For all of its murderous pretensions, When the Screaming Starts is a surprisingly gentle comedy. It has as much to say about unlikely friendships and thwarted ambitions as it does about the best methods of victim dismemberment. Borrowing its premise from cult comedy Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the film follows pretentious filmmaker Norman (Jared Rogers), who has discovered a budding serial killer in Aiden (Ed Hartland, who co-wrote the film with director Conor Bru). Along with his partner and fellow murder obsessive Claire (Kaitlin Reynell), Aiden is determined to make a name for himself alongside his icons Nilsen, Dahmer and Bundy.
It’s clear from the outset that Aiden isn’t cut out for murder, but his childish enthusiasm is infectious, and we soon find ourselves warming to this deluded oddball. When Aiden decides to take on the role of puppet-master to a deadly cult, rather than getting his own hands dirty, he puts together a ragtag group of weirdos to become his disciples. Like Manson before him, Aiden soon finds that bodies are piling up and things are spinning beyond his control. As in the film’s clear cinematic influence Man Bites Dog, Norman also finds himself implicated in the violence he wished to simply document.
The opening few scenes that we spend with Aiden are pitched perfectly. From his general ineptness (his first victim is the neighbour’s cat, who meets a swift end to a mishandled air gun) to his general sense of winning childishness (a glimpse of his ill-fated black metal project is a hilarious highlight), Aiden’s is a pompous but enjoyable presence. Norman, on the other hand, is appropriately oily, his hunger for fame and recognition making him every bit as ruthless as Aiden’s idols.
The whole film has an effective tongue-in-cheek attitude, and much of the comedy comes from this juxtaposition of the mundane and the murderous. Discussions of brutal killings are offset with dreary shots of suburbia and washed-out warehouse spaces. Recent Shudder addition Vicious Fun mines a similar seam of comedy with its ‘serial killer support group’ set-up.
Aiden’s decision to shift from lone wolf killer to cult messiah appears quite abrupt, and at first reads like the filmmakers filling time with some faster-paced interview scenes. However, this expansion of the central players proves to be the film playing its strongest hand. The group of hapless weirdos all have their reasons for joining the fold, from retirement boredom to having mistaken it for a yoga class.
Each member brings something interesting to the dynamic, and the performances are strong across the board. Most notable is nihilistic goth Amy (Octavia Gilmore), whose genuine blood-lust puts Aiden’s naive pretensions to shame. At points, the film threatens to become genuinely heartwarming, as the mismatched group find connection and comfort in their macabre new hobby.
In the final act, director Conor Bru ups the ante, and the claret really starts flying. It’s not the goriest affair, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from depictions of violence. A Manson-family-style home invasion scene, played out to ‘Call of the Coven’ by folk-horror metal band Green Lung (Vampire Squid favourites!) is particularly pulse-racing. The script takes care, however, to repeatedly reel the plot in, bringing it back to the everyday, and keeping its characters relatable – even when they forget to clean the blood off their faces.
All in all, first-time director Conor Bru has done an excellent job of realising this violent tale. With a mix of humour, heart and homicide, the film straddles that tricky horror/comedy divide with ease. When the Screaming Starts boasts good performances throughout, an inventive premise and a great eye for mixing the dull and domestic with the dark and gruesome.