It’s a familiar Australian horror setting: a young white couple resort to the bush to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. In their joyful isolation, they decide to marry. Love is on their side, until it isn’t.
Director Damien Power describes his debut feature, Killing Ground, as a “lean, unorthodox genre film inspired by the classic character-driven survival thrillers of the ’70s.” No doubt he proudly nods to the now fondly remembered, even somewhat revered, Australian history of genre film, populated by films like Long Weekend, Walkabout, Razorback and Roadgames. These films painted pictures of arid desolation, colonial naïveté and other-worldly natural dangers. For those who are intimate with the genre, you’ll recognise the similarities to Long Weekend in particular: a couple on a bush getaway face an unknown world of horror within the landscape’s boundaries.
The joy of Killing Ground’s self-aware predecessors is that their filmmakers often opted for sensorily rich textures in both score and aesthetics, and in doing so combined both gore and suspense. Rather than rely on the schlocky elements that made some of these earlier films famous, Power makes a clear choice, aiming to create fear through suspense rather than gore. This single-mindedness undercuts any expectations of nostalgic tones or affect; The Killing Ground is tonally muted, much to its detriment.
While Long Weekend’s central couple go on a mini-holiday to resolve their tensions, displaying an amount of self-awareness, Killing Ground’s leading pair Ian and Sam (Ian Meadows and Harriet Dyer, respectively) couldn’t be more wholesome in their devotional behaviours. They peck on the lips, one such demonstration of their constant but restrained affections. This gets Killing Ground off to a laboured start. Power’s strengths are in his approach to structure and not dialogue — Australian audiences are likely to cringe at the twee references to local culture (a dog named Banjo, for one) — and having some patience with its non-linear narrative does eventually pay off.
In spite of an awkward setup, what had initially drawn me in was the early hints that Killing Ground might explore in some depth the political significance of white Australia’s relationship to landscape and the changing mythology around survival. In their 2004 book Australian Cinema After Mabo authors Felicity Collins and Therese Davis drew a line in the sand in terms of the screen portrayal of Australia’s landscape, identifying cinematic tropes that existed prior to the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision, which identified land in the Torres Strait as terra nullius: no man’s land. This landscape, particularly when viewed in the context of our genre films of the 1970s and ‘80s, is seen as both a danger and a potential conquest to the white man, while the native people (if present at all) are imbued with a mystical understanding.
The allusions to magic realism in both Long Weekend and Picnic at Hanging Rock work in this vein, evoking fear in their audience through the sense of a dangerous ‘otherness’. The Collins and Davis thesis suggests that films after the Mabo milestone depict “the aftershock of colonial history”. As such, this makes films like The Castle, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Jindabyne seem very much of our time, with dislocation and disconnection as a range of recurring themes set to a changed vision of land.
Does Power intend to evoke memories of the “Ozploitation” genre films, like Razorback (given the Killing Ground villains are hog-hunters), or perhaps the rural Western aesthetics of Inn of the Damned? The survival themes of Wake in Fright or Walkabout? Sadly, past the early scenes of the film, the presence of a politicised landscape tapers off in light of its atonal effect, leaving the viewer to wonder what wave of Killing Ground had been written to ride.
The expected strength of the film is actor Aaron Pedersen, here featured as an understated murderer-rapist. With a long CV of complicated, conflicted roles to his credit (most notably Det. Jay Swan in Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone), one might hope for something complex in Pedersen’s performance, but unfortunately his talents are wasted on an undeveloped antagonist. His natural screen presence makes for a rather awkward fit amidst Power’s clunky dialogue.
Themes of sexual violence will be difficult to stomach for some viewers given they are at the heart of the film’s horror. These sequences are not handled delicately and are intended to shock, and while they do successfully create a sense of foreboding dread, they also play as a cheap thrill. Further still, the male-centric dialogue around that sexual violence will mean that the film is even less likely to appeal, in spite of the strong female presence in its production.
Ultimately, while Killing Ground may prove a solid stepping stone for its director in terms of the Hollywood marketplace, the film itself is unlikely to be remembered in the oeuvre to which it speaks. Like too many Australian films of late, it falls into the trap of an unfocused production, in that the filmmaker has both written and directed their debut — with a certain degree of quality — but mastered neither element.