Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Simeon Halligan
Writer: Ian Fenton
Producer: Rachel Richardson-Jones
Stars: Pollyanna McIntosh, Lee Williams, Joanne Mitchell
A British husband and wife move to a remote farm in Scotland, where their isolated house is invaded by pig-masked intruders.
NOTE: "White Settlers" was retitled "The Blood Lands" for its U.S. home video release.
By my count, “White Settlers” marks the fourth movie featuring animal-masked home invaders to screen theatrically in 2013-2014 (“You’re Next” (review here) and “Torment” (review here) are two of them). In fact, it’s the second movie I’ve seen at an October 2014 horror film festival to clad its antagonists in pig masks specifically (“Berkshire County” (review here) is the other). It may not be the fault of “White Settlers” that it has the disadvantage of falling in the shadow of unfortunate timing, as it was presumably in production before at least two of those other films even had their first public showings. But I can’t ignore the fact that seeing this same story told thrice before makes a fourth go burdensomely boring any more than I can deny that “White Settlers” is the least compelling of the quartet.
British expatriates Ed and Sarah Chapman pull up stakes on the hustle and bustle of their UK hipster lifestyles to settle into a remote farmhouse tucked away on a quiet corner of Scottish countryside. In a portent-laden opening, we learn this is the kind of isolated woodland location where “it’s easy to get lost” and there is “no cell phone reception.” This is telegraphed exposition that feels like a brick to the face of Sherlock Holmes regarding obvious clues about the story’s direction.
For brief moments, the cinematography and the setting combine for an unsettling feeling. Given the knowledge that the unaware pair is vulnerable to a threat not yet revealed makes for a disquieting voyeuristic experience. As any happy couple might do when motivated by the relationship rejuvenation of a new home, Sarah sparks romance with her husband by seductively leaving a clothes trail for him to find in the forest. They feel safe, free, and alone. But the audience senses unknown eyes spying from somewhere out of frame, and an unspecified trap of sharp danger setting its trigger to unsuspectingly spring.
That ends up being the major extent of the film’s chills. From this point forward, “White Settlers” settles into formulaic home invasion horror with undefined antagonists and poorly presented protagonists, neither of which do anything to propel the premise into interesting territory.
Sarah’s husband Ed is bizarrely designed to be such a prick that it is impossible to fathom what screenwriter Ian Fenton thought he was achieving with the characterization. If belittling spouses were an Olympic sport, Ed would be a gold medal champion. Ed refers to Sarah as “an idiot,” tells her to “stop being so stupid … you’re being bloody stupid,” and derisively asks his wife if she sh*t herself following a scare. It’s a virtual master class in how not to endear one’s self to a spouse or to an audience.
By the time Ed disrespectfully dons glasses belonging to the home’s previous owner (a bit also done in the home invasion film “In Their Skin” (review here)) to inappropriately play “booby monster” during a fit of Sarah’s justified terror, you want to slap the imbecile hard enough to dislodge a tooth. Ed’s entire first act development is an absolutely atrocious way to craft a person unable to muster even one shred of sympathy from an audience who finds him insufferable. You ache for someone to slice some sense into him using the business end of a knife. And that is no way to create compassion for a soon-to-be victim.
The ripple effect problem is that Sarah, otherwise admirably portrayed by the wonderful Pollyanna McIntosh, ends up being guilty by association just for marrying such a loudmouth lout. Ed mean-spiritedly jokes about the neighboring locals shagging their sisters or maybe a lamb. Sarah snickers right along with Ed’s off-color commentary like a mob kingpin’s mousy sidekick afraid to tell the boss that his jokes just aren’t funny.
“White Settlers” has just three actors with title cards, and is mainly a two-person movie. Making one of them into a complete as*hole is therefore an insurmountable issue.
Men in masks arrive on the premises and Ed pulls a disappearing act, prompting a reaction of “thank God” instead of “oh no.” Sarah then swings the spotlight as “White Settlers” becomes a one-woman fight for survival, a theme almost as overdone as the masked intruder idea kickstarting the ordeal in the first place.
This should set the stage for white-knuckle thrills and horror heroine heroics, except everything following after is shockingly dull. Story? Forget it. The brunt of “White Settlers” is unexciting, featuring copious shots of flashlights flittering in the dark, doors and floors creaking, and a whole lot of wide-eyed hiding in the dark. Bumps in the night investigated with reserved caution lead to predictably dry dialogue exchanges like, “I swear I saw something” followed by, “well, there’s nothing here now.”
Sarah isn’t even in immediate danger most of the time. She cuts her hand on a broken bottle at the outset of the invasion and then primarily just creeps around. A fair amount of distance generally exists between Sarah and her would-be captors, too. There is rarely any nailbiting feeling of an imminent threat to heighten the tension.
The relatively few stunts lack convincing action. Sarah’s initial encounter with an attacker results in a half-hearted push with all the energy of a playground fight between grade-schoolers. Another man in a pig mask falls face first on a rock in such a staged manner that it may as well be slow motion.
Even if the plot’s point is to be taken as commentary on the Scottish independence referendum, the final outcome is too unbelievable to be gratifying. Are Ed and Sarah really expected to just say, “awww shucks” and not prosecute the family now illegally occupying the house that they poured their savings into? Barring that, how difficult would it be to track down the lone purchase of a dozen identical pig masks from a specialty shop in the middle of Scottish nowhere?
Taking down the intruders one at a time only for two full truckloads to resupply the threat is also an unsatisfying cheat. Any redemptive qualities that might have manifested by the film’s conclusion are erased by an ending implying that Ed and Sarah’s struggle was ultimately futile if they were just going to be ridiculously outnumbered anyway.
Had the independence theme been expressed as intentional from the outset, the conflict could have created more interest. But the too late revelation of the home invasion’s presumed purpose cannot retroactively inject subtext into events already experienced by the audience, and thus read as unfounded acts committed by faceless villains.
“White Settlers” lasts just 75 minutes, although it feels much longer because its minimal action and threadbare suspense are spread so thinly throughout. Let’s be blunt. The animal-masked intruder concept has limited legs to begin with. Even if it stood alone in the ever-expanding subgenre of home invasion horror, “White Settlers” is too slow and too narrowly focused in scope to earn a recommendation.
Review Score: 45