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DIR: Scott Reynolds
What’s It All About?
A charismatic young serial killer, Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo) is having his pre-trial assessment. The assessment is being done by Karen Schumacher (Rebecca Hobbs), known for getting another recent serial killer off on insanity. Over two days she gets Simon to talk about his childhood, his crimes, and ‘The Ugly’, the force he says compelled him to become a murderer.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
The Ugly is another of those films that just seemed to miss the public consciousness. It’s not much of a surprise really, as while it uses some tropes familiar to fans of the likes of Se7en and Silence of the Lambs it is also a much more determinedly arty film than either of those. The story unfolds in an almost deliberately alienating collision of past and present, and the visual design also takes some getting used to. It’s not an easy film, and most hits are easy.
Why Should You See It?
New Zealand filmmaker Scott Reynolds seems to go all out, to try and include every idea he’s got in his first film, just in case he doesn’t get to make another. The Ugly does a lot of things in its 89 minutes, taking its central character; serial killer Simon from the age of five across twenty years, through a difficult relationship with his abusive Mother (Jennifer Ward Lealand) to the point at which he’s a quite possibly insane, incarcerated serial killer. Reynolds manages to cover all this ground largely by throwing us back and forth through the timeline, employing match cuts that nevertheless create a dislocating feeling.
I think Reynolds is doing this to put us into the whirling mind of Simon, which is a strange and disturbing place to be. Indeed you could easily argue, given the oddness of the film, that everything we see is taking place in Simon’s mind (though Reynolds never, fortunately, answers this question). It’s perhaps the design that most strikingly makes us suspect that the whole film takes place in some sort of internal world; the mental hospital in which the film largely unfolds is deigned like no other; the director’s office seems to be a glass walled stage, the room in which Karen interviews Simon has peeling red paint, redolent of blood, all over one wall, and there is – as there is in the rest of the film – a huge emphasis on royal blue and blood red in every shot. When Simon’s ‘visitors’ – visions of his victims – appear, and when he kills, blood is not red but black, oozing like some sort of poisonous oil. It all adds up to an incredibly striking film (seldom more so than when Karen enters the hospital for her interviews, wearing first a royal blue and then a blood red suit).
Also contributing to the feeling of dislocated reality are the characters. Simon actually feels the most realistic, and Paolo Rotondo is effective as this mentally broken psychopath, but everyone else is extreme; the shirtless orderlies who beat Simon and spit in his food; the Marquis De Sade looking doctor in charge of the asylum; Simon’s monstrous Mother and his only childhood friend Julie, who is seen as unambiguously good. This approach is likely what made The Ugly a tough sell, but it’s also what makes it memorable.
Scott Reynolds could be accused of favouring style over substance with this film, but the substance is there. In the scenes set during Simon’s childhood he gives us some insight into the moulding of a serial killer (largely through the malign influence of his mother), and during the rest of the film the style really is the substance, because it is the visuals and the cutting, more than the sometimes rather schematic dialogue, that create the film’s creepy atmosphere and shocking set pieces (an attack on Karen is especially brutal) as well as letting us into Simon’s mind.
The Ugly is a film that rewards repeat viewings and is deeper and more interesting the more you look at it. A minor classic of its kind, it deserves to be far better known.
A very tense sequence in which Simon’s old friend Julie walks around the house where he has just murdered her brother, while he hides in the bathroom.
How Can You See It?
Barebones DVDs are available in both the UK and the US
Edward Norton (in a fuchsia rhino suit), Robin Williams and Catherine Keener in dark comedy DEATH TO SMOOCHY.