Having promised a few years ago to revive his decades-old tradition of class, low-budget (and usually period) dramas, Roger Corman makes good on that pledge with the satisfying, if awkwardly titled, “Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club.” Pic is a throwback to Corman cinema a la Edgar Allen Poe as well as a forward-looking model of how indies can make costumers right along with the big boys. Ultra-fine New Concorde production deserves but may not get much breathing space in a domestic market generally uninterested in period pics, but should do nifty Euro and ancillary coin.
Helmer Rachel Samuels and writer Lev L. Spiro’s version of Stevenson’s tale is intriguingly faithful to the author’s tone and spirit while being a strikingly different story from the original, to the point of inventing plotlines and characters. Stevenson constructed his peculiar yarn as a triptych with shifting points of view. Storyline is propelled by a prince’s disgust with and vengeful reaction to a Londoner called the President, who has organized a secret society of those who willingly arrange their own deaths. The fiction, neither pure horror nor pure adventure and in a realm all its own, has been filmed three times before, first as a 1909 short by D.W. Griffith, then in Brit Maurice Elvey’s 1914 feature, and as “Trouble for Two” with Robert Montgomery in 1936.
Not unlike the way Stanley Kubrick kept the setup of Gustav Hasford’s novel “The Short-Timers” and did away with most of the rest of the book while inventing new scenarios for “Full Metal Jacket,” Spiro keeps the essential elements of the elite Suicide Club — its drawing room ambience of dread, its system of selecting a victim and murderer by a collective draw of cards, its enforcement policy for those who’d rather not die just yet — as well as the perspective of young men unwittingly drawn into its snare. After that, though, script is pure invention.
Achievement by Spiro and Samuels, who helms with supreme confidence, is especially notable because the new plot is every bit as gripping as the original’s, and often more emotionally dramatic. This is established from the start (updated to portentous year of 1899), when Henry Joyce (David Morrissey) is about to kill himself in despair over losing love-of-life Rebecca just before he returned from heroic duty in Sudan. His pal Capt. May (Neil Stuke) gets him out of the house, but soon the pair — in pic’s sole scene closely following the original — is under thrall of the equally suicidal Shaw (Paul Bettany), who brings them along to the Suicide Club, run by the mysterious Bourne (Jonathan Pryce).
Pace is steady and gripping as the deadly dimensions of adventure unfold. Trapped in a world he didn’t make, Henry begins to question his impulse for ending it all as he witnesses others draw their death and killer cards. Plot is drenched in irony, with Henry finding he may be too late to reverse the course of action and the soon-to-die being congratulated by Bourne, bringing new meaning to being “lucky at cards.”
Samuels stages a series of gut-wrenching set pieces at the card table, expanding far beyond Stevenson into story’s inherent cinematic potential, while Spiro shrewdly creates a dark female presence for Henry to play off of. Sarah Wolverton (Catherine Siggins) is the only woman in the club, and her resistance to Henry’s queries and attempts to stop her from killing herself begins to take over the story. This pattern stops just short of becoming wearying, with a twist Stevenson himself might have authored. Plot denouement is a logical, if a Gothic-Romantic outgrowth of Catherine’s eventually freed emotions, with story finishing in a dark, ancient abbey that’s Cormanesque to the hilt.
Style and tone could have been hysterical but are instead sober and disciplined. Exceptionally cast from top to bottom, drama especially hinges on Morrissey, who superbly conveys a range of feelings that strongly recalls James Stewart’s perfs in his work under Hitchcock. Siggins is a real find, with a voice and face made for the bigscreen, revealing a sultry side under a cold exterior. Though physically different from Stevenson’s dastardly club owner, Pryce is perfect for a role of pure control and calculation.
Few low-budgeters look as good as this one, which has fully exploited every penny in lush Irish location work.