It is often joked that in Australia everything wants to kill you, but while the vast majority are probably referring to the famously dangerous wildlife world cineastes are likely to be just as cautious of the people who live there. From Animal Kingdom to Wolf Creek, Snowtown to The Loved One, it seems as though you can’t trust your neighbours down under after all. Tasmanian writer-director Damien Power isn’t likely to change that with his debut feature, a blisteringly brutal horror thriller that will have you crossing out another Australian beauty spot and leaving your camping equipment behind.
It’s New Year’s Eve in the Australian outback, and Ian (Ian Meadows) is determined to spend the night with Sam (Harriet Dyer) a fondly remembered falls from his youth, despite the protestations of a local redneck (Aaron Pedersen as German) who insists that there is no reaching the river by car. The couple are disheartened to discover a tent already erected at the campsite when the arrive, but their disappointment soon turns to distress as the interlopers fail to return before — or indeed after — dark. Instead they cross paths with Chook (Aaron Glenane), an acquaintance of German’s, whose appearance on the scene just happens to coincide with a disturbing discovery about the other family’s fate.
While on paper Power’s premise seems pretty rote and perhaps even predictable, in practice it is both more compelling and complex than the synopsis or opening scenes might ever have lead you to suspect. Apart from the couple’s early encounter with German they’re kept at an unexpectedly safe distance for much of the film, at least well into the second act. Both pairs of characters are seen celebrating New Year miles apart, German and Chook showing little interest in the young couple as they instead direct their attention towards revellers at a busy dive bar. Instead it is left to a third group to bridge the gap and further the plot, as Power deftly introduces his audience to the missing, presumed dead Baker family.
Both campers’ narratives progress in parallel as each group spends their first night in their respective tents — with only the fact that the Baker’s tent is clearly deserted in the later timeline suggesting that anything at all has gone amiss. It isn’t long, however, before this disquiet turns to dread, as it becomes apparent that German is uneasy about something and Chook has somehow inherited Em Baker’s mobile phone. Power doesn’t rush his audience to quick conclusions, however, as Katie Flaxman’s eerie edits, shadowy campfire stories about historic massacres and an apparently posthumous appearance by Em’s baby brother hint at a possible supernatural element to the narrative. Eventually, effectively, excruciatingly, the narratives begin to converge.
The little-known cast is extraordinary throughout, with Meadows and Dyer in particular making a real splash. They have much more to do than you might expect, particularly in the third act as they’re forced apart and left to fend for themselves. It is a novelty to feel so invested in a relationship such as their’s, and as they fight for their lives you begin to worry that their survival will come at a considerable cost. Even the Bakers have a few surprises up their sleeves, and though you may write them off early on they should never be counted out completely. Pederson and Glenane, meanwhile, have perhaps the biggest challenge in distinguishing their predators from the pack, but Power has again found novel and unexpected ways of fleshing them out.
While perhaps not as visceral as some outback-set ordeals, Killing Ground is inventive enough to subvert expectation and find fresh ways to unnerve the viewer. You expect the death and depravity to shock, and the torment of the Baker family is not one you are soon likely to forget, but impressively Power has also succeeded in making survival no less scary. In Australia at least what doesn’t kill you won’t necessarily make you stronger.
Killing Ground is showing at the EIFF 2017.