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 What do you get when you have a TV movie that was originally made for a theatrical release and has been reworked for television broadcast?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.

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