Monday, January 26, 2009

Eden Lake

"The best British horror film in years: nasty, scary and tight as a drum. It is a violent ordeal nightmare that brutally withholds the longed-for redemptions and third-act revenges, offering only a nihilist scream and a vicious satirical twist in our perceived social wounds: knife-crime, gangs and the fear of a broken society." (The Guardian)

"Though nightmarish and visceral, it's the most intelligent horror film to have been made by a British director since Jack Clayton's The Innocents in 1960. And it fulfils the two purposes of horror: it involves you emotionally and it's frightening." (The Daily Mail)
Eden Lake is a serious achievement for new director James Watkins, and the high approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes is richly earned. Think Golding's Lord of the Flies crossed with Deliverance crossed with Them, and you begin to have a vague idea of what's in store for you. A couple go on a camping trip, and things are Edenic until they run afoul a pack of young bullies. Words are traded; one thing leads to another, and suddenly things spiral out of hand until torture and killing are on the menu, to the horror of even some of the kids who are in thrall to the lead bully. You would think a pair of adults could hold their own against a group of 12-year olds, but the chavs have enough numbers on their side, and their leader enough fury to match a demon out of Hades.

Some critics say the film was partly intended as a social commentary on chav culture in the U.K. (in the same way Deliverance held up a mirror to that of American hillbillies), but in an interview (youtube) Watkins says it was pure coincidence that the film was released just as the issue became so heated in Britain last summer. He wrote the film three years ago as a "paranoid fantasy" more than anything else. It's eerie, however, that the story speaks so directly to the current chav phenomenon: youth delinquency involving knife crime, habitual foul language, and alienation from society. The dysfunctional parenting behind it is brilliantly realized in the film's final unspeakable act, which is what I respect most about Eden Lake. As you might guess from the first citation at the top, neither Steve nor Jenny come out of this alive. Just as we think Jenny might pull through when she's rescued by the townspeople, they ultimately decide to "look after their own" and finish what the kids started. Appropriately, it's the abusive father of the chief bully who decides to kill her (after sending sweet sonny to bed with a smack across the jaw and vulgar tongue-lashing). The film refuses to supply us with the cheap satisfaction of righteous payback, and that's hard to find these days in a horror film.

The film is definitely not for everyone -- the torture scenes are graphic and nasty -- and not since United 93 has a film made my gut hurt so much from watching terror and death fall on innocents I really come to care about. At points I wanted to turn off my DVD player. But that's how a good horror film is supposed to effect us. Eden Lake commands respect for making us think seriously about the relationship between adults and children in a murderous survivalist setting, and for an unrelenting honesty in its storytelling.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Unrelenting honesty"? Sounds more like unrelenting depravity. Hmm. Rather like "Pastor" Anderson's sermons. Myself, I don't pore over social scum unless there's some lesson to be learned from it. Certainly not just for emotional excitement.

Mike Grondin

1/26/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Mike,

As many critics have noted, this is an unusually intelligent horror film with plenty of lesson. It could just be that this kind of hard-core business isn't for you.

As for Anderson, well, that's another issue altogether.

1/26/2009  
Anonymous Michael W Grondin said...

Loren,

"Holds up a mirror"? That phrase could cover a multitude of sins. After all, it's not a documentary. What real-life lesson is to be learned about real-life chavs from someone's "paranoic fantasy" (director's description) about them? As for the art of it, yes, I'm of an old school that believes that art should be aesthetically pleasing and/or uplifting (though in a realistic way).

1/26/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

The director's fantasy happens to coincide with reality, which is why many have mistaken the film's intent. But if you need a film to be uplifting, then that obviously disqualifies some of the best horror classics ever made. I think what you're saying is you don't like the genre for doing what it's supposed to do: disturb the hell out of you (though in such a way that we care about characters in the drama).

1/26/2009  
Anonymous Mike Grondin said...

Loren,

If what a horror film is "supposed to do" is to create characters that we can care about, only to show them all being killed off, that's quite an indictment of the genre.

1/26/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Well Mike, one's indictment is obviously another's badge of honor.

Which isn't to say that every horror film should follow a formula of "killing everyone off". But sometimes the integrity of the story demands it, as it does in this film. The problem is that movies like this too often give us the "lone survivor", that one character who against all odds survives the ordeal and turns to the tables on the nasties in any number of unbelievable ways. The result is a film that's 2/3 horror and 1/3 action-thriller, and it's disingenuous. Sometimes it works, but not usually.

1/26/2009  
Anonymous Mike Grondin said...

Well, Loren, I certainly wouldn't defend unholy mixtures of horror and self-righteous vengeance in a work of art, but at the same time, I'd say that honesty and integrity aren't values in themselves. It depends on what it is that one is being honest about. Or wouldn't you say that snuff films have honesty and integrity? Also, it's said that this is an "intelligent" film, by which it's apparently meant that it's well-written, at least up to the gratuitous gore, anyway. But an artful nihilism is still nihilism.

What I wonder most, though, is this: why didn't you turn off your DVD when you felt the urge to do so? Why did you force yourself to continue watching? Did you get something out of it that was valuable enough to you to ignore the repugnance?

1/27/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Mike,

I suppose we horror fans have a certain masochistic streak, because we like being disturbed and frightened, in the same way others enjoy crying at tear-jerking romances. There's nothing necessarily unhealthy about this; since childhood I've loved being scared and disturbed (in a safe environment, of course). The problem is that there's so little horror that's good these days, owing to lack of originality and copycat formula.

And as scientists are now starting to tell us, it's not necessarily excitement (as you seem to assume in your first comment) nor a positive payoff at the end (which is often a cop-out, as I've said) that makes people enjoy horror. It's that -- believe it or not -- many people are biologically happy to be horrified:

"People experience both negative and positive emotions simultaneously -- people may actually enjoy being scared, not just relief when the threat is removed... 'the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.'...[This applies] to other experiences that seem to elicit terror, risk, or disgust, such as extreme sports."

But it also comes down to a question of individual taste. For instance I dislike the classic praised by many, The Last House on the Left, because it plays too much like a so-called "snuff film" (as you mention), meaning, for me, there was not enough character development, artistic direction, suspense, and/or thought behind it to compensate for the brutality going on. But others obviously disagree with me. I found that Eden Lake had all these positives to make me "happy to be unhappy", and so I didn't have to turn the DVD player off.

My recent list will give you an idea as to what I find works well. Most titles on this list have unhappy endings, though some are uplifting at the same time, while others edge into the more nihilistic territory of Eden Lake. It really depends on the story being told. I doubt any of this will satisfy you, because horror just isn't your thing! But we need to be careful about dismissing or indicting an entire genre that we don't watch, appreciate, or fully "get". Is that fair?

1/27/2009  
Anonymous Mike Grondin said...

Loren,
I guess our differences have been pretty thoroughly aired. Could you add a few words, though, about the US movie ratings system? It's always struck me as bizarre that explicit sex earns a rating that basically kills the film, but the most gruesome and graphic depictions of human slaughter still get an R-rating.

1/27/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

You don't want to get me started on the rating system. But yes, the idea that explicit sex is supposedly more damaging to young viewers than graphic violence is ridiculous.

1/27/2009  

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