Monday, January 30, 2017
HUNTING GROUNDS (aka VALLEY OF THE SASQUATCH) (2015) movie review
Hunting Grounds (aka Valley of the Sasquatch) (2015) d. John Portanova (USA)
If you go down to the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today
You’d better go in disguise!
-- “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”
The award-winning* creature feature Hunting Grounds opens, predictably enough, with a hunter (Bill Oberst, Jr.) walking in the forest. Writer/director John Portonova highlights these opening scenes with a haunting score, beautiful scenic shots, and sounds of nature that craft the environment as being rich, deep, and honestly creepy. It’s when the hunter hears a roar that sounds like a living avalanche that I go, NOPE! At this point, any other person would leave Nature where it is, get in the car, and head to the nearest comfort of home... but our guy keeps on trekking, implying there is something in those woods that he is after.
Cut to a father and teenage son, Roger (Jason Vail) and Michael (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte), who have been forced to move to an old family cabin, having lost their home due to tragedy and dire financial straits. When they arrive, the cabin has been ransacked with furniture in disarray and a weird fur-like substance hanging from a nail which Michael decides to smell because, ya know, that’s what you do in a strange building that is now your new home.
Roger “asks” Michael to clean up the place while he drinks a beer, establishing their strained relationship that only increases after two visitors arrive: Roger’s brother-in-law Will (D’Angelo Midili), who owns the cabin, and Sergio (David Saucedo), a childhood friend of Roger’s. After an evening that establishes the characters’ personalities (empathetic and understanding Will, disillusioned and sulky Michael, forlorn and accommodating Roger, and misogynistic and cruel Sergio), they head off into the forest bright and early to hunt and “bond.”
Although these male-bonding scenes unquestionably contain some of the best lines, one of the small but noteworthy issues with Portanova’s script lies with the relationships between the characters. I had a hard time understanding Roger’s motivations, why he seems to have more loyalty for his piggish childhood buddy Sergio, who brags about having CPS called on him and constantly harasses Michael, than he does for his own son and brother-in-law. Additionally, Sergio is presented as a one-dimensional character from beginning to end; while he is clearly written to be the antagonist, he just comes off as an ignorant, hate-filled prick.
But let’s get to the main attraction for monster movie fans: the Bigfoot/Sasquatch/Yeti, which here display more humane traits than our ostensible human protagonists. While they aren’t Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, these beasts do possess similar traits of kindness and empathy; when you look back on each interaction they have with the humans, you wonder if the humans are being attacked unprovoked or if the beasts are being attacked by the humans. (Side note: I kept being reminded of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th because no matter how fast any of the central characters ran away and would stop out of breath, the beasts would show up walking along three seconds behind him. Just remember, kids – cardio is key to survival in almost any situation.)
Portonova also hints at three separate reasons why these creatures have emerged but doesn’t give an exact one, which is something that I enjoyed. The Bigfoot characters (presumably all played by Connor Conrad, as he is the only one credited) are appropriately frightening and sweet with their massive size and physical gestures but understanding eyes. I would not be surprised if the FX team was influenced or inspired by the look of the Morlocks from George Pal’s 1960 classic, The Time Machine. Conrad delivers commendably physical performances, utilizing his costumes and make-ups to great effect.
While I did occasionally have issues with some of the dialogue and performances, Portonova does a fantastic job making the audience feel like they are deep in a forest (with exceptional sound design by Jens Larsen and Jon Bash’s musical score), showcasing the deep, rich, frighteningly immense, and isolating beauty of Nature. And, unlike traditional “monster” films, Hunting Grounds makes you question who the real monsters are, the humans or Bigfoots. (Bigfeet?)
HUNTING GROUNDS is set for a February 7th release On Demand, courtesy of Uncorked Entertainment and The October People.
For more of Cati’s writing, check out The Blonde in Front
*Best Sci-Fi/Horror Film, Toronto Independent Film Festival; Best Feature Film, Idaho Horror Film Festival