Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Mickey Keating
Writer: Mickey Keating
Producer: Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian
Stars: Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, James Landry Hebert, Michael Villar, Bob Bancroft, Larry Fessenden, Graham Skipper, Darby Stanchfield, Alan Ruck
A bank robbery hostage becomes a sadistic sniper’s target after her captor’s car is ambushed on a desolate road.
Vivian’s morning starts civilly and simply, with bank manager Mr. Oates denying a loan to buy back her father’s farm. By mid-afternoon, Vivian becomes embroiled in a much more chaotic confrontation after two brazen outlaws rob the bank, and take the unassuming young woman hostage in a hail of getaway gunfire.
That’s only the frying pan. Gunshot wounds are still bleeding and police sirens still screaming when an unseen sniper’s bullet suddenly strands the criminals’ car on a desolate stretch of California country road. As if the events of her day could not grow any more unexpected, Vivian is now caught in the crossfire of a gunman hunting wayward motorists for sport. What started as a clash over her family’s financial survival has become a fierce fight for her life, and Vivian may not make it all the way through this fatal face-off of predator versus prey.
Running a line through “Ritual” (review here), “Pod” (review here), and “Darling” (review here), writer/director Mickey Keating uses each successive film to try his hand at exploring a different style from a distinct corner of genre cinema. “Carnage Park” is Keating having a go at 1970s grindhouse by way of more modern influences such as “Reservoir Dogs.” A chicken and egg scenario can be argued here since Quentin Tarantino’s debut film tips its own hat toward exploitation era fare. But when “Carnage Park” thieves Scorpion Joe and Lenny start strutting toward their target in slow motion, it’s hard not to hear The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” in place of the movie’s own throwback tune.
With its opening “names have been changed to protect the innocent” text, dusty desert setting, and high contrast tint of gritty grime, “Carnage Park” echoes cues and feels from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to “The Devil’s Rejects” with “The Hills Have Eyes” in between. Cramming retro crime-thriller vibes into every detail, even the title card copyright date reads 1978 in roman numerals. For the producers’ sake, hopefully that kind of wink doesn’t result in some “Night of the Living Dead” legal loophole headache down the line.
Mickey Keating’s films are constructed to be lean, usually running around 80 minutes and generally diving into the deep end as fast as the story can swim there. “Carnage Park” is mostly minimalist, making for a movie that is a suspenseful sequence of sweaty standoffs allowing acting to engineer tension without much artificial interference.
Centerpiece star Ashley Bell is Vivian. Bell has an aura evoking an eclectic collection of classic Hollywood starlet style. Start by thinking of Judy Garland with Mae West’s attitude and add femme fatale mystique from there. Bell’s presence merges approachable affability with formidable fortitude for a character built on country girl charm as well as dangerous determination.
After two acts of to-the-point terrorizing, the Spartan approach to sustaining suspense catches “Carnage Park” holding singular notes too long. The always-entertaining Pat Healy has a terrific turn as the demented backwoods rifleman with Vivian in his scope and a blood relative sheriff on his trail. His menace is at its best when Healy is unleashed to chew on character confrontations that highlight his unstable mind and hint at a haunted military past. Then the finale reduces his dialogue to excessively cartoonish muah-ha-ha’ing. A previously frightening foe suddenly sounds like a funhouse fat lady cackling over a tinny loudspeaker.
This hints at a larger issue of the conclusion not knowing how to fill out a full ten minutes. Once the movie moves underground for its final scenes, cinematography loses the narrative in long stretches of pitch black and fast-flashing imagery featuring obscure blobs and nothingness. After multiple minutes of this, you stop being inside the movie wondering, “what’s happening to the heroine?” and come right out of the fantasy to ask, “is something wrong with the playback?” There is a line between intentionally frustrating an audience for emotional impact and simply confounding the viewing experience. “Carnage Park” crosses that line.
“Carnage Park” in its bones is a cat and mouse chase peppered with nailbiting moments against the 1970s setting of a California mountain backdrop. How with it you’ll want to be relates to personal palates for a straight shot of dirt-caked thrills. At only 80 minutes however, even brief appearances from inconsequential side characters and an ending that is nearly impossible to make out can’t fully stall the momentum of tightly-packed tension from teeth-clenching performances.
Review Score: 65