EDEN LAKE (2008)
Here in the United Kingdom the conservative media has not been much of a friend to challenging cinema. The Daily Mail newspaper in particular has often stoked the fires of anti-horror sentiment, its film critic once labelling thriller masterpiece The Exorcist (1973) ‘a sickening, gruesome and hateful film’. The tabloid’s greatest cinematic ‘achievement’ came in the early eighties when they spearheaded the campaign against video horror films, christening them “Video Nasties”. “Ban video sadism now” The Mail exclaimed. Whilst their crusade did do away with movie trash such as Faces of Death (1979) and The Beast In Heat (1982), it also swept up genuine classics such as House By The Cemetery (1981) and The Evil Dead (1983). But such sensationalism has not been limited to pot-shots at Hollywood. In recent years the conservative press have been whipping up a home grown horror decidedly less celluloid; the hooded youth.
Whether you buy into their stories of tooled up teenagers prowling the streets of Britain depends upon whether you’ve been unfortunate enough to have you own encounter with them. If you’ve been taunted, stalked, or threatened by a group of adolescents then it is a very real problem. The fact that idioms such as “ASBO” and “Hoodie” have entered the modern lexicon certainly gives credence to the notion of violent youth. By the dawn of the new century it was time for cinema to take something back from the right wing press. Writers and directors began to feed on this new public fear of disassociated teens, concocting tales of terror that developed the idea of the hooded criminal. This new notion of violent reprobates on our very doorsteps was a potent fear. But are such films a symptom of our legitimate fears, or are they increasing an unnecessary public panic? If so, are they deliberately exploiting our concerns for the sake of box office profit? Whatever the case, the films that stemmed from the modern urban terror ideal made for uncomfortable viewing.
The notion of scary cinema as an experience that has to be endured rather than enjoyed was first embodied by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It was the first film to truly blur the lines between entertainment and endurance. Thriller fans were made to question whether a good scary movie was one that truly unsettled or whether the unnerving position it placed you in negated any chance of enjoyment. If a film cannot be enjoyed is it really a good movie at all? Its a question that remains unanswered and genre fans remain divided. Of the recent wave of hoodie horror projects the movie that was most adept at invoking this principle was James Watkins Eden Lake (2008). As a thriller film it stood out as one of the most intense experiences since Hooper’s introduction of Leatherface. Watkins ripped into the raw nerve of public fear with an approach and believability of story telling that seemed to contradict his status as a first time director.
A familiar story set up, we follow Steve and Jenny on a weekend away to the country. The pair head off to Eden Lake, a waterside wilderness that is soon to be bulldozed and turned into a large housing estate. Settling down to a quiet day by the water the peace is soon disturbed by a group of teenagers. The gang’s large dog slobbers over Jenny and their loud music annoys breaks the idyllic peace. Steve politely asks the teens to turn their music down but is met with verbal abuse. Later on, when the couple go to drive back into town their reverse over a bottle left by the group and puncture a tire. Returning to the lake the pair decide to go swimming. Whilst in the water the teens steal their possession and make off with Steve’s car. Catching up to the group Steve confronts Brett, the gang’s apparent leader, and demands his belongings back. As the argument becomes heated one of the teenagers pulls a knife. In the ensuring scuffle Brett’s dog gets stabbed and dies.
The group then chase Steve and Jenny down. Jenny escapes but Steve is caught and tied to a tree stump with barbed wire. Jenny tracks the group the following morning where she discovers Brett taunting the rest of the teens into torturing Steve. The couple momentarily escape but are re-caught. Steve dies from his wounds but Jenny escapes again before the gang have a chance to burn her alive. With Jenny fleeing Brett turns on his friends after they refuse to carryout his sadistic requests. Jenny makes it out of the woods killing some of the gang members on the way. When she crashes her car at a nearby house party she is taken in by the occupants, but it soon becomes clear that Jenny’s situation is about to get even worse.
What Watkins achieved with this modern tragedy was a delicate escalation of terror. Taken as a whole the story seems too fantastical to be true, but the individual events seen as separate episodes seem wholly plausible. There is terrifying familiarity when Steve first approaches the gang. He stands on the sand with his girlfriend watching on to his left and the teenagers smirking to his right. The audience’s righteous nature wills him on to give the youngsters a good talking to but our horror film sensibilities scream no. We’re all too aware that no good can come from Steve’s reprimand. The intensification of events from here follows the logic of a gang of teenagers held in the grip of a cruel leader. More strong willed than his subordinates Brett coerces them into stealing the couple’s belongings and continuing their petty torments.
The films one sticking point is the death of Brett’s Rottweiler and how it leads to his psychopathic and homicidal behaviour. But the movie’s shrewd conclusion brushes this plot flaw aside. Brett’s parents are obnoxious and clearly uncaring, especially his father who strikes Brett for what he sees as insubordination. You wonder why none of the teenager’s parents come looking for them or show any concern during the length of time they spend in the forest. It is a safe bet that the care-free house party Jenny stumbles into at the film’s conclusion with its adult only environment of free alcohol and entertainment has most of the gang’s parents at. Brett’s father John states “we look after our own round here”. It is fairly clear that ‘our own’ does not include his children. With no one to care for him it is easy to see why the unconditional love of a pet dog might have meant a lot to Brett. Of course it is no justification for torture and murder but its an escalation of events that remains plausible.
