SXSW Review: BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK Is A Haunting Walk In The Woods

Writer/Director Roxanne Benjamin paves a promising path in the horror genre.

One of the most appealing aspects of being in nature is the sense of isolation - a vast openness where one can feel immersed in a beautiful environment far away from civilization. While this notion of seclusion has its appeal by supplementing crowds of people for lush forestry and towering mountains, danger and dread can easily eclipse any moment of peace. Writer/Director Roxanne Benjamin’s solo feature directorial debut, Body at Brighton Rock, utilizes a mountainous state park as a backdrop to juxtapose the social, mental, and physical isolation experienced by her protagonist as she struggles to do her job against all odds and survive in the wilderness, proving once and for all that she is stronger than everyone thinks.

Frantic and in a rush, Wendy (Karina Fontes, Southbound), a part-time summer employee runs to clock-in for her shift in a mountainous state park. Almost forgetting her sneakers after rapidly changing them out for durable hiking boots in the parking lot, it’s quickly established that Wendy is somewhat of a klutz. Attempting to slowly sneak pass her supervisor, she joins her best friend, Maya (Emily Althaus, Orange is the New Black) as they receive their daily shift assignments. Maya is disappointed when she is assigned park duty instead of working indoors with her crush. So, like any best friend, Wendy offers to switch with her and head out into the fresh air despite the emphasized resistance of her peers due to Wendy’s incompetence. The initial tone of the film is playful and lightly comical as we witness Wendy dancing through the woods and stapling signs to trees along the trail featuring the words “do not hike alone” in large, bold font. The simultaneously sharp and smooth camera movements of tree limbs brushing into Wendy’s face and her boots crossing over running streams allow for audiences to insert themselves into her hiking experience in a manner that is both natural and cohesive.

Everything takes a turn for the worse once Wendy loses her map after accidentally tumbling down a hill. Getting back up and dusting herself off, she keeps on working. Later, she proudly texts her friends that she’s arrived at her destination, but the incoming reply not only indicates she isn’t where she thinks she is, but there’s also someone in the background. Upon closer inspection, Wendy spots a man’s corpse at the bottom of the incline. Then, of course, her phone dies. Panic begins to set in as Wendy radios to base alerting them of the situation. She’s promptly instructed to secure the area and stay with the man’s body until help arrives because it’s unclear if this is a result of an accident or an active crime scene. Believing she’s truly alone, a man by the name of Red (Casey Adams, Blindspotting) approaches her and begins to inspect the body, pointing out that his wounds do not appear to be the result of a fall. Through all this, Adams fills the screen with a natural and tangible unease.

Wendy’s ineptitude is fairly exhausting in the first act. The character’s carelessness and dramatic expressions of anger don’t entirely compliment the film’s attempt at empowerment. There isn’t a backstory to enhance her depth, and a majority of her circumstances are results of her own poor decisions or negligence. As much as I wanted to root for Wendy and empathize with her, that emotional response was as silent as the broken walkie she throws off the cliff. And speaking of silence, the device was hardly used despite the film’s emphasis on isolation. While there’s a great soundtrack that throws back to ‘80s nostalgia courtesy of Oingo Boingo, the music overshadows the naturalness of the environment. Diegetic sound is a resourceful tool for enhancing dread, and Benjamin took a different route that may be more entertaining for some or it could cause viewers to extract themselves from Wendy’s terror entirely.

Benjamin’s talent begins to really flex its muscles in the third act when the tone shifts to a darker, more daunting experience. A certain nightmare sequence and twist ending plays out like a Stephen King short story, and the audience is sweetly teased as Wendy’s paranoia and fear begin to spiral out of control. This kind of disturbing playfulness visually sets the film apart and reiterates that Benjamin is no stranger to the horror genre. After all, she did produce V/H/S and V/H/S 2. She also made her directorial debut with the anthology horror film Southbound. Her style of light-hearted comedy and horror was also executed in the all-female horror anthology XX where she co-wrote and produced The Birthday Party alongside Annie Clark aka St. Vincent (Benjamin also wrote and directed Don't Fall segment). Like Wendy, Benjamin possesses all the tools needed to succeed. She may have dropped a couple with Body of Brighton Rock, but it’s still a promising stepping stone for a director on the path to making some intriguing headway in the genre.