I think I had at least heard the title of Carnage Park when it was recommended to me over the past week, but I knew almost nothing about it. A quick trip to the web told me it was purportedly based on a true story (which I now doubt), and while the description didn’t set me alight, it seemed worth a watch. Set in the late 70s, this is less of a horror movie (though it’s not a stretch to say it’s vaguely similar to The Hills Have Eyes) than it is a old-school thriller – other than the more adult content (The Walking Dead’s Greg Nicotero is thanked in the closing credits), it’s something that could have been a Quinn Martin production (if anyone can remember those!) back in the day.
I’m in two minds about this movie. There are some good elements, mostly confined to the first act, which might play to some as a Tarantino homage, but I see it more as the work of someone who has the same interest in the grindhouse, low-budget thrillers of the 70s, not just someone out to ape Tarantino. I quite liked the first act – there was a lot of stuff going on to keep me interested as a viewer. It was suitably small-scale, but writer/director Mickey Keating (Pod, Darling, Ritual) made me believe that the events were big to the characters. That’s an important element for me; in terms of character driven drama, it doesn’t matter how big the stakes are to us, the audience, it’s how we feel the events matter to the characters. And here, I felt they mattered. This isn’t to say that the acting talent is particularly great, but the actors adequately convey enough of that personal investment to the plot that I could buy into it. James Landry Hebert (Looper) is the standout in act 1, playing one of the two leads. Other than giving the character the unfortunate nickname of Scorpion Joe, Keating’s writing is pretty sharp with this character. I enjoyed the character, and liked that Keating had given some depth here. It’s with this character that the movie definitely slips more out of 70s homage and into Tarantino territory, but for me that’s the only time.
Less convincing is Ashley Bell, who plays the movie’s protagonist, Vivian. I can’t put my finger exactly on why I didn’t like her much, but part of it was the look of the character she was playing. She spends the entire movie in a kind of sundress that didn’t look right to me for this kind of movie. That might seem like a fussy comment, but movies are a visual medium, and this particular visual didn’t sit well with me. It could have been the washed out colour palette, and how pale the dress looks, but maybe it was just the dress itself. Bell is a good looking actress, reminiscent of 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski in the face, but there were more than a few scenes it felt like she was overacting, and given that she’s in most of the movie’s scenes, it was distracting.
Act 2 doesn’t quite possess the kind of tension that the story itself demands, but I think that’s down to a lack of budget in the DOP department. Too many shots had a banal composition, and the story just settles into a cat-and-mouse game between Vivian and the psycho villain Wyatt, played by Pat Healy. It’s switched up a little by the arrival of a local sheriff, played by Spin City’s Alan Ruck, but the relationship between him and the sniper felt contrived, as did the eventual fate of the sheriff himself.
The biggest misfire of the movie is the character of the sniper himself. I don’t know if Keating’s goal was to say something about the Christian Right Survivalist Prepper Lunatic Fringe out there, but if it was, he failed miserably here. Wyatt, the sniper, is little more than a motiveless nut with a high powered rifle. Sure, I understand he hunts people in his desert compound, but I don’t really know why he does it. If it’s just because he’s crazy, that’s just bad writing. Unfortunately, other than having a small shack, that’s an all- too-familiar trope of crazed-killer horror movies, there’s almost no meat behind the character of Wyatt at all, and this is a big failure of the movie. At no time was I ever engaged with this character when he appeared on screen. I knew he was a psycho killer, but he never interested me, and that pulled me out of the second half.
Act three is a more close-quartered affair with an ending that seemed largely inspired by the ending of The Silence of the Lambs, and it’s pretty decent although it does drag on a little more than it needs to, and ultimately you end up getting the resolution you could see coming. It’s done well enough, but it doesn’t contain any real surprises.
I’ve spent more time criticizing than praising the movie, but I mostly enjoyed it. Keating did a great job with what was clearly a low budget; it’s directed well, and often stylishly, and rises above this kind of lone-girl-hunted-by-psychopath storyline. The jarring score, by Giona Ostinelli, and the arid wilderness setting of the movie at times made me recall the original Planet of the Apes. Tonally, it works well here, injecting some urgency into some otherwise turgid scenes in act 2.