Cold Light of Day (1989)

Cold Light of Day

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Jordan March is a middle-aged civil servant living in a third-floor flat. He appears to be the quiet, mild-mannered type who goes out of his way to help his neighbors and doesn’t bother anybody. But looks can be deceiving. Because recently Jordan has taken up the practice of strangling young men in his flat and sleeping with the bodies, before dismembering them and storing their remains in the floorboards. But the jig is finally up for Mr. March and he’s been apprehended by the authorities. In a series of flashbacks, March relays the details of his various crimes to the local  inspector through a series of flashbacks.

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Cold Light of Day is a British Docu-horror film from 1989, directed by Fhiona Louise who, at only twenty-one, was the youngest woman to direct a feature film at the time of the film’s release. The movie is based in part on the crimes of Scottish serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, who strangled and killed at least a dozen young men and boys in London between 1978 and 1983. The film can not be described as a straight-up biopic of Nilsen, as it takes far too many liberties with facts. But at the same time the film also incorporates enough of the actual details surrounding the real-life crimes, that seeing the movie is still enough to give the viewer a pretty good idea of what went down in Nilsen’s den of horrors.

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The movie has a unique feel about it, like you’re watching some kind of dramatization similar to the kind you might see in one of those real-life TV crime shows, except filtered through a home-movie lens. The framing is often bad, with heads and other body parts awkwardly getting cut off. The lighting is frequently off, including moments where scenes are either too dark or too washed out. And the sound can be hit or miss. Some scenes are fine, but in others you can barely tell what’s being said, either due to a persistent echo brought on by poor room acoustics, or because the soundtrack ends up overshadowing the dialogue. The film stock also doesn’t seem to have been the best quality, because even when the scenes have perfect lighting and composition everything still looks dirty and grainy, as if the film had been left to deteriorate in a moldy canister for too long. In short, it kind of looks and sounds like a grindhouse film. Likely in part because it was directed by a young art student. It’s not bad, but it definitely has a certain aesthetic, so the film may not be something you want to watch if you don’t want to feel grimy after viewing it.

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The film itself doesn’t seem to have been given a rating. But if I had to guess, I’d say it would have likely been given the R designation, more-so for the sexual subtext, including the implications of necrophilia, and not much else. Because though there are a couple of deaths in this movie, I’m not sure it’s the type of film that would satisfy the gore hounds. Despite the very grievous and gory actions on March’s part, including dismemberment and boiling a head in a giant cooking pot, beyond the act of strangulation itself, many of the actions on display here are really more suggested rather than outright exhibited. And when you consider the film’s financial limitations, that’s really for the best. Really, the bloodiest thing you see is the severed head going into the pot, and unless you have but the most sensitive of stomachs, I assure you, that you will not be all that impressed. The view of the victim’s head may be brief, but it’s still long enough to tell that it was likely made out of little more than paper mâché and a very unfortunate wig. Beyond that you see some fake severed limbs and some blood and not much else. So while the movie’s subject matter may be highly creepy and disturbing, it’s still rather tame by today’s standards.

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I feel that where the story really shines is through it’s main characters. Jordan March is initially portrayed as a very sympathetic fellow. He helps the old man downstairs clean up after himself and is quick to help his fellow neighbors whenever they ask. He just seems like a helpful, but meek and lonely guy. But then of course everything takes a turn and things quickly tumble downhill, as March finds himself a boyfriend and then quickly dispatches the younger man when he finds he can’t control him like he wants to. Control, it seems, is March’s weak point, and once he got a taste for it, perhaps for the first time in his life, it became an irresistible drug that resulted in the deaths of three human beings. Throughout it all, March continues to show elements of humanity, suggesting at least some level of empathy, but the attempt seems a moot one in hindsight. Hell, even Ted Bundy once worked for a suicide hotline. The only downside to the character is that we’re never really given a reason for March’s actions. The only thing he says about it is that “It just happened.” It is implied during the film that the reasoning behind his ritual of bathing and sleeping with the corpses dates back to an incident regarding his grandfather (which is not altogether entirely different from some of the reasons for Nilsen’s reasoning for some of his own perversions), but as for a reason as to why Jorden kills, the audience is never given a good explanation.

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I ended up enjoying Cold Light of Day. At the very least, it’s a unique watch. While it isn’t a mini-bio about Nilsen’s exploits, it does pick and choose enough of his “worst hits” that you can learn enough to know that he was a truly sadistic dirt-bag, one much, much worse than Jordan March could ever hope to be. After all, March only managed to kill three people before being caught. Nilsen is suspected of killing at least twelve. But while the film depicts a broken man displaying violent tendencies, all the gory visuals related to the crimes are not the film’s greatest strength. Instead, the film’s strength lies in its ability to make you as uncomfortable as possible. It’s not the kind of film you walk away from thinking you had a good time. You won’t. But that’s fitting. There is nothing enjoyable about the subject matter on display here. The film’s rough edges make it feel claustrophobic and gritty and real. Which is honestly an appropriate way to feel after learning about  the actions of a sadistic serial killer. So ultimately, despite it’s art-school limitations, I suspect the film succeeded in what it set out to do, which was to briefly tell the disturbing story of a killer. It’s not perfect, and there are a couple of things I would have liked to have seen changed, chief among them being the unfitting open ending and that they decided  to change the name of the killer from Nilsen to March. I’m sure that last one was more than just a mitigating factor in the cause of the film’s obscurity. That said, the film is a fine first attempt at a crime-horror outing, so if you’re interested in the exploits of serial killers, then feel free to give this movie a try.

Cold Light of Day is available on a variety of streaming services.

Cold Light of Day is also available on Bluray.

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Michi

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