By Keri O’Shea
Feeling secure in one’s home is, for most people, absolutely essential – particularly, I’d imagine, if you have a family, and need to feel that you have a safe space for them, somewhere they can rely on as intrinsically secure, intrinsically theirs. This feeling of security is also a source of anxiety, an anxiety which is frequently explored in film and has led to some superb movies down through the years. However, broadly speaking, it is the horror genre which has picked up on the idea of ‘home invasion’, and the type of home invasion explored in these films has tended towards the more overt – of masked intruders, tricking or breaking their way into someone’s home, then subjecting its residents to, more often than not, torment and torture. This is the realm of The Strangers, Cherry Tree Lane and the brutal Secuestrados (‘Kidnapped’) – but these films might make us forget that there’s another level to the premise of home invasion. It may be far scarier if (as has been actually recorded in recent years) someone just got into your home, holed up there – and waited…
This brings us to the latest Adam Mason movie, Hangman: this is a film which in many ways is a departure from what has come before in his career. Although punctuated by characteristic moments of bloody, unflinching violence, Hangman is for the most part a much quieter affair than past films, a slow-building story, tightening its hold on the viewer oh-so carefully. However, speaking as someone who has seen all of Mason’s work to date, I will categorically say that this is the first of his films which has genuinely scared me.
The film commences with a black screen, which focuses our attention on an agonised call to 911; we hear a woman, terrified, claiming that there’s an intruder in her house. So far, so familiar – but via the point-of-view camera of some other resident there, it’s fair to say that chaos has reigned – and recently. Is the cameraman the intruder? We get our answer presently, and then no sooner are we trying to piece together the events which brought about this conclusion, but we’re taken elsewhere – maybe before, or maybe after the events we have just seen.
What we do know is that someone is now watching a family as they head off on vacation, and – in light of what we know already, we don’t assume this person has just a passing interest: mum Beth (British genre star Kate Ashfield) and dad Aaron (Jeremy Sisto) are happily oblivious, though, and together with their son and daughter, off they go. They’re going away, but our watcher is going ‘home’ thanks to a handy sat-nav setting, so he breaks into their home, safe in the knowledge that he can be there for a while at his leisure before they return.
When they get back, they are understandably rattled by the evidence of a break-in, especially when they find what they assume is evidence of pranksters, but the police brush it off as nothing and the family tries to go on as normal. However, their nervousness, particularly Beth’s, keeps getting rewarded. It’s the little things. Things left out of place, or moved; noises here and there – but it doesn’t end with just this, and the situation in the house soon escalates, as the unwanted house-guest ramps up his attentions…
Wow. This film comes from a deeply harsh perspective, firstly setting up some other tragedy for its context and then making us watch as an at-first distant family grows more likeable and believable; we know they’re in trouble before we really encounter them at all, and the result of this is a sense of grim inescapability, which I found actually quite upsetting in places. Hangman has a pessimistic atmosphere all of its own, and it’s pretty hefty: I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable on behalf of the family, perhaps particularly Beth, who seems to have more than her share to bear in all of this. The low-level nature of many of the disturbances is somehow more unsettling than grand gestures or actions, too, because these are often situations we’ve been in ourselves – though extended, through the ‘what if?’ and into ‘it is’. We’ve all wound up second-guessing ourselves when we’ve found something left out of place or missing; Hangman makes all of this into the source of real peril and it’s a very effective device as used here.
This brings us to the antagonist of the piece: who is he? Does he know the family, or families he is haunting? Why is he acting this way? All we can categorically be sure of (until the credits roll and hammer us into the ground that little bit more) is that he is obsessive and malicious: clues come early on, not just from his conduct towards people but via his cold-hearted, meticulous planning for everything he does. His single-mindedness is sickly, and the ways he plants the seeds of discord in the family home is somehow just as troubling as his other actions – like a kid pulling the legs off an insect, just to see what happens. Also, his close proximity to the family members at some points made me clamp my hand to my mouth in an ‘I-can’t-watch-this’ manner. That’s no mean feat, right there, and kudos to our bad guy Eric Michael Cole for achieving so much, despite typically being behind the camera, rather than in front of it.
Ah, the shooting style itself. Of course, seeing elements of ‘hand held camera’ shooting may deter some viewers, but believe me – it is all carefully handled, with lots of long, static shots too. What you certainly don’t get is the camera pinballing around and dragging the audience with it: there’s method and variety here, as well as tight edits throughout, which makes the whole film feel like it’s been shot in the best possible style for its plot.
Adam Mason, alongside his long-term writing partner Simon Boyes, intended Hangman to be his most accessible, mainstream film to date. I think that they’ve achieved this, actually, but although in many ways it’s a departure from the style of horror they’ve penned previously, it’s also a film full of horrors – horrors of the everyday, modern age, seen subtly through to a deeply disturbing crescendo. I’ll freely admit – Hangman has gotten under my skin, and I really hope that it goes on to get the attention it deserves.
Hangman received its US release on 14th March 2015. Stay tuned for further news on a European release.