Director/Screenplay – Merlin Dervisevic, Producer – Matthew Cervi, Photography – Adam Sliwminski, Music – Mark Korven, Visual Effects Supervisor – Rob Bannister, Production Design – James Hazell. Production Company – Mad Samurai Productions/Bare Knuckle Pictures/Anonymous Films/Front Street Pictures.
David Richmond-Peck (Edgar Schmidt), Bernadette Saquibal (Maylon Schmidt), Michelle Harrison (Doris), Michael Eklund (Julien), Monsour Cataquiz (Gogan), Richard Harmon (William), Kyle Cassie (Lance Schmidt), Mary Black (Facilitator), Andy Thompson (Counselor)
After falling ill, Edgar Schmidt comes around in a facility but fails to understand how he came to be there. He is forced to participate in group therapy. He comes to realise that all of the others present are murderers and suicides who have died. They have been condemned to an afterlife where they must repeatedly go back into rooms that cause them to relive the events that led up to their being there. Edgar believes that he has been wrongly convicted in that it was his Filipino wife Maylon who poisoned his dinner with antifreeze. As he is forced to go back into his room and continually replay the events, the true circumstances that led to his being there become apparent. At the same time, Edgar also discovers a possibility for the inmates to make an escape.
Cruel & Unusual – not to be confused Cruel and Unusual, the alternate title for the also Canadian made psycho-thriller Watchtower (2001) – is a low-budget, Canadian-made film. It is a debut feature for Merlin Dervisevic who had previously worked as a set decorator on various tv shows.
Cruel & Unusual is an afterlife film. It is one of a modern, post-1990s series of afterlife films that opt for a non-Christian vision of the afterlife ie. no Heaven or Hell, no angels, no God and The Devil – but still buy into the general ideas from an agnostic, non-denominational point-of-view. Cruel & Unusual has similarities to a number of other films in the genre – most notably Up There (2012), a British film about the recently dead forced to sit through a series of mind-numbing afterlife encounter groups before earning the right to go on onto the beyond (although the difference is that that film played everything as a comedy whereas this treats the material seriously). You are also reminded of A Pure Formality (1994), which was more of a deathdream film in The Sixth Sense (1999) sense with Gerard Depardieu in a police interrogation that kept requiring him to revisit what first appeared to be a murder but eventually became apparent was the circumstances of his own death.
Cruel & Unusual keeps one’s interest, even if it is not a great film. While David Richmond-Peck is not the most appealing or likeable of protagonists, the story constantly laps over and unfurls events from different perspectives in ways that reveal more information and changes what we think happened. The eventual means whereby David Richmond-Peck attempts to make his escape and earns his redemption of sorts surprises one.
The main problem I had with the film was oddly enough a religious one – even if it is a film that assiduously avoids a religious point-of-view. Despite this, it still seems to be rooted in a Christian view that says that the afterlife is a Hell for those who have led selfish lives. In the afterlife waiting room, we have a teenager who has murdered his parents and a man who drunkenly drowned his family, along with suicides and David Richmond-Peck whose only real crime was that he told a not very nice lie/threat with the intention of keeping his adopted son under control and accidentally killed his wife during a struggle in which she had poisoned him in the first place.
To me, there seems a world of difference between those guilty of patricide and filicide thrown in with a suicide and a man guilty of an accidental death and telling a controlling lie. It seems to me that David Richmond-Peck is being held to account for an impossibly large set of circumstances his angry words set off that he could not anticipate – and surely the whole point of somewhere like Hell is to account for one’s actions. I don’t know – to me, I felt like the film would have worked a good deal better if David Richmond-Peck were far more complicit in the actions he was being condemned for.