Film Reviews:

Sunset Heights

(Colm Villa, UK, 1998)

If you fancy a break from the mainstream but aren't interested in some obscure arthouse film, then how about this near-future thriller set in Northern Ireland? Punishment squads on both sides of the political divide, the Bailer Men on the east side and the Westies on the west, dish out their own justice on those who reak the law. Make the wrong move and you get your limbs broken. Go too far and you are taken to Sunset Heights - an ancient pagan stone circle overlooking the district - if you do actually manage to come back you are crippled for life. Tension is high between the rival, roaming street gangs at the best of times. A series of identical child killings, on both sides of the town, forces the Bailer Men and the Westies to talk to one another and even join forces to stop the serial killer. However, when the murderer is discovered to be a local Catholic priest, the two factions cannot agree a solution. Eventually the priest is killed, much to the anger of some, and an illusion of normality drifts back over the city. But this superficially peaceful air is shattered as more and more eyewitnesses claim to have seen the dead priest walking - having risen from the grave.

Irish writer/director Colm Villa gives Sunset Heights an underplayed and matter-of-fact finish that despite the supernatural twist delivers a film that means it feels and plays like one of those classy BBC1 plays. You don't need to have any interest in the politics of Northern Ireland to find Sunset Heights gripping viewing. Yet despite this aproach, there is a disctinctive 'fantasy' air to the entire production. The often eerie photography, sharp editing, and most of all, Brendan (Dead Can Dance) Perry's gloriously haunting soundtrack all combine to take the film onto another level. The 'undead' priest is seen with more frequency and yet remains elusive, teasing the Bailer Men and Westies with handwritten notes saying "See you on Hallowen" - a festival towards which events build and bring what began at a pagan place of worship to an end on a Celtic festival.

As events become more unusual, Villa cleverly introduces some terrific humour to counterbalance the seemingly otherworldy moments; thereby distracting the sceptics enough to make them accept the premise for as long as is necessary. There is a hilarious scene set in a hotel room that would not look out of place in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But as the story edges nearer its explosive conclusion (that won't disappoint fans of Hong Kong action films) the humour disappears. The child-snatcher story at the heart of the film feeds the folktale, almost fantasy-like atmosphere that pervades the film; Villa's subtle direction deftly evoking this out of the seemingy realistic subject matter. By day, the town buzzes with conversation, everyone knows most everyone else nearby and the sense of community is strong. But at night the town is pitch black, deep shadows hiding sinister intents, and ghastly secrets waiting to be unearthed.

Rob Dyer

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