One of those intimate, small-cast horror shows that feels like an under-booked guided tour on a weekend city break. You either like the couple you’ve been saddled with for the entire adventure or you quickly realise this is going to be a problem… Of course, BACKCOUNTRY is quite unlike the time in TOKEN HOMO’s youth when I found myself in a minivan on a “Sound Of Music Tour” around Salzburg with just the guide and an elderly American couple for company… we sang-a-long for the entire road trip until our throats were sore (but our Nazi-fleeing hearts were happy).
Adam MacDonald’s BACKCOUNTRY aka Blackfoot Trail (2014) fits squarely into the survival sub-genre where a young straight white couple (for it is usually thus…) gets into trouble in the wilderness and then gets attacked by a beast. The aggressor could be a shark, a ‘gator or, as is the case here, a black bear in search of a buffet.
Self-sabotaging before they’ve even got their feet wet, this is Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn’s (Missy Peregrym) first canoeing and camping trip together. Despite the heavy-handed portentous signals we’re given by the filmmakers – complete with toxic standoff with an Oirish stereotype (Eric Balfour) they meet on the trails – they dumbly don’t seem to realise the potential danger in the wilderness until they’re very lost and it’s way too late.
Despite an overly long setup (it’s entirely impossible to watch these kinds of movies without losing your patience…), the film comes into its own when it matters, and the huffing and puffing ursine anti-hero makes a splendid screen appearance. Any big bear of a certain age will know clambering uphill can leave you breathing hard, and the moment when the breathy bear appears outside the couple’s zipped-up tent is toe-curlingly tense. And of course this bear wants to come inside…
If you’ve ever seen Werner Herzog’s GRIZZLY MAN documentary about the life and death of misguided bear rights activist (no, not that kind…) Timothy Treadwell, you’ll know Herzog sits down at one point, his back to the camera, and listens to an audio recording of the guy’s actual death by grizzlies on a pair of headphones. All we can actually see and hear is Herzog responding to the brutality of Treadwell’s death. Which is terrifying enough. BACKCOUNTRY is unafraid to supply both the shock and the awe.
Despite its overall competence, the film then spirals back out of control. This is one of those rare occasions when I’m tempted to put the blame at the feet of the film’s director of photography. Unless we’re deeply immersed in Roger Deakins’ ecstatic widescreens, or bemoaning the turbulence caused by too much found footage, most of us don’t notice the camera work. But here it entirely gets in the way. As Jenn fleas her loved one’s shredded corpse (oops, spoilers…), she’s naturally more than a little disorientated… However, this point is rammed home in an unending series of extreme close ups and obscuring focus pulls, as the handheld camera swirls repeatedly around her face. Weren’t there ANY other camera setups that could have been used to get this point across? Indeed, the film goes to such extreme lengths to spin her and us out, the ending seems entirely implausible (despite the film’s claims to be based on a true story).
In the battle of (wo)man vs bear, chalk this win up to the beast.
IN BRIEF: In the battle of (wo)man vs bear, chalk this win up to the beast.
Streamed late at night from Amazon Prime Video, 07 January 2021.