Once again I find myself in a love-hate relationship with the brothers Weinstein. Love because someone at their company clearly has good taste in imported horror cinema, plus the brothers actually do give a lot of cool flicks a chance to find an audience ... eventually. That's where the "hate" part comes in. I'm fully convinced that the Weinsteins snag these flicks through a fair contract and the promise of a "theatrical release" (something the smaller genre distributors can't offer), but when the time comes to offer these flicks on a national, cinematic plate -- the brothers balk, shuttle some prints off to a minimal amount of theaters, and wait for the next fiscal quarter to release the DVD. They did it with Rogue (and some other non-horror titles) and now they're doing it to a very fine UK thriller called Eden Lake. Good luck trying to catch the film during its nine-theater release, but the DVD should be out in just a few months.
Eden Lake is one of those "unprepared in a foreign location" terror tales, but it's not a body-count hack-'em-up like Friday the 13th or a gristly cautionary tale like Hostel. It's actually a member of that sly sub-genre that's so specialized -- we don't even consider 'em horror flicks. Classify it as you like, but Toby Watkins' Eden Lake is a lot more like Deliverance or Straw Dogs than it is about cheap jolts or obvious tricks. And let's hear it for a smart-yet-brutal horror flick that takes aim at a rather timely societal issue, and then finds a way to offer a compelling viewpoint while still delivering some real white-knuckle moments. Basically, if you've ever found yourself intimidated by a group of young thugs, simply because they're rude, crude, and likely to punch you in the mouth as soon as they look at you, then you'll probably relate to the plight of the Eden Lake protagonists. And even if you don't, the movie still works as a rock-solid cat & mouse affair.
The plot sounds a lot like several movies you've seen recently: A nice young couple head out into the woods to enjoy some alone time, only they manage to butt heads with a small group of antagonistic youths. After some initial sparring through volume knobs and slashed tires, the stakes get raised big-time: One of the kids' dog is accidentally killed during an altercation -- and the chase is pretty much on. Poor Steve and Jenny have opened an infuriated can of worms, and these young 'chavs' will stop at nothing to get a little revenge. But by the time the adrenalin wears off, the kids are in way too deep with no way out. If there are a small handful of minor "plot hole" conveniences (and at least one minor detour that goes nowhere fast), they're easily forgiven in the face of a thriller that's actually got half a brain in its head. (Watch for an early scene in which Steve's annoyance with a child is interrupted in ironic fashion.) Even as the film boils down to a series of hunts, chases, and briefly-used hiding places, Watkins keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. The premise works, the characters are convincing, and the threat seems very real indeed.
Watkins does a fine job of keeping the chase moving, after an opening act that sets the characters up in basic-yet-colorful fashion. The two leads are quite good, and the hateful young ringleader is played with glowering intensity by Jack O'Connell. The screenplay (also by Watkins) never takes the easy way out, and the director has an amusing knack for leading his viewer to one spot, only to subvert the payoff and head in another direction. (Not to spoil anything, buy the last few minutes of the film are particularly impressive in this respect.) And hell, let's hear it for a horror-thriller that takes place in a universe we can actually recognize AND has a little something to say about the world we live in. On the surface, Eden Lake works quite well as a basic but intense little woodlands thriller, but dig a little deeper and the movie's quite a bit creepier, if only because the villain seems so damn familiar. It's not your typical "wooded horror" movie, but Eden Lake works exceedingly well, and will probably stick in your gut for a little while.