CITADEL: The fears of the disenfranchised (which indeed could be all our fears) drive this creepy and terrifying dystopian shocker .
dir. Ciaran Foy
I always wondered if I would be able to offer safety and protection to those I love if confronted with the need to choose physical violence. Being an ex-cop/ex-athlete's son, I received plenty of dirty pugilistic tactics in those halcyon days when folks didn't bat an eye over playground scuffles. I eventually put Dad's counsel to use on a particularly vile bully. It worked so well that my opponent's face was exquisitely rearranged and from that point on, nobody, I mean NOBODY, ever bothered me again. I knew I was able to employ similar techniques if it ever happened again and went through life with no worries. But that's ME. What could/would happen if I needed to protect someone else? Could/would I be able to do it again? Would it be different? Worse yet, what if I was not able to deliver the goods? That's very scary. That, I can assure you.
This is a key element permeating Ciaran Foy's stunning feature film Citadel.
As an adult, I encountered an especially dangerous situation. Some time ago, after an extended sojourn across the Atlantic, I returned to discover my apartment had been burgled. It was an easy place to burgle, but unexpected since my beloved and I lived in a "protected" building. Bikers and dealers lived there and as such, was one of the safest places for anyone to live (save for the potential of being caught in crossfire which, thankfully, never happened).
But, burgled we most certainly were. The immediate concern was twofold. Whoever did it wasn't especially concerned about the "protected" aspect of the building and might well have been completely insane (we lived round the corner from an outpatient clinic specializing in emotionally-challenged mental defectives) or worse, the perp was a junkie (most of whom wouldn't be desperate enough to hit a "protected" domicile). This was someone who simply didn't give a rat's ass. They must be feared at all costs. One must be prepared to do whatever it takes to stop them in their tracks.
Secondly, I was sure the psycho would return.
Each night I'd rest easy with a baseball bat beside me and sure enough, soon after the burglary and in the pitch of black, I heard a huge crashing sound. Lo and behold, a dark figure stood at the foot of the bed. Springing into action, I grabbed the bat and threatened to crush the whacko's noggin like a watermelon. As quickly as he appeared, he disappeared.
A funny thing happened after this incident. My initial exhilaration immediately transformed into complete and total terror when thoughts of what could have happened had I remained asleep or if, God forbid I tussled with the fucker and screwed up. And here's the rub - my fear had nothing to do with what could have happened to me. It had everything to do with what might have happened to my wife. Scenarios danced through my brain and I became so paralyzed with fear that I insisted we move in with friends until we could pack up and move as pronto as possible.
The worry and fear I experienced over this has only multiplied exponentially now that I'm a father. Could I? Would I? Damn straight! I'd be a take-no-prisoners pit bull if either my wife or daughter needed my protection. No fear in that at all. It's the other fear, the one that cuts deep. That's the fear none of us want to feel.
The greatest fear, they say, is fear itself and now, my fear boils down to this: What if I failed to protect? What would the consequences be? Not to me, per se - I don't give a shit about ME, I care only about protecting those I love.
How would this fear transform itself in the aftermath of FAILURE to deliver protection?
These are very real things we all, to varying degrees, must deal with.
They also happen to be the very things that drive Citadel, one of the best films of the year.
Cinema, and in particular those films which are rooted in genre can actually work as first-rate entertainment or top-drawer roller coaster rides, but are magnified a thousandfold when they're rooted in themes and actions that come from very real places. This is something that Val Lewton knew very well. He was the first person within Hollywood's mainstream studio system to tell real stories, about real people with real fears - all against the backdrop of genre pictures designed to bring much-needed returns into a near-bankrupt studio.
This bold move on Lewton's part changed genre films forever. He was the great 40s producer who ran RKO's horror division in the wake of two debilitating financial disasters (surprisingly, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Andersons), but he did it in ways that his bosses and the rest of the industry would have been appalled by - if they actually realized what he was doing and if his gamble did NOT pay off as handsomely as it did with films like The Cat People (marital strife), The Curse of the Cat People (loneliness and introversion amongst children), The 7th Victim (the danger of cults and those most susceptible to them) and, among others, I Walked With a Zombie (mental illness).
