Musician Crispian Mills seems to be carving a name for himself in the subgenre of niche black comedies which happen to feature Simon Pegg. His directorial debut A Fantastic Fear of Everything featured starkly original visuals and a fantastic performance from the British comedian, yet sadly seemed to run out of narrative steam as its running time went on. His latest offering, Slaughterhouse Rulez, a horror-comedy, seems to follow a similar trend. However, this time the dip in quality is less notable, and the film’s schlocky charms tend to plaster over quite a few issues with the narrative and provide a solid, if unremarkable 103 minutes of fun.
Mills has also managed to nab a few other welcome faces to accompany Pegg this time. Not only has his partner in crime Nick Frost joined the ensemble cast, but this is the first film produced under their newfound British production company ‘Stolen Picture’. For Cornetto Trilogy fans seeking glimpses of the chemistry shared under the wings of Edgar Wright however, Slaughterhouse Rulez may prove disappointing as the two only share the screen for the briefest of moments (no doubt a deliberate wink from Mills himself). This is all for the better however, as the film needs to carve out an identity for itself instead of relying on the memories of the past.
‘Slaughterhouse’ is an oddly-named illustrious British boarding school in the countryside, reserved for the wealthy world-leaders of tomorrow. Erected on the soil of an underground labyrinth, the school itself is a grandiose display of upper-class showmanship and royalty-worthy architecture spliced in with its fair share of class parody. It even has its own armed forces. Young Donald ‘Ducky’ Wallace (Finn Cole – Peaky Blinders), fatherless and unwillingly is sent to the school despite his clear class differences. Sharing a room with Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield), the school’s equivalent of an upper-class Artful-Dodger, Ducky and his new friends/teachers soon discover the new headmaster of the school ‘The Bat’ (a charming Michael Sheen) has sold off the land surrounding the school to a fracking organisation. However, when the fracking disturbs the ancient evil living beneath the school and opens up a huge, festering hole in the ground, it’s up to the students and teachers to battle the monstrous creatures that rise to the surface.
Slaughterhouse Rulez starts out unfairly strong. For the first forty minutes or so everything seems to be hitting its mark. It’s fast-paced introduction to the school through the use of a promotional video immediately introduces us to the world Ducky’s forced into, and there’s enough standout characters within Slaughterhouse itself to fill the cast of a quirky sitcom. Sheen and Pegg in particular are having a ball playing the mysterious conservative leader of the school and the uneasy recently-heartbroken Meredith Houseman who takes up the mantle of Ducky and Willoughby’s house leader. Margot Robbie also makes a surprising appearance as Meredith’s would-be ex Audrey through a series of short video conversations, though her presence doesn’t stretch farther than a glorified cameo. Still, Pegg and Robbie share glimpses of the same chemistry they showed within this year’s Terminal which allows him to give what could have been a forgettable role some much-needed depth and humour.
The rest of the cast is filled out by Nick Frost’s Woody, an anti-fracking hippie who resides in the woods around the school and protests the fracking. Frost rattles with unbridled energy, commanding the attention whenever he’s on screen. Over the years he’s seemed to settle into his screen persona and his performances have been all the better for it. It’s just a shame that he only ever really shares his time in the film with actors who don’t feed into this energy. Newcomer Tom Rhys-Harries is also worth noting as ruthless house prefect Clegg. Like a younger, stealthy Ivan Drago, Harries turns Clegg into more than just the one-dimensional bully character he’s written as. He’s genuinely intimidating, yet produces some of the film’s biggest laughs as the same time by keeping stern-faced and target-driven even during the film’s supernatural second half. It’s a shame that the film’s female lead, Hermione Corfield as Clemsie Lawrence is so underutilised and sidelined as a love interest for Ducky as the film, much like the school, sometimes feels a little boy-centric. Whilst this is poked fun at of course by the script from Mill and Henry Fitzherbert, that doesn’t stop it from being true. Butterfield continuously delights as Willoughby, a young man with a detached feeling of self-importance and a strange connection to a fellow student who committed suicide shortly before Ducky’s arrival. He’s really started to come into his own as a comedic presence, away from playing the generic protagonist with wide eyes who’s forced to go on some form of an adventure. Here, he’s got some real bite as opposed to Finn Cole taking on the naive role. It’s not that Cole isn’t enthusiastic on screen, in fact in brief moments where Ducky breaks free of his streamlined reactionary personality prove quite the opposite, it’s just that again the script doesn’t offer enough of these moments to leave a lasting impact.
The film arguably works much better as a black comedy than a horror-comedy, as it’s actually once the underground monsters are introduced that the quality tends to take a dip and the narrative suddenly becomes cliche and narrow. If Mill and co. had stuck to slyly lampooning the class system of British boarding schools whilst introducing a seedy underbelly involving the staff members I feel the film would have had a much stronger and more consistent impact. Like a darker, black-comedy version of St. Trinians. Again, in the film’s first half there’s hints of thematic depth with sight gags and callbacks to period pieces with a similar setting. There are some attempts to keep this thematic depth and sense of satire alive within the second half, in particular using a bizarre scene involving an Athens-esque orgy among the older, wealthier students that, if they’d have been tweaked could have fuelled the film and aided in the removal of the horror aspect. Mills is great at crafting situations ripe for milking comedy from, as long as he’s provided a genre-free template to play with.
The mole rat-like creatures that arise from the fracking site wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctor Who episode. There’s some nice attempts at practical effects work for the creatures’ limited close ups, but more often than not their presence feels inconsequential. Towards their introduction there’s a scene with Pegg’s Meredith who becomes entangled with one of the creatures, only to have his students unleash the creature’s brains and organs all over him in spectacularly over the top fashion. At this point I hoped the film would go for a more splatterfest approach in regard to its comedy, something that would suit the tone of the film whilst enabling it to continue slipping in sly digs at the class system whilst covering the big screen with multi coloured blood and brains. But sadly this isn’t the case, and the one scene is probably the best example of the amalgamation between the horror and comedy present in Slaughterhouse Rulez as it quickly becomes rather tired. For example the film’s final moments of action are confined the limited tunnel system beneath the school – a nice idea, though executed with no real attempt at visual flare at all. Instead it soon becomes very apparent that Crispian Mills can’t craft tension from the situation. What could have been a slow, The Descent-like experience which turned the tone of the film upside down just comes across as an annoyance and a bit of a hobble towards the finish line.
Slaughterhouse Rulez will most likely fail to amount to much of a cult following, and will most likely forever live in the shadow of Wright/Pegg/Frost enthusiasts and completists desperately searching for their next fix. However this doesn’t mean the film’s without its charm. Crispian Mills and his team have crafted an easy-going, fun comedy that happens to be sidetracked with some business regarding monsters. It’s got some great caricature performances from its main cast and a wonderful sense of style, but it’s bite isn’t as big as the one caused by all that darn fracking.