I’m a sucker for cozy catastrophes. It’s a slightly derogatory term that refers to the sort of end of the world stories that John Wyndham pioneered. Quiet, sleepy English village is woken by the sudden, horrifying (And implied) forced impregnation of every woman in the village with psychic death children, whilst two villages up another child is driven almost mad by the alien intelligence only he can hear and his parents, whilst sympathetic, are distracted by trouble at the local Triffid farm. That kind of thing.
It wasn’t just Wyndham, of course, and the cosy catastrophe has actually seated itself as the default model for a lot of popular British genre television. After all, Doctor Who’s Earth-based episodes owe at least as much to Wyndham as they do to Nigel Kneale and always have done. Even outside the house of Who, shows like the award-winning, and embarrassingly cancelled, The Fades and the entire narrative drive of Primeval are vintage cosy catastrophes; world about to end, only plucky two-fisted scientists/journalist/soldiers can save us. Or at least survive to tell future generations why we screwed up so badly. You even see elements of it in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, the recent horror movie The Bay, David Moody’s stunningly great Hater series of books and a lot of contemporary British police drama. Waking the Dead and Silent Witness both flirt, or flirted, heavily with the ‘team of brilliant, flawed people hold back the darkness’ tropes to varying levels of success.
I love this kind of story because it’s grounded and pragmatic and that throws the fantastic element into stark relief. These are stories about chaos whilst the kettle boils, the forcible impact of the unknown or impossible onto established life. As Torchwood used to insist in its opening narration, the 21st century is where everything changes and we have to be ready. These stories are about what happens when we aren’t.
Which brings me to Matt Westrup’s short movie, The Gate. Produced by Joyrider and put out in partnership with Stashmedia TV, it’s a ten minute piece that’s linked below.
The opening of the movie does several very clever things straight away. Firstly, this biblical quotation being the first thing we see, makes it clear exactly what sort of territory we’re traveling through.
‘…for the gate that leads to damnation is wide,
The road is clear, and many choose to travel it.’
Matthew: 7, 13;14
Full on, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, Horror, Terrible Scientific Hubris stuff. With that already in our minds, Westrup lays out the tone of the film in under two minutes with some real visual wit. Look at how the people bustling along on the street are paired with the corpuscles in blood. Look at how the first image we see is a stylized, distorted human form, in the fountain. Look at how from the angle it’s shot, the statue looks like it’s doubled over in pain, vomiting. Then the flash cuts to the mutations themselves, and from there to the sudden stillness and methodical pace of the government inquiry. Three clear beats that turn those first couple of minutes into the visual mission statement for the entire movie, and it’s really impressively done.
Let’s talk about Parliament for a moment. Ever since William Hootkins enunciated ‘TOP…MEN…’ at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, government has become the visual shorthand for slow, probably doomed bureaucracy. In the UK, a Parliamentary select committee is about as perfect an example of this as you can get. These aren’t even the geologically slow inquiries that lumber along for years having their teeth politely, and brutally, pulled, these are the closed door discussions between culpable parties about how culpable they are. Westrup nails the overly cautious, almost courtly language as well, and the crash cut between the committee and the street is another nice piece of pacing.
What really works about the street sequence, however, is what we don’t see. It’s one of the very few examples I’ve seen in modern horror of an audience being allowed to figure things out at their own speed. The police roadblock, that’s deserted, surrounding something unusual. The ambulance door, lying open, with a dangling, ripped out IV. This isn’t just something happening, it’s something completely unexpected happening. Then you’re shown the hands and feet beneath the car, get the first hints of the roadblock not being to keep something out, but to keep something IN. This is really smart, restrained narrative storytelling which, for a genre that tends to default to the stabby, is a welcome change.
It’s a shame then that just as the film hits it’s height of visual subtlety, it also makes its one serious misstep. The containment team who turn up to deal with the creature are, to me at least, completely out of place. Up to this point, everything we’ve seen has said that this is a story set, at the very latest, in the near future. So to have the containment team arrive in power armour, and power armour that seems to owe a little to Games Workshop space marines at that is a bum note, a discordant element that shows off the special effects at the expense of the sense of place. It’s almost immediately over ridden by the revelation of the first mutant, a terrifying stack of muscle that’s somehow resolutely human, but it still feels less like a plot beat and more like a show reel moment.
It’s interesting then that the second half of the movie has a completely different tone. There are two scenes here, one an info dump over the autopsy of the bull creature and the other, an encounter with another mutated human in the offices of Erickson Finance. The autopsy is interesting because of what it implies heavily as the cause of the mutations. The idea of dormant gene sequences being reactivated is a fascinating one and the line about how their function isn’t known is one rife with possibilities to my ears. Whilst it’s likely that the eventual full length movie will go for the same accidental triggering of these mutations as the short, the idea of the entire incident being an attempt to forcibly evolve humanity, or weaponize a certain element of it, is as fascinating as it is disturbing.
What stays with me about the movie though, is the final scene. An auditing officer at an accounting firm is encountered in the building, his body distended and changed into something resembling an eight foot, humanoid gazelle. The scene where a colleague is confronted by this mutated figure, one part terrifying and one part, somehow, still completely human is absolutely chilling, and a vintage cozy catastrophe moment. Humanity is changing, the world as you know it is changing and it starts in your office, now. It’s a visually arresting moment not just because of its implications but because of how mournful it is. This is an innocent man, who’s one crime was feeding his drug habit through an off the books website. Like the hapless victim who becomes the bull he dies badly and, like him, he dies alone. A strange, oddly beautiful weed is growing in a small percentage of the population, and it’s something which needs to be treated far more than it needs to be fought which makes the sci fi military look of the containment team even more incongruous. The final few moments of the film imply heavily that neither will take place, as we get some deliciously implied backstory. Doctor Ackerman (played by John Mawson) argues that care needs to be taken to stop this happening again. Under Secretary Johnson (played by Robert Rowe) responds that his advice will be taken into consideration, presumably, by ‘…Top…Men…’ Just for a second, you see not only the tragedy of these two victims but the lack of care, the burning need to move onto the next issue that blinds Johnson to the truth and stops Ackerman from getting the job done. Were this an American movie, there would be table thumping and a grim info graphic as Denis Quaid explains how many people are going to die. This being the UK, and a select committee, there’s simply a slightly curt tone and the sense of the dust settling once again as the dance of state lumbers ever onwards. It’s also a subtle call back to the opening quote; the gate to the road to damnation has been left open and, as the closing title cards tell us, countless companies are choosing to run, not walk, down it.
The Gate is an assured, focused piece of film-making. It makes tremendous use of its structure to imply as much as it shows, and the British setting, oddly, only makes the mutants seem even more unsettling. The design work on them is exemplary too, embodying the same sort of modified human look that Vincenzo Natali’s Splice achieved with none of the mildly fan-service cheesecake that movie ultimately resorted to. It’s also clearly a demonstrator of sorts for a full length film, and it’s almost impossible not to try and spot where scenes would fall in a longer version. The one problem is those outlandish battle suits on the containment team and I’m hopeful they won’t appear in the eventual movie. If nothing else, they’re entirely too empowering and overt. After all, this is a cosy catastrophe, or at least one that starts that way.