Simeon Halligan’s White Settlers has been dubbed the “Scottish Referendum Horror Film.” If you don’t know, Scotland is voting later in September whether they should be an independent country, separate from the United Kingdom. I have only a cursory understanding of the debate, but I do know that underlying the argument is the tension between the two countries that has existed for centuries.
It’s unclear whether Halligan (an Englishman who broke out with Splintered in 2010) intentionally made his film based around this political debate (although I think the ending makes it very clear), but regardless, White Settlers can be enjoyed strictly as a home invasion thriller with heaps of anxiety-inducing moments and a top-notch lead actress.
Couple Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) uproot their lives from the bustle of England to a secluded house in Scotland. The centuries old house sits on a nice plot of land, secluded from civilization. The real estate agent explains that the land was once the site of a brutal battle between the English and the Scots. When Ed asks who won, the agent replies, “It depends on who you ask.” It’s an ominous message, to say the least.
The rest of the film takes place over their first day and night in the house. The setting itself puts the audience on edge.The electric isn’t working, so they get around by daylight, then flashlight. The ancient, rustic setting and brief history of its previous owner gives the first half of White Settlers a supernatural, haunted house vibe that severely sucked me in. There’s a few red herrings, but once the invasion jumps off, Halligan delivers a relentless barrage of thrills.
Many of the set pieces are brief and predictable to a degree, but what makes them work is the performances. McIntosh, who’s probably best known as the titular lead in Lucky McKee’s The Woman, is a phenomenal, natural actress who carries White Settlers on her lithe back. Her relationship with Ed has a lot of dimensions – without actually explaining their background with drab exposition, the looks, inside jokes, and arguments they share give an effective feel of shared history.
When the attacks begin, McIntosh keeps the adrenaline pumped up with a wholly believable performance. A lot of actresses run and scream, huff and puff, sure, but a lot of times the breaks they get in between takes shines through. McIntosh’s potent performance makes you believe Sarah is truly running for her life. It’s awesome to watch.
She carries us through the twists and turns of the film’s final act, which builds up nicely to a great curveball closing. The invasion on the actual house is a really tense bit, but once they leave it for the forested surroundings, it falters a bit and loses its strong claustrophobic atmosphere. Thankfully, McIntosh is there to give us a piggyback ride straight down the line.
White Settlers couldn’t have been planned more timely. Released against the political debates of independence raging in Scotland, it’s a relevant film. But it also stands on its own as a fierce, atmospheric thriller.