One of the best things about reviewing indie horror films is the ‘blind date’ mentality of not really knowing what you’re getting into. It’s refreshing to experience the absence of a marketing circus, where you can’t get on the internet without being pummeled by spoiler articles and an unnecessary slew of trailers. Of course, that blind date does have a risk factor...
...There have been plenty of times when my mystery movie date turns out to be a hideous disaster, leaving me mugged of a few hours. The new horror offering from director Charlie Steeds does contain hideous horrors, but they’ve never looked as good as they do in The Barge People, which played this past weekend at the Horror on Sea Film Festival.
The early minutes of this film play out like a parody of how these things start. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Wrong Turn (2003) or Cabin Fever (2002) all use the formula of young people going off to a secluded region to gain some quality time away from modern life. It isn’t a bad formula, either. It’s a great way to get unsuspecting victims into a bad situation, far from any aid or rescue. In The Barge People, we’re introduced to two sisters and their boyfriends, who have rented a barge along the canals of the British countryside. Our Primary couple, Kat (Kate Davies-Speak) and Mark (Mark McKirdy) are a fairly normal pair. Kat’s sister, Sophie (Natalie Martins) is coupled with her new business obsessed boyfriend, Ben (Matt Swales) who proves to be a monumental pain in the ass to Kat and Mark. As night falls on the canal, our four characters collide with some rowdy locals, who, you guessed it, don’t take very kindly to newcomers. Managing to escape the encounter without much consequence, they have put an invisible target on their backs. As they glide downriver, it becomes clear the locals aren’t the only thing they should fear. What’s beneath the water may be far more dangerous; even deadly.
From the onset, The Barge People really did feel like it may result in being your average backwoods horror tale. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing, either. That being said, what the film ends up revealing is much more fun. Without giving everything away, I can say, with a grin on my face, that The Barge People is a monster movie and a pretty good one at that. Before it becomes that, the film is a bit too routine, but luckily, we’re given the company of some fun and interesting characters. Mark, our go-getting handyman protagonist is likeable enough, but not too likable. He does have a few annoying quirks and flaws that make him come off as overly earnest. I like this, though, because the film isn’t that concerned with manipulating the viewer to like him. It seems very natural. Ben, the phone addicted, sweater draping other boyfriend, almost a cartoon character in how much of a pompous jerk he is, works well in the film. His snarky comments and awkward interactions with Mark are a joy to watch. The actor who really stands out here though is Kate Davies-Speak as Kat. Not only is she absolutely gorgeous, but she has an undeniable charisma that puts you at ease. When the tension really starts to ratchet up, you fear for her the most. This film gives us an ensemble of strong actors and it elevates the effectiveness of the film.
The Barge People does have a somewhat uneventful first half, but it certainly makes up for it with its blood-soaked remainder. Things get turned up to eleven when our monsters are introduced. These things are downright terrifying. Again, not to spoil too much, I won’t talk about their actual origin, but I will say they come from the water and they are downright terrifying. Bloated, disfigured and hungry for flesh, these creatures from below come without warning and tear into anyone they can. The makeup and prosthetics team did a phenomenal job bringing these nightmares to life. Greats like Stan Winston would be elated to see this. Sure, you know these are men lurching around in rubber suits, but they create such a convincing performance with their movement and the art of creating a character through movement can make or break an effect. Without the emotive use of facial expression, creating a convincing character purely through pantomime is an achievement.
If I have one bone to pick with the film, it’s the misguided use of the late 70’s, early 80’s throwback sensibilities. We are introduced to the film with yellow text credits and a synth-heavy score. It feels like it is trying far too hard to pander to the retro trends of late. In a film like The House of the Devil (2009), director Ti West expertly uses the retro homage style. From the color grading, to the music, to the cameras, lenses and post processing filters, the effect is utilized consistently. I know, The Barge People isn’t trying to be that film, but here, it’s only used in the opening and ending credits, with bouncy synth music peppered here and there. It just doesn’t line up with the rest of the film very well and I think it would have felt more original without it. A somewhat small nitpick, but one that did slightly bother me.
We have a plethora of great films from the golden years of monster horror, but it’s always a joy to see passion for the genre living on. The Barge People turned out to be a pure delight as a blind date and I would, without hesitation recommend this to creature and gore buffs. It doesn’t stand above the giants of the genre, but then I don’t think that was ever Charlie Steeds intention. Instead, I believe it serves as a humble salute to those giants. Don’t miss it.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth