You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Killing Ground’

Camping is once again very bad for your health in Damien Power's outwardly familiar but harrowing thriller.

Aaron Pedersen, Ian Meadows, Harriet Dyer, Aaron Glenane, Maya Strange, Julian Garner, Tiarne Coupland, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes, Stephen Hunter.

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.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Killing Ground'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 16, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — Midnight. Also in Melbourne Film Festival.) Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Screen Australia and Campfire Films presentation of a Hypergiant Film, Superpower Films and Arcadia production in association with Screen NSW, Films Distribution and Mushroom Pictures. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Producers: Joe Weatherstone, Lisa Shaunessy. Executive producers: Michael Gudinski, John Molloy.

Crew: Director/writer: Damien Power. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Simon Chapman. Editor: Katie Flaxman.

With: Aaron Pedersen, Ian Meadows, Harriet Dyer, Aaron Glenane, Maya Strange, Julian Garner, Tiarne Coupland, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes, Stephen Hunter.

More Film


    Watch Trailer to San Sebastian’s ‘Patrick,’ Sold by The Match Factory (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  Sales house The Match Factory is launching exclusively via Variety the trailer of “Patrick,” Gonçalo Waddington’s debut feature, as the film world premieres in the Official Selection at the San Sebastian Festival. Screening in main competition, “Patrick” recounts the story of an eight-year old Portuguese boy, Mario, who is re-discovered years later [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in ONCE UPON

    Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Gets Oct. 25 China Release

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is scheduled for a China release on Oct. 25, three months after its U.S. debut. The mainland opening will hit after the country’s National Day holiday in the first week of October, which this year marks a key and politically sensitive anniversary — the 70th year of [...]


    Filmax Acquires International on ‘The Curse of the Handsome Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Barcelona-based boutique studio Filmax has acquired international rights to Argentine producer-director Beda Docampo’s “The Curse of the Handsome Man,” produced by Ibón Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures alongside Cados Producciones and Damned Besso –based in Spain—in co-production with Cecilia Díez’s Zarlek Producciones (“Medianeras”) in Argentina. The film is backed by Spanish public broadcaster [...]

  • La-mala-familia

    Javi Tasio Talks ECAM Incubator Title ‘La Mala Familia’

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Via their BRBR collective, filmmakers Nacho A. Villar and Luis Rojo have directed award winning music videos, and commercias. Now they’ll make the leap to features with “La Mala Familia,” a gritty urban drama set in the outskirts of Madrid. Variety spoke with the film’s producer, Javi Tasio, who developed this project at ECAM’s [...]

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

  • Incitement

    'Incitement' Wins Ophir Award for Best Picture, Becomes Israel's Oscar Submission

    “Incitement” was the best-picture winner at Israel’s Ophir Awards on Sunday night, automatically becoming the country’s choice to vie for the international feature film Oscar. The winning film, a drama about the period leading up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995, had its global premiere at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content