“White Settlers is one of the best British horror films in a long time, and you should go and see it.”
It’s been four years since the release of Simeon Halligan’s first film, Splintered, and White Settlers is proof that he put the intervening time to good use. Splintered was an uneven, intermittently effective but ultimately run-of-the-kill slasher movie. With White Settlers, Halligan has clearly learned from his mistakes and put together a searingly intense chiller which never puts a foot wrong. It might even be a classic.
It’s pretty appropriate that This Is Horror attended a screening on the 18 September, the night of Scotland’s Independence Referendum, given the plot. Young marrieds Sarah (McIntosh) and Ed (Williams) are looking to quit the rat-race and work from home; all they need is a quiet house in the country. They find a property on the Scottish border, going cheap since being repossessed following the original owners’ death, although as the estate agent (Mitchell) tells them, he does have family still in the area.
Ed and Sarah buy the house and move in. On the first night, they hear sounds from outside. Then from inside. At first they seem like false alarms, but soon the couple realise they aren’t alone in the house.
Ian Fenton’s spare and effective script, first-class performances from Williams and – in particular – McIntosh, plus the Scottish (well, Peak District) landscape, all give Halligan the best possible materials to build with. He takes full advantage of them with taut, unerring direction
He also takes the time to let us get to know Ed and Sarah before the campaign of terror begins: they’re a funny, likable couple, but also fallible, snapping and sniping at one another as the escalating tension preys on them. You not only give a damn about these two, you actively want them to survive, even though – this being the kind of film it is – the odds are definitely stacked against it. Rest assured, though, that once the scares start, they don’t let up. White Settlers plays like a masterclass in how to ratchet tension up to screaming pitch. First things go bump in the night… then there’s someone in the house… and then the hunt is on and we’re into the realm of sheer unrelenting terror.
Despite its setting – or indeed, the timing of the screening – White Settlers isn’t really a film about the often vexed relationship between England and Scotland; this drama could have as easily been played out in Wales, Cornwall, or the Lake District. Most city-dwellers dream, at one time or another, of buying a house in the country and more and more of them have been able to realise it in recent years. But in doing so, they’ve made those houses desirable properties and pushed their prices well up beyond the financial reach of the local inhabitants, who are forced to bid farewell to long-held family homes or even to leave the area completely. And when you consider how many of these houses end up being used as holiday or second homes, the rage that drives the pig-men gets easier to understand. The confrontation isn’t between the English and the Scots so much as between affluent urbanites and the rural poor.
Nor are the pig-men ignorant yokels or clannish inbreds, they’re ruthlessly organised and actually more tech-savvy than Sarah and Ed. Every post-2000 horror film has had to find a way to dispense with the invaluable aid to calling for help that is the mobile phone; the easiest way, in a rural setting, is the absence of a phone signal. And indeed that’s the case here: Ed and Sarah can’t call for help, but their persecutors are equipped with walkie-talkies, a form of technology better suited by far to the environment, and which gives them a lethal edge over their prey.
White Settlers clocks up a running time of just under 80 minutes, but it feels longer – in a good way. There isn’t a superfluous moment in the film, which is geared towards the sole purpose of terrifying the life out of the viewer almost to the last second. It feels longer because, like Ed and Sarah’s ordeal, it feels as if it will never end. Some viewers will revile the ending as a let-down or cop-out, but ultimately it is an ending that will linger and reverberate with the viewer. It’s a change from the ‘more cynical-than-thou’ endings of films like Eden Lake and opens up the question of who the real aggressors are.
To sum up: In case you were in any doubt, White Settlers is one of the best British horror films in a long time, and you should go and see it.
Director: Simeon Halligan
Starring: Pollyanna McIntosh, Lee Williams, Joanne Mitchell
Running time: 79 minutes
DVD Release date: 20 October 2014