Friday, July 31, 2009

PLAGUE TOWN (2008) d. David Gregory

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The miracle of birth is often romanticized as being a blessed and joyous event, but that is not always the case. There are often times when other emotions well up after the delivery of child: sorrow when it is stillborn, anger over abnormality, horror in the face of dreadful mutation. The perversion of children has long been a staple of shocking cinema, from cerebral classics like LORD OF THE FLIES to lesser known terror-fests like WHO CAN KILL A CHILD. When you combine a demented dream with miserable metamorphosis and sinister somberness, you get a motion picture that will be delightfully deranged, and that movie is PLAGUE TOWN.

PLAGUE TOWN is the story of a small “family” unit on holiday in the British Isles. Jerry and his bickering teenage daughters Molly and Jessica are lost in the fields and hedgerows of a quiet rural community accompanied by Jerry’s fiancĂ© Annette and Jessica’s newly acquired boyfriend Robin. While the family squabbles about minutiae and squanders precious daylight trying to find the main road and the bus to safety, they wander deeper into territory that is not meant to be explored and as darkness falls stumble upon a town of nightmares. It is here that the five find monstrosities prowling in the shadows and must battle against a maniacal force of children left to their own devices by the adults who brought them into misshapen being. Before long it is evident why Robin, Jessica and Molly’s lives have been spared while the older adults have been dispatched ruthlessly. Try as they might, a horrific fate awaits the three remaining travelers.

PLAGUE TOWN is a wonderful throwback to a time before ridiculously gratuitous and poorly crafted violence, when movies weren’t replete with cheats and bad CGI, but were about being creepy, disquieting and deeply disturbing in a most psychological and visceral manner. Starting off with some daylight pastoral sequences that were attractive and well shot but without needless grandiosity, the initial onus of the story is on the dysfunction Molly and Jessica’s family and their specific relationship. Molly is dark, somber, troubled and haunted but Jessica is pretty, spoiled, selfish and chatty, and all the while their father is intelligent but ineffective and weak. Both the visual and narrative elements in this early segment of the rising action are an effective feint to distract the film fan from what is coming. The half-seen menace and carefully hidden morbidity are interspersed with some sickening sights that help to move along the patiently woven plot, but without haste or needless waste. As the darkness of night deepens so too does the tone become more ominous, and the imagery (while still thoughtfully constructed) becomes more brutal and twisted. All the while this is happening, the viewer becomes privy to where this saga is likely to end up, but it doesn’t matter. Each and every twist in the tale is luridly painted with the grisly colors of ghastliness that are not predictable and yet are also not overdone. What emerges is a chronicle of madness that creeps over the onlooker like any deadly pestilence, it is slow in the beginning but once the grip has been established, it cannot be thrown off. PLAGUE TOWN ends exactly as a lethal bacillus would, it is wonderfully overwhelming as it winds down into an irresistible gloom.

From a technical standpoint, there is a lot to like about PLAGUE TOWN too. Despite some moments of shakey-camera action and some rapidly edited close-ups, most of this film is well shot, effectively lit and thoroughly atmospheric. Whether it is menacing woods, misty paths and roads, dark-enshrouded houses or murky rooms, each and every stage of the movie is bursting with starkly scary but not stupidly sculpted sights. More often than not, the makers of PLAGUE TOWN obviously know that it is what cannot be seen and is lurking in the shadows is far more frightening than what jumps out at you with a bang and a flash. To further augment the aura of the macabre the music and sound effects of this film are perfectly suited to its look and could be some of the best I’ve come across in a long time. There are child-like musical strains that blur the line between youthful whimsy and the insane notes of a sinister song. Ordinary noises and everyday images blend in a sinuous fashion to become horrible and distasteful, further adding to the impact of PLAGUE TOWN. The actors are not well-known nor are they terribly experienced, but they do their jobs well and deliver steady, stable, convincing performances that are a credit to their craft as well as that of the director and the screenwriters. What was possibly the most effective element of PLAGUE TOWN was it reliance on old-school special effects, especially when it came to creating the look of the deformed children of the town. Instead of over-blown prostheses or foolishly unnecessary CGI, PLAGUE TOWN goes for the tried and true formula of taking something holy and making it profane using very delicate means to taint and distort. The end result is a populace of freaks that is not laughable like the “crazy town” in GYMKATA but possibly more malevolent than the cherubs of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The monsters of PLAGUE TOWN are the ace in a hand full of face cards and when used so brilliantly in combination, it is absolutely unbeatable.

