Sundance 2016: ‘Carnage Park’ Tries and Fails Miserably to Attain Midnight Cult Classic Glory

The Midnight section of Sundance has been home to such immediate, violent cult classics in years past such as Blue Ruin, Cold in July, The Guest, Saw and many others. Carnage Park is the type of film that is clearly designed with the intention of joining the ranks of those films, yet is so poorly constructed and haphazardly filmed that it is shocking to look at the director’s IMDB and discover that he has somehow gotten multiple films funded. Carnage Park desperately wishes to be this generation’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but really just ends up feeling like the cheapest knock-off.

The plot of writer/director Mickey Keating’s fumbling disaster takes place in 1978 California, and kicks off when two bank robbers, Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert) and Lenny (Michael Villar), screw up a bank robbery, leaving Lenny shot and dying in the process and kidnap innocent bystander Vivian (Ashley Bell) as collateral and flee the county. Along the way, they end up in a stranded piece of desert where a psychotic ex-military sniper named Wyatt (Pat Healy) hunts them for sport in a domain referred to as “Carnage Park.”

For the first third of the film, it’s like watching a basketball repeatedly coming close to getting in the hoop without ever going in. There are moments of genre originality and intrigue that feel like they’re about to go somewhere, yet never actually do. For a while, Keating is trying to blend the crime and horror genres, and with several more drafts of the screenplay, who knows, maybe it could have successfully and originally done so. Keating is clearly taking inspiration from the likes of Tarantino and Tobe Hooper in his dialogue, setting and characters, but his attempts at paying tribute just come across as cheap imitation.

Keating will repeatedly cut back to the bank robbery throughout the film to reveal more of what happened during the fateful event, and you keep thinking that maybe it will lead to some shocking revelation that will put the film in a new context, that maybe he’s actually going somewhere with this, but he never does. These flashbacks serve as nothing more than an attempt to supply the artificial impression that there is more going on in Keating’s film than there really is. Keating directs his film with the impatience of a 13-year old boy who discovered porn for the first time, but none of that sort of excitement translates into cinematic feeling, technique or emotion. There’s nothing but quick, sloppy cuts and shaky cam shots whose intention is to shock, but only elicit boredom. Keating can’t hide how unskilled his direction is behind these cheap tricks.

The one saving grace of this film is the always reliable presence of Pat Healy. He’s been a staple in the independent and horror filmmaking community, delivering consistently great work in gems like Compliance, The Innkeepers, Cheap Thrills and Starry Eyes. Here he plays an absolute psycho in the villainous Wyatt, relishing each second on screen, eliciting both moments of fear and laughter in his line delivery. The audience seemed to perk up whenever he was on screen, and what makes the film worse is that he’s hardly in it.

Ashley Bell is game and committed to screaming and fighting her way through this film, but the script repeatedly pushes her character to make the stupidest possible decisions to the point of boredom. She can only elevate her underwritten character so much. Larry Fessenden makes an enjoyable, all too brief cameo that goes nowhere. I suppose it’s also sort of fun to watch Alan Ruck sleaze it up as a dirty sheriff torn between his duties as a brother and as a lawman.

Usually it’s customary at Sundance to applaud the film when the credits start rolling. Nobody applauded Carnage Park, not even some pity claps. People just grabbed their things and shuffled out, hoping the next film they saw would wash the bad sight of this one out of their eyes.

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