The Barge People is a 2018 film from director and producer Charlie Steeds, who has released nearly a dozen lower-budgeted horror films such as Winterskin, Escape from Cannibal Farm, and The House of Violent Desire over the previous six years or so, with even more titles currently in production. While Steeds writes many of his own films, The Barge People was written by Christopher Lombard, serving as his first script developed into a feature-length film. After spending some time in post-production limbo, The Barge People was released (in the US) to DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming platforms by Raven Banner Entertainment in 2019. The film also saw release in Germany as “Mutant River“, which is just an awfully generic title.
The first thing viewers will notice is the logo for Steeds’ production company, Dark Temple Motion Pictures. The logo image is slightly fuzzy and features detuned audio, seemingly (and quite successfully) attempting to replicate what one might encounter when watching an old VHS tape that has seen a fair deal of use and/or wear. I point this minor aspect out as it alone does a significantly better job of replicating the feel of 1980’s era horror films than the vast majority of modern horror films that claim to be inspired by or a “throwback” to films of that time. However, as countless modern-day horror fans seem to eat these bullshit claims up, I frequently find myself wondering just how many of them actually watched horror films in the 80s.
The film itself opens with text claiming that over 150 people have disappeared from the area of the Kennet & Avon Canal, an 87-mile stretch of waterway located in southern England, north of Salisbury. With a sinister claim such as this, one might assume that people would stay the Hell away from the area. Then again, no one ever stayed away from Camp Crystal Lake, and look what happened there at least 8 different times! The same applies to The Barge People as multiple characters will be found living, working, and even exercising along the canal as the film progresses. Hey, characters in horror films generally aren’t known for their “common sense”.
The film then segues to what appears to be the interior of a cave, where a young woman attempts to escape from a small group of almost animalistic humanoid creatures. Spoiler: she doesn’t escape. In fact, this is nothing more than a teaser of things to come as the same scene is repeated, and expanded upon, later in the film.
The opening credits roll, followed by a quick scene featuring the implied murder of a jogger by an unseen assailant. While the sequence proves to be unessential to the film’s plot, it does somewhat give away the fate of the woman from the previous scene, who also happens to be one of The Barge People‘s central characters.
As for the actual plot, The Barge People focuses on Kat (Kate Speak, who has appeared in 2019’s Dead Air, as well as a few of Steeds’ other films) and Mark (Mark McKirdy, who appeared in Steeds’ Vampire Virus and A Werewolf in England), a couple who have rented a barge for the weekend in order to travel the canal and enjoy the tranquil beauty of nature. Joining them for the trip are Kat’s sister, Sophie (Natalie Martins – 2015’s Poltergeist Activity, 2017’s Kill or Be Killed… and a few of Steeds’ other films), and her new beau, Ben (Matt Swales, in his only film credit). Ben is a modern-day yuppie; a money-obsessed, young-businessman type who never puts his cell phone down and clearly wants no part of the trip, only agreeing to appease his new love interest. He’s your stereotypical “unlikable douchebag” whose only reason for even being in the film is to cause strife for the other characters and play a central role in what will be the group’s inevitable downfall.
As with countless other horror films of its ilk, the group encounters a couple mysterious figures who serve to foreshadow future events. There’s a creepy old man, much like Friday the 13th‘s “Crazy Ralph”, whose sole purpose for being present is to warn our travelers that they are all doomed. There’s also a “just as creepy, but possibly older” gentleman that they rent the barge from, who advises them to contact him should they encounter any trouble. Granted, he doesn’t expound on what this “trouble” might be, but it’s pretty obvious that he knows more than he admits.
The Barge People, as might be expected, spends a fair amount of time developing Kat and Mark as the ubiquitous “happy couple” who need nothing more than each other’s company in order to have a good time, but spends little to no time doing the same for the other couple, more concerned with ensuring that you know that Ben is, as previously mentioned, an unlikable douchebag. Poor Sophie is really just along for the ride, never being given much of a personality or any other discernable character traits. There’s also some attempt to build tension by repeatedly hinting that the canal is hiding a dangerous secret. However, as we’re told this exact thing during the film’s opening text, and as we have already glimpsed the film’s creatures, and as we have already witnessed at least one person being killed… well, you see where I’m going with this.
