Watch out: there's a tale of terror in them there hills

When two travellers are stranded in a remote part of Scotland scary things start to happen. That's right, says Matthew Sweet, the British horror film is back

Bleak, nihilistic terror: it was something British cinema used to do so well. In the 1960s and Seventies, film-makers from – or temporarily resident in – these islands, gave the conventions of exploitation cinema a twist, and began to produce work that combined the pleasures of the horror film and the art film. Roman Polanski made a pair of thrillers – Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion – using cash from a strip-joint owner and a distribution company who marketed French nouvelle vague films to British audiences as sex movies. Michael Reeves toasted hapless lickspittles in The Witchfinder General; Robin Hardy immolated Edward Woodward and some goats inside the belly of The Wicker Man; Sam Peckinpah staged acts of atavistic violence in the Cornish countryside for Straw Dogs. It was a golden age of savagery and pessimism. And David Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, is a gesture back to those times.

Unless you're the sort of person who reads the credits on Monarch of the Glen, Mackenzie's name will probably mean nothing to you. He's on the brink, however, of much wider recognition. In a couple of weeks, the Cannes Film Festival will unfurl the red carpet for the premiere of his second feature, Young Adam – an existentialist thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, based on Alexander Trocchi's cult novella. ("Ewan looks older," he enthuses. "Looks more of a man. It's a step in a new direction for him.") And in July, he begins shooting with Natasha Richardson on Asylum, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel from a script by Patrick Marber. (As I talk to him, Mackenzie is holed up with the latest draft, sustained only by the extensive room service menu of a chi-chi Glasgow hotel.)

His first film, however, was shot with more humble resources than these starry projects, and with an artistic freedom for which Mackenzie already seems to feel nostalgic. "The chance to make a film for half a million quid without anybody breathing down your neck and telling you what to do is a very nice one," he explains. "But the more money you have on a project the surer you have to be about it finding an audience." The Last Great Wilderness, in contrast, was a family affair. Mackenzie wrote the script in collaboration with his brother, Alistair – another Monarch of the Glen alumnus – who is also the star of the film. The pair grew up in Perthshire, and a shared sense of childhood unease was the starting point for the picture. "It began as something much more like Straw Dogs," explains the director, "because that's what we used to feel, as we were growing up – that it was very easy to imagine, walking around the highlands, that some angry farmer might be aiming at you with his high-powered telescopic rifle. The highlands are not the last great wilderness. You're not more than a day's walk away from a large centre of population. But you do get the weird sense that they are, potentially, an unpoliceable and anarchic territory."

The film's protagonists are Charlie (Alistair Mackenzie), a vengeful cuckold on the way to torch his rival's holiday home, and Vicente (Jonathan Phillips), a male escort who spends the first two reels of the film pretending to be Spanish. This being a picture with an acute sense of the Gothic tradition, they run out of petrol on an isolated stretch of moorland, where the only refuge is a retreat run by a sinister therapist (played by Ewan Stewart, in a performance pitched somewhere between Ronnie Laing and Ronnie Kray). As the car chugs to a halt, it's impossible not the think of the opening scene of Cul-de-Sac, in which two bloodied crims struggle towards the sanctuary of Donald Pleasence's castle. "Polanski is an absolute genius," acknowledges Mackenzie. "I don't think many film-makers set out to imitate other films, but you've gathered your knowledge and you can't help it coming out."

So did he consciously set out to mix exploitation techniques with something more high-minded? "Throw in a bit of trash and a bit of art, you mean? Maybe. Horror is a very interesting genre. I still can't watch most horror films because I get too scared. But horror offers an incredible way to be sensual and to deal with, in a commercial context, some of the issues that you associate with art films. There are only some elements of horror in the film, but there are many moments in which we're playing the genre's games."

But the refreshing aspect of Mackenzie's approach is the straightness of his game. The Last Great Wilderness does not delight exposing the absurdity of its conventions. Its characters do not make self-conscious jokes about The Wicker Man. Instead, the film returns to the plot of a hundred low-budget horror flicks – two travellers stranded in a remote outpost filled with suspicious characters – and, declining to find it silly, discovers a much more interesting set of elements: tenderness, humour, pathos, and, ultimately, an act of heinous barbarism. "I've been ranting on for years to some of my friends about the New Sincerity," admits Mackenzie. "Growing up in Nineties irony-obsessed Britain, I've tried to fight against it a little bit. As a human being, I'm anti-irony. I'm completely bored by it." Next week, he'll find out whether a paying audience agrees.

'The Last Great Wilderness', (18), is out on Friday

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition