The block is again under attack, not by invading aliens this time, but by a single, faceless sniper in this trim terror exercise from freshman feature helmers Ronnie Thompson and James Nunn. Mining the forbidding atmospherics and latent social tensions of British high-rise tenement housing for genre thrills, albeit with less verve than 2011 crossover hit “Attack the Block,” this appropriately claustrophobic pic benefits from flashes of visual ingenuity and an able ensemble led by sprightly stage star Sheridan Smith. A thin, relatively twist-free script, however, never leaves the ground floor. Low-level ancillary success awaits.
Bowed Stateside at Fantastic Fest the same weekend it hit theaters in Blighty, the film announces its designs on an international audience with a series of opening intertitles, briefly outlining the concept of tower-block council housing (akin to housing projects in the U.S.) in a way that British viewers will find wholly superfluous. Others, however, will require that knowledge to buy the film’s otherwise improbable setup.
Condemned by the government, the vast, derelict Serenity House has been entirely vacated except for the top floor. Suffice to say there’s nothing serene about the place: Violence and drug dealing run rampant, while resident thug Kurtis (the promising Jack O’Connell, here slightly overdoing the leering) collects monthly protection money from his petrified neighbors. A teenage boy is beaten to death in the corridor by hooded assailants. Well-meaning Becky (Smith) attempts to intervene, but earns a bruising for her trouble. Consequently, she, like everyone on the top floor, is too intimidated to assist police with their investigation.
Three months later, the residents are terrorized once more when an unseen shooter opens fire from outside the building, instantly killing many in the film’s most sustained and shocking sequence. As the dazed survivors cower in the corridor, they realize they are victims of an ominously well-organized attack: All cell-phone signals have been blocked, all elevators and exits sealed or booby-trapped.
From this strong stranglehold of a start, however, Thompson (who wrote and produced British prison pic “Screwed”) and Nunn fall into rote, repetitive horror-film rhythms. Becky and Kurtis grudgingly team up to lead the mismatched residents through various doomed escape strategies, as the merciless sniper picks them off one by one. The revelation that the killer is motivated by the building’s recent tragedy is hardly startling in a narrative that supplies no other MacGuffins. Smith, recently the toast of London’s West End for “Legally Blonde” (and a supporting player in Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet”), grits her teeth and gives auds someone to root for as matters turn shriller and sillier.
The proficient-to-stylish tech package smartly allows the extreme desaturation of Ben Moulden’s lensing to mask the side effects of a tight budget, though it’s the whipcrack precision of Ashok Kumar Kumar’s sound design that contributes most effectively to the tension.