To go along with all these strengths is a bonus features menu that while not a flood of extras, is very impressive for its quality. First up is a superb 29 minute featurette called “A Visit to Plague Town” that is a mix of cast and crew interviews and a look behind the scenes at the genesis and the making of PLAGUE TOWN. Nicely balanced in this mini-documentary is the need for the addition of some film clips with all the fine anecdotes of the principles, as well as a peek at the production process. After that is an equally impressive 16 minute featurette called “The Sounds of Plague Town” that explores the musical and sound effects elements of the motion picture. There is a theatrical trailer and for those wise enough to take advantage of it, an outstanding audio commentary with director David Gregory and producer Derek Curl. As has been the case when I’ve had dealings with the films David Gregory has been involved with through Dark Sky and Severin, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences and am now looking forward our next meeting of the ways.

PLAGUE TOWN is the proof needed in this modern degenerate age that old-style creepshows can still be made, can still be chilling and can still delight a viewer. We don’t need to take the ill-advised road of torture porn or the unsatisfying plunge into the action/horror film. Imagery can still be subtle and yet sublimely scary. The cadence of the flick can be patient without being slow, the gore can be unsettling without being tedious and the premise of the narrative can be intelligent and yet still evocative. If you once loved the wonderfully morose and yet stylishly gaudy horror epics of Italy and Spain from the 1960s and 70s like HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB or THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE, then PLAGUE TOWN is your cup of tea. Understand that the brew will not be sweet, but acrid and bitter, but that is what real horror movies are all about. It shouldn’t be a pleasant ride through the Fun House, but a bloodcurdling swoop through the graveyard, twig fingers grasping at you and howls freezing your blood all the way.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

NATURE’S GRAVE (2008) d. Jamie Blanks

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

The wilderness has long been a domain mankind has had a uneasy relationship with, and as such it has caused us to form a sense of attraction and revulsion. Most people today would say that wild places are a realm of beauty and serenity, but in our not too distant past, hardy souls like the Pilgrims thought differently. The early North American colonists viewed the Great Outdoors with emotions akin to enmity and deeply-seated mistrust, a haunt of darkness and a place of rough savagery desperately needing to be “subdued”. In today’s world of respect for “green” and political correctness, painting the wild lands in a light other than the most reverent of tones just isn’t done. Certainly “monster” movies dealing with forces of nature make the beasties out to be baddies, but to demonize the back country just isn’t proper anymore. NATURE’S GRAVE (aka LONG WEEKEND) is a film with some clear strengths and an equal number of glaring weaknesses, and possibly because it is of Australian origin it is a bit more daring than the average American flick, since it takes a tack that isn’t too common today by pitting man against both himself and Mother Nature in a desperate battle for survival and ending up the loser.

NATURE’S GRAVE is the story of Peter and Carla, a 30-something married couple struggling with intense relationship friction borne of grave past mistakes that have created cracks that reach to the core of their commitment. In an effort to rekindle their dying romance, Peter makes plans for a camping trip on “Moondog Beach” where the surf is up and the landscape is untamed. Despite Carla’s misgivings and a strong penchant for more “civilized” surroundings, they make the long trek to meet some friends and get some “R & R” over a long weekend. Small problems begin to bedevil them and darker hints at trouble to come arise, even as Peter and Carla’s efforts at marital renewal sputter and then die like a candle left in a sconce too long. As it becomes increasingly obvious they are unable to combat their personal demons, Peter and Carla also become aware that something sinister is happening at “Moondog Beach”. Before long, they are racing to escape the noose that is being drawn around them and escape the snare that seems intent to snuff out their lives even more effectively than they squelched their love.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, there is a lot to like about NATURE’S GRAVE. Except for the last act of the film where a small degree of shakey-cam is introduced (probably for the reason of intensifying the instability of the situation and the characters), most of this movie is well shot, even superbly filmed. There is a multitude of spectacular landscape scenes starting right from the opening credits and going all the way to the end of the action. Whether it is panoramic vistas of sky and surf or beach and brush, if it was the purpose of the film makers to tempt the viewer into visiting Australia and increasing tourist traffic there, they could have scarcely done more. NATURE’S GRAVE is absolutely breathtaking during much of its run and the impressive thing is it is done both on the big and small scale. The small-set camera work looks very compelling, just as the expansive scenic views were simply staggering. Someone who had been deeply inspired by the awesome scope of the Australian coastlands scouted locations with a fervor that is evident and then the film crew shot those exteriors with equal passion. In addition to stunning visual components, there is a subtle but engaging incidental music score and soundtrack that helps in developing the sense of tension and threat that slowly builds in this motion picture. Like any good play, NATURE’S GRAVE is totally focused on the two main characters, stays in one general place for the duration and requires the onlooker to experience their pain without distraction. As a result, a degree of emotion counter to the joyousness of the landscape photography is created by the plot and setting concentration and the contrast between the two is a strength that can’t be overlooked.

