'White Settlers': Frightfest Review

Courtesy of White Settlers Ltd.
Bad night in Braveheart country

This low-budget home invasion thriller smartly exploits current political tensions between Scotland and England, but fails to draw blood

A wealthy young London couple relocate north to start a new life in the remote Scottish borderlands in this low-budget British thriller from first-time feature writer Ian Fenton and second-time director Simeon Halligan. Built on the blood-soaked site of an ancient battle between the English and the Scots, the duo's ramshackle new home has only patchy power supplies, poor cell phone coverage and no neighbors for miles around. What could possibly go wrong?

White Settlers had its world premiere at London's Frightfest last week ahead of a limited British theatrical release this week. Smartly timed to exploit topical cross-border tensions surrounding Scotland’s impending referendum on whether to become a breakaway independent nation, Halligan’s jumpy home-invasion thriller certainly needs a newsworthy angle to help sell its thin plot and underdeveloped characters.

On the first night in their Scottish farmhouse, Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) are woken by creepy, creaky noises and sinister creatures rustling in the shadows. Following the obligatory false alarms and ominous clues, the slow-burn first act explodes into a nightmarish cat-and-mouse confrontation with malevolent, axe-wielding strangers in scary animal masks. The action finally becomes taut and gripping with a nerve-jangling nocturnal chase through the woods, in which the power balance constantly shifts between predator and prey. Halligan keeps the menace very human and the violence realistic, which only adds to the stomach-churning horror of each slashing knife wound and bloody, bludgeoned face.

Clearly constrained by its tight budget, White Settlers has the cramped look and feel of a TV drama. It still delivers some visceral thrills, especially in its latter half, but lacks the originality, depth or strong performances to transcend its formulaic genre trappings. It does not help that Sarah and Ed are such unsympathetic protagonists or that McIntosh and Williams are burdened with such wooden lines. Their antagonists are also too thinly drawn and opaquely motivated to give the film much emotional heft. Most frustratingly, the weak final twist makes little sense and offers no firm resolution.

White Settlers initially seems to promise a classic showdown between urban interlopers and murderous backwoods natives in the grand tradition of Straw Dogs, Deliverance or The Wicker Man. There was strong potential here for a darkly satirical horror yarn about the seismic tensions between England and Scotland, and particularly the economic colonialism of rich Londoners pricing impoverished locals out of their home villages, but Fenton and Halligan squander the opportunity to make any deeper sociopolitical points. As a result, a movie that might once have served as a sharp allegory for world-changing events is reduced to a pulpy sideshow riding on the coattails of history.

Production company: Not A Number Productions
Starring: Pollyanna McIntosh, Lee Williams, Joanne Mitchell, James McCreadie, Dominic Kay
Director: Simeon Halligan
Screenwriter: Ian Fenton
Producer: Rachel Richardson-Jones
Cinematographer: James Swift
Editor: Ewa Lynd
Music: Jon Wygens
Sales company: Metrodome International

Rated 15 (U.K.), 80 minutes