The residents of the Serenity House highrise are in a rough patch. Most of them are broke, the building’s meaner occupants are threatening and extorting the rest and now the owner is evicting everyone so the tower can be demolished. Crime in the building is at an all time high too with the most recent incident leading to the death of a young man while his neighbors listened in fear from behind their own locked doors in an ode to Kitty Genovese. As the final days wind down and the residents prepare to move only one floor remains occupied.
And then the shooting starts.
A sniper with a high powered rifle begins picking people off through exposed windows, and when they try to flee they find the elevators unresponsive, booby trapped doors and the exterior stairwells open to gunfire. Men, women and children are all fair game to the faceless killer, but a handful of them survive and make it to the hallway as a temporary refuge. Now it’s up to these formerly distant neighbors to work together with the hope of escaping the mysterious gunman’s sights.
Tower Block sets an improbable premise for itself as it really wouldn’t be all that difficult to avoid a sniper located on just one side of a building, but it still manages to find suspense with the actions of and towards its eclectic group of neighbors and personalities.
The film establishes its “no one is safe” aesthetic fairly quickly as two kids are killed along with their father leaving only a grieving mother behind. The survivors gather and face the expected clashes, power struggles and panic attacks, and it turns into a Ten Little Indians scenario as we wait and watch each one get shot down or blown up by the allegedly mysterious killer.
‘Allegedly’ because the big revelation regarding motive at the film’s end is hand delivered to even half-conscious viewers during the opening scenes. It deflates some of the film’s tension as survivors intensely debate the shooter’s identity while we sit back and sigh at the obviousness.
That aside, the script from British TV veteran James Moran is a pretty tight little number that squeezes every possible ounce of tension from its very thin premise. Co-directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson do equal wonders with it at times finding suspense in simple acts and framing them with stylish, mood-setting shots of the tower’s exterior.
The ensemble cast is both a weak point and a strength. Many of the survivors feel like disposable targets, but the two that come closest to being leads actually make up for the simple and annoying nature of the rest. Curtis (Jack O’Connell) is the young thug who controls the building, or at least he did before the shooting started. His post-attack efforts to hold power through fear show his threats dwarfed by the gunman outside, and he’s stripped of his violent authority fairly quickly. O’Connell does a great job moving Curtis from despicable to integral. Becky (Sheridan Smith) becomes the group’s de facto leader through a display of common sense and strength, traits highlighted early on when she was the only resident who attempted to help the young man who was murdered in the hall.
Tower Block is a fairly standard thriller done well. It makes good use of its single location premise and offers up some surprises and fun on its way toward a fairly predictable climax. It also continues a recent trend in UK thrillers (Heartless, Citadel) that sees human terrors form in, around and because of people in poverty. Make of that what you will.
The Upside: Most annoying character is allowed to grow on you; some good suspense; film works better than the concept would suppose; kids aren’t safe
The Downside: Premise is more than a little improbable; some annoying and uninteresting characters
On the Side: This is one of two films writer James Moran has playing at this year’s Fantastic Fest. The other is Cockneys vs Zombies.