Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008)
Arriving in cinemas last year amid an influx of films in which the representation of violence has hit new heights–or depths, depending on your particular point of view–James Watkin’s EDEN LAKE would appear to be the latest in a succession of films that has rolled off an “assembly line” and cater for little more than those seeking a quick fix of gore. But, no, Watkins’ film is a triumph of British genre film-making and one that is akin to a rollercoaster ride; although one that also packs one hell of an emotional punch.
The film’s premise is hardly original; smug career man Steve (Michael Fassbender – who appeared in one of 2008’s most critically-acclaimed films, HUNGER) decides to take his pretty nursery teacher girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly Reilly – PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), for a weekend away at an idyllic beauty spot so that he can propose to her. Arriving at the scenic place that Steve has chosen to pop the question, the couple relax by the tranquil lake but are soon drawn into a quarrel with a group of rowdy teenagers. With the kids’ music blaring, and their vicious-looking rottweiler barking uncontrollably and defecating everywhere, Steve approaches the rabble-rousers: but his requests are met with disdain. Soon after, Steve and Jenny discover that their car has been stolen. Searching the nearby woodlands, the couple are almost mown down by their vehicle, driven by the youths’ leader, Brett (THIS IS ENGLAND’s Jack O’Connell). An altercation between Steve and Brett ensues, during which the sullen teenager’s dog is inadvertently killed by Steve. Furious over the death of his beloved pet, Brett mobilises his friends and they give chase after Steve and Jenny who, by now, are back in their car and making tracks. With their vehicle being pelted by flying rocks, Steve loses control of the car and crashes into a tree. As the teenagers draw near, and finding himself crushed by a fallen branch and trapped behind the wheel, Steve insists that Kelly leaves him to go for help…
So begins EDEN LAKE, a film with a premise that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, their remakes and the films that they’ve inspired, most notably Rob Schmidt’s WRONG TURN. However, EDEN LAKE has something of a different angle; instead of the inbred hicks that menaced the protagonists in the films mentioned above, Watkins’ film is all the more believable for having a set of far more realistic adversaries; a group of people that would not look out of place stood outside a convenience store or hanging out at your local shopping centre: these kids dress, talk and are into the same things as many British teenagers; and in today’s climate of media frenzy surrounding the violence that is being perpetrated by our country’s youth, it manages to give a tired old subgenre a frightening new spin. Yes, some may state that David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s THEM (original title: ILS) covered the same ground first, while others will argue that the French film itself owes a great deal to Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES, which was made back in 1997, but the truth of the matter is that Watkins has managed to apply the themes of the aforementioned films to a British setting and has created something that is intrinsically linked to the zeitgeist of contemporary Britain.
EDEN LAKE is, without doubt, one of the most violent and distressing films this reviewer has ever seen inside a UK cinema; one of such intensity that a fair number of people got up and left the auditorium. While many would dismiss the film simply as exploitation, such an association should be worn as a badge of honour. Let us not forget that many classic exploitation films were held in such “low regard” by critics at the time of their release and even today, many critics will still argue their case against the likes of Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, for example. But those that do have a higher threshold to overt violence can see beyond the icky aesthetics and are able to decipher a deeper meaning. EDEN LAKE is such a film and although its depiction of bodily harm is realistic and unflinching, its violence exists to allow the audience to emote with the protagonists, who add another string to the film’s bow. Although we’re supposed to have an emotional bond with Steve and Jenny, both are of flawed character. When we’re first introduced to the couple, they appear to be the text-book example of your average white, middle-class couple: I would even go as far as to say that they’re almost stock characters. However, their characters develop as the film progresses, and there are times when your sympathy sways away from them. For example, Steve’s first altercation with the gang—when he attempts to ask them to turn down their music—left me thinking he was something of a jerk, as his dismissive attitude towards the group acts as the spark that the subsequent fire follows, but without it, there would be no narrative, nor would there be a film. That said Steve makes a couple of other hasty decisions soon after, leading us to believe that he’d put his pride before the safety of both his girlfriend and himself. Not a particularly admirable trait.
If there is a deeper meaning to Watkins’ film, it is that of our youth being pitted against the older generations simply because the adults struggle to comprehend a culture that is completely different from the one they were a part of as teenagers. Given the fact that the antagonists of EDEN LAKE are teenagers, their ruthlessness is completely credible, especially when you consider that kids like Brett exist; the limits of their antisocial behaviour know no bounds because their numb, vacant lives rarely require them to give an emotional response. Brett—who is played to the hilt by O’Connnell—is from what some would consider a rough family, albeit one that is wealthy; you get the impression that he has never wanted for anything but that of his parents’ attention. His accomplices however, seem to come from better stock and seem only motivated out of peer pressure at first, and blackmail later on. Once again, this is another credible facet of the film. One particular scene that requires the participation of the whole gang—and one that will probably live on infamy for years to come—is by turns incredibly chilling, stomach churning and utterly convincing. Each of the young actors (who include THIS IS ENGLAND’s Thomas Turgoose and Finn Atkins from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS) really contribute to this truly sinister set-piece and through their efforts it becomes a scene that’ll be very hard for many to forget.
Revisiting the film again on Optimum’s recently released Blu-ray was a real treat. While the DTS-Master Audio isn’t the most complex or immersive mix you’ll ever hear, it’s certainly lively enough. The picture is great too, though again, this isn’t in the same league as some of the format’s best examples (say Warner’s ZODIAC) but it’s excellent nonetheless and exhibits truly natural colour fidelity. Fine detail is also exemplary, with the freckles on Reilly’s face perfectly defined in close-up shots. While picture and audio are recommended, Optimum should be taken to task for not putting much effort into the disc’s special features (which are exactly the same on the DVD). There is a selection of interviews (with Watkins, Reilly, Fassbender and Turgoose): each of the participants are asked the same questions, thus there is a huge amount of repetition between them. There is also a Q&A with Watkins: again, there is a great deal of crossover between this and his stand alone interview. Rounding out the set are five minutes of redundant B-roll footage, two trailers (including a nasty “extreme” preview) and some TV spots. Given the nature of the film’s themes and the fact that it was Watkins’ directorial debut, there was so much more that could have been done with this release. Some production diaries, or a decent making of and a commentary track would have made this a much more worthwhile disc.
In conclusion, EDEN LAKE stands as one of the best British horror films in years and Watkins (best known for his screenwriting duties on MY LITTLE EYE and GONE) makes an astonishing directorial debut. The film has already divided opinion rather drastically, but if you’re a lover of the genre, you owe it to yourself to seek it out. While film and transfer and first rate, the same cannot be said for the supplements on the Blu-ray and DVD releases from Optimum. As it stands, EDEN LAKE’s merits as a film far outweigh the discs’ shortcomings. Essential.