“It’s not about revenge. It’s about punishment.”
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Cast: Sean Pertwee, Alex Reid, Toby Kebbell
Synopsis: Juvenile delinquents get sent to a small British island after a fellow prisoners death, where they have to fight for survival.
I’m not sure even the British prison service would allow one of their officers to organise a team-building jaunt to a remote uninhabited island with half a dozen of his most unruly youth offenders without a complement of at least two officers for each prisoner, but that’s what happens in Michael J. Bassett’s tense horror-thriller Wilderness.
A lengthy pre-titles prologue explains how such a turn of events comes to be, introducing us to the young offenders who will eventually find themselves at the mercy of an unseen predator intent on killing them all. The prison in which they are interred is a suitably grim place; graffiti adorn the walls of their dorm, and you can’t help thinking that a prison that allows its inmates to deface its walls with impunity is just asking for trouble. And along it comes when a young lad, one of two wretched kids who all but have the word ‘victim’ imprinted on their foreheads, decides that suicide is a preferable alternative to the sustained campaign of bullying he suffers. The bullies are led by Steve (Stephen Wight), one of those crew-cut thugs of unwavering fairness, treating all who cross his path with violent contempt, and his lap-dog sidekick, Lewis (Luke Neal), who unhesitatingly carries out whatever act of oppression Steve hands to him. Others unlucky enough to share a dorm with these two charmers are Blue (Adam Deacon) and Jethro (Richie Campbell – Sket), two friends who, while not immune to the abuses of Steve’s spiteful regime, are at least spared the constant abuse suffered by Lindsay (Ben McKay). New boy Callum (Toby Kebbell), the only one of the inmates to be given even the sketchiest of back stories, shows enough anger and self-preservation know-how to also be spared the worst of Steve’s treatment.
The tormented Dave (John Travers) slits his wrist in his bed while the others sleep, and the prison warden is so outraged by the fact that he instructs head screw Jed (Sean Pertwee — The 51st State, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) to get them to the island, some remote isle off the English coastline formerly owned by the army for training purposes, but which has now been acquired by the prison service. Quite what the service believes an enforced stay on the island will do for these boys is never really clear, but before long they’re trekking through the island’s wilderness under the supervision of Jed alone. It’s not long before they begin to suspect they’re not alone, but the discovery of two female prisoners, Jo (Karly Greene) and Mandy (Lenora Crichlow) under the supervision of Louise (Alex Reid) only temporarily allays their suspicions. Their uneasiness is crystallised when Jed unexpectedly finds himself being used as target practice by an unseen archer…
Wilderness provides an unexpectedly successful diversion from the usual template for this kind of movie. For a start, the teens in peril here aren’t a likable bunch of good-looking, sex mad kids, but a much more realistic cross-section of disaffected youth, kids inbred with an innate sense of self-preservation which not only means they might have half a chance of turning the tables on their tormentor, but also that they’re just as likely to turn on one another — which they inevitably do as their numbers start to dwindle and the likelihood of getting off the island alive grows increasingly remote.
Although most of the characters in Wilderness are given little or no back-story — Jed briefly refers to his charges’ back-catalogue of crimes without indicating which crime (murder, rape, drug-dealing, etc) applies to each kid — as the tension is ramped up it becomes increasingly clear that their backgrounds aren’t really that important. The nature of their characters becomes apparent in the way they respond to the carnage around them so that, rather than simply making up the numbers while they await their gory fate, each of them either undergoes some kind of psychological change or allows their true nature to come to the fore as the stakes grow increasingly higher. By doing this, writer Dario Poloni succeeds in ramping up the tension with each successive killing, and also manages to provide an unexpected twist.
Paradoxically, the fact that Wilderness also refrains from resorting to the supernatural to deliver its horrors and plumps instead for a very human antagonist, proves to be both a strength and a weakness. The fact that the identity of their stalker, his motive and his abilities, become apparent to his prey fairly early on in proceedings, and the way he remains invisible while carrying out the killings, proves to be a much more potent weapon in Poloni’s armoury than relying on the usual supernatural demons or invincible killers. However, once the killer does eventually reveal himself his ability to instil fear in both the audience and his remaining quarry immediately evaporates, and the manner in which he’s defeated is something of an anti-climax.
That doesn’t stop Wilderness from being an unexpectedly suspenseful and gripping horror-thriller, one which distinguishes itself by having the dwindling band of besieged victims endeavouring to protect themselves not only from their stalker but also one another.