This mischievous little surprise of a British low-budget horror film starts off with a glimpse of some of the brief but ugly horrors to come (at the film's fairly bloody climax): a distressed, semi-naked woman watches as a madman chops up some human body parts; she scrambles to escape the killer's lair deep underground, her fate left unanswered for the time being. At this point you may be thinking: 'same old, same old'. But don't - the rest of the film isn't actually anything like as derivative as the teaser opening suggests.
Fast-rewind to a few days earlier and young professional City couple - Paige and Calvin, plan their weekend getaway to the country and pack their bags, waiting on Calvin's younger sister Mandy to arrive. The girl is running late having woken up with her latest one night roll in the duvet: sleazy wheeler-dealer Tristan. Mandy asks her brother if Tristan can come along for the ride and - despite both him and his rather fragrant-looking wife making faces like a random stranger had just spat in their bottle of truffle oil, they agree. Reluctantly.
The grumpy foursome drive to a woodland location somewhere in Devon, encountering weird kooky traveller Emer along the way when they stop to allow Mandy a visit to the little girl's room in the woods - otherwise known as 'behind a tree'. Wandering star Emer hangs out in woods unusually - for a traveller, I think - on her own without actually going anywhere; instead spying on girls relieving themselves on her patch of adopted land (the equivalent, to the holidaymakers from the City, of a back lawn). She also travels light, just the one handy knife in her pocket - not a plot spoiler this, but a deliberate hint in the right direction of one.
After saying goodbye to Emer (actually, the girl runs away after reading their palms - and seeing something horrible on their skin other than nicotine stains) the four holidaymakers drive on to their hideaway cottage in the woods where they encounter a rotund local bobby on the beat called Sgt Utley, who quickly starts warning them about an escaped serial killer on the loose - a perfect start to the holiday this (and what we learn from just about every British horror movie going, is that Devon = Danger). Utley also has a Devonshire accent most terrible - as if baked in an oven like a scone and smothered in clotted cream before being force-fed crumbled up pasties. If the actor playing Sgt Utley really is from Devon and that accent is all his own; then I apologise in advance. He's a fun character though and the stereotyping (even the bad accent) - I think - deliberate.
The film is directed by Kelly Smith (debut feature) who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Andrews (debut script). The dialogue is witty, often silly, and quite disorientating when it sits alongside the cruel horror that's occasionally on display.
But this is no gore splodge of mayhem. There's too much fun to be had. Imagine instead a cross between Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers with a lush countryside-set episode of 70s Hammer House of Horror. The blend of comedy and gore is perhaps less clearcut than, say, a film like Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes, the cast come across as unlikeable and starchy, but like Sgt Utley - I like to think this is deliberate. They are all stereotypes in their own way: carefully-creased uptight husband; catty career woman (and certain regular migraine sufferer); slutty (their words, not mine - I think she's great!) younger sister who has slept a rung up the ladder this time around with a posher slice of totty in a pinstripe suit; new age traveller talking about 'odd things in the woods' (not including herself) and of course our local jolly copper solving murder most foul in the forest - or the case of a missing pair of socks off the washing line first.
All the film needs is a random hitchhiker who may be the elusive serial killer - like they all may be - to arrive. Ok - you guessed it - we get one of those too. While the film isn't set in an old dark house to complete the setup, it does have a sparsely furnished holiday cottage in the woods as a decent substitute. The film may sound, at this point, about as obviously blueprinted as a remake of The Evil Dead; but for some reason it stays fresh and breathes out its own unique scent of death and dread.
All the cast play their roles with suitable drollness and desperation - there's stiff upright lips aplenty and lots of clanky disguising of murderous intent. Sophie Linfield as naggy wife Paige turns into one tough cookie instead of upwardly mobile superbitch halfway through the movie and you genuinely root for her survival by the bleak and desolate, rurally-seething end of the movie. I thought Rhys Meredith as her husband, was also good as the dumb waiter of suburbia; a limp fish out of water (despite the holiday cottage being his, he doesn't seem at home in these 'ere parts - ever!). Blinkered younger sister Mandy, played by Gemma Harvey, I probably liked the most - she gave her role of dumb blonde with attitude a certain freshness; sparkles with the delicious rampant giddy dementia of being eternally single and still looking; of being youthful even when you're not - and oozes a jolly sexual freedom that you sense her older brother and his wife are just plain jealous of.
