Since Mickey Keating’s stealth debut as a writer-director with Ultra Violence (2011), his films have become more stylized and postmodern. This trend is general and not a relentless march with each new release. Still, his most recent effort, Carnage Park (2016), is arguably his most self-conscious bricolage of genres and styles, combining elements of the Western (a la Peckinpah), unconventional storytelling about psychopaths (in the vein of Tarantino’s work), and horror tropes. But does it work — and if so, for whom?
As with his last film, Darling (2015), Keating foregrounds a female lead as his protagonist. Ashley Bell is Vivian, a dirt farmer’s daughter in rural California in the late 1970s. Abducted as a hostage by two bandits, Scorpion Joe (James Landry Ebert) and Lenny (Michael Villar), while they are robbing the local bank, her situation becomes more complicated and terrifying as a result of her captors’ attempt to evade capture by law enforcement. Taking to the side roads, they venture unwittingly onto the land of survivalist Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). Wyatt is a Vietnam vet (a sniper by profession) who has built a compound that recreates the milieu of his combat experiences. He calls it Carnage Park.
This spoiler-free introduction to the film’s story does not do justice to the non-linear way it is told. By beginning with a warning to the audience, it reminds viewers that they are watching a movie to which they will respond in a potentially adverse fashion. Then there is a voice-over monologue — really a rant that implies that the speaker is a psychiatric casualty of war — followed by a sequence in which a man in combat gear and a gas mask hunts and kills another man in the California desert wasteland. A flashing title card with the superimposed, red, flashing image of a soldier in a gas mask foreshadows a story told via flashbacks and flash-forwards.
This heavily-stylized story makes use of slow motion, music, sound, and montages as punctuation. The striking visuals, which superimpose symbolic icons of the Vietnam War upon an American Wild West location, are redolent with diverse cinematic allusions. In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Keating mentions several, including Peckinpah’s The Getaway. There are also shades of Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now). The level and frank display of violence on-screen recall the French New Extremity. The central conflict between Vivian and Wyatt takes the form of a hunter vs. hunted contest, which Keating consciously modeled on the horror classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932). In another allusion to horror history, the prolific veteran actor-producer-director Larry Fessenden appears as one of the victims of Wyatt’s sadistic game.
Some critics and viewers have found this pastiche too derivative. Others (including this reviewer) see it as clever and inspired. This split is characteristic of the reception of Keating’s work. It derives from the conflict between mainstream horror fans and those who enjoy both traditional and art-horror (and horrific avant-garde) films. Although Keating’s artiness in this film is sometimes too self-conscious, his gripping story and its characters (particularly well-acted by the cast) constitute a topical commentary on the aftermath of modern war and a general indictment of the callousness of a morally and ethically bankrupt American society and culture.
So, in my opinion: yes, this film works, but it will likely not play well (as it hasn’t) with those who prefer the structure and conventions of the classic Hollywood horror film. Still, Carnage Park is yet another piece of evidence that supports my contention that future of horror lies in the diverse world of independent filmmaking — with cutting-edge filmmakers like Keating.