As so many films have previously shown, schools can be sinister places at night; all silence and shadows in spaces meant for life and activity. One of the breaths of fresh air that is provided by writer/director Johannes Roberts’ F is that its prime victim of fear is not a hapless teenage girl but a middle-aged male teacher. Robert Anderson (David Schofield) is attacked by a student in his class and left more emotionally than physically scarred. The subsequent politically correct tribunal insists that he was to blame by damaging the boy’s self esteem by giving him the titular ‘F’. Already struggling with his divorce (from PRIMEVAL’s Juliet Aubrey) and teenage daughter Kate (Eliza Bennett) – who is also one of his students, the combination of the assault itself and being forced back into a classroom with his assailant leaves him in a dangerous mental state and at least on the verge of alcoholism. Anderson’s crumbling ability to maintain control of his class drives a further wedge between him and his daughter; the loss of both power and family causing him to relate to King Lear’s downward spiral.
Anderson’s is not the only position of power that is slipping. The school’s governing body is overwhelmed by procedure and protocol and is threatened by the parents of uncontrollable children. As part of the staff, security guard James (Finlay Robertson) is nominally a symbol of authority but is actually closer to the students both in age and in attitude. Obviously out of his depth, he views faculty and students with a barely concealed mix of lechery and contempt. The police too are of little help, initially failing to recognise the veracity of calls for help before eventually proving inadequate.
As evening falls, the school building empties leaving only a handful of staff, teachers, and Kate, who Anderson has unfairly detained in an attempt to keep control of her. It quickly becomes clear that this skeleton crew is not alone, as we glimpse faceless shapes scuttling between shadows in the background. The hoodied figures soon begin picking off the school’s occupants in a series of mainly off-camera attacks. These assailants are very effectively portrayed by free-runners and have the unsettling movement of the vampires in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, climbing the walls and furnishings and flitting from shadow to shadow before suddenly looming in front of their victims.
The aftermaths of the attacks showcase excellent practical effects by Dan Martin. It is perhaps unfortunate that one particularly striking prosthetic lost some of its impact by appearing prominently in the promotional material for the film. There are one or two scenes where the use of gore for shock value seems to jar with the flow of the movie. At one point, a severely injured survivor is immediately abandoned without any attempt at first aid being made once the wounds have delivered their jolt to the audience. Whilst Roberts must be applauded for staying true to his vision and making a horror film when so many others reject the genre, one could question whether the unarguably well-executed graphic gore is essential to the film and whether a wider audience might be reached without it?
Even when the film veers dangerously close to cliché such as when the unfeasibly nubile gym teacher in her skimpy exercise clothes stays late and is terrorised by a CHANGELING-like bouncing basketball, the pacing is maintained throughout. The characters are satisfyingly multi-dimensional and the cast are uniformly excellent. It is clear that Roberts made the right decision when he rejected what must have been a very tempting investment offer that would have required him to use a big-name American actor in a lead role, since Schofield manages to make his gruff and potentially hard-to-like role sympathetic and engaging. Ruth Gemmell is very believable as the headmistress and remains likable even when her position is diametrically opposed to the hero’s. Bennett too, delivers a strong performance as Kate, despite a few lines of wordy dialogue relating to her father's emotional condition that one can’t quite believe from the mouth of a sixteen year old.
The motives of the shadowy attackers are never explained and the movie could be accused of playing on the youth-phobia that is prevalent in today’s newspapers. The silent, faceless hoodies are an icon of terror for the Daily Mail. Anderson’s collection of press clippings and his panicked, wolf-crying calls to the police make it clear that he is feeding his own fear with the same media hysteria. But it might also be possible to interpret the mysterious figures as an extension of Anderson’s mental breakdown: projections of his fears that justify the acts of a damaged mind that has been shown to be capable of violence – with his apparent final heart-breaking Sophie’s Choice being in fact a fait accompli seen in flash-back.
Whether seen as horror, suspense or as an allegory for the breakdown of authority, F is a very enjoyable eighty minutes benefiting from a strong cast and engaging characters supported by slick cinematography and an excellent soundtrack.
Directed by Johannes Roberts’
English language/ UK / 2010 / 80 Mins approx / Colour / Rated 18
Release date: 17 September 2010