This compact and atmospheric psychological horror draws on fairy tales and gothic literature in telling a very modern family drama. A new stepmother arrives to meet her husband’s children and things are not as they seem. A tale as old as time, but writer/director Sebastian Godwin takes the fairy tale tropes and a set of children that could have stepped from the pages of The Turn of the Screw, and gives them a contemporary twist with added themes of gaslighting and domestic abuse. The result is a taut exercise in dread, and even if it doesn’t reinvent its literary progenitors, it proves adept at subtly subverting expectations.

Holly (Aisling Loftus) and Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill) are newlyweds driving out to the English countryside to meet his family. When they get to the splendidly eerie country house that was Richard’s former home, his three children Lucia (Hattie Gotobed), Ralph (Lukas Rolfe), and Anna (Raffiella Chapman) are there to greet them. Richard’s ex-wife Nina however is nowhere to be seen. When they decide to wait for her, despite a text to say she can’t make it, the kids grow increasingly shifty. Holly begins to suspect it’s not just kids struggling to adjust to a new figure in there lives, but that she may actually be in danger. Is she imagining it, or is even Richard beginning to act very strangely too?

With a very simple story and a tiny cast of five, Homebound leaves so much context up to the viewer that it blares warning signs from the off. Without stating anything directly, it’s clear that Holly is much younger than Richard, and that it’s clearly been something of a whirlwind romance. When she sees him in a environment that’s completely alien to her, but was home to him, she realises that she knows very little about him. As soon as she steps over the threshold, we’re aligned with Holly and everything is filtered through her perspective. She’s constantly having to interpret every little gesture not just from these unfamiliar children, but from a part of her husband she’s never seen. With each glance, each ambiguous word, each gesture, Godwin… well, turns the screw that little bit more.

It’s a premise so bare-bones that it’s practically skeletal. As such it relies strongly on the actors to present all the unspoken baggage and contextual punch. All rise to the task admirably. It’s Holly that has the narrative arc and Loftus does very well in the role, managing to make us believe she would stay in the escalating situation, despite there being more red flags than a Communist rally. Goodman-Hill is also just charming enough initially that his increasingly strange behaviour could be seen as an outlier. However, it’s the younger performers that really shine. While the children are almost the definition of creepy kids, they’re played without melodrama, but with a coiled-spring intensity. Hattie Gotobed as Lucia is especially good, the eldest child from whom the younger siblings take their cues. Her evident dislike of Holly has something feline about it, but it’s not clear whether she actively wishes her harm, or simply wants her to leave.

It’s rare that you wish for a film like this to be expanded upon a little, but at 71 minutes Homebound, unlike Holly, never begins to outstay its welcome. A few more moments of real fright to raise the thrumming tension towards crescendo levels would have been very welcome; for better or worse it’s restrained and tasteful to a fault, keeping literally everything up to the viewer. Even so, Homebound demonstrates a real level of confidence in its storytelling and its carefully-edited rhythms of ebbing and flowing tension to assume that you’ll follow.

Screening as part of FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival