When it comes to Australian actress Alice Englert, it feels a bit like we’re watching a star being born in fast-forward, and not necessarily in the right order. The 18-year-old daughter of Jane Campion – though she’ll make it on her own name and merits, thank you very much – came to critics’ attention at Toronto last year, with her cool turn as a precocious seductress in Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa.” The performance nabbed her a British Independent Film Award, though despite an Oscar-qualifying run, US audiences will only see it in mid-March. By that time, she’ll have already made her mainstream mark as the heroine of Warner’s all-star adaptation of teen-lit phenomenon “Beautiful Creatures.”

Amid those twin breakthroughs comes a role that, in the natural order of things, would precede both of them: scream-queen duty in microbudget British horror flick “In Fear.” Such films can often hang around like unsightly skeletons in a bright young ingenue’s closet, but while the compressed timeline of Englert’s ascendance ensures it’ll the last to land in theatres, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here: “In Fear,” which debuted in Sundance’s cracking Park City At Midnight strand on Sunday, may be rough-hewn and emphatically un-prestigious, but it’s also kind of terrific.

The feature debut of accomplished British TV director Jeremy Lovering, “In Fear” is a modest genre exercise, though not a negligible or careless one: interspersing sustained stretches of gore-free psychological prowling with a few throat-grabbing jolts, it’s pitched roughly halfway between “Duel” and “Wolf Creek” in the low-concept stakes.

The premise could be scrawled on the proverbial cocktail napkin, if it need be written down at all: with spirits as high as their fuel gauge is low, wholesome young couple Lucy and Tom (Englert and Iain De Caestecker) get lost in the Irish backwoods in search of a remote countryside hotel. As darkness falls and road signs lead them in circles, there’s an escalation of curious goings-on: untouched cars doors slam open and shut, towering pine trees fall in their general direction, while Lucy’s luggage is found strewn on the side of the road.

None of this, of course, stops them from exiting their vehicle at frequent inopportune moments, or from allowing a lone hit-and-run victim (Allen Leech) onto the backseat after he none-too-convincingly claims he’s being menaced by the same unseen forces. As a checklist of situational horror-film traditions, it’s very nearly as comprehensive as “The Cabin in the Woods,” and a lot less arch with it. Meanwhile, if any other horror films have made such corruptive use of the bucolic Irish countryside, none immediately springs to mind. It’s a perversely gentle locale for a nasty little cat-and-mouse game in this gentle locale, with its rustic winding lanes and dense greenery turned by darkness into an oppressive obstacle course – cinematography David Katznelson, enjoying a jazzier bag of tricks than his Emmy-winning work on “Downton Abbey” permits, has evident fun negotiating the dual tight spaces of the road and the hapless couple’s car.

So much contemporary horror is so preoccupied with its own relationship to the genre that engaging the audience’s nerves becomes a secondary concern. “In Fear” is simple and sparse enough to be declared a throwback, though it’s not particularly academic or even particularly clever: I do know that it scared the living shit out of me, and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely into why.


As for Englert, this would be an eye-catcher even without the advance warning of “Ginger and Rosa.” She’s a good sport on the scream front, but doesn’t neglect the person behind the panic, imbuing Lucy’s mounting physical distress with tetchier irritations and flashes of teenage drollness. (She’s got an endearing sparring partner, too, in De Caestecker, who recently impressed in Scottish character drama “Shell.”) I sense there’s a limited window for the young actress to be cast in such scrappy B-movies, but “In Fear” reflects very well on her indeed.

(On a side note, “In Fear” was screened at Sundance together with “Broken Night,” a thoroughly unnerving 9-minute short by writer-director Guillermo Arriaga that plays out in a loopier vein to his acclaimed feature work. Sharply shot by Janusz Kaminski, it details the unhappy fate of a mother and her four-year-old daughter after their car overturns on a remote country road; they survive the crash, but eerier trouble awaits them. Keep an eye out for it.)

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.