KILLING GROUND is a Fierce & Frighteningly Human Survival Thriller

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.
Hypergiant Films/Arcadia
Rated R. 88 minutes.

Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
KILLINGGROUND3The 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.
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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.
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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.KILLINGGROUNDCOVEROne 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.
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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.

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IN THE DEEP: A Fierce Shark Feature with Ferocious Teeth

In the Deep. 2016. Directed by Johannes Roberts. Screenplay by Roberts & Ernest Riera.
Starring Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Santiago Segura, Yani Gellman, Chris J. Johnson, & Axel Mansilla.
The See/Dimension Films/Flexibon Films/Fyzz Facility.
Not Rated. 87 minutes.
Thriller.

★★★★
POSTER Most of us love a good horror about what really scares us. You can see all the possession movies, all the ghosts, the slashers, but what often gets to the majority of viewers is something plausible. Or at least something you’ve dreamed of, terrorised yourself over. For some it’s clowns. For me, it’s sharks.
Ever since I saw the Spielberg landmark classic, the shark picture which, single-handed, created the summer blockbuster, well let’s just say I’ve not seen the water the same since. Honestly, it changed me. I used to love the sea as a boy. Now I loathe it. Because of people like Spielberg, whose wonderful movie scarred me. After that film people tried to replicate its terror, though none really have. Other than a couple decent ones, the cinematic sea is filled with stinkers.
In the Deep, also known under the title 47 Metres Down, is a surprising little gem. Although its premise isn’t overly original, the execution is spectacularly unsettling. Instead of going the same way as other similarly themed films there’s a slightly more creepy element to this setup, which sees two sisters stuck on the ocean floor after getting into a shark cage on a slightly rusty boat. This is sort of scarier. Whereas characters in certain other shark flicks are left in the open ocean, they can go anywhere. Yet these women are stuck for a large part of their story, caged at the bottom of the ocean, and surrounded by great white sharks. Director Johannes Roberts makes the most of that scenario, bringing the viewer’s heart rate to a maximum while focusing more on suspense and tension than bodies getting torn apart. As a lover of horror, I’m never against seeing some blood. To make a scary flick without resorting to much of the physical horror? That’s special.
I’m always happy to see Matthew Modine. He is charismatic in the most nonchalant sense that it’s near ridiculousness. He’s awesome. Not that he’s a central character, he plays a minor supporting role, but he’s around enough to be enjoyable. Best of all, he’s natural as the hippie-ish boat captain cum shark adventure entrepreneur.
Both Mandy Moore and Claire Holt are solid. They are, obviously, the crux of the film, as they play the two lead characters put into the terrifying situation with which we’re dealing. Plunged into an emotional, physical headspace, the two women really bring the audience to a visceral place. I’m not even a huge fan of Moore, but she does the job. She is truly convincing, and her fear is powerful. Also, there’s a nice little arc to her character. Rather than stay the typical scared person, her character evolves slightly within a short amount of time. She almost becomes fearless by the end, though not completely. Most of all, these two feel like sisters. Their bond, the way they talk and act with each other, all these little pieces make the characters feel real. And that’s sort of missing in a lot of these shark movies. We often get stuck with a married couple, happy or otherwise, and it becomes about their marriage, how the breakdown happens under stress. In opposition, our characters here pull together, they strengthen. It’s an atypical plot development between characters in contrast to movies like The Reef and Open Water (both of which I did happen to enjoy, by the way). Furthermore, to have just two characters really stuck in that situation is much more efficient. When you have more, they become fodder for shark kills. Yes, we do see another character get chomped. But the actual deaths are kept minimal. What lays the teeth into us here is the acting combined with all the tension created through the direction, the editing, plus great music and sound design all around.
Pic1 Lots of good ocean cinematography, nice underwater camerawork all around. Particularly love the claustrophobic way we’re drawn into the situation of these women. Initially when the cage goes to the ocean floor, there’s a frantic few shots with Lisa (Moore) struggling, hyperventilating, Kate (Holt) trying to help her; you feel a part of the panic, your breath catches witnessing the frenzy. Along with those shots Roberts mixes in this great little view of the blood in one of their masks escaping slightly, staining the water red. So much to take in right after this intense moment of watching them sink all the way down. The pacing, the intensity, it’s all spot on. Never lets up, really. Once they begin their descent you’re plunged – literally – into this pulse pounding scenario that only seems to get worse.
This brings me to another aspect I love: the sound. First off, you have the sound design. We get to feel the actual pounding of the pulse – not ours, but often Lisa, whose first time scuba diving isn’t going nearly as fun as planned. In addition, the impressive musical sounds of tomandandy make for an exciting one-two punch. While we hear the sounds of the ocean, or the lack of sound, the heartbeats, the air in the helmets and the bubbles rushing out, tomandandy provide us with a further dose of psychological dread by suffocating you with a sonic wall of electronics. Each one of these aspects is accomplished well enough to hook you. Together, they make the movie a nice thrill ride that horrifies without having to go the nasty, bloody route other shark features try to execute.
I’ve got to give this a 4 star rating. In the Deep is full of excitement. There were times I jumped, once or twice I felt revolted by the little blood and physical horror that were actually onscreen (super effective). Holt and Moore got to me as the sisters, their whole plot kept me glued to the screen. Their final ascent to try and make it out of the sea alive is the craziest sequence and I absolutely dropped my jaw at one specific shot – you’ll know it when they try to light a flare, very gorgeous, horrifically (in the best way possible) framed to the fullest extent.
Above all else, the whole movie completely subverted my expectations, one plot point to the next. Not something I usually expect from one of these types of movies. Right up to the end it challenged my perceptions of what I thought might happen. At the very least you’ll appreciate the effort of the writing to stay fresh. Not a huge fan of much else Roberts has done as director. Although I do hope that now, with this veritable success, he’ll start to do some better, more exciting pictures. This is a lot of fun, in that scare the shit out of you way that the good shark adventures get your adrenaline flowing hard.

