“It’s a horror story for children.”, Jane Dormant (Mhairi Calvey) tells her half-sister Jennifer (Makenna Guyler). This is after the two estranged siblings, and Jennifer’s boyfriend (Kevin Leslie), have descended on Hobbes House, the estate of their recently departed aunt Alexandra (Emma Spurgin Hussey), to hear from Alexandra’s friend and executor Eurydice Saul (Jo Price) – whose forename is associated with death and rebirth – how the property will be divided between the only two surviving Dormants (another speaking name). Also present is the Syrian refugee Naser Mohammedin (Waleed Elgadi) who was taken in by Alexandra and had since served as her loyal groundskeeper and confidant. It is Naser who has just warned Jane and Jennifer of the ‘undead guardians’ who prowl the property defending its integrity, prompting Jane’s incredulous remark to her sister.
In fact Juliane Block’s The Curse of Hobbes House figures itself as a horror tale for children right from its storybook opening – which is formally narrated, presented in (minimally animated) watercolours and set in a time of legend. This opening explains the ancient foundations of Hobbes House on familial division, tyrannical rapine and a pagan curse, all in the shadow of an apocalyptic war that nobody wants to see resurrected – and although the rest of the film is live-action and set in contemporary Britain, this prologue frames everything as belonging to the realm of allegory. It is clear that Jane and Jennifer have inherited the jealous divisions of their mythic forebears, and that the House and its grounds are again threatened by a new kind of land grab.
Jennifer’s partner is a callous banker for whom personal profit trumps any social concerns, and his very name – Nigel Thatcher – combines the forename of Britain’s foremost Brexiteer and campaigner against immigrants and asylum seekers, and the surname of the UK Prime Minister most closely identified with deregulation, free markets and British nationalism. Which is to say that the spectre of Brexit menaces this narrative no less that the zombie-like spirits haunting the property. Not unlike the EU itself, Hobbes House was built upon a fragile compromise, designed to prevent faction and war – and with his selfish venality, his willingness to see a family structure torn apart and his readiness to blame all problems on foreigners like Naser, Nigel represents the most (self-)destructive drives of the Leave campaign.
Even two minor characters who at the film’s beginning trespass onto the property are revealed in the closing credits to have names (Jacob Rees Goven, Sajid J. David) similarly composited from key Tory champions of Brexit. Ultimately the two sisters must decide between them a version of the question that faced the UK during the 2016 referendum: to divide their spoils and turn their back on Hobbes House, or to show a united front when faced with the danger of a resurgent past and to work in tandem for their extended family’s collective future. Meanwhile, in the first (and last) sequence featuring Alexandra, Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, the anthem of Europe, can be heard playing in the background, showing us what her House represents and what is at risk of collapsing. Block (8 Remains, 2018; 3 Lives,2019) and her regular co-writer Wolf-Peter Arand are both German filmmakers working on a UK production – and The Curse of Hobbes House constitutes their plea for belated unity between these divorcing nations.
While the allegorical underpinnings of The Curse of Hobbes House are solid, staging the ideological issues that still polarise the so-called United Kingdom today, the story built around them is somewhat shakier. Even if the guardians are not strictly zombies, spread their infection by touch as much as bite, and are confined to the precinct of Hobbes House, nonetheless the beleaguerment of the house by these blue-eyed running dead plays out like any number of well-trodden zombie scenarios, and never feels particularly distinguished. The characters too feel more like caricatures than real people, merely serving the film’s subtext, with Nigel proving a particularly cartoonish villain. The magic that animates the corpses is also something straight out of a fairytale.
So it is perhaps no coincidence that Block’s next feature Lyra’s Wish: Saving Santa will be an actual story for children – but in the meantime she has presented Brexiting Britain as a fable for adults where perhaps the greatest horror is that it is already too late to achieve the film’s idealised solution for the UK’s problems. After all, the EU has been abandoned, the Union looks likely to be broken, and the asset strippers are circling for the kill – which is to say, our Hobbes House has practically already been invaded, sacked and razed, and all that remains is the possibility of rebuilding in some distant future, and restarting an ancient story of war and peace that never really ends.
© Anton Bitel