The fondest wish of some film fans is to get back to the garish, unpredictable days of the grindhouse.  If you’re trying to be a working genre filmmaker today, it can also be a pretty smart move to pitch your project in that direction.  There’s a built-in audience for that kind of nostalgia and the fact that low budgets and offbeat subject carnp-blumatter are seen as strengths in this arena make it even better for the cost-conscious director.

Carnage Park aims itself squarely at that grindhouse audience from the jump. Vivian (Ashley Bell) is a farmer’s daughter who has the misfortune of going to the bank on the day it is robbed by self-styled white trash outlaw Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert).  He takes her as a hostage and races into the desert to dodge the cops.  He didn’t count on the desert hills being home to a Vietnam vet sniper named Wyatt (Pat Healy).  He uses his gun to strand them in the desert… and that’s where things shift from dirtball crime flick to survival horror as the extent of Wyatt’s mental illness and penchant for torture/murder is revealed.

If this sounds familiar, rest assured it is.  The script by director Mickey Keating takes a lot of cues from Tarantino circa Reservoir Dogs in its first half-hour, complete with cut-up structure, a plot-dominating robbery that happens off-camera, pulpy tough-guy dialogue and bits of music video montage set to a “mixtape of obscurities” soundtrack.  The remainder of the film shifts gears to horror (shades of From Dusk Till Dawn) and it specifically goes for Tobe Hooper-style survival horror, complete with a corrupt sheriff/brother (Alan Ruck) for the villain who ignores his brothers hijinks and a finale that splits the difference between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and My Bloody Valentine.

The resulting style-tribute potboiler isn’t bad, it’s just overly familiar.  It’s a little too eager to wear its influences on its sleeve and play at other director’s styles rather than reworking those elements and stylistic cues into its own personalized hybrid.

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To his credit, Keating gets better performances and visuals than usual for a nuevo-grindhouse flick: Healy makes a solid psycho, continuing his string of offbeat roles in modern genre fare, and horror vet Ashley Bell brings a visceral intensity to her character’s descent into hell.  Ruck is also compelling though he isn’t given much to work with.  Hebert plays the usual sleazeball crook but that’s not a knock on his work: it’s more a reflection of the thin writing and clichéd characterizations here.  Elsewhere, indie horror fans should look out for a suitably grizzled cameo from actor/director Larry Fessenden.

As a director, Keating seems to be having fun digging into the gritty style his material demands.  That said, he seems to fall into a lot of stock directorial choices here: for example, when the crooks approach the bank it’s in stylized slo-mo to an obscure rock song backing.  The film also falters a bit during the finale, with a dimly-lit climax that pushes minimalism to annoying heights and a oh-so-predictable coda.

In short, Carnage Park is a mixed bag. You might say this is the kind of movie that Rob Zombie wishes he could make, a gritty and retro-minded venture where the dialogue isn’t embarrassing and the directorial technique is more self-assured.  The only problem is Keating doesn’t seem interested in adding himself into the mix or trying to build upon the influences he’s exploring here.  Rob Zombie’s movies may be awful but they all bear his stamp while Carnage Park is curiously anonymous.

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Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory picked this IFC Midnight title up and issued it on blu-ray and DVD.  The blu-ray sports a nice transfer that offers a good representation of how the film manipulates digital visuals to approximate a ’70s-style celluloid grittiness.  Lossless 5.1 and 2.0 stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 is recommended as it is well-crafted and makes good use of surround speakers for depth.  The only extra is a trailer.