There’s a generation of people to whom Sylvester McCoy is a man who travels around in a blue box, trying to save the world from assorted nasties. His turn in the lead of Doctor Who in the late ’80s – combined with his work on children’s television – gives a perception of a man you’d happily invite round for Christmas dinner. Yet with less profile, he’s also sought out roles that have played against this perception: few with quite as much bite as his turn in new horror The Owners.
At first glance, this seems pretty forgettable fare, just another ten-a-penny horror film about seemingly not very nice people breaking into the home of seemingly far friendlier folk. It’s an economical conceit to get a horror film together, given that you can centre your shoot on one location. In fact, of the few ways to really get across any point of differentiation or interest is in the characters put in the midst of it all.
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But that’s where The Owners really works. The setup is simple: a group of young friends including Maisie Williams and Jake Curran find an empty house they think comes with a safe full of money to pillage. It’s owned by an elderly couple, McCoy’s Richard and the marvellous Rita Tushingham’s Ellen. They’re assumed to be out. Turns out they’re arriving home early. And that’s probably about as much plot as it’s fair to give away.
What I can talk about are the three key performances that make The Owners a real treat. McCoy, for a start, is having a ball as a calm, benevolent, reasonable doctor. Never raising his voice, always wanting to help, and devoted to his wife. Tushingham is wonderfully unpredictable in her role, an actor with decades of experience knowing just what buttons to press. She and McCoy form the kind of double act I’d happily sit through again.
The third standout is Curran, as the snarling, thoroughly vile Gaz. His screen presence is really something here, playing comfortably the nastiest character in the movie, with genuine, little-room-for-doubt menace. His is a snarling, believable and impactful performance. You can’t take your eyes off him, and he’s incredibly unsettling to watch.
Behind the camera, credit too to the work of debutant feature director Julius Berg. A French filmmaker, he’s co-written the screenplay for this one too along with Matthieu Gompel, and it’s his first English-language work. What he brings to this is a constant tonal feel of unease with his directing, and the script gives room to a surprising number of characters to take their turn. Looking at the poster you might think this is a Maisie Williams vehicle. While she’s strong here, there’s a degree of misdirection to that, and Berg does give the impression of someone who’s been seeking out as many slightly left- of-centre angles to a fairly basic story.
That’s not to say the boundaries of the piece aren’t obvious. The Owners runs to just over 90 minutes, but that feels like it’s pushing it. You’ll be more than familiar with the walls of the house by that point, and the edges of the film’s set-up as well. But still, this is an example of making a lot out of little. Do heed this warning, though: it’s very, very nasty at times, and a horror that doesn’t hold back.
four stars out of five