"It's just boys being boys...as long as they leave us alone..."
As if I needed more evidence about the pitfalls of nature, along comes Eden Lake to strengthen my conviction that campers are about as cuckoo as Cocoa Puffs: alone, in the woods, in a tent about as safe and secure as my bed sheet...are you people insane?!
Meet our latest idiots: loving couple Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly). He wants a quiet, romantic getaway in the outskirts of England at an isolated public park that holds meaningful memories from his youth. But developers have tarnished the idyllic locale (one of a few metaphors here), which is being transformed into a gated community. That doesn't deter him--and neither do the ominous radio reports about troubled kids that we hear on their drive into the small town away from the city (hello, foreshadowing!).
After an overnight stay at a bed and breakfast--where writer/director James Watkins further sets the stage about the consequences of bad parenting and broken families--the young lovers head to a small stretch of beach by a supposedly serene lake. Their relaxation is soon spoiled when they notice two young teens bullying a younger boy. The gang soon balloons to six bullies and one agitated Rottweiler, with loud music further agitating the couple. Despite Jenny's desire to stay out of it, Steve's pride kicks in: "I'm not gonna be bullied away by a bunch of 12-year-olds." He finally goes over to have a word with the disrespectful kids...
From there, I don't want to share much more. What follows is a fast and furious film that gets increasingly brutal, a nasty slice of cinema inspired by '70s survival horror. If you can forgive Steve's initial macho pride (dude, you should have left after the first small sign of trouble!), Eden Lake is unforgettable. It frequently falls into the "too hard to watch" category, primarily because we care so much about the two leads. They are written and performed so well, we can't bear to see them in even the smallest degree of distress.
Watkins also masterfully builds the tension, creating an unsettling atmosphere long before the film kicks into high gear. There are at least three sequences where we think we know what's coming--the director gets our heart beating faster, our hands ready to cover our eyes...only to pull away in a highly effective dance with danger. Like the kids toy with the couple, Watkins toys with us. He's a terror tease who has crafted an emotionally exhausting viewing experience long before the film hits overdrive.
When it does, the situation becomes so claustrophobic that you'll desperately cling to the smallest bit of air the director shares just when things seem completely hopeless (it's almost like we're going through the trauma). He also breaks one of the horror's Golden Rules, and he breaks it repeatedly--two sequences had my jaw dropping. The violence is equally brutal both on screen and off--and the ending is something that has stayed with me, and probably will forever. Watkins knows when less is more, and boy does he take advantage of that in the final shots, where he had me begging out loud for something.
The structure of Eden Lake is so familiar, it shouldn't work--there's an endless array of films that it will remind you of (in structure and/or tone), from older efforts like Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?) to all of the films they inspired, like Frontier(s) [Frontière(s)], Wolf Creek, Wrong Turn, Them (Ils) and The Strangers.
But the film pulls it off, thanks to Watkins' tight pace and understanding of how to unsettle an audience--and the performances. The two leads are instantly likeable, and the young actors are all believably chilling--these are realistic villains, not over-the-top monsters. Eden lake not only works as a straightforward suspense film, but as a warning about the decline of responsible parenting. This film does a good job at building your blood lust, and you may be ashamed at yourself for wishing harm against the youngsters.
Watkins got his start by writing the low-budget My Little Eye, a promising (if far from perfect) entry in a former genre fad: horror's twist on reality TV. Appropriately, he has written the second installment of The Descent (another inspiration here), which hits theaters later this year. With Eden Lake, the young talent proves he's a horror force to be reckoned with.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 presentation that is pretty strong. A lot of the film has that muddy look, with bronze and dull green tints frequently displayed. Most of the film is sharp, although it's not uniform in ever shot. My only complaint is the black levels in some of the darker scenes: a few have odd variations, like something was "corrected" in post-production (around the 33:50 and the 1:15:40 marks, you'll notice non-uniform shades that are a little distracting), but those moments are few and brief. Overall, it's a fine looking film.
The 5.1 track is also crisp and clear, and a few nice details--like the spooky sound of spokes on bikes and the ever-present calls from birds and insects--keep you nicely enveloped. Dialogue is always clear, and the soundtrack is at just the right level to be effective but not overpowering. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
The Making of Eden Lake (4:05) is a disappointment, a brief PR piece that has mostly plot recitation. We get a few interesting thoughts from the cast and crew, but nothing truly meaningful to enhance our appreciation of the film. "I wanted to make a genre thriller, a film that scares people, a white-knuckle ride," shares writer/director James Watkins. "I think part of the interest in the film is people put themselves in the position of Steve and Jenny, and think, 'If confronted by this, what would I do?'" It's better than nothing, but the potential is unfulfilled. The film's theatrical trailer, along with trailers for other releases, is also included.
Despite similarities with many other genre films, Eden Lake is a lean, mean, fighting machine. Because we care so much about the two young lovers fighting for their lives in the woods, the film frequently becomes too hard to watch. That may limit the replay value for some, but young writer/director James Watkins has crafted a brutal slice of '70s-inspired survival--complete with some indelible sequences like the ending, which will stay with me forever--that I can't help but make this film Highly Recommended.