Going camping is the best way to feel naked. Not naked in the sense of being without clothes, but feeling like everything you want has been stripped away. Vulnerable. Out in the middle of the wilderness, away from helping hands and electricity, rationed food and water, void of creature comforts… Only a tent to protect you. Whether it be a bear, Bigfoot or The Blair Witch, as soon as you’re awoken in the middle of the night by a creepy noise, that tent becomes your only barrier between safety and whatever it is that wants to kill you. Eventually, that paper thin safety net becomes a shroud of claustrophobia. An enclosure, if you will.
Everyone knows Patrick Rea, one of independent horror’s biggest filmmakers with dozens of award winning shorts to his name including Howl of a Good Time, which just won “Best Short Film” at The Austin Revolution Film Festival this weekend. While the hit-maker has produced a multitude of short films, he’s only tackled a hand full of feature length films – his biggest being Nailbiter, which is screened on Chiller Channel on a weekly basis. Arbor Demon premiered at Fright Fest in London a month ago and should be released sometime in 2017. With the film getting ready to debut to a larger audience, Patrick and I figured now would be the perfect time for a review.
Arbor Demon follows a couple, Dana (Fiona Dourif of Curse of Chucky) and Charles (Kevin Ryan of “Guilt”), who embark on a weekend get away before Charles heads out on a three month tour with his band. Dana, a photographer, is pregnant and hiding the news from her boyfriend with the intention of terminating the pregnancy while he’s away. Their retreat starts off well, beautiful sights, snuggles and deep conversations – all before they’re woken up by gunshots, hair raising screams and the growl of a creature they do not recognize. Something is in the woods with them, just outside their tent. What is it and what does it want? And why is it hesitating to enter the enclosure?
My first thoughts starting the movie were “oh pretty” and “oh cool.” To better articulate these thoughts, I have to say that the cinematography and camera work is great. Everything pops. The natural beauty of the woods is brought out by Rea and Harry Lipnick and the brightness and sharpness of the picture is a stark contrast to the terrible events that are about to happen to the young couple. This is the typical style that I’ve noticed with the majority of Rea’s work that I’ve seen. I’d describe his style as 30% old school horror and 70% modern filmmaking. When examining a project he’s worked on, there’s a very relaxed style that has nods to The Golden Age of Horror while also being up to date on the current Hollywood trends. This directly related to his method of storytelling, too, and this opens up Arbor Demon to almost every demographic of horror film lover. There’s truly something for everybody here.
Now, I was a little skeptical about Arbor Demon when I realized the central story was going to follow two people. Not that I questioned Fiona and Kevin’s acting abilities, but it takes a lot for two people to carry entire movie. Just when the thought was creeping into my head the film introduces a “Duck Dynasty” woodsman-type played by none other than Jake Busey of “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” fame. Jake’s character is a loose canon, unpredictable, and breathes life into the story when it may have flat-lined. Mr. Rea gets a ton of credit here for his script-writing skills which saved the movie from disaster. Michelle Davidson gets credit here as well. You have to keep the viewer interested. You have to keep them guessing. It doesn’t always have to be with nudity, gore or craziness. Even the simple introduction of a new character strategically placed at the right time goes a lot way. Then the viewer meets another group of characters, but that’s going into bigger spoiler territory so I’m moving on!
I think Arbor Demon‘s biggest success is the way it crafted a very thick layer of suspense and claustrophobia while being situated in the open woods in a paper thin tent. That’s a cinematic, mood creating game changer that few directors are capable of. At points I thought we were going to run into some Blair Witch, Deliverance or I Spit on Your Grave type subplots, but really the over-arching plot here is man and woman vs. nature and what evil entities it has birthed in the past. I know there is an underlying feminist theme as well, however, I’m not sure what the goal was. Arbor Demon is chokingly suspenseful – from the fear that the pregnant woman will be hurt, to not being able to see the attacking creature outside the tent, and everything else that happens to the two lead characters. I feel like it almost would have been easier for them to be attached by a bear than to experience what they go through here. I mean, that’s pretty scary! Arbor Demon is a slow burn, claustrophobic mix of horror and suspense that succeeds on every notch, on every element. This is cinema. This is creating an experience.
Aside from the vintage pit stop, quaint apartment and scenic views of the wilderness, Arbor Demon has so much more than you’d expect. I know I’ve used the words suspense and tent and woods a lot in this review. The thing is… You need to watch Arbor Demon to grasp what it has to offer. The last twenty minutes of the movie are crazy and they veer off the path of typical plot progression and introduce us to a new villain we’ve never seen before outside Chronicles of Narnia. It’s weird. It’s well acted and well shot. It’s got practical special effects and some questionable CGI. And it’s different in that the majority of the film takes place during the day! Arbor Demon is the representation of our most primitive fears. Not what I was expecting at all, but certainly a creepy, wild ride into the backwoods of terror. I thoroughly enjoyed my viewing. Final Score: 8.5 out of 10.