EDEN LAKE (2008) : J.Watkins : 1/10

“Tomo… why you make bad movie?”

(slight rewrite of IMDb user comment)
Thuddingly opportunistic yuppie-nightmare Brit-horror is unbearably gruelling to endure – but NOT in the way the filmmakers intended. Clunkingly ludicrous (sometimes even hilarious) as a thriller, it has a crass fear-of-the-underclass subtext that’s much more repellent than any of the (gratuitous) bloodshed on view. Fans of Thomas Turgoose (who gets a misleadingly prominent billing in the opening credits) should go and see Somers Town again instead: he’s very much a minor background figure here and has hardly anything to do.
Everyone else should also steer well clear. I like harrowing shockers as much as the next gorehound – there’s a niftily nasty little British movie at the moment called Mum & Dad that shows how the genre can work – but pretty much everything about Eden Lake stinks to high heaven. Given the title, I’m tempted to ask ‘would you Adam and Eve it?’ But I’ll content myself with simply saying shame, shame, shame on you, James Watkins.


………. “The chee-ild is the lowest form of film life.”
………. Douglas Fairbanks, 1918

Having starred in one of 2008’s finest British films – Shane Meadows’ Somers Town – young Thomas Turgoose now finds himself at the opposite end of the quality spectrum. It’s perhaps just as well that Turgoose – despite a misleadingly prominent billing in the opening credits – has so very little to do in writer-director James Watkins’ thuddingly opportunistic, crassly exploitative horror-thriller Eden Lake. His is a very minor supporting role which involves a bare handful of dialogue-lines, but it’s still painful to see the lad in a movie so unworthy of his talents.

Turgoose isn’t the only Meadows alumnus on view: Once Upon a Time in the Midlands ‘ sparky Finn Atkins is likewise stuck in a nothing sort of a role. But Jack O’Connell, one of the skinhead gang from This Is England, fares much better: convincing feral and coiled-spring intense, he’s by far the best thing about the picture as Brett, ring-leader of a vicious teenage gang who torment a hapless, relatively well-off couple from London – Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) – after the lovebirds make the mistake of venturing “up north” for a romantic weekend.

Their destination: Slapton Quarry (as in ‘happy slapping,’ presumably), tucked away in an unspecified, leafy corner of the East Midlands – the accents and dialect (“ayup, m’duck”) place it near the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Perhaps unsuprisingly – given how grossly unflattering an image of Midlands society the movie presents – the closing credits relate only that it was “made on location in the U.K.” (in fact, primarily Buckinghamshire’s Great Park.)

In the movie, the former quarry is about to become ‘Eden Lake,’ a gated development of “fifty superior New England homes” apparently aimed at well-off newcomers not dissimilar to Steve and Jenny. But Steve – who has happy childhood memories of being taken fishing at the lake by his dad – isn’t impressed: “this used to be a public park,” he grumbles. The locals aren’t thrilled, either: “f*ck off yuppy c*nts” reads graffiti on the Eden Lake advertising-board.

This class-based insularity and hostility perhaps explains the tense atmosphere Steve and Jenny encounter when they check in at a boozer for their first night, and then in a greasy-spoon cafe the next morning. Much worse is to come, however, after the pair decamp to the forested lakeside. Steve is discomfited to find that they’re sharing their sunbathing spot with Brett and his posse – plus snarling, defecating Rottweiler and loud ghetto-blaster – who thuggishly shatter any hope of tranquility.

What follows crudely cobbles together aspects of several previous, much better movies:
* Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Lithely muscular Steve, who’s planning to propose to Jenny (always a bad sign in this genre), finds his manhood undermined by the randy, leering youths, and his excessive responses lead to a rapidly-worsening spiral of violence.
* Neil Marshall’s The Descentwhose composer David Julyan and production-designer Simon Bowles perform the same tasks here (Watkins has co-written the upcoming Descent Part 2.) Jenny, who starts off as a nicey-nicey primary-schoolmarm a la Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky, ends up (quicker than you can say “ ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?) a mud-and-blood-spattered, homicidal angel-of-vengeance – and the picture seems to relish this depressing transformation.
* John Boorman’s Deliverance; and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort. Watkins appears to be paying direct tribute to the latter in the final reel when Jenny stumbles into a garden where a boisterous pool- party is in full swing – and whose jovial, friendly appearances prove deceptive…
* David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Romanian-set Ils aka Them. Sympathetic middle-class couple are terrorised by bored, motivelessly malign youth – Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, which came out in the UK a fortnight ago, is another, much more successful variant.
Ils was justifiably criticised in certain quarters for its two-dimensional presentation of the juvenile villains, pandering to the paranoid prejudices about folk-devil “hoodies” familiar from crudely reactionary British newspapers such as the Daily Mail. But Eden Lake‘s blunderbuss approach makes Ils look like Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups. And its arrival on our screens after a summer of seemingly ever-mushrooming teenager-on-teenager knife-crime is particularly inopportune.

Horror-thrillers have for decades been used by intelligent film-makers to explore topical, social and political issues – most famously, George Romero. And Steven Sheil’s Mum & Dad, partly inspired by the exploits of Fred and Rose West (and starring Somers Town‘s Perry Benson), is a current example of a British low-budgeter which contains gruelling nastiness but places this within a coherent social context – and works as a drama.

Placed in the wrong hands, however, the genre can become a very blunt instrument indeed – as Watkins shows. His film is too ludicrous, cliche-ridden, predictable and implausible to ever function in basic storytelling terms (and while Reilly throws herself into proceedings with an admirable/foolhardy gusto, Fassbender’s colourlessness certainly isn’t a plus.) These fundamental flaws are especially disappointing given Watkins co-wrote the economically tense Outback shocker Gone only a couple of years back. Eden Lake, with its parade of caricatures and stereotypes, can only exacerbate the depressingly real problems which it so clod-hoppingly dramatises – and about which (with its flimsy subtextal “analysis” of various types of parenting) it affects such concern.

The ultimate irony is that the film is so clearly aimed at the Bretts of this world rather than the Steves: Watkins takes a leaf from the American ‘torture-porn’ playbook and amps up the violence (along with it Julyan’s overheated score) at every opportunity. We’re expected to cheer as Jenny ‘goes Ripley’ and unleashing a homicidal fury that’s presented as the most effective tactic against Britain’s out-of-control teenagers.

But the bloodshed and burnings-alive are much less offensive and disturbing than the way the film so contemptuously portrays the provincial working-class (or perhaps that should be the underclass?) as a grim phantasmagoria of bovine stupidity and insectoid viciousness – rutting, drunken, lumpen plebs. You have to go back to Penny Woolcock’s The Principles of Lust (2002) for a similar ‘group libel.’ But Eden Lake is worse: its motivations reprehensible, its execution sloppy, its approach breathtakingly cynical. What a shoddy, vile, irresponsible misuse of celluloid this is.

Neil Young


91m (BBFC timing)

director : James Watkins (debut)
editor : Jon Harris (Stardust, Starter For 10, The Descent, etc)

seen 3.Sep.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)