Carnage Park (Review)

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CARNAGE PARK

THE SETUP

This is a review for “Carnage Park”, the latest film from young Writer/Director, Mickey Keating (Darling) * see review * https://adamthemoviegod.com/darling-review/. Carnage Park is a 70’s throwback, an original film with an enthralling mix of Action, Crime and Horror. Shortly after a botched bank robbery in a barren California town, two small time crooks cut and run, taking with them a hostage (Ashley Bell) whose related to a well-known local. Sheriff Moss (played by Alan Ruck), the local lawmen, is tasked with finding the girl in Carnage Park, a private wasteland occupied by psychotic, ex-military war veteran, Wyatt (Pat Healy of Cheap Thrills and Compliance). The film also stars James Landry Hebert (Gangster Squad and Looper), Michael Villar (Visions) and Larry Fessenden (We Are Still Here and The Mind’s Eye). I’m pretty new to Keating’s work and have actually gone about things back to front, having watched his two most recent films before his two oldest. His previous film Darling was an absolute masterpiece and so I’ve been excitedly awaiting Carnage Park for the last twelve months. I’m yet to see his earlier films Ritual and Pod and although I know his roots lie mainly in Horror, I’m enjoying the fact that each of his films seem very different from one an other.

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THE GOOD

Keating’s clear throwback to 70’s exploitative Horror (among other things) couldn’t have a better premise and location setting. Every delicate detail of Carnage Park deliberately aims to place you right in the 70’s and more specifically, 1978. Everything from the wonderful Hitchcockian retro style poster art, through to the casting and each individual stylistic choice. The film opens with a sort of monologue by Pat Healy’s character, Wyatt, followed by some extremely snappy opening credits presented in a very Tarantino esq manner (think Deathproof). There’s a great variety of camera work on display in Carnage Park too. Keating’s Cinematographer, Mac Fisken, whose worked on each of his films, knows precisely how to frame things in order to get the most out of every shot. Darling was that film for me that I can honestly say was perfectly shot and I wouldn’t have changed a single frame. You can tell aesthetically speaking, Mickey and Mac have that kind of short hand most long time Directors and DP’s have with each other. There’s a lot of really effective focus shots and one superb aerial shot that see’s Vivian (Bell) trying to detach from someone or something. The washed out, bleak approach in the color grading of Carnage Park is exceptional and true to the time period. I’ve seen plenty of unjust criticism from critics and movie goers in general about the film only consisting of earthly tones but you have to understand that’s the desired effect (If it’s not your preference that’s fine don’t watch it but it isn’t a fault with the film).

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The wardrobe department and set design are another couple of features that ring true to the 70’s era. Your protagonist is usually dressed in something white or neutral, as it visually represents purity, as is the case here. Vivian blends so impeccably into her surroundings that it makes it harder for Wyatt to track her with any real confidence. It’s mostly the location that drives the intended tone of Keating’s film, however, the makeshift junkyard site and Wyatt’s dilapidated shack have plenty of attention to detail in them that helps sell the atmosphere. Gutted and abandoned vehicles, war souvenirs and old technology are just a few of the things that can be found within the grounds. I don’t usually single out crew members involved in any one facet because often the Director is key in how the whole thing comes together regardless of individuals but I’m going to talk about Composer, Giona Ostinelli. Ostinelli scored Darling (arguably one of the best independent film soundtracks) along with Keating’s previous films. With so many talented musicians and composers out there, Giano manages to keep his collaborations with Mickey feeling raw and fresh. The opening piece of music is a wonderful western style composition, reminiscent of something you’d hear from Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight) or in any number of Sergio Leone films (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West). The inclusion of some long-lost, obscure, Vietnamese pop music is interesting as well. The musical cues here are so perfectly timed. Everything from the shrill and unnerving Violin, to the accented drum beats and the variation of Synth and Bass, it’s all simply fantastic. Keating and Ostinelli are so meticulous with their approach that they even utilize the sound of the wind, which also plays a crucial part in the soundtrack.

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I mentioned in my review of Darling that Keating likes to work with the same people when possible but it’s nice to see his reputation is drawing new crowds of Actors/Actresses too. Fessenden plays Travis, (in a minor role) but he’s the only regular of Mickey’s, the rest of the cast are made up of young talent as well as a couple of well-known and familiar faces. I think James Hebert, Ashley Bell and Alan Ruck in particular, had a look so well suited to the 70’s that it was something clearly established by Keating and hence why they were probably cast. Their appearance is only part of it, they obviously have to sell their specific characters accents and perform to a high standard. Pat Healy’s rapidly risen to the top of a list of powerful character actors who can do great work in most genres (at least in this reviewers eyes). He’s in the upper echelon with the likes of Robert Nolan and Bill Oberst Jr.  Healy’s, Wyatt is a wildly delusional, yet calculated and cold war veteran who still thinks he’s holed up fighting “Charlie” in a war that’s long since ended. Everything about this performance is memorable. From his opening monologue about god’s free country, to his specific and demented laugh, each of his scenes are intense and have an air of Marlon Brando’s, “Colonel Kurtz” (Apocalypse Now) about them. Both Villar, as “Lenny” and Hebert, as “Scorpion Joe”, do a great job of playing the two crooks. Their screen time is somewhat limited but they make the most of their scenes and I’m looking forward to seeing if their respective characters appear in Keating’s next film, “Psychopaths”. A big part of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of Ashley Bell and she’s quite impressive, displaying a range of different emotions here. I don’t know if she watched a lot of 70’s films or not but she squarely balanced her portrayal of a frightened young victim and a no-nonsense farmers daughter, exactly as it needed to be. I can’t say much about Ruck’s character at the risk of divulging spoilers but he rounds out the cast nicely.

