It’s hard to pull off a convincing bear attack on film. From the beloved Jaws knockoff Grizzly on down, it’s blatantly obvious that the attacking bear is a carefully-trained animal going through his or her paces via carefully-shot and edited setups. Backcountry is one of a small handful of films to get it right but there’s more to this film than nature-attacks horror. In fact, you could say it cleverly melds its horror elements to a convincing indie-style relationship drama and the combo raises the stakes and both sides of its genre divide.
Backcountry aims a tight focus at the travails of romantic couple Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym). He’s taken her off for a weekend trip to a camping site he has loved since childhood. She’s not entirely thrilled for a great outdoors-style adventure.
Despite a few bumps in the trip’s beginning – the news that his favored trail is cut off from the public, a brief interlude with a menacing tour guide (Eric Balfour) who challenges Alex’s machismo – the two proceed. However, they ultimately run into problems when the overconfident and underprepared Alex gets them lost… and they discover they are in close quarters with a bear who wants to turn them into a two-course meal.
Backcountry shapes up as a pretty effective excursion into survival horror because it doesn’t push the horror side of its agenda upfront. Instead, writer/director Adam McDonald uses most of the first half to bring the audience into the Alex/Jenn relationship, getting them used to the good and bad sides of their nature as well as how they deal with conflict and adversity. Both Roop and Peregrym do subtle, believable work and have the charisma necessary to keep the characters likeable even when they’re showing off their less likeable qualities.
That said, McDonald doesn’t forget tension during this first half. There are a few moments where the audience sees that bear is circling closer towards an attack on the blissfully unaware heroes that ratchet up the sense of danger. The scene where they meet the mysteriously motivated tour guide is also a gem of quiet tension, unnerving the audience in a slow-burn style as the dialogue exchanges unleash subtle barbs that simmer to a moment of socially unpleasant tension.
When the duo realizes they are lost the horror really kicks in, with a shockingly brutal and convincingly staged bear attack that precipitates a final act exploring survival horror in its purest form. The attack and what follows have twice the staying power such moments usually have in a horror film because the audience has been allowed to become invested in a pair of relatable characters. Their struggle for survival doesn’t spare us the casual brutality of nature yet manages to avoid a lot of horror tropes in its staging and scoring – and it is gripping stuff as a result.
Thus, Backcountry is well worth a look for horror fans who appreciate scares that are rooted in reality. The fact that you get one of the rare, convincingly done celluloid bear attacks here is a pretty nice bonus.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just released this IFC Midnight title to blu-ray. The transfer does well by the digital cinematography for this almost all-exterior film, capturing both the daylight material and the naturally low-lit nighttime shots with an impressive amount of color and detail. Both 7.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are included: the 7.1 track was used for this review and it’s an effective, immersive affair that helps build an outdoor sonic ambiance.
There is also a nice little package of extras. A commentary track featuring MacDonald, Roop and Peregrym kicks it off. It’s a relaxed track, with lots of playful teasing, but it also delivers some choice information on how McDonald’s research influenced the survival elements of the script, the physical rigors of the shoot and how those scary bear scenes were shot. A 17-minute making-of piece offers more chat from the cast and crew about their characters, the script and the film’s feminist undertone.
“Bear Shots” is an amusing little video MacDonald shot for the bear trainers, showing what kinds of shots he wanted to use bears for with his cat acting as a stand-in. A behind-the-scenes photo gallery and a subtle, teaser-style trailer round the package out.