From the opening credits, you get a perfect example of what Eden Lake is all about: flashes of idyll and terror, serene lake images and bloody faces. That sense of a paradise gone wrong, a utopia turned to dystopia, pervades this film. James Watkins’ (The Woman in Black, Bastille Day/The Take) writing and direction of Eden Lake, as his debut feature, hit the nail on the head for the fears and worries of youth culture at the time.
Jenny (Kelly Reilly) is a primary school teacher, surrounded every day by innocence, bright colours and well behaved little children being taught and treated in a kind and considerate. Her boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender) is waiting outside the school to pick her up and whisk her away for a romantic weekend, with an ulterior motive of engagement, to one of his favourite spots from his past and secure his future.
Foreshadowing what is to come, on the car journey there, a radio show talking about children’s behaviour and the problem of parents being unable to control their kids plays in the background. Once again we are left with little imagination needed as to where this is going to go. The couple’s first stop is a pub near the lake/quarry for the night, and again there are all the signs on display: loud music, kids running wild, no respect for anyone else. A kid being hit by his mother is a shocking moment for Steve and Jenny, and the viewers, and when the couple stare at the aggressor, the power dynamic is stark: this behaviour, which is completely out of line in the minds of the newcomers, is vigorously backed up with a look from the mother that says “What are you looking at? Are you judging me?”, and Steve and Jenny’s reaction, to turn their eyes away so as not to incite a conflict, says it all about the differences between their two worlds.
After their eventful night in the hotel/pub they make their way to Slapton Quarry, as it was known to Steve in his younger days. It is about to he developed into a gated community, or Eden Lake as it is to be renamed. The once public park is now part building site and still part wilderness. It is a glorious spot, full of natural beauty and serenity and a great place to camp. Things are looking good for the couple until a few lads turn up, shouting and being aggressive towards another quieter youth. Like moths to the flame, more youths turn up and add to the atmosphere with blaring, loud music, swearing and general loutish behaviour. Oh, and a huge and intimidating rottweiler that is allowed to roam around and takes a particular interest in intimidating Jenny, to no concern of its owner.
After a couple of incidents we get to the pivotal moment of the film: Steve stands up for himself and Jenny by approaching the group and asks for some respectful behaviour and common decency. What he gets in return is belligerent and abusive attitude, blanking him and dismissing his concerns as nothing, or even in fact that HE is causing them issues by even bringing it up. The mere suggestion of having to curb their behaviour is an affront. This attitude is the overriding theme to the whole film: the entitlement of this group of kids to behave however they want to, without any concern of reproach, is what leads to the increasingly extreme attitudes and behaviours and also that anyone challenging their behaviour is in the wrong and must be treated as such.
Brett (the excellently menacing and belligerent Jack O’Connell) is the leader and the one they all turn to for guidance and behavioural clues. If he is doing it then it’s ok for everyone else. The hoodie threat was a real perceived threat at the time of the film and this film did nothing to help that situation. Reflecting the times, as all good horror films do, and magnifying the worst of it: behavioural difficulties, parental issues, hoodie culture, happy-slapping (phone videoing of violent/bullying/demeaning acts). Eden Lake only took that prompting and expanded on that kind of thinking.
But are they to be blamed for this? The radio show at the start doesn’t actually focus on the behaviour of the children but the lack of parenting that has given them defined limits to their behaviour or would allow them to function in a way that is respectful of other people. We get glimpses of the type of parenting here: the beer garden scene, the cafe scene and, of course, the ending. All show the style of parenting that these kids are being moulded by: Insularity (“We look after our own”), violence (rule by fear), entitlement (to behave however they want to).
Typifying the US hillbilly-style horror, all the beats are there in Eden Lake: wilderness location, stranded protagonists, local types of a insular nature preying on the outsiders and living by their own rules. And like those hillbilly horror films, we do get an explosion of very effective gore, body horror and violence when it does eventually kick off after a good period of mounting tension.
Effective music cues in David Julyan’s score give rise to building tense situations or lull you into a false sense of security that everything is going to be lovely and nice again. Numerous hopeful moments are built up and then dashed. And dashed. And just when you think that they can’t be dashed any more, they get dashed again!
The ending has divided opinion, some saying it goes too far, some saying that it perfectly encapsulates the feeling created throughout Eden Lake’s tight 91 minutes. For me, it shows that these kids have learnt their behaviour, that it is the parents that are the ones who imprint themselves on their children. This tight but maligned community look out for themselves and each other and always have done because no-one else will. But along with that the parents have given their children the entitlement that they can do what they want and have their parents stand up for them and cry foul if anyone tries to reprimand them. It turns out, on Eden Lake at least, that it is nurture not nature that maketh man!
There are very few moments for jump scares throughout Eden Lake, instead Watkins has gone for fear and terror, with relentless mindless aggression and pushing the boundaries of where most would call it a day and it is all the better for it. When reasonable behaviour is summarily dismissed, where do you go from there?
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