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The Ugly Review

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★★★★★

Some of the strangest films in the world are currently hailing from New Zealand. Writer-director Scott Reynolds, who makes his feature debut here, isn't yet as committed to the outro as Peter Jackson, Lee Tamahori or Vincent Ward but is recognisably working in a shady area of grunge/arthouse/gore which places him somewhere between the more respectable Kiwi cinema made during the 1990s and such perennial 80s video schlock as Next Of Kin and Death Warmed Up.

The setting is a dilapidated insane asylum whose staff are so odd that the inmates seem normal. Psychologist Karen Shumaker (Hobbs) arrives dressed in a power suit during a thunderstorm, and is granted a series of interviews with serial killer Simon Cartwright (Rotondo), a pleasant young man who imagines himself hideously deformed. During the interviews, Shumaker steps into Simon's past - almost literally - and comes to see the world as he does, to the extent of glimpsing the ghastly spectres of his victims.

There are obvious echoes of The Silence Of The Lambs, but The Ugly is less a thriller than a bizarro character study. It's a film full of daring conceits, from the very theatrical melding of past and present to the surprisingly sick-making tactic of having all the blood on show (and there's a lot) represented by black ink.

Rotondo is strong in the lead, though everyone else is deliberately two-dimensional, as if representing his vision of a world of victims and victimisers. Only at the very last, as a series of twists promise a Usual Suspects inversion of the plot and we get a muffled echo of those shocks Brian De Palma used to be so fond of, does the film falter. It's not quite as strong as Heavenly Creatures or Jack Be Nimble, with which it shares a certain sensibility, but it is a creepy little chiller.

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