This is how little I pay attention to things: I just now, watching Let Us Prey, realized that there is an entire subgenre of horror that I will call “Hell Comes to Improbably Small Police Stations.”
There’s Let Us Prey. There’s the unfortunate Val Kilmer vehicle The Traveler, and the slightly less unfortunate Robert Englund vehicle Inkubus. There’s Last Shift, Dark was the Night, and you could even stretch a point and include the security guard and empty building in The Abandoned. Someone’s always a rookie; this someone is probably a woman. It’s somebody’s first shift, or their first shift at a new station. There’s a character actor in the central role who is imbued with some sort of vague and sinister religious overtones; he appears to be either having more fun than anyone else in the movie or counting the days until he can retire and go sit on a beach. You could actually put together an entire film fest of movies that cannot be distinguished from one another by plot or character descriptions alone, and it would not even involve half-naked teenagers in the woods, which is kind of an impressive achievement.
So what does Let Us Prey bring to the genre? Well, a lot, actually.
This is one of those movies that I put off watching, because between the admittedly pretty awful title and the “Am I sure I haven’t watched this before?” plot, I wasn’t sure I’d be all that interested. The opening scene cast doubt on that assumption, because it’s gorgeous – the wild Scottish sea crashing against rocks; a driving, eerie score that’s reminiscent of Carpenter’s Lost Scores album but actually better; Liam Cunningham, playing the nameless central character, apparently rising out of the sea with a murder of crows and slouching off toward the hapless village to birth some mayhem. It’s effective, stylish, and attention-grabbing.
However, I have been fooled by opening scenes before. Yes, I’m looking at you, Ghost Ship.
The rookie on her first night here is Rachel (Pollyanna McIntosh), and wow, are her co-workers awful. It’s her, two other cops (Bryan Larkin and Hanna Stanbridge) who apparently exist only to be hideously awful people and then die horribly, and their creepy, twitchy sergeant, MacReady (Douglas Russell, who morphed into Simon Keenlyside in my head every time he was off-screen). In the cells are a smarmy teenage drunk driver (Brian Vernel), a wife-beating teacher (Jonathan Watson), and a doctor (Niall Greig Fulton).
It turns out everyone in the station, of course, has Dark Secrets, and Liam Cunningham knows exactly what they all are. They’re spectacularly awful. Liam may or may not be to blame for this, depending on who you think his character is supposed to be; there’s ambiguity left around that, wisely in my opinion. Gross discoveries lead to a third act so flamboyantly bizarre that it might have derailed a film with less solid performances, but here it’s best to just enjoy the ride.
And the performances are well worth watching. I’m not sure Cunningham can actually do wrong, acting-wise; he’s a rock-solid center for this movie, and beautifully sinister. Russell keeps tight reins on a role that could easily have descended into camp and pulls it off impressively well. Vernel is weirdly sympathetic, Fulton manages his shockingly abrupt descent into batshittery with elan, and Watson is just really damn creepy as the living avatar of every high school student’s suspicions about what their teachers are really thinking. McIntosh holds her own as a Final Girl, and she’s compelling enough in the role of the traumatized Rachel.
Larkin and Stanbridge, while not bad exactly, could have been cut from the movie entirely without doing it much damage – their characters are grimy little evils, banal and unimaginative, oddly tedious in the middle of everyone else’s flamboyant psychotic plumage, without a redeeming feature or shred of complexity. I applaud the stylistic decision, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t tiresome to watch. Other than the two of them, however, the ensemble cast makes for a tight, cohesive unit of claustrophobic looniness.
The near-flawlessness of the cast is what keeps me from asserting that the real stars of the movie are the cinematography and the score. The movie is beautifully shot, a shadowy, pall-covered, blood-splattered joy to watch (the cinematographer is Piers McGrail, also cinematographer on the gorgeous and underrated The Canal, who looks to my great relief to be doing the same job on the forthcoming We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) The score, by Steve Lynch, is reminiscent of Carpenter’s both in its power and its elevation of the scenes; too many horror movies forget that the score should enhance the movie, not just jangle along behind it like your teenage brother belting out Fallout Boy in the shower while you’re trying to read the news. Even if you don’t like the genre, the movie is worth watching for the cinematography and the score alone.
So what’s the verdict? Four stars. That’s a little on the high side given the film’s flaws, but its virtues outweigh them just enough to tip it out of the three-star category. It’s an underpublicized gem that shows there’s nothing wrong with following a genre script if you can do it this well.
Just… you know, maybe give it a better title next time.