Despite being fairly derivative, Citadel proves to be that rare surprise: a genuinely frightening horror thriller. Directed by the Irish filmmaker Ciaran Foy and set on a dilapidated Glasgow council estate, Citadel examines notions of urban isolation, poverty, and feral children on the rampage.
The film features Aneurin Barnard as Tommy, a young single father struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife; her death was an indirect result of an appalling attack by a gang of hooded children that run rampant in Tommy’s local rundown area.
Apparently lacking a clear motive, the youngsters seem to relish tormenting Tommy and his baby daughter Elsa in the week’s following Tommy’s bereavement. However, it takes the intervention of a brusque local priest (the always watchable James Cosmo) to suggest that the terrifying feral group may not be quite what they seem.
Although Citadel is compellingly grim and effective, it isn’t unique, and draws quite comprehensively from other sources, both mainstream and left-field. Few have mentioned, for example, the similarity between the film’s young antagonists and those in David Cronenberg’s excellent early shocker, The Brood. (In fact, Foy has claimed Cronenberg as an major influence, so I’m guessing The Brood was his key thematic inspiration).
In Cronenberg’s exploitation classic, a similar gaggle of hideous offspring are physically manifested as a result of the female protagonist expunging an intense emotional rage; her aggressive, deformed “children” then proceed to exact a terrible and violent revenge on anyone who displeases “mother”. (Cronenberg’s screeching fiends use hammers as weapons and wear hooded winter anoraks that obscure their faces – just look at Citadel’s cover art for a strikingly similar visual reference).
Just as with the finest films featuring the creepiest of children, Foy ensures that for the first half of Citadel there is great ambiguity as to the extent of the threat posed. After all, they’re just little kids, right? Foy toys with our perception of the youngsters, too: are they sentient, supernatural or merely a hallucinatory by-product of Tommy’s vulnerable and shattered mind? Foy features the children sparingly at first, cleverly disallowing us a clear view of them; when we are offered an occasional glimpse of a grubby hand here or a peeping eye there, they don’t look at all normal, presaging an awful truth about the children’s identity. When we do finally see one of the children’s faces clearly, it’s a chilling moment.
Like many modern horror films, and particularly those set in sparse, depressing surroundings, Citadel has been colour-graded to within an inch of its life in post-production. All the visual vibrancy has been tweaked and toned down, replaced instead by a grim palette of organic greens and browns, which only serve to accentuate the filthy urban surroundings and give the crumbling environment a pervasive air of tobacco-stained decay and misery.
The sound designer Steve Fanagan has a field day, too. Most of the film is shot in a rundown tower block set, and its expansive and labyrinthine corridors and grubby foyers are ideal locations for creepy sounds that travel, in a literal sense. Listen to the subtle and constant ambient rumbling, and the unnerving and sickly screams of very young children, sounding from distant apartments and then slowly fading to nothing. They are aurally symbolic of the lives of the building’s inhabitants themselves, their long-forgotten hopes and dreams dissipating into the ether. Even a gentle tap of a metal knife on a glass window – as another small, anonymous hooded figure stands at the front door tormenting Tommy – takes on a new and jarring significance.
Overall, Citadel is a pleasant surprise and very effective, indeed. It may share similarities with other “home invasion” thrillers too—most of all David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s excellent 2006 effort Them—but despite the horror-themed narrative, it’s perhaps the film’s backdrop of urban decay and lawlessness that is most evocative, recalling the bleaker films of Ken Loach but with a healthy dose of trespass anxiety added. Andrea Arnold would be proud.
In fact, it’s the setting and the scenario that makes Citadel so disturbing. Even without its supernatural elements and its horrifying, mewling children, the film still finds synchronicity with modern social fears over the proliferation of so-called “chav” culture and the associated violence of youth, and this kind of provocative realism, this cinematic representation of a palpable public fear, whether real or imagined, is perhaps the most frightening and powerful aspect of all.
Extras are fairly basic and consist of a couple of interviews, one with Barnard and another with director Foy.