Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s crime thriller Imperium.
In a year that’s already given us the sublime, near-perfect Green Room, how could another movie about white supremacists possibly hope to make any kind of impact? Imperium didn’t exactly light up the box office, or go down a storm with critics, so it’s safe to say it won’t be challenging Jeremy Saulnier’s movie to the top spot of any Best Of lists. However, what it does manage to do is stake a claim for itself in the quieter moments, eschewing gore for fear.
None other than Daniel Radcliffe – taking yet another chance in a challenging role so far removed from Potter it’d be difficult to imagine anything stranger if Swiss Army Man didn’t exist – is Nate, a young, nerdy FBI agent tasked with infiltrating a group of white supremacists at the behest of Toni Collette’s superior. After shaving his head, throwing on some camo and learning to dead-stare everyone into oblivion, he begins his deceit.
Imperium kicks off with one of those stomach-dropping horror tones, the kind reserved for eerie, slow-burn movies where we just know some very bad shit is about to go down. Naturally, however, since it’s being showcased here we know this isn’t technically a horror movie. But it has more in common with Green Room than just subject matter, in particular with how it handles the interactions between the racists and the innocent.
Radcliffe’s not the obvious choice for this kind of role, but he transforms himself, enveloping himself in it. The actor’s diminutive stature is played to great effect in the film’s opening moments, where he’s dwarfed by other officers while in the midst of a raid. Later, once shaven-headed and forcibly-tattooed, he broadens his shoulders and straightens his spine so that when he stands up to much bigger dudes, he seems imposing.
It helps that the men in question are the kind of skinhead assholes who ruin punk shows for everyone by starting fights, but have little to no real reason for their anger. Imperium‘s most frightening moment comes with the reveal that, rather than these mouthy lunatics being at the helm of a terrorist plot, it’s actually a sweet-natured, softly-spoken family man with whom Nate has become close who is the real mastermind.
Director Daniel Ragussis, making his feature debut here, and who also penned his own screenplay, hints at violence throughout. There’s this constant feeling that something terrible is about to happen right in our own backyard. Unlike Saulnier’s movie, however, the only moment of real blood-letting comes during a White Power rally, when some anti-fascism protestors storm the barricades and one of the racists gets injured in the process.
Rather than robbing the movie of its power, though, this decision leaves us, much like Nate, on edge throughout. And when he explodes, first at a controversy-stoking radio host and then at his superior, there’s relief in his outburst. Imperium keeps us on tenterhooks throughout, in tense encounters with non-believers and hardcore enthusiasts alike. Meanwhile, Nate only ever seems to catch some sleep on his rented sofa, and we can understand why.
It may not be as accomplished as Green Room, but Imperium makes a strong case for itself as both a shocking true-life story and a Not Quite Horror movie that leaves one’s blood cold chiefly on account of its normal, everyday setting. Nate is encouraged to try to understand the people he’s deceiving, but as he does, the mask slips and we realise that what we’re most afraid of likely isn’t shoving us at a hardcore show, with a swastika tattooed on its face.
Rather, it’s handing us a veggie burger in the back garden on a sunny day, casually encouraging kids to build tree-houses to escape those of a different race.