Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows star in writer/director Damien Power's dread-filled thriller from Australia.
I love horror movies that are disquieting and suspenseful. I hate horror movies that traffic in sheer cruelty and stupidity. So I love the first half of Killing Ground.
Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) are the prototypical romantic couple from the city who head off into the remote woods for a little rest and recreation. It's a very familiar premise, to the point that horror movie devotees will assume that the supposedly sophisticated people from the city will undoubtedly cross paths with savage country bumpkins, leading to blood flowing freely and bodies piling up.
That's not exactly the way it goes, though. Damien Power, who wrote and directed, previously made a series of short films, and his experience becomes evident as the story develops. For one thing, when Sam and Ian cross paths early on with local bumpkins Chook and German (Aaron Glenane, Aaron Pederson), it's not clear if they're savages in waiting or just folks from the country who are a bit rough.
Though the tone is always dead serious, I thought about Tucker and Dale vs Evil: what if the country folk are just country folk? What if their threatening exterior is easily misunderstood by outsiders?
Once Sam and Ian arrive at their intended campsite by a river, they note that other campers have already set up nearby. They decide to stay anyway, and set up their camp, and enjoy themselves into the late evening. But what about the other campers?
Filmmaker Power sets up a three-pronged situation that becomes increasingly uncomfortable as it progresses, playing with expectations and jumping around in time. We learn more about locals Chook and German; we also meet the family that camped at the wrong place. We're also drawn deeper into the dilemma faced by Sam and Ian, whose easy camaraderie dissolves at the stakes are ratcheted up.
The stories are told in a quiet, deliberate fashion, which adds to the unease. After a certain point, though, the film succumbs to genre expectations and, indeed, the blood begins to flow.
That will be reassuring to some viewers, I am sure, but I confess that the violence caused me to disengage from the experience. It's not that anything extremely graphic is presented; it's more that the brutality is extended until it becomes torturous to watch, especially because Power and the actors have created realistic portraits of recognizable human beings.
Over the years, my tolerance for such things has contracted, so the violence feels especially cruel and excessive. Still, the first half of Killing Ground remains powerful and haunting, and is utterly compelling. Power is clearly a filmmaker to watch.
IFC Midnight will release the film in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 21.