When the calendar page turns to October, we Rejects have only one thought: horror. To celebrate this grandest and darkest of months, we’ll cover one excellent horror film a day for the entirety of the month. That’s 31 Days of Horror and 31 Films perfect for viewing on a dark, chilly, October night. If you, like us, love horror and Halloween, give us a Hell Yeah and keep coming every day this month for a new dose of adrenaline.
From the brilliant mind of Shane Meadows, Dead Man’s Shoes is a vengeance-soaked slasher, told from the perspective of the slasher, and as raw as an exposed nerve in places. It focuses on Richard (played by the inimitable Paddy Considine), who returns from seven years military service to his hometown in a town within Meadows’s particularly grim version of modern Britain. His intentions become clear very quickly, as he seeks to confront a gang of locals who have committed some unspoken attrocity on his mentally disabled brother, Anthony (Toby Kebell), who follows him around as he stalks and terrorises those responsible with increased ferocity.
The film is underpinned by a piquant and ominous dread, as the secret of what happened to Anthony is slowly revealed, as Richard’s venom intensifies, and his vengeful acts of retribution cut a bloody swathe through the Midlands landscape.
The film belongs to Paddy Considine, who unthinkably has been talking recently about not wanting to act anymore, in favor of directing (though in that area too the Irishman excels). So it has to be Richard’s first encounter with the gang, in which Considine gets his teeth into the character’s dark mystique: he simmers wonderfully, combining a deep thousand yard stare with a demeanor that suggests not only his teeth are gritted but his entire skeleton. He is Travis Bickle, only more unhinged, and better trained, and the venom with which he spits out the response to one of the gang’s (Stuart Wolfenden) swaggering “What are you fucking looking at?” – with extra points for a particularly vitriolic use of the word cunt – is the first perfect indication of what Richard might be capable of.
The revelation scene is also a choice one, and heartbreakingly tragic at that, but to focus too much on that would rob new watchers of the power of the scene, and that should never be allowed.
To start with, Richard’s acts of revenge are relatively timid, registering as merely pranks, though the ease with which he gains access to his prey so easily is unsettling, but once he breaks his violent duck it all gets a bit vicious. I won’t use the word gratuitous here, because the revelation at the end of the film renders that a completely unsuitable word, but it certainly hits the high notes. There’s an axe, a sniper rifle, and buckets of blood, and combined with Richard’s military training, there’s a real sense that something ballistically violent is just around the corner.
Some strong references, as the BBFC would say, but really Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t that kind of girl. It is too purely committed to its own grisly purpose, just like protagonist Richard, and the idea that he might stop to nail some broad just wouldn’t be on the cards. Yes it’s a slasher, and we would usually see the same amount of tits as we do blood but it’s subverted focus means that sex is never necessary, or appropriate even as a gratuitous addition. That would surely have been one grotesque decision too many by Meadows, and for all of his brashness, he is a director addicted to subtlety.
The horror here is very real, and as a result it gets under the skin far more than gimmicky, jump heavy fare or modern gore porn, and it stays there. There aren’t many scary flash points, but the overall situational horror is enough to send the cold fingers of fear up every audience member’s spine, and there is an undeniable, slow burning sense of horror revealed as we get closer and closer to the moment of revelation. The film is disturbing, a grotesque portrait of retribution, and it is no less shocking for following the actions of the killer from his perspective rather than watching them through the empathetically glassy eyes of one or all of the victims.
One thing that director/all around genius Shane Meadows can do perfectly is paint realistic character portraits that are nevertheless also grotesque by design: he creates characters like Richard who appear normal, and could be a product of British society now, but who are defined by inhumane features. And just when we think they are getting beyond the boundaries of acceptance, and we are just about to lose our faith in their redeemable humanity, the writer/director pulls us back with a sharp stab of empathy.
Dead Man’s Shoes works as a conventional slasher, because it goes along with the traditional conventions of the genre, though it fundamentally screws with our perception by destabilizing expectations, like by encouraging us to root for the killer in a slasher situation, or really pushing the question of how innocent the victims are. Unlike most modern slashers, which choose their victim’s gallery based on arbitrary “crimes” like sexual promiscuity or generally being a massive douche, Dead Man’s Shoes features victims that are obviously malignant themselves, so we are introduced to a universe governed by fluctuating ideas of morality.
And because of its complexities, Dead Man’s Shoes has one hell of a chilling legacy. It might not follow you to bed, like the most shock-heavy additions to the genre, but it certainly leaves a scar that is incredibly hard to shake.
31 Days of Horror continues!