DIRECTOR Russell England WRITER Paul Raschid STARS Ameet Chana; Poppy Drayton; Marcus Griffiths DOWNLOAD 29 June DVD 13 July

Unhallowed Ground

The central motif of Unhallowed Ground — the idea of malevolent spectral guardians annihilating those who dare seek out ancient forbidden artefacts — has distinct echoes of the antiquarian horror of M. R. James, particularly “A Warning to the Curious” and “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”.

A strangely old-fashioned horror, Unhallowed Ground may lack the subtlety and foreboding atmosphere typical of James, opting as it does for jump-scares of loud bursts of music and shadowy figures darting across the forefront of the screen, but it does benefit from an atmospheric location (London’s Mill Hill School) and a promising premise.

A moody prologue sets the tone and hints at dark secrets aching to surface. During the 17th century, students of a prestigious school were spared a gruesome death by plague after they ritualistically murdered four of their own in a Satanic pact. In present times, the building is still used as a boarding school, and when it shuts down for midterm holidays, six students from the cadet corps must remain behind to patrol the grounds. Unbeknownst to them, two former marines have broken into the school to raid a vault of historical documents and artefacts. As the night progresses, they are beset by increasingly odd occurrences: glimpses of shadowy figures, doors slamming, lights flickering.  Before long, both parties begin to suspect that something deeply sinister is afoot.

The cast provide fine performances, though the roles they portray are only slight variations on typical teenaged horror movie characters, and they fail to evoke much sympathy. The script mines group dynamics for all they’re worth as various twists mean the group is constantly fractured and re-fractured. But while this ensures a nimbly paced narrative, there is little in the way of suspense, and after a while events become repetitive enough to verge on tedious. Too many scenes are laden with dialogue and while a slow-burn approach is to be applauded, events don’t really go anywhere during the first half, and despite the double threat the students face, tension is often lacking. A wealth of interesting ideas brewing beneath the surface remain undeveloped, while rudimentary direction fails to make the most of the supremely moody location. When it arrives, the denouement is lacklustre. Given the myriad final-reel revelations, what should have been a frenzied, diabolically-tinged climax struggles to decide when exactly it should end.

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.