The camping horror film is a staple of the genre. There are few places more lonely and overwhelming than the woods, especially when you leave the car behind - only a backpack, a tent, and a pair of boots your weekend tools for survival. Sam Patton's Desolation taps into the isolation one encounters when they journey off the beaten path and into an unknown stretch of territory, the sounds of insects soundtracking your secluded escape. Beyond the environment, there's little else in terms of window dressing for this tale of grief, creeping dread, and the many ways the two can intermingle, especially when one has already experienced the passing coldness of death itself. Though rather elementary in its set up and central metaphor, there's still an elemental quality to the way Patton taps into these routine terror mechanics and turns them into avatars for loss and depression.
There's no prologue in Desolation, no drive out to nowhere, no discovering the camp grounds. We never see where Jen (Alyshia Ochse) or Abby (Jaimi Paige) live. We never see the room Sam (Toby Nichols) spends his days studying or daydreaming in. The forest is all we know. It's a rather ingenious narrative move, as screenwriters Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas disorient us by never once revealing anything that's remotely comforting. We don't even know where the closest road is, as the sound of cars seems like it'd take a miles-long hike to hear. When combined with a quick cold open that leans onto another horror sign post - showing us the end of the victims' pursuit by an unseen evil, screaming and hollering for help - we know that some bad shit is about to go down, and there's no semblance of civilization to save us.
However, it seems Abby believes she's beyond saving to begin with, as the recent death of her husband has left her a widow who has no idea how she's going to move forward from here. Jen is there serving as a shoulder to cry on, drink wine and smoke joints with, but knows there's nothing she can say that's ever going to change the way Abby feels. The love of her life is gone, and now Sam doesn't have a father, and she's lost in life's hedge maze (or: wilderness, if you really need it spelled out for you). A thick grey cloud of grief hangs over every single early scene, as these women hike to a peak, only so Abby can open a reserve box, find presents from her deceased partner, and then leave him a beer he'll never get to drink. There's no escaping this void, either. Her life is in ruins.
But there's something else following the girls and Abby's boy. Gazing at them from afar through shiny red sunglasses is a stranger (Claude Duhamel). At first, we wonder if this filthy traveler is simply a product of Abby and Sam's damaged psyches. But the horror becomes very real, as Patton's picture starts to mirror slasher brethren such as Jeff Lieberman's Just Before Dawn ('81). The mountain man is stalking and capturing prey, taking one of the girls in the middle of night and leaving the other panicked and trying to keep her wits together. If Desolation stumbles anywhere, it's in this hurried transition from character piece to pure stalk and slash exercise, and though Patton's commitment to atmosphere is admirable, we lose something with the intention shift. Thankfully, he's made us care about these characters enough that we truly fear for their safety, and want the bad man to put his rope and pliers away.
With the aid of cinematographer Andi Obarski and Marcus Bagala's chilly score, Desolation becomes a cut to the bone mood piece, evoking the familiar while simultaneously idiosyncratic and personal. It's not a movie that's trying to reinvent the genre (or even rework it, for that matter). Rather, the emotions are packaged inside an unnerving thriller that never lets up, barely crossing over a feature length runtime. It's a rather impressive showcase for Patton, who proves he's got some chops behind the camera, and should be able to flex more than a few muscles once he's gifted a bigger canvas to paint on.
Desolation is available now on VOD.