Intercutting Slaughters: Fairly effective "Killing Ground" offers little else than a time-flipping structure

Killing Ground (2017)
89 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

As if audiences needed another reason not to go camping in Australia or really anywhere, Australian horror-thriller “Killing Ground” is fairly effective in that regard, but it has little else going for it. Writer-director Damien Power advances from his work on short films with his feature debut, a solidly visceral and harshly unforgiving pic that’s lean and taut in its plotting and pacing, even as it shakes up linear chronology initially to tell its tale. There are two main timelines playing out that may or may not be occurring simultaneously, but it eventually becomes clear that the whole setup has been at the hands of a manipulative device. All that's left, then, is the exploitation of one-note creeps taking out nice, commonly drawn vacationers, and other films before “Killing Ground” have done that one better without such a storytelling gimmick and even more harrowing intensity and terror.

As soon as the couple arrives at a sandy, riverside clearing in New South Wales near Gungilee Falls to celebrate New Years, publisher Sam (Harriet Dyer) wastes no time to ask doctor boyfriend Ian (Ian Meadows) to marry her. At their campsite, they find an SUV and a neighboring tent but no sign of life. After their first night, Sam and Ian wake up to a flat tire and decide to end their trip a little early. Little do they know that German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), two gun-loving yahoos with a vicious canine in tow, have already been to that campsite and taken care of the family that’s now missing. Once the couple is separated, they’re both thrust into a terrifying ordeal.

Deceptively intricate and intriguing at first, “Killing Ground” unfolds as a three-tier narrative structure, interweaving one or two days apart between Sam and Ian, a family—a dad (Julian Garner), his wife (Maya Stange), their teenage daughter (Tiarnie Coupland) and their toddler son named Ollie (twins Liam and Riley Parkes)—and the two killers. How Damien Power and editor Katie Flaxman carefully transition from one piece of the puzzle to the next, it is riveting for a while, but at a certain point, it becomes clear that the film doesn’t have much else in store or on its mind. It’s still hard to take away the skilled talent behind the camera from Power, who guides spontaneous performances from his cast and capable cinematography by DP Simon Chapman (2017’s “The Devil’s Candy”) out of his wooded milieu.

The film admirably makes Sam more assertive than her male partner—and her wannabe maternal instincts do eventually kick in—and the catharsis at the end is satisfactory enough. More than any of German and Chook’s taunting menace (i.e. they aim to shoot beer cans off the heads of their victims but usually miss), there is one hair-raising tracking shot with a small child stumbling around in the background as Sam walks in the foreground to the car. As for much of the film, it’s just a tease that doesn’t really earn its occasional effectiveness and only pays off by making the brutality merciless for all ages. In spite of Damien Power showing artistic restraint where he can, “Killing Ground” pales in comparison to other films cut from the same blood-stained cloth, particularly fellow Aussie camping nightmare “Wolf Creek.”

Grade: C +