Wait what? Shane Meadows isn’t a horror filmmaker I hear you all say. Well yes, technically you are right. Meadows certainly wouldn’t be classed as a horror director but it doesn’t mean that his films don't have horror themes or use horror to further develop other themes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen discussions about this sub-genre before but I’m calling it Working Class Horror and Shane Meadows was definitely one of the first filmmakers that brought it to my attention. Working class horror isn’t about the supernatural, it’s firmly stuck in the reality of modern day and the dark and discerning problems that come with trying to struggle with everyday life. It often starts off whimsical but ends up delivering a shocking punch to the gut.
Shane Meadows was born and raised in Uttoxeter then moved to Nottingham after his teens. He studied performing arts in college, first becoming a lead singer in a rock band then becoming involved in amateur filmmaking with a group of like minded friends. It was during his college years that Meadows met his best friend Paddy Considine, who would go on to become a recurring actor in many of his films and turn into one of the greatest British actors of the last few decades.
Shane’s first feature film Small Time was a low budget comedy about a group of small time criminals but he didn’t really start to show off his skills until his next “proper” feature Twenty Four Seven in 1997. Bob Hoskins stars as Alan Darcy, a local working class man who tries to help get the local kids get off the streets by setting up a boxing gym. It’s filmed in grainy black & white and harks back to the classic kitchen sink dramas made famous at the time by filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. This culturally British method of filmmaking began to trend during the 50’s and 60’s and was a response to the social discord suffered by many working class families. This style depicted a certain realism that wasn’t present in Hollywood-type films. The social realism movement has a real affinity with the horror genre because a large number of horror movies tackle difficult topical issues in society. Twenty Four Seven isn't a horror film, however it’s a great starting point for Meadows to explore issues like the class system, domestic violence, racism, drug abuse and political misrepresentation.
Much of Meadows' work is self autobiographical and perhaps his tendency to tease horror elements in his films come from the distressing period as a child when his father was suspected of murder. Shane became an outcast at school and even though his father was innocent it took a long time for Shane's life to get back to normal. He used the difficulties he suffered during this time to great effect on his next film A Room for Romeo Brass. This was another step up in quality for Meadows and starred Considine in the pivotal role of Morell, a somewhat mentally challenged twenty-something who befriends youngsters Romeo and his mate Gavin. Again Meadows shows classic working class horror elements here by starting off in jovial fashion, using his own nostalgia as a safety cushion and then suddenly turning the story into a nightmare for the characters when Morell unprovokingly shows signs of violent behaviour towards the kids. It gets very dark and the realism really makes it quite an unsettling but captivating watch. Considine gives an amazingly powerful performance which still blows me away everytime I watch it. I discover new nuisances about his character with every viewing and his shift from naive and laughable third wheel to dangerous stranger really is terrifying.
Meadows and Considine's next project together would be another home run and probably the film that deserves to be included under the horror banner the most. Dead Man's Shoes follows Richard, a former soldier, who returns to his hometown to take revenge on the gang of thugs who made the life of his little brother (a young Toby Kebbell) a living hell. Meadows takes influences from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Considine definitely summons his inner Travis Bickle, albeit in a more subtle manner. It's in this subtlety that Richard becomes both the righteous hero and disturbing vigilante. We cheer for him but his character knows that his actions are horrific and in the end he knows that he isn't worthy or deserving of any life in the aftermath of the events that take place. There's a bit of blood and gore but the horror is really more evident in what we don't see. The horror is in the chase and the fear that Richard arouses within the gang. What really makes Dead Man's Shoes stand out from the crowd besides Considine and Kebbell's outstanding performances is the shocking revelation at the end of the film. I won't spoil it for you but throughout the film we are treated to black and white flashbacks that come to a chilling and unforgettable crescendo.
Studios had began to look at Shane Meadows as a viable director for hire but despite dipping his toes in this domain before Dead Man's Shoes with Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, it really wasn't his style and Meadows returned to his nostalgia based humdrum in 2006 with the quiveringly intense early 80's set This Is England. Thomas Turgoose stars as Shaun, a bullied schoolboy who befriends a group of skinheads and eventually becomes an integral part of their gang. Having lost his father during the Falklands conflict, Shaun is bewildered with his life and in dire need of a role model to help steer him in the right direction. Woody, the cheerful leader of the bunch steps in and offers Shaun a new way of life.
Unreservedly non-judgemental, Woody (Joe Gilgun) and his mates take Shaun under their wing and with a new hairdo and Ben Sherman shirt in tow, Shaun becomes one of them. But things start to take a turn for the worse when an old friend arrives back in town to muted cheers. Combo, played impeccably by Stephen Graham, is an old-school skinhead fresh out of prison and still clinging to the bitterly racist, neanderthal, idyllic vision of the National Front movement. Sensing his arrival as an unwelcoming experience for the majority of the gang, Combo begins to attempt to divide the group from within.
There's enough horror haunting the screen at the beginning of this movie long before the arrival of Combo. The unnecessary death of Shaun's father. The betrayal by his own country's leader. The disingenuous, beleaguered treatment by society on the youth of today. The gross, vehement hostility towards the working class community. Then Meadows introduces the foreboding, lingering racism to the foil and the threatening inference of violence. It's not a teen slasher or a ghost story or a creature-feature gore fest but every time Stephen Graham is on screen you'll be chewing your nails to the bone.
This Is England spawned three critically praised television sequels that expanded on the original cast's backstories and also introduced new characters to the fray. Instead of focusing on Shaun and his coming of age struggle, the television show pushed Woody and in particular his fiancé Lol as the main characters. Vicky McClure gives an unbelievably haunting performance as Lol, struggling with the return of her estranged father and the unparalleled weight of the sexual abuse towards her that she still secretly carries. It is genuinely one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. The chemistry between her and Johnny Harris, who plays her dad, is breathtaking. Please go out of your way to watch it.
You see horror is scarier when it's just around your corner, hiding in the local grocery store or desperately trying to squeeze one more game of pool in before last orders are called. Creeping around a dilapidated haunted house will scare the shit out of anyone but when you leave the house you know you're safe however Shane Meadows' films ask you to stand unapologetically at the front doorstep eagerly banging the door down to be let back in.
- Gavin Logan