A young couple on a road trip, Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer), run afoul of two opportunistic back-block predators, German (Aaron Pederson) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), in Killing Ground, an assured survival horror from debut feature director, Damien Power.
Killing Ground is the latest in a long tradition of Aussie “don’t go into the bush” terror tales; Wolf Creek is only the latest, most visible example, but Power is savvy enough to draw influences from deeper cuts, such as 1978’s Long Weekend. While the two Aarons provide the most immediate, unnerving threat to our wayward city couple, the setting itself is also a villain. This is a classic Bad Place narrative. We’re casually informed at one point that the isolated camping ground where Power sets his horrors is the site of of an Aboriginal massacre, and it’s no accident that our lead antagonist is played by the Indigenous actor Pedersen (Mystery Road) in an incredibly menacing turn. A sense of foreboding is established early on in the proceedings that never lets up, only growing inexorably heavier and more agonising as the inevitable atrocities loom nearer.
The sense of terror is heightened considerably when the film makes the bold choice of splitting its narrative, jumping back in time to explore the fates of an earlier set of victims once Ian and Sam discover an abandoned family tent at their remote campsite. It’s a clever conceit, subverting the usual straight-forward plot construction of the survival horror genre.
It also ups the body count significantly. Power doesn’t shy away from confronting and, at times, genuinely upsetting imagery, although when it comes to actual depiction of brutality and assault he knows when to let viewers draw their own conclusions from what is implied onscreen. There’s a stark, harsh matter-of-factness to the violence we see; the film doesn’t bother with exotic weaponry or elaborate, ritualised tortures, instead reminding us that a cruel man armed with a rifle is terrifying enough. It’s the plausibility of the scenario that chills; add to that an element of child endangerment (a toddler is thrown into the mix at one point, and the film milks the poor mite’s terrible vulnerability for all its worth) and there are times when Killing Ground is almost unbearable.
In that good way, of course. Horror fans are in for an absolute treat here; Power and his team understand the conventions of their genre and know exactly when to subvert them and when to double down. Killing Ground might lack an iconic figure like Mick Taylor around which a real cult audience could form, but it’s the real deal; a taut and torturous journey into darkness.