“Sam’s Lake,” a by-the-numbers rehash of countless killer-in-the woods pics, fails to reinvigorate the genre despite a surprise twist nearly three-quarters in. Shot in 18 days in the autumnal splendor of British Columbia, Andrew Christopher Erin’s debut feature grew out of a story he heard about a deranged kid who murdered his family, but despite this kernel of truth, the plot still feels like tired campfire material. Vidstores may do OK with the horror crowd, but theatrical prospects are dire.
On the anniversary of her father’s death in a hunting accident, Sam (Fay Masterson) gathers a group of close friends for moral support and a weekend away at the family cottage. Things turn creepy when they stop for supplies near the house, and the store clerk — the usual inbred misfit — tells them, “These parts ain’t safe this time of year.”
Everyone laughs it off, although little cornhusk dolls around town do spook them a little. Still, the lake is beautiful, and Sam’s infectious pleasure in the natural surroundings makes rural inconvenience part of the fun. The jolly party increases when Sam’s old friend Jesse (William Gregory Lee) comes by, instantly charming Kate (“24’s” Sandrine Holt) with his reticent manner and studly blond looks.
During the inevitable campfire scarefest, Sam tells about a local haunted house where, years earlier, a disturbed teen returned from the loony bin and slaughtered his family. She and Jesse promise the group a good old fright, and off they go to the rundown place, where unexplained noises send everyone screaming back to the car — but not before Franklin (Stephen Bishop) pulls an old diary out of the fireplace, and they begin to read the killer’s entries.
To Erin’s credit, the ensuing bloodbath is low on outright gore, aiming for more heart-pounding tension, but the dialogue is older than the hills and set-ups are equally hoary. Even the overused trick of creating suspense by offering fleeting glimpses of a fast-moving figure in the immediate foreground fails to excite the senses.
The cast is a mixed bunch, although Masterson offers glimpses of intelligence considerably beyond her material. The teen girl crowd will enjoy the sight of a bare-chested Lee, who obligingly keeps his shirt off for the last half hour, looking for all the world like a Tarzan of the deciduous forest.
Sharp viewers will be kept guessing where the light sources come from in the supposedly undeveloped woods. Not surprisingly, vet composer Gary Chang’s incidental music is big on eerie sounds underlining even the most innocuous of actions.