Writer-director Ciaran Foy skillfully taps into primal fears and urban paranoia to keep his audience consistently unsettled in “Citadel,” an intensely suspenseful horror-thriller that could scare up some theatrical coin before home-format release. Pic will be especially nerve-wracking for any parent who’s ever doubted whether he or she could overcome immobilizing fear and spring into action to defend an endangered offspring. Foy exploits that cruel doubt with ruthless efficiency in this impressive debut feature.
The wide-awake nightmare begins for working-class twentysomething Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) while he and Joanne (Amy Shiels), his pregnant wife, are moving out of the eponymous apartment tower in a gone-to-seed suburb. (Pic was filmed on locations in Glasgow and Dublin.)
Trapped in an elevator, Tommy can only watch helplessly as Joanne is viciously attacked by what appear to be feral children in hooded jackets. She never recovers from the assault, but gives birth to a daughter before she’s taken off life support.
Months later, Tommy remains an emotional wreck, stunted by agoraphobia and living only to care for his infant child in his dilapidated bit of public housing. He’s barely able to manage even during the best of times, and his free-floating anxieties escalate into mortal terror when he starts to see hooded children outside his window — and inside his child’s room — at night.
A helpful nurse (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to calm Tommy’s fears, insisting that what he suspects are predatory monsters really are just socially deprived street kids. But a blunt-spoken priest (James Cosmo) knows better: If the bloodthirsty little creatures aren’t demons, they’re something just as bad, if not worse. His solution when they abduct Tommy’s baby daughter is couched in homicidal rage.
As the unnamed cleric, Cosmo gives a robustly dynamic performance that stops just sort of scenery-chewing, providing the perfect counterbalance to Barnard’s hyperventilating panic. The priest has to more or less shame Tommy into action, so that they and Danny (Jake Wilson), a blind youngster with ties to the feral children, can carry out a dangerous plan to rescue Tommy’s child — and, while they’re at it, kill the predators.
With the invaluable assistance of ace lenser Tim Fleming (“Once”) and editors Tom Kearns and Jake Roberts, Foy creates and sustains a mood of dark foreboding throughout, mostly eschewing graphic violence while maneuvering to depict events almost entirely through Tommy’s increasingly agitated point of view.
There’s something almost breathtakingly lyrical about the imagery in the final scenes, as characters struggle to literally make their way out of darkness into light. Here and elsewhere, Barnard provides heart and soul to enhance the sound and fury, which goes a long way toward amping the impact of the unexpectedly (but effectively) muted climax.
Pic doesn’t entirely avoid genre cliches and conventions. When someone says, “I’m going to show you there is nothing to be afraid of,” you can be sure that person won’t make it to the final reel.
But there’s not a trace of wink-wink self-consciousness to the storytelling. Foy obviously takes everything, even the often profanely funny back-and-forth between Tommy and the priest, very seriously. And so, very likely, will the audience.