Somewhere between Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs exists Mickey Keating’s Carnage Park – a primal, maniacal throwback to 1970s post-political backlash. Memories of George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine help shape a myriad of influences that drive the director here, as he blends a West Coast criminal escapade with passionate kisses of slasher violence.
Think From Dusk Till Dawn, if you will (yes, another influence), except instead of vampires, you’ve got a patriotic lunatic who can’t accept that the times are indeed a’changing. As echoed in the opening narrative, if you tell people the “American dream” is dead, some folks might get mad – or in this case, retreat to a hellish playground constructed with only innocent deaths in mind.
California plays host to Carnage Park, a sectioned-off abundance of land owned by a military-fatigue wearing madman named Wyatt (Pat Healy). Whenever people break down, or find themselves “trespassing” on Wyatt’s property, they usually end up with a bullet in the head, or worse (yes, worse) as a rat trapped in his electrified cage. Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert), a bank robber running from Johnny Law, thinks he’s found sanctuary down a beaten off-highway path, only to be welcomed by Wyatt’s shit-eating grin. But there’s a catch – Joe’s not alone. His hostage, Vivian (Ashley Bell), is taken alive by Wyatt, where she finds herself the latest inhabitant Carnage Park. Vivian fights for survival, but in this park, God don’t pick no favorites…
Keating has explored different influences over each of his features (the Hitchcockian Darling, or sci-fi-spooker POD), but Carnage Park voices the loudest, most distinct roars from Keating himself. His directorial evolution might be what some people call “film school experimentation,” almost coming across as textbook artsploitation, but this latest entry in his oeuvre is a beautifully shot, fantastically thrilling nightmare. It reeks of isolated tension. Every little intricacy is chaotically mapped, including a barely-readable opening credits sequence that flashes actor names to the rhythm of a backing score. Immediately our senses are set on high alert for even the smallest hidden delights – simply put, Keating loves f#%king with his audience wherever possible. And you know what? More so than in any of his previous films, we learn to love the abuse.
Much like Darling, which featured a Gothic apartment building drenched in brooding atmosphere, the sprawling mountain region that holds Carnage Park is a dusty, cavernous Hell. Keating employs a warm, orange color palette that radiates the desert heat, but more importantly, makes bloody specks of flesh shine all the brighter. Even Bell’s auburn hair flickers like a flame, as her character runs around the barren wasteland (which eerily reminded this reviewer of government testing grounds for nuclear warheads). Mac Fisken’s cinematography is gorgeously picturesque, and Valerie Krulfeifer’s editing techniques play a huge role in maneuvering Keating’s tight pace, but it’s ultimately the direction that captures a visceral feeling that’s tremendously in-tune with backwoods survival horror: one that dirties the soul and crawls under your skin in the best kind of way.
Such an accomplishment wouldn’t be possible without Healy’s unparalleled psychotics or Bell’s bloodcurdling screams. These two character actors were born to fight against one another, as Healy’s weathered gas mask and crazed laughter adds new villainous levels to his conservative freedom-fighter character, representing a stark contrast to Bell’s properly primped innocence. She yells and cries for help (as do all of Keating’s female characters, to extreme degrees), but her quivering terror is what makes us embrace the inherent paranoia. Bell’s body trembles at the thought of Healy’s dead-eyed glare, yet when called into action, her resilience sports a heroic “final girl” twist that blends a frantic necessity to survive with adrenaline-fueled brutality. Healy’s brilliant descent into madness is only bested by Bell’s ability to transform fear into motivation, and the pair carry out a cat-and-mouse game with double-barreled ferocity.
Carnage Park is Mickey Keating’s most prolific vision yet (and this is only months after my Fantastic Fest praise of Darling). The latter character piece was more restrained, built on actress Lauren Ashley Carter’s hypnotic persona, whereas this criminal debacle speaks loud and proud. Healy’s sadistic laugh rings confidently like a beacon for all that’s unholy, while Bell screeches with every last ounce of breath, only to be swallowed up by nature’s vast nothingness. Cue a quick pan towards haze-laden skies, a moment of tranquil safety, and yet another entrance for Healy’s sniper. Carnage Park finds the actor at his most unhinged, transfixing in all his trigger-happy magnificence.
Keating has created a criminal fever-dream splattered with scintillating bouts of unfiltered horror, rooted deeply in sociopolitical agendas from a land that time forgot. More importantly, however, the director leads an exemplary excursion into the annals of “true-crime,” spiced with touches of survivalist excitement, psychological suspense, and down-home insanity – all the right ingredients to create a truly twisted genre treat.
Carnage Park delivers the thrill-ride such a twisted title suggests, as Mickey Keating's gun-slinging abandon paints the California desert a unique shade of red.