Primal begins 12,000 years in the past with an aboriginal Australian, painting unknown figures on the side of a mountain. We get no clue about who he is or why he’s there; we only know, from foreboding peeping-tom perspectives, that the “something bad” in this horror movie is wasting no time. Yes, something bad does happen, but I’ll leave it there to stop a spoiler already.
Next, we’re on the road with six, twenty-something people traveling to a remote area of Australia, looking for the same aboriginal rock paintings. Yes, if they didn’t know better, they’d already be the dumb, should’ve-known-better victims we see in such movies. Instead, this group of young people is looking for the dreaded paintings, unaware of the danger, for probably the most academic of reasons. One member of the group, Dace, is an anthropology student planning to research the paintings for a doctoral thesis; the others seem to mostly be there for a weekend of fun and adventure—or so they think!
The rock paintings they’re searching for have already been discovered 120 years ago by a relative of the girl who is arguably the main character and heroine of the movie—Anja (played by Zoe Tuckwell-Smith). Objective flashbacks from earlier times clue us in on more of the horror we can expect. After the 12,000 year-old scene and the later flashbacks, there’s little left to the imagination about the horror ahead. From here, it’s mostly about the blood-splattered process and consequences of going Primal.
Be it good or bad, the horrific events in Primal happen for no reason that is ever explained. It’s either nature gone wrong or supernatural evil gone according to plan. My guess is that it’s a little (or a lot) of both. At first, I thought more explanation might have made the film better; however, too much detail often takes too much bite out of otherwise mystical, unbelievable stories. If not done well, details can make a story ridiculous even for 90 minutes (or, in this case, 84 minutes). Although I’m not sure what the writers might have done with more details in Primal, it’s probably better off as it is. I guess you could just say that I have a gut (or Primal) feeling about it. Let’s face it. How many ways can you logically explain people going mentally and physically Primal in the space of only a few hours? Yes! The fact that the movie avoids the explanation saves it the embarrassment! The mystery, I believe, is the only thing that makes it work.
Primal did surprise me by making the infection (or Primal change) not from the typical source. I’ll only tell you that it’s not caused by the usual bite from another infected person, animal, or whatever. Primal sets us up to expect the usual, but instead surprises us with something refreshingly different. Again, even without an explanation of why, it’s better than something we’ve seen too much before. If you’re prone to skinny dipping, Primal may forever change your interests in that!
Primal also presents the typical dilemma faced by those forced to kill people who were family, friends, or lovers, just moments earlier. Even though ex-loved ones have become bloody, flesh-hungry monsters ready to kill and eat anything (or eat and kill it in the process), those in danger are still hesitant to do the deed. Maybe it’s because the monsters are still arguably human and because those needing to kill are still surely human. Maybe it’s because the humans are holding out for a reversal as they’ve seen in other horror movies. Maybe it’s because horror filmmakers like to make a statement, of only a few possible, that transcends an otherwise base, horror movie to a higher academic level. Regardless of the reason, it works as well in Primal as it does anywhere else I’ve seen it before. So, who cares, and I’m not complaining! However, some may say that the hesitation to kill goes on in Primal to the point of making the characters clichés of the dreaded stupid victim. I myself enjoyed the prolonged hesitancy. Many movies instead make the choice to kill a bit too quick and comfortable, making the characters seem more like monsters themselves. Primal made fair game of that cliché, before it ever got started. Chad (played by Lindsay Farris) displayed more humanness (and/or selfishness) about hesitating than I’ve seen in more than a few other such movies.
Primal is a better movie that it could have been mostly because of the better performances by the actors. Movies like this can easily be ridiculous if not played seriously enough. Let’s face it. A movie about people who go “Primal” (physically as well as behaviorally) in a matter of hours can easily be ridiculous on that point alone. However, all the actors here, I think, do a most cultured rather than Primal job of keeping the movie on track.
Speaking of acting, Krew Boylan, who plays the arch monster/once-girlfriend Mel, has arguably the largest burden to save the movie from failure. Boylan does this with all the ferocity of the Primal creature she portrays. She effectively transforms her character from a playful, almost obnoxious girlfriend, to a true animal of the most primitive sort. She becomes a creature regressed to its pure predatory state, stalking the very people she once called friends. She is the personification of nature gone amok! Her matted hair and bloody face, complete with barbed-wire teeth and gaping mouth, are on a long list of the worst things I’ve seen on screen. In this case, of course, the worst is the best. We’re talking about a horror film here!
