Now seems as good a time as any to make a low-budget British horror film. Despite being forced from the multiplex by their better-promoted American cousins, British horror films have managed to latch on to what would appear to be quite a robust business model: Get into a festival, get onto supermarket shelves, and get onto subscription streaming services. Sure… you’ll never make a fortune but chances are that you’ll make your money back and turning a profit with your first film is at least half way towards being in the position to make second one!
Unfortunately, while this model has proved more than capable of getting films made, the films it produces tend to be either instantly forgettable or offensively bad. At this point British horror is struggling to produce films that are as good as The Purge, let alone as good as The Blair Witch Project.
Made with money that was crowd sourced in lieu of wedding presents, The Forgotten is nowhere near the great horror film that Britain needs to produce in order for this funding model to become sustainable, but it does show some genuine thematic ambition.
The film opens with a recording of a 999 call in which a woman is begging for help while her knife-wielding husband pounds on the door. From there, we are transported to the moment when troubled teenager Tommy (the wonderfully-named Clem Tibber) returns home to discover that his mother has disappeared and his father is living rough in an abandoned council estate. Despite having no idea what happened either to his mother or his childhood home, Tommy settles down to life with his troubled father (Shaun Dingwall).
When he isn’t helping his father steal copper piping from condemned buildings, Tommy is worrying about the noises that come up through the walls and floors of their squat. He is also concerned by the human figures he keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye but those could well be the local criminals who appear to be on the lookout for his dad.
The one source of joy in Tommy’s miserable life is Carmen (Elarica Johnson), a local girl who saves him from bullies and sets about befriending him before encouraging him to delve into the secrets of both the condemned estate and their own messed-up families. Initially defensive, Tommy and Carmen are soon getting on like a house on fire and it’s in the moments when Johnson and Tibber are joking with each other that you realise quite how dramatically underpowered this film has been.
The problems start right at the beginning of the first act as the opening 999 call invites us to imagine a woman being stabbed just as the film presents us with the mysterious disappearance of Tommy’s mother. Clearly, we are supposed to assume that Tommy’s father murdered his wife and then disappeared onto the streets but rather than finding someone terrifyingly intense to play Tommy’s father, the producers latched onto a man with all the brooding menace of Eastenders’ Ian Beale.
This act of miscasting not only undermines the opening half’s primary source of tension, it also forces us to see Tommy’s world in a very different light to the one required to make this story function: On paper, Tommy is a troubled teenager who wanders the streets listening to music in order to stay out of his troubled father’s way. On film, Tommy is an introverted teenager who sits on park benches before heading home and enjoying take-away curries with his amiable but somewhat pre-occupied father. The Forgotten needed to be about the harshness of life under austerity but it wound up feeling rather too comfortably domestic. The Forgotten needed its supernatural unpleasantness to be rooted in the world, but instead it feels like something that bursts in from the outside.
With nothing other than crime and weird noises to worry about, Tommy’s desperate need for a friend is a little surprising as is the willingness of Carmen to take a complete stranger under her wing. Johnson does some good work as an intelligent young woman living in the shadow of a sink estate and Tibber does well as the introvert who is lured out of his shell and into courage but their desperation for friendship never rings completely true.
This lack of attention to character detail is also evident during the film’s conclusion when Frampton’s manifest desire to comment on the lost lives of the urban poor struggles to resonate with his own characters. There’s some interesting stuff about sick buildings encouraging sick behaviour patterns and some interesting stuff about our willingness to forget about the victims of social inequality but the failure to ground either of these ideas in character or plot ensures that they feel abstract and philosophical rather than visceral and relevant. Frampton’s thematic instincts are sound and you can tell that he wanted to make a thoughtful film but the script he worked from and the actors he chose simply did not support his vision.
The script problems are particularly grating as the technical aspects of the film are universally impressive. The scares are quite slow to arrive but when they do, they really work: Eban Bolter’s cinematography makes excellent use of natural and artificial lighting sources to create a darkened world where the shadows don’t perform as they should and Paul Frith’s score brings an ugly mechanical roar to a place of rust and memory. The final confrontation with the horrors of the estate is lean, tense, and genuinely impressive given the financial limitations of the project.
The Forgotten was maybe one major script revision away from being a genuinely excellent modern ghost story. It would be interesting to see what a more experienced and worldly Frampton might be able to produce as Britain really could do with a few more genre directors who were willing to make films about the harshness of normal lives.