Religious psychopath Sawney stalks Scotland abducting unholy souls for his communion of sacrifices. With his insane family of inbred killers they rape, torture and eat their victims saving the best morsels for a shadowy chained-up figure in their cavernous Highlands lair. As the Missing Persons list rises, investigative crime journalist Hamish MacDonald writes sensational and damming headlines against the police, due to their incompetence in handling the case.
Frustrated police inspector Bill Munro is under great pressure to catch the serial killers so he feeds Hamish with privileged information rather than fight against him, just to get results for his superiors. After his fiancée Wendy is kidnapped by the cannibal clan, Hamish decides to investigate the heinous crimes on his own with disastrous results. For there’s something he doesn’t know about the case that’s crucial to solving it. And he too must face the beast in the cellar seeking retribution.
It’s an enormous feat for a motion picture to deliver a history lesson whilst remaining compelling to the average viewer. These drops of knowledge are especially fascinating when provided by a horror film. Revealing the ugly underbelly of mankind’s spotty past, a thriller rooted in fact certainly isn’t going to bore you with a detailed study of Civil War military leaders. I’m fairly confident their names were all General Awesomebeard, for those you facing an upcoming quiz on the subject. Don’t quote me on that if you happen to fail.
Inspiring Wes Craven to pen his screenplay for 1977’s “The Hills Have Eyes” (one of his very best) are the disturbing tales of the Bean clan, an inbred family of cannibals in 16th century Scotland led by Alexander, the “Sawney” of legend. Living in a coastal cave hidden amongst the cliffs of Bennane Head, the Beans laid ambushes for travelers at night, robbing and eating over 1,000 unfortunate souls in the course of three decades before being discovered and swiftly executed. Historians still debate the validity of these stories, given that first printed records of the murders appeared in British chapbooks, the tabloids of the times. Regardless of these accounts’ truthiness (I’ve been waiting to sneak that Colbert reference in), it’s a grand tale for mongers of the macabre.
Utilizing the dark mythos as a springboard for its “What if the bloodthirsty clan lived on?” scenario, “Sawney: Flesh of Man” (also known as “Lord of Darkness”, which really isn’t a much better title) begins in present day Scotland after an old school voice over briefs us on the legend. A nameless doctor is transported via the world’s creepiest taxi to a cave entrance in the middle of a snowy woods. Within the depths of this subterranean hellscape (how I’ll forever describe caves since “The Descent”) is a seemingly feral woman on the brink of childbirth. This bloody and slightly mad sequence sets the tone for all manner of bizarre behavior to follow for the next 87 minutes. “Sawney” is thematically all over the globe, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot of filthy fun in spots.
After an argument with her boyfriend leaves her stranded, Rebecca (Shian Denovan) is abducted by the evil and still unseen cabbie. Detective Munro (Gavin Mitchell) joins investigative forces with local reporter Hamish MacDonald (well-played by Samuel Feeney, Europe’s Jared Leto) after the discovery of human remains in the forest. Their tentative partnership is reached during a hushed and dull conversation between the two in cramped quarters, one of approximately three too many they engage in throughout the run. However, this fatty exposition does pique the interest when the conversation veers to chatter of Sawney Bean, and we’re treated to further nuggets of origin.
The true intentions of “Sawney” are soon brought to light during our first formal introduction to the man (or descendent of the man, or just an insane dude in a tunnel, it’s never made crystal clear) behind the title. Chewing scenery with reckless abandon as Sawney is David Hayman, a gifted character actor who has graced the big and small screens in everything from “Sid and Nancy” to “Rob Roy”, the latter of which I’m assuming involved his character receiving an ass-whooping from Liam Neeson. Randomly quoting the bible at a fever pitch and indiscreet about his adoration for licking the blood from corpses, Hayman’s Sawney isn’t merely an “over the top” or “off the rails” interpretation. The man is shit house rat bonkers, and Hayman is a hammy delight in the role. It may feel a bit betraying to the film’s initial tone, but that sentiment won’t last long. By the point Sawney masturbates with a disembodied hand, you’ll realize that bonkers is the only item on the mood menu in this joint.
In fact, both the grisly birth and limb molestation scenes occur within the first half hour, as there is plenty more to follow as it all builds a head of steam into the finale. Soon, nearly every character that isn’t Sawney or one of his deformed brood stumbles easily upon their underground lair, though it had remained virtually invisible for centuries. This is merely an excuse to rack up the body count in the last act, of course, so the multitude of questionable plot progressions fired at us like so much spaghetti at a wall should probably not be inspected too closely. Better to let the ick wash over you like a warm bath, as you bear witness to a creepy midget, anal rape complete with gag ball, and a cocaine-fueled martial arts battle between two inbred mutants. Did I mention that an Uzi is brandished and we finally meet “Mother,” previously chained and locked behind a closed door? Or, are you still bewildered by the coke fight comment, wondering if I’d accidentally pasted a line from a Troma Film review there? No mistake friends, it happened.
I’d love to declare that director Ricky Wood, who co-scripted with father Richard, keeps everything from the precarious edge of absurdity, but I don’t believe that particular option ever crossed his mind. Instead, he hints at the wonky throughout the rather rote and unnecessary (since there isn’t one) mystery, then piles on the tongue-in-cheek gore with the glee of a young Peter Jackson. His freshman feature-length outing is an impressive debut, aided greatly by the often breathtaking cinematography and Hayman’s committed turn. Rebecca’s escape attempt through the wilderness and the showdown between Hamish and Mother are both so tautly presented, you’ll forget you’re not supposed to be taking any of this seriously for a few moments.
Like the comedy “100 Bloody Acres” from two reviews ago, “Sawney: Flesh of Man” (Lord of Darkness)” brings a unique spin to the usual backwoods goofery we’ve grown accustomed to in similar American releases. Nearly every messy chunk of the human anatomy is thrown around like confetti in much the same fashion, but there’s a sense of spontaneous fun here often absent from U.S. productions. The Woods (the last name appears on several occasions in the credits) may not be cannibals, but they are indeed one crazy-ass clan. Keep ’em coming, boys.
Sawney: Flesh of Man (Lord of Darkness)