As an engagement surprise, Steve (Fassbender) takes his girlfriend Jenny (Reilly) on a camping trip to a secluded lake. When a gang of yoofs steal their car, Steve confronts them, leading to a brutal act of violence...
Through enthusiastic over-breeding - Wrong Turn, Timber Falls, Texas Chainsaw - the hillbilly horror is so well-established it’s crowned itself a subgenre. And for good reason: it’s tooled-up to give audiences a blast of primal fear - these are films that shake us out of our suburban comfort zone, drop us into hostile territory and punch the buttons of our most basic animal instinct - fight or flight.
That’s the theory. In truth, the current batch have been about as terrifying as a trip to Neasden. As a cat-and-mouse movie set in deep, dark woods, Eden Lake screams from the same sheet, but the recasting adds an extreme new shudder. For hillbilly, read hoodie.
Steve (Fassbender) and Jenny (Reilly) are your emblematic Ikea couple, weekend-breaking from London to a natural beauty spot, where Steve plans to propose. Luck favours the devil in horror movies - that’s to say, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong - but the catalyst here is depressingly innocuous, and horribly familiar. Approaching a local gang who’ve gatecrashed their camping spot, Steve asks them... to turn the music down. Intimidation turns to aggravation, and an escalating rage results in one of the year’s most shocking scenes. They torture him. It’s quite enough that the camera doesn’t flinch; what’s really troubling is the plausibility of their motivation: peer pressure. Terrorised by their dead-eyed ringleader, Brett (an excellent O’Connell), they all take part. It’s what the BBFC would call “challenging material”, but dramatically speaking, it’s so unforgiving you have no idea how far the movie is going to push things.
In terms of close-calls and confrontations, Eden Lake is so locked into its genre we even get the girl-running-then-tripping routine - but there’s a raw, British grit to the performances that lends a queasy, authentic edge. Reilly’s slow crack into rage is alarming, but the kids? Scarily recognisable - they’re like the lot that hang outside your local Kwik Save, and they’re frighteningly good.
If it’s doing its job properly, horror should hold up a mirror to the culture it came from and throw up a distorted reflection. Happy slapping, have-a-go-heroes, gang violence, knife crime: Eden Lake takes the full Munch scream of Daily Mail terrors and turns up the volume, hard. It’s a bleak vision, and some might find it guilty of exploiting some distressing headlines. Which, being an exploitation movie, it has every right to do. There’s no answers but it does pose questions: where’s the discipline, it asks? More to the point, where the hell are the parents?
This is James Watkins’ debut and he’s clearly a talent to watch. Through controlled tension and draining sense of no escape, he’s crafted a contemporary nightmare and not once does he sweeten the pill (any humour’s tucked well away; although you might just catch the name of the lake: Slapton). Much like The Descent, it’s a rare case of us taking on Hollywood at its own game. Speaking of which, next up for Watkins is a writing gig on The Descent 2. It already sounds like a journey worth dreading.
You don't watch it, you survive it. A battering experience, and the hardest Brit horror in years.