People often talk about horror films purely in terms of the effects that they have upon their audiences. However, while an ability to make audiences jump may account for the success of any given film, talking about horror purely in terms of its effects overlooks the genre’s power as a tool of social commentary and its capacity for allowing writers and directors to put their finger not only upon man’s fears about other men, but also man’s fears about his own twisted nature. For example, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes are unimpeachable classics because, aside from being technically brilliant and speaking to the American mainstream’s fear of the socially marginalised, they also point out the savagery and ruthlessness that preserve the genteel veneer of American middle-class life. While many directors set out to produce socially relevant horror movies, few are capable of finding the right balance between engaging with popular fears in a constructive fashion and merely pandering to them. Evidently unconcerned with striking any kind of balance, Ciaran Foy’s debut feature Citadel does not just pander to popular fears about a feral underclass, it takes those fears and weaves them into one of the most egregiously fascistic cinematic experiences this side of the Third Reich.
The film opens with Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his pregnant wife preparing to move out of their run-down council estate. However, before the couple can join the ranks of the middle classes, Tommy’s wife is attacked by a group of faceless hoodies who stick her with a used syringe and leave her for dead. Traumatised by the attack, Tommy slowly pulls his life together but the second he comes close to leaving the estate, the hoodies resurface and abduct his child.
Confused and terrified, Tommy seeks guidance from a psychotic Catholic priest (James Cosmo) who informs him that the hoodies are the inbred ‘dog children’ of a pair of junkies who died on the roof of the council block. Abandoned by government and stripped of all humanity, the council block now serves as a breeding ground for a sub-human feral underclass that deserves nothing less than to be burned alive in an enormous gas explosion. However, in order for Tommy to fulfil his destiny as a class warrior, he must first expunge all feelings of doubt and compassion… because only real men are capable of murdering poor people.
Citadel begins surprisingly well as Tim Fleming’s atmospheric visuals and Steve Fanagan’s concussive sound design work in tandem to produce a real sense of dread and despair. Unfortunately, while writer/director Foy initially flirts with an array of alluring themes including paternity, mental illness and social mobility, all of these promising thematic avenues are eventually closed off by Foy’s need to first demonise the underclass and then fantasise about their flaming annihilation. This results in a film that is not only profoundly unpleasant to watch but substantially less insightful than recent films exploring similar ideas.
Though class conflicts and anxieties are present throughout the history of cinematic horror, feral children in general and hoodies in particular are something of an emerging trope. In Them by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, a group of feral teenagers represent a childless middle class couple’s fear of having their lives disrupted by the unreasonable and downright sociopathic demands of unwanted children. In James Watkins’ Eden Lake, a group of working class kids terrorise a middle-class couple after the overly entitled male demands that they remove themselves from a nearby beauty spot. What is interesting about these two films is that while they certainly engage with middle class fears of feral underclass children, both films situate those fears in the wider context of concern about losing access to a middle class lifestyle. Thus, a set of popular fears is not just invoked, but also challenged by a pertinent question: Are the underclass inherently threatening or are they simply a receptacle for middle class fear of losing wealth and status?
The problem with Citadel is that, rather than seeking to examine middle class fears of a feral underclass, Foy treats these fears as entirely rational thanks to a backstory that deploys not only the language of class warfare as found in the pages of the Daily Mail but also fears of miscegenation, violence and unreasoning carnality that are common to pretty much every racial panic in recorded history. Much like Velt Harlan’s Jew Süss and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Ciaran Foy’s Citadel uses crude stereotypes to dehumanise and degrade whilst equating personal fulfilment and moral clarity with an act of grotesque violence against the dehumanised group. This makes Citadel not just ugly and reactionary, but downright fascistic in both its imagery and argument. To produce a film like this at a time when poor people are disproportionately subject to government funding cuts is nothing short of reprehensible.