A field research trip to an Australian forest region has a group of university students stranded near a mountain with mysterious cave drawings. They are about to awaken something from its ancient slumber.
Six friends (three girls and three guys in one car) are on their way to a remote Australian forest region to explore some ancient cave paintings. A bit of adventurous field research for one of the guys’ thesis. What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, quite a bit, naturally, if we take into consideration that the area surrounding the cavern is infested with a mutating primordial supernatural force. And the arrival of new blood, has rekindled its appetite. This premise reminds us very much of another supernatural Aussie outback horror from recent years, called ‘Prey’ aka ‘The Outback’ aka ‘Dreamtime’s Over’ (2009). And since this one did all kinds of things wrong, it’s fairly justified to be a little sceptical when entering ‘Primal’. As it turns out, no need to worry, as director/writer Josh Reed gave it his best shot on most levels to take us on an entertaining, blood-splattered ride.
For me personally, though, the story did have one problem: the male characters. Now, I can understand if co-writing duo Nigel Christensen and Josh Reed went for the ‘extreme conditions bring out the worst in people’ approach. Even if we’ve seen that countless times before, it’s a formula that can work well and provide valid conflicts in the screenplay. But in the case of ‘Primal’, I felt like I was watching yet another film about a bunch of friends who shouldn’t go out together in the first place, because it becomes clear that their characters aren’t very compatible, to such an extent that they shouldn’t even be calling themselves friends. Then again, they’re still supposed to be university students. Many of those go their separate ways after graduating anyway. So I guess they’re forgiven for still having to learn a lot about relying on each other. So, let’s take a look at the characters for a second…
Warren (Damien Freeleagus), who appeared to be the most sensible at first, turns into the annoying hysterical shouting guy. Dace (Wil Traval) turns out to be the selfish macho asswipe, who just wants to be in control (and to survive) and doesn’t care too much about anything else. The third becomes pretty much the worst of the bunch: Chad (Lindsay Farris) is the spineless wimpy coward that – unwillingly, since he’s just too unstable to know any better – does everything you can possibly think of to make every plan fail and get the others of the group into trouble. So yes, you just want all three of them to die as soon as they start acting up (which is soon enough already). But of course they don’t, otherwise this movie would have been over in a heartbeat. Especially wimpy Chad keeps on doing such stupid things, he’ll seriously put your calmness and patience to the test. But that’s about it for the annoying bits in the film and it’s my guess Christensen and Reed very likely drew their characters like this with intent. After all, they’re playing with clichés and stereotypes of the genre here. And in the end, it does grant you satisfaction when they eventually bite the dust, especially the exquisitely choreographed, violent and bloody end battle between Mr. Wimpy and the primal version of Mr. Macho.
The women, however, are a lot more likeable (so it’s a lot less pleasant to see them get hurt). Not that their characters are better written, but they all act just a bit more sensible given the circumstances. Upfront, we have our heroine Anja (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith). The moment her character is established, you pretty much know already she’ll be the final girl standing. Not in the least because her character comes with a background story, albeit a vague one, that involves a claustrophobic trauma. One that she will have to overcome during the film’s third act, of course. Other than that, she’s also the most intelligent and emotionally mature character. On top of that, Tuckwell-Smith comes off as the best actress of the bunch. Krew Boylan plays Mel, the blonde with a bit looser morals and when her skinny dip swim at night goes wrong, she’s the first to turn all primal (nasty, pointy teeth transformation included). She really impresses with her very physical role, doing all the stunts (leaping, jumping, running, while growling like a mad beast) herself. Rebekah Foord‘s character, Kris, is perhaps the least substantial, pretty much confined to the background most of the time. But she has her moment in the scene where she has to go get the machete from the car. To be honest, this scene drags on too long at first (intercutting to another sequence in the woods as well) and it takes ages for her to find that machete. But the sequence does pay off, when Dace shows up outside the car, all gnarly and primal (with Kris still inside the vehicle, looking for that damned machete).
Aside from the questionable character drawings, everything else about the film is actually pretty good. It comes across like a mix between ‘Cabin Fever’ (2002) and ‘The Descent’ (2005), and ‘Primal’ would actually make up for a good gory triple feature bill evening with those two as companion films. With the exception of the ‘find the machete in the car’ scene, the whole film has a decent pace to the events and there’s a consistent building up of tension towards the final (double) climax. A wide range of special effects were used, each put to good use. We have quite a bit of practical bloodshed and prosthetics being used as well as some digital enhancements. You’ll still be able to spot one from the other, but they do blend in well together. For the practical stunts, they brought in legendary stunt man Grant Page to supervise all the action. The little team of stunt coordinators really pulled of some fierce fight sequences that look really well and very nasty on screen (aided by Reed‘s directing and editing skills). A peculiar decision was made to have most of the horror and action in the first half of the film (after Mel’s transformation) take place in broad daylight. Those scenes seemed to lack the proper mood and atmosphere because of it, instead just going for hectic mayhem. However, this provides a welcome contrast to the second half of the film, which mainly takes place at night, making things look much more scary and threatening.
And then… the film takes you inside the cave for a bonkers finale, which you can’t possibly figure out until you see it. You pretty much know that the story (Anja, our heroine, actually) will take you there eventually, because little things throughout the film foreshadow it. But you’ll still be in for one of those “WTF?!” surprises, whether you’ll like it or not. ‘Primal’ is Josh Reed‘s first feature film, and you can tell that with the (moderate) budget, means and experience they had, the whole cast and crew was game to take it to the limit. And it gives ‘Primal’ the kind of energetic vibe that rubs off on the viewer. The complete film (opening and end credits included) looks pretty slick, with especially the night sequences being very well lit and shot by cinematographer John Biggins. And that final shot at the end was, uhm, sort of beautiful. ‘Primal’ is a voracious horror outing well worth discovering for both young horrorhounds and (perhaps slightly less demanding) seasoned thrillwatchers.
Trailer on YouTube.