In another of those odd coincidences inevitable when you lump seventy films together – like two movies about demon-summoning board games on the same evening – this follows From a House on Willow Street as the other FrightFest film about a kidnapping that gets much more complicated because the victim is the focus of a Satanic force. This British low-budget film from busy James Crow (Curse of the Witching Tree, Black Creek) has a different feel from the South African film, which is all action and CGI tentacles and shrieking – this has a 1970s retro vibe, like some lost Norman J. Warren/Pete Walker production or Hammer House of Horror episode, with a solid cast of British actors taking seriously a storyline that pits hardman criminals against robe-and-mask-wearing scythe slashers in what begins as a snatch-for-ransom and turns into the climax of a cruel sacrificial ritual.
It has one of those mystifying prologue snippets – in which teenager Anna (Jessica Arterton – Gemma’s cousin) promises to keep safe frail lad Josh (Liam Kelly) before they are grabbed by Satanic types and locked in boxes where ghosts manifest – before a ‘some time earlier’ caption takes us back to the explain how the characters got to this point. Josh, clutching a weird-looking teddy lamb called Saint Peter, is abducted by a clown-masked gang and taken to a mansion where boss thug Jacob (Les Mills) – Anna’s adoptive father – has to keep in line his simmering minions Mick (Robert Lowe) and Craig (Dean Maskell) and weedier hacker Jack (Jack Brett Anderson, from Wolfblood). Anna has been given the job of reassuring the understandably panicky kid, but it’s obvious that this isn’t going to go smoothly for anyone.
Mr and Mrs Downing (Andrew Lee Potts, Anna Nightingale), the kid’s guardians, are plainly not interested in getting him back … and Jacob has to report to a ‘client’, Lord Arthur Salem (Tony Fadil), who couldn’t be a more obvious cult baddie if he tried. Jack and Anna get friendly, much to Jacob’s disapproval, and start asking too many questions, and a stash of videotapes in the basement suggest that this has all happened before to other unlucky kids. Also, Josh has psychic flashes of his dead brother or the kid whose name his lamb has inherited, and the kidnappers keep spotting robed lurkers in the grounds. Plus, as in many old-time horrors, the phone lines are cut (with the modern frill of no mobile coverage) and the car tires are slashed – and it’s miles to anywhere else. So, with the gang torn apart by shifting disloyalties and betrayals and the cult working on getting their ritual completed, the tension ought to ratchet up …
… which is does, for a while. There’s interesting interplay in the gang – especially between Arterton, Mills and Anderson, though the cruel punchline to this is rather swallowed in a busy last reel. The shocks may be hokey, but that’s part of the fun with robed cultist flicks. The climax, however, brings on a new clutch of characters to replaced the killed-off ones, and several too many endings. A few performers (Potts, Nightingale, Mills) try for black humour while others (Kelly, Arterton, Anderson) work overtime for trembling terror. Crow uses nice locations well, and the slightly ramshackle, uneven tone at least makes for a few surprises and mood shifts. In a British cinema landscape that includes The Kill List and The Devil’s Business, this is an unashamed B production – but fans of Brit horror are wont to prize an all-night session of Satan’s Slave, Haunted House of Horror, Naked Evil, Devils of Darkness, Scream – and Die! and Face of Darkness as much as a lasting classic like The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw. House of Salem would be comfortable programming in that sort of welcome, disreputable season.