★★ out of ★★★★★
A lovely vacation in the canals in the English countryside gets turned upside-down when the vacationers are attacked by a band of toxic mutant cannibals. This wanted to be The Hills Have Eyes: UK. Unfortunately, it plays out a bit flaccid around the edges, rather like the mutants it showcases.
Directed by Charlie Steeds
The English countryside. The land of Beatrix Potter and James Herriot. So lovely, so idyllic. It is as calming a landscape as a filmmaker could want for a quaint little historical period piece. Or a mutant slasher film. Same difference, right? The Barge People aims to contrast the pastoral lowlands with its canals that crisscross the landscape with a group of savage toxic sludge-induced cannibalistic freaks. Does it work?
And that’s a bummer, as I thought that this would be a fun gory romp that turns the table on expectations. And they tried, they really did. It had the exploitation tropes all lined up just so. And as hard as they tried, even with copious amounts of fake blood, they just couldn’t do convincing gore effects. A trip to the Savini school would have done this film some good. It also couldn’t quite pull off the sick and mean metrics that make a low budget exploitation film tick. It also lacks the rampant silliness that other low-budget horror films will employ. It cuts a middle path and as a result, feels like a bit of a compromise.
The Barge People stars Kate Davies-Speak (Horizon) as Kat, a young woman due for a long overdue vacation in the country with her “always prepared” boyfriend Mark (Mark McKirdy) and her sister Sophie (Natalie Martins). Sophie brings along her arrogant snot of a boyfriend, Ben (Matt Swales). Never trust a man in a horror movie who drapes his sweater over his shoulders like a preppy.
The four of them have rented a charming house barge that slowly putters down the narrow and meandering canals. It all starts off innocuously enough. Mark thoroughly enjoys the freedom of the country, navigating the barge. Ben is constantly trying to continue to do business by phone, but the reception is terrible, and he has a real disdain for the whole trip. Kat and Sophie nudge each other trying to get each other to confirm to themselves that they are dating good catches. And that’s about all the character threads there are, these are cardboard cutout standees with speaking roles.
They run into, quite literally, some rough-and-tumble locals. Jade (Makenna Guyler) and Ricky (Kane Surry) are hot-tempered hayseeds (or what passes for a hayseed in England). When Ben is forced to take the tiller it takes almost no time before he bumps into the local’s barge. There’s a bit of the country folk vs. the city folk antagonism that gets played out before the real villains of the movie show up. The vacation has taken a definitive turn for the worse when Jade and Ricky show up in the middle of the night looking for some compensation in a hard and physical way. They sneak onto the vacationer’s craft and ambush the couples after a night of drunken merriment.
Into the middle of that fracas, arrive the monsters. A bunch of mutant cannibals clamber on board and start chowing down on the unwary barge brawlers. It is tight quarters, and the people try to battle back but are overwhelmed. The surviving humans scramble to safety and attempt to flee for protection as the mutants close in for a second course.
It’s pretty straightforward fare, with the primary distinction being the location. The mutants themselves look good individually, but as an ensemble, they resemble The Wind in the Willows crew who took a trip to Three Mile Island. They are an assemblage of a fish-guy, a mole-guy, a different kind of fish guy, a big brain guy, and a guy who looks like he was a burn victim. Honestly, they should have just stuck with the fish-looking guy and made them all look like that. He was the best design and features heavily in the posters. He’s genuinely freaky looking and makes for a menacing monster.
I applaud the make-up crew though. They worked hard to get some unique looking mutants. It all looks fantastic until the mutants have to go into action, where it certainly seemed like the actors in the makeup had a difficult time moving around and seeing things. The suits upon contact with the victims became really rubbery too. It was a rather clumsy affair.
This is a very bloody movie. But that does not mean it is a gory movie. There is a lot of blood sprayed from off-camera, but you see no wounds associated with the blood. There is one convincing severed arm, but that’s about it. For a movie that wants to be The Hills Have Eyes, it really needed to just get savage. The classic move of seeing a weapon being pulled back to plunge into a victim was used frequently, but you often do not see the contact. At no time do you go EWWWW!!! And for a movie like this, you kinda want that.
Is that a terrible thing? No, not if you’re trying to do a PG-13 horror movie, but since they seemed to be pushing this as a gonzo splatter experience, they literally missed their mark. They attempted to make up for the lack of convincing gore, with repetition. Lots of growling and “feasting” but you never saw any real bites taken out. Bummer.
Is it a terrible movie? No. The acting is capable, though the characters and the plot are not memorable. Plot holes are large and numerous. The amount of time viable weapons are left behind are too many to count. Tactical decisions are abominable. The dialogue is not cringe-inducing, yet there are not any memorable lines either. You could see, with a bit more of a mean streak, or some punchier characters that this skeleton of a plot could have been more interesting. As it is, it’s not even bad enough to be memorably bad.
The Barge People is available for rent on Amazon, and is not rated, but it would merit an R rating for violence and bloodshed.
I really wanted this to be good. I love fish-creature and animal-human hybrid movies. If that sort of thing interests you, try out these movies:
Cold Skin (2017) A remote lighthouse is being menaced by violent fish people who have been laying siege to this remote island.
Dagon (2001) This is the H.P. Lovecraft tale “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, as directed by Stuart Gordon. Highly underrated.
Humanoids From the Deep (1980) Featuring Rob Bottin doing the makeup and fish-man suits. Campy and violent. Prime exploitation fare.
Wild Boar (2019) Oscar-winning make up man Barney Burman directed this tale about mutant cannibal pig-people turning the tables on geocaching vacationers. Great make-up… shaky story.