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Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – Youths: Eden Lake

10/17/2017 – Youths: Eden Lake (2008)
Directed by James Watkins

These aren’t creepy kids I’m talking about here. You know the ones of The Bad Seed, The Village of the Damned, and The Omen. These are the ones that have aged out of being cute. The horror isn’t born out of a contrast between their exteriors and their true natures. This is born out of a very real fear of those damn teens and young adults and how rebellious and sadistic they are. No, not at al like we were when we were that age. To be fair, teens do suck and are generally far less concerned with consequences than adults, but this subgenre has always been laced with more than a fair bit of conservatism.

While those damned youts are usually more associated with other genres such as thrillers and action, they have a place in horror and in many ways bring horror elements to those genres. The Juvenile Delinquent film came of age in the late 40s and especially the 50s in the wake of World War 2 but you could even argue they descended from the cautionary exploitation films of the 30s and 40s. While they aren’t horror films, they are products of fear. Fear in the moral decay of the age. Fear that roving packs of youngsters terrorizing small towns. Fear of the gangs and poverty in the inner city (which was not starting as a code for black). Those companies producing low budget horror like old standby AIP also churned out these films continuing even into the 60s (The Sadist and Lady in a Cage being notable horror titles of the era) as the Hays Code as the targets turned from street gangs in hot rods to the duel threat of hippies and bikers (or worse, both!)

The 70s sought to turn the tide back against these damned youths metaphorically. While in the pre-1970 age, the rebel youths would typically get brought down by infighting and/or the police after their crimes escalated too far, the 70s started a trend where the focus was moved from the teens to the ordinary citizens they menaced. Starting with the Peter Boyle led Joe, the vigilante film saw the opportunity for white men to declare war on those unsafe streets. Blaxploitation frequently did the same for black audiences but without the uncomfortable implications. Death Wish can practically be called the codifier of this as the Charles Bronson mentality of “the only way to clean up these streets of all these dangerous youths is to shoot your way through it”. The disaffected lost what little character they had as they were pushed to the background to be one dimensional threats and cannon fodder.

This only amplified in the 80s as what little moral ambiguity in the vigilante perpetrators’ actions disappeared in the Reagan era. You couldn’t throw a stone and not hit a genre film with one dimensional punks (punk being inseparable from criminal in the eyes of these films) even as minor characters in film.

Truthfully though, film has never gotten away from this trend. Sure there will be the occasional film that pops up to try to humanize them (in the 80s it was River’s Edge, in the 00s it was Bully) but yet we still are getting another Death Wish from Eli Roth (combining horror director of films with a very conservative bent with a series that almost immediately became a disgusting parody of itself) and films like The Purge titles (look no further than those insane girls from Election Year) and The Strangers keep getting made. Perhaps the film that typifies this is SPOILERS Them and I have discussed my opinion of that film enough last year and how the twist of this genre being applicable works in the context of the film. END OF SPOILERS

I have mostly focused on American films and American politics for obvious reasons (that’s where I be and the American film industry is kinda big) but this isn’t a purely American trend. Dating back to the 60s gangster films starring disaffected youths, Great Britain has also had quite the trend of films centering on violent youth coinciding with the popularity of the Krays. In the late 2000s though, the Conservative concept of a “Broken Britain” (following up on an era known for soccer hooliganism) has been reflected in quite a number of “hoodie-horror” films including such horror titles as Summer Scars, Heartless, the Irish Citadel, and today’s film Eden Lake . Attack the Block can be seen as a subversion of these very films as the hoodies are the heroes but still clearly delinquents too. The film tries occasionally to feint towards making its villains full characters but let’s be honest, SPOILERS it’s rotten teens who are the product of rotten families in what feels like a descendant of all those American hillbilly horror films like The Hills Have Eyes. END OF SPOILERS

Directed by James Watkins who later helmed the mediocre The Woman in Black remake and starring Kelly Reilly of Calvary as well as Michael Fassbender in the year he broke out with Hunger as a couple on a vacation to the titular lake. Fassbender’s character is especially dismissive of the “hoods” who show up with their loud music and bad behavior disrupting their vacation at the lake. From there the film proceeds as any film of the type does as the group of hooligans terrorize the couple in increasing ways starting from the juvenile and escalating to stealing the couple’s car, phone, and wallet when they go out for a swim. This brings the tensions to a head when the leader (played by a pre-Skins Jack O’Connell) pulls a knife for ill-conceived reasons (another regular of the genre) and in the struggle over it SPOILERS the leader’s dog is stabbed. Even though this motivates him to give back the keys and seemingly is admitting defeat, they quickly change their minds and pursue them into the woods and attack their car with them trapped inside. The couple manages to escape until they crash the car and Fassbender is left pinned, forcing the girlfriend to scramble into the wood.

