Mickey Keating may be the savior modern horror hounds have been searching for, and those needing a good reason to place their faith in him need look no further than Carnage Park, a brilliantly executed tale of obsession and survival set against the harsh desert wasteland of rural Southern California. It is Keating’s third film in as many years, and it’s quite possibly the best work he has delivered to date.
Vivian (Ashley Bell) is in a position that most people would rank somewhere between being eaten by sharks and being chased by a seemingly unstoppable masked murderer on a list of ways they would rather not die. Having been taken hostage by two bank robbers while trying to save her family farm in 1978, Vivian is planning her retaliation when a shot rings out across the California desert. One robber goes down almost immediately, and shortly thereafter the other follows. Vivian briefly considers the possibility that some omnipresent being has rescued her, but the truth is that she has unknowingly entered land that is controlled by a deranged sniper (Pat Healy) who views people as disposable targets for his own entertainment. With nowhere to run and no way to call for help, Vivian realizes she is her only hope for survival, and soon sets to finding a way to freedom through whatever means necessary.
Bell (The Last Exorcism) delivers a career-defining performance as Vivian. So much so, in fact, that within Carnage Park’s slim 90-minute runtime cements her place in the indie horror echelon among other great leading women whose roles toe the line between scream queen and final girl. Her performance is a multi-layered one that goes above and beyond the call of the duty to make Vivian far more complex than the story necessarily demands. She is just a bit headstrong, but undeniably smart, and her internal struggle with the moral ambiguity of what may have to happen in order to ensure her own survival makes the core of the story incredibly compelling. Audiences will root for Vivian, but also feel sorry for her for having to experience such trauma because Keating’s script gives just enough backstory to make her existence feel greater than the sum total of what you see on screen.
Meanwhile, Healy (Compliance, Cheap Thrills)—whose track record in genre fare is rather impeccable thus far—continues to showcase his unique talent for bringing a wide array of broken people to life. There was a time when a film such as Carnage Park would be instantly written off as nothing more than a B-movie with cardboard characters, but like Bell’s performance there is something about the way Healy presents the mentally ill sniper he portrays that brings an added layer of reality to the entire proceeding. His character barely has any dialogue, but his body language speaks volumes, and one cannot help wondering what horrors he himself must have experienced in time.
The script for Carnage Park builds on the themes of isolation and the fear of the unknown that were previously explored by Keating in both Pod and Darling—only this time there is a literal chase afoot from beginning to end. The love for straightforward, so-called ‘maniac’ thrillers of the 1970s is clear throughout nearly every frame, but Keating refuses to settle for regurgitated storytelling. As with his other films, the narrative slyly leads viewers to set expectations for where the story will head only to eventually change course two or three times deep into the film’s later acts. This doesn’t render the films completely unpredictable, but it helps maintain a genuine sense of tension. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is constantly being propelled forward by the actions of either Bell or Healy, sometimes both, and there is rarely a moment where either character (or the audience) is able to take a breath.
With everything happening in the world these days the idea of being entertained by a story about a troubled man hunting people for sport is sure to turn some off completely, but genre fans and those in need of a relatively quick fix of thrills would be foolish to overlook what Keating and company have accomplished with Carnage Park. Bell and Healy shine, and the work of screen veteran Alan Ruck as Sheriff Moss offers some of the actor’s best work in years. The film will likely play best to those familiar with the aging films that inspired many of the film’s key elements, but Keating’s script works in such a way that the narrative does as much to reinvigorate the world of survival thrillers as it does to pay tribute to films most young audiences have never known. It is certainly not a perfect film, but it is thoroughly satisfying.