From a story and character’s point of view, NATURE’S GRAVE has its problems. For the average American horror fan raised on gruesome slasher fare or psychologically bruised by torture porn, NATURE’S GRAVE will feel sluggish, maybe even slow. It is a VERY patient film that takes its time getting where it wants to go in the end and if you are not willing to give it the time it needs, NATURE’S GRAVE will likely end up as a disappointment. The story works hard to strike an early balance between drama and thriller with little about it that would cause it to be considered a horror film. Towards the middle of the narrative, the drama element takes center stage and for those hoping for the action to intensify, this is where NATURE’S GRAVE might lose them. It is only towards the end when the “wheels have come off” that the thriller/horror aspect of the film reasserts itself and the payoff occurs. Most may be able to see what was coming in the conclusion, but it is a spectacularly gloomy and grisly downer ending, and for someone like me who is sick of “safe and happy” denouements like WHILE SHE WAS OUT, an audacious finish like NATURE’S GRAVE where bad things happen is a welcome change of pace. From a character perspective, NATURE’S GRAVE has more problems for there even tough there was a dark and unpleasant chemistry to Peter (James Caviezel) and Carla (Claudia Karvan), there are difficulties that tainted the ultimate outcome. Both actors are screen veterans and know how to portray their characters effectively, but the problem lies in the way they were scripted. In an effort to create the successful downer ending and play up the angle that “Mother Nature knows best”, Peter and Claudia are callous, uncaring people who start as slightly unsympathetic and steadily degenerate into deeply disagreeable characters. Their dysfunction and dislike for each other is poignant and very patiently developed, but the plot concept is that the viewer will come to take sides against them if they are detestable. This is always a mistake and it does not work once again. However, if we had come to root for them had they been sympathetic, then the climax would have been even more predictable, but possibly more heart-wrenching. In the end, I did not abhor Peter and Claudia as too often I do when screen roles are crafted to be somewhat loathsome, but I could not fully relate to them nor their ultimate fate, fascinating and wonderfully gruesome as it was.

NATURE’S GRAVE has an even greater weakness than pacing or character development and that is a total lack of dvd extras. There are two auto-play trailers at the head of the main menu and that is it. I realize that companies are cutting back in these tough economic times, but so are consumers. To charge more than $20 retail for a dvd and then not to include any extras is a colossal blunder. Film enthusiasts want to know more about a project. James Caviezel was Jesus in PASSION OF THE CHRIST and to not talk to him about NATURE’S GRAVE or to not include a commentary with director Jamie Blanks who was also the main editor and created the music is an enormous faux-pas analogous to going on a safari expecting to see kangaroos and getting wombats instead.

