Horror is without question a cyclical genre. While every few year’s there’s some new fad in the genre, at the same time a tried-and-true formula seems to make a comeback as well. At the moment, there’s a wealth of films dealing with innocent people finding themselves in a bad situation: a couple or family goes on vacation (generally in the woods) and find a lot of trouble, usually from crazy hillbillies or natives of the area. And for the most part, a woman is left to face the harshest challenges. Eden Lake is another of these films; that isn’t surprising. What is surprising however is the film manages to avoid many of the derivative elements most of these films fall victim of. That's right, Eden Lake is a success.
Looking for the perfect place to propose, Steve (Michael Fassbender) whisks his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) away to a remote spot called Eden Lake. Due to the fact that building expansions will soon do away with the scenic hideaway, it’s quite empty and secluded. Once the happy couple arrives and sets up camp, they run into a boisterous group of teenage hoodlums (or chavs if you like, since this is taking place in the UK) and their dog, who make much noise and complete nuisances of themselves. Steve attempts to quiet them down, but they show him no respect, and he decides to bite his tongue and hold onto the hope that they’ll eventually leave. Much to their luck, they do, and they enjoy a peaceful night with one another.
The next morning, the couple awakes to a slashed tire that needs changing, and then goes into town for breakfast. Steve asks around, but no one seems as if they want to talk about the kids. On their way back to the lake, Steve notices all of the kids' bikes lying outside of a house, and decides to talk to whatever adult is home. No one answers his knocking, but Steve goes in anyway when he finds the door unlocked, only to be trapped when the owner of the house shows up. He narrowly escapes undetected, and they go back to the lake to enjoy the rest of their weekend.
After some afternoon swimming, Steve and Jenny find that one of their bags is missing. It contained more than just luxury items; it was where the keys to their SUV were. Upon heading back to their parking place, the SUV is gone. It’s not gone for long though, as the couple is nearly struck by it as the gang of kids drive by in it, attempting to hit them. Eventually, they catch up with the kids, and Steve confronts their “leader”, named Brett, only wanting the keys back. Brett refuses, and Steve begins to close the distance between he and the boy prompting another of the kids to pull a switchblade and attack Steve. A struggle ensues between the two, leading to Brett’s dog jumping on them and being stabbed. Brett breaks down and throws Steve the keys, but the trouble is far from over; it’s just begun.
This is a formula any horror fan has seen a million times. Bad kids aren’t anything new either; Them (Ils) was just a few years ago, the original Children of the Damned is a classic, and Who Can Kill a Child? is among the best evil children films of all time. It’s the expertly executed tension and pace that makes Eden Lake stand out. Even I was skeptical during the first 30 or so minutes. I was beginning to think I was in for another run-of-the-mill horror film, as there wasn’t much about the proceedings that was differentiating it from everything else. But slowly, the film started to draw me in, and soon I found myself utterly consumed with the cat-and-mouse game being played out on screen.
Eden Lake also does a good job of being very disturbing and affecting without being overly gratuitous. Over the past 5 or so years, it’s felt like many in the horror game have begun to credit insane amounts of bloodshed and violence with making a film “scary”. I have nothing against gore whatsoever; I think most horror fans enjoy a good splatter film now and again. But make no mistake, gore does not equal scares. If you can achieve the right balance between the two, like in films such as Haute Tension and The Descent, that’s great. But lately, it seems like true scares and real suspense have been traded for blood-and-guts. Eden Lake doesn’t go down this road. Don’t get me wrong, there are some harsh things you’ll be forced to endure during the runtime, but like the aforementioned films, there’s a great balancing act going on, and the real “punch” of the film comes from much more than the gore. In fact, Eden Lake will hit you on a psychological level just as much as it will on a visceral one, which is something I’ve really come to appreciate in my horror films.
Yes, Eden Lake has a bit of social commentary, and its focus is put squarely on the unruly youth of today. While it may have more bite in its native land, it’s an issue that will resonate anywhere. Luckily however, the script is smart enough to not just rest on the laurels of all kids being troublemakers; it does try and dig into the root of the problem, and at the end of the day conveys a nice “violence breeds violence” message. The film also deals with the dangers of peer pressure and finding yourself amidst a bad crowd.
One of the real reasons the film works so well is due to its wonderful cast and excellent direction. All of the teenagers in the film are flat-out good actors, not just decent “for their age”, and are extremely convincing in their roles. Likewise, their adult counterparts get the job done well themselves, and they convey their on-screen plight quite effectively. First-time director James Watkins is already showing that he could very well be a force in the near future, as he displays much confidence behind the lens. All of the shots are very assured, and he proves he has a complete understanding of the horror genre; he’ll trick you here and there, show you just enough to get you on the edge of your seat, he’ll never linger on anything too long, and as I said before, he hits the nail right on the head where it counts most: tension and suspense. The film really does feel like it’s coming from a seasoned horror vet, and in no way ever feels contrived or forced, like films from some directors who think they understand horror do (Mr. Zombie, I’m looking at you!)
Eden Lake is a rather downtrodden film, but it’s a safe bet that most fans of the genre will walk away from it with a smile on their face knowing that there are still some fresh filmmakers out there that can capture the essence of what makes horror such an interesting facet of cinema. The characters are believable, the horror feels real, the pace is great, and it features one hell of an ending. You can sleep well tonight, horror still has a pulse.
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