The horror genre is all about taking what terrifies you and giving it life so you can explore that terror in relative safety. Scared of the dark? Let’s personify it. Unnerved by the unknown? Let’s give it physical form. Chilled at the thought of the waking dead? Let’s build a franchise on it. Cities, towns, and entire countries become victim to some greater, which is bad enough, but when that invading force turns malevolent, it becomes something downright horrific. When all the roads to hoe are sufficiently cultivated, there is only one place left to remove the perception of safety: within the home. At first, the “home invasion” subgenre of horror focused on villains preying on people in their own homes (Key Largo (1948), Cape Fear (1962, 1991), Funny Games (1997, 2008)), then it became places people live (Black Christmas (1974, 2019)), and then came a twist wherein the victims of the home invasion were larger threats than the perpetrators (The People Under the Stairs (1991), Don’t Breathe (2016), Villains (2019)). Whatever form home invasions take, the perception of safety, of control, is entirely removed, making the mundane a threat and every typical object a weapon of life or death. First time feature director Julius Berg, co-writer Mattieu Gompel (The Dream Kids), and contributor Geoff Cox (High Life) seek to unnerve and disquiet audiences as they present the latest group of ne’er-do-wells who prey upon the wrong people in the adaptation of French graphic novel Une nuit de pleine lune from Yves H. and Hermann.
Its 1990s Britain and thieves Nathan (Ian Kenny), Gaz (Jake Curran), and Terry (Andrew Ellis) are preparing to rob the estate of elderly couple, Richard and Ellen Huggins (Sylvester McCoy and Rita Tushingham). As the three boys sit in wait, Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams) arrives in urgent need of the car to get to work and relents when Nathan promises to make the theft quick. However, when the boys find a safe hidden in the basement that they can’t crack, a new plan is formed: force the couple to give up the combination. Though they are steeled enough to make the threats, Doctor Huggins and his wife prove to be more dangerous than the foursome could possibly imagine.
When it comes to violence, I’m not the “clutch your pearls” type. I grew up on the action films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, meaning big explosions, lots of gun fire, and plenty of death. The difference between those adventures and a story like The Owners is the heightened sense of reality present in Commando (1985) or Bloodsport (1988). The violence is intentionally exaggerated so as to remove any sense of possibility from the imagination. The Owners, and other stories of its ilk, do elicit pearl clutching as the presentation of violence is not only realistic, it’s lingered upon to allow the audience to take in every single detail so that the audience knows *exactly* what kind of ultraviolence has been bestowed and what the fallout is going to be. As a result, there was much hand-wringing, a variety of vocal exclamations, and even a series of hand-clapping (as though it would somehow make the imagery more palatable?). In summation, Berg and his crew don’t shorthand the violence all of the characters endure. If there is a manner in which a person can be cut, bludgeoned, stabbed, or otherwise mutilated, Berg makes sure that the audience understands the gravity of it, a difficult task as each injury must serve the story in some capacity. And serve it they do, which is a delightful thing for horror fans looking for a visceral experience.
But a horror film isn’t just the violence, that can get old fairly quickly, so it needs strong performances and a compelling narrative to retain attention. The Owners possesses one of these in spades and not so much of the other. Perhaps because of the deep well of home invasion films, The Owners itself is entirely predictable from a narrative standpoint, which is a strange contradiction given the steps the script takes to make certain characters clever. Williams’s Mary is highly observant and, given the character’s lack of interest in the robbery at all, makes her the ideal person to notice what she does. The fact that the other characters don’t see what she does, even as emotions run high, speaks to the intelligence of the narrative to ensure that the audience has a proxy with a strong head. However, this also means that the script is constantly trying to top itself, requiring it to have something else lurking in the background to aid emotional heft. It’s the revelation in Don’t Breathe that the blind man is (SPOILER ALERT) keeping the killer of his daughter hostage in his basement or that the audience is made entirely complicit in each act of violence in either iteration of Funny Games. But because the audience can suss out who the “good guys” are versus the “bad guys” quickly, as well as piece together what the real secret is long before the climax, the totality of The Owners feels uninspired despite at least one moment of true surprise. What makes the film engaging though are the performances from Williams and McCoy. The rest play their respective parts well. Even Kenny gets to show a bit more complexity than his role in Sing Street (2016) allowed, but the weight of things falls on the lone three. Williams is more than up to the task of making the initially simple-seeming Mary intricate, comprised of a sensitivity that’s so dialed-in from an empathic perspective that her radar for danger is razor-sharp. McCoy, whom many may recognize as the Seventh Doctor in the long-running science fiction program, absolutely delights as the good doctor whose perpetually calm demeanor belies something ungodly. You can truly never tell whether McCoy’s delivery is one of menace or true Godliness, which makes the performance that of an extraordinary villain.
Those looking to dig deeper into the experience of The Owners have but one seven-minute featurette to look forward to on the home release. Including commentary from cast and crew, the audience is invited into the execution of the film. This is all well and good as it enables the audience to pull back the curtain on the frequently gruesome tale to see how the principles viewed their work. One downside, however, is there’s not much exploration of the source material within the featurette. Doing one cursory search in preparation for this review, it’s clear to see that some liberties were taken from the graphic novel both large and small (steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, Mary isn’t the one riding the bike at the start of the story) and an explanation of these changes would be interesting to discover.
All in all, The Owners is something audiences have seen before in one state or another. If not for the performances, there’s little to shout about within this nasty bit of business. But if you’re in the mood for some light-weight unpleasantness, some down-and-dirty box knife-wielding type of misery, then maybe The Owners is exactly what you need. Be forewarned: in a tale like this one, the God of Death gets exactly what it wants.
The Owners Special Features
- The Making of The Owners (7:13)
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital September 4th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 20th, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.