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Carnage Park’s brisk running time of just 77 minutes (plus the credits) means that not a single frame is wasted and that’s exactly what you want from a film. Even though deep down I was left wanting (because I was so engrossed in it) every sequence was a feast. A couple of my favourite sequences were the car chase in the beginning (that I see people comparing to Pulp Fiction), which actually gave me similar thrills to that of Quentin Tarantino’s, “Deathproof” (and not Pulp Fiction) and Vivian’s shocking discovery involving a land map on a board, a record player, a queue of pillars and a couple of megaphones (with a bellowing voice singing disconnectedly) set to signal the enemy. The final 10 minutes or so has been unfairly criticized, for what people labelled poor technical execution which is not the case. Yes, the final sequences play out in almost total darkness and I understand people have their own preferences visually but an important part of evaluation is intent, intent of the film maker (especially when critiquing something). I know for a fact Mickey is so adept with presentation on all technical fronts and his approach to the end of Carnage Park is done with a clear-cut purpose. From the moment Vivian finds herself in her own version of hell (in this case a series of tunnel shafts) you’re anxiously awaiting her fate. It’s a very precise and slow burn build up to a rather ambiguous ending, which I think is genius (if you understand the intent). Much like a Tarantino film, the violence can sneak up on you. Keating is more about mood and building tension though, than just using the film as a platform to showcase shock value gore. That being said, the blood and gore fx are fantastic and shocking, there’s a couple of truly sensational scenes and one with a full body cast.

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THE BAD

My only technical issue is to do with the volume of the music during the car chase in the beginning of the film. It’s clearly too loud and even with Hebert and Villar’s characters yelling at each other in a panic, you can’t make out much of what they’re saying. As far as the story content goes, it’s not without its flaws (plausibility wise) and continuity issues. In the opening scene we see a man (played by Graham Skipper) being hunted by our ex-military mad man. Shots are fired from one direction and the man hits the ground, in the very next frame the shooter is seen approaching from a completely different angle as to where the shot originally came from. I suppose there’s an argument that with it being partially a slow-motion sequence, maybe he’s taken a specific route and come around a different way (not too sure). From the outset, Carnage Park definitely foreshadows some things to come but that’s almost unavoidable with a film of this nature. For example, the opening with Wyatt’s monologue probably should have been presented as off-screen narration. It’s displayed to the audience like he’s speaking to someone in frame, which I guess he is in a way, if you consider the man in the distance. Although, he finishes his dialogue before we even know he’s hunting someone, so that’s a little misleading.

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There’s some other things that Wyatt does that could have been carried out differently as well. After all hell breaks loose a car accident sees Vivian stranded, Wyatt drives his truck up to the damaged vehicle and makes himself known to her. I would have preferred seeing that sequence carried out with a little bit more subtlety and suspense. As previously stated, Ashley Bell does a stellar job in what’s a fairly demanding role. Considering she’s on-screen for all bar 6 to 8 minutes of the running time, the only weaker moment she has is a somewhat forced response to a very unfortunate situation that takes place inside Wyatt’s dwelling. Most of my complaints are very minor but there’s a couple of plot points involving Wyatt and Vivian that some viewers will find quite difficult to swallow. The major one is during the first climax between the two, where she is able to disarm him and shoot him (which coincidentally takes place off-screen) or so we think. The argument is a fair one, how is this guy, even with his military gear and gas mask, able to survive a high-powered weapon at close range. The only assumption I can make is that he had some sort of bulletproof armor beneath his uniform, granted it’s never shown (but who knows). I’ll admit, that’s a rational argument against the film and I know that plot point has alone been enough to put people off. Making matters worse is that Vivian doesn’t even take the weapon with her when she’s done shooting (it may have been empty, I don’t recall) so that’s a hard pill to swallow.

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It was always going to be a hard task for Mickey Keating to outdo himself with Carnage Park after the masterpiece that was Darling. As far as Horror/Thriller’s go they don’t come much better than the aforementioned. Carnage Park is an outstanding film in its own right, an honest homage to the 70’s and a multitude of films that include Tobe Hooper’s, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “John Boorman’s, “Deliverance” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. I say that because Keating blends the horror of TCM, the bleakness of Deliverance and the intensity of Apocalypse Now, all into one gripping piece of exploitative cinema that trumps each of those films. I love the opening monologue and the western score mixed with the Tarantino style, credit presentation. The sharp cinematography and washed out color palette put you right in the thick of the 70’s, as does the matching wardrobe and the set dressings. Ostinelli’s score is extremely original and close to the best thing about CP and I can’t wait to get my hands on the soundtrack. The performances are all superb, the film clearly in safe hands with Healy and Bell delivering in spades. The fast running time and riveting narrative are guaranteed to keep you hooked. I might have structured a couple of the specifics a little differently but all the content is still there. It’s just a shame those couple of altercations between Wyatt and Vivian suffer from a lack of clarity and leave me no choice but to dock a couple of stars. As it stands, this is still superb stuff and I love that with a Mickey Keating film you know what you’re getting. He’s the only young film maker I know of that gives you much more than just 90 minutes of entertainment. I can’t wait for his next film “Psychopaths” but for now Carnage Park is available to watch through digital platforms VOD, ITunes and Amazon. You can also pre-order the hard copy at Amazon.com

My rating for “Carnage Park” is 8/10

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