A couple of weeks back I reviewed an Australian neo-western/thriller called Red Hill, where I spent a good chunk of the review writing about the continent, itself, and how suited it is to films of that nature. It’s outback is a big, beautiful place, but, at the same time, it’s a damned scary chunk of real estate, with more poisonous beasties than you can shake a boomerang at. I’ve watched enough Animal Planet to know it’s not a place I’d tread lightly, let alone venture too far off the beaten path. After all, in a place like Australia, you never know what you’ll find. That’s the crux of Primal, the latest Aussie export in which the outback, once again, serves up a slice of survival horror down under style.
Primal opens with a prehistoric sequence in which an aboriginal paints a warning near the mouth of a sacred cave, in an attempt to ward off others from the evil that lurks within. As he finishes painting the symbols on the rock face, he’s mauled by an unseen creature, punctuating his message with a bloody handprint. Flash forward several thousand years to a group of young adults motoring through the outback en route to that very site, where, anthropology student, Dace (Will Travel), aims to study the recently discovered cave paintings. Along for the trip are all of the requisite archetypes, including the party girl, Mel (Krew Boylan), her uptight boyfriend, Chad (Lindsay Farris), the buffoonish Warren (Damien Freeleagus), the mousy Kris (Rebekah Foord), and the introverted Anja (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith).
Upon arriving at the site, the claustrophobic Anja opts to drop her friends off at the entrance to the cave, and drive the extra hour alone to meet them on the other side. By the time she arrives, Mel and Chad have already gone at it like two eager bunnies, and have headed off to the local pond to cool off. Mel doffs her clothes and jumps right in, only to emerge covered in leeches, which discourages any of the others from taking a dip. Embarrassed, Mel and Chad retreat to their tent for the evening, but, when Chad awakes to find Mel hallucinating and feverish, he wakes the others and insists that they bring Mel to the nearest town (over a half a day’s drive away) for help. The group carry Mel to the truck only to discover that the tires have been devoured by a swarm of voracious little insects, effectively stranding them in the middle of nowhere. The group decides to sleep on it, hoping Mel’s condition will improve overnight, but, when morning comes, they find that their friend’s sudden sickness was only the first stage in a terrifying metamorphosis into something else. Something primal.
The first half of Primal is a goofy and gory Valentine to all things Sam Raimi. From its dizzying camera acrobatics to its splatstick sensibilities, the flick is a bonafide rush in the early going, and reminiscent of The Evil Dead films. The screenplay, while admittedly dependent on genre tropes (awakening an ancient evil!) and the aforementioned archetypes, is actually quite snappy and (intentionally) funny at times, while the cast ( especially Freeleagus, who gets the bulk of the funnier lines) are a likeable lot, who, like director, Josh Reed, display an energy and playfulness that made the first forty minutes or so such a blast.
Sadly, Primal not only loses steam toward its final act – it loses much of its charm, as the humor and outlandish gore that make the first part of the film so much fun gives way to a joyless and predictable third act in which the survivor’s attempt to catch and/or evade the infected while bad decisions and infighting diminish our heroes’ numbers. It’s not so much that I was bored by the last third of the film; just irritated and disappointed, as Reed did too good of a job setting the action up to let it fizzle out in such pedestrian fashion.
Primal comes to DVD courtesy of IFC Films. The transfer boasts bright, vivid colors during daylight sequences, with a sharp overall image. Darker sequences were a bit problematic as I noticed a bit of excess grain in extremely low light situations, where detail is all but obscured. The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is rich and full, with well implemented surround effects, and crisp and clear dialogue. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer as well as previews for other IFC releases.