Saturday, 31 March 2012

High Lane

The horror genre remains as popular as ever, but new concepts remain elusive. Truly original ideas seem to remain the preserve of Asian filmmakers – with western directors only too pleased to pounce upon and remake the best of what Japan and Korea have to offer. So the prospect of a French production filmed in picturesque Croatia offers a tantalising glimpse of something we haven’t yet seen.

High Lane tells the tale of five friends on a climbing trip with a difference. In the beautiful mountains of Croatia, they attempt to follow a trail which has already been hammered into the rocks – metal steps and rungs protrude from the sheer cliff faces and bridges are strung across the gullies and valleys. Danger is mitigated by the safety lines which follow the trail and from which the climbers can attach their harnesses.

Happy couple Fred and Karine are the experienced climbers leading their friends through the terrain. Loic and Chloé are less assured on the rock face – and face a challenge to their happiness from Chloé’s former love, Guillame, the fifth member of the party. With the trail closed for repairs, the quintet plough on regardless – with tensions rising between them, the path becoming increasingly dangerous and the threat of a mysterious figure stalking them through the mountains…

From the very outset, it’s apparent that High Lane offers little that hasn’t been seen before. With only five characters listed in the opening credits, it’s easy to start guessing which of the small cast might be bumped off first – and whether the villain might be an unlisted cameo, a la Kevin Spacey in Se7en. This feeling is only confirmed when the five characters are revealed – a typically predictable combination of brooding machismo, endearing geekiness and utterly unsuitable clothing.

It does the filmmakers no credit whatsoever to suggest that the film is set in Croatia, either. It clearly isn’t filmed anywhere near Croatia, and given that the location makes no difference to the storyline, it was a strange decision to make such a big deal of it. As it is, the spectacular scenery is the film’s true star and didn’t need any embellishment – the gorgeous vistas and truly scary rock faces speak loudly enough for themselves.

The scenery certainly steals the show in the first half hour of the movie. Some jaw-dropping camera shots show the sheer rock faces at their scariest, the lush greens of the forest canopy are utterly beautiful, and a sense of how dangerous nature can be pervades the action. Yet director Abel Ferry seems determined to dispense with the setting and concentrate on character – a decision which was, at best, misguided.

Rarely have a collection of characters been more generic. Adrenaline junkie Fred (Nicolas Giraud) and his doting girlfriend Karine (Maud Wyler) provide the sense of adventure, busty Chloé (Fanny Valette) proves that wearing a low-cut vest and wonderbra need be no impediment to physical activity, whilst her meek boyfriend Loic (Johan Libéreau) cowers in the shadow of Chloé’s ex – the swarthy and charismatic Guillame (Raphaël Lenglet). They’re exactly the kind of lazy caricatures which you would expect to feature in an uninspiring horror flick. And so it proves.

Initially, there is some tension in the exploits of the fivesome, as they traverse the mountain and deal with the associated dangers. One scene in particular, as they cross a rickety bridge, brings a genuine sense of peril – not least because, by that point, it feels like about time one of the characters copped it. But from that moment, Ferry appears to have given up on trying to create genuine scares: instead he switches his attention to the kind of villainy seen in dozens of generic horror flicks of this nature. From the moment that the seemingly motiveless woodsman/killer appears on the scene, High Lane takes a terminal turn for the worse. If it was predictable before, it becomes even more so.

There’s nothing remarkable or interesting about the mad man terrorising the teens: he’s so underdeveloped that the best name they could think to call him was ‘Anton’. And there’s nothing remarkable or interesting about the predictable fight for survival which ensues – existing relationships between the characters are mirrored in their actions, fight scenes run according to expectations, and Anton’s ‘lair’ is a lazy constructed cliché.

Add to this some seemingly incongruous flashback sequences and an excruciating pair of scenes in which the cast sing Supergrass’ ‘Alright’ (maybe it’s less excruciating in non-English speaking countries), and you’ve got a film which seems confused as to what it wants to be or who it intends to appeal to.

High Lane is a film which took a wrong turn. If Ferry had focused on the dangers of nature, making the most of the threatening mountainous terrain and added a soupcon of psychological drama to proceedings, he might have walked away with a half-decent horror film in the can. As it is, the director seems to lose his nerve halfway through, resulting in a clichéd and predictable slasher-by-numbers which will entertain some, but will excite nobody.

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