In the ten years since Down Terrace, Ben Wheatley has spearheaded a quiet gothic revival in the UK. Examinations of 15th century magic and modern paganism are nothing new in British film. Wheatley and partner Amy Jump wear countless folk-horror influences on their sleeve — but have refreshed and revised decades of tired iconography.
An improvisatonal approach to filmmaking has contemporised the pair's work. Edits are jarring and unusual. Dialogue is naturalistic and idiosyncratic. Their films wear an unmistakable signature. Wheatley and Jump's company, Rook, has also provided its share of neo-gothic gems. Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy is an unforgettable stand-out.
When Wheatley announced Happy New Year... (then titled Colin You Anus), it was difficult not to feel anxious. Here was a filmmaker who had long abandoned their roots in twisted kitchen-sink drama. Happy New Year... was to be a return to clear-cut social realism. An estranged family at each other's throats through a New Year's meet-up. No Wheatley material had been this straightforward since the Johnny Vegas vehicle Ideal. It all seemed irreconcilable with his and Jump's newer, more off-piste lens.
But Wheatley's talent for interweaving the transcendental and the mundane holds this film together. Happy New Year... inhabits an unsettling no-space. It feels as though a disinterested puppeteer is somewhere unseen, above everything. In setting the film recalls Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad. Its script is an ephemeral treat, too. There is a psychedelic frisson as Samuel Beckett's Endgame careens into The Royle Family.
And as Happy New Year...swoops between genres, some invisible glue holds it all together. Tragic moments are as impactful and surprising as their comedic counterparts. Happy New Year... will at once remind you of every awkward family event you have suffered through. But it will, at the same time, take you somewhere that you've never been before.
Ben Wheatley’s 2011 horror Kill List is essential viewing. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead will be available for UK license fee payers on BBC iPlayer until the end of 2019.
Words by Andrew O’Keefe