Cold Light of Day is a 1989 film about British serial killer Dennis Nilsen, often referred to as the “British Jeffrey Dahmer,” but it’s more the other way around. Nilsen was a civil servant with a dark, cannibalistic secret life, a case recently covered by the much better miniseries Dez. This version was an incredibly low-budget, slightly exploitative movie, which by all accounts was really bashed by the critics when it came out (quite understandably). Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which was filmed in 1985, premiered the following year and played festivals around the world through the rest of the decade, but could not get a theatrical release due to censorship issues that denied it a rating. Real thought was put into that film. I would imagine that the makers of Cold Light of Day saw Henry at a European film festival or on a bootleg VHS, and decided to do a quickie British knock-off. It’s just a guess, and I’m sure no one would ever admit to it, but that’s how it feels.
Nilson was very similar to Dahmer in that he picked up young gay men, had sex with them and killed them. There are elements of cannibalism and necrophilia as well. But this film, which was made about six years after his arrest, was shot on what looks like VHS stock, so it looks like garbage. It goes through bits and pieces of the story (pun intended), but it’s really just a bore-fest, not a gore-fest. It starts with Nilsen’s arrest (he was caught when police found body parts that he had deposited in drains), there are murders, some stuff at work, and some boring conversations with the people he kills. So it’s a really boring film, when it was actually a pretty good story. They do mention at some point that Nilsen had been a cop, which is one of the reasons he got away with it for so long. It’s shot in a series of long takes, which was a hip technique at the time, making it feel almost like an Alan Clarke film—but without the thought that Clarke would have put into the subject matter. Weirdly, it actually won an award at the Venice International Film Festival.
Nilsen is played by Bob Flag, who was ‘Big Brother’ in 1984. He’s a perfectly OK British actor, although he didn’t have much of a career outside of that.
All told, Cold Light of Day feels like a cheap cash-in, and isn’t a particularly thoughtful movie, unlike some others in this genre. It has a very detached feel to it as well, and not in a good way. There are a few extras on the disc, including a commentary by screenwriter/director Fhiona-Louise Brand, a new audio commentary with film historians Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette, and new interviews with actors Steve Munroe and Martin Byrne-Quinn. Also included are a promo short made to get the money to make Cold Light of Day, and two more short films from Brand. The disc comes with a reversable sleeve, and the Limited Edition Has a die-cut O-card and a booklet with new writing on the film from Jo Botting and an examination of how the press covered the Nilsen case by Jeff Billington.