“A Lonely Place to Die” is a mostly tight thriller that makes great use of its locations. Not since “Cliff-hanger” has there been a movie with such beautiful panoramic shots of mountains as characters fight to stay alive. We get some tight shots as well: cameras were attached to the actors for some scenes to give the audience an idea of what it must feel like to fall off a cliff. If you are not a mountain climber, this will make you wonder why anyone would do such a thing. One character asks that very question and his friend answers, “Because we don’t surf.”
Directed by Julian Gilbey, the film follows five friends hiking and climbing the Scottish Highlands. Alison (Melissa George) is an experienced climber leading her two friends Ed (Ed Speelers) and Rob (Alec Newman) to the cabin of couple Jenny (Kate Magowan) and Alex (Garry Sweeney). The house has no phone and the younger climbers with their cell phones at the ready realize there is zero reception. They are effectively cut off from civilization, which will of course become a problem later.
The next day the five leave the cabin and head out into the wilderness. During a lunch stop one of them hear screams echoing in the empty forest. An animal? No, the screams are coming from a pipe buried in the ground. They dig around the pipe and find a box containing a little girl who doesn’t speak English but does manage to tell them her name is Anna (Holly Boyd). She was left in the ground with a bottle of water, so the hikers deduce whoever left her there want her alive. They realize it is time to head back to civilization and suddenly they wish those cell phones had better range.
They decide Alison and Rob will take a shortcut to the nearest town and alert the police. This involves climbing down a cliff called the Devil’s Drop. Now there’s a name that doesn’t inspire confidence. As Allison climbs with her bare hands after running out of rope, she sees Rob plunge to his death. There is no scream, no dramatic slow motion, he simply falls and cracks his skull on the rocks below. An examination of his equipment shows his rope was cut. They are not alone out there.
From then on it is a race to stay alive as the hikers try to outrun their hunters. The use of such beautiful yet isolated locations makes for an effective thriller, as the characters must swim through rivers filled with sharp rocks, climb steep cliffs, and run through dense woods while being pursued by remorseless killers.
Unfortunately once the surviving characters do make it to town the thrills run out as familiar shootouts and foot chases across crowded streets occur. In a scene reminiscent of “Halloween,” Melissa George seems to channel Jamie Lee Curtis as she knocks on doors in an empty street while a masked killer wordlessly pursues her.
Still, for the first two acts director Gilbey and his co-writer Wil Gilbey show us that the Scottish Highlands are indeed “A Lonely Place to Die” though they are indeed beautiful. If you are afraid of heights, this film will definitely not make you want to take up mountain climbing. It will however, make you appreciate the hard work the actors went through for their roles. Melissa George especially could compete with Tom Cruise when it comes to hanging off a rope from dizzying heights.
(“A Lonely Place to Die” screened at the 2011 Toronto After Dark Film Festival and is currently streaming on Netflix.)