Hurtling from one nightmare scenario to the next, THE OWNERS opens with a standard home invasion plot and descends into a hellish shocker. A twitchy burglary crew with varying levels of competence decides to ransack the home of an elderly couple who are rumored to have a safe full of cash hidden somewhere in their house. They wait for Dr. Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham) to leave and then break in, smashing everything they find as they search for the safe.
The young men who make up the crew initially seem to fall into stock character tropes: Terry (Andrew Ellis) is the “nice guy” who goes along reluctantly with the plan; Terry’s best friend Nathan (Ian Kenny) is the ostensible leader of the group who keeps reassuring the others that they’ll never have to worry about money again once they find the safe; and Gaz (Jake Curran) is the dangerous sadist who’s actually in charge, manipulating Nathan and pulling the strings from a distance. Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams) arrives and gets sucked into the burglary plot, adding an extra level of tension to an already unsettling story. Each character takes a surprising turn throughout the movie, keeping the audience off-balance and making sure they’re never fully prepared for the next shock.
Based on the graphic novel Une Nuit de pleine lune by Hermann and Yves H., THE OWNERS establishes a sense of unease early on with tight shots of the burglars exploring the huge house. Director Julius Berg suggests danger around every corner and behind every closed door, making the rich wood of the house close in on the characters and the audience. Terry, whose mother works for the Hugginses, makes occasional cryptic references to Kate, the couple’s deceased daughter. The viewer almost expects to see Kate’s ghost at the top of the stairs or in the corner of a dark room…the crackling sense of an oncoming storm lingers, but the viewer is never sure which direction it will be coming from.
Terry finds the safe and alerts Nathan, who makes several unsuccessful attempts to break into it. Convinced that they can easily ply the combination from the elderly owners, Gaz goads Nathan into waiting for the Hugginses to return home. When they do, things immediately feel amiss. Dr. Huggins is eerily calm and seems to be in control of the situation even when he’s tied up in his own basement. Compared to her imperturbable husband, Ellen is an unpredictable source of increasing anxiety. She has dementia, alternating between docile, childlike episodes where she’s not sure what’s happening and terrifying bouts of lucidity when she’s quick to anger and full of venomous insults. Anyone who has much experience with a person with dementia will recognize these bursts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere, but Tushingham adds a disturbing edge to her performance that lets you know that there’s much more going on with Ellen than a case of dementia.
The entire cast is fantastic, selling the tension and the utter sense of wrongness underlying the narrative. Dr. Huggins’s unsettlingly calm demeanor grounds the film while also making it incredibly suspenseful, and Mary’s increasing suspicions of the homeowners give viewers a sane character to latch onto as a port in this wild storm. As the tension in the basement ramps up, Jake Curran’s performance shifts into a higher gear. Gaz clearly relishes the dance of intimidation; he seems to live for opportunities for brutal violence. Curran is magnetic in these moments, completely owning the movie when Gaz feels like he is in total control of the situation. However, nothing is that simple in THE OWNERS, and the power dynamics shift constantly, leaving the characters and the audience breathless with each twist.
As the film progresses, we get deeper glimpses into the relationships between each of the characters — most of whom seem to have long histories with one another — revealing an ironic chasm between how close they are and how little they know about one another. THE OWNERS peels back these layers gradually, showing viewers that there is indescribable horror hiding just below the surface of everyday life. The final twenty minutes of the film is an extended nightmare, finally answering the questions that viewers have been almost too scared to ask and laying bare the terror that lurks behind every smiling face and picturesque front door.
You never know what’s going on behind closed doors, THE OWNERS tells its audience and, for your own sake, you really don’t want to find out.
THE OWNERS will be available in theaters and On-Demand and Digital on September 4, 2020.