Sunday 28 April 2013


Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Johannes Roberts
Producer: Paul Blacknell, Ernest Riera
Cast: David Schofield, Eliza Bennett, Juliet Aubrey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: preview screening

There are two potential problems with the snappy title of Johannes Roberts’ new film, F. One is the practical angle. It is, for obvious reasons, impossible to google. And it will be effectively invisible in any list of films, such as a list of what’s on at your local cinema or the index of any film listing. (Unless the listing is compiled by Kim Newman or Stephen Jones, who would put it under J as the on-screen title is actually Johannes Roberts’ F.)

The other problem is the way that this title sets the film up as an easy target for lazy film journalists in mainstream media. We all know the sort: the ones who will trash any independent British film purely for being an independent British film, making snide, unfunny jokes of the sort they would never dare with a Hollywood studio.

“This is the first film whose title is also its own review rating.” “Roberts should be given an F for this piece of work” or even “This film is F-ing awful.”

If you see any reviews like the above, ignore them. They carry no validity because those jokes simply don’t apply to F (or whatever it gets called when it is finally released [It was subsequently retitled The Expelled for its US release. - MJS]). Because this is a genuinely terrific film. It’s a powerful, original, thrilling and thought-provoking slice of relevant, contemporary British horror.

David Schofield (Pirates of the Caribbean, American Werewolf in London and Frankenstein’s Monster in a 2003 Mary Shelley dramadoc) stars as Mr Anderson, a haggard, browbeaten teacher whose attempts to interest kids in GCSE English Literature are increasingly futile. A year on from a violent attack by a pupil, which left him entirely unsupported by the bureaucratic school board, Anderson is an unshaven, borderline alcoholic wreck, separated from his wife (Juliet Aubrey: Helen Cutter in Primeval) and living alone in a scuzzy bedsit. (Johannes Roberts claims that not only is the location his own bedsit, but the featured prop was his own bottle of whiskey!)

Somehow, Anderson has managed to cling onto his job but the school - in the persona of self-serving, form-filling, rod-up-her-arse bitch Principal Sarah Balham (Ruth Gemmell, also in Primeval as well as EastEnders, The Bill etc.) - is looking for any excuse to sack him. He is a figure of fun among his colleagues although pretty school librarian Lucy (Emma Cleasby: Dog Soldiers, Doomsday) is kind to him.

Selling a horror movie to that key 18-25 demographic when your lead character is in his mid-fifties could be tricky. Fortunately for whoever has to design the DVD sleeve, Anderson has a 16-year-old jailbait daughter, Kate (Eliza Bennett: Nanny McPhee, Inkheart), who lives with her mum but sees her father regularly as she is one of his EngLit pupils. Near the end of his tether when he discovers that Kate would rather spend the weekend with friends than with him, Anderson gives her an unjustified detention.

That evening, the school is almost deserted, with just a handful of staff working late, including close-to-breaking Anderson and his bored daughter. Balham is in her office, Lucy is stacking bookshelves, short-tempered woodwork teacher Gary (Tom Mannion, who commanded a Star Destroyer in Return of the Jedi) is tidying up tools, fit PE teacher Nicky (Hollyoaks’ Roxanne McKee) is working out in the school gym and an unnamed janitor (the great Chris Adamson: Razor Blade Smile, Evil Aliens etc.) is cleaning the place. Keeping an eye on the school are a brace of security guards: experienced Brian (Jamie Kenna: Children of Men) and bored, young no-hoper James (Finlay Robertson: The Disappeared, he was also the guy who catalogues the video easter eggs in the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’).

There is the scenario, those are our characters. All we need now is a threat.

Anderson argues with - and slaps - Kate who runs off. In searching for her through the corridors, her father starts to suspect that there are some kids in the building, causing trouble. But James isn’t interested: Anderson is known for his (justified) distrust of youngsters and viewed as a paranoid old git by the rest of the school staff.

However, the audience are privy to the truth, or at least a vague version thereof. Because we saw what happened to the other security guard when he ventured out into the car park. Let’s just call Brian’s death shocking, savage and cruel and leave you to find out the details.

