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An Englishman’s home is his castle. Except these days it’s more than likely to be an over-priced and cramped one-bedroom apartment in a crowded city space. That’s the setting for this unsettling little UK film that’s been getting some surprisingly good notices on the festival circuit both here and in the US. It played at SXSW (under the original title of “Two Pigeons” … which makes sense if you see the film), and more recently screened at this year’s London Frightfest event. Directed and co-written by Dominic Bridges, it also picked up some attention for one particular member of the cast. Like Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in “Hellboy”), Javier Botet is best known for his physical roles and for being hidden under prosthetics and CG enhancements. He played Mama in “Mama”, the Xenomorph for some scenes in “Alien: Covenant”, the leper hobo in “IT”, and will soon be “Slenderman” in the film of the same name. And yes… he is exceptionally slender. He appears here as a rare-for-him “human” character. The film also stars Mim Shaikh, a well-known radio personality and presenter, in one of the main roles. The film is now available on UK DVD/VOD, so YGROY asks for a viewing and if it’s handy for the shops and the local railway station…

It starts (and remains) in the small one-bedroom apartment that belongs to Hussein (Shaikh). Rising for work in the morning, he goes through the normal manly ablutions - brushing his teeth whilst taking a dump and plucking his eyebrows - the usual stuff. Fully spruced up (and wearing the most horrendously loud suit possible), he cockily struts his way to work at the local office. We know that he’s an estate agent because he’s already spouting smarmy house-buying jargon on his mobile home. However, the very second that he’s left and locked his front door, a strange gaunt figure appears from seemingly nowhere and starts to creep around the flat. This emaciated figure clad in dirty underwear is the mysterious Orlan (Botet), a Spanish-speaking man who seems totally out of place with his surroundings. With the apartment to himself, he proceeds to weirdly replicate the morning toiletries of Hussein and take meagre supplies of food from the cupboards. When Hussein returns, Orlan has disappeared and there is no evidence of his presence. This continues for some time, until it becomes very clear that sinister plans are afoot for the oily house seller…

“Freehold” is a darkly comic tale that becomes quite absorbing and intriguing during its running time. The whole thing takes place within a couple of rooms (obviously an internal set), but that doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s the strange and unsettling symbiosis that exists between the two lead characters that drives the narrative. Without being too spoilery (although the blurb on the DVD and the synopses online certainly are), the story echoes the shiver-some elements of voyeuristic films like “Hangman” or “Sleep Tight”. But you get more from the film if you go into it not knowing what to expect.

At its best the movie supplies details that are occasionally hilarious (fingernail clippings under the pillow), but more often than not absolutely retch-inducing. You may want to smell your cutlery drawer and throw away that bottle of mouthwash after watching this! It perfectly captures that feeling of defilement and unease, which comes from somebody invading your personal space in the worst way. It’s a lovely distillation of paranoid fears that shouldn’t exist. You’re out at work all day, so how can you tell what might be happening to the facecloth you use every morning? Answer (according to this film) = something pretty unpleasant. It’s the best kind of subtle “horror”, inasmuch as there’s practically no blood or violence, but it’s the very idea of what’s going on that’s disturbing…

The film is at its best in the early stages, when you’re in the dark and trying to figure out just what Orlan’s game is. His first appearance almost suggests that he’s a supernatural presence, but as time goes on his Hussein-head-messing becomes ever more clever and extreme. From alarm-setting changes and post-it-note amendments, it becomes more elaborate and sinister. The backstory and motive behind Orlan’s actions are teased out in an innovative way involving two pigeons (hence the original title) and subtle little hints. All the while, the plot makes the most of Botet’s contortion abilities and extreme physiology to turn up the dread level.

Shaikh plays Hussein as the archetypical cocky chancer, and the sort of character that everybody seems to have in their social circle. It’s a nice naturalistic performance, and the easy flowing dialogue (“Innit”) is rattled off realistically by him. (NB: Americans may want to turn subtitles on though). This is especially true during the painfully real relationship scenes between him and Mel (Mandeep Dhillon), which could just as easily slot into a social drama or a comedy. Your eyes are still drawn to Botet when he’s onscreen though, particularly in a couple of scenes where he is backlit spookily by a projector or a brilliant sequence where his actions and those of Hussein’s are matched with “Strangers in the Night” on the soundtrack.

For all that though, it does feel that the impetus is lost a little during the final act. All the clever machinations and elaborate tricks that Orlan has been responsible for, would seem to indicate something special is in store, but it comes across as pretty anticlimactic given what has preceded it. And the film does stretch the rules of credibility at several various points. Although there are a couple of inevitable near-misses, much of the story is dependent on characters having the sleep reflexes of a deaf hibernating bear, and the ability to never get home earlier than anticipated.

That apart, there is still plenty to appreciate here. It has a uniquely disturbing tone and a twisted concept, that will especially appeal to the paranoid and suspicious… which is all of us if we’re being brutally honest. Not a visceral horror, but it possesses that kind of icky nastiness that makes you squint and frown in the best possible way. Perhaps it may not fully deliver on its promise, but you’ll have fun with the journey and appreciate Botet’s gangly skill-set being used without the aid of monstrous cosmetics. And whilst the movie doesn’t hit the heights of unease as something like “Sleep Tight” does, it’s still a well-made fun little bad-taste chiller, which will make you gag and check behind the curtains and under the bed. Better put that flannel in the laundry basket as well… You never know…

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