Unpleasantly effective “Alone” centers on a heroine who wishes she were just that; instead, she’s got insistent, unwanted company in the form of a probable serial killer. John Hyams’ U.S. remake of a not-particularly-well-regarded 2011 Swedish thriller is an apparent improvement in all departments, with the original’s reported plausibility issues and other flaws subsumed in what emerges a tense, muscular suspense exercise.
After playing the Fantasia Festival’s virtual edition, it gets released by Magnet to theaters and on demand Sept. 18. With its compellingly simple narrative of automotive pursuit and wilderness survival, this is a scary movie especially suited to the surprise resurgence of drive-ins.
Jessica (Jules Willcox) is introduced loading a small U-Haul trailer with her possessions before driving out of Portland, seemingly for good. It takes a while before we learn that she’s leaving in the wake of a grave personal tragedy that’s referenced but not really explained. Regardless, it is in a spirit of distraction and defeat that she is moving onward, getting an occasional call en route from parents who are evidently not happy with her decision. As her station wagon climbs increasingly remote, winding mountain roads, she finds herself stuck behind a black SUV driving with exasperating slowness. It blocks her from passing, then when she manages it, nearly forces a collision with an oncoming semi before vindictively tailgating her. Shaken, she pulls over, which seems to be the end of it.
But then it isn’t. The next day in a motel parking lot, the driver (Marc Menchaca) jarringly knocks on her car window, offering an effortfully sincere if questionably convincing apology for his prior behavior. With his thick blond mustache and wire-rims, he looks like Ned Flanders — or maybe, given a faint malicious gleam in the eye, like Kiefer Sutherland’s smarmy killer in “Freeway.” Jessica finds out all too soon which comparison is more apt. Increasingly panicked by each new “chance” encounter with the same pushy stranger, at about the half-hour mark she suffers an accident that proves no accident, waking later to find herself in dire, captive straits.
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At this juncture “Alone” looks to be abandoning its “Duel”-like buildup for the familiar, unwelcome torture-porny terrain of many a prior horror film dwelling on trapped female victimization. But fortunately, it soon allows the resourceful heroine out of her cage. The story’s majority becomes an equally nerve-wracking but less sadistically lopsided battle as barefoot, wounded Jessica tries to outwit her pursuer over Pacific Northwest backcountry of forest, rain, river and rapids. At one point she’s aided by a chanced-upon hunter (Anthony Heald). But as genre convention (and title) decree, she’ll ultimately have to face off against her nemesis solo.
Though the nameless villain shows every sign of being a serial rapist, among other things, “Alone” is refreshingly free of the exploitative edge common to its general narrative type. Provided almost no character backstory in the script by Mattias Olsson (who also wrote and co-directed its prior incarnation “Torsvunnen” aka “Gone”), Willcox still manages to make a protagonist mostly limited to expressions of fear and physical pain seem a credibly rounded personality. Menchaca’s chillingly underplayed villain is equally convincing in his smug, baiting malevolence, which disturbs all the more once we’ve overheard his banal sweet-talking over the phone to family members oblivious to his homicidal “hobby.”
This is a grim tale only somewhat leavened by the verdant natural beauty of settings well-captured (often in striking overhead shots) by DP Federico Verardi’s widescreen lensing. Those who can take the punishment, however, will be rewarded by a payoff with considerable satisfaction of the schadenfreude type.
Accomplished in all its tech and design departments, “Alone” is easily the best of several recent hunted-woman-in-the-wilderness films, including fellow indies “Ravage” and “Range Runners” as well as the flashier French “Revenge.” It doesn’t necessarily need the structural gimmickry of onscreen “chapter” titles (“The Road,” “The Rain,” etc.), but that’s a minor quibble.