And there was me, whining on about a dearth of decent horror, apart from in Spain. Good to see that the Brits are still capable of delivering intelligent ‘video nasties’ – here, young first-time director James Watkins, whose previous honours include the screenplay for the deeply unsettling and underrated My Little Eye (2002), delivers a stomach-churning journey into pastoral savagery that explores an aspect of social unease that’s blighting Blighty (if you buy what you read in the papers).
We’re talking about ‘chavs’, of course – the latest ‘social phenomenon’ to be bandied both by screaming tabloid headlines and liberal handwringers. For myself, I hate the word and the latest class-war salvo that it represents (so I suppose that marks me as a polo-neck wearing Guardian reader, right?), but I am prepared to accept that the spectre of increasing youth delinquency, with its concurrent knife crime, gang-wars and general alienation from society, is a problem that would appear to be affecting the UK in particular in the early years of the 21st century.
I’ll put my soap-box away shortly, promise, but I am convinced that Eden Lake, in its guise of a Deliverance/Straw Dogs/Calvaire-style horror show, touches on a great deal more than mere blood and mayhem.
It’s Friday, and young, liberal, white middle-class couple Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) are heading off for a romantic weekend in the sticks – Steve is planning to propose, and the pair are going camping on the shores of Eden Lake, a rural idyll that’s set shortly to be converted to an ‘enclosed’ yuppie housing development. Jenny, a nursery teacher, asks shortly after arriving at the lake: ‘What are they shutting themselves away from?’. A scrawled message on the reverse side of a development billboard may offer a clue, as our visitors are about to find out for themselves, when a confrontation with a group of noisy young teens turns deadly…
It’s reminiscent in some ways of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils (Them) (2006), but what’s interesting is that the French film sold itself as ‘Based on a true story’, whereas Eden Lake doesn’t have to – such is the growing fear of ‘feral’ youngsters in the UK, there is a successful subtext of ‘This could happen to you’ that pervades the entire film.
This is entirely down to the superb performances from the young actors who play the assailants, with Jack O’Connell leading the field brilliantly as ring-leader Brett (pictured). The transition from truculent, sneering kids to brutal would-be murderers is seamless, with Brett’s girlfriend Paige (Finn Atkins) also chilling in her impassiveness, as she records the escalating atrocities on her mobile phone, thus tapping in to yet another frequently reported real-life social outrage.
Thomas Turgoose, who was excellent in This Is England (2006), also shines here, even if there’s a slight wish that he had been given a touch more to do in the story. The protagonists are also very well cast, with excellent chemistry between Fassbender and Reilly, which then neatly dovetails into a credible sense of facing terror together as the pair realise that what they are up against is nothing less than a fight to the death. But their attackers are just kids, aren’t they?
Reilly, in particular, makes a skillful, believable transition from gentle, beautiful liberal to feral ferocity in her efforts to save herself and her love. A pity, then, that Watkins only really overplays his hand at the film’s denouement – while even worthy genre examples appear increasingly to be moving towards the nihilistic, the ‘final horror’ still seems a little too pat for its own good. It’s all the parents’ fault, apparently, so that’s alright then.
Still, you should see it. Whichever side of the ‘chav’ debate you’re on, this is bloody scary.