something sulphurous about this man, something that reminds you of the occult mobsters from David Lynch’s film and TV work.
Soon after, we’re introduced to Russell Bone, a gruff cockney estate agent, as he shows two couples around a London apartment. Bone is played by Tony Denham, whose menacing authority has made him a familiar face in British crime movies. It’s one reason why we suspect some deeper plot when he apparently makes a stupid mistake – double-booking both the couples into the same flat.
. The first couple – Christophe and Adrienne, played by Christophe Delesques and Charlotte Gould – seem to be the ‘continentals’ the man on the phone was talking about. They’re French, while the second couple – Billy James Machin and Leonarda Sahani as Steve and Michelle – are Londoners. They cautiously agree to share the flat, but Steve immediately takes against Christophe and Adrienne, telling Michelle that the Europeans are ‘not our sort of people’. By this point, though, we’ve already seen the opening credits, which spike a tracking shot of a corridor with flash-cuts of sex and violence, suggesting the two couples are going to get on famously – for a while.
Those opening credits serve notice that Fausti is working with a loftier set of influences than your standard low-budget British horror. The jolting flash-forwards have a certain Nicolas Roeg quality, while the corridor shot – with its woozy hand-held camera and luridly coloured lighting – suggest the influence of Gaspar Noé, or at least Joe Begos.
Fausti’s ability to pull off this ambitious mix is sometimes limited by the amount of money at his disposal. Even considering that the film is set in a new, largely unfurnished flat, it’s a shame that so many shots consist of characters framed head-on against blank walls. Every now and then, there’ll be a Dutch angle or a tracking shot, and it’s remarkable how much the film coheres in these moments – brief spots where the camerawork can match the flair of the lighting, the editing and Nick Burns’s ominous, industrial score.
That said, those elements are striking enough to get the viewer through some of the film’s dry patches. Burns’s score might be a little over-indulged – at times it makes the dialogue hard to hear – but its dark ambient loops are very evocative. As well as the influences noted above, part of Exit’s genre identity encompasses 90s erotic thrillers, and Burns leans into this with some gleefully sleazy techno-rock in the style of early Nine Inch Nails. Credit has to go to the cast, too, who are not only incredibly game but also incredibly consistent, neither overplaying nor underplaying the aggressive confrontations that dominate the film’s second half.
Fausti himself took care of the editing, and it’s one of the film’s major assets. At times, it single-handedly introduces a certain dark humour to scenes, splicing a conversation about an idyllic holiday in the English Riviera with the rain-sodden reality, or increasing our suspicion of Christophe with a match cut between a gun being fired on TV and Christophe changing the channel by remote control.
Early on in Exit, there’s a brief shot of a bus with an advert for Pet Sematary on the side. Presumably this is the 2019 remake (US, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer), but in the film’s universe it might be the original (US, Mary Lambert, 1989). Exit has a vaguely defined end-of-the-80s setting, which initially seems to be there to justify the neon-chic lighting and some retro humour as Bone tries to impress his potential buyers with the miracle of Scandinavian flat-pack furniture. As the film goes on, though, the period setting emerges as a worked-through theme.
The mysterious stranger at the start, for instance, has a copy of The Sun’s infamous headline about the sinking of the Belgrano (‘GOTCHA!’) on the wall, while another character rolls a joint on a copy of Tony Schwartz’s ghost-written Donald Trump autobiography The Art of the Deal. When Christophe and Adrienne try to seduce Michelle and Steve, they claim they’re offering the English couple ‘a little taste of a better life’, which Steve furiously rejects. There is a sense that the script, by Fausti’s regular collaborator Mathew Bayliss, might have originated as a Brexit metaphor – not least because of the title – but the story is enriched by the decision to reject fleeting topicality and go back to the 1980s. In Exit, the decade’s acrid mix of jingoism, consumerism, property-buying and gangsterism looks plausibly like an origin story for modern Britain.
Another unexpected running motif is the use of classical art. Every single painting in Exit turns out to be a depiction of Susanna and the Elders, an apocryphal Bible story sometimes appended to the Book of Daniel. This tale, about a woman slandered as promiscuous after she refused to sleep with two powerful men, suggests an entirely new reading of the film, one where the night of partner-swapping that sparks the climactic violence is a product of Steve’s paranoid, xenophobic imagination.
It’s a lot of subtext, and some may dismiss Exit as more subtext than text. For my part, while it had its longueurs I also found something exciting about a low-budget film resisting the temptation of gratuitous action and plot twists in favour of building atmosphere and suspense. It helps, too, that the atmosphere being built is so distinctive, and the film’s generic ambiguity – is it an erotic thriller about sexual jealousy, or a horror movie about couples being manipulated by supernatural forces? – is maintained to the end.
. Promising rather than dazzling, then, but there is certainly enough here to suggest Fausti and Bayliss have the brains to create something truly special one day. For all its classical allusions and deliberate pace, you can also discern a certain glee on Fausti’s part in putting his characters through this wringer. Evidence? That sinister man on the phone, the one who kick-starts the whole grisly business, is played by the director himself.
Exit is available to buy now on limited edition DVD and Blu-Ray.