If I were a Carpenter. Following on from Joe Cornish’s urban-set generational audience-splitter Attack The Block, this is another UK thriller that owes a sizeable debt to Assault on Precinct 13. The second of two British genre films this year from the pen of Torchwood scribe James Moran (after the likeable knockabout coffin-dodging farce Cockneys V Zombies) Tower Block is the more ambitious of the two pictures, yet ultimately the less successful in terms of realising its full potential.
The plot is brutal in its simplicity, Moran understanding that a successful B-movie demands a high (rise) concept. Property developers are moving in to destroy a shoddy council block – a grimy dwelling with a recent history of violence – but the tenants of the top floor are refusing to budge. So when a psychotic sniper with high-tech arsenal and tracking devices begins picking them off one by one, having blocked of all escape routes and booby trapped the property, the denizens understandably presume that the money men are behind the assault. Led by plucky Becky (Sheridan Smith) they attempt to stay alive and make their escape.
The first half of Tower Block is undoubtedly the strongest. Moran has form in setting up a bunch of archetypes in ways that are funny and engaging (Severance) and a couple of brutal, unexpected moments of violence give the early moments a spiky and tense buzz. First time directors Nunn and Thompson (along with DP Ben Moulden) shoot the interiors close and tight, pulling away for widescreen exteriors captured in icy blues and greys, emphasising the grimy claustrophobia of the setting. But the cracks begin to show as the central characters wrestle with the dilemma of survival and, although the filmmakers don’t ever cheat the audience, some plot contrivances and a too-guessable reveal end things on a disappointingly flat note.
Tower Block occasionally overcooks the dialogue. Thankfully Moran largely avoids the horrible trap of having all his characters shout incoherently at each other (see The Divide) but they do have an unfortunate speechifying tendency during moments when the tension needs to be sustained. I get what Moran is doing here – highlighting individual character flaws to keep things recognisably human and heighten the importance of collective responsibility in survival – but that’s largely because characters keep breaking off to tell us their stories during lengthy and unlikely dialogue exchanges that actually scupper the emotional investment and undercut the well-mounted tension.
Of a talented cast the young performers fare the best. Smith is a charismatic and likeable young actress who keeps improving and O’Connell frankly scares the shit out of me regardless what he’s in, so his Kurtis –a monstrous toe-rag who rules the block through fear and intimidation – works just fine. I’d like to see him used more often, stretch himself a little bit. He’s got screen presence in spades.
A promising work from a writer and director team who are learning their craft all the time, this would’ve benefitted from a little less conversation and a little more (direct) action. Carpenter’s best works of this kind were laconic, not speechy or preachy. As a structure this Tower Block may not be built to last but it holds up well enough over an agreeably short running time.