Dir: Christopher Denham
Written by: Christopher Denham
Starring: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber, Aaron Staton
Running Time – 90 mins.
UK Premiere: Frightfest 2014
A family on a hunting trip in the woods wake up in the morning to discover their tent and all their camping gear missing. In the harsh wilderness, the family soon realise that the X on each of their foreheads represent that the hunters have become the hunted…
Actor turned director, Christopher Denham’s sophomore effort follows what appears to be quite an unremarkable family who suddenly find themselves thrown into a life or death situation. Whilst it does very little to reinvent the wheel, it is worth highlighting the undeniable talent that shines through.
The majority of the film is restricted to its three principle actors, with two brothers in Sean (Schreiber) and Mike (Staton) with Mike’s wife, Wit (Schmidt). The rapport and interaction between them feels genuine and like a real living family. This, unfortunately, makes their clunky dialogue that much more of a let-down. Revealing necessary bits of exposition, such as Sean’s discharge from the military, through the use of mapped-out, solely plot-driven interactions, feels forced and uneven. Nowhere is more evident than when Sean recounts a Greek myth which more or less spells out that Wit is to be the sole survivor of the film. This removes any sense of dramatic tension as to who will survive their ordeal and leads to an overbearing sense of predictability.
Despite her character arc being preset like a GPS route, Schmidt is able to make Wit feisty and determined, easily getting the audience on her side. Her progression from mild innocent to bloody avenger is organic and well developed. Whilst it is fantastic to see an independent female character overcoming the odds, the narrative structure of hunters becoming the hunted and then turned around again is overdone and all too familiar.
Initially, the film feels as though its focus is going to be on the questionable mental state of Sean. Considering the identity of the real antagonists, it feels like a missed opportunity that the film does not go down the more engaging path of post-war stress syndrome that it seemed to be so brilliantly setting up. It is never properly explained as to why Sean was discharged and his skill with weapons, combined with seeming affections for his sister in law, could have resulted in an emotionally-led stalker thriller.
Once the killers are unveiled, there is, sadly, a great sense of deflation and loss of intrigue. With their incredibly cheap Halloween masks, the film goes from an intriguing slow-burn build up to a lazy, stereotypical hoodie horror. Spotty slashers are one thing but the film really shoots itself in the foot with a highly risible slo-mo scene of them riding their BMXs in an attempt to look intimidating. With the promise of a potential psychological piece so cruelly snatched away, to be presented with a trio of text-speaking adolescents leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
It is always problematic whenever the logic behind the killers’ actions can be explained with a ‘just because’. Such logic is unsatisfactory and the film never attempts to properly give the teenagers any true sense of identity or purpose. We see that one likes to play violent videogames on his smart phone, which could be the film’s attempted message that videogame violence breeds actual sadistic tendencies. Hopefully, this is not the case as it would have made the film feel akin to lazy tabloid scaremongering.
All the faults with the antagonists to one side, there is a chillingly effective scene involving one on the phone to his mother. With Wit tied to a table behind him, the boy cheerfully tells his mum that he’ll be home soon with an air of innocence that brilliantly gives nothing of his brutal true nature away.
The film’s standout quality is just how immaculately it is presented. Eschewing the grimy dull sludge colour scheme that usually accompanies hoodie horror, the cinematography is, at times, breathtaking. The sense of total isolation is perfectly captured as the trees and mountains seem both vast and impenetrable. Whilst seemingly idyllic, the elements of the hot, secretive and dry forest are superbly another foe the characters have to contend with. One murder scene takes place beautifully illuminated by the hazy light of emergency flares, whilst another features a porta-loo.
It seems ridiculous to imagine but Denham conjures up a scene of extreme tension when Mike finds himself under siege in such a confined space. The tight and constrained camera angles combine with machetes attacking from all sides; create a real piece de resistance of terror in the most unlikely of settings.
It feels a shame to have to lump this film into the hoodie horror category when it shows such signs of true innovation. It is head and shoulders above its peers but for Denham’s directorial career to flourish, he must avoid falling back onto lazy tropes in future. A well-acted, beautifully shot film that, frustratingly, could have been so much more.