'The Lesson': Slamdance Review

Courtesy of UrbanFox Films
It's 'Saw' meets 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips.'

A put-upon schoolteacher literally tortures a pair of students into studying in Ruth Platt's horror film.

Who says that torture porn can't be educational?

That's the question brought to mind by British filmmaker Ruth Platt's micro-budgeted directorial debut, a brutal, nasty and undeniably effective thriller in which a long-beleaguered teacher goes off the deep end and forcibly instructs a pair of delinquents with the help of such instruments as a hammer and nail gun. For genre fans, it's a win win: along with the requisite scenes of gory mayhem, they get invaluable literary lessons on William Blake, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and, particularly relevant, the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Flies. The Lesson--which should prove a cautionary tale for rebellious teens and cathartic for put-upon schoolteachers--recently received its U.S. premiere at the Slamdance Festival.

For the film's first and slightly tedious half-hour, it seems to be a gritty sociological drama set in a depressed, rural English town. We're introduced to the main characters: sixteen-year-old Fin (Evan Bendall), acting out over his mother's death by committing random acts of juvenile delinquency, often in the company of his best friend Joel (Rory Coltart); Fin's boorish older brother Jake (Tom Cox), who makes even the act of giving his sibling a birthday present seem borderline abusive; and Jake's beautiful, live-in Polish girlfriend Mia (Michela Prchalova), who treats Fin with motherly affection and who is the object of his not-so-secret lust.

Among Fin and Joel's misadventures is thoroughly disrespecting their hapless English teacher, Mr. Gale (Robert Hands), including putting chewed-up gum in his hair in front of the entire class. So it's not surprising—at least by horror film standards--when the two teens are suddenly knocked out one night and wake up to find themselves in their teacher's basement, tied to desks with dictionaries within arm's reach.

Thus begins the titular teaching session in which the increasingly deranged Mr. Gale delivers a literal crash course on English literature, making his points via such methods as nailing Fin's hands to his desk and committing even more barbaric acts on Fin's helpless cohort.

"I'm not a natural sadist," Mr. Gale informs his victims, but his actions belie his words as he torments them when they don't promptly provide the correct answers to his questions.

Featuring an exciting climax in which Mia, who has gone looking for the missing Fin, plays a vitally important role, the film marks an impressive debut for its writer/director, one of the few female filmmakers to venture into horror. Although it ultimately doesn't offer enough true substance to transcend its genre, it provides some genuine thrills along the way, with Hands' scarily manic performance as the erudite villain being particularly notable. There's also a terrific visual toward the end, in which two extremely bloodied characters exhaustedly and blankly stare at a television screen like couch potatoes from hell.   

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival

Production: UrbanFox Films

Cast: Evan Bendall, Robert Hans, Michaela Prchalova, Tom Cox, Rory Coltart

Director/screenwriter: Ruth Platt

Producer: Darko Stavrik

Director of photography: Oskar Kudlacik

Production designer: Martin Pryca

Editor: Jamie Mckivitt

Not rated, 97 min.

 

 

 

 

 

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