The woods. Why’d it have to be the woods?
A horror film can take place pretty much anywhere, but there will always be a handful of locales that are used most frequently. Old, creepy houses are ubiquitous, suburbia is becoming more and more commonplace, and the terrors of high school will always be around. For my money, though, the most effective location for a horror film, the one that automatically starts the movie on unsettling footing, is the middle of the woods. From slashers (Friday the 13th) to ghost stories (The Tag-Along) to animal attack flicks (Backcountry), there are nightmares to be found in the forest.
Desolation takes place entirely in the woods, but while it sets the scene well and ups the ante with characters we can’t help but care about, the film fails to take advantage of this gift of nature.
Abby (Jaimi Page) and Jen (Alyshia Ochse) are best friends, and along with Abby’s son, Sam (Toby Nichols), they take a camping trip into the forest that the boy’s father used to love. Recently deceased, his ashes are along for the weekend with Abby planning on spreading them along the way. The hike is an attempt to put his death behind them and to move forward, but life has other plans — and those plans involve more death. The trio notices a stranger (Claude Duhamel) who continually appears behind them on their trail, pausing when they pause, and staring at them in silence. Attempts to communicate with him are ignored, attempts to elude him fail, and soon the time for “attempts” is over. It’s time to live… or die.
Director Sam Patton crafts an appealing film early on with his feature debut by dropping viewers immediately into a remote and direction-less landscape. It’s beautiful and inviting, early on at least, and cinematographer Andi Obarski succeeds in capturing both its vastness and its intimacy as the purpose of the hike comes clear. The darkness that follows is far less convincing. While early shots of the stranger come with a tinge of unease his unsettling presence grows decidedly less so upon closer inspection. His look is less threatening and more goofy, and close-ups leave viewers suspecting young Sam could probably take him in a brawl. That lack of tension translates into later scenes as well, and sequences that should leave viewers on edge instead leave us unconcerned. We know something bad is going to happen, but we don’t feel it.
The film’s greatest strength, and the element fighting against the decreasing thrills, comes in the pairing of Abby and Jen’s characters and the performances behind them. These two are meant to be lifelong friends, and they feel every bit authentic in their conversations, interactions, and behaviors. It would surprise no one to discover the actors are actual best friends as their chemistry is so spot on together. (I have no idea if they actually are.) Their laughter and tears feel real, and that tangible humanity offers a big leg up as the terror to come rears its head. Their concerns are our concerns, their fear our fear — and then everything goes flat.
As successful as the script is in building a strong, believable friendship it fails in the same way that Patton’s direction does. Writers Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas suffer the same fate in that their setup is strong — an impending nightmare built on emotional footing — but the arrival of that terror just diffuses all that came before. Once the stranger makes his move it happens with no suspense or terror, and subsequent conflicts are equally devoid of energy.
Desolation deserves praise for its two female leads as they’re characters we truly believe in and support, but it loses its way as a horror/thriller. An absence of atmosphere, tension, and scares make for an uneventful walk in the woods, and this film predicated on death leaves us interested only in life. It’s a short enough journey at under eighty minutes that its strengths still make it a trip worth taking, but it will be far from your favorite weekend excursion.