Directed by John Hickman and Roger Armstrong
Starring Roger Armstrong, John Hickman, Stephen Robertson
Indie Film Review by George Nash
Through the camera lens of a documentary filmmaker, Tone Death follows bedroom dweller and techno-house music obsessive, Roger Armstrong, who, believing he has developed a revolutionary soundtrack that will free human consciousness, enlists the help of bumbling best friend, John Hickman, to test his theory on unbeknownst subjects.
When done well, the mash-up of buddy comedy and horror can really work. Just throw about some names like Tucker and Dale vs Evil, What We Do In The Shadows, and Shaun of the Dead and your list of mainstream examples is already looking pretty meaty. Give the seemingly opposing genres equal weighting and balance, and the reward is a near perfect fleshy co-existence of laughs, shocks and emotional investment. Much more proficient with its buddy humour thread than its horror one, Tone Death is, on the whole, a neat mockumentary that cleverly upcycles its borrowed genre conventions.
The indie film’s intentions are made abundantly clear very early on. Down to its bare bones, the set-up: a slightly odd, socially awkward 40-something – who still lives with his parents – has dedicated his life to creating an accomplished techno album already 20 years in the making, is nothing new. Confined to the four walls of his bedroom, where anecdotal ramblings of drug-experimenting yesteryears fill the void of a lonely life, Roger is trapped – both literally and figuratively – as a slave to his craft. You don’t need to be a horror aficionado to predict that Roger’s unfaltering dedication to creating the perfect musical frequency to release human consciousness will soon take sinister turns. It’s a contemporary remixing of the conventional mad scientist narrative, in which Dr Frankenstein is an ex-raving, techno fanatical Geordie.
Quickly getting the inevitable explanatory science spiel out of the way in its early exchanges, where screenwriter Hickman asks us to suspend any sense of logic or rationale through talk of optimum frequencies and sublimation, Tone Death spends most time in territory that appears to come far more naturally to him, that of comedy. As Roger’s instability grows, so too does his agitation with his clumsy, booze guzzling Brummie sidekick, John. As the film’s very own Igor, John adopts the ‘we’ve all got a friend like that’ mould, and is the perfect humorous Ying to Roger’s stern Yang. Their Chuckle Brothers-esque double act feels brilliantly ad-libbed and natural, and even during the climatic silliness, never loses its authenticity. As a result, the supporting players are less rounded and interesting, save for a mumbling drunk (pitched impeccably by Stephen Robertson), who threatens to steal every scene he appears in.
In a film about music, it is testament then to Hickman’s pen wielding abilities that the most rhythmic thing here is the screenplay. There’s real flow to the dialogue between the film’s two strong lead performances in a narrative that altogether feels slightly patchy and imbalanced. When the more generic horror elements eventually make an appearance, they never reach the comparative heights of the good work that precedes them. Despite some clever camera play to overcome the more logistical and financial barriers that often impact special-effects and make-up in low-budget indie horror, the gore ranges, quite literally, from overcooked, to gut-wrenchingly suspect, to face meltingly impressive. To fully embrace the music analogies on offer here, Tone Death’s verse is far superior to its chorus.
It’s often said that if you struggle watching horror you should cover your ears not your eyes, and Tone Death nicely literalises this concept - it’s a beat, not beast that should be feared here. Written with a real ear for authenticity and comedic timing, Tone Death is an accomplished tongue-in-cheek horror-com, even if it falls down in its more serious, sinister moments.