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Non-Review Review: Citadel

Citadel marks a promising feature-length directorial début from Ciaran Foy. It’s a very grimy and gritty horror, evoking the sort of trashy horror aesthetic of the seventies or eighties video scene. It’s unpleasant and nasty stuff, which is exactly what you’d expect from a horror film. On the other hand, it occasionally seems too nasty. Horror films, by virtue of their genre, often wind up feeling a little reactionary. Citadel is an urban horror film, reflecting the concerns and the nightmares of inner-city living, turning happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs into literal monsters.

I got you, babe...

I got you, babe…

To be fair, Citadel is quite potent. It’s oppressive and heavy and smothering. Foy creates a vision of tenement living which threatens to suffocate the audience, all graffiti and broken windows and empty grey streets. It’s a vision of urban life which speaks a very relatable fear, the sense that families cannot be safe in their own homes or their own houses. There’s something remarkably bleak about the film’s opening half-hour, before things have ventured into the realms of out-and-out horror.

It’s the kind of fear that the audience can relate to. Even people living outside of run-down areas will be familiar with the constant flood of news stories about random acts of violence and juvenile delinquency. Almost anybody who has wandered alone inside a large and dark city will empathise with our lead character’s palpable sense of fear. Foy films the tenement blocks as gigantic grey sentinels, the only thing holding up a dark crew sky.

In need of some broken window policing...

In need of some broken window policing…

There’s a sense this is a world half-empty, where the only advice that can be offered to victims of violent attacks is to simply get over it. “Everything about you says victim,” a counsellor assures our lead character, who witnessed his wife brutally murdered by a bunch of hoodie-wearing children. Posters up on buses try to raise awareness of “still missing” children, the “still” providing an indication that the community is not very good at solving problems like this.

“We don’t go up any further any more,” the bus driver warns our lead character, dropping him within walking distance of his home. The indication is that nobody sensible comes out here at night, with the last bus service leaving at 6pm. “Only junkies and geriatrics left here now,” a council worker remarks as lead prepares to leave and get on with his life. There’s a sense that is a place that everybody has forgotten about, a small corner of the world surrendered to the darkness.

Hands-on approach...

Hands-on approach…

Citadel is a powerful ode to urban fear. We’re told that the packs of feral children prowling the landscape, the children who killed our lead’s wife, are emboldened by fear. “You want to know why they’re after you,” a priest advises the widower. “Because you’re afraid of them.” There’s a sense that these creatures feed on the fear they inspire, making it seem almost supernatural. It seems like Citadel is on the verge of offering us a paranormal take on this most oppressive of urban horror stories.

However, there are points when Citadel goes a little too far, where the bleak horror trappings fell less like homage to the work of John Carpenter or any number of classic horror maestros, and more like reactionary fairy tales. The teenagers wandering the street are transformed into literal monsters. The priest jokes at one point that they are demons, only to admonish the lead character’s unquestioning credulity. However, they might as well be.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

Our lead character is initially horrified by the priest’s hard line approach to these feral children, but he eventually comes around. The priest advocates blowing the gas main and killing off all the children trapped in inside. “This is where the scum are coming from,” he explains. “North-East Tower Block.” We’re provided with a suitably unnerving back story explaining the violence and the brutality of the children, but Citadel still centres around two characters plotting to murder a whole load of children – even if they are monstrous murderous children.

It doesn’t help that we’re offered the most shallow devil’s advocate position possible. Wunmi Mosaku plays a nurse called Marie, who exists purely to undermine the idea that these monstrosities could be considered children.  “They’re dangerous,” our lead character tries to warn her. Replying from the straw man liberal position of a Guardian reader, she replies, “That’s not fair.” It doesn’t take too long for her to discover how terribly wrong she actually was.

It all goes up in smoke...

It all goes up in smoke…

There’s no nuance here. The kids are monsters, grotesque creations that need to be killed. There’s no chance of rehabilitation or engagement; they are little more than hoodie-wearing animals. The movie feels a little too reactionary, playing a little too hard into a particularly view of this sort of urban disintegration and decay. It feels, at times, like Citadel is like getting a glimpse into the mind of one of the more tasteless conservative British tabloids.

The closest the film comes to offering some genuine social commentary is when it suggests that their monstrousness might be somehow environmental. “That tower has done something to them,” we’re warned at one point. “Changed them.” Unfortunately, this idea is brushed aside in favour of a somewhat more conventional motivation. It feels like Citadel misses the opportunity for some of the more incisive and developed social commentary of some of the stronger seventies or eighties horrors that it seeks to emulate.

Urban terrors...

Urban terrors…

There’s also a slight problem with the ending, in that it doesn’t feel quite climactic enough given the build-up. Foy establishes mood and setting so very well that the film struggles a little bit on following through. It’s not a fatal problem, but it feels like the movie just sort of ends, instead of building to a grotesque grand guignol crescendo. Still, the atmosphere is never less than impressive, and Foy know how to set a mood.

Citadel feels like exploitation horror, an affectionate throwback to a still of grim urban metaphor that evokes the seventies or the eighties. It’s beautifully staged and Foy has a very strong sense of mood and style, but it suffers because it winds up feeling a little too
exploitive.

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