A smart idea pretty much goes the distance in “The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse,” a bigscreen spinoff of the cult British comedy series that takes its gross smalltown stereotypes in an almost neo-Brechtian direction. Gothic-horror mix of Monty Python surrealism and Carry On smut will click with “LoG” fans in Blighty, but won’t mean much to anyone unacquainted with the tube original. Amid Hollywood’s summer behemoths, pic will need all the faithful to turn out for the June 3 wide release if it’s to recoup a sizable chunk of its $7 million-plus budget on home turf. Ancillary looms more secure.
Eponymous group the League of Gentlemen comprises writers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, the first three of whom also play multiple characters in their fictional, ’50s-style town of Royston Vasey. Group began in stand-up a decade ago and graduated, via a radio show, to three series on BBC-2, starting in 1999.
Challenge of turning a sketch-comedy show into a feature film is met head-on by confronting the very notion of extending a format beyond its shelf-life, and then playing with real-life and fictional characters in a way similar to “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” Idea starts running out of energy and comic gas in the middle, but script’s various story/time threads manage to come together for a rousingly tacky finale.
Something is seriously wrong in the northern country town of Royston Vasey: The weather is apocalyptic, the local church has been desecrated, and fireballs are starting to rain down from the heavens. Thrown together by chance on the moors, three inhabitants — German double-entendre queen Herr Lipp (Pemberton), blood-crazed butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss) and salt-of-the-earth businessman Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) — accidentally pass through a magic door in a church crypt into “another world,” the contempo, real-life town of Hadfield, near Manchester.
With a lot of plot on its mind, script doesn’t tarry long over jokes about U.K. social changes in the past 50 years. Instead, the trio meets three other Royston Vasey time-travelers — upper-crust zookeeper Edward (Shearsmith), Tubbs (Pemberton) and black-face voodoo chief Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith) — who inform them that Royston Vasey, and everyone in it, was the creation of a group of TV writers known as the League of Gentlemen.
As the LoG aren’t planning on writing any more series, Royston Vasey and its inhabitants face annihilation. Edward bids the trio to seek out the series creators in London and get them to change their mind. Plot starts spinning its first level of complexity as the trio manages to kidnap the real-life Pemberton (and the LoG’s computer) and put Lipp in his place. As all the characters find themselves in need of the three writers to continue existing, pic returns to Royston Vasey for a kinetic, cleverly written final act that even manages to satirize the scriptwriting cliche of making unsympathetic characters redeemable.
With writer-thesps Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith taking on 17 characters between them, and playing in seamless ensemble, it’s impossible to laud one more than the others. However, outside the lurid, enclosed world of Royston Vasey, each has difficulty sustaining the grossness of their main characters — Hilary, Lipp and Geoff — over feature-length running time.
This makes for some dull patches in act two that are enlivened only by the plot’s multi-level structure. Some auds will also find the film-within-a-film’s obsession with 17th-century bodily functions and personal hygiene a tad overcooked.
As well as numerous cameos by well-known Brit TV faces, David Warner has a ball as the evil Dr. Pea, and brings some heft to the movie as a whole. Despite some authentically tacky CG goblins, and other f/x flourishes, pic still has a TV look under Steve Bendelack’s workmanlike direction and Rob Kitzmann’s luridly colored lensing. Tony Cranstoun’s mobile editing and Joby Talbot’s symphonic score keep things moving throughout the trim running time.