The peer pressure that Brett ruthlessly levels at his gang members is as authentic a realisation of this ugly human facet as has been seen in cinema. The real terror in the central torture scene lies not with the bloodied Steve but in Brett’s threatening of his minions. As sympathy, remorse and fear flicker across the faces of Cooper, Harry and the gang we shudder at the thought of how far this awful situation might drift. With brutal persecution Brett forces all of them to join him in culpability by “having a dig”. With Jenny forced to watch her beloved endure endless pain it becomes a scene that is horrifying on all levels, emotionally, viscerally and mentally.
The aforementioned climax calls upon that traditional horror movie formula, with the victim collapsing into supposedly safe arms only to realise the evil of their tormentors extends well beyond the original setting. If only Jenny could have kept on driving, clear away from Eden Lake. The tense set-up in the local pub gives the impression early on that the whole area is an insular community that cares not for outsiders or the law. As Jenny screams “Call the police”, John fittingly barks “What good are they, eh? What good are they to her?”. Even if the mild mannered primary school teacher had managed to get away you wonder what her psychological state would have been.
Director Watkins assembled a solid cast for Eden Lake, the central couple played by Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly. It did not take much effort to instil sympathy in the pair, with the script taking care of that. But Reilly and Fassbender still turn in two excellent performances, which became stepping stones for the pair of them to move on to roles of even greater stature. The shoot was particularly gruelling on Reilly, forced to spend much of the six week shoot running through the harsh woodland of Black Park off of Pinewood Studios in a flimsy summer dress.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Jack O’Connell as tormentor-in-chief Brett. Plucked from a Nottingham amateur drama group by Wakins, O’Connell is a marvel as the cocksure, angry, disturbing Brett. What could have been a one-dimensional portrayal is steered effortlessly by O’Connell into much more profound areas. The under the surface complications of a character fighting to be the ‘big man’ are perfectly invoked, with sometimes as little as a terse look. It is an acting accomplishment that not only ensured the frights were harrowingly sincere but also that O’Connell will have ahead of him an illustrious movie career.
O’Connell received excellent support from his band of followers. The dynamic of the group never strays into the after-school morality tale arena that some teenage social dramas collapse into. Thomas Turgoose, the young star of This Is England (2006), turned in another stellar performance and Finn Atkins as the lone female tearaway Paige provided a frosty portrayal that anyone who has crossed a moody lady-teen will automatically recognise. Her constant brandishing of a mobile phone is an unsettling evocation of the “happy slapping” phenomenon. Indeed, it was an encounter with a young lady that prompted Watkins to pen the script some years before the whirlwind of criminal teens made it into mainstream news. Watkins was waiting outside his girlfriend’s apartment, killing time by reading a book. Two teenage girls walked past and one of them swatted the book out of his hands. The director stood incredulous for a few moments before contemplating shouting something after them. Watkins thought better of it and let the moment pass. Later though he admitted to feeling frustrated and emasculated by his lack of action. It was this feeling that he tapped into for his script, along with the possibility of violent consequences to his actions.
As with many great fright films, placing ourselves into the main protagonist’s shoes engineers many of the scares. What would we have done in Steve’s shoes? Was it arrogant of him to approach the teens and ask that they turn their music down? Most sane viewers would argue not, but maybe it was not the smartest move to approach a large group of young adults with such a request. Teenagers they may be but they are certainly not children; see the undercurrents of sexuality as the group ogle Jenny in her bikini and Brett exposes himself to the couple when they scuff past.
Most of us would do what Jenny and Steve should have done and moved to another part of the lake. The injustice of the moment still remains though, and in reality Steve should have been able to make his reasonable request without being met with such abuse. The audience demands revenge but our lust for retribution is never really satiated, despite Jenny killing and wounding some of the teens. All we are left with is a smug Brett resplendent in Brett’s sunglasses; watch for a final stare directly at the camera, as Brett shifts his attention to us for the last second of the movie. It is a final exclamation mark from Watkins, one last suggestion that our very own Eden Lake scenario might not be too far away from home.
Despite its uniquely British setting holding it in good stead to frighten audiences in its country of origin, Eden Lake fared poorly at the box office. Critics were also split, some recognising an outstanding fright film, others highlighting its reliance on middle class fear of working class stereotypes. If nothing else, the film brought the debate about disgruntled teens and generational conflict to a wider audience. Is was a divided audience though; younger viewers accused the media or tarring an entire age bracket with the same anti-social brush, older audience members left theatres looking over their shoulder for the tell-tale signs of a hooded gang. Overseas reviews were favourable but the story didn’t resonate quite as well outside of Britain. The “chav/ hoodie” notion was an English construct. In a country where teenagers had taken to high schools with semi-automatic weapons, it no doubt seemed quaint to spin a tale of woe about a group of fifteen year olds with pocket knives.
Eden Lake deservedly earned praise over time though, more and more horror fans discovering it in the years following. Watkins excellent work also got him noticed, enough to land the directors chair for the long awaited adaptation of the popular west-end stage production The Woman In Black (2012). Despite delivering another top notch scary movie, Watkins hasn’t returned to the fright film yet, his only other movie project the rather dull thriller Bastille Day (2016).