*. Citadel is a horror film. What kind of a horror film, you ask?
*. High-rise horror: and by high-rise I don’t mean those luxurious horror-dystopias from the ’70s like J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise (finally made into a movie in 2015) and Cronenberg’s They Came from Within. What I mean is the vertical ghettoes of Candyman and The Horde: desolate, semi-abandoned urban tombstones filled with a feral underclass.
*. Poverty horror: the film was shot in Glasgow, a city that is a model of social inequality in our time (no small achievement). There’s almost no bus service to Tommy’s neighbourhood and the police don’t go there. In fact, there don’t seem to be any police at all. Apparently they didn’t think Tommy was even worth interviewing after being witness to several murders. The only government presence is social services, which caters to geriatrics and junkies. Tommy’s whole neighbourhood is a hospice (not coincidentally the only location in the film that shows any sign of normal life). To be poor is hard, at any time in any place. To be down and out in Glasgow is scary.
*. Fearful horror: fear is contagious. There’s probably something evolutionary in this, some advantage in being sensitive to the fear of others (or, in the case of Peeping Tom, the way our own fear can enter into a paralyzing feedback loop). The point here is that when Tommy acts so frightened it puts us on edge as well, and I assume something similar is behind the heightened sensitivity to fear shared by the pack of baddies. This is a scary movie about being scared, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.
*. Hoodie horror: in the script the kids were called “the hoods.” This meant something different, I think, than hoodlums. In an interview included with the DVD, writer-director Ciarán Foy mentions how he didn’t want to make just another film in the “hoodie genre.” I didn’t know this was a genre, and a quick Internet search didn’t return any results, but I take it Foy was referring to threatening child or child-like figures in hooded outfits, going back to Don’t Look Now, The Brood (which he references as an important influence), and more recently Them and Eden Lake. Roger Ebert: “I believe that young people wearing hoods, unless they are very young, can be frightening. What are they hiding? Why don’t they want to come out into the light with the rest of us? They may be perfectly nice, but the hoods send an uncertain statement. An innocent young man named Trayvon Martin, for example, paid with his life when his hood projected a knee-jerk message.”
*. Threatened family horror: well, if you can’t save your wife from being brutally murdered, at least you can save your baby. More recently this has been a theme that has been cynically or nihilistically inverted, with the family itself being portrayed as a source of dysfunction before being wiped out (think Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Witch, etc.). Tommy’s concern for his baby, and the uplifting ending, is actually kind of sweet.
*. Parenthood horror: Foy says that Tommy’s “fear of fatherhood” was meant to be an “important theme” in Citadel. I can see that, and for much of the film I was wondering if the hoodie brats were real or just manifestations of his awareness of his own incompetence as a parent, much like the top-hatted demon was in The Babadook. The business with all the needles left lying around seemed particularly significant in this regard.
*. All of these influences might make Citadel seem hopelessly derivative, but in fact I found it to be one of the more interesting and original horror films I’ve seen in recent years. The explanation for the “hoods” was clever, if their degeneration through inbreeding and meth use a little hard to credit. The look of the movie nicely manages to evoke the tonal balancing act between realism and the supernatural. Aneurin Barnard is quite convincing as the reluctant/inadequate hero.
*. My problems with Citadel were pretty minor. Tommy’s agoraphobia becomes a little much after a while, and we just want him to man up. Foy even says that the priest acts out the audience’s desire to slap Tommy and tell him to get his shit together. Why a babe like Wunmi Mosaku wants anything to do with such a basket case is beyond me. I guess it’s just the nursing impulse. God bless them. In any event, this sense of exasperation at our demon-hunting heroes carries forward into the final battle. If the priest can whip up that much plastic explosive, could he not have got some firearms on the black market? Couldn’t they have at least taken baseball bats and machetes to the tower to kick some midget ass?
*. Reviewers were not kind. I’m not sure why. Certainly compared to Sinister 2, Foy’s next movie, Citadel is a masterpiece. From what I can tell, the social allegory seemed to bother people a lot.
*. Here, for example, is Rick Groen: “It’s all rather nausea-inducing and a bit frightening – not the film (I can only wish) but its subtextual message. Which is? Basically, that the state has a pro-social obligation to broadly define and then destroy its anti-social elements. Of course, there’s a name for such states and for the movies that promote them: No longer content with simple conservatism, this horror is downright totalitarian.”
*. Well, yes and no. The “kids” here are not the unruly chavs from Eden Lake. Or, for that matter, Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange. They aren’t even recognizably human, and I don’t think that’s something that’s done to dehumanize homeless people generally. Roger Ebert was no conservative or reactionary critic, and while he could plug the hoodie look into contemporary social anxieties he didn’t think they were being exploited.
*. The thing is, Tommy is our representative of the unemployed underclass in the film, and he’s an entirely sympathetic (and apparently to some extent autobiographical) figure. I can see where Groen is coming from, presumably seeing the destruction of the tower as an act of class-cleansing, but that final solution isn’t a state action. As already noted, the state has disappeared almost entirely from Tommy’s world, and certainly doesn’t exist as any kind of political authority. To be sure, Foy is exploiting our sense that the projects are a frightening, dangerous place, but I just don’t share the feeling that this is as political a film as it’s made out to be. And if it is, the message is mixed since, as the priest reveals, the social problem is one of their own making and not the result of class warfare.
*. Perhaps I was just in a charitable mood, but I really did like this movie. Like Candyman, it has the feel of a gritty urban fairy tale. The stolen children, for example, are changelings and Danny an otherworldly talisman. I suppose if you want to read it as a political tract rather than a fantasy then it might be offensive, but (for once) I didn’t wear those glasses, and so enjoyed it in a more innocent way.