A middle-class couple decide to spend their weekend camping at an isolated lake. Their holiday is interrupted by a young gang of youths. Arguments between the two parties escalate, until the couple are running for their lives through the woods in a desperate scramble to escape the now-murderous children.
Eden Lake is a critically acclaimed English horror movie written and directed by James Watkins. It stars Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Prometheus) and Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes). It was awarded the 2009 Empire Award for Best Horror Movie. It is also, in my personal opinion, one of the most offensive films I have seen. It's not offensive because it contains relatively graphic scenes of torture and bodily mutilation, although it does contain those things. It's also not offensive because it depicts children being excessively violent and homicidal, although again it does contain that. Earlier this year I watched the Spanish horror film Who Could Kill a Child?, and that film was twice as confrontational in this respect, and it was a powerful viewing experience as a result. It's not even offensive because it contains images of extreme violence against a child, although I wouldn't blame anybody who hated this film because it contains 12 year-olds getting stamped on the face until dead, doused in petrol and burned alive or stabbed in the throat with broken glass.
Instead I find myself offended because this is a film that openly and unashamedly wallows in a privileged middle-class paranoia about the working class. It tells its audience not to trust those filthy, untrustworthy poor people, who clearly don't control their kids, are uniformly violent, drunk and abusive, and who would sooner murder an injured woman than call her an ambulance.
I don't think this is a deliberately offensive movie. Instead I think its writer/director, James Watkins, has gone out of his way to provoke. He's picked up on some of the worst class-warfare attitudes of the United Kingdom an exploited them for cheap thrills. For some viewers, like me, it will offend. For others, it will be seen as harmless - if extremely tawdry - entertainment. For yet more it will be a de-facto confirmation of their worst prejudices: those people who sneer at those of a lower economic background, who've never had to struggle to pay their rent and bills, people who harp on about how much they hate 'pikies' and 'chavs' and otherwise demonise and degrade society's most vulnerable.
'I think,' said Watkins in one interview, of his film's torture scenes, 'it’s very far removed from the sort of
gleeful celebration of violence you get in a film like Saw.' He is indeed correct that Eden Lake is not like Saw. Saw was deliberate grand guignol, and an overtly satirical indictment of contemporary American apathy. Eden Lake is about thuggish young poor people in hoodies flicking an open box cutter around in Michael Fassbender's mouth.
Technically this is a very well-made film. It is excellently photographed, and the actors do all give their all in expressing the rising tension and panicky desperation of the piece. Sadly it's all in service on something unpleasantly wrong, a disagreeable narrative that sticks uncomfortably in the craw and makes the ultimate experience a horrifying one for all of the wrong reasons. Some films you love, some you only like. Some you don't care about, and some of them you hate. A select few make you want to track the artists responsible down and slap them in the face.