“We’ll be lucky to see anything bigger than a chipmunk,” says a weekend-warrior hiker to his skittish girlfriend early on in “Backcountry” — and, if you listen closely, you can hear a chipmunk tittering knowingly at the grisly jackpot to come. A wilderness (mis)adventure of surprising ingenuity and blunt-force trauma, Canadian actor-turned-director Adam MacDonald’s debut feature takes its sweet time building to a startling climax and denouement that are almost impossible to describe without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that if you’re planning dinner and a movie, dinner should definitely wait until after. A fine calling card for both MacDonald and leading lady Missy Peregrym, this IFC Midnight release should do healthy VOD business from genre buffs seeking a few good, old-fashioned scares.
MacDonald has seen enough horror movies of varying kinds to know what audiences expect, and one of the pleasures of “Backcountry” is how skillfully it toys with those expectations, setting us up for something like a mumblecore “Straw Dogs” and ending up somewhere closer to a landlocked “Jaws.” In the same way, MacDonald plays with our understanding of who the characters are, what they want, and how they will function under pressure. At first glance, however, Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Peregrym) seem like exactly the sort of none-too-bright young people who’ve been serving as grist for the horror mill since time immemorial.
With her expensively coiffed hair and ever-present BlackBerry, Jenn looks more prepared for a board meeting than for a weekend in the woods. Alex, meanwhile, does his best Bear Grylls routine to impress his girlfriend, who doesn’t seem especially impressed. The setting is Restoule Provincial Park in southern Ontario, where Alex claims he came often as a child and knows of a secluded mountaintop lake he wants to show Jenn — this despite the warnings of the park’s grizzled old ranger (Nicholas Campbell) that the trail in question is already closed for the season. Ten minutes in, and you’re already secretly hoping for something bad to happen to these people.
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That’s just about when, as if on cue, a mysterious stranger turns this couple’s retreat turns into an unwelcome threesome. His name is Brad and he’s played by the terrific Eric Balfour with a libidinous twinkle in his eye and an outdoorsy confidence that immediately puts Alex on edge. Through a comically thick Irish brogue, Brad says he’s a professional trail guide who’s been fishing nearby and offers to share his catch with his fellow travelers. And while Alex wishes he would just go away, Jenn invites him to stay, setting up a darkly funny game of alpha-male brinksmanship that ends only when Brad decides to go on his merry way. But if we know anything about movies like this, we haven’t seen the last of him. Well, yes and no.
At the core of MacDonald’s script is the idea, endemic to such backwoods tales as “Deliverance” and Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort,” that the wilderness strips people down to their true selves, and that someone — or something — is always trying to mark his territory. It’s also a place where subterranean tensions in a relationship can rise to the surface, as they eventually do for Alex and Jenn, all the while some wonderfully lo-fi special effects — strange rustles and shadows in the near distance — suggest that a lurking presence is watching, and waiting to make its move.
MacDonald ratchets up the tension methodically, the way one turns up the heat on a lobster pot — only here, it’s the audience that’s the lobster. Then things come to a boil in the long scene where Adam and Jenn’s unseen foe finally moves in for the kill — a squirm-inducing gem achieved more through suggestive editing and sound effects (a la the shower scene in “Psycho”) than outright gore. And from there, it’s a fight-or-flight race to the finish, as Jenn hightails it into the brush, determined to outwit, or at least outlast, her pursuer. (Shades of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” abound as well.) The shift in the film reveals unexpected pluck in both Jenn and Peregrym (“Rookie Blue”), who brings a tremendous physicality to the role, suggesting that sometimes the corporate warrior may be hardier than he who can make fire without a match.
“Backcountry” isn’t a fully developed idea for a movie, but MacDonald’s filmmaking is markedly more imaginative and confident than most of the found-footage/DIY shockfests that have defined so much of horror cinema in the post-“Blair Witch” era (including “Open Water,” which MacDonald cites as an inspiration, but arguably improves upon). The movie has an acute sense of the unnerving, whether MacDonald is showing us a mysterious snout pressing against a tent flap, or merely the tall forest pines undulating hypnotically in the breeze (all captured in sharp, steady widescreen compositions by d.p. Christian Bielz). And at each step we are reminded of that age-old wisdom, as true in the woods as in the world at large: Eat or be eaten.