Primal (2010)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/28/11 16:15:48

"College students get picked off without even a cabin to hide in."
3 stars (Average)

I suspect that the script for "Primal" was, even more than most horror movies, dictated by resources - they could get this location for filming, a little bit of simple CGI, a reasonably straightforward make-up job for every shooting day but a few more impressive gore effects on occasion, and a director with an animation background. It feels that way, at least - like filmmaker Josh Reed saw what he could make a movie with, connected the dots as best he could, and figured that enthusiasm is more important than coherence in this sort of movie, anyway.

So we start with three pairs of kids in their twenties. Dace (Wil Traval) is an anthropology grad student driving the van to see some cave paintings that an ancestor of his girlfriend Kris (Rebekah Foord) described 120 years ago. Along for the ride are Mel (Krew Boylan) and her boyfriend Chad (Lindsay Farris), who as expected are making their tent shake within minutes of pitching it; Anja (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith), nervous and claustrophobic after an ugly incident with her old boyfriend; and Warren (Damien Freeleagus), a friend whom one suspects would rather like to be more, but recognizes that now is not the time. Aside from finding a rabbit with huge, sharp teeth, things are going swimmingly - that is, until Mel goes skinny-dipping in a nearby pond. Even though the leeches are pulled off quickly, she starts running a fever, losing teeth, and regressing to a more primitive - and violent - state.

As groups of college students about to get chewed up and spat out by ancient evils go, it's a pretty good group. Not perfect - Chad is more or less "Mel's boyfriend" and Kris is "Dace's girlfriend/Anja's friend", although to the credit of Reed, Farris, and Foord, they do manage to make themselves more than filler with which to increase the body count. The other characters are not particularly deep, granted, but they're familiar-enough figures that are likable enough - or, in the case of Wil Traval's Dace, thorough-enough pricks - to keep the audience amused before things go screwy and afterward. Special credit to Krew Boylan, who takes what is basically the bimbo of the group and makes us like her just enough that the audience doesn't slip into "that thing's not Mel anymore!" mode right away.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that the movie heads in that direction, and Boylan seems to have a lot of fun with her physical performance along the way - she's going feral, which means lots of jumping around, grunting, cowering from fire, and mutilating bodies with gusto. Reed and his cast (and the stunt crew) dive into the action with gusto, bashing each other with sticks without a whole lot of preamble, giving us fights that look a bit fake but not that far off from what athletic, adrenalized twenty-somethings can do. The blood flows and the guts spill, and while the CGI is undeniably a bit bargain-basement, the stop-motion bits are good. Reed can set up a good set-piece - a bit where a character desperately searches the inside of their van for a weapon before another gets in is a nifty example.

Things like that are just impressive enough to put up with Reed's writing (producer Nigel Christensen also gets a story credit), which is a bit of a mess. As much as it's realistic and a bit refreshing to not have a character shoehorned in to give us the details on what's going on, what Reed creates falls a bit short of feeling like an viable evil ecosystem, even if the audience is able to connect the dots reasonably well. Characters seem to make very quick about-faces about how to deal with their friends at one point, and the finale is three "see, she said X at the start of the first film, so now we're going to turn it around on her" bits in a row, and the move hasn't been quite suspenseful enough for that to feel like a clever payoff.

Despite that, "Primal" is pretty fair blood & guts horror. Elements are rough and unpolished, but the enthusiastic cast and director at least make it memorable in a good way, unlike so many wilderness survival horrors that are either indifferent or inept.

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