Eden Lake an Intriguing and Intelligent Horror Examination
By Kristin Battestella
Well, here we go again. I picked up Eden Lake because Michael Fassbender is in, sure- but it’s also touted as a well-received independent horror gem. Two birds with one stone, I say.
Nursery school teacher Jenny (Kelly Reilly) is unaware her boyfriend Steve (Fassbender) intends to pop the question during their romantic weekend. Unlike some of their posh friends going off to Paris, Steve takes Jenny to Eden Lake, a picturesque flooded quarry and soon to be gated housing development. Sadly, the trip gets off on the wrong foot when a local youth gang – Brett (Jack O’Connell), Mark (Jumayn Hunter), Ricky (Thomas Gill), Cooper (Thomas Turgoose), and Paige (Finn Atkins) – disrupts the beautiful beach setting with their ornery dog, loud music, and lewd behavior. Steve confronts the group to no avail, and even follows them into town with a complaint after they spike his tires. When the gang steals their car, Steve and Jenny again confront the kids- leading to escalating violence, extreme actions, and dire results.
On one hand, it would seem dumb that adults can’t handle a handful of kids- why should they bother anyway? Writer and director John Watkins’ (The Woman in Black, The Descent 2) punks are bad news on top of bad decisions and debates about bad parenting. I’ve seen several films about the growing violence, hoods, and youth rebellion in England. Apparently, these stories aren’t that far from the truth, and that’s a scary notion in itself. Sometimes we become so enthralled over our fictitious monsters, special effects, and paranormal phenomenon that we forget the contemporary horrors in our own society. Although there is some writing on the wall at the beginning of Eden Lake for a wise horror viewer (Remember your rules from Scream!), there’s enough interest, realistic surprises, and disturbing imagery to make up the difference here. Yes, some characters make dumb choices, but this isn’t a heroic tale. Watkins keeps Eden Lake real through natural scenery and naturally flawed people. The story and characters are allowed the room needed to develop, building fine suspense and drama in first half hour. The meat of the chase and the uncharacteristic but no less horrific violence keeps the intensity through the middle of the picture, and the gore presented is not at the expense of the plot at hand. Rather than a traditional bloodfest with 20 naked teens getting sliced and diced, Watkins hold true for a wonderfully surprising final segment. Imperfect people make mistakes and bad choices all around, but Eden Lake isn’t comical like the numerous franchise sequels that are inevitably all the same. Instead of unintentional comedy, we have social subtext; a warning of what happens when we take life over the line to our raw, id, sociopath tendencies. The viewer wants to see the victims survive and make it out alive, but once irrecoverable lines are crossed, hope certainly does dwindle! Where does the vengeance begin and end here? Whose wrath is more justifiable? Eden Lake captures the vicious cycle without pretend monsters. It’s so refreshing to have some frank and smart cinema- especially when it circumvents the expected Hollywood ending.
Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Above Suspicion) is perfectly cast as Eden Lake’s firm nursery teacher with a soft spot for the kids. Jenny knows how to handle tough stuff, yet she’s willing to let the little things go. Her transformation from seemingly strung along girlfriend to physical action heroine happens realistically- with gritty dilemmas and a disturbing course of action. The wise audience may expect the pretty blonde female lead to step up the hardcore badass- as seems to always be the case with horror movies with freaky kids. However, the action comes a little late for Jenny and the plot doesn’t travel as we’d expect. Reilly does not make Jenny a superhero. Again, Eden Lake could have turned into a lot of cheap boob shots and flashy stupidity, but thankfully, Reilly keeps the desperate realism and flight or fight response effective. This is not a pretty role, and characters forced into an extreme situations can do very ugly things.
