F

F

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Horror always hits hardest when it's close to home. For many people, the image of a hooded teenager brandishing a flick knife is something they dread day to day, a threat they can easily imagine encountering in person. Johannes Roberts' ambitious little film combines this with the grim institutional atmosphere of a modern high school, to claustrophobic effect. It's a promising set-up, but unfortunately the story lacks the sophistication to really do anything with the contemporary anxieties it takes on.

The early part of the film is by far the strongest. For some people, the saying is probably true: their schooldays are the best days of their lives. For the rest of us, school was about bullying, aggression, and constant power struggles. That's not always so different for the teachers. When English teacher Mr Anderson is punched in the face by a pupil to whom he has given an 'F' grade, his life falls to pieces. Lacking support from his superiors, who caution that the pupil's mother is threatening to sue him for distressing her child, he turns to drink, losing his family in the process. There's an awkward scene in which he implies his personal identification with King Lear, itself such an act of hubris that one cannot help but feel for him. He's not a pleasant character, but he's sympathetic, and much more interesting than the empty-headed teenagers with which films of this ilk are usually populated.

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Unfortunately, as the story develops, those teenagers - and their adult counterparts - are precisely what it does turn its attention to. One evening Anderson is holding back his own daughter in detention. There are few other people in the building. Outside, a security guard is ambushed, meeting a brutal fate. A gang of hooded figures moves in to stalk the corridors in search of fresh victims.

Is one of these hoodies the kid to whom Anderson gave an 'F'? That's implied but never made clear. The decision to avoid any firm conclusions is interesting at first, giving the film an almost supernatural dimension. It also reminds us of the facelessness of all those hopeless school dropouts whom society ignores until they can be ignored no longer. But that's about as deep as the film gets. By failing to give them any more complex motive or personality, it ultimately turns them into rather dull villains. They lack charisma, and as such it's difficult to feel really threatened by them. Their only advantages are surprise and strength of numbers - and a complete failure on the part of their victims to make even the slightest attempt at fighting back. So we have a Morlocks versus Eloi situation, the faceless working class against the nice but vacant middle class people, and it's hard to care about any of them.

This said, F is well shot, it makes excellent use of its setting, and in places its tightly-framed direction is very effective. It's just a shame that it ends up running round the corridors instead of making something of the various opportunities it has to throw in twists or add depth to its storyline. Its attitude to women is especially problematic. One young woman is hardly even introduced - we just get to see her exercising half-naked before she is attacked in a changing room. Cue extended shots of her whimpering in fright. This might have a certain irony in an overtly exploitative setting, but the fact that the actress still has the skills to make something of her part actually makes it worse. Later, the way that disfigured characters are simply abandoned to their fate - by the story as well as by the ostensible heroes - suggests that beauty is all anybody could value in these young people. Perhaps they were never really any better off than their faceless foes.

Overall, strong acting is the film's saving grace. All of its central characters work well. Matter of fact performances contribute to an early realism that combines very effectively with the later scares. It will be interesting to see if Roberts can make more of this in his later work. For this work, he needn't fear an 'F', but he only just scrapes a 'C-'. Could try harder.

Reviewed on: 08 Sep 2010
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School may be out for the day... but violence is in, as a group of hooded hooligans terrorises a school after hours.
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