Lewton believed that what really scared people were those things they had to deal with everyday. He believed in doing this above all - setting wheels of reality in motion against a fantastical backdrop which yielded a much better chance of scoring at the box office. Without Lewton, one wonders if we'd have ever seen similar approaches to storytelling on the screen that have all become classics of both genre and cinema as a whole.
In The Exorcist, Demon Pazuzu's shenanigans (which included grotesque head-spinning, crucifix-as-dildo-masturbatory-action and green pea vomit expulsion), were preceded by an hour of screen time devoted to the creepy and increasingly painful poking and prodding of a 12-year-old girl by members of the medical profession. As realized by director William Friedkin, the cold and clinical approach to healing by inflicting the extremes of scientific exploration turn out to be equally harrowing as the grotesqueries of the Devil.
Robert Wise's The Haunting and Jack Clayton's The Innocents followed in Lewton's footsteps to explore mental illness within the context of seemingly straight-up ghost stories and, lest we forget, Nicholas Roeg's extraordinary Don't Look Now which begins with a child's accidental death, moves through to parental grief and eventually into territory of the most horrific kind.
With the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the increased likelihood of apocalypse as America ramps up its greedy desire to control oil in the name of fighting terrorism and the obvious New World Order desire to cull the world's population, we are living in dangerous times. So much so that writer/director Ciaran Foy wisely places Citadel, his dystopian tale of horror in the same footsteps forged by Lewton.
Foy's picture is, first and foremost, a film about crashing, numbing, unrelenting fear. It is a palpable fear that's brought on when the film's young protagonist watches - not once, but twice - as those he loves are brutalized and/or snatched away from him. His fear intensifies so unremittingly, with such grim realism, that we're placed directly in the eye of the storm that is his constant state of terror.
Contributing greatly here is lead actor Aneurin Barnard as the young father Tommy. He delivers a performance so haunting, it's unlikely audiences will ever shake the full impact of what he achieves. Off the top of my head, I can think of very few (if any) scenes he is not in. We follow his story solely from his sphere and given that the character is almost always in a state of intense apprehension, the whole affair could have been utterly unbearable. Thankfully, he breathes such humanity into the role that we not only side with him, but I frankly defy anyone to NOT see themselves (or at least aspects of who they are and what they feel) within this indelibly wrought character.
As the film progresses, Tommy lives alone in a desolate housing project - a single father alone with his baby. On the few occasions he must leave the house and enter a world of emptiness, squalor, constantly grey skies and interiors lit under harsh fluorescents, his head is down, his eyes only occasionally looking around for potential danger and/or to literally see where he is walking (or rather, scurrying to). Just as Tommy is constantly in a state of terror - so, stunningly, are we.
There are seldom any points in the proceedings when we feel "safe" and when an occasional moment of warmth creeps into Tommy's existence, the effect is like finding an oasis in the Sahara. Unfortunately (and brilliantly), Foy's screenplay doesn't allow safe harbour for too long. Dramatically, we're almost constantly assaulted with natural story beats that yank us from our (and Tommy's) ever-so brief moments of repose.
Tranquility is a luxury and Foy fashions a living hell plunges both the audience and Tommy into the here and now as opposed to a very near future. Citadel sadly reflects a reality that pretty much exists on many streets in every city of the world. This is an increasing reality of contemporary existence and like all great science fiction, the film's dystopian vision acts as a wakeup call that hopefully will touch many beyond the converted.
Things must change, or this is what more and more of us will be experiencing. We can, like Tommy does for a good part of the film, shove our heads, ostrich-like into the false safety offered under the sand, but sooner or later we/he will be ripped out of the temporary "safety" of darkness to face two distinct realities: the horror of the world and even worse, the horror of his/our own fear and cowardice. Neither are happy prospects to be emblazoned upon anyone's hearts and minds when the meeting of one's maker is not far behind.