One by one, the characters find themselves not alone. Figures scuttle or leap past in the background. Unexplained noises betray an unauthorised presence. Sometimes it’s more overt: Nicky finds a basketball bouncing in the sports hall but dismisses the occurrence until the same ball bounces into the women’s changing room.

Someone is inside the school. Someone who shouldn’t be there. Several someones with knives and a psychopathic intent. Someone - or something.

This is where Roberts’ film works its wonder. You see, when Jo first told me about this, I said I probably wouldn’t be interested. It sounded like an indoor version of Eden Lake. Hoodie horror in the locker room. I’ve got no interest in some violent, ugly piece of hatred, however much it may masquerade as social polemic. Thing is: Jo isn’t interested in that either and he assured me that F was not that sort of film.

Yes, the threat is young people in hooded tops. Or rather, it has the same shape as young people in hooded tops. But underneath every hood is silent darkness. There is no characterisation of these hoodies, no individualisation, no humanity. There is every possibility that they are in fact not human youths but some sort of supernatural beings.

In an era when the liberal press like to complain about ‘the demonisation of young people’, Johannes Roberts has literally demonised them by turning them into supernatural terrors. Or turning supernatural terrors into young people. There is an undeniable influence of J-horror here - think of Tartan’s sleeve for the original version of Dark Water - but to my mind the closest comparison is another UK horror, The Descent.

The greatest strength of Neil Marshall’s film was its ambiguity. For months afterwards, discussion forums were full of arguments about whether the Creepers were real or all in the lead character’s head. And if they’re real, what is their nature and origin? And if they’re in her head, at what point does the film move from reality to hallucination?

Similarly, the hoodies in F are brilliantly ambiguous. We are never told or shown anything which would confirm whether they are supernatural or just bad kids looking for a spot of the old ultra-violence. Both arguments are equally valid.

A week before shooting began on F, Roberts had a lucky break when his 1st AD spotted some teenagers practising parkour - free-running - and those youngsters were hired to portray the threat in the film. So these ‘parkour hoodies’ (as the script referred to them) jump up onto things, leap nimbly to the floor, run and scramble in a way which is potentially human but seems unhuman. It’s an absolute stroke of genius.

On the one hand, it lends weight to the supernatural theory: if these kids were violent trouble-makers they would be unlikely to also have the self-discipline needed for parkour, and if they were out of their heads on drugs or booze, they certainly wouldn’t be that agile and nimble. But at the same time, it fails to disspell the rational theory because the ‘parkour hoodies’ never do anything overtly paranormal or fantastical. We know that teenage kids don’t act like this, but we also know - as this film ably demonstrates - that teenage kids can act like this.

In fact there are at least four possible interpretations of this story, bearing in mind Anderson’s poor state of mental and physical health. In short: they’re real, they’re supernatural, he’s drunk or he’s dead. That came from a single post-screening chat. There may well be other interpretations offered once more people have had a chance to see the film.

Roberts skilfully weaves the together the largely isolated characters, some of whom believe there are kids in the school, some of whom dismiss the idea. Subsequent additions to the building’s small population include Kate’s boyfriend Jake (Max Fowler), her mother and a couple of police officers who eventually turn up (Alexander Ellis: Beyond the Rave; and prolific indie horror actress Tina Barnes whose CV includes not only Roberts’ Hellbreeder and Darkhunters but also Bane, The Witches Hammer, Nightmares, A Day of Violence, Bordello Death Tales and The Hunt for Gollum).

What is abundantly clear to the audience, but becomes evident to the characters either very gradually or too late, is that there is a real, deadly threat here. We never see any actual violence, only the effects of violence, but those effects are gruesome. The camera doesn’t dwell on Dan Martin’s special effects make-up but we get a few shots of dead and nearly-dead characters which make it clear that the hoodies are sadistically, pointlessly violent. But then we knew that the moment we saw what happened to Brian the security guard. (Martin’s many credits include work on The Wolfman, Sunshine, The Devil’s Chair, Batman Begins and Mutant Chronicles.)

And yet there are other characters whose ultimate fate is never shown. We can just infer that they are either dead or wishing they were dead. The whole film is riven with carefully devised ambiguity, of the sort that breeds even more ambiguity among audiences than Johannes Roberts probably ever conceived.

