Imagine, for a second, the idealistic throwback grindhouse slaughterfest:
Sepia-toned desert? Check.
The blown-off face of a man kissed against a car window? Check.
A woman limping along while a white man with issues chases her? Check and check.
Carnage Park, the fifth film from director Mickey Keating (Darling, POD), oozes aesthetic. From the way it flickers the color scheme as the plotline advances, to the way characters are on screen in a slightly off-center way, to the flashback heavy opening half hour, Keating demands that the viewer engage as much with his stylistic leanings as we do with his narrative and characters.
Our main character is Vivian (Ashley Bell), a local taken hostage by a couple of bank robbers, Scorpion Joe and Lemmy (James Landry Herbert and Michael Villar, respectively). However, as Sheriff Moss (Alan Ruck) chases them across the desert expanse, they all end up on an expanse of land owned by Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). And Wyatt? Well, Wyatt has a sniper rifle and enjoys using it.
Ashley Bell and Pat Healy do a good job of providing solid acting performances. Bell has just enough fire to pull off the more intense scenes believably, but not so much that her early helplessness feels contrived. Healy, on the other hand, only has one aspect of Wyatt to convey, but convey it he does. It’s a chilling performance, even though the distance demanded by the sniper rifle keeps him off screen for large portions of the film.
It’s a journey with bloodshed and chaos. Keating, whether intentionally or not, evokes films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and House of 1000 Corpses as we get deeper into Wyatt Moss’s twisted nightmare. Set designs help give us the claustrophobic sense that we’re plunging into a knotted trap from which there is no return.
The real star, however, is the sound design. Carnage Park is a treat to listen to through headphones. The deeper Vivian goes, the more important everything we hear becomes. Muttered, indecipherable voices texture parts of the soundtrack, as does the squawk of the PA system mounted pretty damn near everywhere. The speakers give our antagonist an ongoing presence within the film, allowing him to speak to his victims. Especially toward the end of the film, when visual cues become tough to pick up on, the sound design is our best clue as to what is happening.
The nice way of describing Carnage Park is to say that the narrative picks up speed as it gets through the expository stage of storytelling. Once Vivian is running for her life Carnage Park becomes gripping, enthralling cinema. The uglier reality, however, is that it takes way too long for the narrative to exit the exposition stage. With so much of the narrative is composed of getting Vivian to Wyatt’s property, the narrative never manages to feel coherent.
As satisfying as elements of the second half of the movie are, they’re not so strong as to excuse such a slow build. Whatever Keating’s talents, he is not Ti West (The House of the Devil). The slow build until tensions become unbearable thing? Keating doesn’t have the deft touch to pull it off. Instead we’re introduced to characters that have no bearing on the actual story in situations that take way too long to resolve.
Violence, atmosphere, setting: These are the things that Keating does a good job of presenting. If he had shoved all of the preliminary nonsense off to the side, and expanded the last half into the full 80 minute runtime, Carnage Park would be a helluva film. In lieu of that, we’re left with a decent genre piece that stumbles onto moments of greatness, at least for those of us whose attention eclipses the first half.
The narrative hiccups make this a hard film to recommend, but some of the vision and execution sparkles enough that Mickey Keating becomes an interesting director to keep an eye on.