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F (2010)
Director: Johannes Roberts

review by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
Film history is chocker with young filmmakers who racked up accolades and great success straight out of the starter gates. Others, however, mill around awaiting acceptance, often deservedly so as they blunder cack-handedly from one bad film to another. Many of the British horror film director brat-pack turned up in the first few years of the millennium, and though a couple hit their stride immediately (Michael J. Bassett, Neil Marshall), most have loitered, good films seemingly beyond them. One by one they have proven me wrong and in 2009 it was the turn of Adam Mason with Broken, Chris Smith with Triangle, Pat Higgins with The Devil's Music and Jake West with Doghouse.

Johannes Roberts took bloody long enough about it. There was not a significant amount of progress made between Sanitarium (originally Diagnosis, co-directed by James Eaves), and When Evil Calls (bridged by Darkhunters, Hellbreeder, and Forest Of The Damned) and it looked like Roberts would become one of the great non-runners. Then along comes 'F' and it resembles nothing else in Roberts' canon, thank Christ!

But more so than that, it shows a surprising maturity and control that might otherwise have been thought impossible of him. 'F' was no routine next step in the director's career but a 2005 script awaiting its day, written at a time when Roberts was filling time by teaching and struck cold by a perfunctory modern school environment he found himself in designed to prevent student distraction. When Evil Calls was also set in a school but When Evil Calls is the infantile schlock to the chill digital noir of 'F', and the two are thankfully complete opposites.

The film opens with an act of classroom violence. English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) gives a pupil an 'f' when the policy is an 'RS' for resubmission, but it is the accompanying condescending jibe that makes him the laughing stock of his classmates and sees the boy up and punch the teacher. Anderson is asked to take a break until the boy leaves at the end of the school year and, with the school unwilling to take any action against the pupil for fear of a legal response, Anderson suffers a breakdown. His marriage collapses, he turns to the bottle and his return the school becomes a daunting daily trial as he no longer has any control over his class. Behind on his paperwork and having difficulty disguising the stink of the alcohol, the headmistress Sarah Balham (Ruth Gemmell) is gunning for him to go.

In Pierre Morel's Taken, Liam Neeson's special ops agent feels slighted when his ex-wife and daughter conspire against him with what they perceive are white lies and a similar double slight is visited on Anderson by his wife and daughter, Helen (Juliet Aubrey), and Kate (Eliza Bennett). Similarly, Anderson will find himself proving himself up against frightening, deadly forces to win his daughter back into his respect and there is a palpable impression that Roberts' borrowed the premise for his own mini-masterpiece. Here, Anderson places Kate on detention and then loses his rag, smacking her across the face. Kate is an unforgiving teen and reports him. Balham had been waiting patiently for what was inevitable, some reason to remove Anderson.

But something more terrible is already afoot. The only other people in and around the school this dark evening are security guards, Brian (Jamie Kenna) and James (Finlay Robertson), librarian Lucy (Emma Cleasby), woodwork teacher Gary (Tony Mannison), PE instructor Nicky (Roxanne McKee), and a janitor (Chris Adamson), with Anderson's wife and Kate's boyfriend Jake (Max Fowler) on their way. Brian is attacked and is turned into a living fireball in a large refuse container and four black sprites enter the school.

The telephone lines have already gown down in a nod to Assault On Precinct 13 and this film's equally motley bunch are unwittingly besieged, with only Anderson, his daughter and James any inkling of what is happening before it is too late to flee or defend themselves. The silent, faceless, hooded quartet hop and virtually float around the corridors, lockers, tables and shelves taking out the staff without rhyme or reason and become almost supernatural entities. The premise proposes that the threat of suspicion to the crimes will eventually fall upon Anderson, a wrong man thriller or, almost certainly, the twist at the movie's end.

'F' plays against expectations though, and is a no nonsense mood and horror piece. Cinematographer Tim Sidell-Rodriguez gives the film its important look, the camerawork inconspicuous, moving lightly and commanding our direction. Green and peach tinting dominates. The horror is largely restrained making the few moments of graphic nastiness all the more effective. The short running time of 78 minutes allows for no waste and the timing of little touches like the discovery by Anderson of his daughter's written complaint against him spot on.

Roberts, despite the school setting, has avoided a cast of beautiful young things preening themselves and yelping inanities at one another. The cast is made memorable and interesting by the variety of the players and not only the professionalism of its cast but by bringing on board several prominent names and familiar faces; in particular David Schofield, Ruth Gemmell, Juliet Aubrey and Tom Mannion. Several of the actors are better known for a villainous turn and seem to be here to pay redemption for past cinematic crimes. Juliet Aubrey, for example, became a major villain in the television series Primeval, while Emma Cleasby (44 Degrees North) was the girl-next-door werewolf bitch of Dog Soldiers, and Chris Adamson is becoming a hardened horror mainstay, perhaps best known as the serial killer in Lighthouse. David Schofield is granted a rare lead and duly commands attention like he has not been allowed to before.

There has been some criticism of the close of the film that in such a short film it should be left without a real conclusion. Most of the black sprites are still alive, Anderson is rushing his daughter to the hospital and the mother is in the school alone. A dilemma has arisen with an ultimatum from the daughter. For the viewer there are several possible conclusions but rather than have one decided for you, is this not the better outcome, a film closing in a manner in which each time you see it you can continue to run it in your imagination, giving you four films with the respective guilt, horror, tragedy or joy at its close.

The DVD includes a trailer, an interview with Roxanne McKee, and the 'making of F' which records a comfortable shoot, a mini-lecture on lighting, and the faces of the le parkour monsters are revealed.

F



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