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.