Directed by Neil Mcenery-West
There’s six people trapped in the apartments of a dank Southampton housing block and the power is out. Yet in this low-budget debut from Neil Mcenery-West, they’re the lucky ones. Whilst this may sound like the setup of a kitchen-sink zombie movie, the threat is something much less familiar than the undead.
Here, a virus has gotten into the block and is killing the residents in great numbers. But where did it come from? Are the survivors safe? And why are their phones not working? Alas, the nice men in orange biohazard suits don’t seem keen to answer these questions. So it’s up to our group to knock down the walls between them (metaphorically and literally) and band together to learn what’s going on and find a way out. What a diverse group it is too! Lead by failed artist Mark (Ross), his merry band consist of the ever-reflective pensioner Enid (Reid), the forthright nurse Sally (Brealey), conspiracy theorist Aiden (Postlethwaite), silent child Nicu (Senior), and potential hooligan Sergei (Leung). Sealed in together, much of the film’s lean 80 minute running time is dedicated to the tensions that can come from being in close quarters with people you don’t necessarily like or trust. As the characters lament throughout, nobody really knows their neighbours these days.
With the air between them not only tense, but possibly infected, the cast argue back and forth. The discussions are mostly practical, and hearing why some escape plans are nonstarters really helps to crank up the tension. The dilapidated estate is brilliantly captured too. The creative team use the setting to its limits as corridors and air-vents conjure threat. On the other side, when night falls and the characters look down upon the camp below or through windows into the lives of others, it’s all very atmospheric and surprisingly tranquil. This is aided by the overall feeling of claustrophobia and despair as the people in orange quarantine and even kill other survivors. However, a botched abduction attempt on Nicu sees one of these menaces unmasked (Nixon). From here the considered rationalism of Mark is put up against the impulsive thuggery of Sergei to decide what to do about the prisoner. Both Ross and Leung do a fantastic job staring each other down and selling the premise. And each convincingly makes their own seem like the correct course of action. That is aside from one very unrealistic decision that seems to exists solely to advance the plot. Yep, it’s what causes the shit to hit the fan. It just didn’t seem like something a real person might do.
Unfortunately this awkward story-driven form of writing happens repeatedly throughout the second half, with doors only ever being opened at the right time and survivors behaving like characters in a movie. It’s not all the time, yet when it does rear its septic head it is at important points. Aside from the bio-suits’ inconsistent presence (which seems to work in only high or low tides) most notable is a death that could have been so easily avoided if another party had simply said something. Part of this frustration is born from the ensemble largely being defined by single traits. Perhaps this is a means to establish character without sacrificing the film’s excellently tight pacing, but it doesn’t quite work. In a standard scene Mark and Sergei won’t see eye to eye, Aiden will rave to Sally about the government, she will dismiss him, Nicu keeps quiet and Enid waffles on about the war or says something anti-immigrant. It’s a paint by numbers approach to characterisation and prevents what is really a very strong thriller from being an excellent one. Unlike the characters, as I watched the credits roll (following an uncharacteristically hopeful coda) I didn’t feel like I wanted to leave the coastal tenement yet. Though like them I’d yearned for better company.