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You kids aren't from around here, are you
A UK region 2 DVD review of BACKWOODS BLOODBATH by Gort
 

It's a fact of life that since the arrival of low cost digital video cameras and computer-based editing systems, just about anyone can make a movie. Not everybody should. This welcome democratisation of video production has enabled young wannabe filmmakers to cut their teeth on low-cost shorts and post them on YouTube in the hope of being noticed, or get together with like-minded friends and make a micro-budget feature to screen at film festivals in the hope of getting a distribution deal. It's here that the establishment is still able to put its foot down. You may well be able to post the whole thing for download on your web site, but without that ad-promoted distribution you're unlikely to reach the audience or land that primo film deal you've been looking for.

The cheapjack exploitation horror movie has a proud history in this respect, with the ready-made drive-in audience of years past providing a route for energetic young filmmakers to get their first break in this hallowed industry. As the drive-ins closed, the rising popularity and low production costs of DVD, coupled with a devoted and sometimes undiscriminating horror audience, have made it worth taking a chance on even the most derivative and amateurish genre works as long as they push a couple of the basic buttons. Now I'm a horror fan, have been for a loooong time, but one who increasingly aches for the boldness and originality that the genre once had in spades. In the past couple of years I've sat through a lot of low-budget horror films and almost all of them have had me groaning in dismay. Horror is unique in this respect. I can think of no other genre in which fans get together to make their own movie and give so little thought to originality, character or storylines. Instead they nail together third-rate reworkings of their favourite sequences and imagery into a shabbily acted toad of a film, knowing that as long as it has the requisite sprinkling of gory violence, the hardcore fan-boys will lap it up anyway, then get their own camera and do exactly the same bloody thing. And you know what? I don't care. Good luck to them, as somewhere in that cycle there'll emerge an imaginative soul who makes something that breaks the chain and we'll get the next Sam Raimi or George Romero or David Cronenberg. Won't we? I have to believe we will, that some day the American independent horror movie will make the dynamic comeback I've been dreaming of for so long. And when it comes I'll be singing its praises from the rooftops and demanding that you go out and see it immediately. Until then we have films like Backwoods Bloodbath.

So where do I start? How about some plot. Following the death of a friend, a group of mismatched high school kids drive out to stay at an isolated cabin in the woods and... oh I might as well stop there and let you figure out the rest. It may help to know that the film has a subtitle, 'The Curse of the Black Hodag'. In case you were wondering, Hodag is not a made up word but a genuine product of Wisconsin folklore, an animal that has, and I'm quoting its Wikipedea entry here, "the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end." Quite a challenge for a low budget feature, huh? That's probably why the one here is a Rastafarian with a long coat, a face mask and a garden scythe. He also has the extraordinary ability to transform the blood of his victims into corn syrup. In the opening scene, as a bare breasted woman (oh yes) is hauled up into the rafters and what is presumably supposed to be her blood pours down her legs, my first instinct was to shove a small pile of pancakes under it.

The kids in question are all annoying in that way only kids in these kinds of movies can be, greeting the owner of the cabin they're leasing with the tactfully worded question, "You the fucker that owns this joint?" They talk to everyone like that, including each other. The cabin owner's name is Brick and he greets them in sunglasses with a cat on his lap, a blatantly artificial attempt to give the miscast fool some character. It's just after this that one of the group says the line we've all been waiting for. "Tell me something," he asks Brick aggressively, "is there a reason my cell phone's not working up here?" Because you're neck-deep in clichés and the filmmakers can't come up with a remotely inventive way of isolating you otherwise.

But these kids aren't just annoying, they're also dull. Attempts to give them offbeat traits and comical dialogue fall flat because the cast can't sell either as real. They're a largely generic bunch whose names I never did learn. One stands out because he's a black ex-soldier who never killed anybody because his gun jammed at the crucial moment, another because he takes photos and therefore must be a nerd. Everyone thinks so. So what's he doing on this trip with them? After settling in and insulting each other a bit more, they drop into the local bar full of accented locals who are every bit as tiresome and indifferently performed as them, but do at least provide the exposition required to get the upcoming conflict on the move.

