Written by: James Moran
Directed by: James Nunn, Ronnie Thompson
Starring: Sheridan Smith, Jack O'Connell, and Ralph Brown
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Twelve tenants. One sniper. No escape.
Given the prominence of high-rise settings lately, someone is likely to write a think-piece ruminating on the cultural significance of this recent preoccupation, but Iím just going to cut right to the chase here: weíve seen a bunch of them lately because they make for fucking awesome settings in both hard-hitting action movies and claustrophobic, stalk-and-slash horrors. UK import Tower Block attempts to get a lot of mileage out of both modes, as itís both a post-Saw moralizing slasher flick and an intense survival thriller all at once, and it winds up being a serviceable entry either way. As a slasher, itís never quite as inventive as it needs to be, nor is it a particularly balls-to-the-wall suspense movie. Instead, it occupies some space squarely in the middle and skates by on the force of a clever concept that presents one of the more harrowing situations in recent memory.
For the uninitiated, the filmís title refers to giant apartment buildings that became especially popular in Britain just after World War II. Originally symbols of post-War urban renewal, theyíve since become a symptom of urban decay, and the film centers on an especially slummy complex thatís been all but abandoned. Only a handful of occupants reside on one floor of Tower Block 31, which has otherwise become infested with violence. After some of the tenants witness the murder of a 15 year old boy, they choose to remain silent, and the crime goes unsolved for several months. Some time later, theyíve all moved on with their lives, and a nearly 20 minute sequence introduces us to their daily livesóweíve got some typical family units, an elderly couple, and even some thuggish brutes who serve as protection in exchange for a weekly fee.
One morning, Becky (Sheridan Smith) is enjoying a breakfast with co-worker Ryan (Jamie Thomas King) in her apartment when the film suddenly jolts to life: a bullet whizzes into the kitchen area and blows half of Ryanís face off. Itís an incredibly striking moment and one of the best pure chair-jumpers Iíve seen in a long time, so itís easy to forgive how languid the opening sequence is since it intentionally lulls you into the same complacency enjoyed by these residents, all of whom were seemingly able to shake off that murder and go on with their lives. This is their wake-up call that places them in a real ďwhat-the-hell-would-you-do?Ē scenario that survival horror films have become so fond of lately. Not only are they pinned down by a deranged sniper, but this maniac has also rigged the place with automated guns to prevent them from leaving the building (the moment they discover this is responsible for another great jolt). Furthermore, heís cut off all of their contact to the outside world, so they canít call for help.
Between the jolts and the scenario, Tower Block definitely went from having my curiosity to grabbing my attention in a hurry. It held it long enough for me to imagine a premise that essentially blended Saw and The Collector and tossed them into a high-rise setting. Essentially, thatís what it is, albeit stripped down to the bones and without a loud, balls-to-the-wall approach; of course, itís kind of a slasher riff where the killer is stationed in a remote location, so it gets a bit repetitive on that front. Contrivance is also a huge enemy for the victims, as theyíre constantly maneuvering themselves into dangerous situations by attempting to escape. Some of them are pretty precarious and intense; for example, two of the occupants risk going down the stairs under the assumption that the killer has been placated, and they appear to be correct until itís revealed that heís really just a sick fuck who loves to dangle hope in front of them (a fact thatís easily guessed considering it comes about halfway through the movie). Another attempt involves a precarious rooftop gambit, though itís strangely undercut by a most inappropriate and ill-timed use of the Wilhelm scream.
All the while, the tenants are also trying to discover whoís attacking them and why, which basically leads to a bunch of guesswork. Since the film remains confined to its one location (and only occasionally glimpses the masked killer perched across the way), itís building up to this revelation. However, instead of parceling out small clues and piecing together a puzzle a la Saw, the characters make a reasonable guess pretty early on that itís somehow connected to the murder they witnessed. Itís so logical that it deflates the mystery, but itís also so obvious that you canít help but wonder if maybe itís a bit of misdirection. As such, itís another one of those whodunits that paints itself into a corner that it never quite claws its way out of since itís a bit anticlimactic and has trouble maintaining intensity and eventually peters out with a standard reveal sequence and a bloody tussle to wrap things up.
While Tower Block does manage to foreground the correct characters, it doesnít quite escalate with the necessary precision or immediacy but instead goes in the opposite direction by dwindling towards its climax. Eventually, some Saw-like moralizing underpins the proceedings but falls a bit flat since the message is so obvious and doesnít tread into the intriguing grey areas that Jigsaw liked to explore. With the exception of the trio of thugs, these are all good people who certainly made a bad misstep that doesnít deserve the vigilante justice being doled out here. Whenever the film considers their plight, it does so with lip serviceóthereís the requisite squabbling and the obligatory wrestling over the power dynamics, but most only serve to add to the body count. Smith at least emerges as a nice, feisty lead presence who carries some moral authority (sheís the lone tenant who stepped up and tried to intervene with the murder), while Jack OíConnell evolves into the crook with the heart of gold. Initially the ringleader of the makeshift protection agency, he winds up being alarmingly likeable.
On the whole, Tower Block itself is likeable enough, if only because its concept is a real winner. Perhaps itís not done complete justice here, but it gets an appropriately drab, grubby, rough and tumble effort that goes for the jugular but doesnít quite tear it all the way out (especially since some of its gore gags have some noticeably digital assistanceóseriously, would it kill someone to dig out some squibs?). Had it tackled another obvious implicationóthese are essentially poor people being preyed upon in their homesóTower Block might have also been a headier socio-political thriller instead of degenerating into generic misguided vigilante revenge stuff. Even Dredd had more on its mind than this one. At any rate, itís been a bit of a festival favorite for the past year, and itís finally arriving stateside with a Blu-ray release from Shout Factory, who delivers another fine presentation. Again, the film is kind of dingy and dank, and the transfer accurately reflects that, and the DTS-MA track highlights the immersive sound design (the bullets whiz through the building with a bone-chilling menace). The extras include an audio commentary with writer James Moran (of Severance fame), a trailer, and six minutes of behind-the-scenes interviews. As far as gimmick thrillers go, Tower Block doesnít aim too high but instead prefers to slum it with simple thrills and jolts, so it's in and out with a sniper's precision and doesn't leave too much of an impression. Rent it!
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