Also striking - and excellent (and the film belongs to him) - is Sam Hazeldine as mysterious hitchhiker Shawn. The film twists many ways and it's Shawn who twists the nerves the hardest; when he first appears at the cottage, you are convinced he is the one to watch your back over. Before long - he's gone fishing with Calvin and looks set to save the day. Grizzled and wild-blue-eyed; you feel this man's pain when a wound he receives is stitched up without anaesthetic and the swigs of whisky burn the throat in sympathy.
Shawn is everyman - but whether he should be trusted or not at first forms the beating black heart of the movie. The eventual revelations of who the serial killer actually is, should surprise you - there are enough suspects here to overcrowd an Agatha Christie novel (and the woods around Devon and all those twisting landscaped holiday home gardens were always Christie's most richly murderous of hunting grounds).
Don't Let Him In is a film directed with real, earthy flair, perfectly capturing rural isolation, dark woods, and creepy cottages with no neighbours or a village store for miles around. Imagine an episode of The Waltons, updated to the present day - but with added blood and gore: real danger when you go fishing by the quiet lake in the glade. The missing serial killer is known as the Tree Surgeon; hanging body parts on branches (and which makes for one of the more unusual local school outdoor art classes ever seen on film - although to be fair, there haven't been that many). The roots of evil are literal in this movie and the killer's hideout is suitably surreal, creepy and - well; different. Never has a tree been quite so sinister or possessed by past horror - at least not since William Friedkin's The Guardian had the spirits of the dead rising from the roots thanks to an evil nanny (but that - is another story).
The trouble with some low budget films in the horror genre is that they try and make up for what they can't afford with buckets of blood being splattered over everyone, and it never really looks that convincing; you feel time would be better spent coming up with a couple of really great effects instead; some more subtle shocks. Don't Let Him In does overdo the gore at times; it makes the film a little uglier than it needs to be - chucking in everything from maggots (completely unnecessary and out of place, but admittedly memorable) to randomly chopped-off limbs and wounds. But the red stuff flows only occasionally and most of the frights come from subtle fears; of isolation; mistrust - of foggy woods in the dark.
At times, this is a joyous, inspired horror film with real grit and sap. The sound occasionally had an unnatural perfection that dented the realism on display; but this is only really glaringly noticeable one time: a scene inside the cottage, on just one voice and only a brief hiccup considering the numerous outdoor locations filmed around rural Buckinghamshire (and on - yes; an actual farm) where the sound is as clear and unmuffled as perfection allows (a rarity in low budget, country set shockers). The acting is stilted at times; this may strike a casual viewer as a real turn-off but I like to think this detachment and aloofness is intentional - it worked for me, although I had to get used to it (also to the fact this is a horror film first - but with a rich vein of dry, deadpan comedy battling for that first place and almost winning).
The staid behaviour in the face of ever-wilder abandon and increasing adversity is a pleasing touch: when the cat and mouse gaming finally ends with a battle between the last remaining holidaymakers (or with their newly-met 'friends', I won't reveal which!) then more flamboyant personalities break free - the serial killer reveal bathes a strong character in sudden, pure, rough evil and convincing madness (wait until after the end credits for a little bit more of that giddy, skipping, unhinged portrayal of a serial killer's excitement). Many viewers may well state they guessed 'whodunit' or who was 'about to do it', well in advance - and fair play to those that do. I didn't, although I also didn't really go looking.
And so to the end of this movie; set - effectively - in an abandoned farm. The still air genuinely feels cold, misty, dank and the hay and mud, with bare feet running across the ground, also suitably uncomfortable and liable to infect with a rusty nail or a fall into a pit of sludge (reminding here of the horrific public service film from the 70s: Apaches, in which a group of kids loitering on a farm meet various traumatic deaths; scarring children of that era for life). There's real isolation on display in the farmyard setting away from the woods; genuine lonely exposure and actual threat captured on film in a setting perfectly enhanced by crouchy, creepy direction that as good as hides in the shrubbery and bracken itself - or behind hay bales, before slipping into the pesticide-glazed mud. The camera as voyeur; its purpose to be a looming threat, not a friendly witness (in the same way horror director Dario Argento or Hitchcock himself used the camera lens as a weapon of sorts).
This is a flawed film at times; it's not polished. It's the organic apple in the orchard; full of bruises, maggots and imperfectly shaped. That is - I think - what a proper comedy horror film should be like. Not slick. Not trying to be funny for the sake of it. Lonely. Rejected. Lost. Bad to the core.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer