Serial murder has been a staple of the movies since their infancy; Alfred Hitchcock’s first big success came with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), a mystery thriller inspired by Jack the Ripper and one of early cinema’s enduring classics is Fritz Lang’s M (1931) which was based on the crimes of Peter Kürten. And interestingly, the legion of celluloid slayers that have followed in their wake can be split into two groups, based upon the portrayal of the killers in these movies.
The first group take their cues from the Avenger in The Lodger; monstrous figures stalking the shadows whose features are hidden, the midnight prowlers whose true identity is a mystery and are known only by a colourful nom-de-guerre. These are the killers of the thrillers, slashers and chillers and they depict the multiple murderers as a species of walking villainy, as evil personified. And most of the movies’ serial killers fit into this category – the human monster that symbolises our fear of our fellow man, of the other.
The second and more sparsely populated group follows in the footsteps of Lang. They come to their stories armed with criminology and psychology, with the facts and forensics, and they attempt to present a truer picture of the serial murderer. Serial murderers may commit appalling acts, but most of the time they behave like ordinary members of society, leading otherwise unremarkable lives. In fact, one could argue that the real horror lies not within the details of their crimes but in the fact that they are such mundane people, that bar their secret criminal career they are utterly normal - they are not monsters, they are us.
But within this second category, we may also identify a third group – films that focus upon serial murder but do not fall into the thriller or horror genres. Here we find serial killer biopics like In the Light of the Moon (aka Ed Gein) and 10 Rillington Place that soberly reconstruct the facts of the cases they are based on. And it is into this subset that Tony falls.
Although not based on any particular case history, although Dennis Nilsen was an obvious inspiration, Tony is a new British film that follows a week or so in the life of an active serial murderer in the East End of London. Shot almost documentary style, this isn’t your usual fictional killer or your usual serial murder flick, rather it is a haunting slice of life revealing the day to day activities of our eponymous murderer. And as such would–be viewers are warned that Tony does not follow the traditional three act structure; there is a story line of sorts but it is more a loose thread connecting the events we see rather than a proper plot. And also although it is billed as a full feature, this is quite a short film. However it is longer than the average short - Tony is perhaps best described as the cinematic equivalent of a novella - clocking in at just over one hour and ten minutes
But what a compelling 74 minutes it is. Director Gerard Johnson has crafted an elegant little film that lingers in the mind long after the credits rolled. My first impression was that if Mike Leigh ever directed a movie about serial murder then the result would be not dissimilar to Tony, and judging by a quote from Sight & Sound on one of the movie’s posters – “If Mike Leigh remade Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - I am not alone in that reaction. Like much of Leigh’s work, Tony is fastidiously realistic, travelling through the down-at-heel back streets showing us a side of London you don’t normally see in the movies and meeting the everyday but slightly eccentric characters who dwell there. And similar to Leigh’s work, there is a touch of humour in Tony; capturing the same absurdities of human behaviour and the unconscious comedy of misunderstanding and social awkwardness.
However although Johnston acknowledges Leigh as an influence, in an interview he has revealed that his prime inspiration is the work of another noted British director Alan Clarke. And on a second viewing, you can see the influence of Clarke’s films and TV dramas: Tony focuses on the gritty edges of society where the neglected and disenfranchised are left to their own devices, with the city London becoming a important character in itself. Unemployed and evidently suffering with a great many mental health issues, Tony spends most of his time wandering the streets, trying and failing to forge connections with the people around him. And as we follow him on his travels we see the many different faces of London, from the seedy estates to the glitzy West End, and one feels that in a sense the ancient city is his only real friend. Although his victims are drawn from the same underclass that he inhabits, he is also preyed upon himself by the uncaring authority figures and the general populace who ignore him because he is does not fit in.
