Horror is forever reminding us that it’s best to steer clear of the woods, and writer/director Roxanne Benjamin‘s (Southbound, XX) feature debut is the latest entry to remind us that there’s a very thin line between survival and imminent death in nature. For one woefully unprepared part-time summer employee at a mountainous state park, getting lost in the vast wilderness becomes even more harrowing once she stumbles upon a dead body. Ordered to guard the body until officials can arrive, the employee is then forced to face her darkest fears while physical danger looms ever closer. Body at Brighton Rock blends survival horror with psychological, physical, and beyond.
From the moment the lead heroine enters the frame, the naivety is clear. Wendy (Karina Fontes, Southbound), is running through the woods, hiking boots in hand, very late to an important safety meeting. After, she offers to trade job duties with her best friend Maya (Emily Althaus) so that Maya is able to flirt with her crush for the day. Maya is the more experienced of the two, but reluctantly swaps assignments anyway after Wendy insists she’s tougher than her co-workers assume. That it’s all set to an irreverent throwback style in the vein of Caddyshack further illuminates Wendy’s personality and overall detachment from her job.
It doesn’t take long before Wendy is getting lost, losing her map, and ending up so far out in backcountry that when she does find that body, she’s stuck guarding it overnight so the officials can safely find them both. That’s when Benjamin’s long-running experience in genre film really begins to shine. Wendy’s inexperience sets up the perfect scenario for scares, and there are plenty. Benjamin deftly coils the tension to uncomfortable, gripping levels, and is well versed in manipulating fear. The atmosphere for nearly the entire runtime is effectively creepy. While most of the terror comes from the psychological aspect of Wendy’s journey, there’s a lot more at play than just that, lending a higher level of unpredictability that heightens the scare value. And the sound design is absolutely masterful. It’s a large, vital component of what makes the film so thrilling.
Wendy spends most of the runtime entirely on her own, making dialogue very sparse and a lot of quiet, internal moments. On the one hand, it refreshingly eschews the trope in survival films that sees its lead character conversing with inanimate objects. On the other, it creates very uneven pacing. The stagnant, quieter moments tend to drag, which makes the runtime feel a little longer than it should. That’s also due to the barebones plot being stretched a little too thin, no matter how much Benjamin puts her character through the wringer. Fontes has a lot of weight to bear on her shoulders as the sole character on screen for the entirety, and while she absolutely nails the naivety of where her character begins, sometimes her inexperience shows.
Body at Brighton Rock isn’t a home run for the first time feature director, but it does show an exciting level of promise for Benjamin’s future efforts. Even with an uneven story that contains elements befitting of an episode of The Twilight Zone that savvy viewers will spot a mile away, this is a capable debut that demonstrates Benjamin’s vast knowledge and passion for horror. Even with a simple narrative, she manipulates it for all that its worth in terms of spooky atmosphere, chilling moments of abject terror, and a tone that skillfully toggles between fun irreverence and uncomfortably dark. Body of Brighton Rock is worth the watch simply to see the bold introduction to a new voice in genre film, and her best is yet to come.