A smart and stylish new Brit thriller, largely breaking free of the limitations of its low budget origins.
217Tower Block is a smart new Brit thriller. It has style way beyond its low budget origins, competent direction, a capable cast of reasonably unusual characters and, perhaps mostly importantly, an initially unpredictable script which expands out from a fairly original opening premise. Sure, it is far from flawless and, as with many of these kinds of 'intriguing premise' productions, it eventually unravels as the filmmakers struggle to provide a satisfying conclusion, but that doesn't completely undo the preceding 80 minutes of thrills.
Borrowing from the likes of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, the films promotes the same kind of moody, oppressive atmosphere for its horror-infused-thriller structure, complete with a motley crew of misfits who are picked off one by one by some unseen foe.
The premise is strong enough to not only grab your attention but also support the majority of the rest of the story: a group of a dozen residents - the last remnants in a tower block which is due for demolition, hanging on until they get rehoused - find themselves under attack from an unknown assailant (or assailants, given the frequency and accuracy of the shots) who starts shooting at them through their windows from the roof of a distant building. His high-powered rifle shoots out legs, takes off heads and basically doesn't miss a single body part that is out in front of the windows for longer than a fraction of a second. The motley crew of survivors left (just about) standing after the opening volley reluctantly team up together in an attempt to figure out a way to survive this ordeal, but every escape plan they come up with has already been anticipated by the sniper...
Closing out FrightFest 13, one would be forgiven for questioning why Tower Block has been labelled as any kind of horror whatsoever, but – perhaps – the key is that John Carpenter vibe; you know, the kind of sentiment that would probably have had Assault on Precinct 13 put in the same category back in the day. Indeed it’s a resolute triumph for newcomer director James Nunn – despite any shortcomings in James Moran’s script, there’s no doubt that such a strong debut feature will surely guarantee a promising future, perhaps even breaking out of low budge Brit limitations.
And these limitations really will be a sticking point for some. Where some will see a movie that had style beyond its budget, some might see a film that has been painted brown under the pretence of style; where some might see a classic Brit setting and a refreshingly raw Brit crew, others will see the setting and characters only promoting a Brit underclass-infused story that is rife with cliché. Hell, even the effects will look dodgy if you’re in the mood to criticise. Given credit for its ability to exceed the restrictions of said budget, however, the feature is far more easy to remain positive about.
The cast of largely unknown (although that probably depends on how much Brit TV you watch) actors also do pretty well with what is required of them. Almost every possible permutation on the 'bunch of misfits who have to work together to overcome a common enemy" formula has been done before – and done to death – but that doesn’t prevent some committed players from being able to hold your attention and keep it all feeling pretty fresh. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps mainstay, Sheridan Smith, shows us a totally different side to what we’ve come to expect from her with a decent enough tough-gal-in-a-dirty-vest heroine, but it’s Eden Lake’s perennially volatile young thug, Jack O’Connell, who steals every moment he possibly can as – yes – another young thug here. Following the Precinct 13 parallels with yet more of an updating tribute, his bad-guy-turned-anti-hero is certainly the star of the show.
Perhaps the true star, however, is the location. Tower blocks are all the rage at the moment, but not without justification. After all, it’s clearly pretty hard to go wrong with this kind of claustrophobic setting – not only does it lower the blood pressure of those pesky bean-counting producers by reducing the budget with just one main set, but it also allows filmmakers to tap into a core set design that almost everybody is familiar with: we all know the unforgiving stairs and endless corridors of a tower block, not to mention the potential for threat that lurks behind every half-broken door, failing strip light and stained floor panel. Numerous films have cleverly exploited this innately menacing setting of late – The Raid and Dredd almost mirror-images in that regard – but thankfully Tower Block twists the concept-setting a little, in that it’s less about making your way through levels of bad guys to get to the head honcho at the top, and more about avoiding pitfalls and the threat of death as you try and get down and out of the block. It feels like a minor tweak, but it’s a vital one in keeping the proceedings fresh.
Unfortunately, despite the positive spin you can put on almost anything associated with this impressive debut feature, there’s no denying that it doesn’t hold together at the end. You can see it fraying by the start of the second act, and by the time the “big reveal” comes it positively unravels – the set-up already having generated a huge black hole where the identity of the antagonist should be, and it becoming increasingly obvious that there was no possible way to satisfactorily fill that void. Whether you guess the identity or not is almost irrelevant, the writer clearly didn’t have much option but to deliver the person he did, and it’s a flaw in the concept itself – however impressive a set-up, you can’t take a Lindlehof approach to explaining it all otherwise you end up with this: great questions but endlessly disappointing answers.
Still, given the restricted-budget Brit origins, the TV-bred cast and crew, and the indie cult vibe of the whole piece, it’s nice to see such a largely thrilling, and palpably ambitious feature coming from these young new filmmakers. I appreciate the nods towards classic Carpenterian horror-infused-thrillers of old (it’s the polar opposite of the blunt blunderbuss approach that the likes of the aforementioned hack Lindlehof takes towards raping classics like Alien and Wrath of Khan when he puts pen to paper!) and the game commitment of the cast, and I can certainly see that these Brit filmmakers are going to go places with their next features. And, thankfully, Tower Block will likely be looked back upon with largely positive reflection and fond forgiveness. All things considered, it’s a nice little Brit thriller that certainly knows how to get your attention and – even if it may not come through on all of its promises – does still earn the ninety minutes you’ll spend with it.
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