This yokes America’s primal shame of the witch hunt with the more recent phenomenon of campus sexual harassment, seesawing a little too often towards victim-blaming … but with an undeniable, uncomfortable power.
Seven University of Massachusetts students set off in a van for a weekend of beer in a hot tub and snowboarding on the slopes. Unwisely – to say the least – they ignore a clearly-marked ‘no trespassing’ sign to take a shortcut through the Stoughton Woods and get stuck in dark, cold forest where a witch panic once flared and where climate change means bears wake early from hibernation and prowl for easy meat. It’s often the case in kids-in-a-van movies that characters toss insults around and get on each other’s nerves for no real reason except that’s the only characterisation the filmmakers can think of to fill in time before the monster attack – but here we gradually pick up on all sorts of sexual, philosphical, social and racial issues which make for a group of very unhappy campers. Jill (Hannah Kasulka), a fierce activist who lectures a whiskery leering red herring backwoodsman (Ian Matthews) on the illegality of spring beartraps, hasn’t yet told her jock boyfriend Derek (Craig Arnold) that she wants to dump him and go out with the team’s only black player Philip (Corbin Bleu).
One reason Jill wants shot of Derek is that he simmers with rage because most of the team are suspended after accusations made against them by Alison (Sasha Clements), the subject of an unspecified harassment video, who is identified both with the accusers who set off witch panics and the outsider women who tended to be the first victims. Traumatised – and slightly resentful that Jill is nagging her to take a stand that could ruin her life even more – Alison might even be turning into a witch, since she keeps being around as things happen that make things worse for the stranded kids. The gang is completed by two fun-hungry idiot brothers, Matty (Alexander De Jordy) and Tod (Kyle Mac), whose only serious loyalty is to each other, and Bree (Humberley Gonzalez), a new-to-this-crowd fun girl who keeps saying the wrong things.
Ominous atmospherics, and nods to the recent witch revival from The Blair Witch Project to The Witch, lend the film an air of the supernatural, ancient and malign … but the cocktail of privilege, arrogance, cruelty and ass-covering obviously evokes too many recent, well-publicised incidents in which well-connected men act like vile pigs to women and seem likely to get off lightly while their victims find any status or protection they thought they had is illusory. It’s a lot of editorial for a lost-in-the-woods horror movie, and there are a few moments here which are slightly too broad or contrived … though there’s an interesting tension between the insufferably woke Jill, who takes stands that don’t cost her much, and the brittle Alison, who becomes a witch at least in the minds of the rest of the group.
There have been many teens-blunder-to-their-own-deaths horror shaggy dog stories, and this resorts to quite a few cliches of the form – that signposted bear trap is sprung at precisely the moment you expect, and improperly secured ski-poles also come into play as the horrors pile up. Scripted by Christopher Borelli, who also wrote the terrific Omen/Ransom of Red Chief mash-up Whisper and the so-so The Vatican Tapes; directed by Jordan Baker, who made the decent little ghost story The Marsh and the home invasion horror Torment. Borelli and Baker typify an approach to genre that’s easy to overlook – they make serious, thoughtful, unshowy below-the-radar horror films, with characterisations complex enough to attract good performers (the mostly unfamiliar young cast here are all fine) and an ambitious to do more than just lop off limbs and splatter blood across the snow.