NO ESCAPE is an Adrenaline Soaked Ride Inside a Bloody Revolution

No Escape. 2015. Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Screenplay by John Erick & Drew Dowdle.
Starring Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Owen Wilson, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Thanawut Ketsaro, Chatchawai Kamonsakpitak, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Tanapol Chuksrida, & Jon Goldney. Bold Films/Brothers Dowdle Productions/Living Films.
Rated R. 103 minutes.
Action/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER Ever since The Poughkeepsie Tapes I’ve made sure to keep an eye out for John Erick Dowdle. That was an intense bit of found footage horror which left a mark on me. That’s why when As Above, So Below came out I was quick to line up, and unlike many others I thought it was a solid, underrated modern horror movie. Then with the announcement of No Escape, my interest was piqued. Not only did I enjoy the concept of the film, the idea sounded great, I was also happy to see a few bigger names attached that I enjoy, such as Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, and the always charming, sometimes ass kicking Pierce Brosnan.
No Escape is a good action-thriller that takes place when Jack and Annie Dwyer (Owen Wilson/Lake Bell) end up smack dab in the midst of a terrifying revolution in a South East Asian country, their only hope is to stick together, to protect their family, and their only helping hand is a British man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan).
There’s a special place in my heart for any movie that can make me physically, viscerally react. Many of the scenes and extended sequences are so suspenseful it makes you want to yell to the characters, they’ll make you feel right in the middle of the action, as if you’re about to be hit with a stray bullet, or hacked with a machete. There are a few faults, and one or two things I felt were overkill. However, the overall effectiveness of the movie is heavy, thrilling, and more than a few times you’ll find yourself checking the time left because the heart and the blood pressure can only take so much of this nerve wracking action.
Pic1 The use of slow-motion is contentious for me. There are times it’s overused to the point it becomes nothing exceptional, only a bit of flash and eventually it’s like noise, it annoys you. In the beginning stages of the violent revolution there’s an excellent bit of slow-motion that makes things feel incredibly intense. And it’s only a few shots, perfectly used, to amplify that intensity. Afterwards we’re thrown into the visceral pulse of the streets, as Jack is caught directly in the middle of the revolution’s beginnings. Later, we do get more slow-motion, though I don’t think it’s overdone. They give us a little reprieve now and then from all the chaos.
There’s a pace filled to the brim by adrenaline that never really lets up. A few brief lulls between the action shift down gears, but for the most part we’re completely immersed in the pounding energy. Starting with an assassination, a nasty throat cutting, everything starts with a bang. The initial breakout of the revolution is a solid 10 or 15 minute sequence that will make your asshole pucker. Nothing ever really slows down until about 45 minutes into the movie. It’s just tension and suspense to the maximum. Alongside bloody, violent effects that illustrate a nasty coup going on in this unnamed, fictional country. As the plot moves forward the settings change at a rapid pace in combination with bigger, more wild effects from helicopters crashing to pieces of buildings toppling and more.
Pic2 What I love is that this action-thriller is built on the foundation of some quality acting. First off, there’s Owen Wilson and Lake Bell as the lead couple. They’re both good actors, but they worth so well naturally as a couple that it’s impressive. Wilson plays the family man well, and once things break out he becomes this really great character whose entire being is focused on getting his family to safety. He has the confidence and the vulnerability in equal measures to make the performance stand out. Bell is as confident and vulnerable with the added touch of having that motherly quality. She plays the wife well, but does the mother even better. There’s a touching, tragic scene where she has to tell one of her daughters it’s okay to pee in her pants, essentially because if not they’ll be found out; the way Bell plays this scene off is just too much to handle, in the best sort of sense. And we’ve also got Pierce Brosnan, whose talents do not go unnoticed. This old bad ass role is better than the many Taken copies because he’s not some lone guy out kicking ass. He’s stuck in a genuinely life threatening, insane situation. Plus it isn’t a whole movie filled with Brosnan kicking the shit out of people. He simply adds a great element, this character, and Brosnan does well with the role. He’s mysterious, as well as a real white knight. Thankfully this is one of his better performances as of late.
I can’t not give this movie 4 stars. I went in expecting a decent few thrills, came out emotionally drained. No Escape plays on a lot of fears, from the tourist abroad in an unknown place to the worry of having your family put in the way of horrible danger. The actors are able to carry an excellent story, making you feel every last bit of the terror these people are experiencing. Start to finish, this movie has the action to keep you interested, it contains an enormous dose of heart. Maybe it isn’t your thing. But don’t say this movie isn’t packed with the goods. It is, and proves that Dowdle can handle all sorts of different projects. I hope to see more from him soon. This is a quality piece of action-thriller cinema that deserves to be experienced, full intensity and volume.

Take a Tense Little Ride with Trigger Man

Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
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This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
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Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
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You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.