The Barge People (2019)

“In the past 10 years, over 150 people have been reported missing on the Kennet & Avon Canal…”, states po-faced text at the beginning of director/producer/editor Charlie Steeds’ The Barge People, over black-and-white shots of the area and stills of corpses, all accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned camera flash. This opening claim to veridicality, coupled with that distinctive sound, evokes the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s classic of clan cannibalism, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Indeed, the all-American anthropophagy of TCSM and Offspring (2009), hybridised with the mutant monstrousness of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Wrong Turn (2003), are here transplanted to an altogether cosier riverside English idyll – and if the fit of materials to location never quite seems perfect, then that mismatch translates into the film’s knowing sense of absurdity about its own inherited horror tropes. 

This starts with the acting, whose broadness, especially from the cast members playing unlikable characters, seems part of the film’s knowing naffness and refusal to take itself too seriously. Then there is the way a conspicuously ominous synth tone plays out as sisters Kat (Kate Davies-Speak) and Sophie (Natalie Martins) and their respective boyfriends Mark (Mark McKirdy) and Ben (Matt Swales) enter a lock in their hired barge – a lock where literally nothing out of the ordinary happens. Or the handheld POV shot, well established as the signifier of an imminent slashing, that goes nowhere. And there are the cameos by such time-honoured genre stereotypes as the Old Man Who Gives A Sinister Warning™ (Barrington De La Roche) and the Tutting Pub Landlady™ (Emma Spurgin Hussey), there to lend the proceedings a self-aware quality. 

Even as our four city slickers have a genre-inevitable run-in with some unfriendly types (Makenna Guyler, Kane Surry) who are set on causing trouble and doing violence, we know – because we have seen them from the outset – that there are other, even unfriendlier locals circling to refill their pot with fresh meat, or even better to eat it raw like sashimi off their still-living victims. Whether as a result of contamination by cyanobacteria in the water, or of toxic biochemical waste dumping, or just of inbreeding (all three explanations are offered by the film), the mutations in this family of flesh-hungry amphibians mark them out, at least in their younger generations, as cheesy movie monsters. They even talk in a Pinhead-like portentous basso.

Christopher Lombard’s screenplay gets a bit lost in unnecessary backstories about shared grief – too serious a theme for so otherwise silly a film –  but its real strength is a preoccupation with class conflict that makes otherwise American materials seem right at home in their new English setting. For if Ben – an archetypal City suit glued to his smartphone and arrogant towards everyone – represents one end of the social spectrum, while the itinerant barge-dwellers that the four encounter represent the proletarian poor, then the cannibals are the outcast underclass, terrifying to everyone else in their endless hunger, their savagely waged class war against all comers, and their ruthlessly perverted pursuit of dog-eat-dog consumerist principles. In a motif borrowed from Wes Craven, all three of the film’s families offer a distorted reflection of each other. But it would perhaps be a mistake to dwell on any subtext in a film that is for the most part just a cheap, gory romp without too much flesh on the bone. Meanwhile Sam Benjafield’s synth score provides the perfect seasoning.

© Anton Bitel