In the movies, it’s almost invariably a terrible, if not downright fatal, decision to go camping — as we have learned over and over in films like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Blair Witch,” to name just a couple. The regularity with which those dark woods (or that stark desert) proves full of murderous psychopaths brings with it a sense of rote slasher-pic deja vu. But Tasmania-born Damien Power’s impressive first feature, “Killing Ground,” transcends the cliches even as the film uses plenty of familiar tropes, laying down a solid hour of effective buildup to a duly hair-raising, prolonged climax. This simultaneously tricky and straightforward thriller should provide a significant career leg-up for its writer-director, inviting remake interest as well as offshore distribution in various formats.
Young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) drive down a long, barely navigable park road in order to spend a romantic New Year’s Eve on a remote lakefront. They’re initially a bit put off to find another tent already set up on the beach, then puzzled when its inhabitants fail to turn up. Meanwhile, older married duo Margaret (Maya Strange) and Rob (Julian Garner) are likewise camping — if not quite so romantically — with their two offspring, bored teen Em (Tiarne Coupland) and toddler Ollie (played by twins Liam and Riley Parkes).
It takes us a good while to realize that the activities of these separate groups are unfolding in the same place, but not at the same time. Power’s clever script orchestrates things so that the shit hits the fan in both strands nearly simultaneously, as the family fatefully leaves Em alone to go on a hike, and the twentysomething lovers make unsettling discoveries about their absent beach neighbors. In each case, things go from ominous to bad to a lot worse as soon as each party makes the acquaintance of creepy locals Chook (Aaron Glenane) and German (Aaron Pederson), as well as the latter’s vicious dog.
It would be a shame to spoil the many reversal-of-fortune surprises that ensue, none wildly original but all delivered with maximum credibility and impact. “Killing Ground” might easily have turned into a sadistic wallow, an excessive pile-up of contrivances, or a cartoonish nice-tourists-vs.-evil-hicks exercise. But Power’s judicious control manages to sidestep those pitfalls in service of a white-knuckle thriller, whose deftly turned characters skirt caricature, and whose increasingly harrowing situations are pulled off with such skill that they never quite tip into lurid melodrama.
The canny, quiet restraint at work here not only heightens the tension, but helps to make “Killing Ground” seem less a horror exercise than a straight-up, stripped-down suspenser. Though very effective when used, Leah Curtis’ first-rate score may be most notable for how seldom it surfaces at all. Likewise, Simon Chapman’s very-wide-format cinematography and Katie Flaxman’s editing eschew flamboyance but could hardly be more effective.