Your Worst Fears Have Come Home
Britain's Paul William Andrews is short becoming a name to be reckoned within the horror field. Director of 2008's darkly hilarious The Cottage and co-writer of last year's insanely tense, yuletide psycho kiddie flick The Children. Andrews returns yet again with another winner under his belt, the understated home invasion horror film Cherry Tree Lane.
7:52PM London, England.
18 Cherry Tree Lane. An idyllic brownstone on a quite street. Beginning another night of seemingly mundane, middle-aged routine, successful and professional married couple Michael (Tom Butcher) and Christine (Rachel Blake) are settling down for a quiet night of dinner at home, followed by some TV. Navigating through some tense marital strife, their simmering hostility is interrupted by a unexpected knock at the door. It's three male youths inquiring into the whereabouts of the couples teenage son, Sebastian. Informing them that he isn't in at the moment and that he should return home sometime around 9pm. Christine closes the door and returns to her meal and then resumes an even more heated conversation with her husband, regarding their son (spurned by the recent visitors) whereby we begin to gather that he hasn't been running with the most savory of mates.
It isn't long before there is another knock on the door. Seconds after answering it, we hear a scream and the moderately peaceful evening is shattered and a night of terror begins. The three youths have returned and as a helpless, bound and gagged Michael and Christine look on, they make themselves right at home. The intruders intending to wait for Sebastian's return to meet him with some violent payback. Apparently, Sebastian, having gotten himself involved in some shady criminal dealings, has been running his mouth and as a result, has gotten the cousin of the leader of the gang incarcerated as a result. Street justice is going to be paid back in full this night, but Michael and Christine are merely an inconvenience in the way. Can they survive long enough to warn their son or protect him and themselves at all, when the clock strikes 9? .
Taking a page from other recent home invasion films (Ills, The Strangers etc.) but quickly departing from their established tropes, Andrews here crafts something quite different with the use of his villains, who by and large, become the film's protagonists throughout. These are invaders of a different order. The small gang of criminals, Rian (Jumayn Hunter), Asad (Ashley Chin) and Teddy (Sonny Muslim) aren't your typical gaggle of masked killing machines or faceless stalkers attempting to gain entry into their victim's home. They're already in, front and center and as it turns out they're all too incredibly, miserably human. Cherry Tree Lane proceeds to examine, through the behavior of its chief tormentors, the banality of everyday evil. They're like bored, restless teenagers, anxious for dad to get home with the car or frustrated and impatient that there isn't something better on the telly.
Initially, save for the sudden violence that punctuates the situation (a few kicks here, a few punches there to get their captives to cooperate) the three villains are almost apologetically polite. The leader of the trio, Rian, struggles to keep things strictly "business". All things considered, he's relatively nice at first, making small talk with his victims, expressing a geniune human curiuosity about them. Soon, seduced by the power he holds, his darker, more violent nature begins to surface. You see the wheels beginning to turn in his head, realizing what he has at his mercy, when his eyes begin to lustfully gaze over Christine's body ("You look younger than me mum."). It becomes apparent to him that there are other ways he'd rather be spending his time while they wait upon the return of Sebastian. Teddy quickly makes short order of the snacks in the kitchen, busying himself with snooping about the rooms in the house. As Asad emerges as the most humane, more thoughtful of the gang. Within his means, he tries to make the situation more comfortable for all involved, preferring to get the evening over with, painlessly.. He seems put off by the business at hand and behaves as though it's just something that unfortunately, by his and his friend's moral code of ethics, has to be done. A moral code of ethics that a nice, middle-class family like the one they are holding hostage, couldn't begin to comprehend.
"Don't think about me like what he's doing to her in that room, yeah? I ain't like that.You gotta have sort of line. You get what I'm saying?"
Its here where Andrews draws the line in the sand. Clearly this is a form generational and class warfare. Once again, the "haves" paying for the suffering of the "have-nots". This point is subtlety alluded to time and time again. Rian, apparently being raised by a "crack-headed" mother versus Christine's life of middle-class stability she provides for her son. This character is very interested in knowing how Christine does things around the house ("Does [your husband] make you work?") and appears to be contrasting their family's existence with his own. Another quiet and observant example occurs with the trio's confusion over the wealth of foreign DVD titles in the home (a sign of the "typical" refinement of tastes and culture found in the bourgeois of society) and so on.
There is a really nice beat wherein Ashley Chin's Asad insecurities come to the surface over being found out and judged, by a complete stranger (a stranger that he is holding captive at that) the he can't read a button on the television remote. His character being illiterate, apparently (like much else, the movie doesn't specify). It's a lovely moment of both characterization and blink and you'll miss it acting that further humanizes someone who otherwise is behaving monstrously. Its subtle but there and yet typical of the nuance of character found throughout the film. You begin to get the feeling that if these kids came from different socio-economic backgrounds, that they might not be in this couples home at all. Its a possibility and has merit, but no one entirely without complications. If that were to be true, what are we to make of Sebastian's life of criminal involvement? Sebastian who comes from a seemingly nice home and has all the amenities provided to one who resides in the upper echelons of middle-class living. Is this simply a case of the sins of the parents being visited upon their children? Is it nothing more than a generation gap, respect and basic decency being thrown out the window in favor of typical teen rebellion? Or rather, it puts me in mind of the suburban middle-class families that thought they could ignore the truly pressing troubles and responsibilities of inner city urban living by "escaping" to the suburbs. "White flight". Only to be visited by society's skeletons years later when everything that they thought they had been rid of and could ignore started cropping up in their children's music, mannerisms, speech, culture etc.
