The Barge People is the latest effort from director Charlie Steed, who has been carving out a genre career with rapid fire riffs on established horror conventions. From the first frame, the film is clearly inspired by the ’70s splatter of the Craven, Carpenter and Hooper varietals. The opening credits are in a rounded retro font, a synth heavy score pounding away on the soundtrack. Cribbing directly from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie opens with the steady click of a manual camera. A series of text cards explains a rash of mysterious deaths and disappearances plaguing otherwise bucolic British canals.
Expectations duly set, cut to Kat (Kate Davies-Speak) and Sophie (Natalie Martins) a pair of sisters who need a getaway after the loss of their mother. Along with Kat’s boyfriend Mark (Mark McKirdy) and Sophie’s new partner Ben (Matt Swales), they rent a luxury barge for a weekend getaway on the water. In the hopes that a change of scenery can help leave some of the stresses of recent events and urban life behind, they set off to find some comfort in the simple pleasures of friends, fishing and plentiful supplies of alcohol.
While all four actors are quite game with what the script hands them, the characters are all stock types. Sophie the innocent, Ben the obnoxious city slicker, Mark the nice guy, and Kat as the stoic yet plucky final girl. The Barge People has a concise 83 minute runtime, and use of familiar archetypes to fill in the gaps without a ton of exposition seems to be a game attempt to make virtue out of necessity.
The Barge People‘s first half is pleasantly self aware that it is traveling a well worn path, and does toss in a few gentle subversions of expectations. Tense stinger cues ratchet up on the soundtrack as Mark navigates the barge under a narrow bridge, the water rising past the windows, but the group makes it through safely. The boys go fishing, but the idyll is interrupted by a local conservationist that cheerfully informs them that nothing much lives in it due to industrial runoff, spoiling Mark’s speeches about unspoiled nature and the simple life.
The inevitable conflict comes with Ben reluctantly taking over steering from Mark, only to crash the barge into a houseboat owned by a family of very angry locals. True to type, he refuses to apologize and the group heads to shore for a stop at a remote pub. Unsurprisingly, the same family Ben had been so quick to dismiss as powerless hillbillies catches up with them, and the conflict is only deescalated by a gun toting barmaid who’d rather not have fights in her establishment. Waiting until the group drunkenly stumbles back into their vessel, the local family breaks in for some theft and a spot of murderous revenge.
The home invasion is promptly interrupted by the arrival of mutant fish men with a taste for human flesh, putting the vacationers and the country folks on the same side as they all fight for their lives against ravenous mutant cannibals. The arrival of the cannibals is The Barge People‘s best sequence, with cheerfully cheap (but effective enough) practical FX and a jump-cut filled splattery bath of both human blood and various swamp colored frogman bodily fluids. It’s all a bit mindless and silly, but the creature design is effective for the budget, and the fast paced mayhem is a satisfying contrast to the mostly placid trip downriver. To underline the point, there is a winking long-shot visual pun of the cutesy “Bath” sign in the luxury barge’s restroom, covered in the platelets of one of the first victims to be eaten.
Had The Barge People continued in that lightweight, somewhat self-aware vein, it would have been better off. The third act takes an abrupt swerve into the more serious thematic territory of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, attempting to tackle the bigger questions of the nature of family and shared grief. Kat and the local woman, who we only now learn is named Jade (Makenna Guyler) are the only ones who escaped the initial onslaught of the mutants, and now must band together to save themselves, and attempt to rescue the badly injured Mark.
Given that we never get to know any of the characters all that well, their dramatic monologues lack the emotional heft the film was hoping for. Even the family of amphibious canal monsters get some pontificating on their hunger and the fact that no one is above the savage nature of the food chain, not even humans. Unfortunately, this also makes very clear the limitations of the effects work, as what was gooey and effective in short doses becomes painfully fake in close ups, with the actors’ eye sockets showing from beneath and the mouths not moving with the dialog.
While The Barge People is not without its charms for hardcore fans of slashers or the gorier corners of rural horror, the monstrous mutant creatures in the depths hold far more interest than the group of friends floating along on the surface. I commend the director for making the setting of the UK’s canals feel as expansive and potentially nightmare filled as America’s vast swaths of wide open spaces. It’s a shame that the final act focus on the characters above the water are what take the film out of its depth.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Charlie Steeds
Writer(s): Christopher Lombard
Stars: Kate Davies-Speak, Natalie Martins, Mark McKirdy, Matt Swales, Makenna Guyler
Release date: August 18, 2020 (DVD/Blu Ray/VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Dark Temple Motion Pictures, Raven Banner Entertainment
Run Time: 83 minutes