In Starter for Ten, there’s a funny sequence as the student hero’s possible girlfriend takes him back home for the Christmas holidays; here’s that same set-up, played as an excruciating comedy of manners which turns into an effective horror film. It has a slight parallel with the French Shaitan, but is a tighter, cleverer, more flavourful and upsetting picture. A deft prologue establishes the magical, invented childhood world of young Berenice (Sara Bispham) and Brian Usher (Alex Vandepeer), who live in an isolated Norfolk village and make up myths in which the county is still stalked by a mediaeval killer Jake the Mid-Folker (Alexander Abadzis), the Vicar (Peter Ellis) is a zombie-master and Berenice’s alter ego is the super-powered witch ‘Celeste Noir’. Left alone for the day by their parents, the children play a grim game of ‘where’s Freddy?’ with their hamster which leads, thanks to Brian’s inability to know when to stop, to the pet’s death in a blender. Berenice locks her brother in a toybox with a clown-face on a lid, and performs a miracle which seems to bring the animal back to life.
Years later, after her first term at uni, the now-goth-look Berenice (Claudine Spiteri) brings her spiky-haired boyfriend Conrad (Craig Henderson) home to spend the holidays with Brian (Elliott Jordan), a sulky teen who writes songs in the garage with his only local mate, their eternally-bickering parents Madeline (Suzanne Bertish) and Rod (Christopher Terry) and the just-widowed, cross-dressing, quietly venomous Grandma Eleanora Usher (Heather Chasen). The Usher family (the name is perhaps pushing it a bit) are all mad, and furthermore at each other’s throats about everything – from Dad’s Russ Abbott-derived jokes (the script dares to be hideously and specifically British in cultural reference), Mum’s seething repressed nymphomania, Grandma’s idolisation of her late husband (as it happens, a hideous perv), Brian’s typically resentful attitude and Berenice’s attempted escape to college. It’s a short film, but crams in a lot of disturbing or black comic material: clown pictures sent to Rod with mystery threats and answerphone messages (quoting Russ Abbott’s theme tune), the children’s myths apparently coming true as Jake looms near with his dog Black Shuck, Conrad’s psychic glimpses of ‘something terrible’ in the house (which turns out to be the near-future not the past), a witchy amulet passed between Eleanora and Berenice for use in never-explained rituals, Brian’s mate’s attempt to get out of the band, private jokes and grievances the newcomer can’t hope to understand, and a disorienting tip into psychosis/hallucination in the second half as Conrad insists on being taken to the station to escape and Brian (melded with the phantasm of Jake) goes on a killing spree with a meat-hook.
There’s a touch of The Shining, especially as the killer is assisted by the ghostly hands of that notorious wanker Granda Alan (Russell Barnes), but the sundered sibling relationship at the heart of the climactic stalking is unusual – and there is an unforgettable bit with Berenice locked in the toybox with some hungry rats for her final, Poe-ish peril. Acted at full-bore by a professional cast (a rarity at this budget level) and well written and directed by Paolo Sedazzari, this has a few conventional elements but keeps springing distinctive little surprises – believable bits of business like Brian luring Conrad outside with a promise of ‘badgers being born’, unexplained frills like the dress dummies crammed into the corridors of the cottage, the horrific prospect of seeing ‘Bobby Davro in pantomime’, blobs of congealed milk floating in unappetising brown tea (‘it’s only the cream’), an animated sequence recreating the children’s stories, and credibly messy chases and fights in the snow.