What’s in a name? Well, when you’re dealing with the more disturbing side of human nature, quite a lot, as seen in the new British horror/thriller Eden Lake which takes the oft-used tack of throwing its protagonists into isolation and unfamiliarity, and eventually a hell of a lot worse.
Of course, isolated locales are the bread and butter of this genre, from Aussie Outback shocker Wolf Creek to the daddy of lakeside horrors Friday the 13th, but writer/director James Watkins knows this full well and simply gets on with the job of creating that separateness, even throwing in a couple of overhead panning shots a la the Shining for good measure.
Based around the attempt by a young couple (played by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) to have a weekend away at the titular lake before being ignored, harassed, confronted and then brutalized by a gang of teenage thugs, the film plays relatively effectively on the current zeitgeist of apparently uncontrolled youth violence.
Kelly Reilly’s character, Jenny, is a schoolteacher and we’re shown as an introduction the idyllic innocence of her young charges. This, ‘ah, aren’t children sweet’ moment is an obvious juxtaposition to the inevitable meeting with their older and more offensive counterparts, perhaps even their older selves, and this slightly heavy-handed story-telling occasionally hampers what is, in the main, an effective and fairly brutal piece of film-making. There were admittedly a couple of moments where attempts at the touchingly dramatic between Jenny and Steve (Fassbender) amidst the terror brought sniggers instead of the planned for heart-wrench, but it is the central performance by Kelly Reilly that really anchors the whole enterprise. Her emotional and physical degradation by story’s end including a memorable sojourn in a vomitously stinky hideaway and a wincingly unfortunate foot incident, is admirable, even though under the layers of grime she does end up resembling a certain Austrian hotfooting it from a Predator.
As the real catalyst and the one who changes his tune from the familiar refrain of ‘boys will be boys’, to the initial confrontations with the gang, Fassbender plays his role with easy assurance. The moment he realizes that this bunch of kids are a serious threat is made instantly recognizable even though the majority of us have thankfully never experienced it.
The characterization of the gang itself begins menacingly as they don’t appear as characters per se, just one of those groups we try not to pay too much attention too, even as they cause annoyance around the edges. Their easy use of mobile technology in their pursuit of the hapless couple is telling and truthful, but as soon as the film begins to treat them as real individuals with their own creeping doubts, under the thrall of a truly unhinged leader it works less well. That feeling of almost supernatural dread is replaced by a contest between lean horror storytelling and slightly clumsy social commentary. At one point we are even shown a glimpse of the homestead and the clichéd brutish parent, and the village near the lake and woods is introduced early on as probably as indirectly guilt-ridden as its offspring.
In the end though Eden Lake produces enough of the menace and scares to deserve its three stars, taking the seemingly particular home-grown obsession with violence and the young and mixing it with Hollywood sensibilities. And maybe it was just me, but I’m sure I was a little more watchful walking from the train station towards home.
Eden Lake opens in the U.K. on September 12th