I wasn’t the biggest fan of Michael Bartlett’s last film, Paranormal Diaries: Clophill. With his latest, the British filmmaker leaves found footage behind to deliver a brooding, atmospheric thriller that works on a lot of levels. Treehouse feels like a huge leap forward for Bartlett, who has relocated to rural Missouri where the film was shot. He seems more self-assured and manages to balance the elements of backwoods horror with a coming-of-age film. The result is a nail-biting (though sometimes uneven) experience.
A series of kidnappings is plaguing the small town where brothers Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) and Crawford (Daniel Fredrick) live. The latest victims are Little Bob and Elizabeth (Dana Melanie), who we see in the opening desperately looking for her younger brother before getting snatched up herself. It’s a helluva opening scene and dims the tone down to some serious dark material. Days later, Killian and Crawford head into the woods for a night of debauchery. They stumble upon the titular treehouse, where they find Elizabeth, alive but shaken to her core. Shadows descend on the three kids and the mysterious kidnappers come a knocking.
The actual scene that takes place in the treehouse is a lengthy one packed to the brim with suspense. There’s a bit with a walkie-talkie that made my skin crawl. Once they leave the treehouse behind, the film shifts gears and begins to lag a bit. Thankfully the cast of young actors is impressive, particularly Trautmann. His has a wonderfully expressive face that you can clearly see transform throughout the film. By the end he’s not the same kid he was at the start. It’s thoroughly badass.
Bartlett manages to maintain a tight grip on the suspense for its third act. We don’t know who the kidnappers are until close to the end and my only problem with the reveal is that I’d’ve liked to see more characterization for the antagonists. Why are they doing this? It’s a minor complaint though and the baddies still made me cringe.
Treehouse utilizes its backwoods setting in a refreshing way. These folks are rednecks, but not the typical toothless shitkickers in overalls with Confederate flags on their pickups. They feel like real people with real problems. That’s another reason the film works: I believe in these characters and actually give a damn whether they survive the night or not. Imagine that!
Treehouse is in select theaters and on VOD Feb. 20.