If they watch enough horror films, aspiring criminals will have learned by now that home invasions can be a particularly dicey proposition. Even if the would-be victims are a seemingly harmless, elderly couple, nasty surprises may be in store. Such a scenario is unveiled in Julius Berg’s debut feature, based on a French graphic novel. Starring Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones, The New Mutants) and featuring welcome appearances by film veterans Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey, Doctor Zhivago) and Sylvester McCoy (the Hobbit trilogy). The Owners proves a nasty, if not exactly credible, thriller.
The set-up is simple. Three British teens decide to burgle the countryside home of an apparently rich doctor and his wife based on knowledge that the house contains a safe filled with cash. The young miscreants represent a typically cinematic assortment of disparate personalities: Gaz (Jake Curran), the leader, is hyper-aggressive, bordering on psychopathic; Nathan (Ian Kerry) has some redeeming traits but is eager to go along because of financial desperation; and Terry (Andrew Ellis) is weak-willed and childlike. While the trio are staking out the house waiting for the couple to leave, Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Williams) shows up, and despite her misgivings she winds up taking part in the burglary.
When the boys are unable to open the safe, they decide to wait for the house’s occupants to return so they can force them to give up the combination. Dr. Huggins (McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Tushingham) soon show up, and the proceedings take a decidedly strange turn. At first, the couple seem harmless, with the bowtie-wearing Huggins acting meek and courtly and his wife clearly suffering from some form of dementia. But the oldsters eventually show very different colors, and the resulting cat-and-mouse game between the robbers and their would-be victims turns graphically violent.
Unfortunately, little of what transpires after that point proves convincing or compelling, despite the series of dramatic revelations that ensue. There are some fun moments, to be sure, such as Tushingham’s Ellen suddenly reawakening from her docile fog to acidly comment about one of her tormentors, “I think somebody didn’t get enough spanking when he was little!” But the screenplay by Matthieu Gompel and Berg throws in too many character developments that are presumably designed to keep us emotionally invested but merely clutter the proceedings. It doesn’t help that the characters are mostly thoroughly unlikeable and that the film traffics in a purposeful ambiguity that’s more confusing than intriguing.
Director Berg displays an undeniable stylistic assurance, and the ultra-violent sequences are enlivened by inventively gory make-up and special effects. On the other hand, the filmmaker also seems to be trying too hard, as evidenced by a late-act shift in aspect ratios from wide to full screen. The gimmicky device is presumably meant to convey claustrophobic terror, but mainly serves as a visual distraction.
The younger performers are competent, with Williams using her innate appeal to make her character somewhat sympathetic. But the film’s acting honors definitely go to Tushingham and McCoy, who seem to be having a ball. The former provides offbeat, darkly comic flourishes to the apparently demented Ellen whose relationship to her husband may not be what it seems, while the latter, a former Doctor Who, is an absolute hoot as the seemingly mild-mannered doctor who reveals a sadistic playfulness. None of what transpires in The Owners makes any sense, but for a while at least, the veteran performers make it a wickedly fun ride.
Available On Demand and in digital formats
Production companies: blueLight, Wild Bunch, Logical Pictures
Distributor: RLJE Films
Cast: Maisie Williams, Sylvester McCoy, Jake Curran, Ian Kenny, Andrew Ellis, Rita Tushingham
Director: Julius Berg
Screenwriters: Matthieu Compel, Julius Berg
Producers: Alain de la Mata, Christopher Granier-Deferre
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Maxime Cottray, Marc Gabizon, Stephane Mazain
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Bobbie Cousins
Editor: Marc Boucrot
Composers: Paul Frazer, Vincent Welch
Costume designer: Michelle May
Casting: Dan Hubbard