A Short Film made by Simon Downham-Knight, Nasir Hussain, Tamlin Walenn and Simon Strange.
Blog by Simon Downham-Knight.
HeadCleaner was conceived in a perfect storm of things that happened in the latter part of 2001. Stanley Kubrick thought it would bring interstellar travel, but it actually brought an attack on the World Trade Centre that ushered in an age of endless war and a grubby exploitation film about wanking; shot on Mini DV.
I had spent the latter part of the 1990s writing a script called Lizard Point that was conceived as the first great British road movie. An ambitious multi-story screenplay, that was all set on one day. It began in London, where five disparate groups of characters headed West to Cornwall. Their journeys intersected, interwove, bumped into each other and climaxed in a car crash that involved everybody, before going on to finish at the titular Lizard Point. It came close to getting off the ground but no dice. When the project collapsed in early 2001, I licked my wounds, then bought a Mini DV camera and an early iMac with Final Cut Pro and began experimenting, watching exploitation films and smoking lots of weed.
A quick word on what exploitation films are. I feel like it’s as misunderstood a term as magic is. It has negative connotations which are not entirely warranted: Who or what is being exploited? The films’ posters, trailers and video boxes would always promise sex, violence, drug use, nudity and gore but wouldn’t always deliver, often having all the juiciest bits of the film in the trailer. Therefore, the audience was being exploited. They would often follow a mainstream hit, like Star Wars or Halloween, with a load of much cheaper knock off films like Battle Beyond the Stars, Starcrash, Friday the 13th and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. George A. Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead (which itself was considered an exploitation film) was released in Italy as Zombi and it wasn’t long before Lucio Fulci released a film called Zombi 2 (released as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK) even though it had nothing to do with Romero’s film. This was followed by a glut of Italian Zombie films throughout the 1980s that continued to exploit the Zombie market. There was also a slew of disgusting Italian Cannibal films. The most famous being Cannibal Holocaust, which included real animal exploitation and killings and the hint that you were watching a real snuff film. Driller Killer (which was an influence on HeadCleaner) used the only gory part of the film on its poster/video cover.
It wouldn’t have to be an “exploitation” film for an actor to feel exploited though. Shelley Duvall has described her experience working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining to be “excruciating” and “almost unbearable” and Ellen Burstyn was given a lifelong back injury when she was jerked onto the floor with a harness while filming The Exorcist. Exploitation runs deep in the film industry and I was thinking about this a lot as the project moved forwards.
The seed of the idea for HeadCleaner germinated from four things that are really three things. The first was when I was looking for a midi hi-fi system to replace the JVC one, I had bought off a flat mate in 1988 and had recently, finally, given up the ghost. I found an Aiwa one in Loot for fifty quid and I travelled on the district line to Whitechapel to buy it. I was buzzed into this modern block of flats and went up three flights of stairs. I was let in and led through, by this creepy, balding, chubby guy in his mid-thirties. Inside, it was modern, clean and brightly lit, but there was a peculiar smell and a strange atmosphere in the flat that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He was friendly enough and he said that he had had the hi-fi in his bedroom for ten years. He had recently upgraded and was hoping to find a new home for his old one. It was plugged in and set up on his dining table and he enthusiastically showed me that it worked. It worked fine but it had these lairy bobbing red and green LED lights. I thought I could live with them and I gave him the fifty quid and then carried it home. As I plugged it in, I noticed it still had that peculiar smell about it. I switched out the light, lay on my bed and smoked a pipe while listening to some music.
As I looked at the LED lights bobbing up and down to the beat of Come to the Sabbat by Black Widow, in my stoned state, I thought about how that hi-fi had been in that creepy guy’s bedroom for the last ten years. I thought about all the things it had seen. All the people he had fucked; all the wanks he had had; all the arguments he had had. As I thought about him more, the bobbing LED lights began to look evil and I felt frightened. I wondered if he had been a murderer or a rapist. As these thoughts continued; the lights became more and more Satanic and malevolent. I wondered: if that guy was evil, maybe the stereo was evil first and made him evil. Can an inanimate object be inherently evil? Was the smell in his flat the smell of death?
At around this time I had begun to teach English as a foreign language at the Callan School of English on Oxford Street. The job was not very well paid, but it was fun and it offered an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, both students and teachers. One person I got talking to and went for drinks with had, what appeared to be, an unhealthy relationship with pornography. 2002 was just on the edge of the internet boom and most people still used a dial-up connection. Porn on the internet wasn’t the behemoth it is today and there was still lots of physical media around. The school was just on the edge of the red-light district in Soho. We would go for walks during break and after work and he would always want to look in sex shops. He would constantly talk about sexual experiences that seemed more like he was reciting the plot from a porn film than reality. He would disappear off to the toilet when we were out drinking or at a friend’s house and stay there for a ridiculous amount of time. He would often show up to work or meetings with semen stains on his trousers. It didn’t seem healthy and it was making him ill. The evil stereo and the porn obsessed friend coalesced into the concept of an evil porn tape that wouldn’t let its owner blow his beans and HeadCleaner was born. It would be low budget, shot on Mini DV, would only have one character and no dialogue. I just had to find an actor who was willing to play the man haunted by a porn tape and unable to finish himself off.
Fortuitously, Tamlin then started at the Callan School. He was a strange, swarthy fellow with a heavy monobrow. He wore stained shirts, grubby trousers and shoes with big holes in them and seemed to have no awareness of this. He was more of a talker than a listener and said he was a RADA trained actor. I thought he would be perfect for the main (only) role in HeadCleaner and would bring his inherent quirkiness to it. I tried to talk to him about it several times but couldn’t get a word in edgeways. I’d been getting friendly with Nasir for a while; I knew that he was a writer, and I knew he seemed to get on well with Tamlin. I thought that the two of us could collaborate on HeadCleaner and I could use him to get to Tamlin. I approached him with the idea and he agreed. Within an hour or so Tamlin was also on board.
I wrote the part specifically for Tamlin and the character was called Monobrow in the script. Our relationship though, never got beyond strained. I found it difficult to communicate with him and the character of Monobrow merged with Tamlin in my head. He thought that once the film was finished we would become friends but all he got was the chance to play my twisted image of him in a pseudo-exploitation film about wanking and the effects of pornography on the isolated mind. Nasir checked out during the whole process, often not showing up for filming and editing and barely being present when he did. This left the lion’s share of the work to me. This turned into a bone of contention between us, which he has written about and will be featured on this Blog in the coming weeks. So, the film ended up being my take on an exploitation film where Tamlin felt exploited by me, I felt like I exploited Tamlin, Nasir felt like he exploited me and I felt exploited by Nasir.
The film is massively enhanced by the soundtrack that was written and performed by Simon Strange and HeadCleaner played really well at several festivals including the Notting Hill Film Festival, Bristol’s Blue Screen and The Big Green Gathering where it was projected onto a screen on the side of a bus at midnight to howls of disgust and laughter.
Simon Downham-Knight – Copyright 2021