NATURE’S GRAVE is a film that is probably not marketed appropriately. The dvd box art and tag line are likely to attract classic horror or monster movie enthusiasts, but that is not what this film is about. It isn’t an overt action or thriller rocket ride, so people expecting an adrenaline rush will be disillusioned. It is clearly not going to attract viewers wanting to see a drama, but that element may be its strongest suit. If you want to see a very patient movie about people who put themselves into a terrible fix and then fall apart at the seams, all the while surrounded by some glorious scenery, NATURE’S GRAVE is right up your alley. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people in that narrow demographic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD (2009) d. Alex Horwitz

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

It is always nice to do something a little different. Since 2006, Saturday Fright Special’s Fangtastic Features has seen A LOT of feature motion pictures pass through our hands, many of which we have reviewed. The only problem is that feature films, like novels, can get a little formulaic, and it is nice to “step outside the box” every now and then. Just as reading short stories is a superb change of pace for the literature buff, short film formats are a very welcome diversion for the movie lover. ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD came to us from Strange Case Films, and it stars two veteran performers of note, Adrienne Barbeau of THE FOG and CREEPSHOW as well as John La Zar of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Teaming up two iconic actors in a short feature (21 minutes) dealing with a topic that is a hallmark concept of the horror genre feels like something right out of The Twilight Zone, and that is exactly the kind of impression that ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD leaves you with.

ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is the story of Dr. Ben Jacobs and his wife Alice. Dr. Jacobs is the world famous creator of the Z-Virus serum, which saved the planet from the devastating effects of a contagion that ravaged the populace and the infrastructure of The Earth. Slowly struggling to rebuild society with the help of the temporary salvation of the serum, Dr. Jacobs’ attention is less focused on the renewal of the world’s life and more on his own personal goals. His wife Alice, thought to be long dead as a result of the Z-Virus, is living in seclusion in their home, still heavily infected by the insidious plague. Dr. Jacobs races against time to save Alice from total surrender to the bacillus, but in giving way to his undying love for his wife, Dr. Jacobs makes a series of ethically questionable choices leading to a sequence of terrible outcomes and then final disaster.

For anyone who ever has watched a George Romero movie or the film THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, there is nothing surprising about the story of ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD, but it doesn’t matter. ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is a tale of all-consuming love and how terribly blinding that can be to a person who should be calculating the cause and effect nature of their actions. It is a story built around the juxtaposition of romance/beauty and revulsion/horror. The plot is spun patiently and moves in gentle waves towards a climax that you know is coming but cannot turn away from. Like a good Greek tragedy, the viewer hopes for salvation, knowing full well that catastrophe looms on the horizon. What is most interesting about the narrative of ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is that its quiet beginnings and steady progression towards calamity are deeply reminiscent of older anthology television series like One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery or even Dark Room. It is only a few curse words and the bloodiness of the climactic scene that separate ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD from its TV cousins and land it firmly in the genus of short film.

From a technical standpoint, there is also a lot to like about ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD. It is well shot and well lit, the sound is crisp and clean and the acting is clearly that of seasoned professionals. While ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is a dark tale and the lighting scheme is clearly meant to be “ominous and moody”, I can clearly see what is going on without straining my eyes, as is too often the case when it comes to most modern camera work. There are no deleterious effects of “shakey-cam” either as well as no mumble-a-thon epics. Like a well-made TV episode of yore, ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is competently done. Watching the narrative progress, I was struck by the fact that in a short amount of time I was no longer looking at actors I knew so very well, but at the characters they had become. The contrast of the coldly logical and barely animated but haunted Dr. Jacobs and the hardly contained, distinctly unglamorous and yet repellingly creepy Alice Jacobs was brilliantly done. Their heartbreaking love and even more horrific end was palpably powerful and that was as much a testament to the acting skills of Adrienne Barbeau and John La Zar as it was to a tried and true story that I had seen done many times, but still enjoy.

For those who enjoy a good short-story in film form and like their imagery subtle at the start and then savage at the close, ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is worth your time. I felt like a kid again sitting down to something that would have fit right into a half hour block like The Twilight Zone. The only thing that was missing was the Alka-Seltzer and Ballantine Beer commercials.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SEA BEAST (2008) d. Paul Ziller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Imitation is often referred to as one of the sincerest forms of flattery. That is certainly the case in the creative world where modern painters pay tribute to ancient masters by referencing their older efforts in new pieces. In the music world, sampling was all the rage a number of years ago, and while it may not have been all that sincere an effort at paying respect, there was a backhanded compliment there to be sure. Photographers often reuse old poses and concepts in their work, trying to update the brilliant ideas that have gone before. I don’t know how many times I have seen that image of Marilyn Monroe revisited where she is wearing a white angora sweater pulled down over her bare legs and set against a red backdrop. In the film world, it is VERY common to see old ideas rehashed or reworked in new films. The problem with such kind-hearted emulation is that if you have a good memory, and I do, and you’ve seen it done before, and I have, and it has been done better, than the end result may not be fully satisfying. Such is the case with SEA BEAST (aka TROGLODYTE), a film that borrows from several older sources, including very ONE famous wellspring in particular, and as a result it has its entertaining moments, but it doesn’t quite live up to some of the more innovative or at least wacky installments in The Maneater Series.

