So I’m a sucker for a good bear-attack movie, having backpacked many times in the gorgeous/treacherous wilds of grizzly country (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming), where it’s often said that humans are not the top of the food chain, which can certainly give one pause. A backpacking trip in Denali National Park probably ranks as my most bear-filled, as at one point my wife and I could see five different grizzlies from our perch on a hillside. I’ve never had a bad bear encounter, but I stay on my guard. I’ve read every bear attack book I could get my hands on, most of them being decidedly of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive genre—based on the gruesome fun of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive series. Case in point, Season 3, episode 23: “Nightmare on the Mountain”: “In 1995 Bram Schaffer, an 18 year-old elk hunter, was mauled by a grizzly bear in Montana. His severely injured parts of his thigh were ripped off the bone and he must get off the mountain during a large storm. Other hunters assist Bram during the ordeal, providing medical care and carrying him to a camp, eventually resulting in his survival”—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Shouldn’t_Be_Alive.
Now comes the new indie film hit Backcountry (2014), from writer/director Adam MacDonald, set in the Canadian wilds, but so steeped in horror-movie tropes that it might as well have been set at Camp Crystal Lake, in the scenic nether reaches of New Jersey—locale of the classic slasher Friday the 13th (1980). Backcountry is benefitting from some good buzz and a rather glowing New York Times review, here. Or what about this ad: ”A Must See. Does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean.” Sounds great, right? If you like that kind of thing?
What makes it kind of fun is its implicit cultural critique of Millennials—although, in this case it’s not so much the Millennials as Generation D, as in Dumb. From the get-go, the couple in the film are not-so-subtly identified as deserving of a gruesome fate: the boyfriend, Alex, is a perfect example of the contemporary Feckless Male, a loser who is lucky to be able to tie his hiking boots without calling Mom to explain to him, once again, how to tie a bow. He eschews a map, compass, and poo-poos the contents of his girlfriend’s backpack, which includes a cellphone and some bear spray. For her part, Jenn, the girlfriend, enters the film staring at her cellphone a lot, and seeming somewhat oblivious to where they are and what they’re actually doing in the real world, which is hiking off into the woods without a map, with only her feckless BF as her guide.
Typical to the horror-film genre, from the outset dire rumblings are heard. The backcountry ranger at the Provincial Park office is jokey and sinister, only one step removed from the threatening hillbilly Mordecai in the (much better film) Cabin in the Woods (2012). A threatening fellow hiker appears—Brad (Eric Balfour)—offering fish and sexual conquest threat, peeing in the camp, and all but daring Alex to a fistfight to see who gets to bed Jenn. At that point I’m thinking, “Jeez, this is the woods. Not a subway ride.” But “Brad” wanders off, only to return at the film’s finale, suddenly helpful.
Everything Alex does is wrong: He gets the two of them lost, has a silly emotional breakdown once lost, and then slowly plods along, seemingly for a couple days, as the bear threat (which he denied from the hike’s first moments) edges closer and closer. When the bear finally arrives in camp he huddles in the tent, even though any experienced hiker (which he’s supposed to be, actually) knows a little nylon shell offers no protection whatsoever. They’re carrying two weapons—bear spray and an ax—but, until the last possible moment, seem to forget that they would come in handy. And when Jenn finally gets the bear spray functional, Yogi has already crunched Alex’s shin into a bloody mess. Plus it doesn’t seem to work (although bear spray has been known to be generally quite effective), as the bear leaves, but returns to drag Alex away and eat him. Jenn then limps and falls and crawls her way back to the trailhead, although when she returns to find their canoe, essentially the first leg of their trip, I was surprised, because it had seemed she’d only managed to travel a half-mile or so since her BF was bear breakfast. Thank god she survived. And will probably never set foot outside her apartment again, and you will take the cellphone from her hands when you can pry her cold, dead fingers from it. As for Alex, I’m not saying he deserved it, but being a member of Generation D, an example of the (currently ubiquitous) Feckless Male, we can just feel sorry for him. If the bloody hiking boot fits . . . .