On New Year’s Day, someone asked us on Twitter about our favourite creature feature films. Ryan Schifrin’s Abominable was brought up, and it got me thinking about how badly I (still) need to see Willow Creek and Exists (which I lamented about in my review of Throwback). Coincidentally, John Portanova’s Hunting Grounds (also known as Valley Of The Sasquatch), which is set to be released On Demand February 7th, landed in my inbox over the weekend. I think the horror gods are telling me something. Better go appease them…
After the death of his wife, Roger Crew (Jason Vail) has fallen upon hard times. Unemployed and homeless, Roger takes up residence in the family cabin as a last resort with his son, Michael (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte), who is also having a difficult time with his mother’s loss. As a temporary reprieve from their situation, Roger is visited by his brother-in-law, Will (D’Angelo Midili), and his best friend, Sergio (David Saucedo), for a weekend of hunting. Unfortunately for the group, friction between Roger and Michael begins to reach its peak. Making matters worse is when the group happens upon a tribe of Sasquatch, who are not pleased with the intruders.
Rather than be a full-on film involving Bigfoot from the get-go, Hunting Grounds starts out as a character piece, focusing on the relationship between Roger and Michael. We learn the details surrounding Roger’s wife’s death, which explains the obvious clash between father and son. And while Joris-Peyrafitte’s and Vail’s performances aren’t always consistent, they carry enough emotion in their acting that the pain and loss are communicated effectively. The heart-to-heart moment involving Vail and Midili’s character is a perfect example of that emotion. Speaking of Midili, his turn as Will is another bright spot in the film. In addition to being that empathetic voice to Roger, Will comes across as that awesome uncle who cares a great deal about his nephew (even if they appear to be roughly the same age?) with the rapport between the two of them. And to be fair, even if Saucedo’s character is a one-dimensional prick who takes glee in badgering Michael and makes questionable decisions, I did get the sense that Saucedo relished being in the role. And who doesn’t love seeing Bill Oberst Jr. chewing the scene as a hunter who escaped the Sasquatch?
Behind the camera, Portanova establishes a great look of the forest, which more than once reminded me of the times I went up to my family’s cottage out on the lake. The environment has that peaceful, lush quality to it, but also hides that creepiness factor with its remoteness and often deafening silence. And being the practical effects nut that I am, I loved that Portanova kept the tradition going here. Granted, this is an indie feature, and as much as Portanova tried to keep things obscured in the dark, the costumes for the Sasquatch aren’t as quite as impressive or intimidating once they’re revealed in their entirety. Luckily, the gore effects, while not overly plentiful, partly make up for it.
As alluded to before, the film has a few sore spots, mostly focused in the script. There is some dialogue and that treads the lines of believability (mostly centred around Joris-Peyrafitte and Vail), and then you also have Saucedo’s character as the cliché asshole doing stupid things for no reason. Also, we don’t get into the good stuff regarding the Sasquatches until about an hour into the film. While the decision to have the drama between Michael and Roger play itself out and develop is understandable, it does lag the film due to not much else going on. And yes, while the constant attempts to obscure the creatures in poorly-lit situations is unsurprising for a low budget film, and does heighten the tension, it’s frustrating because it’s overdone to the point that you can’t see what’s going on half the time. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Flawed script aside, Hunting Grounds isn’t a bad movie. Portanova certainly knows his way around with the camera, and the actors for the most part gave the effort necessary. The film just falters at attempting to mix a human drama with Bigfoot, being let down by the writing. Rough as it is, it’s still worthwhile to see it if you’re a fan of Bigfoot films, and you temper your expectations.