Backcountry: A survivalist horror that forgets to pack some vital gear, Backcountry loses its bearings around the same time as its unlucky backpackers, a city slicker couple played by Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop who are out to rough it for a long weekend in a Canadian national park. Things proceed with a simple quiet ominousness until Eric Balfour’s inexplicably Irish-accented hiker drops in to trade barbs with an overprotective Roop over the campfire, a sequence that comes to nothing in the end, and which signals writer-director Adam MacDonald to plop in some plot purification tablets, keeping anything but the characters’ stupidity from directing the action onward. Convinced they are hopelessly lost after one day’s hike off the main trail in a landscape riddled with overlooks, waterways, and interweaving paths, the pair encounter a massive bloodthirsty black bear which, although meant to be the big bad, is treated more like an afterthought. It does its deadly business, and like Balfour’s asshole-ish wanderer, vanishes soon after, robbing us of a climactic showdown that a meager budget obviously put paid to. There’s really no such thing as time ill spent outdoors, but this quick little trip is annoyingly unfulfilling.
The Changeling: Old-fashioned in every fiber of its being, this low-key ghost story starring George C. Scott is memorable for richly exploring its deteriorating old mansion setting, for its coyness, dignified air, and perhaps most importantly of all, for its characters’ forthright determination to engage with the supernatural. As an aging composer who’s moved across the country to escape the memory of his wife’s and daughter’s tragic deaths, Scott’s John Russell only needs to experience one spooky occurrence in his massive, lonely new home to fully invest in the idea that something is trying to communicate with him. What follows is Russell’s grief-driven amateur investigation into the mansion’s sinister history as the ghostly activity heats up around him, urging him on toward a renewed purpose. His melancholy determination to uncover the truth contributes to a pungent atmosphere and urgency made all the more disconcerting by economically deployed visions and slow pans down the mansion’s dark, vacuous hallways. Reinvigorating haunted house tropes with a particularly menacing seance and a creepy iteration on the body under the floorboards, it maintains a balance between the comfortably common and the delectably different, all tied together by Scott’s supreme constancy.
Last Shift: Anthony DiBlasi’s horror riff on Assault on Precinct 13 traps Juliana Harkavy’s rookie cop alone in a soon to be shuttered local jail for one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. DiBlasi settles us in with things that go bump in the night, then ups the ante with ghoulish apparitions and poltergeist activity that would have the Freelings running for the hills before delivering a final onslaught of cackling, ghostly, gory mayhem and enough hallucinatory insanity to fill a dozen VOD horror movies. It’s a proudly American form of excess that pairs well with the kitschy Manson Family-like occultism that inspires its horror elements. Even as it goes for the gusto, though, its jump scares become all too predictable as they pile up on one another, and the makeup department works overtime to make every onscreen flash as nasty as it possibly can. Its least carnivalesque moments are often the most chilling, like Harkavy’s surprise visit from another officer, or when her flashlight gets picked up and pointed at her when she drops it in a locked room. It may discount its own power on such occasions, but it still makes for a decently trashy, look-through-your-fingers Friday night watch.
The Woman in Black (2012): A nerve-rattling ghost story that loses style points by dint of its conformity to mainstream aesthetics, James Watkins’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel served as a safe jumping-off point for Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter career and a confident wide-release reintroduction to the Hammer Horror brand at the time it was made. That is to say it comes off as merely presentable than exceptional. It looks great, sounds great, and Jane Goldman whips out a spiffy script, but nothing helps it stand out amidst the conventional Gothic trappings of grieving protagonist, restless spirit, and broken-down manor. Given that Hill nailed the Gothic formula so well on the first run, maybe it’s not so bad that it’s treated with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Nonetheless, its dour tone is relentlessly oppressive and its fixation on jump scares by way of shrieking faces and errant blackbirds alike will fray your nerves for no good reason. Respectful of the genre and more energetic than you’d expect, it also goes places that other dead kid-centric movies won’t, so for as much as it stands as a slick product of its time, it’s still higher than average comfort food for fans of Gothic horror.