The movie doesn't offer any answers. Hell the movie barely asks the questions but do we really need any 'authorial' comment when so many other films insist on spelling everything out for us? They are there for those audience members who care to look and read between the lines, those wanting to peel back the surface of the horror. It is with this, that Cherry Tree Lanes truly succeeds, and where (as mentioned earlier) it sets itself apart. The study of character, namely it's chief villains. Curiously, Michael and Christine are regulated to the sidelines after the initial first act. Spending the majority of the time silenced with duct tape over their mouths, unable to speak save to yell and scream unintelligible protests through their gags and because of this, it is with Teddy, Rian and Asad that we come to see the chain of events. We discover and explore the residence on Cherry Tree Lane as they do. We learn of Michael and Christine's home life as they ask the questions about it but never once do you feel as though Andrews (who was the film's screenwriter), is asking you to identify with or root for the villains, to the detriment of caring about Christine and Michael's well being. Cherry Tree Lane does not glorify it's monsters nor turn them into anti-heroes, it merely, refreshingly, presents them as is (in all their lightness and darkness).
Into all this, there is a third act twist that further complicates what we are witnessing and how we might feel about it. Specifically, the direction in which some youth in society are moving (according to the screenwriters of Cherry Tree Lane at any rate). The casual detachment of the characters in these moments may be the story's most effective and unnerving commentary. But the lesser said about the situation the better. Suffice to say, it makes the events all the more disturbing and uncomfortable to bear witness to. Tenfold.
So with this structure and story does Cherry Tree Lane offer up anything new and interesting? Yes and no. Certainly, we seen similar events play out in similar movies time and time again but I am of the belief that you can be the 8th sequel or 10th installment of a long running franchise, that exists only by copying and eating itself and still turn in something worthwhile and exciting if you truly try. Look no further than Wes Craven's New Nightmare as an example of how to breath new life into a formula that otherwise was becoming stale and old hat (yet, still entertaining by this fan's yardstick). Sometimes all you have to do is spin the structure a little bit and (if the stars are aligned right) you are left with something whose existence is justified (beyond the means to make a studio money, of course). The spin this time around being the villains and the journey we are asked to take with them. Does this twist on familiar events ultimately pay off and justify the scant 77 minutes that Cherry Tree Lane asks of your time? Yes. Every minute, actually.
"Your son has got to be the stupidest kid I ever met."
Moving on, a special note should be made of some of Andrews interesting choices in cinematography and editing. Much like Michael Haneke's Funny Games (both incarnations), Andrews has chosen to stage all the violence (save for that which occurs in Cherry Tree Lane's climax) off screen. Often times, the cruel and horrendous brutality being visited upon the victims (both psychological and physical) takes place so far away from the scene at hand, we are left with only the vaguest impression of what may or may not be occurring. Again, our heroes are silenced, no longer with duct tape but with the withdrawn preoccupation of the camera's chilly focus. With only their far off screams indicating the harrowing violations they are enduring, we are left to ponder their horrible predicament through the eyes of the left behind spouse or more often, a member of the gang not participating in the violence. When Haneke employed this approach with Funny Games, he seemed to be accusing the viewer of their own participatory sadism, by making them aware that they were being denied the very thing they both dreaded and wanted (mind you, PAID) to see. Taking this to the point of breaking down the fourth wall and having Michael Pitt ask the viewer what it is exactly, he or she would like to see happen to the ill-fated family that he and Brady Corbett are cruelly toying with. In the case of Cherry Tree Lane, Andrews instead seizes these opportunities to further explore the psychology of the criminals who have been left behind to stand guard over one of the spouses. Its a stylistic approach and strategy that works and pays off in unexpected ways, further cementing the notion that this movie isn't about blood and graphic violence but about the people who spill that blood and commit those acts of violence. Its a marvelous instance where a director is truly employing his camera by what it's NOT showing, as an aid in telling the story at hand.
Curiously, in the end (and this is not meant in any way as a disparaging remark) everything that we have went through with this family ends up feeling like something that has been read to us from a police blotter. Just the bare minimum of information has been provided, matter of factually. While other details are extremely precise (Teddy when he is eating a biscuit, the wiping of Michael's lips so that the tape of his gag can adhere properly). Perhaps the information an interrogator might gleam from the questioning of a suspect they have in custody. The wheres, the whys, the hows with a sprinkling of personal history that would inevitably crop up in the conversation as the criminal attempts to justify "where they were coming from" or rather, their hinted at motivation (lest he incriminate himself too harshly). Just like the crime scene photos that are the property of the police and oftentimes kept from the public, the violence that occurs is something that we can only imagine in our worst anxiety ridden nights as we lay awake in bed and wonder if we really did lock all the doors. However, in the end all of this just reinforces how understated Cherry Tree Lane plays things. It's so understated in fact, that the movie runs the risk of making itself less than memorable, collapsing in on itself when the end credits roll like a disappearing act. Though using its own unique voice to tell this often told tale and effectively achieving every thing it sets out to do, (no matter how small those achievements are), it triumphs. The entire cast is uniformly strong, turning in fine, effective performances of terror stricken hysteria, quiet regret and creeping menace. The script is assured and smart. The direction skilled and stylish. Definitely a film to be enjoyed for it's simplicity, there's really not one thing to be said against Cherry Tree Lane. I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend it to those looking for a tension filled night of subdued, masterful horror. Oh, and how about that final shot 'eh?
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst