The latest in a stream of British survival horrors, what separates James Watkins' Eden Lake from the pack is clever subtext and a commitment to putting its protagonists through the grinder, without allowing the salve of comedy or the supernatural to be smeared over its barbed nature -- a laThe Cottage and The Descent.
Delightful primary school teacher Jenny (Kelly Reilly) is whisked away for a weekend break by her hunky boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender) to Slackton Quarry -- an area of surprising natural beauty, despite its trashy name -- only to find the council have fenced it off, intending to turn this hidden gem into plush getaway "Eden Lake". Not easily put off, Jenny and Steve break through the perimeter fence, park their 4x4 on the edge of a beautiful lake, pitch a tent, and settle down for a relaxing few days of sunbathing and swims...
However, tranquility proves impossible thanks to a disruptive gang of local teenage hoodlums, who rock up with a barking Rottweiler and loud music to engage in lakeside tomfoolery that spoils Jenny and Steve's idyll. Brett (Jack O'Connell) is the cocky ringleader of his chav acolytes, whose delinquent behaviour escalates from antisocial (jeering, perving on Jenny's bikini, flashing his penis), through criminal (stealing their car), to downright homicidal once Steve accidentally kills their pet...
The kids are the key to what makes Eden Lake so effective; it understands the inherent fear many people have of felonious, ill-educated broods. Kids are a blessing in so many ways, but they're also a reminder to adults of their inevitable date with death. Plus, grown-ups are conditioned to cut children some slack, but there's a grey area when dealing with unruly kids in their mid-teens: they're too young to be considered fully mature, but too old to be easily subjugated by adults. Here, Steve tries to appeal to the gang's sense of right and wrong, appearing amenable and on their level, but the clique aren't afraid to indulge their sick fantasies in this wooded refuge from authority.
It's a judicious tweak on Deliverance, essentially -- fuelled by modern concerns over disaffected youth who bury their heads in video-game violence, find fun in recording misdemeanors on phones, lack strong parental figures, play truant from school, intimidate the elderly, and make national headlines for knife crimes. Eden Lake gives form to these extreme fears of youth, places them into a slasher film context, and simply lets playtime commence.
From the same production arm that gave us Neil Marshall's The Descent, Eden Lake shares the same earthy grit, believable performances and droning music score. It's Friday The 13th with Jason replaced by a BMX gang of hoodies, and relative newcomer Reilly proves to be an effective lead -- forced to devolve and numb herself to societal conditioning, to rescue her boyfriend (who, in one standout scene, is captured and becomes a rag-doll for the ruffians to stab as a rights-of-passage.) The usual horror cliché of an innocuous-looking beauty turning into a steely-eyed huntress, faced smeared with mud and blood from her ordeals, is trotted out -- to fine effect.
Possibly the best thing about Eden Lake is how it doesn't end on a gutless cop-out, or wrap things up neatly in traditional Hollywood formula. Instead, it cleverly contorts to make the horror truly inescapabale and generational, in one of the more unsettling and bleak endings for awhile.
Overall, Eden Lake sticks to genre convention for the most part, but the beauty is in how much more effective the villains are as acne-ridden thugs. The setting is suitably remote and primitive, the moral compass sent spinning, and the enemy mostly unreasonable and unrelenting. The screws tighten very nicely and, despite being just another variant on a prolific sub-genre, it's crafted by a writer-director who knows his stuff, and has been filled with actors who bring the horror to chilling life. It's nothing radically new in the slightest, but it's a fine example of low-budget movie-making with several stick-in-the-mind sequences and shocks.
Rollercoaster Films / The Weinstein Company 91 minutes
Writer & Director: James Watkins
Cast: Kelly Reilly (Jenny), Michael Fassbender (Steve), Jack O'Connell (Brett), James Gandhi (Adam), Thomas Turgoose (Cooper), Bronson Webb (Reece), Finn Atkins (Paige), Thomas Gill (Ricky) & Shaun Dooley (Jon)