AFED #71: Cold Light of Day (UK, 1989); Dir. Fhiona-Louise

Sooner or later most infamous real-life crimes receive a dramatisation, but the timing of such treatments can vary enormously.

Some cases, such as that of the Moors Murders, are granted a respectful distance (although See No Evil finally told the story for tv in 2006). Others, like that of Harold Shipman, can make it to the screen in just a couple years. American readers will know that over there the turnaround can be even quicker.

Perhaps it owes something to the degree to which ordinary, middle-class society is offended or horrified by the crimes, or to what extent they simply feel a morbid curiosity. Film or television executives will seldom commission such a drama if there's any risk of a public backlash, even if it rarely equates to a drop in revenue (far from it).

And occasionally independent producers have taken real-life crimes and crafted them into grimly effective films. One of the most notable (if sadly neglected) examples is The Black Panther (1977), a criminal biography of the armed robber and murderer Donald Neilson, that was made just a year after his conviction. Distinguished by a superb central performance by Donald Sumpter and told in docu-drama style by director Ian Merrick, it manages to be absorb us in the criminal's world without crass sensationalism.

Cold Light of Day belongs to the same tradition and if anything takes that sparse, scuzzy aesthetic even further. Technically it's a work of fiction but its inspiration is transparently that of Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer who murdered and dismembered at least fifteen young men between 1978 and 1981.

Bob Flag plays Jordan March, a lonely middle-aged civil servant who invites young drifter Joe (Martin Byrne-Quinn) to come and stay at his dingy flat. After a short while their apparently non-sexual relationship becomes increasingly tense as Jordan grows jealous of Joe's peccadilloes with other men. One night Jordan strangles Joe, wraps him in polythene and stores him under the floorboards.

Tormented yet empowered by the murder, Jordan seeks out further quarry, Stephen, at the squalid cafe he frequents. Their acquaintance is decidedly briefer when Jordan kills him that same night and this time goes about the business of chopping up and disposing of the remains. A third victim, a young drug addict, swiftly follows but when Jordan's downstairs neighbour calls in assistance to clear the blocked drains a grizzly discovery is made.

The story cuts back and forth between Jordan's police interrogation and the events that brought him to that point. He indicates that murder gave him the opportunity to experience what death felt like and there's an enigmatic flashback/dream sequence (curiously reminiscent of scenes in Terence Davies' Trilogy - AFED #30) that suggests the childhood trauma of his grandfather's death may lie at the root of his murderous tendencies.

Like much of the film it's oblique, obtuse and even a little bit outsider-ish. Director Fhiona-Louise opts for some unconventional and off-centre camera angles that more than fulfil the purpose of detaching the viewer. Regardless of intent it proves cleverly disarming with one image in particular, when Jordan decides to do some unconventional cooking.

Cold Light of Day, despite the involvement as producer of horror stalwart Richard Driscoll - writer/director of such reviled work as The Comic (1985) and Kannibal (2001) - is not a piece of exploitative kitsch. Admittedly it does deviate from the facts of the Nilsen case; only three murders are committed here and the otherwise effective Bob Flag is slightly too old for the role, given Nilsen was only 37 at the time of his arrest.

But its depiction of a desolate world of dingy pubs and greasy spoons, where people in need of comfort are driven to extraordinary lengths, is an unsettling one. We follow Jordan interacting amiably with his fellow tenants and even taking steps to ensure an elderly neighbour receives proper care and support. He's the kind of ordinary, seemingly decent bloke who might live down your street; a reminder that true horror sometimes lurks behind the most banal exteriors.


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