A couples' camping trip turns into a frightening ordeal when they stumble across the scene of a horrific crime.
The message is clear.
Horror films have perfectly illustrated this fact.
Never, ever go camping – regardless of the promise of relaxation, beer, sex or the promise of a lovely reconnection with our beloved Mother Nature.
In addition, horror films have cemented the fact that you should never go to Australia.
So – Australian camping excursion? Absolutely not.
And yet, I’m a sucker for Australian horror flicks – all the way back to the likes of Long Weekend, Razorback and the horror-adjacent, made-for-HBO film Fortress.
With Killing Ground, I’ve found another horror gem – and I hope you will too.
Young couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and his girlfriend Sam (Harriet Dyer – who looks to be a long-lost sibling to Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood) are off on a nice rural holiday in the Australian wilderness. When they arrive at this remote camping site, they find that someone else has beat them to it. But as time goes on, and that other campsite remains empty – questions begin to develop. Back in a nearby town are two lowlife ex-cons, Chook and German (Aaron Gelnane and Aaron Pedersen; respectively). They may have had something to do with the apparent disappearance of the family who once inhabited the abandoned campsite and now feel the need to return to check on these newcomers. Eventually, Ian and Sam will learn the bloody and terrifying truth of what happened there.
The film seamlessly weaves together two separate timelines/stories – eventually bringing both of them together for a knock-down, drag-out horror showdown/chase scene.
There are two moments in the film which will leave you absolutely breathless – and both involve baby Ollie (one of the members of the family of the other campsite). I’ll offer no spoilers of course, but the first moment is almost silent as Sam walks along a path – while something important is happening behind her. I was in awe of how miraculous this moment was. It’s one of those scenes in film which is so powerful, so well done and so spot-on in not only its conception, but in its delivery – you’ll wish the entire film (as good as most of it is) could have held the same fever-pitch as this one little sequence. If anything will be memorable about this film, it’s this scene. The second scene with baby Ollie? I’ll say only that my jaw dropped on this one – and nothing more.
The film doesn’t give us quite enough on the characters. We get a little bit – moreso on Sam and Ian – but other than these sprinklings of history, it feels like these characters are all just set up to be victims. While the things they must endure are horrific – I didn’t feel as though the filmmakers had properly drawn out my sympathies.
On the same token – the two villains are certainly nasty, but there’s no background to justify their horrific actions. They’re just bad guys. We get some remorse from Chook – in body language and facial expressions – but that’s quickly thrown away and never revisited. I don’t need full histories including blood-type, amount of siblings and whether they were molested as children, but a little bit of something would have been a nice touch. As is – they’re just evil – and nothing more.
The key to the film’s success is the oft-tried, but so oft-failed build-up of tension. The first bit of doubt in Ian and Sam – as the campsite remains empty overnight – will make your skin crawl. And one bit of editing between the two stories – totally brilliant!
Despite the oodles of praise this film has earned, there are some pacing issues. Somewhere around the beginning of the third act, the glorious tension starts to lag and the film slightly stumbles. It regains most of its power. But a misstep is still a misstep.
Performances are all very good from the entire cast – but again, they could have been so much more, had the characters had a bit more depth.
Perhaps it’s strange to call out the performance of a couple of toddlers, but the work from twins Liam and Riley Parkes as baby Ollie – completely steal the show. While everyone else properly emotes within the situations of this terror, clearly these two youngsters were probably just tired babies who had had enough of their shooting day and the filmmakers just had the luck to capture their crying, angst and confusion on camera. So it’s not to say that they were necessarily “acting”, but they hit their marks and gained the most audience sympathy. And again – when bringing up the aforementioned “miraculous scene” – well, just thinking about it breaks my heart – and when first seeing it, that same heart had stopped.
The film has a few twists at the end and you’ll be wondering which way things actually went for some of the characters. And when your hopes are dashed for what you believed (and wished) would be the actions of one of these people – it leaves things wide open in so many ways. And surprisingly, even though this turn of events was shocking, it wasn’t completely out of nowhere. And this leads you to wonder what you thought of these people from the get-go, and what subtle thing happened in the dialogue and/or performance to perhaps give you that pause – since this last reveal didn’t blow you away. It’s a wonderful moment of manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. Nicely done.
When you have Australia as your background – unless you’re a total moron behind the camera – you’re guaranteed to have awe-inspiring and gasp-worthy vistas at your disposal. Every shot, with the rich and mysterious forest backing up the action – is stunning. So the beautiful cinematography by Simon Chapman deserves some serious kudos.
The film is not for everyone, and with some of the heinous acts committed by the villains, it sometimes gets a little difficult to stomach. And as I said before, had we known a bit more about these people – that might have made it a bit easier to take in. Perhaps that is not what the filmmakers wanted. Regardless, buyer beware – Killing Ground can be quite disturbing.
While not wholly original (there’s a little bit of Wolf Creek in here), it’s a visual stunner, a well-performed piece topped off with nail-biting tension and a unique structure. Other than some pacing problems somewhere at the midway point – for the most part, Killing Ground is a winner.
Killing Ground is still enjoying a fruitful run on the festival circuit, and is now available on select VOD outlets.