Fassbender is caught and tied up with barbed wire by the group as they film themselves taking turns torturing and knifing him (with faces uncovered naturally). He is able to free himself when they spot her looking on (why she does so for so long I have no idea) but dies of his wounds in her arms. Now it’s her against them and END OF SPOILERS the film seems torn between wanting to be a modern style graphic film and a revenge film starring an ordinary person who must become a force of violence. In terms of the revenge bit, the way she knocks them off the bikes is hilarious with a thick branch somehow getting them all to fall down one after the other and looks like something out of an early slapstick film. She also has to climb into a truly foul dumpster that would scare a character from Trainspotting SPOILERS and then stabs one kid to death with a shard of glass. She seems to regret that almost immediately and I loved the swelling music playing as the camera slowly pans back on a shit covered woman with the kid she stabbed to death in her arms. I have to think it is a dark parody of such moments because if they were being earnest, it would be really embarrassing.

The torment part is hard to watch at times, silly at others. When she fixes her own ankle it’s hard to watch (it’s always the things I can actually relate to the feeling. Watching her get repeatedly driven back in frequently contrived ways to the group though is just silly. She is betrayed by a younger kid and the group tie her and Fassbender’s dead body together to a tree and burn his body up. She uses the fire to burn through her ropes (clever if so predictable that as soon as the match was lit I knew what would happen) and escape with the younger kid being burned alive as punishment which would probably be more horrifying if it wasn’t shown in the background with him flailing about why she watched despite it appearing like she ran far further away than the shot would suggest. She is saved by another young man who unintentionally takes her right back to the group before she steals his car and mows down the girl to the swelling score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a period costume drama. Then you almost think she has escaped (well I sure hope you didn’t thank that) as she finally stumbles upon a party but of course it is hosted by the gang leader’s parents. END OF SPOILERS

I really don’t know how I felt about the movie. Every time I started to get into it the movie just undercut it with some melodrama. It just had no clue what kind of film it wanted to be and I left feeling rather underwhelmed. It’s not a bad film, just a bit of wasted potential.

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Bonus Episode #11 – Natural: The Last Winter (2006)
Directed by Larry Fessenden

Larry Fessenden is a bit of a cult actor/director known for his films Habit and Wendigo but aside from him making a number of horror film cameos, the only thing I’ve seen him in is I Sell the Dead (a good movie but I can’t really remember him too much in it). But I’ve always meant to check out one of his films and this is usually the one most recommended. Plus it’s got Ron Pearlman! The film takes place in a remote, desolate Arctic wasteland where a drilling company is performing exploratory work. Pearlman and Connie Britton work for the oil company (along with a number of others while two environmentalists work side by side with them (well since Britton is sleeping with the head environmentalist it is literal too).

The drilling company see the others as a rubber stamp and when the environmentalist disagrees, Pearlman calls his boss and says the should go through with some unheard plans (which may just be switching the person in charge but could be something more and this is just not clarified). A person disappears for a while and returns with a walkie he says has been screeching but says he has walked 300 miles and with no appetite while another person starts claiming this is The Last Winter and wondering if the Earth can take form and kill us which. I’m not sure if it is too on the nose or good foreshadowing because it is pretty obvious early on (the film is far from subtle about its ecological message aside from one moment I love of a “gas kills” kept out of focus in one series of shots but clearly visible).

Things start getting weirder as the person who disappeared claims there is something trying to drive them out, there rain in the middle of winter, and everyone starts acting weird until finally SPOILERS the man who had disappeared is found dead and naked with his eyes pecked out by birds in the middle of the snow (speaking of curious sound choices, this was all done to something out of a period romance). They find footage of him ranting about something being out there and he is ambushed by some creature as the tape ends. The environmentalist blames sour gas that has been leaking due to global warming or a virus as people have generally been going mad there but really, he has no clue.

