I find there to be something special about horror films that rely on grounded, well-crafted scenarios to elicit fear, rather than resorting to cheap supernatural scares, or outlandish schema that serve up a healthy dose of social commentary. That is not to say I don’t appreciate entries consistent with either category, as some of the greatest horrors of all time have been of their ilk, from Jordan Peele’s Get Out and John Carpenter’s The Thing, to the late George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In fact, a survival horror film such as 2014’s Backcountry never truly reaches such heights, but its successful reliance on real-world dangers poses a different kind of fear to audiences, and it is not one easily shaken off.
The roots of its narrative stem from an occurrence in Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park, Ontario, where a young married couple were brutally attacked by a bear. But as is the case with many a film accompanied by the tagline “Based on a true story,” this is where the tenuous similarities end.
Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) set out on a long-awaited hike through the Canadian wilderness, much to the excitement of the experienced Alex, and the reserved apprehension of city-girl Jenn. A few days into their trip, however, the couple lose their way, and what ensues is a desperate fight for their own survival, becoming ever more aware of the territory on which they find themselves.
Reviewing a film like Backcountry is difficult, because the story is so self-contained within its own series of events that only so much can be said without spoiling what I admit is a noteworthy horror. What I can say, to begin with at least, is that I was impressed with director Adam MacDonald’s handling of the relationship throughout. The strong performances from Roop and Peregrym certainly help, but it is MacDonald’s seamless direction of the onscreen relationship that builds a firm foundation of relatability, making me care about them not only as individuals, but as an inseparable unit also.
It is when Alex and Jenn eventually discover they are lost that MacDonald’s character building truly takes flight, revealing itself to be the true centre for Backcountry’s tension and horror. All the while, the direction and performances are elevated by fitting camerawork, which can be unnervingly intimate at the right moments with its use of handheld cameras and shallow focus.
Where the film falters, though, is in its use of overtly typical horror clichés that ultimately removed me from the experience. One instance is that the screenplay relies too heavily on intensely obvious foreshadowing early in the film. The more grievous of the missteps, however, is the hurried introduction and exit of Brad (Eric Balfour), an Irish guide in the park. Even when putting aside Balfour’s laughable accent (exacerbated by the fact that I am from Ireland myself) and my confidence in there having never been an Irishman named Brad, his role is still an obvious one that has been done time and again.
To better understand where I am coming from, see if this sounds familiar: a strange individual comes along and briefly joins the lead characters, grants context for events that will crop up later on, all the while instilling an air of creepiness and tension before leaving again. It is a role that can be traced all the way back to the hitchhiker in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, and likely even before that. This scene amounts to nothing more than filler for both its narrative and the tension that had been absent since its opening, damaging the immersion I had experienced up until that point. It is fortunate, then, that the scene is quickly brushed aside for what is the most riveting series of events in the entire film.
Thus Backcountry is at its best when focusing on the character-driven elements of its story, which is often so well executed in the name of horror that I can forgive MacDonald for his use of the genre’s tired tropes. Whether you are jaded by the steady flow of supernatural horrors and seek thrills that do not extend beyond the realms of possibility, or are simply a fan of the genre with an appreciation for atmospheric tension, then I wholeheartedly recommend Backcountry.