In first-time director Nick Robertson’s The Pack, rabid dogs terrorize a farmer, his wife and their two teenage children on an isolated Australian sheep station. Largely eschewing puppetry or digital effects in favor of four trained, impressively vicious-looking dogs, this slickly lensed when-animals-attack potboiler is let down by a scant sense of pacing and a screenplay made up of thinly drawn characters maneuvered into jeopardy with a drably humorless lack of credibility. IFC Midnight will release the film, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival, next spring.
With a reputation for a surfeit of deadly animals, Australia is a natural setting for the creature feature. They usually star crocodiles (2007’s Rogue and Black Water) or sharks (2010’s The Reef and 2012’s Bait). But The Pack most closely resembles films like Robert Clouse’s 1977 feature of the same name, and Cujo, the feral-St. Bernard-on-the-loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel from 1983.
That film boasts one remarkable sequence, in which Dee Wallace is attacked inside her car while her young son (an all-too-convincing Danny Pintauro) screams in horror in the backseat. The Pack, by contrast, opts for bloody jump scares over the queasily authentic, and has a hard time supplying even those.
In a nighttime prologue, an elderly woman on a remote property follows her husband outside to investigate a noise, where she meets a sticky end. Cut to daylight, and an aerial shot of a large farmstead in the middle of the countryside, ringed by woods. Robertson comes from a commercials background, and the proliferation of drone photography throughout — ominously swooping over lakes and hills and treetops — can feel as ubiquitous here as in the car ads on which the director cut his teeth.
The house is occupied by a stoic Australian type (Jack Campbell), a sheep farmer of few words and even fewer facial expressions. His wife (Animal Kingdom’s Anna Lise Phillips) has set up a veterinary clinic to try to make ends meet and fend off the bank, to which the couple is in arrears. Their daughter (Katie Moore) is an entitled brat, rather unsubtly sketched. She sunbathes on the roof, ignoring her mother’s calls while chatting on the phone. When the landline is pulled out to get her attention, she storms downstairs, protesting a state of “solitary confinement.” Meanwhile her younger brother (Hamish Phillips) is hoarding bullets in a maze-like tunnel nailed together with bits of clapboard outside. Needless to say, this low-lying cubby-house will prove a convenient mechanism for dog trapping later on.
Sheep keep turning up dead, and gruesomely: their guts spilled out all over the paddock. Even more worrying is the slimy bank apparatchik (Charles Mayer) who pays the family a visit, threatening foreclosure. With an oily forelock dangling over his eyes, this is the banker as panto baddie; he even laughs openly when calculating the family’s income — woefully insufficient to make their payments. A good thing he decides to make a toilet stop on the drive home, and is summarily ripped apart by the titular foursome. The suit’s demise is merrily prolonged, and bloody; the closest screenwriter Evan Randall Green comes to a subversive sense of fun among the viscera.
Phillips shines as the strong-willed mother afraid for her husband but emboldened by her desperation to protect her children. But despite an overlong setup before the family is besieged, none of the characters emerge as very interesting, or more than a collection of broad strokes (the gruff father, the petulant daughter). Robertson also contrives to split them up, and editor Gabriella Muir has her work cut out maintaining any tension amid all the crosscutting, which destroys any semblance of space — of proximity between dog and prey.
By the end, the family dog — whose disappearance was an ominous harbinger of the pack’s arrival — reappears, cheerfully wagging his tail, and one wonders, with envy, what he’s been up to all this time. Tom Schutzinger’s score is standard horror beat-girding, while Benjamin Shirley’s crisp digital photography lends a naturalistic sheen to the rural interrupted idyll, pausing occasionally to fly to the treetops to survey the sun-burnished South Australian landscape from above.
Production Companies: Breakout Movies, Kojo Pictures
Cast: Jack Campbell, Anna Lise Phillips, Katie Moore, Hamish Phillips, Charles Mayer, Kieran Thomas McNamara
Director: Nick Robertson
Writer: Evan Randall Green
Producers: Kent Smith, Michael Robertson
Executive producers: Dale Roberts, Elliott D. Yancey
Director of photography: Benjamin Shirley
Production designer: Tony Cronin
Costume designer: Theo Benton
Editor: Gabriella Muir
Additional editor: Sean Lahiff
Music: Tom Schutzinger
Casting: Angela Heesom
No rating, 88 minutes