Although there are some parallels to the Dennis Nilsen case - like Nilsen Tony kills for company - there are significant differences. Nilsen was a textbook example of the everyday guy in the office who one day is revealed as a monster, but Tony is very different – he is has no ordinary life, no job, no friends; he’s a man who has fallen down the cracks in society and been forgotten about. Whereas Nilsen possess sufficient social skills to hold down a job, Tony is much more obviously mentally unwell, seeming suffering with a kind of social dyslexia – the rules of interaction and communication are baffling to him because he has evidently been marginalised all his life.
We never discover much about his personal history but we do get a few hints about his past and the film is such a vivid character study, we may infer a lot from how he acts and behaves. Apparently, the actor who plays him, Peter Ferdinando, did write up Tony’s personal history which no one else was allowed to see, even Johnson. And this attention to detail is shines through in the strength of his performance - budding psychologists and armchair criminologists will have a field day trying to construct the back-story from what we see on screen.
Ferdinando is simply quite astounding – totally believable and utterly magnetic. His performance takes us into Tony’s world and it is a testament to his acting that most viewers will end up sympathising with the character rather than being revolted. Despite the often shocking violence and horrendous scenes of him cutting up bodies, against all the odds we do end up feeling sorry for Tony. Unlike many serial killers who artfully wear a mask of normality and sanity, Tony is clearly unwell; a broken product of society’s failures, and consequently we feel sadness rather than revulsion.
And Johnson’s direction is equally dazzling – the quality of the cinematography belies the film’s tiny budget. This is a very handsome looking film, brimming beautiful shots that capture the flavour and texture of the forgotten corners of English cities and the subtleties of the performances. According to the fascinating commentary track on the DVD, remarkably much of the street scenes were filmed guerrilla style, something you’d never guess from the careful framing of the shots. Also Johnson is to be commended for spending much of the movie’s development time rehearsing the actors; building up the characters’ depth and allowing the script to grow and develop throughout this process. And having such a long period of rehearsal before shooting commenced pays off beautifully in the finished film with very natural and finely crafted performances from the cast. Like Ink, Tony proves that low budget need not be synonymous with low quality – spending time working with the cast, honing your script and carefully planning your shots costs little other than time and the investment will pay off handsomely.
Johnson and Ferdinando are definitely talents to watch. The DVD of Tony comes with the original short that the feature grew from, and seeing the leap Tony made in this transition, I’m greatly looking forward to what they will produce next. Already they are working on another feature, as yet untitled and this time with a larger budget and a more conventional narrative.
Tony will not suit everybody’s tastes; no doubt some viewers will be frustrated by the film’s open story structure, and indeed some reviewers have slammed it because ‘nothing happens’. And largely I blame the distributers’ addition of the tag ‘London Serial Killer’ to the title for this – it’s is not terribly helpful marketing as it sets up the expectation of the usual slasher/thriller runaround. But Johnston did not set out to make your typical serial killer flick, but a piece of social realist cinema – a genre where a rounded story with a neat resolution is anathema to the director’s goals, and indeed where usually ‘nothing happens’.
But while the movie could be seen as threadbare in terms of a conventional plot, there is actually a lot going on beneath the surface; there is a loose arc to the series of events which will leave the receptive viewer will several tantalising options of what will happen next. And Johnson and Ferdinando have packed so much cinematic craft into the short running time, Tony will definitely reward repeated viewings.
However in the main, Tony is all about mood and character; much like Taxi Driver - another film where nothing actually happens for most of the running time – watching Tony is essentially hitching a ride in a disturbed character’s skull, seeing and experiencing the underside of the big city through the eyes of a forgotten and neglected man. The careful observations of London, the intricacies of Ferdinando’s performance, and a atmospheric score by The The’s Matt Johnson come together to create a compelling journey through the grime corners of both sanity and society.
And although Tony lacks elaborate gore set pieces or jump scares, if you can get onboard with Johnson’s vision, the powerful atmosphere and weighty realism actually make the film far more chilling than your average psycho on the loose – a Tony could well live in the next street to you, something you can’t really say of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Hannibal Lecter. He’s the man you pass in the road and never notice, operating undetected and quietly cutting a swathe through the population…