The Railway Children is a children’s story originally penned by Edith Nesbit in 1905. The tale tells of a group of children who lose their farther to false imprisonment, having been accused by the British government of selling secret information to the Russians.
Jason Figgis’ horror film takes its name from Nesbit’s novel and the plot bares a similarity to the original book in that it concerns another set of parentless children. However, there are no railways in sight, just dilapidated houses and bleak Irish landscapes.
The girls at the centre of the story are Evie (Catherine Wrigglesworth) and Fran (Emily Forster), two sisters attempting to survive alone, following the demise of their parents to a pandemic affecting only adults. They hop to and from abandoned homes in search of food and shelter, reading Edith Nesbit’s story to each other as they go.
As the girls progress on their travels they meet a wider ensemble of young people like themselves. The lack of adult guidance has effected the characters they encounter differently, gradually exposing the girls to a deepening vision of horror.
Perhaps because of its shoestring budget (a mere €500), this is a horror film that foregoes many of the more visceral generic conventions. The film plays as a series of extended scenes with characters locked in relentless conflict, built out of the dialogue. As Figgis successfully increases the stakes, the drama (derived more from melodrama, than horror) becomes increasingly engaging.
In common with the shooting style of realist filmmakers, such as Ken Loach, Figgis chose to shoot The Railway Children in chronological order; this method helped the young actors comprehend their character archs. The approach affords the film an unexpected grounding in realism, which appeases the low budget constraints of the production.
This is not to say that The Railway Childen is completely without horror. Figgis splices visceral flashbacks of the traumatic past into dialogue scenes, to present the characters’ horrific memories. The performances by the adult cast in these scenes are particularly bold.
The problem with this method though is that Evie and Fran rarely encounter any threat or horror in the immediate tense; this diminishes the opportunity for real suspense. The low key digital cinematography also limits the emotional impact of the film’s imagery, which had strong potential given the remote shooting locales.
In spite of its low budget trappings however, The Railway Children offers something unexpectedly fresh for a modern horror. The film introduces a young ensemble of Irish talent and gives them some real dramatic material to work with. Some genre fans may be put off that The Railway Children is more melodrama than horror, but this is a blessing in disguise, as the film’s impact cuts far deeper as a result.