GORE IN THE STORE
A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE ***
Directed by Staten Cousins Roe. Starring Katie Brayben, Poppy Roe, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Sian Clifford. Comedy, thriller, UK, 80 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on iTunes and Digital HD by Arrow Films from 13th January 2020.
It's a new year, so you're thinking that it's time for a new start and a new you. Maybe that involves trying a different diet, undertaking a new exercise regime or, like the protagonists of Staten Cousins Roe's entertaining feature début, it could perhaps be embarking on a long overdue serial killing spree in order to unlock your inner murderous potential. For the former there'll surely be a new Davina McCall workout DVD to set you on the right track, and for inspiration for the latter you can try watching A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE.
Lou Farnt (Katie Brayben) is a timid and softly spoken thirty-something, trapped in a state of arrested development caring for her overbearing mother whilst dreaming of a better life away from her bleak sea-side home town. Daily Lou suffers such indignities as having to wash her mum's lower back in the bath and then put up with her relentless meal time criticisms. Soon Lou's addiction to vapid self help material brings her to a sparsely attended seminar whereupon she meets the striking and brashly confident Val (Poppy Roe) who, after offending the seminar staff with her blunt honesty, offers Lou her services as a life coach. Taking Val up on this offer Lou meets Val at her unassuming static caravan home, not the most promising of starts, but upon learning Val's ambition to be the greatest life coach in the world they embark on a road trip tour of alternative therapy groups. However, Val appears to have picked these therapists with ulterior motives in mind and, as a trail of deceased motivational gurus are left in their wake, Lou becomes embroiled in something much sinister than she originally expected. However, could it actually turn out to be what she was looking for all along?
This movie instantly brings to mind other recent pitch black British comedies such as the BBC's BACK TO LIFE, with its drab sea-side setting and dry humour, and the most obvious comparison in tone and style is Ben Wheatley's 2012 SIGHTSEERS. This film unfortunately falls short of Wheatley's high watermark as the humour is never quite as biting, and the violence and thrills never quite as shocking, as would be needed to make an impact. It's all actually relatively tame considering the subject matter. In addition there are a few solid laughs but the jokes are mostly casually underplayed and although the leads have good chemistry their dialogue is never quite as realistic or as well observed as that of Alice Lowe's and Steve Oram's in SIGHTSEERS.
Although the central theme of the damaging influence of the self help industry is a strong hook it's never particularly explored in a deep or interesting enough way and can feel a little superficial. This, coupled with the short running time of 80 minutes, leaves the film overall feeling a little slight and insubstantial. There's plenty of good stuff there but it never quite gets a chance to reach its full potential.
However, in spite of those reservations it's still an enjoyable watch throughout and never outstays its welcome. It looks truly excellent for something shot on such a low budget over just two weeks, and the two leads give engaging performances. Brayben is believably meek and innocent and Roe is spiky and unpredictable. There's also fine support from the rest of the cast including FLEABAG's Sian Clifford and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as the smarmy American lifestyle guru Chuck Knoah whose life may not be as perfect as he makes out.
Overall it's an enjoyable, yet slight, diversion. It's unfortunately not quite unique or striking enough to lodge in the memory for too long, but it's still well worth a look for those that enjoy dark understated British comedy. The cast and crew involved are clearly talented, and definitely ones to watch in the future, even though this feature début falls a little short of becoming a true classic in the genre.
Reviewed by John Upton