Polterheist: A Fictional Dark Comedy, Based on a City's Darker Truth
I had the opportunity of reviewing Polterheist when it was just a short, straight out of it’s 2016 win at the Drunken Film Festival in Bradford,West Yorkshire, England. It also happened to be one of the first reviews I did for the first online magazine I worked for. It was a surprisingly fun, dark comedy packed with all kinds of twists, laughs and capable acting.
Fast forward a few years later and look how much it’s grown! Still teeming with some good laughs, the feature takes a wider scope into the lurid world of the film and expands exponentially on the characters and the intricate ties that connect them all.
The Fools Rush In
Tariq (Sid Akbar Ali) and Boxy (Jamie Cymbal) are two bungling gangsters in Bradford. They both work for Tariq’s sadistic, misogynist uncle, Uday (Pushpinder Chani). Chani, who’s performance of Uday recalls the fiery-tempered Bigby, played by a young Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting, is uncompromising in his expectations. If something isn’t done his way and right the first time, he won’t hesitate to beat you bloody with a cricket bat—even if you’re related.
Tariq and Boxy are summoned to Uday’s lair as he’s already beating another of his “failures”. The guys try to placate Uday with small talk, but Uday wants to know where Frank Shaw, another one of his thugs, is. Frank knows the location of a large stash of Uday’s money. Tariq and Boxy were sent to find Frank and recover the money, but what Uday is not aware of, is that they accidentally killed Frank trying to drown the answer out of him. With their lives on the line now, Uday gives them four days to “find” Frank and his money.
Their first stop is to visit Frank’s wife Tracey (Gemma Head) at their home to see if Frank left the money there. Boxy has known Frank and Tracey for a long time and considers them family, of sorts. Though they both know Frank’s dead, Boxy awkwardly finagles a way to search the house for the stash, while Tariq keeps Tracey occupied. Tracey is, of course,worried about Frank as is his darling Lucy, who won’t eat or drink anything with him gone.
Unable to find any trace of the stash or keep Tracey at bay, Tariq kills Tracey and they kidnap Lucy.
Calling In The Ghost
Alice (Jo Mousley) is a demure psychic medium who is able to communicate with the dead. She has recently helped police solve a case on a local serial killer and Tariq sees her featured on the local news. In his desperation, he concocts a slipshod plan to force her to help them find Frank’s stash.
When Frank takes over Alice’s body, it sets in motion a downward spiral of “who’s fooling who” that doesn’t end till the very last frame. Though the setup of the film seems a bit slow and long, taking the time to introduce us to the multiple characters involved pays off in spades, because once the ride starts, there’s no time for explanations.
Mousley plays the Alice/Frank dynamic seamlessly, with a perfect blend of dark humor and manipulative, seething sarcasm. Frank is rightly pissed off for being killed, but Tariq and Boxy still have his beloved Lucy, so he’s forced to play along with them. Be assured though, Frank’s got Tariq and Boxy exactly where he wants them. But between them all, who really is in charge?
The Not-So-Funny Truth Behind the Laughs
Polterheist’s humorous, Guy Ritchie-esque “charm”, though fictional, stems from an actual long history of drug trafficking in West Yorkshire. It reminded me of another film I reviewed a while back that took place in nearby Leeds called Urban And The Shed Crew. It is a true to life story focused on the throw-away children of Leed’s drug-addicted parents and their struggle to survive.
When I asked Polterheist director and Bradford resident Dave Gilbank about it, he described Bradford as “the heroin capital of Europe”. A quick Google search confirmed it, revealing a multitude of articles conveying the horrifying problem West Yorkshire has with, not only heroin, but cocaine, meth, ketamine and fentanyl. These are real life stories of corrupt police, gangs, guns, drug lords and exploitation of children and sex workers that seem more like movie plots themselves. Though there have been recent crack-downs by law enforcement in this area, police are still having a hard time controlling the flow of these drugs coming in and being exported out.
Oppressive poverty is one of the leading reasons people turn to the drug trade here. An article by the Yorkshire Evening Post published in September 2018 found that more than 150,000 people in Leeds lived in abject poverty. Nearly half of Bradford’s children also live below the poverty line. There’s even shoddier opportunities for those of Pakistani descent residing there due to prolific racism. Wrap all of that up with a shaky U.K economy floundering with Brexit; the Conservative led freezing of benefits for the neediest and sub-par education options and you’ve got the perfect recipe for disaster.
In All Honesty…
Don’t expect a grand, politically correct, think piece from Polterheist, though. It wasn’t meant to be. It never takes itself too seriously, and given it’s minuscule budget, it’s quite impressive what was accomplished. It’s a dark comedy that has a lot of unexpected twists and layers of amusing inanity, sometimes closing in on slapstick, amidst all of its violence and drama. It’s a synthesis of gangs, empty-headed gangsters and the paranormal wrapped into one wild ride.
Polterheist has all of the elements of a Ritchie classic like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Barrel. Gilbank, along with co-writers Gemma Head and Paul Renhard, achieves the harshness, savagery, misogyny and grit of the drug underworld, while bringing the ideal balance of humor to make the content both fun and easier to watch.
Couple that with focused, steadfast performances by Mousley, Chani and Ali’s reprised role of Tariq, and you’ve got the ingredients for a boisterous concoction of what happens when brutality meets the absurd. Grab a pint and enjoy!
Polterheist will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK February 4, 2019. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter or consult their official website for more updates.