Imagine the grotesquerie, weird excess and dark comedy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast taking place in an abandoned nightclub in 1990’s Glasgow. Instead of the hellish kitchens and lofty towers of the ancient pile, we enter a dungeon-like basement and climb to the urban rooftop of the decaying club, whose denizens are variously afflicted with violent psychosis, drug-addled mania, imbecility, and eczema.
Simon Donald’s 1992 play The Life of Stuff was an Olivier nominee for best new comedy, and transferred from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse in London (where its cast included a young Douglas Henshall). The film adaptation, which Donald directed, was an utter disaster. In limited release in the UK, it made less than £5,000. A review in Empire describes it as “one of the most depressingly abhorrent films you could ever wish not to see.” It was shown on BBC2 in 2007 and more recently on Comcast Xfinity. There is no DVD.
Had this been released on video, I am convinced that it would have become a cult favorite by now. Cult films tend to be flawed in one way or another, yet they are redeemed by a perverse genius. I can see why The Life of Stuff failed in cinemas. On a single viewing, it’s difficult to grasp the storyline, and the sheer gonzo depravity of it must have caused more than a few walkouts. The melodramatic music was meant to be ironic, but it comes off as jarringly inappropriate for the comedic material. Yet the script is full of mordant humor, the acting is no-holds barred, and the cast is fantastic. You get to see Gina McKee with a dire hangover, Stuart McQuarrie wielding a mean power drill, Liam Cunningham crooning to a boa constrictor, and Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting executing some eye-popping pelvic thrusts in nothing but his tighty whities.
Most riveting of all is Ciarán Hinds’ performance as the simmering Arbogast, “head of security” and (apparently) janitor for drug dealer Willie Dobie. Arbogast is always on the verge of explosion, part Basil Fawlty and part Travis Bickle.
As the story opens, Willie Dobie has killed off his rival Alec Sneddon by having henchman Frazer (Ewen Bremner) torch a van, unaware that Sneddon is unconscious in the back. It’s time for a party, so Willie taps Sneddon’s stash of primo cocaine while his motley crew (drug-hungry “floozies” Evelyn and Holly plus resident thug and eczema sufferer Leonard) prepare the nightclub under the supervision of the menacing Arbogast. Meanwhile Janice (Gina McKee), regretting her complicity in Sneddon’s entrapment, is locked in the basement with Frazer, who only gradually realizes that his promising future as an exotic dancer in Ibiza may have to be put on hold…
Suffice to say that the party never quite gets off the ground, though Willie (Jason Flemyng) and the floozies do make it up to the roof. He favors the blonde Holly (Mabel Aitken), who has the sensuous innocence of a downmarket Marilyn Monroe, over the short and sassy brunette Evelyn, the more intelligent of the pair (though that’s not saying much). In one of the screenplay’s more lyrical moments, Holly looks out at the Glaswegian skyline…
My other favorite Holly moment happens when Willie Dobie is showing off his newly acquired building, which is something of a dump. The pair poke their heads into a rather cramped closet:
Willie: You see the potential of this place! (Proudly) You could store coats in there.
Holly: (seductively) You could fit in a waterbed. Or one of those machines with straps on it, like Alec Sneddon had… tho, I think that was for wrappin’ parcels…
The Life of Stuff exhibits a Swiftian obsession with the gross materiality and vulnerability of the human body. Snot, vomit, urine, blood and scabs all get referenced, along with a severed toe (which Holly tries to eat at one point). The second half of the film becomes increasingly bizarre and violent, but along the way there is a rich vein of campy humor, played completely straight. For example, the sadistic Arbogast’s favorite method of discipline is the titty twister. Yes, you read that right.
As the story progresses, we see the humanity of these poor creatures as well as their selfishness and callousness. Frazer is the most sympathetic. Locked in the basement with Janice (where Arbogast plans a grisly death for both), they gradually become friends, as they explore their complicity in the death of Alec Sneddon.
Leonard (Stuart McQuarrie), who is Arbogast’s disciple, tells of his deep but unrequited love for Janice:
“Her room’s next to mine… Willie says I could move, but I get in the bath, after she’s in the bath… and the enamel is still warm. (His voice shakes with emotion) And sometimes there’s wee hairs… But I might as well not exist.”
Even Arbogast feels a fleeting moment of tenderness for the depressed Evelyn, and shows it in the only way he knows how, by dispensing some of his “medical” grade drugs.
Then Evelyn breaks the spell by telling Arbogast not to worry about Willie’s constant insults…
This may be the only moment of sympathy we feel for Arbogast (other than the reflexive one when he unwittingly swigs from a whiskey bottle in which Frazer has left an unauthorized deposit). Evelyn’s thoughtlessness sparks a chain reaction in which first Arbogast and then Leonard become utterly demented.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the denouement, except to note that Arbogast looks even more insane when he doffs his janitor’s coat in favor of his… party clothes.
And just as the craziness reaches its peak, Mad Alec Sneddon shows up to enliven the party with some philosophical musings on how we’re all made of star-stuff. Would I have watched this film were I not a Ciarán Hinds fan? Almost certainly not. But then I would have missed out, not only on some memorably biting comedy, but also on the final scene, which features Liam Cunningham fondling a sawed-off shotgun whilst enjoying my favorite song.
Postscript: Jenny McCrindle, who played Evelyn, died in 2014 of MS. As a tribute, I’m adding a favorite screen cap.