Everyone wants to be scared when we’re watching a horror movie, but why? Why do we crave the worst? Why do we want to see movies where the unspeakable things only our imaginations could create will be lurking in the darkness to jump out at us?
My theory is that we go to the movies to see all of our emotions on display, not just the good ones. We go to the movies to laugh. We go to the movies to cry. We go to the movies to see what wonders await us in an amazing, fictional future. We also go to the movies to movies to scream our stupid heads off.
Whatever it is that scares us is hard to peg. It could, literally, be something as benign as a pen falling off a table when we’re watching an episode “I Love Lucy,” or a creak in the house while you’re thinking of someone you knew who’s dearly departed. You could wake up in the middle of the night and see something you could never rationally explain but hold dear to your heart to be true.
Citadel introduces fear itself as a character early on. Aneurin Barnard, who plays Tommy, is an agoraphobic. Going outside is a terrifying, Sisyphean ordeal for him. His fear is made to be our fear. Whenever he goes outside, the blinding light of the outside world is too much to manage and the director’s camera captures it as this barely conceivable white mash of mystery.
Our fear, as a viewer at the movies, has always been dependent on the director and we rely on their manipulation. We relate to the character better when he or she is afraid of something threatening but ultimately conquerable: James Stewart was afraid of heights in Vertigo, and Roy Scheider was afraid of open water in Jaws. Aneurin Barnard, in this film, is afraid of the wide open spaces you see when you step outside.
The first half of Citadel is handled expertly, helmed by a director with a sure hand who wants to manipulate an audience and watch them squirm and scream.
The second half of the movie is less sure and resorts to something of an action movie. The second half would have worked far better as another movie entirely. It was scary and well-made, but it didn’t seem to work as well within the movie following the build-up that the first half gave to us. It reminded me of the build-up and follow-up in the movie Jaws. The first half of Jaws is about a beach community being terrorized by an insatiably hungry shark; the second half is about the men who intend to kill it. Citadel seems to follow a similar formula but it’s not as successful and, instead, seems like two different movies that don’t quite work together as well as they should.
Citadel is a well-acted movie with interesting ideas about what fear means. The director, Ciaran Foy, employs a lot of neat visual techniques in the movie to help put us in Tommy’s head. In some scenes, the movie substitutes claustrophobia for agoraphobia because I think it may be a phobia that is easier to capture on film and portray to an audience, and also because it seems to be appropriately suffocating for the hero of the story.
Among some of the fearful themes explored in the movie were a fear of a public menace and the fear of newly being a father (a single father at that). The movie balances the fear one might experience in trying to keep their head above water and being so afraid of failing because so much—a life—is at stake. The agoraphobic fear of a cruel and indifferent society is a scary one, because it is absolutely something that you can’t control. Whether or not it’s based in fact, or whether it’s been proven to be real or disproven as an urban legend, there is always the underlying fear that the seat you’re sitting down on might have a syringe stuffed inside and loaded with a virus. There’s the fear that this Chuck-E-Cheese ball pit might have a razor blade in it. There’s the fear that someone could just kill you for no other reason than they just can. Irrational or not, what’s scary is our inability to control the external world.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because most of the fun of Citadel comes from watching the story unfold and the genuine surprises it contains. I will say that it is a story about a man with a crippling fear of the outside and is also crippled emotionally by what he perceives as being his failure to stop his wife’s murder by a gang of feral children. The build-up and mounting tension to the climax is excellent, but I wish that the climax hadn’t been so… well, anti-climactic. It seemed a little standard, a little uninspired, a bit too much like an action movie finale than the horrifying, relentless one that we deserved. Rather than the action taking place in such a cramped place, I would have preferred Tommy having to brave his fear of open spaces and fighting somewhere out of his element.
Citadel is on DVD and Blu-Ray and it currently on Netflix Streaming. It is an original (a refreshing non-remake) movie with some good, solid direction and notable, strong performances. It isn’t a movie to write home about, but it’s solid.
Guest post by Billy Russell