Survival horror has been all the rage for the past couple of years, with films like the Hills Have Eyes remake, Hostel, Turistas, Wolf Creek, Broken and many others throwing nice (or not-so-nice), ordinary people into unfamiliar situations where they are first terrorized, then tortured, dismembered and dispatched with cruel efficiency by unseen villains, usually foreigners or inbred country folk. The British film Wilderness, directed by Michael J. Bassett, falls squarely into this genre revival, but brings a few twists of its own to the familiar formula in order to create an impressive film that?s as intellectually upsetting as it is viscerally disturbing.
Following the suicide of one of their cellmates, six troubled youths from the Moorgate Young Offenders Institute, along with their guardian, are sent to a remote, uninhabited Irish island for a camping/survival trip that?s part punishment, part team-building exercise. New fish Callum (the terrific Toby Kebbell, from the criminally under-seen violent revenge drama Dead Man?s Shoes ) is a convicted murderer and loner, yet resourceful and broodingly intelligent. His companions include an aggressive National Front skinhead and his hulking idiot sidekick, a couple of testosterone-filled ethnic kids, and a terrified crybaby abused by the others; watching over them is counselor and guardian Jed (Sean Pertwee, from Dog Soldiers and Event Horizon). Unexpectedly, they also bump into a similar group ? two girls from another youth facility, along with counselor Louise (Alex Reid, from The Descent). But what starts as a ordinary trip with its normal share of group tensions quickly becomes more tense, as these city kids, trapped in an unfamiliar environment, begin to discover evidence that they?re not alone, and in fact are being hunted by someone bent on revenge. Their cell phones are stolen, Jethro disappears, and then things get much, much worse as they find themselves subject to an all-out attack by a Rambo-like killer who leaves traps in their path and commands a pack of trained, killer dogs. Natural leader Callum tries to find a way out of the situation, but the well-equipped and persistent hunter has the advantage. There are more deaths, but when the survivors eventually realize who the stalker is and why he?s after them, Callum decides to make the situation personal and take the fight back to the killer.
Described by Pertwee in an interview as ?Scum meets Battle Royale,? Wilderness starts with the background character elements of such gritty Alan Clarke troubled youth sagas and drops them into the middle of a Ruggero Deodato-style slaughterfest. Other antecedents include the Canadian doctors-in-peril movie Rituals, the insane Australian dark future classic Escape 2000, plus of course Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, Southern Comfort ? the list could go on and on. What Wilderness brings to the subgenre that?s relatively unique is a much more contemporary feel in its root social problems. These kids look and sound authentic ? Bassett even says in an interview that he had to rewrite the dialogue because the young actors told him his slang wasn?t accurate any longer. Moreover, as in films such as Day of the Dead, none of the characters get along even when confronted by an outside enemy, but unlike that Romero classic, no true heroes emerge. Even Callum is, at heart, out only for himself ? the others are lucky to be around him when he makes the decision to fight back; being a protector or savior was never a consideration for him. The gaunt Kebbell is a great choice to play the character, too ? he?s got a haunted look that?s perfect for someone with a dark past, yet with enough brains to recognize the horrible things he?s done.
In an accompanying interview, Bassett (who also directed the World War One chiller Deathwatch) explains that he wanted to create as bleak a film as possible, with no pleasant resolution for these characters, whose lives are doomed even before they get to the island. In keeping with this negative tone, the murder sequences are all gut-wrenchingly executed, and the makeup effects are, for the most part, extremely realistic. As with the best survival horror, the stalker?s arsenal includes a multitude of weapons, so the audience is granted severed arms, legs caught in steel traps, arrows through bodies, knife fights, and the ever-popular head on a stick. But the best, and most horrifying, scene comes when a character is stuck to a tree and eaten alive by the dog pack ? and this scene comes early in the film, after which all hell breaks loose.
Surprisingly, Bassett actually downplays the more traditionally suspenseful elements of the scenario, revealing quite early on who the killer is, and relying more on the horror and defeatism of the characters to establish the mood. Although his screenplay descends into cliché from time to time ? such as the interpersonal conflicts of the kids interfering with their ability to survive, and a character who seemingly dies early on, yet reappears later for a heroic scene ? it's not enough to diminish the overall effectiveness of the rest of the movie, which moves from setpiece to setpiece with a brisk pace, never getting bogged down in any asides or late-reveal character backstories. And impressively, Bassett ends the film on more of a whimper than a bang, in keeping with the downbeat mood of the preceding 90 minutes.
First Look Entertainment has released Wilderness directly to DVD in the U.S. in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer which appears to have some occasional compression or DVNR problems, but is overall a good effort. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, on the other hand, is terrific and the effective sound design of the movie is well-served by active rear channels and a heavy subwoofer track. The supplements are a very brief on-location interview with Bassett where he talks about the genesis of the film, a nine minute look at several of the effects and action scenes (including the aforementioned devoured-by-dogs sequence), and ten minutes of basic interviews with the actors where they talk about their characters and working with Bassett.