From a distance, Matt Palmer's feature debut Calibre might look like yet another of the very many "if you go down to the woods today" horror-thrillers produced each year by the British film industry, yet it's been fitted with some wicked twists, and staged with an assurance that hasn't been seen in this corner of the world since Danny Boyle made his film debut with Shallow Grave a quarter-century ago. Two old schoolfriends - one Irish and reckless (Martin McCann), the other Scottish, weaker-willed and about to become a father (Jack Lowden) - are reunited for a hunting weekend in the Highlands, or as the movies have traditionally framed it: A Very Bad Idea. Within ten minutes, they've pissed off some of the burlier locals; within twenty, they've been involved in an accident that leaves them with blood on their hands. They will spend the rest of the film attempting to escape the scene of their very considerable crime before what we're told is an annual festival ("a few drinks and a bonfire"). As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Celtic horror will be gulping at this point: uh-oh.
On this one front, at least, you can rest easy. If Palmer is keen to revive anything, it's not the pagan horror of The Wicker Man - already fanboyed around by Neil LaBute and Ari Aster, with suboptimal results - but those clever neo-noirs of the 1990s: coal-black get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge narratives along the lines of Red Rock West and Oliver Stone's U-Turn. One novel twist is that, even as our heroes sign up to join the search party for the bodies they themselves have buried, Palmer plays their predicament dead straight, without the winking postmodern irony of the film's predecessors. That seriousness allows him to work in some cutting editorial on the wider state of play in Scotland: the tension between the city slickers and their hosts is to some degree reflective of a growing real-world schism between urban and rural communities. Commendably, Palmer takes both sides' arguments on board. What's especially excruciating about the situation that develops is that the locals aren't inbred monsters, rather concerned citizens, while our heroes are convincingly chastened and haunted by their actions even as they scrabble around looking to cover their tracks, eventually scurrying into a terrible cul-de-sac in the search for an exit. Throughout, Palmer's screenplay develops organically, guided not by the pursuit of cheap, forgettable thrills, but more lingering, unnerving questions. What would happen if this particular chain of unfortunate events unfolded in reality, and not the heightened horror universe to which we've grown accustomed? At what point would you personally ditch the pretence of politesse and make a dash for it? And what then? And what then?
Calibre is now streaming on Netflix.