SEA BEAST is the story of the McKenna family, who are a part of a fishing community somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Will McKenna is a down-on-his-luck salmon boat captain whose fortune turns even sourer when a couple of crew members of his ship die under some very uncanny and unpleasant circumstances. Before long, Will becomes convinced that a “sea creature” is wreaking havoc, but no one believes him. This bloodthirsty monstrosity kills quickly and then vanishes, is not completely visible at all times and no one else has been an eyewitness to its ghastly killing methods. With the help of a plucky young marine biologist named Arden and his daughter Carly, Will goes on a hunt to bring down this menace before the rest of the village ends up as fish food.

SEA BEAST has a very good premise that is none the worse for wear, in which some denizen of the deep has come ashore, it can’t be seen and it even evidences predator tactics reminiscent of the angler fish or the “sea devil”. While none of this is terribly novel, it doesn’t have to be. The thought of a slimy, barnacle-encrusted fish-reptile that has the power to cloak itself and then kill in a variety of terrifying manners is perfect “monster movie” fare and can be entertaining for even those of us who have seen this kind of flick or TV episode before. The problems begin when the story begins taking on the elements of JAWS and JAWS 2, not that JAWS hasn’t been ripped off in an thousand ways over the past 35 years. When “sampling” from a famous predecessor, the best way to sincerely imitate is to do so in narrative but not conceptual fashion. For example, SNOW BEAST (1978) borrows from JAWS quite steadily, but since it is a story about an abominable snow-monster and is set in a ski-resort, the parallels are less obvious. In the case of SEA BEAST, the similarities strike the viewer in the face with the force of a cast-iron skillet. The settings are both sea-side villages. The main character in JAWS is a police chief; while in SEA BEAST the main character’s older brother is the police chief. The main character Will however, struggles with people not believing his stories about a monstrous killer, just as Chief Brodie dealt with doubters in JAWS. In SEA BEAST, there is a Quint-like character named Ben who is an old salt willing to sell his life for the kill. The main difference in SEA BEAST and JAWS, beyond the creature that is being hunted, is that a second story emerges in SEA BEAST taken right from the pages of JAWS 2. There are randy teenagers in trouble and threatened by the dangerous beasties, one of them being the main character’s daughter. If that weren’t enough, the demise of the villainous and venomous bottom-feeder in SEA BEAST bears a striking similarity to the death of the Great White in JAWS. I’ll say no more. To add to the pig-pile, if you like further references from the past, there is even a pair of scenes where the characters prepare to do battle with the creatures by creating weapons from handy-dandy objects lying around and fortifying their dwelling against all manner of fishy assault. To anyone familiar with 1980s television, this felt right out of The A-Team or McGyver. At no time during SEA BEAST did all of this imitation of older plot concepts and story ideas feel like thievery, rather it truly felt like sincere flattery by utilizing a proven formula. The difficulty here is that for veteran film lovers, instead of feeling fresh and creative, it will only feel worn-out and hackneyed.

On a technical level, SEA BEAST is a mixed bag. There is some lovely photography of the soaring ocean side cliffs and islands where this film was shot. Many of the shots were done at sunset or on bright, colorful days, or on misty, foggy mornings. As a result, a viewer is briefly treated to some thoughtful and well-executed camera work on occasion. Most of the shots of the characters are effectively done as well and the scenes are well lit. Unfortunately, that kind of quality is not consistently seen throughout the picture. The action scenes suffer from the modern plague of being shot too close, edited too rapidly and they evidence hand-held techniques or replications of those tactics that continue to induce nausea and frustration in the movie-lover. The visual effects are also of low quality at select times as well. While the creatures themselves are passable, the storm-tossed boat scenes to open the film are appallingly bad and looked no better than an old video game. The same can be said of the conflagration that ends SEA BEAST. I’ve seen more convincing flames drawn on my student’s depictions of the Battle of Fort Sumter. To add to the sense of mediocrity, the acting in SEA BEAST was not stellar despite the cast being a mix of seasoned adults and young people. Some of the cast has clearly had some experience in the acting world, but most of the performances were a little flat, not bad, just uninspired, as if the cast members realized they were walking over a well-traveled path and felt like their efforts were not going to be enough to enliven this somewhat weary old nag. Was it me or did the two female leads, Miriam McDonald and Camille Sullivan look suspiciously like Tory Spelling and Kate Winslet? More sincere flattery here in the form of imitation or was it my imagination?

