As the "hoodie horror" trend starts to run out of steam, it's only natural that filmmakers are attempting to steer the uniquely European subgenre in new directions in order to account for the staleness that comes with familiarity. Much like writer/director Philip Ridley did in 2009's Heartless, first-time feature director Ciaran Foy introduces a supernatural element into the mix in Citadel. But while the more horrific sequences in his debut feature display an impressive ability to maintain an effectively creepy atmosphere, it's the less-competent human components that prevent Citadel from achieving greatness despite the admittedly interesting ideas and concepts at the film's core.
When a gang of hooded thugs lay siege to Tommy Cowley's apartment, his pregnant wife suffers an agonizing death. In the aftermath of that trauma, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) struggles to raise his infant daughter alone while dealing with a crippling fear of the outside world. His therapist attempts to help him move past his debilitating agoraphobia, but then the hooded hooligans return, seemingly intent on taking his daughter as well. Desperate, Tommy reaches out to a local priest, who reveals that the ubiquitous assailants may not be human. Now, the fate of his newborn daughter hanging in the balance, Tommy, the priest, and a mysterious blind child prepare to brave the inner depths of a derelict apartment block known as the Citadel in order to confront the murderous devils who torment him every waking hour.
From the nightmarish attack that opens Citadel, it's apparent that director Foy has opted for a lean and efficient approach to the story. Unfortunately, what initially appears to be one of the film's greatest strengths is soon revealed to be its Achilles' heel as protagonist Tommy subsequently makes a jarring transition from loving husband and expectant father to jittery shut-in who can't even unlock his front door without trembling uncontrollably. Given the screenplay's focus on Tommy's fragile psychological state, it's imperative that the viewer identifies with him. But by hastily thrusting Tommy from one extreme to the next, Foy creates more of a cipher than a fully drawn character. And though scenes involving Tommy's therapist and a sympathetic nurse do allow us opportunities to get inside of the character's paranoid headspace, by then he's already registered as two-dimensional. Meanwhile, stilted performances, exposition-heavy dialogue, and unnecessary directorial flourishes continually distract from the emotional core of the story, prompting scenes that might otherwise create an effective atmosphere of nightmare logic to simply come off as lazy.
The most frustrating aspect of Citadel, however, isn't the structural flaws of the screenplay or the one-note characters, but the fact that Foy peppers the story with some genuinely inspired details and concepts with regards to the demonic hoodies. But even then, Foy comes up short because he refuses to play by his own rules, and when a writer betrays the viewers' trust by taking the easy way out, no amount of creepy imagery can repair the broken illusion. At that point, we're simply waiting for the plot to play out when we should be emotionally invested. As a result, movie clichés like the foul-mouthed priest and the child in danger become hopelessly transparent, and Citadel's pronounced shortcomings eclipse the menacing nuances that might have distinguished it as a mini-masterpiece of psychological terror in the hands of a more experienced storyteller.