Traveling into the wilderness, writer/director John Portanova tries his hand at the Sasquatchploitation genre. Following his earlier short films with a brand-new effort into the mix, his new film Hunting Grounds offers some solid surprises for viewers tired of the same-old efforts in the style.
Following the loss of their home, Roger Crew (Jason Vail of Tammy and Million Dollar Arm) and his son, Michael (Miles Joris-Peyrafrette of the shorts The Past Inside the Present and As You Are), are forced to move to a new cabin in the woods and use that to reconnect following the years of guilt and betrayal forced upon them. When old friends Will Marx (D’Angelo Midili from The Invoking and Divination) and Sergio Guerrero (David Saucedo from Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Slink) arrive at the cabin for a friendly visit, it turns into a hunting trip into the wilderness where the group manages to encounter the savage creature in the flesh. Seeking shelter, they run into Bauman (Bill Oberst Jr. of CBS’ Criminal Minds and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) who claims to have escaped from a family unit of the creatures out in the wilderness, and upon discovering that their cabin retreat is incidentally inside its hunting grounds, they set out to try and find a way to get out of the woods alive.
Hunting Grounds was quite an engaging effort and style, as it manages to get a lot out of the concept. The film rests a lot on the father/son relationship at the heart of the story, and the first half gets this done particularly well, with the two of them at the cabin basically trying to reconnect with each other. The emphasis on them at odds with each other, the father clearly still not at terms with the death of his wife and the son wanting to grow up and move on in life, brings them to a state where they’re not butting heads. Rather, they have a more realistic disinterest in each others’ chosen activities, yet still try to reconnect and stay involved with each other’s lives. It comes off rather nice and believably, especially in the types of clichéd scenes featuring the son wanting to go into town for something to do and the botched hunting scene in the woods where they all attempt to coerce him into shooting at a deer. It’s a great way to disguise the fact that there’s not a whole lot of action for the first half of the film by getting to know these people.
As time goes on and their hunting expedition turns slightly crazier and much creepier, as there is a slowly-dawning realization that something’s out there beyond the tree-line looking at them, watching and waiting. Eschewing the obvious sounds of grunting or loud, inhuman wails until they’ve already gotten good and freaked out, the film instead opts for the silent assassin waiting in the woods following behind them unseen or continually crashing through the bushes just out-of-sight, which offers up a far creepier experience here and goes hand-in-hand towards building their paranoia rather nicely. The scene where it all breaks down, when they find Bigfoot has invaded their camp and go off chasing it through the woods, works so well due to the hysteria of the moment, and spills out into their series of encounters with the creature and each other.
Given that there’s all the action here in the later half, that’s where Hunting Grounds really gets quite fun. The flashbacks to being kidnapped and held inside the cave offers some nice twists on the traditional Bigfoot mythos by introducing the concept of the family pack that goes out hunting together and living in a family unit, thus letting them have a clearly-defined social hierarchy and behavioral ticks that makes for a much different take on the creatures than expected. They are even shown to have sympathy and compassion to one of their victims, and their sense of cunning hunting strategies makes for some entertaining times in their ambush on the cabin. Wrapped together with real practical effects and some nice gory kills from the creatures, there’s some solid features throughout here.
While it’s all well and good, it does have a few minor setbacks to it. The low-budget nature of the film means that a lot of the time the darkness with which it’s shot doesn’t equate to a really easy time telling what’s going on. Campfire scenes in particular are so dully lit that it’s impossible to make out what’s happening at times, and that these occur during the film’s biggest moments is all the more frustrating. Even the final ambush comes under this problem, as the film manages to really undermine the events where they fight against the creature. The scene is spoiled by the low light present and really brings this one down when it shouldn’t, as there’s too much to like there to have it be held down by being hard to see. Likewise, there’s also the film’s lack of action in the first half, which is where the build-up to the father/son relationship holds the Bigfoot action down to the point of featuring nothing for quite a while into the movie, and it can be a challenging introduction for some who don’t really enjoy that kind of drama in their efforts. These here are what end up holding the film down, even though there’s still quite a lot to enjoy overall here.
Initially released on VOD earlier this year, writer/director John Portanova’s Bigfoot horror feature Hunting Grounds is arriving on Blu-Ray/DVD May 2nd.
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