As has been the case far too often with a Maneater Series disc, there are NO supplemental features. In the case of SEA BEAST, part of this may be somewhat forgivable since there aren’t many recognizable names, Corin Nemec (of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose fame) being the lone exception. Herein lies another problem. If you’ve got a film that may not have much zing, you’ve got to do something to jazz it up. Why not put in a screenplay writer’s commentary or a short director’s interview? With that addition, you inject immediate interest and the astute film-lover can find out answers to questions as to why SEA BEAST was so imitative and why the cast seemed to sleep-walk their way through this motion picture. Including only four auto-play trailers at the opening before the Main Menu engages continues to not be a Bonus Features section. I feel like a broken record saying the same thing over, and over, and over, and over, and……, sorry, I thought I was an RHI-TV dvd producer.

SEA BEAST is not a bad film and it could be very entertaining for someone not initiated in JAWS lore or other cinematic elements emulated throughout its entirety. In the end, I wasn’t bored or disgusted, as I too often am by what passes across my desk. Having said that, I felt like SEA BEAST was a missed opportunity. Any story about ocean oddities munching on people’s parts and snacking on their sinews has something going for it. Why not make the salt-water baddies Wall Street anarchists who hijack a jetliner to New York and start snapping at financiers and insider trading scum in an attempt to manipulate the commodities market? An insane idea I realize but it might have worked and it would certainly be new and out of left-field. Remember, I thought of it and expect a cut when WALL STREET WALLEYES becomes the next big cult classic.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

BACKWOODS (2008) d. Marty Weiss

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It has long been the province of “TV Movies” to follow trends and emulate the successful concepts of popular films. The problem with such behavior is that TV movies often do not have enough money nor do they have the freedom (due to censorship rules) to do all that they would wish. The special effects of a derivative TV Movie may not be as impressive and neither will the more “provocative” story elements. For nearly a decade, “torture porn” has become one of the more shockingly chic subgenres of the horror film universe despite its exceedingly distasteful qualities and for some reason such fare continues to make money at the box office and in DVD rentals. It was inevitable that TV movie versions of this loathsome offshoot of the purer horror strain would emerge. What do you get when you have a TV movie that was originally made for a theatrical release and has been reworked for television broadcast? You get BACKWOODS, which despite a weak start and some obvious difficulties, has some praiseworthy characteristics and may find its audience, a narrow one to be sure, but still a potential achievement.

BACKWOODS is the story of a group of corporate twenty-something gaming software engineers and managers who are sent on a “paintball retreat” in order to hone their business and leadership acumen so that their usefulness to the company will be increased. Once out in the wilderness of Jasper Park, CA, the group begins to amuse themselves with chicanery and drinking, but never losing their focus as to why they are there. All the while the execs are preparing for their “battle”, they are unknowingly being observed by eyes with the most malevolent of intentions. What no one knows is that this is the domain of a religious/para-military community/family who have annexed the land and is ready to fight and kill to maintain their bizarre way of life. Our “heroes” are captured and subjected to imprisonment, torture and outlandish rites, all aimed at the furtherance of a mystical/political doctrine that relies on breeding new members for the cult. The office types are forced to fight tooth and nail for survival or they face worse than death.

