Steven Nesbit’s low budget British offering “Curio” starts off, much like John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” or any number of episodes of Brian Clemens’ 1970s series “Thriller”, with a glamorous, photogenic fish-out-of-water American guest star fetching up in some remote fictional corner of the UK that aims to embody transatlantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’ with its parade of eccentric northern locals and picturesque but forbidding Bronte-esque landscape scenery. The opening scene in Nesbit’s small-scale debut - a self-penned psycho-cum-supernatural thriller with an earthy black humour at its core - is a visual showcase of rolling, frosty-grey autumnal North Yorkshire countryside (as is much of the rest of the film thanks to some superbly evocative and nicely composed cinematography) into which chief protagonist Lauren (Jennifer Bryer) and her six-year-old daughter Emily (Sydney Wade) find themselves injected after inheriting a semi-dilapidated cottage from a deceased relation on the outskirts of a small, isolated Yorkshire village.
They arrive at their destination -- Lauren only recently having regained custody of her daughter in lieu of hitting the bottle hard after her husband’s death – hoping for a relaxing holiday in which the two can get reacquainted and heal some old emotional wounds. Events fail to go to plan, beginning when the holiday cottage turns out to be decaying, cobwebbed, barely furnished and unlighted. A local old lady busybody called Mable turns up demanding tea (some painfully clunky opening dialogue between mother and daughter has already established at this point that Lauren hates the English tea-drinking habit) and harbouring a welcome gift of mouldy-looking cake (which she terms ‘growler’) followed by a mediumistic psychic reading at the rustic kitchen table that turns Twin Peaks weird when the eccentric old woman becomes demonic, froths at the mouth and talks in a grotesquely altered, Linda Blair-like possessed voice (‘Keep that fucking whore away from my boy!!’), before throwing herself from her chair and slamming her head on the stone floor! The old woman is discovered to be dead, Lauren panics and when an at first sympathetic local policeman (Alun Nixon), who mysteriously turns up literally seconds after she phones the police for help, tries to arrest her for murdering a well-loved village eccentric, she assaults him and goes on the run across the windy moors with her daughter in tow, too scared to face the prospect of being separated from her offspring again. We then cut to Lauren waking up in bed in another house altogether, now with a gunshot wound to her shoulder while, unknown to her mother, little Emily has been captured and manacled in a cold damp shed nearby.
Lauren is now the house guest/prisoner of a hulkish man-child called Mr Len (Wayne Russell), who claims to have found her in her injured state while out walking on the moors -- whereupon he brought her home to the sparsely furnished country house in which he lives with his elderly but unseen invalid mother, who is confined to her own upstairs quarters. Thus “Curio” finally stakes out its claim as a sort of cross between “Misery” and “Psycho” with an unstable mother-dominated nutcase whose cackling matriarchal parent doesn’t appear to exist apart from the accusatory voice he hears inside his own head, and who is so desperate for female company that he has to tie women to a bed for the right to regale them with his favourite anecdote about how much he enjoys chopping the heads off of chickens! The viewer fully expects the locked mother’s room to eventually yield a rotten cadaver or crumbling skeleton like the famous Mrs Bates.
Len at first tries to find what are, to him, plausible (but to us, dotty) reasons why Lauren shouldn’t see her daughter and why the two shouldn’t be allowed to leave Len’s isolated house while Lauren is still wounded, before becoming increasingly prone to threatening violence and lumbering around the bedroom wielding a huge meat cleaver while uttering madcap lines of dialogue such as ‘I’m like fucking Jesus Christ, I am!’ Lauren thus has to forge a teetering path between playing along with mad Len’s delusions and caprices while at the same time formulating a plan of escape. But the oddball opening demon possession has already alerted us to the possibility that there is more than meets the eye to this slightly skewwhiff but otherwise fairly familiar scenario. Indeed, the confined young daughter, Emily, finds that she appears not to be alone inside her makeshift prison out-shed; a small boy called Sam (Joel Jackson) regularly materialises inside the locked barn to offer advice and comfort, before just as suddenly disappearing again in the blink of an eye.
“Curio” takes what is a fairly straightforward imprisonment scenario with a fail-safe suspense set-up and attempts to mix things up with its oddball English eccentric characters, undeveloped supernatural occurrences and dollops of offbeat black humour that can turn on a knife’s edge at any moment to become disturbing and unsettling horror. The location is a pleasing assimilation of wild, rural Yorkshire Gothic: misty moors, sprawling leafless trees, and scudding black clouds blanketing desolate and forbidding English country landscapes. The film’s sly humour is very much in the same vein as that of “The League of Gentleman” (although this village is so isolated they don’t even have a local shop): it’s an essay in horror-inflected grotesquery that refuses to provide any release or relief from the strangeness, but instead only accentuates it all the more with each new macabre event. Every character is weird or slightly off in some way: the placid local policeman is really the village simpleton, who is apparently indulged to walk around in full authentic uniform, peering through people’s windows and arresting strangers on trumped up charges. Everyone else is equally as odd: Mable the old neighbour, with her headscarf and basket of inedible local wares, seems to have been precognisant that Lauren and Emily were on their way, even though they know no-one in the community; and, of course, Mr Len and his witch-like mother are a study in increasingly elaborate psychosis. But even Lauren seems to have her metaphorical demons; the past drink problem and an in-built aptitude for deception when playing along with Len’s craziness seem to hint at a slightly deeper madness that is never quite adequately fleshed out or explored, either in the screenplay or the performance.