Tommy will have to make the right decision. He'll need to become proactive in finding his inner strength to fight for what is right. The options are black and white. Fight and die trying or, just die.
Now, before you think I'm completely suggesting the film is more starkly depressing than Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, first remember that this is, indeed a horror film and Foy jangles our nerves with the panache of a master. Have no doubts going in - this movie will scare the living bejesus out of you. It is, on that level, one hell of a ride.
The other happy element at play is a character Foy creates that is rendered by the phenomenal actor James Cosmo. Now if you thought Gene Hackman was suitably two-fisted as the stalwart man of the cloth in Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure, he is, in the parlance of louts the world over, a "pussy" compared to Cosmo. Cosmo plays the most mentally unbalanced, kick-ass, foul-mouthed priest I've seen on film in some time - possibly of ALL time.
The Good Father knows the score, and then some. To paraphrase the tagline from the delightfully ludicrous Stallone cop picture Cobra: Fear's a disease. The Good Father is the CURE!!! The few people left of good character in this world of empty, battle torn housing projects rife with crime, all believe Father Cosmo is completely off his rocker. The Good Father's unnamed in the film, but in honour of Cosmo's stellar performance, I'm naming him - at least for the purposes of this written response to Foy's remarkable film.
Father Cosmo adds one extremely salient detail to Foy's film - humour. Great genre pictures always have some element of humour - not of the tongue and cheek variety, but the kind that's rooted in the central dramatic action of the narrative.
The other great thing about Father Cosmo is his Faith - and believe me, it's not necessarily residing in honour of the God of Abraham.
Father Cosmo really only has faith in one thing amidst the dark dystopian days - survival. At first, Tommy is intimidated by the curmudgeonly bonkers priest, but over time, it becomes obvious this slightly fallen Man o' God is the only one who makes sense. Something is rotten to the core and Father Cosmo has a plan to root out the pestilence.
You see, there is an infection.
Have I mentioned the infection yet?
I'll let you discover it yourself.
As my regular readers are aware, I do everything in my power to know as little about a movie before I see it. I was so happy to know NOTHING about this movie prior to seeing it save for the title. The fact that I saw it at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival was also, by osmosis, a bit of a giveaway since this stellar event's programmers are delectably twisted sick puppies.
That said, I knew nothing - just as I hope YOU will keep things before seeing Citadel. The script, as well written as it is, hit a few (perfectly acceptable) marks that telegraphed a handful of items to me (and no doubt to a select few others), so there is little gained in pointing in their direction. In spite of this, I was quite unprepared for the full, heart-stopping, scream-inducing (yes, I screamed like some old grandmother), vomit-inspiring, drawer-filling (with, of course, your excretion of choice - I demurely keep mine to myself) and a flat-out dizzying, jack-hammeringly appalling climax of pure, sickening, unadulterated terror.
This is one mighty mo-fo of a scary-ass picture. The mise-en-scene is dazzling and the tale is rooted in both a humanity and reality that will wallop close to home for so many. There's nary a misstep in any of the performances and as the movie inches, like Col. Walter E. Kurtz's "snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor", Foy plunges us into an abyss at the top of the stairs.
In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz summed up the image of the snail on the straight razor thusly: "That's my dream!"
Frankly, Citadel is MY dream of one great horror movie.
Fuck it! It's no dream.
Citadel is a bloody nightmare!
"Citadel" was recently unleashed at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF 2012). Visit the festival website HERE. "Citadel" is currently slated for theatrical release in Canada on November 16 via the best distributor in the country, Mongrel Media. If you missed it at TADFF 2012, you have no excuse to miss it now. It must be seen on a big screen with an audience. Though certain, shall we say, odours, will be palpable in the auditorium, it will be well worth it.