BACKWOODS did not look promising and it started with even less promise, but fortunately, that did not stay that way. The dvd box design was obviously created for the purpose of luring fans of SAW or HOSTEL into watching/buying this disc. The horrendously irritating openly credits with their herky-jerky and furry-blurry filming and editing style, mixed with “extreme” speed metal musical accompaniment, made me almost pull this dvd out of my player. That desire arose again when I was treated to the miserably unpleasant and asinine behavior of the main characters, which never really abated until the last one-third of the motion picture. For anyone who dislikes absolute blockheads as characters and abhors modern film-making techniques, you have to trust me that neither lasts the length of the movie. What actually gave me hope was that there were some early landscape scenes that were shot VERY well and added a sylvan charm and visual splendor to BACKWOODS. While not up to the level of THE FOREST or even GRIZZLY PARK, that immediate goodwill went a long way to restoring my faith in BACKWOODS. After that, I noticed that the indoor sequences were well lit and shot competently too. As a result, my confidence rose a little more. There were continued issues with the visual sequences throughout the run of BACKWOODS. Too many of the scene fades/dissolves or cuts were augmented with “cool” new effects that just stink and don’t add any sense of suspense, but rather make a movie feel more like a cheap kids’ cartoon. However, every time my exasperation level climbed, an outstanding exterior scene captured the grandeur of the excellent setting or a compelling and colorful interior sequence was utilized and I was drawn back into this flick.

The story followed a similar pattern, and since that means it got better, for those who are patient, they may be gently rewarded. Even with the obvious set up of the captured hikers and their creepy abductors, and even with some very well constructed “implied” torture porn sequences to further flesh out the set up, the first one-third of BACKWOODS is slow and struggles with focus. There are sequences like the “swimming hole” scene that felt like padding and that may have been the case considering this is a short feature at 84 minutes. It is after the main characters are captured and as we are exposed to the “Mother and her Family” and their reasons (religious, political and capitalistic) for being out in the wild that the narrative takes on some real profundity. Rather than going down the all-too-often used route of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which has been aped too many times by movies like WRONG TURN or THE HILLS HAVE EYES as well as so many others BACKWOODS borrowed from films like BELIEVERS and made the bad guys less bestial and more bellicose. As a result, we leave behind a messy opening that has little or no menace and enter the meat of the film where bad things are happening, worse could be yet to come and some sincere suspense is created. While we know what the outcome is likely to be and it does turn out exactly that way, at least the path was a little less clearly marked and the minor surprises along the way made me want to watch a little more. The acting was inconsistent, but there was enough of a mix of screen veterans like Mark Rolston and Deborah Van Valkenburgh and promising youngsters like Ryan Merriman to overshadow some of the overacting. Haylie Duff’s performance is unremarkable but not bad and with some more experience and coaching, she may have a future in the business. Certainly she added some impressive eye candy to a flick that couldn’t deliver on all the goods that most people would want to see, but the young Miss Duff fills out her clothes nicely and writhes on a bed bound and helpless with the best of them, and I am sure plenty of teenage boys will enjoy both.

As is too often the case with RHI-TV movies, there are no extras on this disc. There were a series of auto-play trailers and that was all. While I have railed about this topic many times before, I must admit even greater disappointment this time around. BACKWOODS was meant to be a theatrical release supposedly and as such, most theatrical films are shot with supplemental features in mind for the DVD release. Those bonus goodies needed to be on this disc and since they are not, it does not increase the chance of BACKWOODS garnering an audience, it decreases it.

BACKWOODS may be a hard sell to audiences for another reason. Since the “torture porn” aspect of the film is downplayed, those who find pleasure in drek like CARVER will be disappointed by the lack of filthy content in BACKWOODS. All the terrible things except some of the gore are implied and you never really see rape or brutal savagery visited on anyone. In addition, those who want another HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES will not get it either as this is a simpler film without the budget or the balls to go that direction. However, for anyone who is not familiar with this subgenre or does not have the intestinal fortitude to sally forth into sicker, more depraved or at least some insanity-inducing motion picture mayhem, BACKWOODS may be exactly the ticket. It is violent without overdoing it. It strongly hints at grotesque goings-on without actually taking part. The story has some rather impressive gaps in logic, and the characters can be real pricks in the earlier sections, but both get somewhat better. This is not a great film, it isn’t really a good film, but it was watchable and that is high praise in these degenerate days. Enjoy the beach-girl appeal of Haylie Duff, bask in the glorious outdoor footage and then realize there really are disturbing groups like this out there in the wilds of Idaho and you might feel a little frisson up your back, which is more than I can say for SAW, which left me with a shudder in my bowels.