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The woods have been a veritable breeding ground for horror films since horror films became a thing. With themes of man versus nature, movies have long used the mystery and allure of the forest to conjure stories of fear and terror. From The Blair Witch Project to The Forest to The Witch and countless in-between, things hiding in the trees have been fodder for nightmares since time immemorial. Recently, the horror genre has been experiencing a shift away from intense graphic gore to more psychologically draining experiences with many finding ways to mix the two. While writer/director Eric Blue‘s debut leans more toward the mental than the visual in terms of scares, it is nonetheless effective at both, pitting young campers on the edge of insanity against a menace that is slowly tearing them apart.
After a brief, tense, Predator-like moment in the woods with two hunters, it starts with Zoe (Rae Olivier), a twenty-something woman who quits her job to take a guided ten-day hike on the Appalachian Trial to fulfill a destiny she thinks links herself with her father. Two boys, brothers Brian (Jason Burkey) and Cheese (RJ Shearer), join as well, Brian her age and Cheese a bit younger. With them as well is a recently divorced software engineer named Dan (Eric Goins), a plump, jovial man looking to explore the great outdoors after years behind a desk. Loaded with gear, they meet Drake (Jon Briddell), their seasoned guide, who seems sketchy from the start, but more so once he leads the group off trail. He has secrets we know but they don’t.
They come upon a few peculiar and grisly scenes, which sets the stage for what would seem a standard monster in the dark-type story, but is in fact, something altogether different. Strange noises, creepy dead animals, and what Zoe at first thinks is a terrible nightmare make them question moving on, but Drake persists and conflicts come to a head. They find only worse. And for us, a challenging conclusion.
Arguably the most important element of any horror film dealing with the deep woods is the setting itself. Turning what most consider one of nature’s most beautiful offerings into something terrifying takes a special kind of attention and the ones that do it right make seeing the shadows between the trees home to the worst we can imagine. Blue does a mostly good job of accomplishing this, allowing the woods themselves to be interpreted as such by the viewer. Cinematographer Jim McKinney, a veteran cameraman on numerous productions, finds a sense of scale to the trail while keep things equally claustrophobic. These campers are essentially lost, and there are moments that keep us feeling as such.
You might have noticed the first sentence describes the film as sci-fi horror, and while that accurately represents the film as a whole, this is not a visual effects film by any standard. The CGI that is used is effectually low-key and appropriately sparse making what is revealed ambiguously nondescript enough to ensure conversations will last long after its over. If that’s your kind of thing. Drake regales in tales throughout of what the legends say are living in the isolated peaks but we are left with intelligent questions when we reach the end. That is in fact one of the better aspects of Tracey Carroll and Blue’s script.
Issues arrive in delivery. While the actors are well-cast and convincing, the dialog can at times be contrived. Blue avoids overtly populating his cast with too obvious stock characters, and admittedly, filling roles in any group cast raises concerns about diversity and stereotypes, especially in today’s progressively racial and culturally aware society. Still, the model-type male and female leads lesson the authenticity, made worse by the frumpy nerd-guy who needs a lesson in how to properly pack his gear. Olivier is the only woman in the small cast, and (thankfully) Blue wisely doesn’t objectify her (aside from a moment in a river where he can’t resist panning up her mostly clothed body). There is no nudity, which is pointed out only to assert that Blue makes broad attempts at separating his horror movie from most of the tropes. Disappointingly though, Zoe the character is under-written and lacks any effective depth, not entirely a Final Girl, but also not strong enough. There are attempts at making her the leader but feel a bit forced, especially as Brian meekly follows all that she does, something even pointed out by Cheese that generates some tension but is never satisfactorily explored. Drake comes off the best, his character introduction a nice touch that provides exactly what is needed to build tension. It reminded me a bit of Roger Spottiswoode‘s under-seen Shoot to Kill with Tom Berenger and Sidney Poitier, about a group of hikers with a man of questionable intent among them, though the comparisons end there.
Beacon Point will be best remembered for its ending, though there is a lot leading up to it that deserves praise as well. While there are some questionable editing techniques that feel rather retro, the cast is compelling and the direction more than competent. A positive move away from the clichés of modern horror, Blue makes an intriguing first film and reveals promise for what’s to come.
Movie description: Independent sci-fi horror film Beacon Point will make its premiere at the 19th annual Dances With Films festival this June 10th at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
Director(s): Eric Blue
Actor(s): Rae Olivier, Jon Briddell, Eric Goins