By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
There’s a scene in Ant Timpson’s debut feature Come to Daddy where Elijah Wood’s character, Norval Greenwood, is being verbally abused with such an extraordinarily blend of both cruelty and swear words that by the time actual physical violence rears its head, it’s almost a relief. Cringefully pretentious and overtly insecure, with his deliberately comical cutting-edge fashion and ludicrous facial hair, Norval is a DJ who – in his most overblown moments of self-promotion – presents himself not just as an industry power player, but a tastemaker, the guy to know. This of course stands in contrast to the reality of his predicament; when we first meet him, he is gracelessly lugging a wheeled suitcase through the wilderness, on his way to hopefully reconcile with his long-estranged father who lives in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere.
Upon his arrival, however, it becomes rapidly apparent that Norval’s dreams of an idealized father-son reconciliation are not going to take quite the form he expected. A recovering alcoholic, Norval struggles with Gordon’s (Stephen McHattie) constant drinking, compounding the power games between the two where the stakes become increasingly high. Add to the mix Martin Donovan’s character Brian, to say that his appearance complicates matters only further is a vast understatement.
While Come to Daddy has been as a durable 2019 genre staple at international film festivals since it premiered earlier in the year at Tribeca, the Texas premiere of the horror-comedy film at Austin’s was an auspicious one for both Timpson and Wood. A member of the Fantastic Fest board of directors, Wood’s formal position merely solidified what anyone who has attended the festival in recent years would have known already: he is, in Fantastic Fest terms, virtual royalty. Although known more for his work behind the camera, Ant Timpson is no less a Fantastic Fest icon: as a producer, his credits include the horror anthology festival hits The ABCs of Death (2012), ABCs of Death 2 (2014) and The Field Guide to Evil (2018) which he co-produced with Fantastic Fest co-founder and founder of Drafthouse Films and Neon, Tim League. In 2016, Timpson also co-produced (with Wood, amongst others) Jim Hosking’s indescribably, joyfully grotesque black comedy The Greasy Strangler.
Based in New Zealand, Timpson’s work as a producer has until now been the basis of his international reputation, but his legacy by no means ends there. The founder of the New Zealand filmmaking competition 48Hours (now in its impressive fifteenth year), as the owner of the largest personal film archive in the southern hemisphere 2019 also marked the 25th anniversary of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival which he also founded (screening as a part of the New Zealand International Film Festival).
In 1996, Timpson directed the low-budget short film Crab Boy, but it was not until Come to Daddy that he made the leap to feature film directorial work. Despite the gleeful, often comic and frequently sick and twisted love of violence in his horror-comedy film, the origins of the project stem from an extremely personal place, as Timpson has noted in a range of interviews and post-screening Q+A’s (of which he is a master of the form). Following the death of his own father – so closely linked to his own journey as a budding cinephile – he found himself spending time with his father’s embalmed body in the family home, his father’s partner believing it would help them with the grieving process. To say this left a profound mark on Timpson appears to be an understatement; reflecting not only on his relationship with his own father, it also helped him put into perspective where he was going with his own life. Amongst other things, it made him realize how badly he wanted to make his own films.
These simultaneously genuinely touching and admittedly a little strange events that sparked Come to Daddy manifest in the film itself; wild, weird and yet nothing less than wholly sincere in its focus on the father-son relationship at the core of the film, Timpson’s brilliant debut feature reveals an unambiguously great filmmaker. Wherever he goes from here, one gets the sense that in terms of directing, this is just the beginning.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).