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At least Carnage Park starts strong. It’s California in 1978. Vietnam is over, but as Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) suggests in the film’s opening voiceover, the wounds have hardly closed. In a manic drawl, Wyatt talks of the US cutting funding to veteran’s aid programs far and wide, leaving combat-scarred souls like himself with “idle hands.” For Wyatt, this slight isn’t just disrespect; “Some folks might get mad. Some folks might even wanna take a little revenge.” To pass the time and occupy those hands, Wyatt lords over an expansive range of hills in the middle of nowhere, filling it with death traps and turning anybody unlucky enough to pass through his chosen territory into hunter’s quarry. With a sniper rifle and a dead aim in tow, Wyatt is a walking nightmare for the guilty and innocent alike.
Carnage Park is an exploitation movie down to its very bones, from the lurid real-life trappings to the excessive, lingering violence throughout, but writer-director Mickey Keating never really finds a handle on which sort of throwback film he wants to make. He solves this riddle by making quite a few of them, none of which seem to fit anything that comes before or after, until the film descends into a murky fugue that destroys most of that aforementioned early goodwill. The most interesting of its modes is the one that sees Wyatt square off against Vivian (Ashley Bell), who finds herself in the middle of Wyatt’s living hell after being taken hostage during a bank heist gone terribly awry.
Vivian was just at the bank to try and save her family’s farm, but it put her square in the warpath of Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert), the perpetrator of said bank heist. Scorpion Joe is the sort of kingshit swaggering type who you’d expect to be introduced with a Tarantino-esque cutaway advertising his history of general badassery, and Keating meets the call. This introduction is only the first of a series of increasingly showy and distracting visual choices that Carnage Park starts to make early and often. Healy’s gas-masked killer is repeatedly invoked through a series of skittering black-and-white, rapid-edit sequences, an average scene of violence involves what seems like at least a dozen cuts that make the whole affair weirdly bashful about its own nihilistic brutality, and in general Keating goes out of his way at every possible avenue to remind you that you are watching a very hip take on the survival horror genre.
It becomes just as grating as it may well sound, and not too far into the film either. Carnage Park dips its toes into all kinds of genre movie pools, never committing to one or another, and by the time it submerges its entire climax in near-to-total darkness to the point of utter visual and thematic incoherence, it’s already long since overstayed its welcome. It’s a shame, too, because Healy and Bell do game work as a warped hunter and his unexpectedly resilient prey, respectively, but in service of a film that never seems to know what it wants to be and rarely hits any of the marks it attempts. It wants to conjure eerie atmosphere, but eventually delves into beyond-tired tropes like creepy dolls and cackling laughs to do so. It wants to be a hyper-stylized ‘70s throwback, but also wants to indulge in modern horror movie cues. It wants to invert The Most Dangerous Game, but quickly abandons any larger social commentaries in favor of a lot of grisly violence that amounts to little. Carnage Park is the kind of half-imagined horror film to which only the most dedicated genre diehards need apply.