Writer-director Ciaran Foy’s Irish-produced hoodie horror Citadel takes a hard line in its depiction of juvenile delinquency, quite literally making it into an infection spreading from the destitute Glaswegian tower blocks at the movie’s center. Much like Joe Cornish in his explanation for writing Attack The Block, Foy’s own experience being assaulted inspires his take on the material, an attack apparently too harrowing to provoke the kind of levity Cornish was able to derive from his. Instead, Foy’s hoodies are a parasitic horde with a demonic twist, springing out of the city’s squalor in as close an approximation as you can get to Bill Watterson’s “spawning on a locker room floor” theory for the origin of bullies.
Citadel begins with Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and Joanne (Amy Shiels), pregnant on the verge of bursting, moving out of their dump of an apartment to start someplace anew with their child. When Tommy goes to retrieve Joanne after packing the last of their bags, he watches helplessly from a stuck elevator as she’s attacked and left for dead by a gang of hooded kids. Cut to a few months later and Tommy is a wreck, struggling to raise his infant daughter alone and suffering from agoraphobia. Despite therapy and continued reassurances that it’s all in his head, Tommy’s hallucinations of further attacks from the same gang prove to be all too real and all too violent, and he eventually finds himself listening to the bonkers rambling of a salty old priest (James Cosmo) who claims to know the gang’s true nature.
Foy makes the most of a small budget and short run time, and lucks out with Barnard, who utterly convinces as a broken man living in the shadow of tragedy, and quite literally so, Foy showing his every movement taking place within orbit of the ominous trio of tower blocks where he once lived. Foy’s exteriors are desolate, his interiors nerve-wrackingly claustrophobic. Even once James Cosmo enters to inject the movie with a much needed dose of crusty resolve, its main focus is to plunge headfirst into Tommy’s fear, and it succeeds in making his own panicked actions, with daughter in tow, as deeply unsettling as those of the gang that stalks him wherever he goes.
David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them proves to be a greater influence than Citadel‘s British brethren. Both entertain the idea of a relentless force that has it out for you personally, but while Moreau and Palud keep things tidily nihilistic in pursuit of pure scares, Foy is emotionally anchored to a message about the nature of fear in the first place. Things build to a batty third act that has split audiences down the middle in its political subtext, but however boldly it might suggest we handle the problem of urban plight and crime, its loudest proclamation is that living in fear is no way of living at all. It may also wrap up Tommy’s journey a bit too concisely, but in the end Foy’s talent for suspense trumps his sentimentality. He works enough transgressions into the mix that it’s to his credit his heart is bigger than most others working in horror.