On paper, Await Further Instructions has a slam dunk premise. The holiday-set horror film takes a dysfunctional family, locks them in an enclosed space and turns up the pressure. Unfortunately Johnny Kevorkian‘s film is almost entirely populated by unlikeable characters, so asking the audience to spend nearly two hours with them is the film’s scariest aspect. Death has never seemed so merciful.
There’s barely any lead-up before prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) and his new girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik) walk into the viper’s nest on Christmas Eve. Nick hasn’t been home in some time — it is implied that a previous awful experience is to blame, but this is never explicitly elaborated on. Understandably Nick is apprehensive about introducing Annji to his family’s toxicity. She is more upbeat, but those hopes quickly dissipate as they are repeatedly confronted with racist, xenophobic comments.
Mother Beth (Abigail Cruttenden) is the most open-minded, but this has more to do with her desire to keep the peace so that Nick isn’t driven away. Still, her introductory scene finds her casting a wary, uncertain eye on Annji’s culturally specific holiday treats.
Grandpa (David Bradley), on the other hand, is openly racist. He’s a shit-disturber by nature, conflating ethic diversity in the UK with terrorism and demonizing the Other just to get everyone riled up. Bradley is clearly having a ball playing such a despicable character, which helps to make one of the film’s least enjoyable characters (slightly) more palatable.
The true villain of the piece, however, is religious patriarch Tony (Grant Masters) who demands strict adherence to tradition with military-level precision. There’s an underlying theme about the cycle of abuse perpetuating itself in the way that Grandpa diminishes Tony, who then dishes it out onto his own son, but it is only briefly explored before it is abandoned.
Following a number of tense standoffs, Nick and Annji elect to sneak out in the middle of the night, only to discover that the house has been surrounded by impregnable metallic siding. After the rest of the family — including shrill pregnant sister Kate (Holly Weston) and her lunkheaded boyfriend Scott (Kris Saddler) — have been awoken and a brief exploratory survey has been conducted, the TV begins broadcasting what Tony believes is a government/military message. As the instructions become increasingly odd, confronting and violent, however, the already at-odds family unit begins to crack, resulting in a number of accidents and deaths.
In this way, Await Further Instructions feels like an amalgamation of The Twilight Zone, Compliance and Right Outside Your Door. Early in the film there’s a news report that suggests that a terror attack is underway and the power is briefly interrupted before everyone goes to bed. The exact nature of the “event” is one of the film’s ongoing mysteries: the script by Gavin Williams eventually raises the idea that it is not actually an attack, but rather a government experiment designed to scrutinize the family’s reactions under duress (which places it firmly in Twilight Zone territory). The Compliance comparison comes into play as the messaging system demands their full cooperation on uncomfortable tasks such as injecting themselves with used needles, isolating the “infected” and other increasingly insane demands.
The family dynamics on display at the beginning of the film continue to play out as Tony’s religious/military reverence insists on strict compliance to the TV’s requests, while Nick and Annji (as the reasonable, rational thinkers) tend to question and resist. Alas Williams’ script never fully commits to exploring these differences. Nick and Annji are clearly audience surrogates, passing judgment on the family’s outdated points of view, but Await Further Instructions deliberately resists pitting the characters’ beliefs against each other in favour of keeping the conflict shallow and straightforward (Tony = bad, Nick and Annji = good). This is particularly true once the body count begins to rise and nuanced character work goes out the window.
If there’s one commendable aspect of Await Further Instructions, it is the fact that the film doesn’t pull its punches. When characters are injured or killed, it doesn’t happen offscreen or in a pretty fashion, and it hurts. The effects are all practical, which is always appreciated, and the use of blue, green and red lighting lends the film an otherworldly tone that helps to reinforce the madness as the family become increasingly desperate to survive.
Unfortunately this is a genuinely mean film – both in character, as well as the way that characters treat each other. Despite high production values and good FX, Await Further Instructions‘ fatal flaw is that spending nearly two hours with despicable characters isn’t enjoyable, even if part of the experience is watching them get their comeuppance.
Await Further Instructions is playing Grimmfest 2018 this weekend and is currently available in select theatres and on VOD.