AVAILABLE ON DVD: 28th January, from Trinity Films
RUNNING TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On the evening of Christmas Eve, Nick Milgram returns to his family home after a three year absence with his Indian girlfriend Annji. His mother Beth is happy to see him but his father Tony is less pleased, while his sister Kate and Granddad don’t take kindly to the presence of Annji and nobody except for Nick seems to want to stick up for her. Nick and Annji plan to sneak off on Christmas Day morning, but wake up to find that an unbreakable, strange black substance has surrounded the house. Turning on the TV, the Milgrams are greeted with the message: ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions‘. It soon becomes apparent that some members of the family are more willing to blindly obey than others….
The idea of us being controlled by what we see and hear on TV – and by dint the media in general – has of course been used before, though not perhaps as often as it should, seeing as the issue will never go away, even though personally I consider the worldwide addiction to mobile phones to be a even greater problem nowadays. If they ever do that sequel/remake/whatever to They Live, I’d like to think that they would tweak the premise a little and include phones in the idea of aliens getting the human race to conform and obey. But back to TV, and Await Further Instructions, which sometimes resembles an extended Twilight Zone episode, still gets a fair bit of mileage out of the idea that what we do is dangerously influenced by the box. However, considering that it concerns a family actually called the Milgrams, I think it’s obvious that the famous Milgram experiments at Yale University in 1961 are the prime influence here. The idea that psychologist Stanley Milgram had was to see how far humans could be pushed by their obedience to authority, and to do this he fooled some people into believing that they could deliver electric shocks. Most of them seemed very willing indeed to administer pain to other humans. Zenith and Experimenter have already been made about these experiments, but here we have a film that gives the idea elements of science fiction and horror – and – while I did get sucked into the tension ably created by director Johnny Koverkian, it does suffer from some major miscalculations in Gavin Williams’s script which I shall get to in due course – in fact two of them will be mentioned quite soon
So it’s on the eve of Christmas, and a decidedly unpleasant family is getting together. Tony is extremely authoritarian and possibly a little unhinged, largely because his own father treated him terribly though Granddad has had to relinquish control and now just hurls random insults, often racist in nature. Tony’s wife Beth isn’t exactly blind to what’s going on but resorts to mainly whining and trying to get everyone to get along. Tony’s pregnant daughter Kate is a total airhead – and also a racist. Kate’s husband Scott is almost as much an airhead and is a jock – and therefore respected by Tony far more than he respects Nick, his actual son. Tony, Beth and Scott don’t actually say anything racist, but don’t object when the other two make racist comments. Meanwhile Nick and his Asian girlfriend Annji are both really intelligent, sensitive and strong people, though Annji is clearly the stronger of the two even though for a while her role seems to be just to reveal how racist others are – which in a way is insulting in itself. Williams should have given her the odd flaw too for some balance which may well have stopped me from getting the idea into my head a few times whilst watching it that this film is intended as a commentary on Brexit and how, in the opinion of many [I don’t want to get all political so I’m not taking sides on the issue here], people who voted Leave were supposedly racists and believed lots of crap they heard in the media. However, considered that Await Further Instructions was shot in the October of 2015 and the script no doubt written before that, it’s impossible for Brexit to have been an influence, though it is possible that Williams and Koverkian saw the way that things were going.
Immediately the family starts arguing, with Granddad and Tony insulting each other, Granddad and Kate insulting Annji, Nick having a go back at Granddad and Kate, Scott having a go back at Nick, etc, etc, etc. It’s all a bit forced, but not entirely unbelievable due to some very fine performances from the cast. David Bradley [Granddad] is convincingly dislikable, while Grant Masters [Tony] is just frightening, and some of their scenes together evoke a real feeling of human fear and cruelty, the viewer getting a sense of both psychological and physical abuse passed on from father to son without being given much in the way of specifics concerning the latter except for one nasty recollection that’s described. But it’s probably Abigail Cruttendon as Beth, the poor woman trying to hold everyone together without toeing the line, who’s most outstanding, but everybody is decent and does their best to give their very stock, cliched characters some genuine human life. Of course having these people be the way they are too each other is intended to make it more convincing when they really get nasty a bit later on. But it’s hard to believe how they would have ever put up with each other before for more than ten minutes. I couldn’t help thinking that having at least most of them be a bit nicer at first would have made their actions later on more horrifying. And I couldn’t also help but think of the biggest criticism that The Shining receives – that Jack Torrence seeming a bit unhinged right at the start of the film reduces the horror of his descent into madness [I love the film, but I find it hard to disagree with that assessment]. And having racist tendencies lying dormant and then coming out under pressure may have made the film’s racism aspect more integral to the story and seem less like a guilt trip.
After having to put with some horrid comments directed at Annji, her and Nick understandably decide to leave in the wee hours. There’s some good atmosphere building here with night time shots of power surges, the TV flickering, and the camera wandering about a few locales. There’s almost a John Carpenter vibe, which is almost always a good thing. The two find their escape route blocked by a black wall, seemingly consisting of lots of black tubes, which surrounds the house. Beth immediately thinks that it could be due to a reality show, which on the face of it is not an entirely stupid reaction. “We could be on camera now” says a visibly pleased Kate as she adjusts her hair. But Tony reckons it’s a terrorist act and of course whatever he says goes. In a very sinister moment he ‘recruits’ Scott to do “what may have to be done”. There’s no internet and the land line is dead. Then the order “All your food is contaminated, eat nothing” appears on the TV. Tony immediately believes that this order has to be obeyed despite there not being any proof that it needs to be carried out, so despite Nick’s objections food is binned and nobody eats. For some reason, this is never referred to later, but never mind. More orders follow with increasing extremity, and along with that increasing unpleasantness between the family members. There’s a very tense bit involving some needles and some pretty tough moments of violence despite there obviously not being the budget to show much detail. However, the effect is undermined just a little by having at least two members of the family seem to change their personality several times because the events of the script dictate it.
The final act, bringing in more of the fantastical element and even a touch or two of early David Cronenberg, may deliver some thrills, but is something of a mess, and I’m not sure that the film really needed it. After all, when it ends we’re still not given much in the way of knowledge as what this “monster” or “monsters” is, or what its objective is, and so forth. This needn’t necessarily be a flaw in a film in which the main objective is to show what humanity is like under pressure and how it can be brainwashed by TV, but when the horror becomes a bit more ‘obvious’ in the finale, one can be forgiven for feeling frustrated at still not being really told anything. At least the understandably limited special effects, which except for one example look more practical than CGI though I’m not sure, do the job. They must have spent every penny making them look as decent as possible. Kevorkian certainly has a knack for creating tension even when his characters aren’t shouting at each other, and the red and green wording on the TV ensures that some of the scenes set around the box have a nice visual appearance. Moments of action tend to employ ‘shakycam’, though thankfully it’s not overdone, Koverkian obviously wanting you to see what’s happening. And was that a reference to the ’50s sci-fi oddity The Twonky in there?
All in all, while I had some major problems with the script especially near the beginning, Await Further Instructions is still quite impressive and is certainly worth your attention. It didn’t deserve to hang around unreleased as long as it did. With such a high concept, it certainly aims high and then rather stumbles in doing so, but you can’t fault it for not trying to be something more than your usual sci-fi cheapie and having things to say. Despite the time of the year in which it’s set, it’s about as anti-Christmas a movie as you can get, and I can’t be the only one who finds that to be a good thing.
*Interviews with the cast