Fair warning: I love horror movies. No matter what time of year it is, if I’m flipping channels, I will come to a full stop on whichever one might be playing, no matter the channel, and certainly no matter the quality or subject matter of the film. I’m excluding the “Twilight” franchise here, for reasons that should be obvious to you unless you’re a 14-year-old girl, a lobotomy patient or a 14-year-old lobotomy patient. Those movies portray werewolves and vampires in much the same way that Austin Rhodes grows his beard: a combination of wonky hormones and hilarious facial expressions.
It’s October, which means that every day for the next — oh, call it a month — is Halloween, and I’m going to treat it as such. That includes this column, wherein I’m going to explain to you why exactly you should see a certain horror film that I know full well you haven’t seen. Don’t lie to me, or to yourself; you haven’t.
There’s no handholding in true horror, so we’re starting off with probably the most challenging film in this series: “Citadel,” from debutante writer/director Ciaran Foy. Foy, by the way, is definitely one to watch, as his grasp of horror film tropes allows him to execute them to full effect, even as he occasionally upends them. His visual style and pace are striking and unique: think Ti West’s slow-burn execution, with several added layers of chronic depression, shot through an indigo filter, and you might approach it. Anyway, cue justification and, FYI, some spoilers.
First of all, this film will make you very, very uncomfortable. I love a mindless slasher schlock-fest as much as the next horror fanatic — we’re the reason that Adam Green still has a career. But film is an art form as much as it is entertainment, and good art, true art, should challenge us on one level or another. “Citadel’s” premise is a fairly simple one: Tommy (Aneurin Barnard in what is likely to prove a breakthrough performance; more on that later) sees his pregnant wife violently assaulted in front of him by a gang of feral children, all wearing hoodies. He takes her to the hospital, where she survives and gives birth, but falls into a coma and is taken off life support a few months later. Tommy, left to raise a daughter by himself, develops severe agoraphobia after the incident. After talking to a potty-mouthed priest (James Cosmo) at his wife’s funeral, Tommy becomes convinced that the children will return to abduct his daughter.
The first challenge: the violence depicted in the film is very ugly, and very real-seeming: Tommy’s wife is beaten and stabbed with a hypodermic needle; the child gangs tend to murder their other victims in a similar, blunt-force trauma method, and the resulting audio sounds like a baseball bat sickeningly smacking a side of beef. Throats are cut in full view, in one, unbroken shot. The scenes are not glorified or embellished in any way; their very realness renders them graphic. It grounds us in the nearly-real world of the film, invests us in the characters and their fates.
The second challenge: Trayvon Martin. This film was released in March of 2012, barely two weeks after Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Foy certainly was not attempting to link his film to the tragedy; he’d been trying to get production off the ground for more than five years. Still, the threads are there to be tied if you care to: all of the kids run around in dirty hoodies, which obscure their faces and make them seem ghoul-like, threatening; they attack and murder only adults, abducting children in order to turn them into their own likenesses, a plot point that perpetuates both class and age-related warfare, and furthers the notion that the youth of any generation act as a corrupting influence. James Cosmo’s priest, who has a close, secret tie to the children, constantly refers to them as “scum” and “filth.” Foul-mouthed as he is, this is a priest we’re talking about.
I trust Foy. Furthermore, I trust that the damning implications of the film are mostly accidental. Still, that doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant. The most important thing to take away from the film is the relationship that Tommy and the priest each have to the feral children, how they let it shape their views on the world, and what they proceed to do about it. Again, SPOILER alert here, guys…
It comes out that, decades beforehand, the priest impregnated a prostitute who gave birth to twins in a dilapidated apartment complex that now serves as a base of sorts for the blind and feral children, who came about as a result of inbreeding and, I don’t know, some unexplained form of sorcery. Their condition, and the violence that they inflict on the city slums, stem from the priest’s own sin and his refusal to own up to responsibility. He knows this; he has spent a lifetime knowing it and, in the end, it kills him.
Tommy, on the other hand, is targeted by the blind evil begotten by the priest. In a sense, he’s caught in the crossfire, and has to come to grips with his surroundings from the ground up. For most of the film, he chooses to simply avoid them, a hallmark of his agoraphobia. In the end, he carries out the priest’s final plan, which is to blow up the apartment building, thereby destroying the source of the evil.
Reactionaries will cry foul, as Tommy’s redemption comes in the form of violence done to other, arguably innocent, beings. I’d argue, however, that the film is not actually about Tommy, but about the priest and his subsequent failure. Tommy’s final explode-y actions are no triumph, but an ultimate tragedy, and are an illustration of what can occur if we as a society ignore the root causes of social issues: socio-economic divides, wage gaps, and latent racial tensions. It results in destruction, in moral failure, in thinly veiled vigilantism.
Maybe this is way off-base, and maybe I’m putting too much critical thought into a movie that, at its core, is about an agoraphobic weenie battling zombie kids alongside his expletive-happy sidekick. But I doubt it. Watch this movie.