Killing Ground, the debut feature from writer/director Damien Power, is a pulse-pounding horror thriller that rises above most hunting-for-humans sub-genre entries by being emotionally engaging and leaving its viewers with food for thought regarding the moral choices its protagonists make. This Australian effort, which raises “Did he or she do the right thing?” questions along with a fair share of goosebumps, plays with tropes of the sub-genre but always stays well above cliche territory.
Sam (Harriet Dyer) and her boyfriend Ian (Ian Meadows) have a romantic camping trip for New Year’s Eve planned in a somewhat remote area. They find a spot on a beach where someone else has already set up camp. No one is around, though, and the site remains empty for several hours.
Another group of campers has also set up within the area: Rob (Julian Garner), his wife Margaret (Maya Strange), their teenage daughter Em (Tiarne Coupland), and their toddler son Ollie (twins Liam and Riley Parks). Em stays behind while the others go out on a hike.
Damien Power weaves a timeline between these two camping parties that are a couple of days apart, and he does so in a masterful way that builds tension as viewers make connections between the two groups. Add into the mix the creepy behavior of two local hunters, Chook (Aaron Glenane) and German (Aaron Pederson), and the table is set for some chilling cinema.
Whereas many similar films go for lurid displays of torture and human suffering, along with graphic gore, Killing Ground instead focuses on building true suspense and emotional investment in its characters to draw viewers into the proceedings. This works beautifully when characters must decide what to risk and what to do next. The protagonists are not stock characters who make stupid decisions; viewers see them struggle emotionally as they hear or watch terrifying things happen to their loved ones. Although some gut-wrenching deaths are shown, Damien Power keeps most of the heinous acts off-screen, either implied or referred to in the past tense. This keeps Killing Ground from falling into the trap of sensationalism and puts the focus squarely on the drama behind the story.
The pacing is top-notch, and Damien Power proves himself to be adept at both crafting a suspenseful story and convincingly bringing it to cinematic life. He spends a good deal of time showing what the killers are up to when they are not murdering, which leads viewers to find them truly despising, rather than just random characters who enjoy torturing and offing people for kicks. Small moments between both the couple and the family also imbue these characters with a humanity that causes viewers to become wrapped up in their ordeals and root for them, even when the odds seem bleak. Power is aided greatly by a fine group of actors who bring unwavering believability to their roles.
Unsettling, well-crafted, and marvellously acted, Killing Ground is a first-rate survival suspenser crackling with energy and originality. Make sure to add this film to your “need to see right away” list.
Killing Ground screens in cinemas and is available on VOD beginning July 21.
By Joseph W. Perry (@JosephWPerryJWP)