The ending, when it comes, will catch you by surprise because there is no neat and simple wrap-up. There is redemption for Anderson, but at a terrible price, a climactic ‘Sophie’s choice’ that will leave you aghast. But what is really happening? That we’ll never know. And I’m not sure Jo Roberts does either.

Shot almost entirely handheld (although this isn’t rammed home and so doesn’t distract) and with lots of momentary action in out-of-focus backgrounds, F is a tour-de-force by the camera crew, led by cinematographer Tim Siddell (who has a day-job as Senior Lecturer in Photography at Anglia Ruskin University).

Malin Lindholm (The Disappeared) was production designer; Anna-Louise Day (Winter’s Secret) oversaw costumes; editor John Palmer also cut as-yet-unreleased UK horror feature Psychosis aka Vivid; and Neil Stemp (who worked on a Marvel superheroes video game) provided the score.

The location, which Jo identified as a great place to shoot even before he had written the script. is a real school near Cambridge which judiciously asked not to be identified in the credits, although when F is released someone will no doubt have identified it on Facebook or Twitter within five minutes.

Roberts cites F as a much more personal project than his previous work. After making his debut with Sanitarium aka Diagnosis a decade ago, he has directed four intermediate features, all of them unashamed horror B-movies: Hellbreeder, Darkhunters, Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls (which was edited together from a serial disseminated through mobile phones). All five features have received a UK DVD release and some have been released in other territories too (Forest of the Damned was retitled Demonic for the USA), making Roberts one of the most prolific and successful indie film-makers currently working in British horror. Although ‘successful’ has a different meaning at this level of production. Producer Ernest Riera worked with Roberts on Forest... and When Evil Calls and is currently directing Forest of the Damned 2.

F was designed to be shot on a very low budget but nearly had considerably more money when it teetered on the edge of being a UK/US co-production. But Roberts turned down the US money in order to retain personal control over matters such as casting. Which, it must be said, was both brave and wise. Schofield is perfect, his craggy face filling the screen in the many extreme close-ups which, if one is being picky, are somewhat overused in the early part of the film.

The only other reasonable criticism which might occur to you when watching F is that, for what is supposedly a dodgy, bottom-of-the-tables school, it’s odd that there is no-one else in detention that evening. But that’s a footling annoyance and is more than assuaged by some deft plotting, as when Kate nearly makes it to Jake’s car but he doesn’t see what happens to her.

Which raises another interesting point. Although the school phones are all dead, most characters do have mobiles and the building is never locked. A lesser film-maker would have contrived to find artificial ways to keep potential victims in the building and remove their ability to call the police. Johannes Roberts works through those problems in his slick script, believably and adding to, rather than detracting from, the credibility of the situation and his characters’ actions.

Before a preview screening at the Bloodlines horror film conference in Leicester in March 2010, Roberts shared the stage with Jake West and Mum and Dad director Steven Shiel for a panel on contemporary British horror, and he made the point that what he really wants from a horror film is to be scared. In that respect, F works brilliantly because it really is genuinely frightening. It’s a film that generates fear, not just atmosphere. And it doesn’t resort to cheap cat-scares. There are a few cat-scares in the first half of the film but they serve a narrative purpose, frightening the characters, not just the audience.

The sheer originality of F is perhaps its greatest strength in this regard, with no clue as to (as another film once put it) who will survive and what will become of them. The story is taut and carefully structured without being simplistic or linear. The characters are all credible and none of them are simplistic. It is also noticeable that the film doesn’t fall into the trap of generalising about either kids or adult authority figures. There are no truly sympathetic characters in the school but they are all real.

This is certainly Johannes Roberts’ most mature and accomplished film to date. In its exploration of urban middle-class angst it says a lot about society - and about the human condition in general, which could not be adequately expressed if it was just about a bunch of hoodie-wearing, alcopop-swigging thugs bent on trouble.

Everyone will get something slightly different out of F, and that’s a good thing in my book. Strike up another title which will loom large when the definitive history of the 21st century British Horror Revival is written.

Far from an F, this film deserves an...

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 7th August 2010

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