{Movie Review} The Owners- Tense, Subversive Generational Horror

[contains mild spoilers]

Movies about a group of young people getting slowly picked off by something monstrous are nothing new. For decades, they were among the most common types of horror film, fueling the slasher boom of the 80s and 90s, and the formula still makes regular appearances to this day. In 2020, Julius Berg’s The Owners joins the ranks of these films – but adds just enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

The setup is simple: four friends, made desperate by poverty, break into a country home in Britain, hoping to finally score some cash. Mary (Maisie Williams) and Nathan (Ian Kenny) are a newly-pregnant young couple, led out of their depth by the juvenile delinquent Gaz (Jake Curran) while Terry (Andrew Ellis) is seemingly the hapless coward of the group – but may know more than he’s letting on. Along the way, they discover that the elderly couple (Sylvester McCoy and Rita Tushingham) who own the place are hiding some very dark secrets, and the hunters become the prey.

In the wrong hands, this plot – along with the usual teen-movie tropes of peer pressure, love triangles, and so on – could become awfully cliched. Among other things, the film bears a striking resemblance to 2016’s Don’t Breathe. But Berg’s direction includes some artful touches which set The Owners apart from its peers. Much of the film’s runtime is devoted to building up a Hitchcockian tension, and the use of blood and gore is limited, with only two or three major pieces of violence. As a result, the more graphic scenes – including the film’s odd fascination with severed fingers – come as viscerally unpleasant surprises, and happen to characters who the audience has gotten time to know and care about. Berg also switches his cinematography to a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio in the last act, which – while it won’t be to everyone’s taste – is certainly a bold choice.

Matters are helped tremendously by the performances of McCoy and Tushingham, who steal the show as soon as they arrive onscreen. As long-time fans of his work on Doctor Who will know, Sylvester McCoy can be wonderfully sinister when he wants to be, with his low Scottish accent hissing its way into the viewer’s consciousness. Here, he turns it up to eleven, with remarkable results. The real surprise, however, is Tushingham, who delivers a sense of menace largely through her eyes and movements rather than actual dialogue. Her Mrs. Huggins is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s known a cruel older relative, and she gets the chance to act truly unhinged in the film’s climax.

Courtesy of Blue Light Pictures

For her part, Maisie Williams is given a curiously flat role to play – she’s overshadowed by her male co-stars for much of the first act, and never reaches the dramatic heights of McCoy and Tushingham. It’s not a bad performance by any means, but little beyond what you’d expect from a typical “final girl” in these kinds of movies. For the former Game of Thrones star, it’s a definite step down.  

Released on a budget of just $14 million (according to one source), The Owners uses its money wisely, restricting almost all of its action to the same country-house set. It’s an unsettling atmosphere, infusing the familiar trappings of British home life with an underlying dread, and everything looks good. If there’s one major flaw, it’s that this sense of tension leads up to a fairly generic chase/fight scene in the third act, with everyone stumbling around in a fog of poison gas released by McCoy – but up until that point, the set design and lighting do their job.  

The film also contains a surprisingly clever social commentary, subverting the horror subgenres of which it’s a part. Historically, home-invasion movies have catered to the reactionary impulses of the already well-off, who feared any threat to their private property. The same can be said of “youth” horror in general, with movies like Teen Wolf and Teenagers from Outer Space positioning young people as an inherently worrying group. The Owners, however, reverses this social standpoint, drawing much its horror from generational gaps in wealth and power. Here, the story is told by young people with nothing, driven to desperate acts by their circumstances – as Nathan memorably raps in the opening scene, “disproportionate wages and failed life stages means I’m enraged and I’m dangerous.” Meanwhile, the happily-married, property-owning old couple are the truly monstrous characters, dramatizing millennial concerns about “boomers’” impact on society. Even Maisie Williams’ Mary, who as an unwed young mother would be the first to die in many older movies, is able to survive the longest, while the sexist Gaz is punished in a strikingly brutal fashion. It’s a heartening development, especially compared to the more muddled politics of Don’t Breathe a few years earlier.

Courtesy of Blue Light Pictures

Berg also gives the audience a Shyamalan-style twist at the end, revealing what was really in Mr. and Mrs. Huggins’ safe the whole time. It’s meant to be most disturbing moment of the whole film, but the narrative spends so much time laying the groundwork that it’s not hard to see it coming. However, it doesn’t jump randomly out of left field like so many horror twists, and if nothing else, the oneiric nightmare-logic works better than many films that attempt the same thing – including the recent oeuvre of M. Night himself.

Overall, this is an intelligent low-budget psychological horror, which may not do anything terribly ambitious or original, but serves up an interesting take of the familiar themes it’s given to work with. McCoy and Tushingham deliver standout performances, and the film is marred only by the slightly weaker third act, which doesn’t always deliver on the tension it’s built up. Berg’s adept direction, together with the underlying socio-political elements, make The Owners well worth a watch. The Owners is available now on VOD, and will be released on DVD October 20th.

Have your say