White Settlers (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“It was Peel House, not really a castle, more of a fortification. It was the site of atrocious battle between the Scots and the English at some point”.

Local estate agent Flo (Joanne Mitchell) is describing to English couple Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) what once lay on the space now occupied by a big old farmhouse in the Scottish Borders. Coming “with a lot of history”, this house was seized by an English bank, and is now for sale at an asking price that, though unaffordable to locals, seems like a steal for the English market. Three months later, Sarah and Ed move into their new manor, only to meet, on their very first night, a masked unwelcoming party of home invaders in pig masks.

Timing is everything. In any other year, White Settlers might have seemed like just another home invasion/slasher/survival flick, with a splash of local colour to bring a modicum of life to these done-to-death subgenres. Yet in this, the year of a potentially revolutionary referendum that will determine whether Scotland stays bound to the Union or severs her ties forever, historical hostilities between North and South are suddenly a hot issue, just waiting to be exploited for cheap thrills. Throw a bit of class conflict across the urban/rural divide, as bourgeois cityslickers colonise a working class family farm for ‘dinner parties’ and ‘holiday lets’, and this old house is suddenly creaking beneath the weight of all manner of political and social tensions in the ‘United’ Kingdom.

All this, however, serves largely as wallpaper in the background of a film far more concerned with the hackneyed dynamics of slash and dash. At 80 minutes, White Settlers is not long for a feature, but as the increasingly anxious Sarah goes downstairs and back upstairs, outside and back inside, several times over, before running and hiding – and running and hiding again – in the adjacent woodland, some viewers may feel the film could have been a lot shorter, or at least focused more on its timely ideas than its borrowed (if well-handled) tropes. Perhaps the best balance between genre and broader concerns is struck by the decision to have the assailants wear animal masks. On the one hand it is a gesture towards the masks from other home invasion movies like The Strangers (2008) or You’re Next (2011) – but on the other, the fact that they are pig masks specifically, and that there are also three little pig ornaments arranged on the house’s interior wall, hints (via the well-known fable) that Sarah and Ed might after all be the aggressive, invasive predators, and that the porcine locals, for all their terror tactics, might just be trying to reclaim what is, or was, their rightful home.

The hugely talented McIntosh (The Woman, Filth) is a bit wasted on a scenario that requires her mostly just to scurry in panic, but Jon Wygens’ atmospheric score certainly helps maintain the suspense – and even if White Settlers is somewhat flawed, it has certainly come at the perfect moment, and may even, at least within the shadowy borderlands of the horror community, spark a debate about the rights and wrongs of Scottish claims to independence.

Anton Bitel