Out Here, God Don’t Pick No Favorites
In 1978’s California, a botched bank robbery leads to two bandits—one doomed, one dying—taking a young woman hostage and fleeing into the desert. Little do they know that out there in the endless expanse, a madman with a rifle watches them through his scope.
CARNAGE PARK is quick to show off its influences but slow to discover its own identity. There’s virtually nothing fresh here, as filmmaker Mickey Keating is mostly reenacting scenes that he liked in other movies. It’s well-made, though, and has a very talented cast that deserved a project with a little more imagination.
We don’t get to spend a lot of time with the burly Lenny (Michael Villar), who has taken a gunshot to his prodigious gut before the film even begins to roll. His partner in crime, “Scorpion” Joe Clay (James Landry Hébert) sticks around a bit longer, though. Long enough for us to realize we don’t like him, not one little bit. He’s egregious and gregarious, a dirty prison rat who fancies himself a real Wild West outlaw. The thing about Wild West outlaws, though, is that Boot Hill is always waiting.
Lenny and Joe’s hostage is the pretty country gal Vivian (Ashley Bell), who may appear meek and mild but is harboring the diehard spirit of a Final Girl within her. Her predicament is mere happenstance—a severe case of wrong place, wrong time—but the survival instinct is a strong one, and she understands its rhythm: fight, flight, then fight again. It’s always up in the air whether she will actually make it out alive, but if she doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Our human hunter is Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy), a potentially-complex character who is former-military and current-killer. He’s got a wide swath of land that he’s cordoned off from the rest of the world (the Carnage Park of the title, naturally) like a mad secessionist, guarding the gates with firepower and righteous indignation. He talks in mean monologues, forever with a clipped and menacing tone.
Wyatt’s brother is the sheriff (Alan Ruck), which makes for a sincerely interesting dynamic, and one of the best scenes in the film is comprised solely of these two interacting. It’s a twisted, and yet believable, relationship between the pair—which is saying a lot, considering how little is actually said.
From the onset of the film, CARNAGE PARK wears its influence on its sleeve, as text fades onto the screen alerting us that the movie we are about to watch is based on a true story, “perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In my opinion, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is the greatest horror film of all time, and so it’s no wonder that any number of the movies that followed would want to tap into that well of raw power. And also in my opinion, WOLF CREEK is the Australian version of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. So what does that make CARNAGE PARK? It’s the American version of WOLF CREEK, or at least it wants to be. But just like a copy of a copy of the original, the fine lines start to get a little muddled.
In fairness, the first scene and opening credits are kind of masterful, with a western nuance and impeccable timing. It almost seems as if you’re about to witness something really special. It just never manages to hold onto that special feeling for very long before losing its own identity and reverting back to its influences. And although it is still a decent film even then, it simply never becomes what it could have, or should have, been.
One of the earliest moments involving Lenny and Joe is basically a reenactment of a scene from RESERVOIR DOGS, and the freeze frames, title cards, shots of slow motion walking, stylized masculine bravado, etc. could have come from any number of Quentin Tarantino films. This, coupled with the rock video editing techniques and exploitation brutality culled from Rob Zombie, means we’re looking at pastiche after pastiche, riff after riff. But these are pastiches of things that are already pastiches of something else, riffs that are already riffing on existing material. Again, a copy of a copy of the original.
Unlike the films of Zombie and Tarantino, though, there’s a lack of deftness in the approach, and CARNAGE PARK never becomes its own beast. It’s not a cover song so much as it is (admittedly good) karaoke.
CARNAGE PARK was written and directed by the young Mickey Keating who has been putting out genre films pretty consistently since the beginning of the decade, with ULTRA VIOLENCE (2011), RITUAL (2013), POD (2015), and DARLING (2015) preceding, and a few more currently being worked on. Despite this film’s flaws, one can not say that he doesn’t show great promise.
This picture’s real draw is its trio of stars. Ashley Bell nails it as Vivian, sinking her teeth into another meaty role like the one we’ve been waiting for since she starred in THE LAST EXORCISM in 2010 and its 2013 sequel. Here’s hoping she can continue to appear in quality horror films.
Pat Healy is something of a rising genre star, familiar to viewers of THE INNKEEPERS (2011), COMPLIANCE (2012), CHEAP THRILLS (2013), STARRY EYES (2014), and TALES OF HALLOWEEN (2015). He is extremely talented, and capable of running the full range of character types.
And Alan Ruck isn’t the first face you picture when you think of genre films—he is one for comedy, as evidenced by his roles in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986) and SPIN CITY (1996-2002)—but his filmography is diverse enough to contain some surprises. This includes episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1993) and THE OUTER LIMITS (1996), and appearances in STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994), SPEED (1994), TWISTER (1996), INALIENABLE (2008), THE HAPPENING (2008), and ZOMBIE NIGHT (2013). Most recently, he has been earning well-deserved attention for his role as Henry Rance in the television version of THE EXORCIST (2016).
So there is enough here to draw you in, but is there enough here to keep you? A set of pop culture blinders would be of great help, not only for the audience, but for the filmmaker as well.