A would-be serial killer decides to start a Manson-like murder cult with his girlfriend.
Claire, Lady Macbeth to Aidan Mendle’s David Brent, is up front about what she can offer. “If you kill someone we can have sex,” she tells her boyfriend and murderer-in-training.
The film-within-a-film being made in horror mockumentary When The Screaming Starts may be ostensibly about Aidan (Ed Harland, brilliantly beta), a young man desperate to make his mark on the world by helping people leave it, whether they want to or not; but the women he surrounds himself with as he tries to build a Manson-like Family of bloodthirsty murderers are the ones in charge. Claire the power behind the throne, Amy, cast out from her wealthy family, and delightfully evil twins and probable psychopaths Veronika and Viktoria, power his cult: there to slay not to play.
Up and coming filmmaker Norman Graysmith (Jared Rogers) also wants to make his mark, with his documentary about the birth of a serial killer.
Director Conor Boru co-wrote the script with Harland, and together they examine two current obsessions with wit and Jackson Pollock-levels of splatter: name recognition in a self-obsessed, jostling and noisy world; and our memorialising of serial killers. As Aidan says over a cup of tea in his missing, nameless grandma’s kitchen: “no one remembers the victim.”
When Aidan and Claire decide to start a Family, they are both heavily into the trappings of serial killings — the self-aggrandising, the infamy, the props. Claire “met Aidan at a hit and run”, and skulks around taking photos of car accidents (“when you develop the images you imprison their souls in the photograph”). Aidan reads Edgar Allan Poe with a giant raven’s head over his own, presumably bought from that weird random sales aisle in Aldi.
New recruit, alpha female Amy Kitson, is much cannier. After all, the most successful serial killer is not the one with the most podcasts made about them, but the one who doesn’t get caught, their kills attributed to someone else.
The montage of would-be cult member interviews is deftly edited and very funny. Aidan and the scarily intense Claire (Kaitlin Reynell, a hoot) are faced with an embarrassment of wicked riches when they interview respondents to their “join our Family!” advert, and some who didn’t make the final cut deserve their own spin-off. What is the elderly Patrick Button (Patrick Marley) up to in his Tunbridge Wells hostelry? What, too, is the dark history of next door’s black cat Richard? The cheery, twisted twins Veronika and Viktoria (Ronja and Vår Haugholt), and the very driven Amy (Octavia Gilmore) come out of that CV sift, along with cheeky fishmonger Jack (Yasen Atour) and Masoud (Kavé Niku) who is only looking for somewhere to lay his yoga mat.
When the slaughtering starts, it affects people in different ways. To misquote Will Shakespeare, some are born killers, some achieve killing, and some have killing thrust upon them. Aidan is in fact remarkably reticent about getting his hands dirty, more manager than murderer.
Gilmore is terrific as the elfin, staring-eyed and frankly scary Amy. Focused, murderous, and incredibly stylish, Amy struts bloodily through the carnage (both bodies and friendships) with aplomb. A shout out to to the glorious twins too — I hope they pop up next in Patrick Button’s B&B, serving his award-winning breakfasts to anyone lucky enough to survive a night there.
When The Screaming Starts has a particularly British sensibility to it, what with its Baby Brentian main character, the campervan-driving Norman and an aggressive goose.
Britain is never immune from the influence of the US across the pond though, and this is a 21st century cult: modern, inclusive, where murderers can be their authentic selves. Sadly it also has aspects of the late 20th century dotcom boom, as Aidan doesn’t have a business plan and has no idea where the money is coming from. Who pays to be murdered, enquires Norman. And Aidan has made no preparations for any potential hostile takeovers.
This is low-budget filmmaking (pleasingly, there is no stinting on decent fake blood) though it doesn’t look cheap, just embedded in everyday British life. It’s silly but it’s also very funny, and unlike a murderous cult breaking into your house while you’re having a dinner party, never outstays its welcome. The humour, nifty editing and ability to tap into the side-returns of Britain that will be instantly recognisable to a home-grown audience easily win the day.
I liked its version of the quick-change clothing montage, as Aidan tries on various outfits to create the perfect serial killer uniform. And I loved a completely-unnecessary-to-the-plot rock video for now-deceased band Cannibal Death March, complete with a witch tied to a tree, which lovingly skewers home-made music videos made in local parks while a man picks up after his dog in the background. Actually I liked the song too, including its witchy refrain “please don’t burn me!”.
Boru does an excellent job, in what is his first feature, as small people on a small island aim to showcase themselves but end up only exposing their vulnerabilities. He handles the light and shade very well, the transition from slapstick to slaughter and back again. The cult’s first home invasion sees bumbling and jokes supplanted by unease in the audience as well as the Family members themselves.
As an ensemble the performers fit together incredibly well (though I could have done with a little more Jack and Masoud to balance out the evil ladies), and Boru’s understanding of how quickly a group can implode is spot on. I suspect he’s worked in a well-meaning, badly-run start-up before.
Note: There are FOUR mid-credits scenes.
When The Screaming Starts celebrated its World Premiere at FrightFest 2021 on 28 August 2021
Watch the trailer for When The Screaming Starts: