The first words we hear Gerard Johnson's title character utter to someone in his debut film, Tony, are "Hello, are you all right?" and from the moment we see him, we know he is not. He's an amalgamation of every awkward and repressed person we've ever met, but that doesn't stop Tony from reaching out to make a connection with anyone and everyone who will listen to him. That is, when he isn't being knocked down, taken advantage of, or pushed out the door. He finds comfort in the company of druggies (one who spots the "bleeders" from the "leaders"), hookers (for just a "cuddle") and gay club boys, who all seem to satisfy his need to go through the motions of "normal" social behavior: being polite by shaking hands and then offering drinks or snacks before he strangles them and props them up like dolls in his morbid collection.

Tony is as forgotten as the world he inhabits: the vertical slums of London, the neon thrall of the red light district and the murky channels he wanders when disposing of the bodies he methodically packages like meat. Thanks to Johnson's script and the stellar performance of Peter Ferdinando (someone please give this guy more work), there are plenty of dark, comedic moments in Tony's life. Things like his obsession with violent action films on VHS (he quotes First Blood to a victim moments before ... ), cleverly timed (and often awkward) conversations with people and corpses alike inject levity into an overwhelmingly grim reality. Complementary to this is Matt Johnson's haunting score, which punctuates every moment perfectly while remaining organic and unobtrusive. Similar is the photography which uses the natural light of the city landscape as its focal point. Johnson occasionally contrasts this with a more theatrical tone using the same naturalistic elements (a street sign, an elevator, etc.) and the effect is striking.

The story is more of a social realist character study than an outright horror film and some of the essentially British issues may be unfamiliar to certain audiences, but the overall ideas are universal. The underlying symbolism and thread of disillusionment surrounding socialist idealism weaves its way throughout. Rotting council houses and the stench Tony's visitors constantly complain about echoes the lives of those within its crumbling walls -- a place where inhumanity lurks and the best intentions have given way to the worst possible scenarios. Every knock on the door comes in the form of an accusation and when there is kindness (Tony's neighbor Dawn) the sadness and loneliness we feel swallows the humanity straining to shine through. This isn't to say that Tony is inhuman, in fact he may be the most human character in the entire film despite being a killer. He is ultimately lost, but is completely aware of who and what he is -- as in one scene where he talks to himself in the bathroom mirror: "You're no soldier, you're a fly on a pile of sh*t." Tony has been forgotten by the system, is basically unemployable and has been living on state funded job-seeker allowance for 20 years. He is invisible to everyone; even standing in the middle of a crowded London street with a giant yellow sign elicits no response from those crossing around him. The hopelessness that pervades the film is all too real.

It would be easy to exploit these emotions through Tony's character, but Johnson doesn't make any obvious judgments nor does he attempt to draw conclusions or offer solutions regarding Tony's unraveling. Perhaps it was the violent films he has adopted as his life's mantra and idols (one scene beautifully demonstrates the way the characters "speak" to Tony when Johnson intercuts footage from one of Tony's films: "You don't need him ... I do."). Maybe Tony has been alienated for so long, it has literally turned him into a monster as is suggested in the job interview scene where the man asks Tony if he is actually (alien) British or not. Ultimately Tony's life and the film's ending cannot be wrapped up neatly because there are no absolutes -- there's just trying to survive the best way you know how.

Tony will be available on DVD April 6.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Horror