Writer/director Oliver Milburn first came to our attention nearly a decade ago with his promising low budget vampire/home invasion thriller Harsh Light of Day. Now he’s back with his second full-length feature based on Rebellion Publishing’s YA novel of the same name by Scott K. Andrews and he’s inadvertently caught the current and enduring zeitgeist in this bleak, gnarly story of a worldwide ‘superflu’ pandemic that devastates the planet’s population.
15-year-old Lee Keegan (Oscar Kennedy) has been expelled from St Mark’s, his private boarding school, due to a childish prank that has finally exhausted the patience of the institution’s headmaster (Anthony Head). Before he can explain his situation to his father (Steve Oram) a devastating pandemic sweeps across the world and Lee is instructed by his mother, trapped abroad and promising to get back to him, to return to the safety of St Mark’s. But the school isn’t the sanctuary he might have hoped. A local militia attacks the school and the end of the world is bringing out the worst in his former best friend.
Don’t be fooled by School’s Out Forever’s trailer, which suggests a knockabout Shaun of the Dead-style comedy (as does the presence of Head in a brief cameo and Alex McQueen from The Inbetweeners as the remaining voice-of-reason teacher); this is dark brutal, nihilistic stuff, a plausible story of social and moral decay set in an ugly, violent and almost utterly pessimistic new world. Despite telling his story on a broader canvas than his previous movie – and with clearly quite a bit more money – Milburn’s School’s Out Forever is still a fairly small story set in a restricted location (apart from a few ‘outside world’ scenes that effectively demonstrate the ravages of the disease). The script is clipped and to the point and Milburn is clearly at home in the grim world he has created and action scenes are uncompromising and occasionally shocking. Technically, School’s Out Forever is hard to fault – but it’s not an easy film to really enjoy, much less love. Most apocalyptic movies navigate their distressing scenarios by populating them with likeable, upbeat characters the audience can root for an invest in and at least try to offer a bit of optimism for the survival of the human spirit. But the young cast in Schools Out Forever are a pretty grim and unsympathetic bunch, especially Lee’s friend Mac (Liam Lau Fernandez) who turns into something of a power-crazed maniac turning the school’s pupils – some of them worryingly young – into his own personal disposable army. Lee struggles to remain measured and moral amidst the carnage that ultimately ensues but he too is often painted in shades of grey that turn him into something of a reluctant anti-hero figure not above indulging in the violence he (and we) might find a little abhorrent. The film builds up a commendable sense of dread and unease but the final explosion of violence takes the film into Lord of the Flies territory with the school’s surviving adults swept aside and the kids, now whipped up into a frenzy by Mac, setting off on a killing rampage when the school gated are breached by the militia, led by Samantha Bond’s Georgina.
It’s great to see Oliver Milburn’s filmmaking finally stepping up a notch but there’s very little of the sense of fragile humanity displayed in Harsh Light of Day in School’s Out Forever (although this is almost certainly a product of the source material). It’s a tough, ruthless film spending a little too much time in the dark corners of human nature and even though it does perk up in its final sequence (offering the hope for a slightly brighter future and possibly even a sequel) it’s sometimes a little too close to the bone for comfort as it offers up a very downbeat British view of a scenario often brought to the screen through rose-tinted Hollywood spectacles.