The horror genre is filled with great movies about animals turning against humans – from the creepy (Arachnophobia) to the campy (Anaconda) to the artistic (Razorback) to the gory (Savage Harvest) to the awesome (Deep Blue Sea) – but the number of legitimately terrifying examples can be counted on one two-fingered hand. There’s Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Lewis Teague’s Cujo and… that’s it right? Seriously, I can’t think of any other genuinely scary movies about animal attacks.
That changes with the release of Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry.
Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are heading into the woods for a weekend getaway that they hope will help bring them closer together. Their relationship has been a bit rocky of late, and while she’s uninterested in the great outdoors he spent his childhood roaming the forest and feels confident she’ll come to appreciate the beauty of the park’s more memorable spots too. The first sign that things won’t be going according to plan arrives with the news that the trail he wanted to share with her is closed, but with his memory as their compass and map they head there anyway.
Tensions rise when they cross paths with Brad (Eric Balfour), a tour guide who immediately starts testing Alex with challenges to his masculinity and veiled advances towards Jenn. They leave the uninvited guest behind, and it’s not long before they realize they’re lost. Frustration leads to fighting which quickly turns to fear, and then things get far, far worse.
MacDonald’s feature debut begins on familiar terrain. A couple lost in the woods, a creepy loner, frightening sounds echoing between the trees at night – but somewhere around the mid-point the wide open spaces they’re traversing close in around them to become an oppressive and claustrophobic nightmare. Every snapped branch or crunched leaf increases the tension, every glance towards the seemingly endless woods suggests someone or something is glancing back – and it’s getting closer.
What was beautiful becomes harrowing, what was inviting becomes threatening and then the film delivers a sequence that may just feature the most terrifyingly crafted animal interaction since I don’t know what. Fear and anxiety morph into pure horror – and I’m not just saying that as someone who recently hiked in Alaska and has plans to return during bear season this summer – this is a breath-holding, fist-clenching, pants-soiling nightmare fuel. The characters’ fear spills from the screen to be met by our own, and it elevates the film from serviceable survival drama to highly memorable thriller.
Peregrym and Roop do good work here as their irritations and fear grow beyond their control, and while the couple is feuding the affection between them remains tangible. We care about them and their survival, and our concerns magnify the terror we feel. Balfour is equally good at projecting a balance of playfulness and menace, but he’s slightly hampered by the addition of a thick Irish accent – Balfour’s not Irish, and there’s no real reason for the character to be.
The film’s biggest stumbling block comes well before the third act tears its way across the screen. Jenn’s inexperience with hiking, camping, etc is well established, but Alex’s abilities are described to us as the mirror opposite. He’s knowledgeable, experienced and well prepared – except he’s actually none of those things. Worse, every single misstep the couple make is directly attributed to him. It’s an annoying character trait that challenges viewers to maintain sympathy, and we only do so thanks to Peregrym and Roop’s performances.
Backcountry doesn’t attempt to rewrite the genre and instead follows a well-worn template as the story falls into place. What makes it special is the care MacDonald gives to immersing viewers into the middle of the nightmare and guaranteeing that it stays with us until the next time we head into the woods.
The Upside: Terrifying animal attack sequences; genuinely unnerving at times; killer third act
The Downside: Alex is lazily written; if Brad needed to be Irish maybe hire an Irish actor
On the Side: There have been fourteen fatal black bear attacks in the wilds of the U.S. since 2000.