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New Release Review - BACKWATER (DVD)

A camping couple are targeted by a mystery predator.

Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Christopher Schrack

Starring: Liana Werner-Gray, Thomas Daniel, Andrew Roth, Justin Tully


"The survival genre may be overpopulated, but with its stripped back style and complex plotting, Backwater has the chops to endure."



While it is a truism that all horror has the theme of survival at its core, in recent years the proliferation of the specific subgenre ‘Survival Horror’ has become manifest. Indie horror has taken advantage of the format’s ready-made exterior sets and concession to humble production values, which takes as its narrative focus basic city slickers, usually a yuppie couple, trepidatiously becoming lost as they attempt to negotiate the great outdoors (exemplar films include Eden Lake and the brutal first half of A Lonely Place to Die). Interest in the central theme of man overcoming the wilderness, triumphing over nature herself, extends to other mediums and genres too: the recent big budget Everest is founded on such scenarios, and, on television, how else to explain the continued success of Bear Grylls?
At first, Backwater seems a well made, if entirely typical, addition to the survival canon. Attractive young couple, Mark (Justin Tully) and Cass (Liana Werner-Gray) vacation at a lake far out in the boondocks. It doesn’t take long for something to put the wild into wilderness though: amongst the chirping crickets and buzzing insects (the incessant tick and tock of time running out in this sort of film), they hear a scream. Of course, they are not alone.
So far, so typical. What initially separates Backwater from similar ilk though is the quality of the filmmaking. The two leads are great, sharing early character scenes that have the loose, sincere feel of improvisation. There’s a clear chemistry that sells the two as a couple, and reinforces the eventual horror of the final act (Werner-Grey’s serendipitous Aussie accent also serves to further mark her out as an outsider). As the couple instigate their back to basics trip, so too does the film employ a rudimentary, no frills aesthetic, with very careful shot choices and efficient, expressive editing. When Mark attempts to track down the source of the noise, he comes across Glen (Andrew Roth), whose potential predatory nature is signalled by his fishing rod and his love of hunting ‘for the sport of it’, while Cass is flagged down by the sinister Deputy Helm (played by Thomas Daniel with more ham than Cass’ burnt bacon back at camp). So, later, as a bowie knife tears through their tent, and the rudely awoken couple find their camp wrecked, the film heightens the tension with an ambiguity as to just who the stalker could be…
You’ll never guess. At this point in the film, I was enjoying Backwater just fine for what I believed it was - an average survival flick, filmed with above average skill. But, just as I began to wonder how writer/director/ace horror namer Christopher Schrak would fill his last half hour, Backwater caught me on the back foot, with a twist so sneakily plotted that it delighted with its mean spirited surprise (aided by a very unpleasant use of gore, shocking for its otherwise rarity in this film). Schrak then tightens the tension with yet another wrench of the screw as [suggestive spoiler alert] the hunter becomes the hunted, and, despite their previously murderous actions, we still harbour sympathy and root for them! [spoiler ends].

It's incidents like the one discussed above that show how acutely Schrak understands how to exploit our primal need to survive, to witness the underdog triumph over insurmountable odds. The survival genre may be overpopulated, but with its stripped back style and complex plotting, Backwater has the chops to endure.



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