– By Allan Lear
Collins dictionaries run a Word of the Year every, er, year to determine what word has had a majority impact on the public judging by the amount of press coverage it’s received. A few years ago it was “omnishambles”, a word coined in The Thick of It to describe a specific person but which turned out to be handily descriptive of the then-current Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government (also the present government, and doubtless the next one).
This year’s Word of the Year was “fake news”, suggesting that Collins need to take their own dictionary off the shelf and look up the difference between a word and a phrase. “Fake news” is a term used by that American cunt to describe all the evidence that proves conclusively that he’s a cunt. It’s now caught on to such an extent that anything and everything is fake news if anyone disagrees with it, which, inevitably, they do. On a BBC morning television programme the other week, a rocket-powered anus from California was interviewed regarding his plan to get an amateur space shot up to 1,800ft in the air to prove the Earth is flat. 1,800ft in the air is the height of the new World Trade Centre building. I bet you he could have got a flight to New York cheaper than building his own rocket – and the flight would have got a damn sight higher, too.
Becoming crap at telling fact from fiction cuts the other way, too. In 2011 a poll run by cretins, for cretins, on cretins found that 21% of British adults believed that Sherlock Holmes was a genuine historical figure. But there’s a creation of nineteenth century fiction that’s managed to impress upon even more people the notion that he might have been more than a clever story, and that’s Sweeney Todd. First appearing in a ‘penny dreadful’ serial called The String of Pearls, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is such a persuasively awful bastard that many have come to believe he was based on real events, which he ain’t (Sawney Bean is a bit of a stretch, one feels).
One of the most powerful elements of the Sweeney Todd story is the ingenious capitalism which provides the cover and disposal method for Todd’s murders. Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is that touch of genius which gives the story its real visceral unpleasantness and adds that element of cleverness which we love in our fictional psychopaths.
So it’s surprising, when you think about it, that this element of the story hasn’t been filched more often. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I was watching Mab, a short film from writer-director Katie Bonham that steals the premise while adding its own clever twist.
Mab is a story about a teenage girl called Rosie (the abundantly-named Maria-Teresa Daher-Cusack) whose life is pretty much balls. Her mother is a prick. Her boyfriend is a prick. The world is a prick. Her social life is utterly circumscribed by service to her mother (the prick), who runs a semi-professional beautician service from home and who interrupts Rosie’s every evening by sending her, drug-dealer fashion, to run mysterious packages to and from a shack-dwelling dotard called Mab, who, incidentally, is a prick. The only break she gets from domestic misery and school is the odd session sitting in her boyfriend’s car where he tries to force himself on her.
One day Rosie arrives late to Mab’s shack in the woods. She’s been delayed by family strife or a rape attempt – one of those quotidian nuisances she seemingly puts up with daily. Mab hustles her into the shack and won’t let her leave. It becomes apparent why when Rosie witnesses a hideous demonoid entity collect a hanging Blair Witch stick-dolly from outside the shack and leave with it.
It turns out that, far from being your average crazy old shack-dwelling lady with a side-line in mystery packages, Mab is, in fact, a witch. This is where the clever lifting from Todd comes in. You see, Mab does a sort of voodoo with her little stick figures, sending the demonoid to punish people she is dischuffed with. This demonoid latches onto its target by a process of sympathetic magic. So how does a mental old besom in a dilapidated hut go about getting her hands on the vital pieces of her victim to allow the sympathetic magic to work? Easy – she bribes a hairdresser, who fishes out the right offcuts of hair and fragments of mani-pedi leftovers and sends them to her in mysterious packages.
As I say, it’s a really clever use of the Mrs Lovett trope – one of those ideas that, when someone else has it, make you say “How come I never thought of that?” All good ideas seem obvious in hindsight. It’s a moment of inspired horror-movie logic from Bonham.
Does Rosie succeed in turning the tables on the various pricks that surround her? Well, fifteen minutes of screen time and you’ll find out. And it really is fifteen minutes pretty well spent. Of course, in a film of such brevity, it’s hard for much in the way of characterisation to take place, which explains the universal pricktitude of all characters except Rosie. Her relationship with boyfriend/abuser Alex (handsome, bastardly Tom Loone) is sketched in two dimensions; that with her mother (a one-note Lucy Clements in a one-note role) is just a slanging match all the way through. Mab herself (Carolyn Saint-Pé) has no character at all and is merely a plot contrivance with varicose veins in her face.
But we don’t spend much time with any of this motley crew of variously-characterised bell-ends. We spend all our time with Rosie, and she is played with sympathy and charm by Ms Daher-Cusack. Young actresses can, when improperly directed, tend towards the hysterical, but Rosie is played with restraint and never becomes the trial that hysterics always are. That’s not to say she lacks emotion; she is scared, petulant, regretful, steely, all in the right places, but never in such comic-book amounts that you doubt the integrity of the character.
A promising showcase for both writer-director and star, Mab is worth fifteen minutes of anyone’s time. You could watch it twice during the runtime of an episode of Eastenders and you’d still find it less tedious and better acted. This review’s Word of the Week, with thanks to Collins, is “good stuff”.