Post-Millennial British horror didn’t come more problematic than James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2000), the directorial debut of the co-writer of My Little Eye (2002) and Gone (2007) and writer of The Descent 2 (2009). This grisly tale of working-class-kids-gone-bad pushed a number of buttons, not always ones that perhaps needed to be pressed, and ended up being troubling for all the wrong reasons. It stars Kelly Reilly (A for Andromeda (2006), Puffball (2007)) and Michael Fassbender (Hex (2004-2005), 300 (2006)) as a middle-class couple on a weekend break at the seemingly idyllic Eden Lake, deep in the heart of the English countryside. But they quickly antagonise a group of obnoxious teenagers and spend most of the weekend alternately fleeing for their lives or being slowly tortured to death by the increasingly out-of-control kids.
Eden Lake is a frustrating affair – it’s undeniably supremely effective and extremely well made and acted but it has the slight but unmistakably nasty whiff of some dubious politics at work. When the film was shown at London’s Frightfest in 2008, Watkins took part in a Q&A session and claimed that he saw Eden Lake as a comment on the often confrontational differences between generations (a la Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972)), but one can’t escape the fact that it also appears to be a comment – and not a particularly palatable one – on the difference between the classes that still exist in British society. The film depicts the working class as sadistic savages lying in wait for nice middle class people, a strand of paranoia fuelled by the media hysteria surrounding youth misbehaviour that had been growing, seemingly unquestioned, since the turn of the millennium.
Later in the same Q&A, Watkins sort of fudged the issue when he tried to explain how the film was born of his belief that not all British kids are the knife-wielding hoodies that the popular press would have us believe are amassing in estates across the country waiting to bring British civilization to its knees. But the film itself simply adds to that paranoia. It seems that Watkins’ heart was in the right place but somehow the film fails to make his point clearly enough.
That said, it is undeniably effective, possibly dangerously so. Suspenseful, violent, gory – if somewhat derivative (there are shades not only of the aforementioned Last House but also of David Moreau and Xavier Paul’s Ils (2006) and Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005) though Watkins claims the film was written three years ago) – it’s an extremely well made film. The cast is excellent, particularly the promising Jack O’Connell as the gang’s leader Brett, a truly chilling turn and dubious politics aside, there is much to enjoy about Eden Lake – the relentless pace, the increasing sense of hopelessness that runs throughout the film, the unapologetically bleak finale. It works extremely well so long as you don’t believe that working class kids are all as barbarous as they’re presented here. Daily Mail readers will probably love it.