The World We Knew
Ellis Reed reviews new independent British horror, The World We Knew, due for its world premiere at FrightFest in October…
In British horror, “gangster gothic” is a small but definite subgenre, as distinct (if not as famous) as folk horror is.
The flagship title is probably Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2012), which was made for less than a million dollars and hailed by Mark Kermode as “one of the most genuinely disturbing films of the year”— but it’s not the purest example, because it’s arguably just a folk horror where the heroes happen to be hitmen. Other highlights include a pair of low-budget chamber-pieces called The Devil’s Business (2011) and 13 Graves (2019), which distinguished themselves with strong acting and economical storytelling.
The stable is small because it’s not enough to combine gangsters and horror. You need a chilling tale where, as in Gothic literature, “the past eventually becomes more important than the present” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre). Gangsters can and do provide flashes of dark humour, but the outcome must be deadly serious for someone. For fans of the format, The World We Knew (W. W. Jones and Luke Skinner) is a superb new entry, with its world premiere on 24 October at no less than the Arrow Video FrightFest.
The film follows a gang of armed robbers. After a bungled heist, they lie low in a derelict mansion, wondering if one of them was a saboteur. The ringleader confiscates their phones and guns—with varying degrees of success—and insists they stay put until morning. “You make him sound like he’s God,” says one. “Right now,” comes the reply, “he might as well be.”
Over the course of the night, the robbers swing from pleasantries to recriminations and back again, while the situation becomes weirder and weirder around them. The narrative is slim but far from absent; the story could have been told as a short, but the run-time is fleshed out with some excellent character studies. We meet Stoker, a disillusioned nightclub owner; Gordon, a washed-up boxer; Barker, the gallant old-timer; and Eddie, the dazed newcomer. The resulting film has been pitched as “Gangsters versus Ghosts in a neo-Film Noir with a dark existentialist twist, a mile-wide streak of hypnotic originality and an exclusive soundtrack by the cult French band The Limiñanas.”
The film’s strengths are easy to elaborate. It’s very stylish and oozes atmosphere. Every scene looks and sounds superb. The acting is very strong. The lighting is effective—especially in the close-ups of former model Alexander Wells—and the classy score is the icing on the cake.
In fact, it’s remarkable how polished the film is, despite the tiny budget. It’s good enough for the big screen, where it would seem “indie” rather than straight-to-video. “We always wanted to push the bar with the way the film looked,” said co-director Jones, speaking to Outside Left. “When you’re working with no money, you can still make a film that looks great but often this is one of the first things to get sacrificed… We wanted The World We Knew to be timeless, stylish and cool.” The camerawork does their efforts justice, framing scenes and characters with real flare.
In acting terms, “man of the match” goes to Johann Myers. As Gordon, he covers the most ground, providing comic relief in some scenes and drug-fuelled paranoia in others. The sequence where he acts out a boxing match for Stoker is one of the most chilling moments in the whole film (in fact, when he’s not playing the clown, I think he’s the scariest thing on screen).
In terms of the others, Finbar Lynch and Struan Rodger are pitch-perfect as two very different gangster archetypes, and neither feels the need to ham it up. Kirk Lake and Alexander Wells give more muted performances, but this is because of their characters, and neither lacks nuance. Lake’s delivery has a lifetime of hope and disappointment behind it, and Wells can really tell a story with his face.
Few movies are for everyone, and this might be especially true of horror, so it’s worth setting out exactly what kind of film this is. It’s definitely more creepy than it is alarming. My eyes were glued to the screen throughout, but I was never watching through my fingers, and I’d characterise it as a stylish ghost story, rather than an out-and-out horror. Most of the scenes are there to build character, rather than advance the plot, and some have Tarantino-esque levels of irrelevance (I think it’s fair to say the film has more texture than structure). The final scene took a moment or two to digest and left me feeling thoughtful, rather than giving me an immediate sense of closure.
However, these are notes on taste rather than quality. Everything I just described was also a huge part of the film’s charm. At no point does it fall short of doing exactly what it’s trying to do, and I found it very strong indeed. In fact, if it doesn’t end up being my favourite film of FrightFest, I’ll count myself very lucky, because I’ll have seen at least two excellent movies.
The World We Knew is the feature film debut of Powis Square Pictures, and we’ll be making a beeline for whatever they do next. Highly recommended
The world premiere of The World We Knew takes place at FrightFest on Saturday 24th October. Tickets are still available for the entire schedule or single films. They can be purchased by clicking this link.
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