A fun-filled break to a paradise idyll that suddenly becomes a tortuous gore-spattered manhunt may not sound inspiring, and certainly the likes of Hostel and the recent Hollywood thriller A Perfect Getaway have done much to exhaust the narrative possibilities of this kind of story. And yet this ambitious British horror movie, a feature debut for the writer-director James Watkins, matches the same familiar workaday plot structure with a level of serious screen performance and piquant cultural resonance that lifts it far above the ordinary.
Thus, blatantly reflecting the newspaper headlines of tabloid Britain, Eden Lake chooses a gang of feral Midlands youths for its villains, rather than the sadistic adult psychopaths of Hollywood lore. The gang, kitted out with tracksuits, knives and rottweilers, and based in housing estates filled with brutalising parents, eventually roam the leafy woodlands where the loving but hugely unlucky city couple Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) have chosen to holiday. The pair, a sweet-natured middle class couple, complete with Range Rover, champagne and secret engagement ring (Steven plans to propose to Jenny), arrive at the titular waterway for a weekend break of snorkelling and shore-side sunbathing.
Almost immediately their plans go awry. The teenage gang, led by O'Connell's cool-eyed Brett, arrive at the lake to tease and taunt and intimidate them with deafening tunes from a giant ghetto blaster. The harassment soon escalates, however, and before the first act is over, the Range Rover has been stolen, Steve has been tied to a tree stump with barbed wire and stabbed to within an inch of his life, while Jenny has been forced to flee into the undergrowth, lather herself with mud camouflage and arm herself with a giant shard of glass for protection.
The real relief in all this, especially when Jenny becomes Ramboesque in the final act, is that both Fassbender and Reilly play the material with straight and empathetic faces throughout. The traditional wink-wink of horror irony is clearly not on the menu. Instead, Fassbender, who delivered a remarkably committed performance in Hunger and a wickedly funny turn in the recent Inglourious Basterds, here makes Steve's predicament painfully real - his torture scene, though less explicit than anything in Eli Roth's prurient Hostel, is genuinely difficult to watch. Similarly Reilly's transformation into an avenging angel is fraught with humane anxiety and doubt - indeed her climactic revenge murder, a fatal stabbing, is partially depicted as a reflex accident rather than a gleefully executed attack.
The social context too, is consistently intriguing and sustains the movie where other horrors ultimately stall. And yet by succumbing to a shock twist ending, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style (ie nowhere is safe for Jenny), Watkins overplays his hand badly, and blindly defines an entire national class as atavistic thugs. This only highlights the raging neoconservative bias in Eden Lake, and leaves an odd and unpleasant taste in the mouth.