Hope. Survival. Retribution. Happy endings. Years ago, these were the standard outcomes in the horror genre. Nowadays, we jaded human beings like things a bit edgier — and more unpredictable. James Watkins’ new movie, Eden Lake keeps to this new tradition. A movie about a romantic weekend gone horribly awry, the film’s title is a cruel contradiction of what our ill-fated couple actually experience by the water’s edge. Hell Lake is more like it.
Naturally at this time of year, we get a bumper crop of horror films, and Eden Lake I’m happy to say is one of the more promising ones to come along — thank God too, as the horror genre has fared poorly this year. Now, mind you, the film is not based on an original idea. The filmmakers do tell us it is based on real events but that is the standard tagline appended to films these days which in many cases turns out not to be true, but no matter. It is not based on an original story either as it superficially resembles Ils (Them) and more closely Funny Games. But originality notwithstanding, Eden Lake is a lean, mean and genuinely nail-biting piece of filmmaking that literally has you perched on the edge of seat. And, it’s a film that sparks anger in the minds of the audience and a thirst for revenge against the bad guys. Director Watkins knows how to goad his audience.
Here’s the story. Nursery school teacher Jenny (played by Kelly Reilly) drives off with her boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender) for what they hope will be a romantic weekend at Eden Lake, the site of a new high-end housing development, one of Steve’s current projects as a developer. Unbeknownst to Jenny, Steve plans to propose to her — unfortunately, his timing couldn’t be more off. While sunbathing at the lakeshore, a group of local teenagers, lead by the menacing Brett (Jack O’Connell), intrude on their peace and quiet. A more prudent person would have simply gotten up and walked away. But not Steve. He is insistent on standing his ground and asserting his “rights”. “We were here first,” he reminds Jenny. Initially, the kids are merely obnoxious. But things turn ugly quickly when the teens steal the couples’ belongings and car. When Steve confronts Brett a fight breaks out, and in the melee, Steve accidentally kills Brett’s beloved dog. Whatever invisible barrier kept the teens’ instinctive lawlessness in check snaps. Now nothing stands between the couple and the teens’ boiling, unbridled rage. Brett and his gang pursue Steve and Jenny and subject them to unspeakable acts of violence and torture. Insanity reigns.
One of the things that makes Eden Lake so successful as a horror/thriller is that it thwarts the audience’s expectations at every turn. In the first thirty or so minutes of the film, there are numerous little set-ups where we, the audience, expect certain clichéd outcomes — but they never happen and things proceed onward. Instead of boring us, it has the effect of ratcheting up the suspense and the “what’s going to happen” factor as the tension from those set-ups is never released but rather continues to build. And even in the torture and pursuit scenes we are treated to some unexpected moments and outcomes.
Another powerful attribute of the film is that Eden Lake can be read on different levels; the subtext is fascinating. As we later learn, the teens aren’t outsiders, but members of the blue collar working community living around the lake who will no doubt be affected, if not displaced, by the high-end housing development being built and the eventual encroachment into their turf of a different group of people — the well-to-do, a group to which our hapless couple belongs. As Steve and Jenny venture deeper into the lake area, they travel farther and farther away from the reach of civilization with its checks and balances. They are out of their element and they forget that there is no law in the wilderness — only brute force and savagery. So beyond the basic storyline, the conflicts by the lake can be read as a clash between youth vs. adulthood, the middle class vs. the wealthy, the civilized vs. the savage, and progress vs. the status quo.
And let’s not forget the ensemble acting here, which I am both happy — and sad — to say is all too believable, so much so that it was hard to watch especially given the cruelty Steve and Jenny are subjected to. Several men in the audience I was in were shouting out loud so I know I wasn’t the only one experiencing the violence on a visceral level; that others were flinching and gasping just as I was.
Will Steve and Jenny overpower their tormentors and escape to safety? Watkins has you guessing, hoping and praying for the couple every terrifying inch of the way as one of them tries bravely to endure his captors’ gleeful punishments while the other evades them. One thing is for certain — you might want to rethink that camping trip you had planned for next weekend.