“Gruesome, visceral, blackly funny and harrowing!”
For those unfamiliar with the legend, Sawney Bean was a possibly-mythical, possibly-real Scottish cannibal who, along with his wife,and raised a family of equally murderous children and (via incest) grandchildren. They lived in a cave and preyed on unwary travellers, who they robbed, killed and ate. Eventually they were caught and put to death.
But one survived, and continues the family tradition of abduction, torture and cannibalism in modern-day Scotland. Or at least, that’s the premise of Ricky Wood’s punchy chunk of Grand Guignol.
Sawney (Hayman) presides over a contemporary incarnation of the original clan, consisting of a pair of hoodie-clad flesh-eaters who virtually redefine the concept of ‘feral youth.’ Between them and the unseen ‘Mother’, who Sawney keeps penned up in an underground cell and placates by constantly playing opera on a CD player and regularly pushing a dish of human organs under the door, this is a most strange family. Dwelling in a cave system in the Highlands, Sawney and his boys venture out to the big city in search of food, using a black cab to snare their victims.
Meanwhile, Hamish (Feeney) is a journo in Edinburgh whose girlfriend’s sister is found murdered and mutilated. Furious at the police’s lack of progress, he publishes a string of articles slating their incompetence and detailing the crime’s gruesome nature. This incurs the wrath of both his girlfriend Wendy (Brown) and Detective Inspector Munro (Mitchell.) To keep Hamish off the police’s back, Munro feeds him information. Bit by bit, Hamish pieces together the facts. But Sawney knows there’s someone on his trail, which puts Hamish and Wendy in his sights.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and the ‘cannibal family’ trope is a familiar one to anybody who’s ever watched a horror movie, but what counts, as always, is the execution, and in that department Sawney delivers in spades. The Scottish location plays a big part in this, with the loneliness and desolation of the Highland crags and caves providing an authentically British counterpart to the deserts of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, together with a suitably Gothic setting for the cannibals’ lair – although Sawney’s real hunting ground isn’t the countryside, but the urban deserts of the city. And, of course, the film goes back to maybe the oldest story in the sub-genre, that of Sawney Bean himself.
But it’s David Hayman who really makes the whole film work. Always a reliable actor, he plays Sawney with gloating, sadistic relish, reeling off Biblical quotes to aggrandise and justify his crimes. (It’s very hard to resist the temptation to describe him as ‘going for the jugular’ or ‘sinking his teeth into the part’.) The grotesque world he inhabits, the gruesome domain he presides over, dominates the film.
It’s when the camera is away from Hayman and his brood that the film’s weak spots become visible. As Hamish, newcomer Samuel Feeney does a fine job, holding his own admirably on screen with seasoned actors like Hayman and Mitchell. However, the character was originally written as an older man, and unfortunately it shows in traits like his drinking problem, which would have worked with a world-weary veteran journalist who’s seen and done too much but doesn’t ring true with the ambitious young crusader Feeney’s playing. It ends up feeling too much like something bolted on to make the character more interesting.
More screen time might have helped, but this is a problem that applies to most aspects of the film not involving Sawney and his family. Hamish’s relationship with Wendy is similarly underdeveloped, which robs her eventual fate of the emotional impact it should have had. Another interesting character is Rebecca (Denovan), a young woman who’s kidnapped in the opening reel and suffers rape and torture at Sawney’s hands before escaping, hunted by the clan. Eventually she’s cornered and throws herself off a cliff, and that’s the end of her storyline, leaving the viewer to wonder what the point of all that was. It’s a shame, because elements like this stop Sawney being as interesting a movie as it could have been.
That said, though, there’s much more good than bad. Well-acted and (on the whole) well-written, Sawney is gruesome, visceral, blackly funny, harrowing and has a savage brio that makes it hugely enjoyable.
Director: Ricky Wood
Starring: David Hayman, Elizabeth Brown, Gavin Mitchell, Samuel Feeney, Shian Denovan
Running Time: 89 minutes
DVD Release Date: 19 August 2013
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