In a country where the audience for horror is hungry but the industry support is lacking, hype can be a make or break element for an Australian horror film. When David Stratton continued his tradition of manufacturing cultural cringe and turned his nose up at Wolf Creek back in 2005, it was hype generated from the audience that saw the film cultivate an international audience, make back its budget ten times over and score accolades from the likes of legends like Quentin Tarantino. When Australian cinemas didn’t want to support a wide theatrical release of The Babadook in 2014, it was hype from a combination of critics and viewers that saw it go on to become one of the most acclaimed films of that year and – later – an accidental queer icon.
Australian horror flick Killing Ground is just the latest offering to be riding the hype train, coming off a glowing collection of reviews from critics (it currently sits around 80 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) and buzz from the international film festival circuit, pop culture commentators and audiences alike. The question is, though, does it live up to the hype?
Written and directed by Damien Power, Killing Ground follows a young couple – Sam and Ian – as they head away for a romantic New Year’s Eve camping trip in the bush. However, their chosen location isn’t as idyllic as they thought. Someone else has camped across the other side of the shore – a family – but that family is mysteriously nowhere in sight.
Power isn’t the first filmmaker to use the Aussie bush as a sinister character with a life and vibrancy of its own, but he does so incredibly effectively in his directorial debut. The story of the two camping groups is told simultaneously, with the dual timelines playing out alongside each other – one in the past, one in the present – until they both collide. It’s a clever device as it allows the audience to have more information than Sam and Ian do, therefore building an ever-increasing sense of dread and terror as we begin to learn what fate awaits them. There’s also smaller touches, like the glimpse of a Southern Cross tattoo on one of the villains, which acts as a wink to the audience (because it has been a long time since that symbol was associated with anything good).
The patriarch of the family has a moment where he recounts a massacre of local Indigenous people in what is supposed to be used as a tool to add a layer of horror to the setting, but also makes you go ‘fuck yeah, I literally cannot remember the last time white people in a movie talked about an Indigenous massacre perpetrated by colonists and used the right terminology’.
There are a lot of things to like about Killing Ground. Aaron Pedersen is one half of the villain duo, along with Aaron Glenane, who tells a character at one point that he’s a pig hunter which – we all know – is code in Australian horror movies for I AM A MURDERER AND WILL LIKELY GUT YOU SOON. Pedersen is so good he could play the shark in Jaws and win an Oscar for it, but the reality is Killing Ground has some major problems too. Significant ones, so glance away if you’re wanting to avoid spoilers. Women suffer in this film in a way that men do not. The deaths of various male characters are a nifty bullet to the head or the chest, while on the flip side the camera lingers gratuitously on bare torsos or exposed underwear in several scenes featuring sexual assault. A single rape scene in a movie is a minefield, let alone several with what feels like a very misogynistic male gaze. Yes, obviously ‘bad guys’ are supposed to be ‘bad’ but the pay off? It comes with a splutter and is unsatisfying, especially in the context of everything the female characters have had to endure previously (including one who is gang raped, watches a family member gang raped, is beaten, shot in the chest, survives in the bush for two days only to be shot in the head once she communicates something to an unscathed male protagonist).
Reviews that have applauded this film have touted it “may be too much for some” and what they mean by that is women. It’s women who get repeatedly raped, it’s women who are tortured, it’s women who are brutalised, it’s women who are killed. From the trailer and the hype alone, I was expecting this to be a smart, scary, survivalist film in a similar vein to Green Room, which took an almost nihilistic approach to dishing out consequences. Characters that made intelligent choices suffered atrociously, bad guys and good guys had grisly fates, both women and men met bloody ends. There was no prejudice or tilted view: the violence saw everyone on a level horror movie playing field.
Killing Ground is the kind of movie that would piss David Stratton off and that’s usually my kink. The film is considered a retro throwback and return to cult genre hits like Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave, which should not be considered a compliment. Those films were horrendously sexist, often with a camera gaze that felt as misogynistic as the male characters and frequently tried to sell exploitation as empowerment. For a huge portion of the audience, it felt like they were watching a filmmaker’s rape fantasy play out on the big screen. That should be something that gets left behind in the ’70s, not resurrected. Killing Ground is a movie that could have been exponentially improved if someone had just asked the question ‘does every woman in this film need to be sexually assaulted?’ From multiple rape scenes to a woman forced to fight off a non-consensual kiss, it goes beyond the usual horror movie formula of pitting women against a predator. It’s malicious. Killing Ground is supposed to be shocking, it’s supposed to be terrifying and horrific. It’s all of those things, but violence against a woman on screen isn’t shocking anymore – it’s tired. Women have spent literal decades watching themselves get murdered, tortured, raped and dismembered in horror movies and in 2017 – as a feminist horror fan – I want more.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz