Friday, November 9, 2012
Citadel: Fear and Despair
Citadel might be one of the bleakest horror films I've ever seen, and therein lies its terror. It opens on a very young pregnant couple, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and Joanne (Amy Shiels) moving into what appears to be a pretty uninspiring housing complex on some bleak semi-urban stretch of Ireland. But just as Tommy heads into the elevator to go retrieve more of their stuff from the car, a creepy gaggle of what appear to be children in hoodies attacks Joanne with syringes. She dies in the hospital, but not before delivering the baby. So now poor Tommy, left agoraphobic, paranoid, and almost catatonic by the experience (and let's not forget, he's still basically just a kid), has to raise a baby on his own. In abject poverty.
Of course, it gets worse. The hooded kid-things come back for the baby (and sure enough, we eventually find out they're not kids at all). And Tommy, who also has to deal with the paralyzing psychic scars of his earlier experience, has to find some way to begin to cope -- to hide, or escape, or fight back. But he can't. They can find him wherever he is. Dear god, I'm getting shivers again just thinking about it.
So Citadel is bleak, but it's also textured. As you might glean from the title, writer-director Ciaran Foy gives the grim, barren setting of his film -- the hollow, dank corridors of the housing complexes, the abandoned roads and alleyways surrounding them -- an almost mythic grandeur, a kind of post-apocalyptic grace. You wonder at times if it's more a landscape of the mind than anything else, whether these evil little beings are psychic demons created by an unwell protagonist rather than anything real. That uncertainty, much as in The Shining, just adds to the tension.
Of course, it's hard not to read some kind of troubling social metaphor into this thing: How else to take a movie in which a father does brave battle against mutant public housing denizens (wearing hoods and brandishing syringes, no less) who want to snatch his kid and turn her into one of them? Foy exploits that oft-unstated dread, but he's smart enough not to get into too thorny political territory. He keeps things vague, allowing us to let our own twisted paranoia fill in the details of this world. These projects are barren, abandoned -- our hero's very aloneness attests to the fact that there's no society or community here. These aren't the crowded, unwieldy housing projects of a right-wing fantasy, but rather some kind of weird, liminal space. Like I said, it feels kind of mythic at times, even though the film itself is spare and curiously empty.
Foy also lets Citadel become a more typical genre piece as it progresses, as Tommy teams up with a foul-mouthed, comically angry priest (Game of Thrones' James Cosmo) who seems to know a thing or two about these evil little devils he's being hounded by. That brings the film down to earth in its final act, replacing the surreal, gnawing unease of its earlier scenes with a more mundane kind of excitement. But it's still hard not to be riveted by Citadel. Here is that most effective of horror films: the kind that uses your own worst nightmares against you.