Bait begins with a striking shot that, like the film as a whole, walks a fine line between sheer brutality and exploitative bilge. Bruised, battered and bloody, we see a woman sat on a bathroom floor, her body shaking, her eyes sobbing, and her top torn. Outside meanwhile, we see another woman, blonde and beautiful, climbing the stairs, complete with a black eye on her face, a knife in her hand, and sexy lingerie clad to her figure.
The former lady is Dawn (Joanna Mitchell); the latter is Bex (Victoria Smurfit). They’re best friends living in a grotty Northern English town, who spend their days selling cakes from a dead-end market stall and batting away the advances of leering local perverts. Dawn and Bex dream of opening their own café, but find themselves financially strapped. That is, until they meet Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger), a local loan shark who offers to lend the girls the money they need in order to make their dreams come true. However, having fallen behind on their repayments, the pair soon find themselves facing the savage wrath of Jeremy and his brick shithouse “business associate” Si (Adam Fogerty).
Behind the camera is former soap actor Dominic Brunt, which perhaps explains why Bait has the look and feel of an extended Emmerdale episode, albeit one that’s been directed by either Tobe Hooper or John Carpenter. Building on Slinger’s understatedly unnerving performance – slimy and scary – Brunt crafts a potent atmosphere of psychological terror that he augments with a sustained sense of dread.
It’s a tense film, but what sets Bait apart is that it’s also impressively topical. Brunt paints a painful portrait of financial desperation. The economic worries of these two charmingly sweet and sympathetic characters, coupled with Geoff Boyle’s grey and grim cinematography, channels the trauma that has been felt by so many during the global recession; poverty literally pours from the pixels.
First and foremost though, Bait has been designed as a horror film – it played at Film4’s FrightFest last month – and yet it is here that the story stumbles. The violence is vicious, ruthless and repetitive. And much like the humour in Paul Roundell’s script, it’s also misjudged. The savage denouement, in particular, is a drastically overwrought affair, more concerned with tantalising rather than terrifying its audience. But there’s still enough terror, tension and social commentary in the first two acts to ensure you remain hooked throughout.