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KILLING GROUND Horrifies with Raw Realism and Terror (Sundance Review)

KILLING GROUND Horrifies with Raw Realism and Terror (Sundance Review)

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival as part of its Midnight slate, a lean and mean horror film out of Australia will rip ragged breaths out of its astonished audience. A rarity in the genre, Killing Ground doesn’t traffic in spooky spectacle. There’s no inky ghosts, supernatural slashers, garish gore, or quirky camp appeal. Instead, writer-director Damien Power fuels his fantastically frightening feature film debut with intoxicating doses of dread, a slathering of suspense, and a splash of surprises.

Killing Ground kicks off with Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), a giddy pair of lovers setting out on a camping vacation in a remote but lovely locale. When the besotted duo arrive stream-side to see another tent already perched on this sun-soaked shore, they groan and hope their unseen neighbors won’t be a burden. But their bliss is shattered when the neighboring tent reveals a disturbing secret. In the blink of an eye, this cuddly couple is fighting for their lives against a pair of lethal locals (Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane), who know the land and prefer it red with blood.

Raw, riveting and realistic, Killing Ground carves terror out of a simple setting by focusing on the plausible horror strangers can inflict on each other. It’s incredible that this is Power’s first feature, as he shows an uncanny confidence in chiseling out a minimal yet powerful story. With telling interactions, each character is deftly established, then grounded with conversations casual and occasionally edged. A few short sequences establish a world where safety is an illusion, and society too far off to save you. Then, Power drops clues that there are more secrets in this film than the one that spooks Sam and Ian.

A wickedly clever edit masterfully teases tension by playing against audience assumption. Like our heroes, we’re offered hints that serve as warning for what lies ahead: an abandoned hat here, an eerie silence there. But by the time we’ve caught on to what’s really going on, it’s too late. We’re snared. At the turn of Act One, a lone, dirt-caked baby stumbling mutely but methodically toward an unaware Sam will be the chilling tipping point that pulls audiences to the edge of their seats. And Killing Ground will give them no reprieve to breathe.

What unfolds is a story so grim and grounded that it plays out like the nightmarish true crimes that haunt towns for generations. Power’s script bleeds with realism, rejecting tropes that would abruptly transform chipper book publisher Sarah into some avenging angel or friendly doctor Ian into a suddenly realized soldier. They are average tourists, lost, terrified and determined to survive. It’s that last bit that makes them dangerous. In the tale of these grounds, Power weaves together divergent threads to create a tapestry of tension and terror that is nearly suffocating.

Credit is owed to the entire cast, who paint portraits of fear and intimidation with eerie authenticity, their eyes glinting with panic or blood lust. In one particularly unnerving confrontation between Dyer and Glenane, their faces and competing hissed whispers sell the assault happening out of frame in a way distinctly disturbing, without relying on gratuitous reveals. Throughout this terrifying treat, Power sagely trusts his cast’s performances, lingering on close-ups, avoiding graphic displays of violence, and favoring a minimal score that never overshadows a scene’s emotion. It’s subtle, strong and scary as hell.

4 out of 5 burritos. 

4-burritos

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