You'd wonder what goes through the head of extreme sports enthusiasts before they embark upon a death-defying weekend excursion exploring some dank chthonian abyss or scaling a windswept rock face in the forsaken back of beyond.
The risks of plummeting to certain doom or losing a limb are surely the least of their worries? That heretofore unexplored cave system could contain devolved cannibalistic mutants baying for blood. That snow capped peak might be host to a ruthless gang of killers searching for their airplane-jettisoned loot. Even an innocuous river-rafting trip may end in ritualised degradation, sodomy and a spot of murder. Indeed, the movies have taught us that if we don’t succumb to the natural perils of the great outdoors some axe-wielding psycho/feral hick/undead fiend will surely have our guts for garters.
Following the overwrought soccer-cretin Biopic “Rise of the Footsoldier” director Julian Gilbey seeks to stake a claim in the backwoods survival genre with his fourth feature, “A Lonely Place to Die”.
Five mountaineering buddies unwittingly stumble upon a terrified Serbian waif (Holly Boyd) buried within a chamber in the wilds of the Scottish highlands. Resolving to bring her to safety the gang sets off for civilisation but the unsavoury duo that put her in the ground has other ideas. So begins a desperate fight for survival as our protagonists face the wrath of rifle-wielding kidnappers all the while braving the pitfalls of an unforgiving environment.
Characters here aren’t your usual fleshy marionettes waiting to have their narrative strings cut in service of the body count; Gilbey takes time introducing his unfortunates giving them just enough depth so as to ensure a modicum of viewer empathy before the beastliness begins. No stranger to the rigours of Brit indie horror the always bankable Melissa George plays experienced climber Alison and brings a credible physicality to her role as the child’s most determined protector. There’s Jack-The-Lad pretty boy Ed (Ed Speleers) providing a nice contrast to Alec Newman’s earnest team leader Rob. Husband and wife pair Alex (Gary Sweeney) and Jenny (Kate Magowan) complete the quintet.
While performances are sturdy from all quarters it’s the perennially villainous John Harris who steals the show as migratory abductor Mr. Kidd. What could have been a snarling two-dimensional caricature is imbued with an unnerving pathos by Harris as his kiddie-snatcher chillingly recounts the consequences of a ransom gone awry for one young prisoner in the films standout exchange.
Gilbey must be commended for achieving a slick big budget look without the big budget. There’s a vertiginous virtuosity to the cinematography from his spectacularly shot opening mountaineering vignette to some frenetic hilltop scrambles employing head-mounted POV cameras. Technically the film is very accomplished, its climbing portions convincing. Gilbey also shows restraint in his use of aerial shots, not ramming the awe-inspiring quality of the scenery down our throats till the impact is exhausted unlike a certain other highland chase flick (ahem Centurion).
Unfortunately a shift in the proceedings from the wilderness to the urban confines of a small town playing host to a folk festival is rather jarring and breaks an otherwise snappy pace. There’s nothing wrong with a blistering crescendo save when it’s so tonally adverse to the low-key cat and mouse brutality which has preceded it. Gilbey sees fit to indulge in some Hollywood bombast as Alison and her young charge are hunted through the streets by Mr. Kidd’s brutish accomplice who has no reservation at randomly shotgunning revellers. Cartoonishly upping the kill count doesn’t generate more excitement, instead destroying the gritty sense of reality which the piece has been striving so hard to effect.
The reliance upon gaudy shooting gallery mechanics for the final act highlights the depressing fact that despite being engaged by the narrative we haven’t really seen anything new. There’s no discernable subtext. It’s no revisionist chase movie. It doesn’t smash the template and use the pieces to craft something staggeringly original and audacious. Will it be revered in 20 years time as a genre landmark? It’s safe to say no. But what it does it does well. A group of goodies must get a young girl to safety as the baddies try to stop them. It holds your attention. It’s competently acted and well shot. An altogether serviceable entertainment, like the rock faces scaled by its harried protagonists “A Lonely Place to Die” is nothing if not solid.