The second environmentalist who has been getting nosebleeds all movie dies mysteriously in his sleep and I appreciate Pearlman being smart enough to recognize that while one death may be natural (and willing to destroy the tape to protect the project), two is not a coincidence and he takes responsibility for his men and feels guilt for their deaths. He’s also a true believer and not in this just for the money. It doesn’t try to pretend he’s the good guy but it actually gives some color to what could easily be a purely villainous role. END OF SPOILERS

I have to say that the film generally looks very good though there are moments when the action picks up and the handheld camerawork gets a bit sloppy. The CGI is, not great, SPOILERS as a relief plane that crashes into the base for seemingly no reason is so clearly fake as well as all of the shots depicting the Wendigo just look completely silly. The rest of the effects are well done though including the ensuing fire and all the suitably graphic burns.

With all their escape routes destroyed, Pearlman and the environmentalist head out for help on the one remaining snowmobile (only three others left alive). Of those three, one smothers another in a fit of madness and then is killed by Britton when trying to get her off of the guy. Pearlman’s mission fares even worse as they find the first base they try empty (the next nearest being nine miles away with night fast approaching) and another naked dead man which combined with all the guilt freaks him out. He runs out onto thin ice and falls underwater and getting his foot stuck. Dragged out but he’s no wet, suffering from the early symptoms of hypothermia, and without a boot so they are forced to camp out. END OF SPOILERS

This is the kind of movie that throughout I kept thinking “this will live and die on its ending” and it’s explanation or lack of one. I was right in a way too as the film goes full tilt with what it has been blatantly telling us this whole movie. SPOILERS Hell, the stories basically ends the way the man was rambling about as Britton wakes up in a hospital broadcasting apocalyptic reports and finds only a guy who hung himself before venturing outside as we hear some apocalyptic sounds. The whole “open your eyes” thing to the ecological issues is a bit on the nose but you know what, it worked for me. What worked far less is that the ending is complete nonsense. Really there’s no explanation for it aside from the final sequence being another illusion as a result of the environmentalist dude being taken away by a Wendigo as he heads into pretentious grainy flashback vision mode. END OF SPOILERS

The Last Winter is fun and effective but falls down story wise by treating the viewer like an idiot. I get why a mainstream horror movie constantly has to spell things out but this is clearly an indie horror film (that actually seemed to presage the boom and may be why Fessenden is really held in such acclaim) with an emphasis on well-rounded character, visuals, atmosphere, and a positive message. There’s very few jump scares and the film is slow paced but never drags. It was this close to being something special but I’ll settle for very good since it does everything else so well.

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Bonus Episode #12 – Psychological: Night Watch (1973)
Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Sorry for the quick review here but I am kind of behind and writing this mere hours before leaving the country. Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey, this is a psychological thriller and take-off of the old Rear Window plot with Taylor believing she has witnessed a murder in a deserved neighboring house but no one believes her. Her husband is skeptical off the bat and the cops respond but find nothing. It’s also got a healthy dose of Gaslight in there as Taylor is a former mental patient who has only recently released. Taylor is her very melodramatic self so enjoyment of this is going to be directly tied to how much you enjoy her campy performances.

She manages to get one of her friends to pretend to support this theory but that’s it. The only possible lead is that the caretaker has recently planted a bunch of flowers but refuses to dig it up and despite acting hella suspicious, the police just kind of give up there. Even after they search the house and do dig up the garden though, there is nothing to be found and it looks to the outside world that Taylor has lost it and to the viewer that everyone is in on a conspiracy against her as we watch her mind decay more and more. SPOILERS Turns out you’re both wrong as Taylor has pulled a Les Diabolique and only gone through that incredibly complex plot to murder her friend and husband. It’s silly and probably doesn’t hold up to examination, but it feels believable enough in the moment and it’s always fun to get the occasional bad guy winning and seemingly getting off completely scot free. END OF SPOILERS

It’s technically competent and aside from Taylor well-acted but considering in my review alone I listed three far better movies that the film made me think of instead probably indicates how original it is. Even beyond those plot comparisons, it’s pretty standard throughout but something to just throw on if you don’t want something too intense or challenging.

Next up: I take a look at a pair of films by Terence Fisher in The Brides of Dracula and assuming I have time before leaving the country, The Curse of the Werewolf

2017 Partial Schedule