Eden Lake bears more in common with drama than horror, refusing to lean fully into stereotypes of the latter genre. James Watkins’s film is relatively sparse in cast and locations, taking place in the English countryside where preschool teacher Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and her boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender) plan to vacation by the lakeside. When their attempts at rest and relaxation are interrupted by loud kids (the oldest looks maybe old enough to be a teenager), petty theft and pride set off a series of harrowing events that result in the couple being hunted by the kids. The adolescents’ fear of being caught results in escalating violence where their only ‘good’ outcome is one where they kill Jenny and Steve. When some of the kids show apprehension or wish to distance themselves from the others’ actions, they too are placed in mortal peril.
What distinguishes Eden Lake from many horror films is its depiction of violence. More than just a cinematic tool to make a scene dramatic or showy, violence in Eden Lake is jarring because it is committed with the intent of inflicting pain- rather than outright murder- and as a rite of passage for the kids. Eden Lake is a difficult film to watch- there’s no act of violence that one can vicariously enjoy seeing as one does within the context of other horror films. Despite its 90 minute runtime, Eden Lake is languid for this very reason. The film can’t end soon enough.
Additionally, the film touches on a fear possibly latent within ourselves- that human nature, deep down, is evil and that it is naïve to think otherwise. The kids’ acts are committed mostly out of fear and petty cruelty, but there exists a greater evil than them revealed in the film’s closing scenes. And up until that point, the children- not supernatural manifestations of children, flesh-and-blood children who clearly know the difference between right and wrong- are the primary forces of evil that our protagonists face. Such grounded realism is relatively unusual for horror films.
At the time of its release, Eden Lake received criticism regarding its depiction of the working class. The film is one of a number of British horror films released in the late 2000’s related to the concept of “Broken Britain” and a fear of social decay amongst the United Kingdom’s youth. While the children in the film do come from working class families, this fact is not ridiculed or fetishized by Watkins. Rather, the closing shot of Eden Lake– a child putting on stolen Ray Ban aviators- convincingly expresses a subtext much different than a mockery of the working class.
Donning an accessory that evokes masculinity, we can consider Steve’s hubris in repeatedly confronting the children and in turn their tribalistic behavior in a different context. Rather than interpreting Eden Lake as a demeaning portrayal of the working class, we can see the film to be a criticism of values traditionally regarded as masculine or related to conformity. The fact that the sole girl in the gang is the only child not forced to participate in a violent ritual and that her mother is later held back from becoming involved in an act of violence only further support this idea.
Apart from how one interprets the film, ample praise should be awarded to the makeup artists behind Eden Lake. When Jenny resorts to hiding in a dumpster, her dirty clothing in the scenes following absolutely appear as if they were worn by someone who had just jumped into a dumpster. Through the makeup department’s work, we continuously see the physical toll that running through the thick of the forest takes on one’s clothing and skin, not to mention the blood mixed into the grime. Their efforts help Eden Lake gain a sense of believability and immerse us into the peril that Steve and Jenny face. And when the credits do finally roll, it takes a minute before we can distance ourselves from the film and re-enter our own lives.