Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: Stomping Ground

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

Stomping Ground
Written, produced and directed by Dan Riesser
Anvil Entertainment / Irrational Films
80 minutes, 2014 / 2016

Ahhh, the Bigfoot subgenre. I reviewed one for this blog called Fear the Forest (2009) and another called – I kid you not – Sexsquatch (2012) The last one was from Australia called Throwback (2013), and now this one is from the wild and woody area around North Carolina.

John Bobek as Ben
Over a holiday visit down South, we meet our central characters, Ben (John Bobek), a ginger from Chicago who works in Social Media, and his girlfriend, Annie (Tarah DeSpain), a Greensboro local whose reputation whose high school nickname starting with the word “Crazy…” She, of course, being computer-phobic, isn’t even on Facebook (is it any shock she does not have a job in Chi-Town?). Opposites attract, I guess, but should they always?

From the start, Ben comes across at first as a bit of an elitist urban-vs.-rural dick who doesn’t cotton well to all the old boyfriends hitting on his gal, but is not enough of a he-man to fight them off. Actually, I respect him for that last part; similarly, she should be more sensitive to him being a “stranger in a strange land” than feeding into his jealousy. I would say the same thing if it was reversed, if one of his citified friends picked on her in the Windy City for being a Country Girl.

Yeah, from in the onset, the story starts off a bit like Straw Dogs (the real one, 1971; wonder if it’s a coincidence that his name is Ben, the name of Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1967’s The Graduate, who would play the lead in Straw Dogs… yeah, probably a stretch and a case of Cultural Overthinkingitis). Leading the redneck side is Paul (Jeramy Blackford), who from the gecko (yeah, I do know the correct word) you wouldn’t trust with a donut and a pickle.

Tarah DeSpain as Annie
One piece of information we learn right off (and it is in the trailer) is that her boyfriend doesn’t know that she is interested in the Bigfoot, and as a teen she and her friends would camp out searching for it; this includes the comedy relief character, Jed (Justin Giddings, doing an occasional scene-stealing turn), who is just as much into it as Annie. I’m assuming that these “hunting trips” included some large amounts of partying from the looks of things.

Of course, our unbelieving intrepid weenie Yankee is taken on a Bigfoot camping search with Annie, some of her friends (aka the fodder), and the outing’s instigator, Paul, who you just know has some devious plan behind all this, and y’get the feeling Ben is not going to like it. At all. But will he grow a pair like Hoffman in Dogs? I’m not promoting machismo masculinist training, I’m just going with the story, donchaknow?

An interesting aspect of films like this, which is actually closer to fact than is usually acknowledged, is that all the yokels call Ben “City Boy,” but when he uses the term “Redneck” after some of their despicable behavior, he gets called out on it. That’s a very Republican sensibility; if I do it, I’m expressing my freedom. If you do it, you are warring on my freedom.” This is both very blatantly and subtly indicated multiple times. I’m not sure which side the director falls on, but I will posit that he is a Greensboro native (mind you, the one time I was in Greensboro, I met some incredibly wonderful people).

For the first half of the film, during the Dogs part, as I refer to it, I was feeling kind of restless, but not necessarily in a good way. The whole “let’s gang up on the stranger” mentality is one I’ve never been casual with, though I understand it’s point to make it uncomfortable; if it was me in that situation, however, rather than be jealous of something that happened years ago, I would laugh Jeff off, especially his intention to steal his ex-fling, Annie. To his face. I’ve done it and it works as long as it’s in a public shared space and everyone around is informed and understands the context; if it’s approached defensively, the Ben position doesn’t have a chance. Besides, if nerdy Ben is that insecure about his relationship with wild-child Annie, he shouldn’t be in the relationship. I mean, he’s probably going to have to go back South again if the relationship is to continue, as her mother lives there. There’s new thing out called The Holidays during the last two months of the year.

The film's original poser
It’s the second half of the picture where the story and interest really starts to pick up, once you get past the portal of the stereotypical pair of hunt’n’ good-ol-boys, who are the slasher film equivalent of the weirdo loner who warns everyone to stay away! That’s about the time we get to finally reach where we all know the general direction of where the story is going, in the form of the beastie.

Ah, yes, the beastie. I’ve seen some really terrible Sasquatch costumes in my time, because it essentially comes down to a person in a suit, after all. Well, I’m happy to say that this one actually looks really good (you can see a couple of flashes of him – I’m assuming it’s a he considering some of his actions – in the trailer and on the poster). I’m even willing to forgive the sole layer of the creature’s foot/boot which is evident at the one-minute mark of the trailer, though it’s much easier to see in the film itself.  The reason is that everything else about the monster and including the body SFX of the victims, looks pretty nice. Not a huge body count, but an effective one.

Despite the nebbishness of Ben, Bobek fleshes him out a bit, and makes him a character you may not like on some level, but you can put yourself in his shoes and feel sorry for him as a bully target. I don’t know if I felt the compadre level with him as he stands up for himself though I supposedly should, but it does take a lot for him to give any credibility. Even after this, I hope Annie dumps him. The cute DeSpain also does well with Annie as the flip side of Ben’s personality. While he is an off-putting in a know-it-all way, Annie is equally annoying in that she doesn’t really seem to give a shit about him as she flirts back with her exes. Again, DeSpain makes her human and not just a mean girl, though I would also like to add that if Annie doesn’t dump Ben, Ben should also ditch her. They are so not right for each other. It’s Blackford’s Paul who seems the most real, though, and I hated his bully character, which is why I thought Blackford stood out so well. Paul is the only member of the triangle that remains true to himself: a conniving bastard.

Of course, there has to (and should be) a cameo of a genre star from the past who can headline. In this case, it’s Theresa Tilly, who plays Annie’s mom in the first couple of scenes (yeah, she’s in the trailer, too). Tilly is better known among us who grew up on VHS as Shelly, one of the not-so-fortunate cabin dwellers in the 1981 classic Evil Dead. Back then, she went by the nom de acting of Sarah York.

While some of the action is predictable, such as the manning up of Ben, there are some nice and different twists and turns, and a chance for a sequel. I say sit through the first half and think of it as the cranking ride up the coaster, and then enjoy the ride down.


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