Wil Travel (who plays Dace) does a convincing job of the college student seeking a doctoral thesis by researching the rock paintings. Rebekah Foord (Kris) does a fine job of the minimal role she has as a girl who knows more than you’d think about anthropology, while also aspiring to little more than having “as many babies as possible.” Even Damien Freeleagus (Warren) is effective enough in his not-long-for-this-world role as a rehabilitator of a would-be future girlfriend.
Finally, Zoe Tuckwell-Smith does an eventual tough-as-nails job as the movie’s butt-kicking arch heroine, Anja. Yes, what would a movie be like if the heroine didn’t have to first overcome fears, phobias, and assorted dysfunctional hang-ups? Thanks to Zoe Tuckwell-Smith, Primal is lacking none of these prerequisite problems; Zoe plays them well enough to make us believe she really is so messed up herself, even out of character. Yes, sometimes the best compliment for an actor can sound like an insult.
The pace of Primal keeps it rolling along quickly enough to help you forget most things less than memorable. Frenetic, adrenaline-charged action dominates most of the story, leaving little time for boredom—even if you don’t like the movie. The slim 84 minute running time also leaves less-than-usual room for clock checking and other sundry nervous habits. So, one way or another, it won’t last long.
As for gore, there’s more than plenty of it here! Primal is a movie that, as you’d expect, shows more than implies the grisly consequences of every bite, kill, and gratuitous feeding frenzy. If, even for a moment, in some half-lit scene, you’re not sure what’s happening, never fear! You’ll likely see it again and again, before there’s time to wonder. When a body is chewed in half for reasons I won’t reveal, we not only hear the chewing and snapping bones, we also see what’s being chewed and snapped! This may turn some away and attract others, but, be warned! For better or worse, it’s there, with sound effects and visuals galore!
As for special effects, everything is done nearly as well as necessary. Most of what I saw looked realistic enough—except for the dead rabbit that looked fake possibly because I knew it was fake. The makeup and special effects on Mel, in her Primal form, make a creature as ghastly as any I’ve seen! While the jumping and pouncing of those gone “Primal” must have used wires, there was no evidence of anything visible. The movement of those infected was of the choppy, 28 Days Later sort, also done about as well here. Even the CGI effects at the end looked amazingly better than I’d expect from a movie with an obviously lower budget.
Primal does suffer from its lower budget and being sometimes poorly directed. At times, it screams this out loud enough to be scarier than anything else in the movie. In scenes where Mel is rampaging as a savage predator, we should believe she is that. However, occasionally, even with her adequate makeup, she looks more like an actor pretending to be a predator. To her credit, this seems more the result of directing faults than inferior acting from Krew Boylan. Sometimes, Mel seems too small in her larger surroundings, less menacing, and more like the smokin’ hot babe she really is (…and no, there’s surely nothing scary about that). As I said earlier, the makeup effects on Mel are pretty darned good! We just need to see more of that and less of what makes her look like a pretty little blonde from a distance. (Yes, that’s something I’d only ask from a horror movie!) Between the hiccups, Primal gets back on the primordial path often enough to save itself from extinction.
The last ten minutes of Primal are confusing but no less effective than anything else in the movie. By this point, nothing is likely to surprise the viewer, as it’s only another level of something not explained. Besides, in a movie that establishes a mysterious plot, by intention or chance, we are less likely to be disappointed by things not explained. Although I’m sure some may not like the mystery, Primal is at least consistent in leaving things unknown.
By now, you’re probably wondering about the ultimate mystery in the end. I don’t want to tempt you to watch it because of that alone, but telling you anything would be too much of a spoiler. My advice is to watch Primal because of what you do know about it, rather than because of what you don’t know. The movie doesn’t reveal much more anyway. It only shows you more of the mystery. As you can tell, I like Primal well enough, but I expect that many of you won’t.
Whether you like Primal or not, it’s surely a wild ride into some of the most savage territory you’ll ever visit. You’ll see ordinary people facing extraordinary decisions (again) and frightening friends you can only hope you never have to deal with yourself (again). While Primal is far from a 10-rocket movie, it’s also far from the worst. It’ll take you to places you’d rather forget, one way or another. So, if you choose to go Primal, get out your popcorn, turn off your brain, and watch out! That out-of-the-way water-filled hole, someplace seemingly safe, may offer less than the clichéd safety you’d expect.