Grizzly Park (2008)

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No sense beating around the bush: Grizzly Park flat-out sucks. But it’s a scrappy sort of crappy, that you can almost, sort of, grudgingly admire. Writer/director Tom Skull is obviously a rank amateur; I’ve seen children’s birthday party videos that were more professionally shot and edited. The acting, from top to bottom, is godawful. Plot points are gathered and randomly discarded without a second thought (e.g., why bother to give a character a gun if it’s never used?). To give credit where it’s due, the gore effects, when they finally appear, aren’t too shabby. Oh, and they use a real bear.

Eight young adults (who seem to range in age from 18-35) are assigned community service for various offenses and because they’re all grotesque examples of humanity. Vain, selfish, shallow, stupid, greedy, bigoted, you name it—there’s nary a deadly sin left unaccounted for in this bunch. The hateful dipshits are assigned to no-nonsense disciplinarian Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower), who guides them deep into the wilderness of Grizzly Park, where they must pick up litter and (more importantly) serve as a snack tray for the wild critters of the forest. There’s also an escaped maniac running around, but he’s dispatched of so quickly by a ravenous bear that you wonder why Skull bothered to introduce him in the first place. Just another tossed plot point.

The tone of Grizzly Park careens from horny adolescent “humor” (it’s not in the least bit funny) to vague, weak-ass moralizing to guts and gore—and you won’t care one little bit.

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Eden Lake (2008)

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Talk about grueling; Eden Lake makes Straw Dogs look like a Frankie and Annette double feature. Writer-director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) methodically stokes the fear furnace until the tension is nearly unbearable—but you don’t dare look away. By firmly establishing his protagonists as something more than pale quaking stereotypes, Watkins succeeds where Eli Roth and James Wan fall short; namely giving the viewer a good reason to be shocked and horrified about the cruelties inflicted on them.

In search of a romantic weekend, Steve (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) drive way out to hell and gone in the English countryside to camp on a secluded beach that’s about to become the centerpiece of a condo development. The couple incurs the wrath of local juvenile delinquents on BMX bikes and things rapidly spin out of control. Sure, it’s all a big joke, till someone gets hurt—or in this case, killed. And while Steve and Jenny definitely do not deserve their eventual fates, it can be rightly said that the awful shit pit they land in is due mostly to Steve being a colossal asshole who should have just walked away before everything went to hell. He has several chances to do so, but his idiotic pride won’t let him.

Eden Lake should look familiar: the plot is nearly identical to The Strangers (or Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wrong Turn, for that matter). Above all else, never ever pitch your tent in an isolated rural area, especially after witnessing the casual cruelty of the locals. But there is a critical difference. There’s no explanation for the amorality and astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the teens in The Strangers. Boredom maybe? Gangsta rap? Point and shoot video games? Guess we’ll never know.

In Watkins’ film, the young miscreants are squarely under the sway of Brett (Jack O’Connell), the group’s psychotic Alpha male, who, like any good tyrant, whittles away his subjects’ humanity with bullying and threats. (I kept thinking of African child soldiers, forced under impossible pressure into remorseless killers.) Each nightmarish escalation of the action is presented as a transgression that could have been avoided, but also as a disturbingly believable development, considering the hellish circumstances the characters find themselves in. And that is why Eden Lake is so damn terrifying and transfixing.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

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I haven’t read enough Clive Barker to decide if I’m a fan or not, but he certainly spins a fascinatingly lurid yarn. The Midnight Meat Train is based on one of his short stories, and it’s a bloody fun ride, even though I kept thinking I was watching a chopped up version that had scenes missing. There are moments when the action inexplicably jumps from Point A to Point M, and you wonder how the hell we got here.

A right-before-he-got famous Bradley Cooper plays Leon, a wannabe artsy photographer trying to capture “the beating heart of New York City” to impress snooty art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who advises him to take more chances, and not run away when danger rears its ugly head. He starts hanging out in the subway during the wee hours of the morning and stumbles upon a very dapper and intense-looking butcher (Vinnie Jones, in a silent part), and is immediately compelled to follow him around. (How do we know he’s a butcher? Well, he carries a meat mallet the size of Mjolnir, for one thing.) Sure enough, it appears his new-found subject is a methodical serial killer who’s been making late-night subway riders disappear for quite some time. Poor Leon realizes too late, that the butcher’s grisly nocturnal rituals are all a part of (sung in Elton John voice) “the c-i-r-c-l-e of l-i-i-i-f-e!”

Anytime you pad out a short story into a feature length film, there’s going to be filler, and The Midnight Meat Train is no exception, but for the most part, director Ryuhel Kitamura and screenplay scribe Jeff Buhler keep it fast and gruesome. The ending is pure Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but it’s not a cop-out. It’s surprisingly weird and horrible, and hints at a “bigger picture” that’s even more terrible than we had first supposed. And that, folks, is what good horror should do. What, no sequel?

Salvage (2009)

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I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Atmosphere and the unpredictable flow of tension is the life’s blood of any Horrific Flick. A successful horror movie is one that could be just as effective if it were staged as a play, and you can count Salvage among them. It’s a “trapped in the house” potboiler about a neighborhood under siege, from both a bloodthirsty (alien?) creature and a trigger-happy military—and we’re left to decide who’s the bigger threat. Paranoia, infidelity, and xenophobia coat the air like cheap incense.

Much of the film’s running time is consumed with the domestic complications of Beth (Neve McIntosh, who rocks!), the smokin’ hot divorced mother of Jodie (Linzey Cocker), a sullen teenager. (Are there any other kind?) Jodie gets dropped off by Dad to spend Christmas with her estranged mother who lives in a snug little cul-de-sac on the coast of Britain. (Sorry, don’t know which one. Is it really that important?) A touching mother-and-child reunion ensues as Jodie walks in on Beth getting smartly shagged by Kieran (Shaun Dooley), a bloke she met in a bar the previous evening. Disgusted with her slutty mum, Jodie runs off to stay with the neighbors. A-a-a-n-n-d-d … Cue the monster!

The little community is soon crawling with soldiers shooting at anything that moves. A trickle of gore leaks out as a (largely offscreen) body count mounts. The creature wreaks bloody havoc, leaving a parade of mangled corpses in its wake.

For about a third of Salvage, you’re wondering if it’s just a movie about paranoia. Neighbors turn on each other, some seeing terrorists behind every bush. Or perhaps the military has staged a coup, and they’re rounding up citizens on Christmas to work in the mines! Could happen. This is just one of the red rubber balls you’re left to chew on. Another is the dicey relationship between Beth, a woman who seemingly chose a career in science (and getting shagged by other blokes) over being a wife and mother, and Jodie, the prudish progeny who resents her. Like Ellen Ripley before her, it’s up to Beth to get in touch with her primal side before she can really earn the title of “mother.”