Filmmakers love to cook up all sorts of horrific things that live deep in the woods and enjoy nothing more than stalking, slicing, and/or devouring human beings: masked madmen, soul-hungry demons, legendary witches… you name something scary, and it has probably lived in the woods at some point. (Even Donald Trump.)
But as the new indie thriller Backcountry reminds us, there are few woodland denizens more powerfully intimidating than a big ol’ bear. Viewed from a safe distance, bears are among the most majestic and beautiful creatures on Earth — but if you mess with them in their natural habitat, boy are you in big trouble. Doubly so if you happen to be a character in a horror movie.
Which brings us to Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry, a deliberately-paced but surprisingly compelling indie thriller about an appealing couple who set out to enjoy an isolated weekend of camping — and end up bickering, bloodied, and running for their lives from a massive black bear who seems to have an inordinately strong taste for human flesh. Based on actual events, it’s more of an Open Water-style survival story than a Grizzly-esque wall-to-wall claw-fest, but it’s the low-key, slow-burn, character-based approach that makes all the second-half scary stuff work so well.
The plot is as simple as you’d expect: Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jen (Missy Peregrym) are planning to take a weekend hike through the woods. He wants to trek deep into the forest and find an old trail (and also show off his manly outdoor skills and his navigational prowess), while she is happy to just play along and have a mildly adventurous weekend. Aside from the arrival of a potentially nefarious hiker (Eric Balfour), Backcountry is just two characters, a million trees, and (eventually) one seriously pissed-off bear.
Like many low-budget thrillers that are more interested in tone, tension, and character than simple carnage, Backcountry does ask you to settle in, get to know Alex and Jen for a while, and enjoy some ominously beautiful scenery before the horrific stuff hits the screen. And then it does. Speaking as a guy who has seen virtually every “killer bear” movie you can think of, I’ll say this much: Backcountry‘s first full-bore bear attack is as terrifying as anything I’ve seen in Grizzly (1976), Prophecy (1979), or The Edge (1997). What Backcountry lacks in “body count quotient,” it aims to make up for in tension, suspense, and a few well-timed moments of outright horror.
Given that not a whole lot actually happens in the first half of Backcountry, it certainly helps that the two lead actors are interesting. Alex is a nice, plain guy on the surface, but he’s plainly driven by a need to impress his mate, and we all know how that sort of macho hubris plays out when you’re lost in the woods. Jen is often just playing along to be a good sport, right up until the moment that she realizes Alex is, well, sort of clueless. Their relationship gets more strained the deeper they wander into the forest… and that’s when that gigantic bear starts digging around for exotic snacks.
So if the first half of the movie feels exactly like six(ty) other horror flicks you’ve seen already, I say give it some time to get rolling. Given that most killer bear movies are either intentionally cheesy or unwittingly inept, it’s nice to see a new one that takes the concept seriously and forgoes easy splatter in favor of some strong, simple, sustained suspense.