Welcome to Carnage Park

Director Mickey Keating's SXSW shocker reaches VOD

Into the wild: Ashley Bell faces hell in the desert in Mickey Keating's SXSW Midnighter Carnage Park, now on VOD. (Image courtesy of IFC Midnight)

Director Mickey Keating knew his thrill-kill shocker Carnage Park had to be set and shot in the California desert, but that required remoteness came at a cost. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Keating. “We went out to Palm Springs, I thought no one would ever hear from me again."

The film, which screened at SXSW and reaches VOD today, is Keating’s homage to Seventies wilderness psycho-horror and slashers. He originally intended it as a follow-up to his 2013 debut Ritual, when he envisioned it as a much lower budget endeavor. However, after a trip to the East Coast, and the double punch critical success of Pod and Darling, his high-tension period piece of a woman trapped in the crosshairs of a maniac’s rifle came back. He said, “The Seventies were the heyday of California, and I wanted to make a love letter to that.”

He admitted that the period added cost, but it also opened up an important narrative strand, placing the action deep in the heart of the Vietnam War era. He said, “That was the time period when soldiers were coming back, and they wandered out and never got the help they needed.”

An obsessive film historian by habit, Keating was also deeply influenced by the movies of the era. So what’s his favorite Seventies shocker? He said, “The more I think about it, the more I say Deliverance.” Calling John Boorman’s white-water terror “terrible and disturbing,” he added, “There’s something that resonates about that film.” Then there's manhunt actioneer The Most Dangerous Game, most famously adapted by Ozploitation master Brian Trenchard-Smith as Turkey Shoot. When he watched it, his take was simple: “It’s fine and great, but it would be better with an Ashley Bell-type character.”

He saw Carnage Park as an heir to the grand tradition of “female leads who are up against deranged lunatics.” When he started casting Vivian, the kidnap victim who becomes a moving target, he wasn’t looking for an Ashley Bell type – he wanted Ashley Bell herself. Keating said, “I had watched The Last Exorcism, and I was such a fan of what she brought. When I went to cast, her name was the only one I thought would be perfect for the role. … When she came on board, she’s one of those actors that has had such a level of success but is so professional.”

Architect of a bloodbath: Pat Healy as sunbleached assassin Wyatt Moss in Carnage Park. (Image courtesy of IFC Midnight)

For his mad sniper, Wyatt Moss, Keating turned to Pat Healy (The Innkeepers, Cheap Thrills). In turn, Healy handed him a copy of Welcome Home, Soldier Boys. Keating said he sat down to watch the 1971 drama, with Joe Don Baker heading up a team of Green Berets on a killing spree, dozens of times before shooting. When they finally got to set, he said, “I didn’t even need to direct him. We were just on the same page.”

As for Alan Ruck, who plays the sheriff with a heartbreaking secret, “he got his hands on the script a year and a half before I even got financing for the movie.” It was a mutual acquaintance, Ritual actor Brian Lally, that put the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off star on his wishlist. “He said, ‘This guy would be perfect.' One day, I’m with my brother, and I get this call, and I don’t recognize the number, and I get this message, ‘Oh, hey, this is Alan Ruck.’”

Getting in the sheriff’s head took a different approach than marathoning an incisive movie. Keating said, “We just drove around for half a day, and I was just asking questions and getting to the core of his character. What I find so great about Alan Ruck is that he could play that intimidating, shit-kicker kind of sheriff, but when he’s in the car, going totally neurotic, that’s just him at his core.”

Getting the cast to set was one thing. Dealing with the scouring vicissitudes of the Golden State’s arid back country, that was a whole different bucket of blood. There was the day that the whole craft table was covered with bees (no fun when one of your cast is horribly allergic). Then there was the day he was trying to get all the squib shots. Due to the dry weather, the production had to have a fire marshal around, and on a tight budget there was a narrow window with pyro and cast and marshal in place. Of course, Keating said, “The skies just opened up, and it started pouring rain. Then right around lunchtime, it cleared up and we could get the squib shots.”

With Carnage Park, his third release in under two years, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Keating would take some time off. Fat chance. “I can’t wait to show you Psychopaths,” he said, “it’s my first toe dip into ensemble narratives.” (Ever the student of the form, he’s immersed himself in Patrick McGillingan's biography of the master of the ensemble, Robert Altman: Jumping off the Cliff). He described his next project as “a fever dream, more like Darling, in a way. Carnage Park is more point A to point B, and Psychopaths is more about balancing the characters.”

Carnage Park (IFC Midnight) is out today on VOD. Read our SXSW review here.

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