As with most horror films, there are a few peripheral characters that meet their demise before any harm befalls our quartet. The creatures themselves remain well hidden, presumably to keep the suspense. This approach, while normally respectable, seems quite odd and more than a little ineffective and ill-advised as these monstrosities are not only featured in the film’s opening moments, but are completely revealed in the film’s trailer, as well as prominently featured on the home media cover art and all other promotional materials. In fact, The Barge People was marketed quite heavily as a “creature feature” before it even saw release. This alone was enough for yours truly to have contacted the director in the hopes of having the film screened at a film festival that I was involved with a few years back.
TRIVIA: In case you were wondering, we were turned down as the film was reportedly unfinished at the time. I was, however, informed that I would be provided with a screener link to the film for review purposes upon its release. As this review is posting nearly 2 years after the film’s release, I think you can tell just how that turned out.
After a minor accident involving another barge, The Barge People introduces a few new characters, namely the somewhat shady couple who are quite upset about the possible damage sustained to their floating home. The situation is quite tense, but (naturally) made much worse by Ben. Of course, this only means that these folks will resurface later in the film to make matters even worse for our hapless vacationers. There’s also at least one other seemingly innocuous character introduced, but any seasoned horror fan will immediately sense that this person will play a larger role in events to come.
Eventually, somewhere near the film’s halfway point, the creatures finally make their presence known. While these entities are undoubtedly the film’s selling point, they might be “spoiled” by this point. The prosthetics used to create these various freaks is initially impressive, but the effectiveness does decline the more that they are shown. And damn, are they shown a lot! The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that these monsters come across as a tad too human. Even something as simple as contact lenses could have gone a long way here.
Nearly half of The Barge People‘s cast are dispatched in an expeditious fashion, with some now serving as dinner for these creatures. While there is an abundance of blood spray on display, the film is surprisingly light on actual gore effects. Now, while I’ve repeatedly stated in the past that gore should never be a measure of what “makes” or “breaks” a film, the lack of grue to be found is a little disappointing. Honestly, it should probably have been one of The Barge People‘s defining characteristics. There’s some validity that it actually was assumed to be something of a selling point, with many horror websites extolling the film’s gore before it even saw release. We’ll just assume that many of these writers focused too intently on the sole moment of gore featured in the film’s teaser trailer and jumped the gun. I know that I sure did.
Thankfully, once the creatures do surface, The Barge People starts to pick up the pace, featuring quite a few somewhat campy action and fight sequences. While these moments are the more “fun” moments offered by the film, (again) the lack of true visceral carnage will undoubtedly lessen the impact of many of these moments for some viewers. The film does climax in what I consider to be a satisfyingly unpleasant manner, although the road leading there may be more than a little predictable. The door is left open for a sequel, but I just see no real need for continuation, at least not without improvement.
The Barge People features surprisingly stronger performances than one might expect from a low-budget “monster movie meets slasher flick”. However, as is far too often the case, these performances are somewhat lessened by the fact that most of these characters, antagonists and protagonists alike, are generally generic and somewhat lacking in common sense. More impressive is the film’s score, by Sam Benjafield, who is the “go-to” composer for all of Steeds’ films. Featuring a modern synth-heavy, also somewhat-detuned, soundtrack (clearly inspired by the early works of John Carpenter), Benjafield does a stellar job of establishing dread and foreboding better than the film’s other elements.
There is an attempt to explain the origins of these creatures, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll wish there wasn’t as it too comes across as cliched and generic. While some have referred to the creatures as “fish-men”, that proves to not be all that accurate. While this has no bearing on the film’s plot, I will admit that I was somewhat saddened to discover that our poster boys weren’t cinematic kin to our friends from films such as Humanoids from the Deep (to which the film was heavily compared) or Screamers (aka Island of the Fishmen). Honestly, you might be better served watching one of those films instead.
The Barge People is not what I would call a “bad” film, mostly because I was never bored with the experience. That said, I just can’t see myself returning for multiple repeat viewings. The film features just enough minor annoyances to keep it from being overly compelling, and that alone keeps it from being praiseworthy. If I had to rate the film on a scale of 0-10, I’d be hard-pressed to give The Barge People higher than a “5”.
As of the time of this writing, The Barge People was available to buy/rent on multiple streaming sites. I, however, found a DVD copy at one of my local Dollar Tree stores. At $1.25, the film may be worth giving a watch, but I just don’t see this as a film that we will be talking about for years to come. Honestly, not many of us are talking about it now.
WARNING: THE TRAILER CONTAINS MULTIPLE “SPOILERS”… BUT THESE DAYS, WHAT TRAILER DOESN’T?