Over the last few years an interesting subgenre has developed in British horror – dubbed “hoodie horror” by the press and named after the young, urban kids who wear hooded sweatshirts – these films were set primarily in England’s low income housing “estates” and played up the fears of “Broken Britain,” a term coined by conservative newspaper The Sun, to describe the country’s perceived social and moral bankruptcy. Everything from the Michael Caine revenge thriller “Harry Brown” to last year’s gleeful SXSW smash “Attack the Block” have used elements of this subgenre. “Citadel,” which just won the Midnight award at the fest, further explores the fears and anxieties of urban Britain (and Ireland), and the results are sometimes scary, sometimes silly, and always politically questionable.
The film begins with a young couple getting ready to leave a dilapidated council estate called Edenstown. The young man, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), leaves his pregnant wife by their apartment. Getting into the elevator, he sees a trio of menacing-looking young hoodies approach the woman. Tommy tries desperately to get out of the elevator, but like everything else in Edenstown, it malfunctions, and by the time he gets back to his wife, she has been brutally attacked, her pregnant belly stabbed with a grungy syringe. He gets her to the hospital. A nurse hands him his newborn baby, but, by the time the opening credits roll, we’re not quite sure what happened to his wife.
When the movie resumes, it’s nine months later, and we find out that his wife has been in a coma for all that time. Tommy has become full-blown agoraphobic, going to group therapy lessons and plotting his escape from the urban wasteland. The only thing keeping him tethered here is his comatose wife, and as the movie proper begins, the hospital has made the decision to take her off life support. A comely young nurse (Wunmi Mosaku) takes a romantic interest in Tommy, but he’s obsessed with the young thugs that killed his wife. A priest (James Comso) consults Tommy, telling him that the boys have a kind of ESP that can sense fear, telling him that they should just blow up the council estate instead (it’s implied that the priest has had experience as a former member of the IRA). After the hoodies steal his baby, he decides to team up with the priest, go into the apartment building, and blow it the fuck up.
“Citadel,” written and directed with absolute severity by Irish filmmaker Ciarán Foy, is punctuated by some extremely unsettling moments. Anyone who has walked down a dodgy, poorly-lit alleyway will get the heebie-jeebies, and these really terrifying moments are brilliantly staged – all flashes of light, skittering hoods, and bursts of blood. You see just enough to be profoundly disturbed. The urban landscape that Foy has created, which is nearly apocalyptic (to the point where you wonder if this takes place in the dystopian future), brings to mind the early works of John Carpenter (or that other SXSW entry, “The Raid: Redemption“). Even without the murderous gangs, the environment is menacing enough to want to escape.
The problem with “Citadel” is that, as it goes along, it gets bogged down in unnecessary mythology that tips things from realistic social fears to outrageous supernaturalism. Instead of merely ill-tempered kids, it turns out that the hoodies are some kind of monstrous, inbred offspring. The apartment building where they live isn’t just rundown, it’s infested with some kind of weird moss that the hoodie-monsters lick (for some reason). And it turns out the priest wasn’t just being metaphoric – they can actually sense fear, psychically. Or something. And this isn’t just an issue from a plot standpoint, but it mucks up the already thorny politics of the movie.
Unlike last year’s “Attack the Block,” which sought to humanize the marginalized hoodies by making them the heroes in an alien invasion tale, “Citadel” does the opposite. The kids that society has neglected and who the press attacks as being a leading factor in the decline of an entire country? Well, it turns out they aren’t just “monstrous” – they’re actually monsters! Who kill mothers and steal babies and lick moss! So we should blow up their apartment buildings and be done with them! Had there been some satiric edge to the movie, then this would have been a little bit more palpable, but it is totally humorless, as straightforward as can be, and the supernatural elements take away from any chance at social commentary. The worst part is that you get to rooting for Tommy and the crazy priest before you stop and think, “Wait, I’m actively cheering on mass child murder? What?”
In the end, “Citadel” makes you feel too lousy to really work as a cathartic horror experience, and its icky politics keep it from being anything more than a late night curio. Had the movie been more focused, stripping away all the supernatural gobbledygook so that you could instead get some sharp social barbs in there, then it could have been something really special. True, there are some moments that will make you jump out of your seat and throw your popcorn at the woman sitting in front of you, but it isn’t enough to get over the fact that “Citadel” says, of the so-called “Broken Britain,” just blow it up and start over, lower class children be damned. Even by horror’s admittedly cynical standards, that’s pretty bleak. [C-]