J.G. Ballard wrote High-Rise in 1975, exploring his habitual theme that the apocalypse is happening right now. He was presumably unaware of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1974), which inhabits a similar building – though I’d wager he knew Bunuel’s An Exterminating Angel and maybe even Claude Faraldo’s Themroc, artfilm precursors to his vision of 20th century cavemen wilfully retreating into savagery. The book seems set slightly in the future: a few elements – supermarkets inside high-rise buildings – are satirical exaggerations, and it’s an important that the setting isn’t a sink estate which might be expected to descend into savagery but an affluent suburb in the sky for the monied who have sought out this horrible living space and are prepared to fight to stay in it. The novel has attracted many filmmakers over the years – when I interviewed Mark Romanek in 1985 he was trying to court Ballard for an option – and has ended up with director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump.
When Cronenberg filmed Crash, he eliminated elements that had become period – an obsession with Elizabeth Taylor – and changed the setting from London to Toronto in order to find an equivalent to Ballard’s neutral, dry tone. Wheatley and Jump make the daring choice of setting High-Rise around the year it was written, which means that there is inevitably an element of nostalgia to Ballard’s hideous vision. It’s not just the presence of Elizabeth Moss that evokes Mad Men as 70s guys strut in their flares, showing off sculpted facial hair, and the doctor protagonist dreams of cavorting with a flock of red-lipped slo-mo stewardesses. Oppressor and revolutionary blokes alike espouse antedeluvian sexual politics (this makes more of the rise of a ruling sisterhood in the building than the novel) and middle-class parties degenerate into orgies of sex and violence. Wheatley’s wit is less dry than Ballard’s, so there is an element of farce among the horror – and even the dog-eating and balcony-diving shocks are presented tactfully or as amusing spectacles. There’s something of the Kubrick of A Clockwork Orange about the use of brutalist modern architecture, dayglo luxury items and classically-scored ultra-violence. If we’re now nostalgic about that film (or even Ballard’s backlist books), another layer of irony is added. The film sticks to the novel’s structure, opening with bearded savage Laing (Tom Hiddleston) roasting a leg of Alsatian and then flashing back to the months in which the new residents of a tower block with a disturbing tilt at the tip go for each other’s throats and try to upset a social order based on floor level but also embrace a kind of tribal, troglodyte lifestyle that turns in on itself as more and more people opt not to leave the building.
Often, it falls back on comedy tropes that could have come from Richard Lester (or even Blake Edwards). Laing showing up in a lounge suit at an elaborate 18th century costume party (which shows that Wheatley likes Barry Lyndon too) because the host hasn’t told him about the dress code and is unceremonially ejected for spoiling the illusion. A snobbish medical student faints during a gruesome lesson (‘just peel back the facial mask’) and gets into a feud with the lecturer which ends spectacularly badly. It’s a perfectly cast film – Jeremy Irons (looking more and more like Boris Karloff) limps as the Mabuse-like architect whose wife (Keeley Hawes) has a Marie Antoinette fantasy garden on the roof, while Luke Evans and James Purefoy compete in male obnoxiousness stakes as a womanising documentarian from the second floor who wants to rise up the building and a lift-lurking gynaecologist who wants to keep everyone in their place under him. Reece Shearsmith, Augustus Prew, Peter Ferdinando and Enzo Cilenti channel 70s sit-com style almost in the manner of odd companion piece AAAAAAAH!, playing caricature horrid men who mostly come to bad ends, while Sienna Miller, Stacy Martin, Leila Mimmack, Victoria Wicks, Eileen Davies and Sienna Guillory shift ethereally from sexual trophies to Amazons, viewed through a kaleidoscope in an utterly brilliant last-reel slaughter-sacrifice ritual that signifies the end of the rule of men, with neutral Laing kept on as ‘the best utility in the building’.
Wheatley prowls through the tower block, as much in love with its horrors as Ballard was with suburban limbo, relishing the dogshit trodden into fleece carpets, the pollution of the pool, the clogging-up of the refuse chutes (with bin-bags and body parts), Laing’s mud-man transformation of his suit through liberal applications of grey paint, the newsreader with the frame of a TV set around his head (a Bed Sitting Room gag), the Mad Max creche of feral yet cheerily British kids (note the significant shot of the most controversial issue of the ‘70s comic Action!) and the transformation of an ordered carpark full of vintage vehicles into a wasteland of burning rubbish. In the end, it’s a scrambling of 70s nostalgia and dystopian vision, as epitomised by Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s ‘SOS’ which adds in a thrumm of minatory electronica out of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York score.