“Who else lives here?”, Mel (Mandeep Dillon) asks her boyfriend Hussein (Mim Sheikh) sarcastically, as he keeps insisting that he is not responsible for things happening in the apartment where they have started living together.
Dominic Bridges’ feature debut Freehold, which he co-wrote with Rae Brunton (of the Outpost franchise), opens with a montage of interior shots revealing the single-bedroom London flat which will be both the film’s only setting, and its arena of combat. This is before Mel has moved in, Estate agent Hussein is woken by his alarm, gets ready for work, and heads out the door, leaving the apartment empty. Well, not quite empty – for this is a film about an unusual, even extreme, form of flat sharing.
As soon as he has left, an ‘inside man’ emerges from behind the bedroom door. This is Orlan, a thin, long-limbed, bearded Spaniard dressed only in his dirty underwear – and if the striking actor who portrays him, Javier Botet, is best known for his turns as otherworldly ghouls in films like [REC], MAMA, The Other Side of the Door, The Conjuring 2 and Don’t Knock Twice, here, unusually, he plays a character who is all too human – even if Hussein, once he becomes aware of his unofficial tenant’s presence, suspects that he might be a ghost. For Freehold fits into that specialised subgenre of films – think David Schmoeller’s Crawlspace (1986), Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight (2011), Nicolas McCarthy’s The Pact (2012), Adam Mason’s Hangman (2015), Victor Zarcoff’s 13 Cameras (aka Slumlord, 2015) – where an unwanted, hidden guest moves about unnoticed between the walls, under the bed and in the furnishings. Orlan is a home invader who never leaves, and who, when his host is either away or asleep, goes about the apartment like a prank-happy gremlin, meticulously and vindictively undermining every aspect of Hussein’s life – his relationship with Mel (Mandeep Dillon), with dealer Sonny (Kola Bokkini), with boss Gerry (Michael McKell) and with his own mother, as well as his financial and physical health – for reasons that only gradually become clear.
It is a deeply creepy set-up, with Orlan the insidious spanner in Hussein’s works and the skeleton in his closet – but at the same time, Orlan is a peculiarly likeable figure, especially when he plays guitar or talks to (and for) the two pigeons roosting on the window ledge (the film’s original title was Two Pigeons), in scenes which give us insights into both his history and his mindset. Distinguished by body shape, race and temperament, the two excellent leads here make for an engagingly odd couple, and DP Ben Moulden keeps the restricted location interesting by shooting it from every imaginable angle. Freehold is also, for all its intimacy, a distinctly topical film, offering a perverse kind of wish fulfilment for anyone who has had to deal with the vagaries of the metropolitan housing crisis or the amoral venality of estate agents.