The Cottage Review
When it exploded onto the screen in 2006, London To Brighton was one of the most exciting feature debuts for some years and its director, Paul Andrew Williams, was marked as a filmmaker to watch. His follow-up to that success, The Cottage, is the realisation of the film he originally wanted to make as his debut and it’s a considerably different kettle of fish. London To Brighton was grim, realistic and unbearably tense. The Cottage, on the other hand, is blackly comic, incredibly silly and hovers on the verge of slapstick. Sometimes, it’s just too daft and coarse for its own good. At its considerable best, however, it suggests what might result from a collaborative effort between Harold Pinter, Sam Peckinpah and the League Of Gentlemen.
In particular, the film recalls the jet-black horror comedy of the League and the comedy team is physically present in the form of Reece Shearsmith who plays one of two brothers – the other is Andy Serkis - who decide to kidnap the daughter of a gang boss and demand a hefty ransom. Unfortunately, everything goes wrong – she is more feisty than expected, the tables are turned by her father and two Chinese assassins are sent to kill them. At this point, they leave the relative safety of the cottage where they have been holed up and move into the village whereupon they stumble upon a farmhouse which is owned by a very odd character indeed.
This is very much a film of two halves with the first forty minutes giving little sign of the mayhem which will take up the remainder of the running time. The opening section is very Pinteresque, the silent pantomime of the two brothers and their subsequent dialogue recalling The Dumb Waiter and The Homecoming. This Theatre of the Absurd beginning is so well achieved and so funny that it indicates Williams’ talent for comedy and suggests a possible way forward for his future movies. The arrival of a third collaborator, played by the irresistibly comic Steven O’Donnell – think Timothy Spall with more hair - gains yet more laughs, largely through the marvellous deadpan of Andy Serkis.
The second half of the film takes a very different turn as the incompetent kidnappers stumble upon a maniac who would give Leatherface and Jupiter a run for their money. From this point on, it’s gore all the way with the kind of scenes that would have ended up on the cutting room floor back in the days of the Video Nasty. However, there’s a carnivalesque atmosphere throughout, making the film thoroughly good natured and enjoyable to watch even when the guts are flying and flesh is twisted by a variety of manual implements. This impression is embodied by the final moments when a particularly grim twist of fate is immediately followed by William Bell singing a jaunty Northern Soul number. It’s as if Williams is telling us that we don’t need to care about any of this, it’s just a damn good laugh. The problem with this approach is that it’s harder to become involved as a viewer when nothing much is at stake and, consequently, a heavy burden is placed on the actors to keep us interested.
Luckily, the male leads are more than up to this task and they manage to make this bit of gory fluff seem more substantial than it is. Reece Shearsmith is hilariously prissy and anal as the well behaved brother who finds himself in the middle of a nightmare. He gets some wonderful lines as he worries about his shrewish wife and works through his hostile relationship with his brother. But the revelation is Andy Serkis who shows his versatility by doing a variant on my favourite Gene Wilder schtick – absolute calm and slow-burn gradually changing to total hysteria. The two men work well together and make convincingly antagonistic siblings – the calls of “You’re not the boss of me” and “That shows how often you’ve made me tea!” are wincingly familiar.
The weak link is Jennifer Ellison, although it’s not entirely her fault. The character carries echoes of Bette Midler in Ruthless People but is, if possible, even coarser. Naturally, the element of redemption from that film is lacking so Ellison is required simply to play a one-dimensional foul-mouthed bitch who seems to thoroughly deserve her fate. To be fair, she’s much better in this role than she’s been in anything else that I’ve seen, and is clearly very committed to it, but, given little help from the script, she can’t help but come across as a vulgar caricature.
Considering the small budget and restricted schedule, The Cottage is a technically impressive achievement with superb special effects throughout and some moody lighting. Williams maintains a headlong pace, delivering laughs and shocks with ruthless efficiency and bringing the movie in at a tight 87 minutes. He wears his influences on his sleeve – Straw Dogs hovers around events and the combination of absurdist comedy and gross-out horror is reminiscent of The League Of Gentlemen. But there’s something original going on here in the interplay between the brothers and the willingness to bring us straight into their relationship, establishing backstory as much through gesture as through dialogue. The Cottage is very funny and wildly entertaining but it’s at its best in the early stretches when the characters talk about nothing of much importance, squabble and debate issues such as double-negatives and the different ways of threatening to break someone’s fingers. The gore and slapstick are enjoyable and often uproarious but its those opening scenes which you remember.
Pathe's DVD of The Cottage comes hard on the heels of its cinema release and is of the high standard you would expect from such a recent film. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image is exceptionally good. Contrast and detail are superb and if the colours aren't always striking, that's a characteristic of the intentionally dingy lighting for much of the film. No problems at all with artifacting or excessive grain. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive. The surrounds are constantly brought into play with ambience, cunning sound effects and the excellent music score. Dialogue is very clear throughout.
Although this is a single-disc release, Pathe have put together a generous selection of extra features. Principal amongst these is a commentary from Paul Andrew Williams. Although he's not always as informative as you might wish about the filmmaking side of things, he provides a lot of background to the film, particularly in terms of how the characters relate to his own family. Then we get some deleted scenes with optional commentary. These include the original opening sequence, involving a character called 'Smoking Joe', the arrival in the village and some gory moments which would have fitted in well but might, as the director suggests, have slowed up what is a very tightly paced film.
"The Making of The Cottage" is a somewhat rough but very informative amble through the making of the film which has a lot of clips and interviews from cast and crew. Included are insights into the scoring process, film of the location work and some detail on the make-up. It's a bit superficial but everyone involved comes across well. In addition, there are some amusing outtakes, biographies of the cast and crew and the theatrical trailer.
There are three easter eggs; a swear count; a photo gallery; and some rehearsal footage with Jennifer Ellison. These are easy enough to find although only the rehearsal footage is really worth your time.
The film has optional English subtitles but the special features do not. There is also an audio descriptive track for the main feature. The main menus are amusingly animated although they do pall after the first couple of viewings.
The Cottage is absurd, lurid and hugely entertaining, the kind of film which makes you laugh while you reach for the sick bucket. Pathe's DVD presents it very well and is highly recommended.