There are few tropes as deeply ingrained as those of the horror genre. More often than not, even a luddite could spot a horror film in the first minute. But in a way, this overwrought frame that we have all become so familiar with has pushed many young filmmakers to buck against the cliches and create some truly surprising and downright chilling movies.; last year alone we got “The Wailing,” “The Witch,” “The Invitation,” and “Green Room,” most of which feature at least a semblance of those same well-trodden narrative devices and archetypal characters. Basically, there is hope that even with the most familiar set up, a film can still transcend into a worthy cinematic endeavor. Damien Power’s “Killing Ground” is not quite such a film, but it does manage to craft a pair of truly complex relationships and offer up some disturbingly heinous violence.
It goes without saying, of course, that “Killing Ground” starts off with a weary trope: young, happy, beautiful couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) are heading off into the Australian forests for a holiday camping trip. The pair are buoyant and precious in all the ways you expect an unwitting couple about to undergo a weekend of carnage to be. Sam is a prolific reader who works in publishing, and Ian is a doctor, and while Ian’s skills obviously come in handy later, Sam’s brief bit of liberal arts soulfulness eventually comes to seem a bit too neat in the message it potentially holds.
Making a pitstop for some New Year’s bubbly, Ian trips over another cliche in the form of his interaction with the unmistakably villainous German (Aaron Pedersen), who drives a truck and has an angry, barking pitbull. Ian, old school map in hand, asks about the condition of the gravel road that leads to the campground. German tells him the road is impassable. Indignant, Ian and Sam follow their original plan and have no trouble traversing the supposedly impassable road. Once there, though, another tent sits eerily quiet along the lonely stretch of river. From there, it doesn’t take long for the holiday bliss to begin to unravel.
The bit of innovation that “Killing Ground” attempts to bring to the genre is a braided narrative that delicately weaves together two timelines. Camped at the same site as Sam and Ian are Em (Tiarnie Coupland), her parents (Maya Stange and Julian Garner) and her baby brother, only Sam and Ian have yet to arrive. The timeline, as such, is easy to get lost in for a few minutes, as the jumps are edited seamlessly and span not years or weeks, but hours. Once Power’s film finds the groove though, it locks in on a carefully constructed narrative that brings together the key beats of the story to create a constant sliver of tension.
Along with the grace of its narrative gymnastics, what really elevates the “Killing Ground” above the doldrums of its tropes are the central relationships, one between Sam and Ian and the other between German and the younger Chook (Aaron Glenane, who succeeds in stealing a good portion of the movie). Neither relationship is as simple as it first may seem, and both continue to evolve, though they do so in almost opposing directions. Particularly haunting is the influence German holds over Chook and the way the younger man is swept so completely into the violent tendencies of his friend, the ease with which, under German’s guiding hand, he can turn himself over to a savagery that, at some level, sickens him.
But, despite these startlingly resonant relationships “Killing Ground” cultivates and all the tension it manages to build, the film still buckles, at times, beneath the weight of simplicity. Which is not to say that the film should have been more complex — its streamlined nature is undoubtedly a plus — but rather that certain moments ring of being the easy choice. It’s easy for a villain to capture a protagonist for some asinine reason rather than kill them on the spot. It’s easy for it to happen again. And it’s even easier for it to happen a third time. But it’s most disappointing considering that so much of the movie refuses the simplicity of the genre, wading instead into some delightfully murky moral water.
The frustration is, then, to see how good “Killing Ground” could have been. With a smarter script that dove more fully into the tenuous relationships that make up the gnarled heart of the film, it’s easy to imagine the greatness that could have resulted. As it stands, though, it’s a chilling, assured debut for writer/director Power, packed with promise and a startlingly mundane sort of violence which is all the more shocking for its realism. [B+]