I can hardly think of a better recipe for disaster than hauling a bunch of young offenders out of their government-sanctioned concrete dormitory and dumping them in the wilds of a remote and uninhabited island, but it appears that adding a cold, calculating killer and a pack of vicious dogs adds some delicious icing to the cake.
Wilderness is a touted as a horror film, but that broad banner doesn’t really do it full justice. It’s an obviously British film, a character study, an ensemble piece, an effective observation of societal decline and the problems of an increasingly disaffected and marginalised youth, and a slasher movie rolled into a satisfyingly meaty whole by Michael J Bassett (Deathwatch).
Moorgate Youth Custody Centre is the kind of state-sponsored hole into which the worst young offenders are thrown, either to straighten them out with a sharp dose of harsh living or to lock them away where they can’t offend the rest of polite society. Dormitory H. houses a mixed group of drug dealers, sex offenders, armed robbers, and violent sociopaths, all under the watchful eye of head warder Jed (Sean Pertwee).
Steve (Steven Wight) is the top dog, a violent and remorseless bully whose position is firmly cemented by his hulking back-up in the form of Lewis (Luke Neal). He delights in making life miserable for the two weakest members of the group, the cowering Davie (John Travers) and Lindsay (Ben McKay) whilst throwing racist jibes at Jethro (Richie Campbell). Jethro and Blue (Adam Deacon) are simultaneously powerless to rein in Steve’s relentless bullying and unwilling to get involved, but matters come to a head shortly after the arrival of Callum (Toby Kebbell), a quiet but explosively violent inmate transferred in from another institution. After getting up for a night time trip to the loo, Callum falls face first into a pool of blood from Davie’s slashed wrist. After a visit from Davie’s grieving father, the governor orders Jed to take the boys to “the Island” to face up to the harsh reality of their situation.
For a bunch of lads more used to concrete and KFC, the raw woodland environment of the island might as well be an alien planet. The idea of sleeping in tents and getting water from the river is greeted with derision, but things take an unexpected turn when Callum is knocked out by an unknown assailant while on his way back to the camp with water. Jed and the boys then set out to scour the island for signs of Callum’s assailant and promptly come across two girls from another institution and their warder Louise (Alex Reid), a no-nonsense ex-army sergeant who assumes that one of the lads must be the stalker that they have been trying to catch sight of.
Deciding that two groups of troubled teens and the inevitable heady hormonal stew wouldn’t be the best of ideas, Jed and Louise agree to keep to their own halves of the island – but can a group of lads from a borstal really resist the lure of the ladies?
Back on the boys’ side of the river, Jed pairs them up and sends them out with maps to explore the island. Steve and Lewis are sent in search of an old monastery where they find a disheveled bearded man who they assume to be both the stalker and Callum’s attacker, and he couldn’t really be a match for two lads in their prime…
When Callum discovers the mans blood-soaked corpse, he is spotted by Jo (Karly Greene) and Mandy (Lenora Crichlow) who assume the worst and promptly fetch Jed and Louise to catch and handcuff Callum, despite his protestations of innocence and Louise’s unease over the cause of the horrendous gory wounds to the old man’s throat. Deciding that the bloody turn of events warrants a return to the mainland both Jed and Louise are shocked to find that their mobiles have gone missing and that they are cut off on the island. Drawing some small solace from the fact that the apparent killer is safely caught and cuffed, they decide to settle in and await the boats that are due to come for them.
The uneasy calm is shattered, however, when one of the lads goes missing while collecting water, with only his severed arm left to be found by Blue and Lindsay when they are sent out to find him. It seems that someone really is out there, and it isn’t Callum.
Things start devolving to chaos in fairly short order, with Jed slowly losing his hold over his panicked charges and Louise trying to pull it all together with her military training until the camp falls under brutal attack from an unknown crossbowman and a pack of ravenous dogs.
And that’s where Wilderness turns into a really good survival horror flick – an ill-matched group of recidivists-in-training versus a well armed and camouflaged nutter and a pack of vicious dogs across unfamiliar terrain with little hope of escape. Marvelous!
I won’t throw in much more detail as it gets firmly into spoiler territory from here on in, but we get to watch as the group steadily falls apart and turns inward on itself whilst simultaneously trying to evade a madman in a ghillie suit and escape the island, all held together by believable performances and real world dialogue delivered by an excellent young cast.
Sean Pertwee is on familiar ground given his role in Dog Soldiers, and he seems to have found a niche for himself in playing slightly jaded and world-weary characters and delivering snappy, authentic British dialogue. His considered performance here is a good measure of the balance that this film achieves – he could easily chew the scenery and eclipse the younger and less experienced cast, but this is essentially an ensemble piece and every member of the cast provides a believable and rounded performance.
But what of the blood and guts, I hear you ask? Can it really be much of a horror film with a 15 certificate? Well, suffice to say that I’m surprised it was a 15. I would have expected an 18 given the predominantly frank and brutal depiction of the violence in this film, but perhaps that is tempered by the fact that the victims are almost all explicitly violent in their own character.
Although the viewer develops a certain sympathy for some characters and a predictable antipathy towards others (most notably the loathsome and sociopathic Steve), you are ultimately rooting for people who have clearly stepped outside of societal mores in order to secure their place in a Young Offenders Institution in the first place.
Although good use is made of off-camera violence and the subsequent assumption and imagination on the part of the audience, we do still see people being torn apart and eviscerated by dogs and meeting grisly ends courtesy of man traps, fire, and various sharpened implements with some excellent first-person perspectives inter-cut into the close-up camerawork.
The special effects in Wilderness are mostly old-school blood and gore stuff, and all the better for it – there’s no wire work here and scarce little CGI so it all feels very grounded and realistic, with crossbow bolts slamming home and flesh yielding to tooth and claw under the onslaught of the dogs. For once the effects really do service the plot and pace of the film rather than dazzling and distracting with their technical accomplishment – if only the Hollywood studio bigwigs could re-acquaint themselves with this concept then we might see some bigger budget fare that doesn’t drown in its own window-dressing.
Some people might draw parallels between this frank British offering and the visceral quality of Japanese films like Battle Royale, and I think that It may be a reasonably fair comparison although my own frame of reference naturally inclines me more towards the cultural relevance of Wilderness and Dario Poloni’s naturalistic dialogue. The only thing that let it down for me were the final few frames, as I thought that the ending lacked the strength and polish shown by the rest of the movie, but over all I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s not afraid of seeing a drop or two of “claret”.
Dir. Michael J Bassett
Stars: Sean Pertwee, Alex Reid, Toby Kebbell, Lenora Cricklow, Stephen Wight, Ben McKay