Fallen Angel. Spartan Warrior. Bobby Sands. Despite coming into Eden Lake with such a manly pedigree, Michael Fassbender plays a little bit of a wimp here. Steve has no problems so long as he has his badass SUV or fancy electronics; but he’s quite a prick, making hothead decisions to show off and cover up his true limp fish nature. Make no mistake, Fassbender (Hex, 300, Hunger) looks the yuppie hottie with a cool voice too match, but Steve can’t even get up enough nerve to ask Jenny to marry him. He’s actually more interested in how cool of a proposal he can make. She’ll say yes, trust me. Lady fans can certainly enjoy the first half of this film, with a boxers- only Fassy all wet in a tent by the lake or roaming around the bedroom strutting his stuff. He seems to be having a lot of fun with the part initially, making plenty of charming facial and vocal exaggerations. I can’t seem to find any information on which was filmed first, but Fassbender appears kind of thin and older looking here, probably from his Hunger starvation experience. He’s still muscular and fun for the ladies, but he looks to be balding already-and there are consequences to Steve’s dreamy introduction, I warn you! Stelios begs people, and seeing Fassbender roughed up by these kids is actually slightly amusing and even enjoyable because we can so easily believe his Steve is that much of a louse. I’ve no doubt the wicked youths here are the villains of Eden Lake, but I’ve also hidden a spoileriffic case of examination for Steve’s culpability at the end of this review.
And let’s talk about those youths and all this hard core peer pressure! Are these kids really sadists at heart or is this all a case of really bad parenting? Why do they do it? Jack O’Connell (Skins) does a superb job of giving us the basis of Brett’s wrath while also keeping the character askew with his true motivations unclear. Was it really just ‘boys being boys’ in the beginning? Surely, things can’t have turned deadly over a dog and loud music. Thomas Gill and Thomas Turgoose (This is England) are the weak links of the gang- their conflict over taking part and trying to be cool is also finely done. How far did they intend to take all this? If Brett wasn’t there, would the other kids behave differently? Was it Steve’s aggressive actions that pushed them to this? The hints that this is retaliatory are there (again I discuss this below for anyone interested) but clearly the patterns within the gang already laid these sadistic behaviors in place. Finn Atkins’ (Dangerville) Paige is the opposite of Jenny as the token girl of the group who does nothing but video tape it all. It’s a nice juxtaposition-not just of the cute blonde Jenny and tomboy brunette Paige- but of their ages as well. In a more stable environment, Paige could grow up to be successful like Jenny- but by the end of the film, is that a good thing? The only strike against the frank and scarily wonderful portrayal of the gang is the unfortunately stereotypical Jumayn Hunter (Cherry Tree Lane) and James Ghandi (Dani’s House) as impressionable wannabe Adam. Hunter’s character Mark is merely black and scary- striking the worst of the blows and yet I don’t even think he gets to speak! Poor Adam is bullied as the weak, nerdy Indian kid- perpetuating another stupid cultural divide. I find it sad if these elements are truly representative of youth class lines today. Eden Lake is just rife full with wicked little tragedies of lost childhood and gruesome parentage!
Eden Lake also has its share of onscreen gore and the usual scares or two. The Black Lake Park locations are wonderful as well, but the natural locales are subdued and realistic- along with some of the violence. I don’t mean to sound contradictory- there is some hardcore bloody bits here- but what’s so disturbing is who is doing what to whom. Yowza! The camerawork and lighting style feel like a natural part of the action- and only a completely silly note, it’s nice to see that the actor is actually driving the vehicle! I’m not sure if I like the cell phone, GPS, and Bluetooth plot points here, but that’s the way it has to be nowadays in a contemporary horror picture. This is also not really a dog friendly show at all, and ‘Bonnie’ the dog is definitely not a she; but these quibbles don’t interfere with the disbelief needed for the film. On the contrary, Eden Lake quickly puts us in its picturesque but askew world and never let us go.
I was a little disappointed that the DVD set only boasts a short behind the scenes feature- a commentary from Watkins with more insights on his social horror angles would have been nice. But I suppose we’re lucky to see such a disturbing British piece stateside at all. There are streaming and rental options available, but anyone who has a tough time with thick, localized English accents should stick with the DVD’s subtitles. Fans of the cast and quality independent horror will enjoy Eden Lake, though its upsetting storyline is not for kids or prudes. Take in some eye candy and indulge your horror intelligentsia with Eden Lake.
For a Spoiler examination and analysis of Eden Lake, visit my I Think, Therefore I Review Blog!