Dir: Ben Hopkins. UK. 1999. 84mins.
Prod co: Strawberry Vale Film &TV. Int'l sales: United Artists Films. Prod: Caroline Hewitt. Scr: Ben Hopkins. DoP: Julian Court. Ed: Alan Levy. Music: Dominik Scherber. Main cast: Thomas Fisher, Janet Henfrey, Ian McNeice, Tim Barlow.
Ben Hopkins' The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz is the conspiracy film to end all conspiracy films. It's the high end of high-concept, a fever dream of urban nightmares, window conspiracies and plotting bollards. The soundtrack underlying the expertly edited black-and-white imagery is an innovative mix of animal noises, dance beats, whispers and ominous tones. Writer-director Hopkins recently showed his potential with the more mainstream Simon Magus. Now with Katz, he proves he's a wellspring of innovation. Thomas Fisher, also seen in Simon Magus, plays the title character's many personas, while distinctive character actor Ian McNeice, recently seen in A Life Less Ordinary, plays the blind Chief of Police pursuing him. The film became an audience favourite at The Brussels Fantasy Film Festival and is headed for enduring cult status.
On the day of the total solar eclipse, a man emerges birth-like from the sewer with the uncanny ability to take over the identities of those he meets. He moves from taxi driver to Minister of Fisheries to Emperor of the Underground to a child mourning his dead tamagotchi and eventually, to the chief inspector of Scotland Yard. Early on, the chief inspector's clairvoyant insight tells him something strange is happening. But with the help of security man Dave, who monitors the city's countless surveillance cameras, Katz starts erasing reality and relegating it to limbo. Meanwhile, on TV, deadpan guests pontificate on the causes of this apparent "end of the world" scenario while an exhumed rabbi adds to the general weirdness with obscure allegories.
In addition to being a 90-minute compendium of esoteric speculation and conspiracy mania, the film is also a revue of film styles from silent movies to video clips, without ever feeling derivative. It sustains its entertainment-value by taking conceits to their logical inevitable conclusion but, most importantly, it's also very funny, full of sly throwaway jokes, unexpected turns of phrase and satirical takes on Britain's loss of soul.
Ultimately, though, the film may be just a bit too smart for its audience. Distributors will be wary, slightly turned off by its budget-trimming black-and-white and worried it may be too specifically British in speech, humour and reference. While a cultural knowledge of London's mythic heritage helps, Katz is still accessible. However its parallel dimensions and apocalyptic implosions are likely to confine it to arthouses where it could have some success, providing the marketing is as audacious as the film.