So deceptively mundane are the opening scenes of director Ben Wheatley's deliberately sinister Down Terrace that we may initially fail to notice the flames of hell licking the soles of our bickering protagonists' feet. But make no mistake, the monumentally dysfunctional clan at the center of this darkly comic crime drama is about to fall hard, and thanks to a skillful screenplay by director Wheatley and co-star Robin Hill, watching them do so couldn't be more engrossing.
Freshly released from jail after serving a brief sentence for an unspecified crime, father-and-son criminals Bill (Robert Hill) and Karl (Robin Hill) return to their home in Down Terrace and begin the process of sniffing out the rat who sent them up the river. It could be anyone, though -- from ominous Uncle Eric (David Schaal) to portly nightclub manager Garvey (Tony Way) to shady Councilor Berman (Mark Kempner), or even toddler-toting enforcer Pringle (Michael Smiley), every one of their associates has enough dirt to land Bill and Karl in some seriously hot water. Meanwhile, as Karl contends with his longtime girlfriend's announcement that he is about to become a father, weather-beaten family matriarch Maggie (Julia Deakin) develops her own theories regarding the snitch in their midst. Now, with each fresh corpse that crops up, they've got one more name to scratch off the list of potential suspects.
The talented cast of Down Terrace delivers Wheatley and Hill's cutting dialogue with such precision that their tongues seem to have been sharpened before every take. As distrust breeds paranoia and paranoia paves the way to disaster, it takes a certain measure of patience to appreciate the screenwriters' calculated approach to the material, though satisfying doses of pitch-black humor laced throughout ensure that no one paying close attention will likely notice the lack of action. It's the details that define Down Terrace anyway, and the screenwriters have been careful to pepper the dialogue with lines that reveal volumes about not just the characters who are speaking them, but those whom they are speaking to as well. This is the kind of film where a grown son's plea "I just want to be a normal father" warrants a stinging slap in the face from his outraged mother, who later tries to comfort her son by lamenting, "something went wrong" when he was born, and that "they couldn't help babies out like they do now." As if that weren't enough of an insult, baby Karl is nowhere to be found in the family photo album dating back to just after his birth, and his bullying father -- an embittered Timothy Leary wannabe -- all but explicitly blames his criminal lifestyle on his son in a delirious rant about his former days as a "head" seeking to expand his consciousness through the use of hard drugs.
Artful vérité cinematography by documentary veteran Laurie Rose gives Down Terrace the look and feel of a reality television show depicting the lives of low-rent criminals, and an eclectic soundtrack featuring everything from traditional blues to experimental electronica and gentle acoustic guitar ballads helps the film maintain a unique, enjoyably off-kilter tone throughout. If Down Terrace is any indicator of things to come from producer Andrew Starke and the twisted folks at Mondo Macabro Movies, fans of unconventional cinema have plenty to look forward to as the studio initially known for distributing such wild, weird flicks as Lady Terminator and Mystics in Bali continues shifting its focus from distribution to production.