Primal is equal parts silly, riveting, stupid, clever, fun, and pants-shittingly scary. It’s an unusual, and occasionally disturbing experience that is far more enjoyable than it probably deserves to be. The film is written, directed and produced by Australian first-time film maker Josh Reed, and one can’t help but wonder what Mr. Reed might be capable of were he released from its low-budget constraints. For Primal is the type of low-budget fare that, if you can look past its goofy stumbles, can be eminently appealing.
The film is set in an unknown jungle-like setting in Australia, where six twenty-somethings are traveling to try to find an ancient set of cave paintings. The reasons aren’t particularly important, as the film’s brisk pace glosses over much of the background. The characters are essentially disposable stereotypes: there are three women — the sweet one, the trampy one, the smart one with a dark past — and three men — the funny one, the tough one, and the annoyingly emo one. Some of them are couples, which is also irrelevant since (spoiler!) most of them die. The cast makes the best of their crêpe-thin characters, and overall, they’re surprisingly engaging.
Shortly after establishing their social pecking order, the story takes off and the mayhem begins. The trampy one goes skinny dipping one night (of course) in water that has some profoundly unsettling effects. Shortly after, she becomes sick and feverish, and the next thing you know, she’s a (wait for it) primal freakshow determined to tear her bewildered and horrified friends to pieces — some of those pieces she eats, the remainder she dumps in a hole set in the rock where the aforementioned cave paintings are ominously drawn. There’s a purpose to all of this, but it’s not terribly surprising. What ensues is a shocking, gory bit of nightmare, as her friends try to fend her off, while dealing with the hostile elements surrounding them and fighting amongst themselves about what to do about their savagely malevolent friend.
Primal has a lot of holes, and they’re not all made by teeth. The characters range from clever to brain-smushingly stupid: they stumble, they fall, they split up, they wander around in the dark. They scream when they should be silent, they’re silent when they should be screaming their goddamn lungs out. The foreshadowing is as subtle as a kick to the face — one of the girls is claustrophobic, and they’re right by an ominous cave… gosh, wherever will she have to go to hide? It suffers from an overuse of misplaced, bombastic music, but that’s offset by the utterly gorgeous scenery and the phenomenal color palette that all of this carnage is set against.
What it does right is entertain. The violence is shocking and brutal, but not clinically so. It’s full of ropes of blood and goo, fingers being bitten off and necks being gorged upon, but it’s done with such amusing abandon that it keeps you from turning it off. Primal succeeds because it’s clever enough to understand its place in the horror universe, and it uses the tried and true tropes to its advantage. It’s not gentle on its protagonists, and the ones you do think might survive invariably won’t. There’s also something gleefully disturbing about a cannibalistic, sharp-toothed monster with a cute blonde pixie haircut, disemboweling her friends and bounding from rock to rock in pink capri pants. The image — it stays with you. In a good way. Sort of.
Primal’s other smart choice is to eschew too much exposition regarding why it’s all happening. There’s a brief introduction (set 12,000 years ago) that serves as a nice appetizer, but really explains nothing. Something makes people into monsters, there’s an unseen beastie in the cave (that’s eventually vaguely revealed via some truly pathetic CGI), and that’s all you’re given. I respect that, because one of the fundamental flaws in many horror movies striving to claw their way to the top of the overcrowded heap is to try to create a twist-packed, dumbly complex story to make you think it’s a smart thriller. Primal is smart in its decision to take it the other way. You’ll never know the what or the why, but you’ll sure as hell enjoy the how.
In the end, Primal is a tentative success because it keeps things simple. People show up, they change, some of them turn into atavistic, dagger-mawed cretins while the others try to survive. It’s a fairly basic formula, but it’s executed with a deftness and enthusiasm that’s strangely infectious. It’s weaknesses aren’t necessarily attributes that should bring down a simple horror movie — they can’t all be The Descent, after all — and fortunately for Primal, it’s got enough energy and heart (not to mention blood and genuine scares) to plow through those missteps and still be an enjoyable 90 minutes.