R | 92 min | Adam MacDonald | (Canada) | 2014
Summary: A couple, Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) go camping in the woods. They encounter a bear.
If you want to see a truly terrifying film, forget going to the theater to see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. Spend the money on Backcountry, a 2014 Canadian film that opened in the US in March 2015 and was recently released to video on demand through services like Amazon and itunes.
I was transfixed by this film: it’s simple (deceptively so), beautifully filmed, well-written and acted, and will grip you from beginning to end.
One of the brilliant things about the film is that while it is, on the one hand, thoroughly grounded in the real world—no monsters, nothing supernatural—it is nonetheless steeped in the horror film tradition. Indeed, it brings the naturalistic world into the realm of horror so unobtrusively that you don’t realize what’s happening on first viewing—and so you don’t know exactly why you’re so uneasy when the characters go swimming, when they walk through the woods, when they hear acorns falling.
Relatively early in the film, for instance, as they are hiking in the woods to a trail Alex hiked in high school, Alex and Jenn go swimming. This moment seems entirely innocuous, but the tension inexplicably mounts—perhaps because the camera suddenly moves to a position that replicates a moment in Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980), when Pamela Vorhees (it turns out) is watching the counselors swimming. For a fleeting moment, we get the feeling that someone—something—is watching Jenn and Alex. And maybe without our knowing it, we’re suddenly in a slasher film. Or are we just in the woods?
The film that Backcountry echoes more than any other, however, is The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). As in that groundbreaking film, one character seems to be in control—seems to know where they’re going. They don’t. A map (or its absence) figures largely in both plots. Both films progress through a series of days of hiking and nights of strange noises, of lurking menace. And while Backcountry doesn’t use the found footage / hand-held camera aesthetic, MacDonald does, especially in the last part of the film, brilliantly use the camera to create a dizzyingly subjective perspective.
I have to say, though, that Backcountry surpasses its progenitor. Much was made of how The Blair Witch Project incited the viewers’ imagination, never showing the “witch” or even confirming that there was a “witch.” The three aspiring filmmakers heard and saw inexplicable noises (maybe cackling, maybe animals, or maybe trees) and assemblages of objects (sticks and stones) but nothing that was commensurate with their fear, nothing that explained their disappearance and apparent death.
I too used to think that the absence of the “witch”—along with the confusing shots of the woods that stood in for her—was one of the strengths of The Blair Witch Project; I used to think that it heightened the terror viewers felt. But then I saw Backcountry. Backcountry made me realize that what is there can actually be a thousand times more frightening than what is not.
In The Blair Witch Project, you never know, exactly, what the collections of sticks and stones mean: as objects, they signify obscurely, rippling into ambiguity. In Backcountry, Jenn and Alex step out of their tent one morning and see a snapped branch. What it means becomes blindingly clear—and you come to realize that, yes, certitude can be much more terrifying than ambiguity.
After the fourth night huddled in their tent, Alex unzips his tent. He stares, uncomprehendingly, blindly, and then zips the tent back up. As he whispers to himself, “please be gone, please be gone,” Jen asks over and over, “what is it?” Alex won’t answer, trying to convince himself it will be gone, trying to will what he saw into nonexistence. But he unzips the tent again, looks, and it’s still there. He zips the tent up. Tries to will what he’s seen away. Unzips the tent. It’s still there. Closer. No amount of willing can make this tangible, real creature go away. It is relentless, remorseless—implacable, completely and utterly immune to any human efforts to wish it away, to understand it, to fight it.
Jenn asks, in bewilderment, “What does it want?” She then utters one of the most terrifyingly ironic lines in the film: “We don’t have any food.” Failing to realize they are food. This entire scene—what I just described, what happens next—made me feel more true scared than I’ve felt watching any horror film of late.
Backcountry is in the tradition of other standout naturalistic/survival horror films—Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003), Black Water (Andrew Traucki, 2007), Frozen (Adam Green, 2010), and The Reef (Traucki, 2010). (I’ve discussed all but Frozen in other posts.) Backcountry is even better than these films, though, and not just for its distinctive ability to weave the world of nature with conventions of the horror film. It also contains a fascinating commentary on gender (masculinity in particular) and on relationships; indeed, it is a striking meditation on the hatred, the contempt, that can coexist with love.
This film was one of the best newly released horror films I’ve seen in the last few months. Go see it. After you’ve come back from that camping weekend!