As Jaws once cleared tourist-filled beaches thanks to a Great White threat, Backcountry is certain to make outdoorsy adventurers re-think their next wilderness excursion. Yes, Backcountry is the camping equivalent to Jaws, turning a natural woodland predator into a horrific killing machine with more ferocity than the wildest creatures Hollywood has ever dreamed up.
While bear encounters probably don’t turn into a survivalist’s nightmare all that often, filmmaker Adam MacDonald channels every camper’s worst-case-scenario into a gritty, gory, tremendously tense vacation-from-hell genre experiment that puts animal attack movies back on the map. I assumed no bear-centric horror movie would top the opening scene of André Szöts’ never-completed Grizzly 2: The Predator (George Clooney, Laura Dern, Charlie Sheen – tell me you’ve seen this??), but Backcountry asserts its dominance by once again reminding humanity that Mother Nature’s untamed domain can never be accounted for – a primal realization that rattles even the wildest thrill-seeker.
Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop star as a backpacking couple setting out for a few relaxing days in the wild. Alex (Roop) has been dying to share his favorite hiking trail with girlfriend Jenn (Peregrym), imagining the look on her face when standing in front of a picturesque lakefront scene. Jenn is more of a city girl though, attached to her phone like most of the robotic population of Earth, but she plays along to keep Alex’s spirits from dropping. All that changes once Alex gets the couple lost without a map – led astray by his own outdoorsy confidence – stranding them with limited resources, no sense of direction and no protection from a seedy tracker (Eric Balfour) who can’t be trusted. Unfortunately, a shifty woodsman is the least of Alex and Jenn’s problems, as a bear stumbles upon their isolated camp and presents a ferocious, deadly threat.
Mammal-based thrillers have been relegated to the ranks of SyFy features over the last few years, with Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and Adam Green’s Frozen being the few exceptions, so Backwoods‘ success strikes at a perfectly opportune time. Sharks will always be reused by horror filmmakers (Deep Blue Sea/Shark Night 3D/Bait/Sharknado) and monsters will always be dreamed up (Animal/Exists/ect.), but establishing horror while using a villain found stomping about your backyard takes proper fineness. Hell, can you even call Jenn’s furry stalker a villain? MacDonald’s story highlights the qualities of a true predator – an animal hunting with its own survival in mind – pitting man against beast in a tense, harrowing fight without any blasphemous anti-bear propaganda.
MacDonald continually mounts a relentless sense of dread through atmospheric chokeholds that stink of hopeless desperation, plunging Jenn and Alex deeper into a thickly wooded area without clear passages. Hitting on man’s prevalent fear of uncertainty, the two characters wander aimlessly much like any overly-ambitious amateur explorers might, but their stranded realization turns camping from common to unnerving. MacDonald exploits nature’s serenity by cracking twigs and rustling leaves in the distance, teasing something sinister lurking amidst a sea of trees and foliage, then goes full-slasher mode by dumping TREMENDOUS amounts of gore when called upon (like, levels of “grotesque” you’ll want to forget). Backcountry starts as a suspenseful mystery, as two hikers find themselves stupidly lost, yet once Mr. Black Bear starts poking his snout about, there’s a tonal one-eighty that plunges quickly into a creature-feature mindset that’s only made graver by a dreadful realism.
Backcountry would be an utter failure without a solid chemistry between Peregrym and Roop, yet it’s truly Peregrym who steals MacDonald’s show. As the film starts out, Alex is introduced as a manly woodsman who will guide Jenn safely around the forest while she freaks out over every bug and noise, but there’s a switch halfway through once Alex realizes he’s gotten them both completely lost. To our delight, Jenn comes out of nowhere and composes herself, avoiding an always-whining stereotype who only spirals deeper into a prema donna personality temperament. Peregrym unearths a hidden survivalist from inside and goes through a gauntlet of trying obstacles, always putting perseverance over a quiet forest death.
MacDonald enhances Jenn’s beaten nature by distorting vision and sound when major injuries are sustained, bringing audiences into Jenn’s hellish world. After banging her head on a rather large log, the camera blurs while all sounds are muffled by a high-pitch ringing, like we’d just whacked our own head while fleeing from a monstrous attacker. These editing tricks heighten Jenn’s grave predicament and help MacDonald ensure that tension remains taught, especially when keeping his animal assassin off-camera for as long as possible. Trust me, everything Jaws does right is mimicked on land by MacDonald and his team.
Backcountry brings a vicious bite to the survivalist genre, yet more impressively, it finds a brilliant leading role in Missy Peregrym’s character Jenn. Playing a girl who’s physically destroyed and emotionally drained, Peregrym reaches deep and pulls a hero’s heart out of nowhere, transforming her character completely in only an hour and a half. MacDonald ensures Backcountry is a character-driven piece, as proven by Peregrym, but he also appeases horror fans through offerings of graphic animal maulings and brutal sustained injures. Without such vivid displays of violence, Jenn and Alex’s escape efforts wouldn’t pack such a dire wallop, but as it stands, Backcountry is a wicked campfire treat soaked in blood, scares, and nature’s unpredictable fury.
Oh, did I mention it’s also based on a true story? Sleep tight, campers…