A group of five graduates, led by Rhona (Lyle), heads off into the Scottish wilds to hang out at the remote cottage owned by Rhona’s estranged and recently deceased father. There are light sexual tensions in the group, even before they pick up oddly numb hitchhiker Carla (McKeown). She says she knows the territory, but she also knows how to mess with heads.
When the group camps the first night near the Mercy Falls waterfall, things start to come seriously apart – with horrific consequences for all.
The first thing to mention is that Mercy Falls makes good use of some spectacular natural locations (which should make it a good candidate for Netflix!). Of course, anyone with a driving licence and a drone can do the landscape stuff nowadays, but it does look good here.
What the viewer wants in a ‘survival/ slasher’ movie like Mercy Falls is something different, through which you can view the genre tropes and cliches. Of course, you have to remember that we are in Movie Magic Land, where ‘something different’ can actually entail seeing ‘normal’ stuff. One of the things Mercy Falls is good at is this normal stuff: beers in a pub garden, banter among friends, eye rolling at each others’ quirks.
Perhaps a film like Mercy Falls also needs an endearing WTFness as it shoots off into unlikely, even non-credible places. There are plenty of plot points that it is best not to dwell on in Mercy Falls: if the cottage is so far up the arse of nowhere, with no road nearby, how was it built? Does Carla have a convincing physique for a soldier? Would it be that easy to convince five people that they were responsible for a terrible event? But this ‘wrongness’ is precisely the film’s charm, it may even be what the viewer engages with most; and is an essential part of the cathartic power of the stories we create and consume. Films like Mercy Falls aren’t about taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others; they are about successfully creating that distance from which we can contemplate the horrible, manic swings of our own lives as well as those of others. Watching film like Mercy Falls, we howl “How can this possible be happening? It is almost laughable, but also, it is painful and terrifying ….”
I read an insightful complaint recently, in Allan Brown’s Inside the Wicker Man, that American horror films tend to prioritise traumatic character back story over the character as developed by the actor. Here, we get both: Rhona has a traumatic back story but all the actors do some work in expressing their slightly annoying, slightly comic characters. Nothing method, mind, but they aren’t merely delivering lines – and the differences between them as characters remain interesting throughout.
I’m a fan of this sort of low-budget film. With all its misfires and unlikelinessses, Mercy Falls is still a perky antidote to the homogenised, ponderous and portentous tone and look that Netflix insists on for similar product. And it is good to hear Scottish voices even if they sound like posh lowlanders to me.