The rest plays out largely as expected. The Hodag kills some local hicks then moves on to the visiting townies, who are systematically dismembered and eaten until the film is ready to unleash it's big twist. Don't hold your breath. Films referenced and ripped-off include The Evil Dead, Candyman, Wrong Turn, Jeepers Creepers and, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but technically Backwoods Bloodbath falls seriously short of these influences, with Erin Castrapel's decent enough lighting photography undermined by stylistic inconsistency and some lethargic camera placement and editing, particularly when more than three people are in frame at once.

Logic is discarded to keep people alive (a scythe through the chest merely wounds its victim and leaves only a small red stain on his sweatshirt) and to land characters in manufactured peril, which is how two of the townies can have a loud conversation within feet of the feasting Hodag without either party being aware of the other's presence until they make eye contact. I presume Hodags are a bit deaf and very quiet eaters. Mind you, one look at this chomping monster prompts our ex-soldier to do what any trained military man would do in this situation and run terrified from the cabin, then shout an anguished "Hello?" at the woods until a gloop of his own personal strawberry jam is thrown at a tree.

Hardcore genre fans who get off on anything in which people get violently killed may well lap this up and I genuinely have no problem with that. Since the filmmakers went to the no doubt considerable trouble of making the movie, part of me hopes it finds an appreciative audience, presumably one that shares their sense of humour and genre expectations. But personally I'm getting real weary of this sort of film and increasingly impatient for the arrival of that bright young thing I remain convinced will one day emerge from this mire of low budget recycling that is currently standing in for American independent horror.

sound and vision

According to available sources, the film was shot on HD on the Panasonic HVX-200. So why the fuck are we looking at a cropped 4:3 transfer here? It's not just a case of knowing that the aspect ratio of HD is 1.78:1 – throughout the film there are painfully clear examples of picture cropping, which cuts faces in half, pushes parts of the action out of frame and completely screws up cinematographer Castrapel's framing. The disc even provides conclusive evidence of this by including a trailer that's in ANAMORPHIC WIDESCREEN, allowing you to make a side-by-side comparison. A bit like I've done here:

The image as it appears in the main feature...
...and as it was shot and meant to be seen...
...resulting in framing like this.

With this travesty in mind, the image quality is otherwise pretty good, at least for an NTSC to PAL transfer. This standards conversion does soften the sharpness and adds some noticeable judder to some character and camera movements, but the contrast is solid, even at night, and daytime exteriors fare rather well. There's a brief but substantial drop in image quality at the very start of chapter 6, which looks like it was transferred from VHS.

The stereo 2.0 soundtrack is clear with some very distinct separation, but suffers early on from clumsy sound mixing, where the music alternately drowns out the dialogue then vanishes behind it and switches from heavy rock to cod-comical to sinister with jarring abruptness.

extra features

Only that anamorphic widescreen Trailer (1:20), which starts with some positive press reaction (told you someone would like it) and unfolds in twitchy MTV fashion.

summary

If you like your horror cheap, derivative and uninspired, then Backwoods Bloodbath should be right up your street. It'll work for some, but if American independent horror doesn't start getting its act together soon we'll all end up standing at its graveside swapping sad stories of its demise. But even if this is your thing, the cropped transfer here is no way to watch it and a ludicrous release at a time when the current TV standard is the same aspect ratio in which the film was shot.

Backwoods Bloodbath

USA 2007
89 mins
director
Donn Kennedy
starring
Scott Ash
Ryan Buth
Erin Castrapel
Seth Chilsen
Ryler Constable
Jesse L. Cyr

disc details
region 2
video
4:3 cropped
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
MVM
release date
5 April 2010
review posted
6 April 2010

See all of Gort's reviews