Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Camping trips rarely seem to end well in the movies, and Australian bushland-set Killing Ground provides a double-dose of cautionary tales. When couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) arrive at their campground beside an idyllic, heavily forested river, the presence of another car and tent raises concerns about interlopers ruining their romantic New Year’s getaway. In alternating scenes we learn that the tent belongs to the Bakers, a family of four who arrived a few days earlier. Meanwhile, back in town unsavory locals “German” (Aaron Pedersen) and “Chook” (Aaron Glenane) troll for victims of their unspecified criminal urges. As the Baker family—including a daughter, Em (Tiarnie Coupland), and infant son, Ollie—remains absent into the new year, Sam feels unsettled enough to convince Ian they should return to town for help. When Ollie stumbles out of the woods as they’re packing, the three seemingly disparate threads knot together into the expected survivalist horror melee.
The inevitable doom of city dwellers in the wilderness has been plumbed to great depths by films like The Hills Have Eyes, Eden Lake, Wolf Creek, and Deliverance. (There is even a sly reference to the last in a crossword clue left unsolved by Sam: “salvation, 11 letters”.) Writer/director Damien Power’s script leans on several clichés made infamous by its predecessors; a lack of cell service, spooky backstory to the rural locale, and flat tires all make an appearance. We’re not left wondering if something terrible will happen, but rather just how awful the inevitable carnage will be and, in this regard at least, Killing Ground manages to distinguish itself from countless, boring genre retreads.
Rather than following a Psycho-esque structure, where partway through the film one group of protagonists is dispatched to make way for the second, the two storylines unfold alongside one another. Power nimbly sidesteps a well-worn schema while reaping the benefits of a persistent, background hum of dread in both plots. Compared to its more graphic cousin Wolf Creek, Killing Ground comes across as an exercise in restraint. Much, but not all, of the violence takes place at a distance from the camera or just off frame; some of the most brutal acts aren’t shown at all. This decision to leave much to the viewer’s imagination works to enhance what would otherwise become a gory paint-by-numbers exercise.
Mr. Pedersen and Mr. Glenane are suitably sleazy as the two local killers, although we’re not given a clear reason as to why they’ve turned into such awful people. Among the victims, Ms. Coupland particularly stands out with an appealing mix of pluckiness and intelligence. At the other end of the spectrum lies Mr. Meadows’ Ian, who continues the long and unimpressive lineage of useless male protectors in life or death scenarios.
The surrounding terrain is key to any wilderness survival tale, and so the Australian bush is worthy of mention here. Effectively captured by cinematographer Simon Chapman, the woods through which characters stumble and hide feature as an uncredited supporting cast member. While there are few surprises in store for genre enthusiasts, the confident and restrained direction in Killing Ground elevates a predictable script into a watchable thriller.