Killing Ground. 2017. Directed & Written by Damien Power.
Starring Tiarnie Coupland, Harriet Dyer, Aaron Pedersen, Stephen Hunter, Aaron Glenane, Maya Strange, Mitzi Ruhlmann, Ian Meadows, Julian Garner, & Tara Jade Borg.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
The first feature film from Damien Power, Killing Ground, comes disguised as a survival horror-thriller we’ve all seen before, in which a happy couple camping in the wilderness come upon the scene of a grisly murder, only to be caught in the cross-hairs of the killer. While other well known entries in the survival horror sub-genre both start and end how we expect, Power gives his film extra power in his method of storytelling, as well as with unexpected characters and the surprising plot. Not to mention he conveys the story’s brutality without resorting to showing anything overly graphic, nevertheless illustrating a central theme: man is a worse beast than any animal.
When lovers Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) head out to a beach in the middle of the bush, they setup their tent next to a family’s campsite, though nobody seems to be around. As time passes no one returns, and the couple become suspicious. At the same time we watch events from the days prior, discovering exactly where the family from the campsite have ended up and what’s become of them.
Like an Aussie Deliverance, yet somehow even more devoid of hope, Power’s Killing Ground pulls no punches. In 88 slick minutes, the story of Sam and Ian and the other campers collide in a brutal, tense exercise in terror. By telling the story in sections moving from the young couple to the other group of campers, and further segues to some local hunters, Power amplifies the tension as we hurtle toward a savage climax that manages to elicit dread without feeling the need to be cheap and nasty.
Power could’ve easily made a by-the-numbers thriller. Likewise, it wouldn’t have been hard to fall into a trap of exploitative filmmaking. Killing Ground does go for the jugular, it just doesn’t do it the same as every other thriller of its ilk. There are a few instances of downright cruelty, but the power of the film’s horror is built foremost on the way the story’s told.
The immediate focus is on Sam and Ian, an endearing, normal couple. As we get to know them we’re also introduced to the family from the now abandoned beach campsite, a day or so prior to current events. In between these two main plots is a view into the lives of two deadbeat local hunters. Power weaves the three plots together, creating a particularly tense storm of events; a storm we see coming. It’s the fact we do see a horrific confrontation coming down the line which allows such palpable fright to set in slowly.
The storytelling puts the audience directly in Sam and Ian’s shoes. They sit on the beach by the abandoned campsite, not knowing where the people are, while the audience gradually becomes aware of the what the other campers have experienced. This feeling rises to an unbearable boiling point. When Power finally snaps the tension, the film’s climax and finale play like any camping aficionado’s worst nightmare. Best of all, it’s not ham-fisted how other similarly themed films play out, opting for something more unsettling than jump scares and explicit gore.
There are two huge reasons why Killing Ground is so effective. First, a large part of why the film works as a whole are the characters; they’re not archetypal, instead they’re interesting and at times unpredictable. Sam and Ian aren’t a couple with dark secrets hidden from one another, in fact the young couple specifically go on a journey that exposes things about themselves they never actually knew in the first place. They are real, three-dimensional. Same as the local hunters, whose depressingly real socioeconomic situation feels more unsettling than that of nameless, faceless villains in the woods in other survival movies. As all the characters and their paths merge, the tension is fed by the audience’s investment in these people.
Once Power has the audience gripped in the lives of the characters, and after we’ve discovered more of the plot of the camping family, he sets about grinding us down with pure terror. However, it’s how he executes the horror of his story which sets the film apart from many in the sub-genre. For instance, there’s a nasty element of sexual assault hovering over certain scenes. Even in the gruelling moments Power opts to leave most of the physical horror either off-screen, suggested, or not the prime focus of the camera’s lens. In a way, not seeing certain moments intensifies their impact.
It’s amazing how heavy the savagery feels in the moments that do include violence, considering how relatively little we see. Most of the on-screen blood depicted is after the fact of death; there are no slasher-type scenes where blood and gore flies, knives enter skin, so on. Another significant portion of horror comes out in the portrayal of humanity amongst the various characters. It isn’t solely about the evil men do, it also involves what men won’t do, and also the evil they’re not willing or able to stop.One of the hunters owns a dog, whom he takes hunting often. But in the context of the plot’s events, the hunter unleashes the dog in an effort to help him and his hunting buddy in their villainy. The interesting part is that the dog won’t hurt any humans; clearly evident in a scene where the dog sits protecting a victim left in the woods by the hunters. The dog, though only visible at a few points, parallels human beings; particularly to men. The audience gains a further, devastating sense of Ian’s character through the dog, too.
There comes a moment when Ian makes a decision ultimately giving us the verdict of his character as a person, not simply one in a movie. This makes a statement on his own personal nature as a human being, on his tendency of fight or flight. Sam interprets his decision in an honourable way: after one hunter tosses the campsite family’s baby in the woods and leaves it for dead, she believes Ian has left her alone to save the child. Later, we see the hunter’s dog with the injured infant, standing guard in the woods in case anybody comes near. Again, men and animals are juxtaposed, with the dog coming out on top as the more honourable creature.
One of the major differences about this film compared to other survival movies is its ending and how it speaks to human nature. Whereas many of these movies conclude on a totally dark note, others finish with optimism as the hero, or heroes, overcome their would-be killers and triumph. Somewhere amongst the middle is Killing Ground. The end sits somewhere halfway: it isn’t dark, but the conclusion for the heroes is left on a bittersweet note. They’re not entirely filled with hope. Rather, they’ve learned things about themselves, some of which isn’t exactly positive. When the film finishes there are tough questions left to be answered. The heroic characters are safe from the danger of villains, though they remain in the line of fire of their own criticism for how they chose to act in the face of that danger.
The reality of Killing Ground is perhaps why it feels so intense, and surely one of the reasons it succeeds in touching a nerve with its horror. All the characters involved go through a journey, they are left irreparably changed by their experiences throughout the plot, by its consequences and revelations. Choices are made with which the characters must live, or else their lives will never be the same. Instead of going for cheap, easy scares, Power aims for the heart and digs in deep with an 88-minute film fuelled by an oppressive psychological horror with glimpses of real human monstrosity.
A powerful horror-thriller, whether it goes for the physical nastiness, is built on a director’s ability to tell the story with interest. Power’s film is steadily paced, so much so the entire thing turns on a dime becoming utterly horrifying with a single shot of Sam walking a wooded trail, a blurred, unexpected figure in the background. He doesn’t need to resort to a jump scare, blood flicking from a machete as it hacks its victim. With one shot he provides more frights than some other directors can offer with an entire film.
Killing Ground slow burns the nerves to gristle. It’s a relentlessly suffocating piece of work that’s impressive for a feature film debut. From the opening, subtle credits sequence of shots lingering on desolate wilderness and an abandoned campsite, there’s an immediate sense of dread that never once lets up for a second. Writer-director Damien Power turned what in other hands would’ve been a tired rehash of tropes into something with lasting, unsettling power, one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Deliverance, Southern Comfort, the newer Eden Lake, and other now classic survival movies.