(This review was originally published on November 16, 2012 at Reel Film News)
A note to new parents: “Citadel” is a frightening film, particularly for our kind (yes, even for horror buffs like me). If you don’t curb your neuroses, you’re likely to have a tough time making it through the first half hour.
Ciarán Foy’s Glasgow-based horror film is derived largely from the director’s personal experience; as a teenager, he suffered an unprovoked attack that left him with a crippling case of social anxiety. “Citadel” exudes this trauma.
Beginning with a similar incident, the film follows a young man named Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) who, in the wake of an assault on his pregnant wife, is left to raise their newborn daughter. An even bigger challenge is that he’s plagued with debilitating agoraphobia, having witnessed part of the incident helplessly through the window of a broken elevator door, only to find her dying minutes later. The scene is stressful and emotionally taxing, to say the least.
Things don’t get any easier, as we pick up some months later. Tommy and his daughter have moved away from the Citadel, the deteriorating apartment complex where the assault took place, only to find the assailants – a gang of ghoulish hooded ‘children’ – who are still after them. Rendered as creepy silhouettes and dark figures, these creatures stalk them like angry, demonic Jawas, existing in the shadows outside their door. We soon find out, for reasons that I’m not sure I could thoroughly explain, that they are after the baby.
No one, with the exception of an unstable priest (James Cosmo, “Game of Thrones”) seems to believe Tommy, not even his well-intentioned nurse (Wunmi Mosaku). The films perception is predominantly dictated by Tommy’s phobia; fear, frustration and paranoia buffer our sense of what might really be happening. Though the number of characters are minimal, their intermittent outside viewpoints ensure that the film never comes too far off the ground.
The priest, an angry, lumbering specimen (picture a physically imposing, extremely profane Brian Cox) seems to have some insight into what’s going, but is dismissed as insane when he tells Tommy that these mysterious minions are attracted to his fear. Interesting discussions might be had about how this particular thought is relevant to single fathers.
That said, I’ve been known to dig beneath context when there’s nothing there. At first I wondered if Tommy’s condition was the explanation for everything, as if his mind were skewing things that were actually there, or if these creatures were in fact as real as he saw them. Another theory of mine followed a more existential path, like in “Jacob’s Ladder”. The rest I’ll keep to myself, but it becomes clear that Barnard is playing a traumatized character, not an insane one. Also, the story is more dramatic than supernatural, and that is where the film is most effective. It’s relatable that way.
Regarding the horror element, it doesn’t spoil anything to say that the creatures, in some way shape or form, are products of their environment, and as dangerous as the real-life hazards that they symbolize. That said, the annoying little ambiguities in the film, as well as the inconsistencies therein are, in my opinion, as dismissible as any of the shopworn horror devices that exist in even the most original genre films. They’re just there, and we tend to accept them.
But nothing feels particularly overdone here. There’s not an excessive amount of gore, nor extraneous violence, that Foy feels he need to default to. In retrospect, I’m impressed by the films disturbing afterglow, which is achieved mainly through its connection to our primal fears. Barnard’s performance is visibly exhausting, his pallid hue enhanced by the grays and greens of the films urban, wintry temperature. He is ultimately what makes the film so engaging.
“Citadel” is typical in the sense that it uses more than its share of social metaphors, aimed at poverty, drug use, social services, the economy – all the classics. The script is good, even when it threatens to get a little silly. Is it scary? Sure. Is it memorable? For a while. But it is by no means a typical horror film; there’s too much emotion invested in it, and that, along with a strange sense of optimism, is what made it work for me.
The predominant theme – that is, what would you do to protect your child in such extreme circumstances – is conveyed with an intense, sometimes heartbreaking realism. Barnard and Foy are an almost ideal match; the actor conveys an exhausting level of distress as he becomes more desperate, though less and less able, to protect his daughter. Foy captures Barnard’s shaky, sunken-eyed demeanor with harrowing elegance. Well-paced, “Citadel” might miss a step or two, but never long enough to kill its momentum or a notable performance.