The best horror movies expertly prey upon primal fears, and in the process, dissuade us from wanting to do things we’d otherwise normally love to do. Like go swimming in the ocean (Jaws). Or attend sleepaway camp (Friday the 13th). Or go to bed (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Or, as any gore-hound knows, spend a weekend escaping civilization (i.e. the cultured city or suburbs) for the seclusion and tranquility of the great rural outdoors. In classics such as The Old Dark House, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Eaten Alive, Motel Hell, Tourist Trap, Wrong Turn, Calvaire and Wolf Creek—not to mention more straightforward thrillers like Straw Dogs, Misery, Breakdown, and A Perfect Getaway—there’s no place on Earth more deadly for a modern man or woman than the middle of nowhere, where the rule of law is replaced by a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, and where animalistic savages assert their dominion in the most ghastly ways imaginable.
They’re paranoid liberal fantasies about the degenerate horrors that lurk off the beaten path, and the latest nail-biting member of that club is Australian writer/director Damien Power’s debut feature Killing Ground (in theaters Friday, July 21), which follows in the footsteps of its homeland’s Wolf Creek and, coming on the heels of Ben Young’s Hounds of Love, suggests that there’s a horror renaissance burgeoning Down Under.
Power’s film is indebted to innumerable predecessors, and in terms of its basic plot outline, does little to radically reinvent the subgenre to which it belongs. Nonetheless, as far as cannily orchestrated cat-and-mouse nightmares go, it works one’s nerves over with skill, jumbling up its story’s chronology in disorienting ways, and delivering a survivalist saga whose unnerving impact stems in large part from its refusal to shy away from the suddenness—and ugliness—of violence.
With a title like Killing Ground, an atmosphere of disaster naturally hangs over the peaceful opening moments of Power’s tale, which finds couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) taking a drive out to Gungilee Falls, where they plan to spend some quality time together hanging out in the wild. As they motor down a two-lane road, they jokingly sing-song about human skeletal structure—since Ian is a doctor—and, upon realizing that they’ve forgotten the champagne, stop at a local liquor store to procure some booze. It’s the sort of offhand decision that comes back to doom pretty young people in movies such as this, and sure enough, after Sam is startled by a dog in a nearby car, Ian makes the classic mistake of asking that canine’s owner, scraggly-bearded German (Aaron Pedersen), for directions—thus informing the local hillbilly that he and his out-of-towner wife will be stranding themselves in the deep, dark forest for the foreseeable future.
After panicking over the thought that German is following them—leading to an automotive spin-out that will only compound problems later—they arrive at their destination. There, they discover an SUV parked at the entrance to the hiking trail, and an abandoned campsite on the beach at which they’re setting up temporary residence. Puzzled but hardly perturbed, they pitch their tent, and then out of the blue, get engaged—a decision that comes courtesy of Sam’s spontaneous proposal. Sam then attempts to call her sister to report the good news, only to discover that she has no cell service (a detail that’s now a de facto requirement for any horror movie intent on keeping its characters in isolated peril).
Cut to a young teenage girl named Em (Tiarnie Coupland), who as it turns out, is one of the people—along with her dad (Julian Garner), mom (Maya Stange), and baby brother Ollie (Riley and Liam Parkes)—who established that now-deserted riverside tent, where they all shared fireside tales of massacres and, later that evening, suffered traumatic bad dreams. Powers thus unexpectedly sets up concurrent narratives, one past and one present, that only dovetail after he’s spent considerable time providing background on all his would-be victims, as well as the duo destined to cause them so much harm. That would be German and his barking-mad buddy Chook (Aaron Glenane), two deviants who live together in a ramshackle one-story abode with German’s hungry dog Banjo, and who have a fondness for taking advantage of any unwise souls who think they can use their untamed backyard as a playground—a fact that becomes clear when, shortly after first running into Ian and Sam, German returns home to find a note left by Chook on the kitchen counter that reads “Gone Hunting.”
Killing Ground’s fractured narrative strands progress at a leisurely pace, the better to create trepidation for inevitable calamity. Even though it’s obvious that nothing good is going to come of this scenario, however, the way in which brutality and bloodshed emerge remains surprising thanks to Powers’ shrewd understanding that it often arrives without warning. That’s most true of a particular encounter between Chook, Sam and Ollie that epitomizes the film’s realistic approach to cruelty and carnage—realistic in that, for all of the horror-movie flourishes utilized here, the unimaginable manifests itself with a swiftness and thudding bluntness that’s far from dramatic. The material’s most wrenching moments are amplified by their severe matter-of-factness, which helps to create a level of awful unpredictability that carries through to the far-from-heartening conclusion.
Powers’ direction is assured without being overly showy, such that he stages a few prolonged single-take sequences that are at once formally graceful and yet reasonably understated, refusing to call direct attention to themselves. Be it a gorgeous shot in which the presence of an unnoticed, stumbling background figure creates intense anxiety and anticipation, or the many compositions in which claustrophobic darkness threatens to snuff out any faint flickers of light, the filmmaker infuses his somewhat routine setup with both polish and gut-punching dread. An us-vs.-them cautionary tale about enlightened people thinking they can master the dog-eat-dog wilderness—as a weekend-getaway pastime, no less—it’s a B-movie in the best sense of the term: rugged, no-nonsense, slyly unconventional, and fully aware that sometimes, imprudent decisions and bad luck conspire to beget unthinkable tragedies.