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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

EDEN LAKE -- DVD review by porfle

There's a grand tradition of movies in which happy-go-lucky city folk venture into some rural setting and wind up being terrorized by psychotic locals. Most of these movies, unfortunately, aren't nearly as good as, say, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or DELIVERANCE, and the formula more often than not results in just another inept, forgettable piece of cinematic flotsam with people running around in the woods screaming for an hour-and-a-half.

Not so, however, in the case of EDEN LAKE (2008), one of the most harrowing, painfully suspenseful, and relentlessly downbeat horror thrillers I've ever seen.

It's a pretty simple set-up: Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) drive to the country to camp out on the shore of a beautiful, secluded lake, where Steve plans to pick just the right moment to whip out an engagement ring and pop the question.

But their romantic sunbathing reverie is marred by a motley group of punk teens who blast their boom box, ogle the bikini-clad Jenny, and allow their scary-looking Rottweiler to menace her while Steve is taking a dip.

Well, Steve, of course, must do his "guy duty" and confront the surly bunch. Led by the older and considerably meaner Brett (Jack O'Connell), the kids steal Steve's land rover and go for a joyride. When Steve tries to wrestle the keys away from them, Brett's beloved dog is accidentally killed, which sparks Brett into a murderous rage.

Steve and Jenny are forced to flee for their lives, but fate conspires against them at every turn, and they both end up tortured and brutalized beyond anything they could have imagined.

When EDEN LAKE was over, I felt as though I'd just awoken from an extremely vivid and disturbing nightmare. Everything that could possibly go wrong for Steve and Jenny does go wrong as they descend quickly and inexorably into hell. Much of the film is hard to watch--not because it's especially gory, but because the situations are so intense and realistic.

When Steve is captured and bound with barbed wire and Brett bullies the others into taking turns slashing him with knives and box cutters, it's effective on a realistic level because the violence isn't being committed by monsters like Leatherface or over-the-top caricatures of inbred hillbillies. These are just ordinary kids--on bicycles no less--giving in to their darkest impulses in a way that happens far too often in real life, stripping the story of the usual comforting veneer of fantasy that has us laughing along with Rob Zombie's cartoonish maniacs or wondering what cool method of execution Jason will use on his next faceless victim.

Jenny fares no better as she finds herself lost in the woods with no way to call for help and little chance of escape. Naturally, a metal spike goes through her foot at one point and she spends a lot of time crawling through mud and slime, reduced to the level of a terrified animal.

One scene in which she locks herself in a shack with the injured Steve and tries desperately to tend to his grievous wounds, unable to stop the gouts of blood pouring from deep cuts, is difficult to endure simply because of the crushing sadness and despair that it evokes. And because the killers are still closing in and there's nothing she can do about it.

It gets worse. Eventually EDEN LAKE begins to resemble a twisted version of THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS with its nonstop series of horrors heaped one right after the other upon the hapless couple. Some instances, such as Jenny being forced to hide in a filthy dumpster and emerging with a coating of the most rancid slime imaginable, took me out of the movie for a bit as I thought, "Sheesh, what next?" But these moments actually help the film, serving to give us a breather from all the tension before sucking us right back in and ramping up the suspense again.

The cast does a good job of selling it all. Kelly Reilly (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE) is outstanding and entirely believable as sweet-tempered preschool teacher Jenny, while Michael Fassbender (300, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) is likable as Steve even when he isn't leaving well enough alone. All of the teen castmembers are good, especially Jack O'Connell as the monstrous Brett.

First-time director James Watkins does a very surehanded job working from his own screenplay and the cinematography is way above average. David Julyan, who has scored films such as MEMENTO, THE DESCENT, and OUTLAW, avoids horror cliches and emphasizes the emotional devastation of the lead characters instead. This is especially true in the final minutes, when the last grimly-ironic pieces fall into place with a sickening thud and the music becomes heartbreakingly mournful.

It's in this last act that the hopelessness running through the rest of the story is finally driven home in the most downbeat manner possible. You won't often see a scene this powerful and bleak. The situation is so nightmarishly awful that violence and gore are no longer even necessary here--by this time, writer-director Watkins has so thoroughly woven a web of tragedy and despair that we're left stunned and haunted by it all, which is his intention.

In 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound, the DVD looks and sounds good. Extras consist of a brief "making of" featurette and a trailer.

A highly-effective and skillfully manipulative piece of filmmaking, EDEN LAKE effortlessly rises above most other films of its ilk. It's hardly the usual horror flick that relies on shock cuts to make you jump or clever gore effects to make you say "Cool!" Instead, it batters the viewer with nonstop dread and ultimately becomes a deeply depressing experience. I was relieved when it was over, as though I'd finally woken up from the nightmare, but I still can't get it out of my mind.


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