Peripheral, the fourth feature from British SFX maestro turned filmmaker Paul Hyett, is topical. It’s so topical, in fact, that it starts with footage of literal rioting in the streets, the catalyst for fledgling author Bobbi Johnson’s book entitled Bite the Hand. The idea of people taking their frustrations out with batons might have seemed quaint five years ago, but — in the wake of Charlottesville et al — it’s become disturbingly normal.
Hyett’s latest quickly transitions to Bobbi (played by his Heretiks star Hannah Arterton, sister of Gemma) sitting in her grungy flat and trying in vain to make novel #2 happen. In typical, clichéd movie writer fashion, Bobbi uses a typewriter, chainsmokes, necks red wine and has posters of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson adorning the walls around her desk. She wishes to emulate the so-called greats, in both prose and a trashy lifestyle.
The peripheral of the title comes in the form of a massive super-computer, gifted to her by pushy publisher Jordan (The Inbetweeners‘ Belinda Stewart-Wilson), which Bobbi is assured will help to make the process run more smoothly. Inevitably, since this is a horror movie, it does exactly the opposite. Soon, her hands are dyed a dull blue-black, her words are being corrupted in front of her face and she’s losing control of her senses.
There’s an awful lot going on in Peripheral, and not all of it works. The story, by Doghouse scribe Dan Schaffer, manages to incorporate drug addiction, stalking, evil tech overlords, a dodgy ex and writer’s block, to name just a few themes. Arterton’s performance as the tortured Bobbi keeps this crazy train on its tracks for the most part, but there are several ham-fisted moments when the film tells (or over-tells) rather than shows.
The stalker element, which involves frequent Hyett collaborator Rosie Day, plays out via sketchy VHS tapes and, somewhat surprisingly, has the best payoff. This might have something to do with Day’s committed to-camera monologues, or the fact that this particular thread feels slightly less insane compared to the evil computer high jinks — but, either way, it lands. A lovely cameo from the always-welcome Tom Conti (“I could kill you with my thumb, you know”) is another nice, normal moment.
Peripheral comes hot on the heels of Graham Skipper’s clever Sequence Break, which dealt with similar themes on a much smaller scale. Although Hyett’s film boasts some freaky moments of computer-on-human violence, it doesn’t delve into body horror to the same extent, meaning the threat is felt but not always clear. To be fair, the super computer on which Bobbi works is hugely impressive — and real time editing seems like a far less frightening idea than she thinks.
As a protagonist, Bobbi is the typical writer that only exists in movies. She’s desperately protective of her work, almost to a fault (when the film starts, Bobbi is without electricity and heat, for example), and won’t accept much, if any, criticism. She idolizes damaged white men above all else but takes great offense when her lead character’s gender is changed without her consent.
It’s possible that Schaffer is commenting on the stereotypes of being a working writer. The script may even be his method of coming to terms with his own failings, or an honest portrayal of the insane lengths creatives will go to for their work. However, with less gifted collaborators, it’s easy to imaging Peripheral playing like an ode to times gone by, when writers wrote by candlelight and the big, bad publishers weren’t able to exert as much control with sharp dissections.
Still, there’s much to admire in Peripheral, like the claustrophobic, single location setting (Bobbi’s messy flat), the impressive visual FX and Arterton’s strong, utterly vanity-free performance. In Heretiks, she was the confused outsider. Here, her character finds a comfort zone torn asunder in frightening fashion. Peripheral doesn’t always work, but it cannot be faulted for its fearless central performance.
As part of Hyett’s larger filmography, Peripheral impresses less than the werewolf shocker Howl, or Heretiks (THE nun-based horror movie to see this year — forget about The Nun), but its ambitions and scope are still impressive. Even when too much stuff is being thrown at the screen, it’s hard not to admire Peripheral for trying.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.