We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
A concealed hunter picks off reformatory teens on a desert island, in this survival thriller directed by Michael J Bassett
Take the aggressive canines (and Sean Pertwee) from Dog Soldiers, the female maneuvers (and Alex Reid) from The Descent, the vengeful stalk-and-slash (and Toby Kebbell) from Dead Man's Shoes, add director Michael J Bassett (best known for Deathwatch), and you end up with Wilderness, a film that tries awfully hard to position itself as part of the current renaissance in British horror - even throwing in the forest aerials from The Shining and the wood-and-bone fetishes from The Blair Witch Project to up its chiller credentials.
Except that Wilderness barely qualifies as horror at all. Sadistic and gruesome it may at times be, but it is never frightening, and it lacks altogether the kind of confounding ambiguity that is so essential to the uncanny. Rather it belongs to the same outdoor survival subgenre as Deliverance, Southern Comfort and Britain's own This Is Not A Love Song and Severance. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but unlike Deathwatch, where Bassett was working from his own script, this time the director is lumbered with a noisy mess of a screenplay by first-timer Dario Poloni - and no-one emerges entirely unscathed.
After one of their number commits suicide under suspicious circumstances, the six remaining boys from Dormitory H at the Moorgate Young Offenders Institute are sent to a bootcamp on a secluded island, under the watchful eye of their warder Jed (Pertwee). Sociopathic bully Steve (Wight) is immediately looking for trouble, using the obedient Lewis (Neal) for muscle. Sex-mad Blue (Deacon) wants girls, chilled Jethro (Richie Campbell) wants peace, terrified Lindsay (McKay) wants protection, while newcomer Callum (Kebbell) wants out.
Even after they chance upon a second camp, where ex-military warder Louise (Reid) is looking after Mandy (Crichlow) and Jo (Greene), the boys still cannot shake the feeling that there is someone else with them on the island. Then the killing starts, and they all whine, bicker and generally race about as their own criminal histories and internal divisions prove just as lethal as the mysterious figure that is picking them off one by one with an array of hunting instruments.
"I've never seen a dead body before," says Blue. This is not only a tired old cliché, but also untrue: all the boys had seen their dorm-mate's corpse long before they went a-camping. Such lazy writing mars the whole script. None of the characters goes anywhere (and not just because they are all stuck on an island), so that, for all the impressively feral performances, the personal dramas never engage and the deaths are hardly unwelcome.
The 'mystery' of who is attacking them - and why - gets resolved far too early in the piece, and is too contrived to satisfy. With every hint at supernatural goings-on quickly giving way to far blander explanations, this is a thriller left stranded by its own literalism. It is all so grounded and dull that you find yourself just aching to see one of those polar bears from 'Lost', or anything else just a little bit unexpected, come bursting out of the undergrowth.
There are vague hints at broader themes, such as the reversible dynamics of bullying and revenge, or the difficulties facing the penal system, but these tend to get shouted down by the characters' conflicts, all conducted at a shrill volume as though to compensate for their lack of substance. In the end, with all its in-fighting, tantrums and endless bitching, Wilderness is just like 'Love Island' off the telly, but with evictions of a more permanent nature - something that is, unfortunately, less gratifying than it might at first sound.
Only the glorious scenery and occasional splashes of grand guignol manage to divert, in what is otherwise a pedestrian spin on 'Lord Of The Flies' - or, if you like, Predator without the alien. It is but a feeble ripple in the new wave of British horror.
This over-literal, fright-free slasher is strictly for completist gorehounds and Home Secretaries seeking radical solutions to the high number of youth offenders.
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