Film Review: ‘Carnage Park’

This time-shuffling thriller offers a strained and tedious throwback to 1970s grindhouse cinema.

Carnage Park Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In “Carnage Park,” the surviving perpetrator and the kidnapping victim of a botched bank robbery become the prey of a crazed Vietnam vet who has a built a giant prison out of an uninhabited expanse of California desert. Viewers may relate to the feeling of being trapped during this strained and tedious throwback, which the writer-director Mickey Keating has framed as a hat tip to the 1970s work of Sam Peckinpah and Peter Watkins, but which lands well south of John Waters in its try-anything-for-a-reaction pretensions. Box office-wise, the movie has the potential to lure only the least suspecting of viewers.

So committed is the film to its vintage aesthetic that it includes a Roman-numeral copyright for 1978, the year in which the story is set. The plot recounts what the opening titles call “perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime.” As if the crazy credits and shifting needle drops weren’t enough to evoke Quentin Tarantino, the movie unfolds its bare-bones narrative in a series of chronological backflips. We first meet “Scorpion Joe” (James Landry Hebert) and his sidekick, Lenny (Michael Villar), when the latter is bleeding to death from a robbery gone awry. Vivian Fontaine (Ashley Bell), an innocent bystander they’ve taken as a hostage, is in the trunk of their car. We soon learn that she was simply at the bank at the wrong time, trying to get a loan to keep the family farm. In a flashback, the crass bank manager (Bob Bancroft) advises her to join the local burlesque outfit instead.

This is all of little consequence, of course, when during the getaway, the trio — or duo, since Lenny has already kicked the bucket by this point and had his body rolled into a ditch — find themselves the victims of a madman who hunts passersby for sport. After being chloroformed, Vivian wakes up handcuffed to a headless corpse, one of a series of grisly set pieces — an exploding brain here, a severed ear there — that are seemingly the film’s raison d’etre. The director Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”) briefly appears, caught in a bear trap, to explain that the area is surrounded by an electric fence that has made everyone inside into animals in a cage.

The man responsible for this dangerous game is Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy, in a twitchy turn that makes the “Deliverance” hillbillies look like models of restraint), who suffers from Vietnam flashbacks (we hear some snippets of audio from actual demonstrations) and, in the prologue, rants obscurely about psychiatrists having abandoned their responsibilities to veterans. Wyatt’s sheriff brother (Alan Ruck) has turned a blind eye to the way his kin operates a giant torture camp. Without much material or throughline, the movie devolves into a succession of scenes in which the scream queen Vivian runs from one imperilment to the next; the proceedings culminate in abandoned mine tunnel that serves primarily as a means for obscuring the action.

The shrieky score by Giona Ostinelli sounds a little like Mica Levi’s work on “Under the Skin,” though its success is more in inducing sensation than in creating atmosphere. To enhance the grindhouse vibe, the color scheme mimics that of a fading film print that has “gone pink,” which presumes a staying power that “Carnage Park” is unlikely to have.

Film Review: ‘Carnage Park’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 26, 2016. Running time: 80 MIN.

  • Production: A Diablo Entertainment production. (International sales: Content Media, Santa Monica, Calif.) Produced by Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian. Executive producers, Keith Fowler, Brent Aiello-Ortner, Jaremy Aiello-Ortner, Cyrus Zahabian, Ilana Zahabian, Justin Farajzadeh, Shaul Dina, Pat Healy.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Mickey Keating. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Mac Fisken; editor, Valerie Krulfeifer; music, Giona Ostinelli; music supervisors, Timothy Bickford, Mandi Collier; production designer, Angel Herrera; art director, Priscilla Watson; set decorator, Carl Turner; costume designer, Lauren Howard; sound, Nathan Whitcomb; re-recording mixer, Shawn Duffy; visual effects supervisor, Joel Hebner; stunt coordinator, Hebner; line producer, Moana Sherrill; associate producer, Fadi Saab; assistant director, Adam Werth; casting, Lindsey Weissmueller.
  • With: Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, Alan Ruck, James Landry Hebert, Michael Villar, Larry Fessenden, Darby Stanchfield, Bob Bancroft.