by Elliot Davies
A local film for local people – Survival Instinct was shot, cropped, and cut in Derbyshire, and had its world preview at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
The air reeks of chaos and brimstone, and a sense of dreadful unease abounds. A small child in Winnersh vomited green slime and curled slugs, whilst lightning struck the parson’s chin. Our elders took these to be grim portents from beyond, and as the warning bells tolled across the land, people everywhere sacrificed their goats and painted blood crosses on their doors. We now sit in circles of salt, endlessly reciting our pleas for mercy, wondering which of us will be the first to shrivel and perish.
That’s right – Britain is now under the rule of a majority Tory government, and none of you are safe.
But that’s not the only reason why dark clouds were seen to descend over Derby on the afternoon of May 8, 2015. The beginning of the end for Britain happened to coincide with the commencement of the Fantastiq takeover of the Derby Film Festival – ushering in a weekend of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and other dark cult classics!
The weekend kicked-off in earnest with the world premier of Survival Instinct. It’s made by Loughborough-based writer director Steve Lawson, and it’s shot entirely in the Peak District. Kudos to the Derby Film Festival for providing such a high profile showcase for local talent.
Inspired by such tense thrillers as Duel and Deliverance, Survival Instinct follows the adventures of Stacey – played by Helen Crevel – who’s being hunted by Weaver – played by Andrew Coughlan.
Whilst Stacey’s being driven to a wedding by Tom (Jay Sutherland), Weaver is hunting deer with his son, Rex (Sam Smith – but not that Sam Smith).
Tom’s car breaks down, and whilst Stacey’s off hunting for water, he’s hit by one of Weaver’s stray bullets. Weaver’s only recently been released from prison, and he’s not going back inside – not for no-one. So he decides to eliminate all traces of his crime by murdering Stacey. By the time she returns to Tom’s car, she’s already been marked by Weaver as “another doe to hunt”.
For a low-budget, independent thriller, Survival Instinct gets a lot of things right. The sound design is especially good – well recorded and effectively mixed, particularly in the woodland scenes.
The music, too, sounds a lot better than that which is found in most films of this ilk, but that’s not to say that it’s very good. Alex Young was responsible for the soundtrack, and he unfortunately went for a standard action thriller feel – all shrill strings and pounding drums. It’s not bad, but it’s over-used throughout.
There are many scenes that would have benefited from a bit of tense silence, but instead they’re accompanied by the sort of hackneyed music that tells you how you should be feeling. As such, moments that would have been nail-biting instead have all the atmosphere of a mid-90s TV movie.
Indeed, there were many points where director Steve Lawson seemed to do everything in his power to prevent the dread and the tension from building naturally. For instance, the film opens with footage of Stacey running through the forest to a deafening soundtrack of frantic drums, before flashing back to “three hours earlier”, where all is calm.
Why do this? Why not instead ease the audience in, allowing us to descend into panic organically, hand in hand with the characters? As is, we know what’s coming, which means that when it comes, we’re not at all surprised.
It’s thanks to decisions like this that, even when the action is at its most intense, Survival Instinct is not nearly as thrilling as it thinks it is.
The main problem, though, is one that plagues almost every low-budget film: the writing. The dialogue sounds so overtly written that all feeling and plausibility is stripped from what would otherwise be a great set of performances, all round. Everyone talks and acts like characters, rather than real people, and far too many lines were so trite that I struggled to suppress a loud groan.
In interviews, director Steve Lawson has boasted about the plausibility of his villain, Weaver. And yes, he has a history, and he has motivation (long story short – there are too many gays on the BBC) – but all of this is delivered through a series of unconvincing info dumps.
Sometimes information is painfully shoehorned into conversation, but there’s one bit where Weaver spends a long time telling Stacey about his past, before instantly commencing another story, about another traumatic incident. It’s almost as if Weaver’s proud to be such a layered character – but ironically, such extensive exposition feels, if anything, out of character for him.
Andrew Coughlan, though, delivers quite a good performance as Weaver. Even though his style’s somewhere between Ross Kemp and Hollyoaks, he occasionally exudes a genuine air of menace, and he comes across as exactly the sort of person whose homophobia would send him spiraling into a murderous rage.
Helen Crevel’s performance as Stacey is equally as mixed. Though she’s undeniably a strong lead, she’s given more cringeworthy lines than any other character. Also, either Stacey has an unspoken history of survival training, or else she forgot to tell her face that she’s feeling desperate and terrified. For someone who went from driving to a wedding to running for her life in the space of about an hour, she regularly comes across as far too calm and composed.
All that being said, Survival Instinct is entertaining enough, and it has a few genuinely compelling scenes. The film should be applauded for trying something a little different, and it’s several rungs above the majority of low-budget British thrillers. The thing is, whilst I’ve seen worse, I’ve also seen better.
Rob Florence might be a lot more experienced than those responsible for Survival Instinct, but his House of Him proves that you can do so much more with so much less.
Survival Instinct is released on DVD later this month.