Alan Moore, the genius writer who revolutionised comics with Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has had to sit by – for years – while various multi-million dollar Hollywood corporations bled money out of his creations by butchering them for the big screen. Moore now refuses to accept either a credit or any cash for adaptations of his most famous work, which almost universally defang his themes, unbalance his plotting and steamroller his dialogue. He gets no credit, he takes no blame.
Unwilling to play the conventional movie game and wary of feeding the many-headed demon of global pop culture, Moore now squats in his native Northampton, crafting worlds of idiosyncratic weirdness, undiluted by the requirements of mainstream appeal and beholden to no-one but himself. Which accounts for why The Show, his first fully original theatrical feature, has been allowed to be so completely, gloriously, spectacularly fucking weird.
This debut big-screen outing is actually a spin off from several shorts made over the past decade, directed – as here – by Mitch Jenkins, set in an unsettlingly off-kilter version of the pair’s native Northampton. The story/stories revolve around the events of a single night and take place both in the ‘real’ world and a dream-like underworld where a greasy lothario and a journalist with a prediliction for dangerous sex games find themselves caught up in a surreal, nicotine-stained 1970s cabaret presided over by two long-dead variety comics. The key shorts have been assembled into a feature length anthology, Showpieces, which is available on Shudder. They’re not essential to enjoying The Show, but they will help you get your head around it.
The context is useful too, because though The Show does work as a standalone piece and has the good sense to root itself, for the most part, in a recognisable world, it also glories in its own strangeness. Into this not-quite-normal East Midlands town comes Tom Burke’s character, a mysterious man with a range of names, a moral code and a particular set of skills, affable enough but somehow also menacing, looking for that lost lotherio who, it turns out, isn’t going to be found in the mortal realm. He teams up with local hack Faith (Siobhan Hewlett), struggling to process her own auto-erotic incursion into dreamspace, to try and unravel the mystery and find a missing necklace that may be the key to an old crime. Classifying the ensuing story is probably a pointless endeavour, but if you had to force it bodily into a pigeon hole you’d need to find one labelled film-noir-occult-comedy, and then dismember it to make it fit.
The ‘comedy’ part is important, and has been rather overlooked in many of the reviews generated when The Show debuted at Fright Fest in September. For all of its queasy, unsettling feel, unworldly hints and serious, Moore-ish themes of the occult and the nature of stories, characters and reality, The Show is properly, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s funny in its minutely observed acknowledgement of crap-town East Midlands life, it’s funny in its surreal juxtapositions, it’s funny in its set pieces, its playing with stereotypes, its performances, and mostly it’s funny in its jokes. Alan Moore’s sense of humour has always been an underrated aspect of his writing, and The Show is filled with cracking, beautifully observed dialogue and ridiculous imagery.
Often you feel parts of the story, especially its final showdown, have been reverse-engineered just to get to one particular sight-gag. The humour is both daft and multi-layered, sometimes delivered via creepy surrealism, sometimes just through throwaway images and genuinely zingy dialogue. Small roles that come and go, like Julian Bleach’s goth mortuary attendant, Christopher Fairbank’s cockney-to-the-max Lock Stock gangster or Sheila Atim’s voodoo queen crime boss, John Conqueror, almost give the film the feel of a surrealist sketch show. Occultist oddball heavy metal comedian Andrew O’Neill, usually the weirdest act on any comedy line up, turns up in a minor role as Tom Burke’s housemate and here, though being absolutely themselves, is probably the least strange character we meet. That says a lot.
What stops this descending into pure Mighty Boosh and League of Gentleman (and not the extraordinary kind) territory is some immaculate plotting, some properly dark dabbling in the occult and a solid mystery, anchored by Tom Burke’s straight-man central performance. It’s Burke and Siobhan Hewitt’s Faith that guide us through the weirdness, helping us to piece together the riddling. If they weren’t so capably steering the ship, we’d almost certainly fall overboard.
Cards on the table – something Moore literally does later in the film – The Show isn’t going to be for everyone. It is willfully, staggeringly weird; made with a very specific tone that will baffle some, bore others and annoy still more. If you can’t stand Twin Peaks, couldn’t make it through The OA, were left cold by Inside No.9 and hated The Devil’s Carnival you are not going to get on well here, and god help you if you’re expecting something like Watchmen (a retired comic book vigilante is one of the few characters that doesn’t quite work). But if you’ve got the temperament for it, if you’re prepared to lean into its weirdness and drift into its dreamlike atmosphere, where Northampton is as cinematic as it is strange, and nothing is quite as it seems, this could be one of the best things you’ll see this year.