Amazonian lagoons, Chicago sewer systems, Korean rivers, and the open ocean: all have been beset by submarine monsters with a hankering for human flesh. But until retro-styled man-fish-freakout The Barge People, Britain’s canals had yet to be given the genre treatment.
Directed by Charlie Steeds and penned by Christopher Lombard, this is a fish-out-of-water story in more ways than one. We follow sisters Kat (Kate Davies-Speak) and Sophie (Natalie Martins) and their respective partners Mark (Mark McKirdy) and Ben (Matt Swales), four well-to-do thirty-something city dwellers who hire a barge and set sail down the Kennet and Avon Canal in search of respite from modern-day distractions only to fall foul of a few of the area’s less hospitable denizens.
Britain’s waterways, rendered here in gorgeous golds and greens by cinematographer Michael Lloyd, are a fertile setting for fear and loathing. The narrowboat locale isolates the characters threefold—in a confined environment, on the water, and in the middle of nowhere—and is by far the flick’s greatest strength, showcased in its claustrophobic centerpiece during which the titular terrors are revealed in all their gopping glory. It’s a shame, then, that this refreshing backdrop is abandoned soon after, as The Barge People eschews its distinctly British flavour in favour of decidedly generic woodland territory.
The sub-aquatic sadists—which look like the deep-sea love children of The Descent’s incensed cave crawlers, Creature from the Black Lagoon’s crestfallen Gill-man, and Humanoids from the Deep’s lascivious overgrown salmon—are rendered with pulp perfection. But there’s some confusion as to what these ogres are. The products of an incestuous cannibal family and mutated victims of illegal toxic waste dumping? There are a few too many factors at work here, perhaps symptomatic of Steeds’ enthusiasm for genre fare and grab bag approach to filmmaking. The amphibious visages are mere razzmatazz, and the only thing that distances the movie from its most direct comparison, The Hills Have Eyes.
Steeds clearly loves horror, but in constantly looking backwards, he’s running into problems up ahead. The genre’s well-trodden tropes may have been transposed to a unique setting, but they do the film few favors. Two stock characters—one who turns up purely to justify the miscreants’ appearance, and another who warns the protagonists that they, that’s right, never should have come here—are perhaps meant as parodies, but aren’t funny or subversive.
The most frightening aspects of The Barge People come not from its ichthyological antagonists and gill-busting gore—of which there is plenty—but from its startling depiction of the working class. Learned urbanites leaving the city only to be assailed by the countryside’s locals is nothing new, but it’s particularly unsavory to see the lower classes portrayed as so ludicrously unreasonable and violent in the divided Britain of 2019. These issues are crystallised in the laughably on-the-nose Jade (Makenna Guyler), whose father “fu--ed off” before she could walk and whose mother was a “junkie whore.”
Creature features have a rich history of social commentary and sticking it to the Man, as in Lewis Teague’s similarly themed Alligator and Joe Dante’s Piranha (both of which were written by John Sayles). For all its agreeable aesthetic throwbacks—the astute art direction and unashamed John Carpenter-inspired music by Sam Benjafield, STRSGN, and Europaweite Aussichten—The Barge People is sadly lacking the blue-collar spirit that made the movies it models itself on so beloved.
Between the underused setting, the monsters’ overcooked backstories, and Jade’s over-the-top character, it seems that The Barge People’s greatest weaknesses may be not knowing when to stop and not making the most of its best ideas. There is fun to be had here, but Steeds’ third feature is less than the sum of its parts.
Movie Score: 2/5