Written by: Evan Randall Green
Directed by: Nick Robertson
Starring: Anna Lise Phillips, Katie Moore, and Jack Campbell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
No bark. All bite.
It probably seems like Iím joking whenever I say the central theme of Ozploitation horror is ďstay the fuck out of Australia,Ē but itís actually not a far cry from the truth. Rarely will they feature a flattering portrayal of the Outback, which is transformed into an incongruently gorgeous but ominous hellscape teeming with psychos and crazed wildlife. I mean, if The Pack is to be believed, even the dogs can be savage, bloodthirsty beasts just waiting to tear you apart. Do you know what kind of monster you have to be to twist dogs into nightmare creatures who roam about the Outback countryside, randomly attacking human targets?
Thatís the premise of The Pack, a lean throat-ripper of a creature feature that strands the audience way out Down Under, where cell phone reception is impossible and your nearest neighbor might be miles away. For the Wilsonsóa family of fouróthis is home: a big, imposing stretch of ranch land where theyíve attempted to eke out a living through sheep ranching and a veterinarian service. Itís not going particularly well, either, as the bills have piled up, so much so that the bank has sent its representatives out to make a hard line deal: either the Wilsons sell off the land and start over somewhere else, or they stay and face foreclosure. Determined to keep his land and way of life, patriarch Adam (Jack Campbell) refuses the offer but soon finds his home besieged by another monster in the form of a pack of wild dogs.
Plots rarely come more lean than they do here: thereís even a brief title card that basically clues you in on the fact that, yeah, this is just going to be a movie about a bunch of dogs just tearing up shit. Ominous shots of a rural hillside strewn with slaughtered sheep further set the mood before yielding to the brief familial drama that sets the stakes. Once the bank representative leaves the house, however, The Pack is a rather single-minded, (ahem) dogged affair that thrives on both suspense and bloodshed. Itís sort of like a siege or home invasion movie, only the attackers are a pack of asshole dogs. No explanation is provided: these arenít mutant experiments gone awry, nor have they been possessedótheyíre just an oversized pack of righteously pissed-off dogs, presumably so because theyíre Australian.
If anything, this premise may be a little too thin, at least when itís stretched across 90 minutes like it is here. Thereís a terrific energy to the early-going, particularly when the bank manager stumbles into the woods and encounters the pack, and their initial siege on the house is taut and tense. The pacing is somewhat reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead, right down to one of the family members attempting to hatch an escape plan via a vehicle that goes awry when the dogs catch on.
Somewhere around this point, however, the tension begins to deflate a bit during a stretch that finds the family creeping about their own house as the dogs attempt to force their way in. Trimming a bit here and there likely would have resulted in a tighter, more intense film; instead, the second act tends to sag just a bit, its immediacy somewhat punctured by one too many shots of the family and dogs milling about. At least it does recover quite nicely during its climax: director Nick Robertson does have a nice sense of spacing and geography that keeps the action coherent enough as the family mounts their final counter-attack.
For the most part, this is solid filmmaking, as Robertson has an acute sense of how to ground this premise into a reasonably threatening proposition: he and screenwriter Evan Randall Green provide just enough exposition to empathize with the family, and the performances are subtly terrific, allowing each character to have their own mini-arc: this is a family thatís already accustomed to one type of survival before being pressed into this bizarre situation. Katie Moore is a particular highlight as the Wilsonsí teenaged daughter, who seems like a typical, bratty kid who is understandably frustrated about being stuck on the farm when all of her friends have moved on. None of this seems to matter once her survival instincts kick in, and she matches her on-screen fatherís no-nonsense persona once sheís called on to kick some ass.
The film also takes its titular threat seriously. Most notably, the dogs are actual trained animals rather than CGI or even practical animatronics, an impressive (if not harrowing) feat that results in a palpable sense of danger. These are ferocious animals sharing the frame with their human co-stars, and if there are any digital embellishments, theyíre only captured in long, wide shots. Make no mistake: this isn't one of those nature-run-amok goof-offs but rather a sincere attempt at crafting an intense, deadly serious killer dog film.
Itís clear that The Pack is especially concerned with highlighting the eerie, backwoods atmosphere more than it is with spilling an absurd amount of blood. Visceral carnage is peppered throughout whenever the film is needs a punch, though it often punctuates frenzied, frenetic scenes where Robertsonís camerawork is a too tightly framed and chaotic. I suppose itís a necessary evil when dealing with actual dogs, so itís hard to be too critical in this respect, especially since Robertson provides some gory payoffs. Otherwise, Robertson has an obvious knack for framing and coaxing evocative imagery. Some of the filmís more effective moments are quiet, moody shots of the surrounding nature: occasionally, the dogsí menacing eyes glow ominously as their howls swirl about in the distance.
Sometimes, itís nice to be reminded that there are some folks out there taking this kind of movie seriously. The Pack is not out to reinvent the killer animal wheel, perhaps because said wheel has been sort of grinded down to mush lately. If anything, itís just trying to get the wheel rolling again with a stable foundation; this no-frills, solidly-crafted filmmaking that puts its head down and just goes to work. Seething with just enough of that signature Aussie mean streak, The Pack takes a chunk of flesh and lands Robertson on the radar as a filmmaker to watch.
The Pack is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory & IFC Midnight. A ten-minute making-of featurette and a trailer are included as extras.
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