Coming to us from the wonderful people at IFC Midnight is the debut feature-length Horror/Thriller “Killing Ground”, Written and Directed by Damien Power. Killing Ground sees young adult couple, Sam and Ian (played by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows) take a weekend camping trip off the beaten path in the Australian bush land. Shortly after arriving, the duo notice a tent and remnants from fellow hikers have been left, unknowingly they stumble onto the scene of a crime and now must try to survive the weekend. The film also stars Aaron Pedersen (Mystery Road), Aaron Glenane (Drift), Tiarnie Coupland, Maya Stange and Liam and Riley Parkes.
Killing Ground is most certainly at home with its backcountry roots, Powers clearly inspired by the likes of John Boorman (Deliverance) and to a greater extent, fellow Aussie film maker, Greg Mclean (Wolf Creek). KG is not so much your typical revenge soaked thriller (as good as they are) as it is, raw survival story. We’re introduced to a fairly down to earth couple in Sam and Ian, mid transit, on route to a secluded camping spot for the weekend. He’s a doctor and she’s a publisher of sorts (at least that’s what I gathered). Upon advice from German (Pedersen), a local who Sam engages with outside the pub (aka bar), the couple change their destination specifics for the promise of more picturesque surroundings. It’s a decision that proves to be more costly than first thought. Right off the bat, audiences are bound to be drawn into this beautiful and tucked away location, the sand and gorgeous little lake further highlight its appeal. DP, Simon Chapman (who worked on The Devil’s Candy and Cut Snake) gives Killing Ground a cinematic and sharp-looking production value. There’s an abundance of nice establishing shots, well placed tracking and panning and everything is framed expertly. My favourite sequence is an effective long take of Sam trekking along a path while heading back to the car, in the background you can see a little figure walking and stumbling and it’s quite unnerving. Leah Curtis’s score is another facet of Killing Ground that I really enjoyed. It begins with some rural panache, the orchestral theme comparable to that of a Western or something out of Jeff Nichols, “Mud”. It progresses with slick sounding strings and bass as the films tension level ratchets up a notch. Curtis adopts a lot of that big sweeping violin you’d usually hear in something like “Game Of Thrones”, but it works surprisingly well here.
The determining success of Powers film, rests in big part on the shoulders of our two leads in Dyer and Meadows. A seemingly trivial car ride game between the two, where Sam tries to get Ian to connect the bones (for lack of a better term), helps set up the natural chemistry between the two right from the start. Being a Doctor, he’s able to correct her with his tongue in cheek approach and it’s a rare light moment in the 87 minute run time. I’m usually quite cynical when it comes to Australian films and their performances, because I just don’t think we make a lot of great content. A lot of talent has come out of this country, and most of it never sticks around (and for good reason). Dyer and Meadows both deliver even and enjoyable performances, as to do the villains and the trio of actors led by Coupland, that play another family who are on their own camping trip. The way in which Powers sustains subtly with his villains (well for most of the duration anyways), makes for a real change of pace for the genre. We’re used to seeing the overt and manic actions of desperate and psychotic killers, there’s never any build up or real grounding to it. With the duo of German and Chook (played by Pedersen and Glenane respectively) being your everyday country Aussies (within reason), it makes the situation they enter into even more barbaric and horrifying then say Mick Taylor’s of “Wolf Creek”. Killing Ground is definitely a slow-burn thriller, and while not layered with action, it is presented in an original structure. I’ve got to give credit where it’s due regarding Damien’s crossing of timelines and the two separate character group arcs. Even though I’m not necessarily sold on it altogether, I respect it. However, I do think it might throw some viewers for a loop. It’s worth mentioning that there are some brief on-screen kills and one really impressive car stunt toward the end of Killing Ground.
Killing Ground’s audio track is the one technical aspect that could have used some work (keep in mind this is a review of a screener though). Dialogue is a little hard to hear in spots, most notably during a short scene where German and Chook talk to a couple of girls in the pub. Once you add loud music to the mix, extras and background noise it makes it hard. Sections of the foley either sound like they’ve been mixed with excessive reverb or the effect itself doesn’t match the action. Dog barking, car doors, and a number of other sounds seem to echo, that and characters feet squish as they walk in the scrub or down a path, it just doesn’t sound quite right. Most of the film takes place during the day and that’s a wise creative decision for logistical reasons, but a lot of the night scenes are almost too dark and you can’t always see what’s in the frame. The films continuity is mostly in tact, and considering the irregular timeline, that surprises me. That being said, one character does mention that Christmas was only four days prior, yet on the same night they’re ringing in the new year (the 29th). Shortly into proceedings Ian carries out the most lifeless proposal to Sam that I think I’ve ever seen (haha), it isn’t technically an issue, it’s more about him and just lame. I found a couple of the characters reactions just weren’t realistic. For example, Chook and Ian head off at one point to try to get some help for young Ollie and later stumble across some bodies. Surely if you’re Ian and you haven’t seen a single other soul since you arrived, you ask the question of Chook? Or at the very least approach him with some trepidation, Right? Speaking of Chook, there’s a rather lengthy moment during a hunt with German where he shows signs of having a conscience and not wanting to act on whatever urges he has. In the greater scheme of things, it’s fleeting and quickly stamped out. We haven’t seen anything up to that point to support a moment of clarity, he’s a pretty unsympathetic kind of guy so I found it hard to believe that he’d have that capacity (plus he’s no brains trust).
Damien Powers debut feature-length, Killing Ground is a fittingly tense piece of Aussie outback thriller. Tapping into equally as harsher landscapes as in the aforementioned “Wolf Creek” and blending elements of criminally underrated films like Haneke’s “Funny Games” and to a greater extent, Koldo Serra’s 2006 “The Backwoods”, makes this an all to real game of cat and mouse. The location is lovely, as is the sharp cinematography, both a perfect contrast to the vicious nature of what goes on in these woods. The score is wonderfully composed and on quite a grand scale, in turn, becoming much more impactful than your by the book thrillers. The protagonists are likeable and relatable and the villains aren’t written so plainly. Each of the performances were stronger than I thought they’d be and there were some tense scenes throughout. The writing is generally pretty solid and I think I’m warming to Powers narrative structure (although it might take another viewing to be sold on it). The sound wasn’t the best, so here’s hoping the audio track is a little better on the hard copy. Some of the night scenes lack a bit of clarity, and like most films, there’s the odd continuity fault and the characters don’t always react how you’d want them to. In the end, Powers manages to rise above the expectations of Australian film making, usually described as serviceable at best, to give us one of the best independent films to come out of the country in the last five years. Keep an eye out for Killing Ground which comes to cinemas nationwide, August 24th.
My rating for “Killing Ground” is 7/10