Dir: Steve Bendelack. UK2005. 90mins.
The League Of Gentlemen, rubber-faced Britishexponents of grotesque TV comedy, make a bravely eccentric cinema debut with TheLeague of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, a macabre farce that mixes theirdistinctive character playing with Hammer ghoulishness, movie-buff in-jokes andlashings of existential paradox in a Charlie Kaufman vein.
The team - protean playersGatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith, plus off-screen writing colleague JeremyDyson - score full marks for ambition and for refusing to take the 'greatesthits' route, sidelining the most popular characters from the team's BBC seriesin favour of less obvious protagonists.
But an extremelyself-referential premise might leave non-initiates scratching their heads,making the film a considerably harder export than the recent Shaun Of TheDead, from the Spaced sitcom team.
Bold production values andbrisk pacing should ensure respectable if not spectacular UK theatricalbusiness, but die-hard fans will no doubt take the eventual DVD to theirhearts.
The film begins with the League'ssilent partner Jeremy Dyson (played by Michael Sheen) trying to persuade hiscolleagues not to abandon their successful TV characters from the gruesomelydysfunctional small town of Royston Vasey. But he soon receives an unfriendlyvisit from the town's demented shopkeepers Tubbs and Edward.
In a twist that echoesFreddy Krueger's mission in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the people ofRoyston Vasey (nearly all played by the League trio) are determined toprotect their world from destruction, and venture into the real world toconfront their creators.
The main task forcecomprises murderous butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss), boorish middle-managementtype Geoff Tipps (Sheersmith) and camp German expat Herr Lipp (Pemberton),whose innuendo-laden malapropisms provide the film's most dependable laughs.
The team's brilliance atdisguise, and director Steve Bendelack's legerdemain come into their own whenthe TV characters meet their creators - leading to some clever meta-comedy whenLipp is forced to impersonate Steve Pemberton himself.
The film takes anextravagant detour when Geoff finds himself drawn into the script for aprojected League Of Gentlemen film, an 18th-century horror drama inwhich three Catholic plotters try to assassinate King William III (BernardHill), with help from necromancer Dr Erasmus Pea (David Warner).
This section features thefilm's most extravagant special effects - notably a stop-motion homunculus -not to mention a host of spoofy nods at Kubrick, Cocteau, Peter Greenaway etal.
Director Steve Bendelackmade his mark as a stylist on the team's TV show (as well as on current hitseries Little Britain) and although he proves a dab hand at pastiche,the film sometimes has a slightly functional look.
Apocalyse's hall-of-mirrors trickiness raises the film acerebral notch or two above other recent British TV comedy spin-offs, such as KevinAnd Perry Go Large or Ali G IndaHouse. But ultimately, it isn't allthat funny, nor does it manage to raise the ante on the often more outrageoustone of the TV original.
The film's trump cardremains the shape-shifting virtuosity of the League trio, whose ownextraordinary cartoon physiognomies can look Hogarthian even withoutspecial-effects make-up.
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