The film benefits enormously from Wayne Russell’s strong showing as the film’s resident loon. Nesbit’s otherwise shaky script is always on surer ground when furnishing the character Len with offbeat dialogue and warped one-liners. Liable to turn in an unpredictable second from comically goonish love-struck puppy dopiness when addressing the captive Lauren, to scarily aggressive belligerence -- admonishing her for ‘taking strong drink’ or for her ‘potty mouth’ (although Len himself frequently resorts to ‘farmyard language’ whenever stressed or agitated) – Len is mentally tormented by his own desires and his deluded, fractured self-image as a ladies man and potential marriage material (one amusing sequence sees Len attempting to make himself attractive for Lauren, shaving himself using a blunt knife and the back of a big spoon for a mirror, and coming away with his neck gashed and dripping with blood thinking he looks properly dapper!) while at the same time having to cope with the distorted voice of ‘mother’ constantly running through his head, questioning and contradicting his infatuation (‘have you had impure thoughts about her toilet parts?’ demands the mother voice early on -- angry that her son has allowed Lauren to replace her bloodied clothes with one of her old Victorian-looking nightgowns). When mother is especially displeased with his desire for ‘that fucking whore’, poor old Len is forced to do penance on the naughty chair in his decrepit mother’s candle-lit room, and is hectored into acts of extreme self-mutilation in which he is made to sit on jagged shards of broken glass or to hammer six inch nails into his own thighs!
Russell’s performance, along with the film’s attractively photographed twilight English landscape, manages to keep “Curio” just about on track and enjoyable. Unfortunately, overall, the film can’t be judged a complete success: the script is often terribly clunky and prone to amateurish bouts of exposition, and this is a problem that is considerably exacerbated by a truly awful lead performance by actress Jennifer Bryer who is singularly unable to cope with either the dodgier aspects of the script or the kind of subtlety her role demands. The character of Lauren is required to spend a large part of the film duplicitously acting out the part of someone who seems perfectly happy to be confined in the company of a lumbering, hatchet waving lunatic who holds his trousers up with a piece of palette cord, but Bryer is hard pressed to give a convincing performance at all, let alone convey the sensibility of someone who is themself in large measure falteringly attempting to act out a role. She’s terminally wooden and gives an often embarrassingly stilted performance all the way through, making it impossible to determine when it is the character that is acting badly or when it’s just her.
Since this film was made, child actress Sydney Wade has assured herself a place in TV posterity by appearing not only in prime time ITV ghost story “Marchlands” but also as the first incarnation of Melody Pond -- the kidnapped daughter of companions Amy and Rory, last seen killing the Doctor in the opening episode of the most recent series of “Doctor Who”. Ironically she’s now the biggest star associated with this film, but she’s been done few favours by it: not only is the youngster forced to attempt an American accent in the role of daughter Emily, but she and her fellow child actor Joel Jackson get lumbered with numerous scenes together of truly terrible dialogue which it is too far beyond the capacity of their young talents to salvage. The publicity campaign for the film seems to have missed a trick though by not emphasising the “Doctor Who” connection more prominently; instead the DVD cover puts much more weight to the involvement of former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who has provided a mesmerising soundtrack that ranges from minor chord folk cues based around the old English standard “Underneath the Old Oak Tree”, to detuned blasts of throbbing Sonic Youth-style guitar abuse. The main theme is a recurring catchy melody picked out with Spanish guitar, wheezy church organ and accompanied by forlorn whistling above ominous backwards cello. Coxon’s music has an attractive homemade lo-fi quality to it that is perfectly in step with the aesthetics of the film. The only substantial extra with the UK DVD release is an interview with the soft-spoken musician which reveals that Coxon contrived the entire soundtrack himself, playing all the instruments in his home studio. The disc also includes a short behind-the-scenes gallery of stills and a trailer, and is being distributed by Eureka! Entertainment for ISIS Ltd.
It’s a shame that “Curio” doesn’t quite reach the place it is trying to get to, but it has enough going for it (macabre humour, nice digital video cinematography) to make it worth seeking out if you’re prepared to forgive the distracting missteps that stop it fully attaining its goal.