Julian Gilbey’s previous feature, 2007s Rise of the Footsoldier, is the kind of exploitative, no-nonsense thugs-on-a-mission movie that splits audiences into two definitive categories. There are those who abhor it, citing the detestable characters and kinetic violence as grimly masturbatory and those who admire it as a simple, balls-to-the-wall, gritty Anglo crime thriller. Either way, it entrances or repels based on a singular merit…
A conscious and unabashed lack of subtlety. Gilbey’s latest, a tense cliff-hanger horror, sticks stubbornly to this formula – suffering the same divisive qualities.
Beginning brash and bold, it opens on a group of mountain climbers ascending a cliff face in the Scottish highlands. Dwarfed by their surroundings and deafened by an uneasy score, a fretful mood is quickly established. After a near death experience and a night of heavy drinking, the group remain undeterred and soon set off for another bout of mountaineering.
Along the way, however, they discover a distressed child, Anna (an ‘introducing’ credit for Molly Boyd) buried in the woods. Confused and puzzled as to her origin, they race to get her to a hospital. But, soon enough, a pair of psychopathic kidnappers give chase.
It’s the entrance of these villains that really brings the movie alive. Played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole respectively, they are unrelentingly menacing. They toy with their victims like cats with mice, drawing torturous satisfaction from every kill. Although their prerogative is to recapture Anna from her would-be saviours, they draw out the process with what seems like deliberate flippancy – cutting safety ropes where it would be more effective to pull a gun, watching a person bleed to death when it would be quicker to walk away, etc. These men are frightening and oddly believable.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our gaggle of magnanimous mountaineers. Though they are headed by the resilient and likeable Alison (played by horror favourite, Melissa George), their overly heroic behaviour is entirely off putting. To borrow from a previous comparison, Rise of the Footsoldier was criticised for lacking any characters with which one could empathise, whereas this suffers from a group of protagonists who are groaningly honourable.
Though they each display unique and recognisable character flaws, even those who show weakness in a minimally perilous situation turn out to be fearless saviours when it comes to the crunch. For instance, alpha male Alex (Garry Sweeney) becomes aggressively defensive at first sight of Anna’s woodland cell, clutching his shovel like a weapon. Yet he bravely sacrifices himself in a later moment where cowardice would be the easier, if not logical, option. In the end, everyone’s just too bloody (or is it blandly?) noble.
It’s a case of over simplification. The most interesting plot elements eventually give way to straight good vs. evil moral lessons – though there is a subplot involving an eastern European war criminal that ends so sinister and ambiguous, it feels like it is from a better movie. Moments of intense dramatisation hang a lantern over themselves with a score that is effective but regularly intrusive. Delirious POV shots are overused to emphasize characters’ distress and the sound design is consistently obnoxious.
However, it’s a testament to rest of the film that these potentially crippling issues do not detract from its achievements. Fast, loud and tense and successfully mixing elements from a number of horror sub-genres (including folk horror and slasher) it is pure, fun, Friday night popcorn entertainment. Also, favouring daredevil stunt work over CGI trickery, it feels strangely authentic.
In the slightly abbreviated words of Huey Lewis ‘It ain’t perfect but you know it’s for real.’