IN A VIOLENT NATURE Bucks Slasher Norms for a Slice-of-Life Look Into a Killer’s Day

Horror comes in an array of subgenre flavors to satisfy the tastes of different audiences. Some viewers eschew copious amounts of blood and brutality, instead opting for lighter fare that infuses comedy into its narrative. Others seek a horror film that leans more into building a tense atmosphere that toys with the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the viewer’s—psychological stability. And some just want to see some good old fashion slicing and dicing in the fashion of classic slasher flicks.

In all of these cases, the vantage point almost exclusively comes from a killer’s target(s) versus the harbinger(s) of death. But, what if we got a story with a slice-of-deadly-life POV from a hulking mass in the vein of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers? How does that shift the experience? Is it one that works better in concept versus execution? Chris Nash’s arthouse horror flick In a Violent Nature takes this brave swing with mixed results. 

The film’s main character and silent antagonist, Johnny, arises from under the brush of an absolutely gorgeous yet haunting Ontario woods after a couple of teens swipe an item that belongs to him. He gets up and goes on a mission to kill anyone who crosses his path, whether they have this item or not. He finds a strange old fireman’s mask and a few solid weapons, including an ax. (Love your look, Johnny.) That’s the overall gist of the film.

His awakening begins the first of several sequences of us walking a few steps behind him as he trudges through the woods in search of blood. It certainly gives third-person video game vibes. This is a recurring instance in the film and, except for the first time, it is not particularly thrilling. Those walks in the woods are brilliantly shot but they always go on for a touch too long. At a lean 94 minutes, In a Violent Nature still feels like it can shave off about half an hour or, better yet, just be a short film.

If you like a preponderance of exposition and a strong backstory, you won’t find it here. Johnny’s main targets are a roster of teens who gather together in the woods for a weekend of fun. Thanks to one guy’s love of spooky campfire tales, we learn the legend of Johnny in a brief plot dump. (Johnny hilariously lurks quietly behind them in the dark woods, even staying in place to join their selfie.) All of the characters in the story are forgettable, save for the person who takes the sole survivor throne. Much of their final moments buck the normal battle royale style of standard slasher affairs while maintaining the actual tension that fans crave. Their frazzled escape makes you scan every corner of the frame for danger. (Unfortunately, this fizzles into an underwhelming ending.)

Johnny the killer in the horror slasher film in a violent nature stands at cliff and overlooks the woods
IFC Films

The lack of character development is probably on purpose, as it is not the victims’ stories. This eliminates the typical emotional sting of seeing someone you’ve built some degree of connection with getting obliterated. So, instead of jump scares, standard slasher tension, and the anticipatory dread of when the killer will emerge, there’s the uncomfortable experience of communing with evil and knowing that each kill will offer sheer brutality. It has a strange way of drawing the viewer in but also not allowing them past an arm’s length. There are no human drama or true interpersonal relationships to grasp.

This stripping of the slasher elements could prove to be alienating for viewers. It is all a bit disconcerting at times, creating a disconnection makes it hard to stay engaged. As someone who experienced this film on my flat screen TV at home alone versus a film festival or general movie screening, I had to run a couple of scenes back thanks to wandering thoughts. So many elements are so quiet (almost hypnotic) that you get lost in the forest of your own mind. The spurts of action are often too sparse to reel you back in.

Now, if you’re all about the kills, you’ll get some thrills. In a Violent Nature doesn’t shy away from this element. Johnny hacks up and disfigures bodies in a couple of ways that I, a longtime horror aficionado, have never seen before. The film uses its modest budget effectively to create gratuitously violent murders, one of which will stick with you for a while. In nearly every moment, murderous or not, the sound design and cinematography reign supreme. Johnny’s sluggish steps, nature’s ambient noises, muffled voices/screams, and more replace a film score to create an unsettlingly grounded environment.

poster image for film in a violent nature
IFC Films

In a Violent Nature boasts an understated and artistic aura but doesn’t shy away from the inherent, well, violence of the wild and, by extension, Johnny’s killing machine persona. Cotton candy sunsets and rotting animal flesh, lush green foliage and decaying trees, peaceful waters and pools of blood are all a part of the experience, the cycle of life, death, and whatever stage Johnny is in.  Who knew that horror could have a soothing element?

In a Violent Nature takes some strong creative swings and performs an experiment with slasher horror. As a tighter film with a steadier pace, I could see this working. But, the sluggish crawls to get to the crux of the story (like, you know why we are here!), lack of foundational lore, and zero characters that etch a notch in your memory left me feeling cold. In a Violent Nature is a flick that avid horror fans will be exploring and discussing. So it’s your choice if you’ll allow Johnny to lead your deep into the abyss of the woods.

In a Violent Nature

In a Violent Nature hits theaters on May 31.

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