By Elias Savada.
With big nods toward Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), twenty-something writer-director Mickey Keating has chomped down on a big slab of 1970s grindhouse meat and spat out Carnage Park, a grizzled B-movie crime-gone-awry blue plate special. No, it’s not perfectly cooked, deliciously-good T-bone, but it’s also not a toss-it-to-the dog piece of shank. Let’s digest for a moment.
After world premiering at Sundance in January, Keating’s fourth feature was picked up by IFC Midnight during its screening at South by Southwest. It’s a natural match for this gory survivalist fare. Whether you’re in the mood for this type of film (for me, always) depends on your state of mind and the amount of queasy your stomach can stand. It’s not hard-core horror, but if you prefer good romantic comedies or a big budget tent poles, don’t put this on your bucket list.
I’m not sure where indie phenom Keating will be in five years, but his fans will be cheering him on. I might be his latest, catching up though. He’s finishing off Psychopaths, a surreal fever dream, with his usual ensemble of players, just as Carnage Park is hitting theaters and most VOD outlets. Over the last few years, he’s been pushing himself hard with his homage-laden forays examining the darker side of life. Or is the lighter side of death. He covered cults in Ritual (2013), aliens the following year in Pod, and last year’s Darling took an unsettling Big Apple stroll into haunted house madness. All these films have been good enough to interest distributors and get his vision out there in the public arena. Stay very tuned.
His current offering is set in 1978 and follows an irreverent timeline. It starts in a small, dusty California town, where two low-life crooks rob a Mackin County Bank, but not without some difficulties. The larger, less-than-nimble one, Lenny (Michael Villar) can’t straighten the white cloth disguise covering his head. The other, who we’ll learn is Scorpion Joe Clay (James Landry Hebert), self-proclaims himself “the greatest outlaw there ever was.” Boy, is he wrong. Forced to take local farmer Vivian Fontaine (The Last Exorcism‘s Ashley Bell) a hostage, their escape is sidetracked when their dreary Chevy Impala kicks out with a bad tire. Oh, and there’s an edgy sniper afoot, who doesn’t like folks prowling about his private property in them thar hills.
The film is unusual in the way it takes so many twisted side turns as it careens way off its initial premise. In that sense, it’s Psycho and more. While not black-and-white like the Hitchcock classic (Keating’s Darling used that monochromatic approach), Carnage Park‘s color scheme ranges from sepia-dusty to blood spattered red. The shooter, Wyatt Moss, is a demented, ex-military fellow, nicely played by journeyman actor Pat Healy, who was “Officer Daniels” in 2012’s über disturbing Compliance and Craig Daniels in E.L. Katz’s crazed dare-fest Cheap Thrills, 2014). Wyatt takes prisoners. And apparently has for quite some time.
Sure, the law is closing in, and even aware of some of the shenanigans afoot, because Sheriff Moss (Alan Ruck, famously recognizable as Cameron, Ferris Beuller’s best friend) is somewhat protective of his brother, armed with a big fat grin, his warm gun, and an ear fetish. As the remaining characters chase one another around the bleak California desert and mountain terrain, distraught screams populate this cat-and-mouse tale. It’s amazing how many mice our protagonist (that would be Vivian, for those without a score card) happens upon in her wanderings. They’re arranged as semi-inspired road kill, and Vivian is hoping she won’t be part of their grouping. As resourceful as the frantic woman is, Wyatt proves how creative he can be, especially when he’s playing with a home-field advantage.
The climax, shot in an underground mine somewhere near the entrance to hell, is so dark, you have to strain your eyes to see the littlest glimmer, as the impressive soundtrack mixes up the sniper’s nasty rantings with an aim-to-confuse score. When daylight finally beckons, the crazies come out to play, although I was not entirely enamored of the film’s ending.
Still, two ears up for Carnage Park.
A final note to Keating and company: Placing a copyright notice on a film is not required these days, although it is often beneficial. The filmmakers did a disservice to themselves when they opted to use a copyright notice with a 1978 year date (three times!!!), reflecting on the film’s period setting in their own cute way. That date is meant to show the year of “first publication,” but in this case, it effectively shortened protection on their movie by 37 years. It’s only protected through 2073, not 2111. Oops. Maybe someone should be shot for that oversight…Wyatt?
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).