Most of the “1970s throwback” / grindhouse-style movies that we all love so much are pretty broad, tongue-in-cheek affairs. And that’s not meant as a knock on flicks like Death Proof, Planet Terror, Hobo with a Shotgun, Manborg, and Turbo Kid, all of which are pretty damn awesome. It’s simply that most of the low-budget late-’70s genre fare was pretty wild, unrestrained, and over the top… so it only makes sense that the next-gen homages would behave the same way.
But then there are the subtler films. The ones that seem to evoke a raw, scruffy 1979-ish vibe not through broad humor or garishly comedic violence, but through gritty style, tough attitude, and a keen eye for paranoid detail. Mickey Keating’s dark, intense, and enjoyably unpredictable Carnage Park fits firmly into this category, and it capably earns a place alongside recent (and really good) indie thrillers like Cold in July and Blue Ruin.
Perhaps best described as a fact-based crime thriller that quickly transforms into a deviously unhinged horror story, Carnage Park is about a kidnapped woman, a psychotic sniper, a shady cop, and a totally desolate patch of desert land upon which numerous unpleasant things take place. We open with a bank robbery and a kidnapping, but it doesn’t take long before the manic Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert) and his nervous hostage Vivian (Ashley Bell) find themselves stuck in the middle of the desert. And there’s a mad sniper (Pat Healy) hiding somewhere very close by.
Whereas writer/director Mickey Keating’s earlier films (Ritual, Pod, Darling) were relatively low-key, claustrophobic affairs, Carnage Park is wide open, sun-bleached, and aggressively suspenseful. The deeper Vivian wanders into the mad gunman’s domain, the more nasty surprises she uncovers. Since the villain is highly proficient with a sniper rifle, the viewer simply never knows when (or where) the next shot will strike. Between the sniper, the rusty wreckage to navigate through, and the booby traps strewn everywhere, well, Vivian’s got a whole lot of dangers to deal with. Fortunately, there is a cop (Alan Ruck) snooping around nearby… if only Vivian can find him.
Combine that tension with a beautifully disconcerting score (courtesy of one Giona Ostinelli), a starkly creative visual style (both in production design and cinematography), and, perhaps best of all, a freaky sense of ongoing unpredictability, and the result is a cool, brutal, and confidently satisfying indie thriller. Basically, if the great violence stylists of the era—like Sam Peckinpah, John Boorman, or Arthur Penn—ever opted to direct a low-budget 1978 horror flick, it might look a little like Carnage Park. And I’m pretty sure that’s what Keating and his team were shooting for.
Rating: 4.5 bad-ass, bullet-strewn, sun-baked burritos out of 5