I’ve been watching a lot of awful horror films on Hulu recently. It’s gotten to the point where I’m almost horror-ed out, as it’s beyond me why multimillion dollar productions can’t for the life of them get the basics of filmmaking 101 down (I’m looking at you, “Into the Dark: Down” and “Pet Sematary” remake), So when I was given a screener for the ultra-low budget British horror-mystery film “Don’t Let Them In” (not to be confused with the 2015 film of the same name), which was released last month for DVD and streaming in the U.S. and comes to the U.K. in July, I didn’t expect much.
“Don’t Let Them In” was shot over the course of 14 days and cost 35,000 British pounds to make, which translates into about 43,000 U.S. dollars, which is lunch money in terms of film budgets. Even Blumhouse, who are known for relatively-low-budget horror films, give their films budgets of at least a million dollars, and there are good reasons for that, as quality crew, equipment and talent, as well as film permits, drive up production costs dramatically — unless you want to have your film shot on a potato and take place mostly in the woods.
The film follows a pair of social workers named Jenna (Michelle Luther) and Karl (Aidan O’Neill), who must check up on a reformed convicted murderer named David (Scott Suter), who was just let out of prison. David lives in the middle of nowhere, and unfortunately Director Mike Dunkin saw the need to give us a horrendously long car ride scene featuring uninspired banter between Jennna and Karl that really doesn’t work.
But it gets better.
Once we get to David’s house, which is a long-abandoned establishment called the Twelve Bells Inn, the film takes off. The rundown house is so atmospheric and allows for clever uses of lighting and framing, and its overall creepiness combined with the film’s dark cinematography, which utilizes harsh shadow, deep contrasts and clever uses of color, paired with subtle sound design, create a slow, uneasy atmosphere that is present throughout the rest of the film.
The cinematography in the first 15 minutes of this film are horrendous, as its dark lighting is completely unsuitable for the day-time “normal” scenes we get with Jenna and Karl before their horror adventure starts. Throughout, the film does look cheaply made in terms of scene resolution, but the cinematography inside the Twelve Bells Inn is interesting and creative enough for you to get past it.
Luther and O’Neill also do a lot to smash through the film’s limitations, as they have legitimate chemistry, as O’Neill plays a likeable jokester who is both sardonic and over the top when the horror starts happening, and O’Neill is cold, level-headed, and is constantly annoyed by her partner (in many ways, they bicker like an old married couple). This might be the American in me shining through, but both leads remind me of characters you’d see during the Russell T. Davies and early Steven Moffat eras of “Doctor Who” that you’d only see for one episode and are there to ground the viewers.
Aside from the awful first 15 minutes of the film, I can’t really fault any of the actors or the scripting for anything, because the interactions between O’Neill, Luther, and Suter sell this film. It’s a small story told through a small cast, and it just works.
Unlike the last few Blumhouse films I’ve seen, my eyes did not glaze over because I was watching generic, unlikeable characters cycle through a predictable plot. “Don’t Let Them In”‘s small cast is fleshed out, and the film is extremely unpredictable and fun. You might think that this film is another “Purge” ripoff from its trailer, but the only similarities it shares with that film is the visual likeness its monsters have to the people who wear masks in “The Purge.” Otherwise, they function completely differently, and “Don’t Let Them In” is very character-driven, rather than objective-driven, which some of the later “Purge” films are guilty of.
Many of the reviews on IMDb for this film claim that they don’t like this film because it’s not original, but I simply don’t care. There are no true original ideas, as there are only 7 stories you can tell in the world, and what I care about most in a film is if it’s done well. For the most part, “Don’t Let Them In” is, especially considering what they had to work with.
My only major criticisms are that the opening car scene was way too long and was shot badly, the audio quality and film resolution should’ve been better at times, the few times there is action it’s not good (though I don’t expect much considering the budget), and the plot and film editing could’ve been a bit tighter. But all of these issues are easily overlooked given the atmosphere Dunkin is able to build, the great character acting by Luther and O’Neill, as well as the creative cinematography in the house scenes. Additionally, it’s a scary movie with only one jump scare, and that goes a long way for me.
It’s not perfect by any means, but I got more out of it than I thought I would. I’d like to see this crew work with a larger studio like Blumhouse and to get a real budget, because there’s potential here. Most of the issues in this film could’ve been fixed with a proper DP, a good film editor, and professional equipment.
“Don’t Let Them In” (2020) gets a 7/10