Written and Directed by: Mickey Keating
Starring: Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, and James Landry Hťbert
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Out here, God don't pick no favorites.
The latest effort from prolific (and promising) relative newcomer Mickey Keating, Carnage Park almost demands to be considered in terms of the films that obviously influenced. Itís not just a pastiche but rather an ouroboros of pastiche that sometimes leaves you sifting through layers of homage. In many ways, it feels like a film that escaped from the second half of the 90s, when so many films were looking to channel Tarantino (and often failing miserably). Keating fares better here, though Carnage Parkís scatterbrained nature only serves to further remind you of other movies once its director moves beyond his influences, however slightly.
Tarantinoís early work is notably felt early on, when a man bleeds out in the backseat of a car, crying out in agony. His partner Scorpion Joe Clay (James Landry Hebert) assures him that heíll be fine despite spilling pints of blood onto the seat. We quickly learn that this is anything but the case, as he soon expires, leaving Scorpion Joe and his hostage Vivian (Ashley Bell) to dispose of his body. Flashbacks eventually fill the audience in on a backstory involving a violent bank robbery thatís resulted in a county-wide manhunt for Scorpion Joe and his captive.
An obvious Reservoir Dogs riff turns on its head, however, when Scorpion Joe stumbles onto a stretch of land lorded over by Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy), a secluded, militaristic zealot who has no compunctions about shooting anyone who trespasses onto his property. Hell, he has no compunction about shooting you if you donít trespass, as evidenced by his prowess with a sniper rifle, which leaves Joeís head splattered all over his own windshield. Freed of her captor, a real ďout of the frying pan and into the fireĒ situation emerges for Vivian, who now finds herself terrorized by something much worse than a two-bit shit-kicking bank robber.
The sudden turn of events from bank robbery to something even more horrifying vaguely recalls the twists and turns of From Dusk Till Dawn. In this case, though, Keating trades in vampires for a psychopath that seems all-too-familiar to those who have followed headlines involving paranoid, delusional, gun-toting militiamen like Cliven Bundy and his ilk. Unlike many off-the-beaten-path horror villains, Wyatt Moss isnít some primal, inexplicable force: heís the extreme reflection of the hateful, toxic morass thatís put Donald Trump perilously close to the White House. Heís scary because heís absolutely believableóas I type this, a sordid investigation involving a kidnapped woman and multiple homicides is unfolding in what was basically my hometown growing up.
This sort of thing can unfold in even the most unsuspecting of places, and Carnage Park is at its best when itís focused on the harrowing, bone-chilling simplicity of being trapped in the den of an absolute madman. Obviously a common horror movie scenario, itís distinguished here by Healy, who is almost unrecognizable as the sinister, unhinged Moss. Thereís playing against type, and then thereís this: Healy is usually so affable that itís genuinely jarring to see him playing such a monster. Healy is quietly but confidently creepy as Moss in a turn that requires a disturbing, broken human face.
For much of the film, Moss dons a minerís mask thatís unsettling enough; however, the film is incredibly intense whenever Healy is able to highlight the sheer banality of this evil. A suspenseful stand-off with his own brother, the conflicted Sheriff Moss (Alan Ruck), is particularly unnerving because it reveals the tenuous line between justice and injustice. As the sheriff questions Wyatt about Vivian, sheís struggling for her life just beyond his reach, trapped in a maze of horrors concealed by the compoundís ominous walls alongside other possible victims (among them is an always welcome Larry Fessenden).
Keating also creates dramatic irony through his crisscrossing, non-chronological plotting. On the surface, itís another affectation swiped from Tarantino, but it creates an unnerving suggestion about the random, chaotic events that govern our lives. When we watch Vivian walk into the ill-fated bank, thereís an obvious dread given what we know about her eventual fate. Crafting that is easy enough, but Keating takes it a step further by revealing just how tantalizingly close she came to avoiding the ordeal altogether. Had she decided not to wander back into the place, her life goes on as normal; however, by sticking to her guns (this flashback also provides some minimal character development that Bell nails), sheís subjected to one of the most traumatizing experiences this side of Sally Hardesty.
That comparison isnít random, by the way. Between its 70s period setting and an ominous opening narration, it has the DNA of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre guiding it towards a nihilistic fatalism. Just as Sally and her friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so too is Vivian, who is likewise put through a grinding, nerve-shattering experience. Towards the end, the film takes a turn thatís vaguely reminiscent of the climax of House of a 1000 Corpses, something I found amusing given Rob Zombieís obvious affinity for Tarantino and Hooperís work. At a certain point, it was fair to consider if Carnage Park wasnít anything more than an Nth-generation copy descended from decades of various rip-offs and homages.
Arguably, the film never evades that question, nor does it escape the shadow of those previous efforts. Keating does, however, manage to make it his own, if ever so slightly. The mine setting and Wyattís resemblance to Harry Warren does the film no favors in these regards, yet thereís an eerie stillness to the climax here. Keating trades in the frenzied, nerve-jangling chaos of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for something a bit quieter. The score messily screeches all the same as it, but itís somehow less intrusive and completely brain-searing. Itís an interesting approach to distinguish Carnage Park from the various films it recalls, and it mostly works. Thereís something to be said about tracking the disturbing aftermath in the wake of violenceóitís these moments that linger in Carnage Park long after the actual bloodshed.
Keating is clearly attuned to the power of revealing the psychological toll of trauma. Forget the splattered heads: nothing in Carnage Park is as disturbing as the desperation painted on the faces of Mossís victims. This might not be as singular as Darling, but itís still further proof that Keating is an exciting emerging talent.
Carnage Park is now available on Blu-ray from IFC Midnight and Scream Factory.
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