The Underrated: Eden Lake
This is a special bonus Underrated, as I watched this film last night and still feel a bit traumatised by it. When Eden Lake was released in the summer of 2008, I have to admit that I took one look at the Empire review (which is glowing) and one look at the plot synopsis and instantly thought “pass”. This was both a lucky escape and a stupid mistake. Lucky, because I don’t think that this would be an easy film to cope with on the big screen (and I’m really not joking about that), and stupid because Eden Lake is comfortably the second best British Horror film of the last decade. It doesn’t touch the Descent, which it owes a lot to, but it is a nasty, visceral little film that rooted me to my seat, but also manages to cram an impressive amount of social commentary into what is essentially a genre film.
Meet Jenny and Steve, as mild-mannered a middle class couple that you would ever meet. She’s a primary school teacher, and he’s a dickhead. He makes the terrible call to take them camping to a filled in quarry because this is the last time anyone can go there before it is built on (sound familiar?). As soon as Steve makes this decision, he’s broken Jarv’s golden rule of Horror films: Don’t go camping. They are basically a nice couple off for a romantic weekend, and the film charts the disastrous consequences of an encounter with the local chav vermin.
Eden Lake is not a particularly well written film. Steve, in particular, comes off as a complete dickhead and he had countless chances to avoid the disaster. Jenny, actually, urges him on several occasions to make what would be a life saving decision, but he keeps getting into ludicrous face-offs with the hoodie brigade. He is, actually, quite well drawn in that I found it very easy to believe that an overly macho nobhead such as this would keep trying to face the kids down. However, in terms of narrative, essentially the first half of the film is driven through him being stupid. This is never good. Personally, if it was me and I was camping on a deserted beach and a group of Chav scum, complete with Rottweiler, pitched up then I’d be heading back to the city asa-fucking-p. Seriously, you wouldn’t see me for tyre smoke.
Nevertheless, leaving that aside and also the odd piece of middle-class trying to write working-class language (since when do British Chav’s call prison “The Pen”?), there is a horrible air of verisimilitude to the script. The chav gang are all realistically drawn, and the use of a mobile phone to film proceedings could have come straight from the front pages. There are also nice pieces of foreshadowing done in the first hour and clever little bits of character insight. Steve may be a cock, but he really doesn’t deserve what happens to him, and Jenny certainly doesn’t.
This is an outstanding, albeit flawed, film. Fassbender is excellent as the dickhead, and Kelly Reilly is superb as the tormented Jenny, This is England’s Thomas Turgoose is touching as Cooper, but the real star of the piece is Jack O’Connell as the psychotic Brett. This is a frightening turn from the teenager, and his dementedly thuggish persona shows that we’ve managed to unearth another potential great cinema nasty. There’s a scene in Eden Lake towards the end that reminded me of Paul Bettany’s turn in Gangster Number 1 (it is stylistically lifted straight from that film) when the camera shows the victim’s point of view and is both grisly and harrowing. It’s a great turn.
To talk about Eden Lake means that I have to talk about violence in Cinema, and particularly torture porn. This is a film that contains some of the most harrowing violence that I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a sequence with a Stanley knife two thirds of the way through that is truly stomach turning. However, Eden Lake is not Torture Porn. The violence here always has a physical response from the characters (Jenny throws up, for example), and the point of this film is that violence is fucking horrible. You’re not meant to revel in it. Furthermore, unlike Torture Porn, we do care about the characters, and the scenes of extreme pain (there are a few) aren’t for titillation. This is genuinely frightening stuff- particularly because there is no feeling that any character is safe. If you must (Eli Roth take note) do extreme violence in a film, then for the love of the flying spaghetti monster do it for a purpose. Here it is both integral to the narrative (the Chav’s know they’ve fucked up badly and need to cover up), character (this is about revenge that has got completely out of hand) and also re-emphasising the point that violence is downright unpleasant.
Which brings me round to the direction. Watching Eden Lake is almost like playing a game of “where have I seen that before”. It borrows heavily from The Descent (lots of aerial shots over the forest), Deliverance (duh) and from a host of other films. The director, James Watkins (who went on to heavily blot his copybook by penning the unforgivable sequel to the Descent) has a good eye for what to be influenced by, and makes the correct decision to steal from excellent films. Furthermore, he clearly also understands that for these types of films to be effective then you have to establish an air of menace, and this is a film that seeps with venom. The sequence at breakfast in the town where the waitress looks at Steve and says “not my kids” looks minor but thickens the atmosphere of the film. Steve and Jenny are very much invading somewhere they shouldn’t be, Steve ignores it, but Jenny knows it. The film is full of little touches like this (the slapped kid in the pub)- they’re middle class twats in a working class area and if they behave with a sense of entitlement then bad things will happen.
Finally, nothing will prepare you for the end of this film, you may be able to see it coming, but that won’t help. Fuck me.
Overall, this is an outstanding film. It’s gripping, scary and all too realistic. It has characters that we can believe in, in a situation that is highly plausible. The feral youths of Eden Lake do populate many of our soulless northern towns and cities, and there are stories almost every day of incidents that could well have come from Eden Lake in our papers (don’t believe me? Google Happy Slapping). This is an intense and realistic film, and not one to watch while eating.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, search it out. Koutch in particular will fucking love it.
Until next time,