The Irish film Citadel may seem similar to a number of horror films in recent years. There are elements that might seem familiar to fans of movies like The Ring, The Grudge, The Orphanage and a number of other films (or their Japanese or Korean predecessors). You have similar grey-skinned demon-like creatures and a dark, ominous place from which they arise. But director and writer Ciaran Foy also takes a stab at the territory of George Romero, trying to bring a political message to horror. How successful that message is conveyed is up for debate, but he has made an effective horror film.
The creepiness factor gets raised early on. Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his pregnant wife are just starting their life together. However, without much money, they’re squatting in a largely abandoned high-rise on the outskirts of a city. Just as Tommy boards an elevator, his wife is attacked by what appears to be a group of teenagers. The elevator doors won’t open, and very soon his wife disappears. Though he eventually gets out, he’s too late to save his wife, though his baby girl is delivered safely. Months later, Tommy’s wife lies in a coma she won’t wake from, and he’s increasingly stressed about his baby and leaving his apartment. He’s become agoraphobic, eventually dreading even stepping outside his apartment. He receives help from a kindly nurse (Wunmi Mosaku), but his fear increasingly takes a hold of him, helped in part from the gruff priest (James Cosmo), who fails to offer words of comfort at his wife’s funeral. Soon, though, the teenagers who killed his wife return, and can soon be found roaming in packs at night through the largely abandoned city. They seem set on taking Tommy’s baby, and soon he must team with the priest and the young blind boy who accompanies him to try and drive them off for good.
The first few minutes of the film, when the attack on Tommy’s pregnant wife takes place, make for a great way to push the audience’s buttons right away. Tommy’s trapped in an elevator, watching his wife, the mother of his unborn child, be attacked by people he doesn’t know. He can’t do anything for her, and neither can the audience. As Tommy gives into his fears, which, it should be noted, are wholly justified, Barnard’s performance becomes more animalistic. The bags under his eyes grow enormous from lack of sleep. His skin becomes paler and paler as he spends more time inside. There’s very little doubt that Tommy’s been through Hell, which makes his path to redemption much more satisfying, especially as it comes in small steps. The supporting performances work too. Cosmo’s character is perhaps a bit too mysterious, but he does bring a very necessary element of toughness to the film, and to Tommy. Mosaku’s character is important as the voice of reason in the film, the person who calls back to Tommy to become a person again, not just a ball of fear.
Where Foy’s script falls short, however, is in its attempt to make a political point. While Romero’s zombie films made satirical points about racism and consumer culture, Citadel misses the mark. Perhaps if things had been more subtle, the message may have seemed more serious. The film also makes a number of strange leaps in time that don’t seem to make sense. The apartment building that Tommy and his wife live in isn’t in the best of shape, but things work, the halls are bright. And there’s no sign of strange demonic possession of the facility itself. The blind boy that accompanies the priest plays an important part in the final resolution of the plot, but his abilities seem a little too convenient, and then become unclear, at least in terms of how it affects the way the story’s brought to an end.
But, on the whole, Citadel manages to be a very good example of successful suspense and horror filmmaking. The pacing and performances provide the audience with a good time, assuming they’re into being scared. There are some jump-out-of-your-seat moments, as well as some others that will make you think deeply about what you’ve seen.