Review first published by EyeforFilm
As Franklin Guerrero Jr’s low-budget, straight-to-video Carver opens, we watch a terrified woman, tied up in a shed, begging a large, goggled man not to kill her as he holds her from behind and casually saws her head off, all to the accompaniment of an absurdly out-of-place hillbilly banjo traditional (“turkey in the straw – hee hee haw”) that the killer has playing on an old grammophone.
Torture porn, you say? Well, while that may be an expression that has recently come to be applied loosely to any horror film featuring egregious amounts of psychological or physical torment, in this case it is dead-on. For not only does this murderer enjoy meting out horrific bodily mutilations on his victims, but he is also recording the kills on 8mm filmreels, presumably for his later viewing pleasure. One of the reels even bears the porn-friendly title: The Dark Side Of Love.
In other words, like The Last House On Dead End Street (1977), Benny’s Video (1992), Mute Witness (1994), Strange Days (1995), Tesis (1996), 8MM (1999), Demonlover (2002) and Vacancy (2007) before it, Carver resurrects the myth of the snuff movie, simultaneously unsettling and titillating viewers with the possibility that its own content, though packaged as mindless genre entertainment, might be rooted in grimmer realities – and indeed that those realities represent an inherent part of the entertainment. “Based on actual events”, the caption at the beginning of Carver reads – and while, of course, Carver is no more inspired by truth than the Coen brothers’ similarly self-authenticating Fargo (1996), the very fact that it could be, in an age where all manner of human depravity is readily available over the internet, is what makes Carver such an uneasy viewing experience. This is an exploitation movie that exploits exploitation movies.
These motifs are dramatised within the film itself. Four co-eds from the city – Pete (Matt Carmody), his brother Bryan (Neil Kubath), Zack (Jonathan Rockett) and Rachel (Kristyn Green) – go a-camping at backwoods Halcyon Ridge – a place that has become “a campers’ ghost town” owing to past events that are merely hinted at rather than ever specified.
If this set-up sounds like pure cliché, conjuring the haunted spirits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Friday The 13th, Sleepaway Camp and countless other survival slashers, the effect seems entirely intended, reassuring us with the familiar comforts of genre. When local bar-and-hotel owner Billy Hall Carver (David G Holland) informs the quartet, “We don’t get many outsiders round these parts these days, not any more” (using those actual words – and they are words that a policeman will repeat almost verbatim a few moments later), he is singing an old (if much-loved) song from the horror hymn sheet. This is cliché so clichéd that it drifts into knowing pastiche. Even Billy Hall’s surname Carver, shared by his big brother Bobby Shaw (Erik Fones), is an overt genre joke.
So the quartet is clearly doomed from the start to fall victim to the filmic conventions of the slasher – but not before they, and a fifth camper (Ursula Taherian) that they have just met, have formally offered us a range of responses to the very genre in which they have unwittingly become trapped. Promised free beer in exchange for cleaning out Billy Hall’s shed near the campsite, the five find the hidden murder filmreels. First imagining that they have discovered “antique porn”, Zack realises from the titles that “these are like slasher movies”, and the five settle down to watch them on an old projector.
Rachel and Zack just laugh at the low production values and cheer on the gratuitous “tits ‘n’ ass”, Pete cannot understand “how people watch those things” (adding “I think I’ll stick with romantic comedies”), while the ever-nervous Bryan senses, “something’s not right about those movies”.
Kate’s response is the most sophisticated. “Here’s a way to confront deep-seated fears in a fun recreational way”, she says in defense of the whole horror genre – and the fact that she has prefaced her comments with the words “I love scary movies”, a quote lifted straight out of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), gives the whole game away: this is no ordinary torture porn, no ordinary slasher, but a far more self-conscious, postmodern take on horror and its peculiar viewing pleasures. When Kate is heard wondering aloud “why I keep coming back here”, before concluding, “There’s just something about this place”, in a sense she is articulating why a subgenre so bludgeoningly repetitive can still have its attractions.
And, boy, does this film bludgeon. For mixed in with all the genre-savvy clever-cleverness are some prolonged and punishing murder set pieces – and in a genre often criticised for reserving the greatest sexual sadism for its female victims, it is refreshing (if that is the word) that Carver‘s most unflinchingly graphic genital torment is directed at a male character. In a lifetime of hardcore horror viewing, I cannot recall ever having seen anything quite like the unpleasantly memorable ‘outhouse scene’, which will have men squirming in their seats and avoiding isolated toilets for life.
Well written, viscerally gruelling, playfully self-aware and unapologetically bleak all at once, Carver has something to offer to horror fans of all kinds, be they vicarious thrill-seekers, self-loathing intellectuals, sadomasochistic voyeurs or drooling gorehounds. Anyone else, however, would probably do well to avoid. We don’t, you see, get many strangers around these parts…