Flustered schoolteacher, Mr Gale (Robert Hands), has reached the end of his tether and kidnaps two of his students, Fin (Evan Bendall) and Joel (Rory Coltart), to give them a lesson they’ll never forget. Mr Gale is an English teacher, but his new methods are straight up Skinnerian: learn or face the nail gun.
That’s a strong concept to work with, but you’ll soon forget it’s coming. The opening half an hour couldn’t feel further from the titular set piece. We see Fin roll out of bed only to be greeted by Jake, his thuggish older brother, and Jake’s mistreated girlfriend, Mia. His parents, glimpsed in artful black and white flashbacks, are nowhere to be seen. It’s no wonder, then, that Fin’s attention is rarely focused on his education and, instead, he spends his time screwing around with his friends.
This extended section is really well handled by Ruth Platt, the film’s writer-director (making her feature debut), and she and Bendall craft a genuinely sympathetic character stuck in a genuinely unfortunate situation. The same can’t be said for Joel, who is just a bit of a knob, but, fortunately, his character never threatens to draw the attention away from Fin.
The surprise of the kidnapping is further heightened by the fact that we barely get to meet Mr Gale before he’s brandishing a bloodied hammer and yammering on about Milton and Hobbes. It seems an unusual choice, as there’s little tension developed between Fin and Mr Gale before he’s chained him to a chair. But, thankfully, Hands plays Mr Gale with such ferocious three-dimensionality that any lack of character development is soon more than made up for.
He really is very, very good and he spouts off Platt’s authentic philosophical tirades with spittle-flying menace. It’s his twisted drive to educate, whatever the costs, that makes him such a terrifying antagonist and his threats frequently left me flinching. The shock of the situation does wear off somewhat, but Platt effectively escalates the stakes and makes sure you’re never sitting quite as comfortably as you’d like. The final crescendo of brutal gore effects and increasingly hazy visuals plays bigger than anything preceding it, but the insanity works. Although, I could’ve have done without the final scene and it’s weird subtext.
With The Lesson, Platt shows a real knack for sculpting well-rounded, truthful characters and, while she could have spread some of the depth around the ensemble, the lean structure still packs a real punch. She makes heavy use of mirrors throughout the film, as if toying with us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and, I must admit, it becomes awfully difficult not to.
The Lesson is out now on DVD in the UK via Frightfest Presents.
For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.