'Desolation': Film Review

DESOLATION Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Desolated Productions, LLC.; IFC Midnight
Too subtle for its own good.

Three people, including a teenage boy, are terrorized by a menacing stranger while hiking through the wilderness in Sam Patton's horror film.

Horror films are often rightly criticized for their lack of character development and overreliance on cheap jump scares. Sam Patton's debut feature Desolation avoids such potential stumbling blocks with nuanced characterizations, well-crafted dialogue and a slow-burn, non-exploitative approach. Unfortunately, this tale about three people being stalked by a menacing psycho in the wilderness lacks one essential component — suspense. Its running time is a mere 78 minutes, but the pic feels like it takes much longer getting to nowhere particularly interesting.  

The story concerns Abby (Jaimi Paige), her best friend Jen (Alyshia Oschse) and Abby's 13-year-old son Sam (Toby Nichols), who are hiking and camping together in the woods with a solemn purpose. Abby's husband has recently passed away, and they are setting out to scatter his ashes in the mountains that he loved so much.

The pilgrimage goes as well as could be expected, and the two women have a warmly emotional, humor-tinged late-night chat fueled by alcohol and a joint. But things take a disquieting turn when Sam spots a bearded stranger, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses and using a walking stick, staring at them ominously from a distance. "He looks like a wizard," Sam observes of the strange-looking figure. Late in the evening, the women discover a backpack near their campsite, only to find it missing the next morning. Not long thereafter, Jen goes missing as well. What started out as a healing experience for Abby and her son soon turns into a desperate fight for survival.

Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas' screenplay earns points for its believable depiction of human interactions, no small achievement for a horror film. Director Patton, a veteran of the Blumhouse production company, knows how to work with what is obviously a tiny budget, and the performances by the two lead actresses are warmly engaging. But the film comes up short with what should be its most arresting element, the cat-and-mouse game and subsequent confrontations between the stranger and his would-be victims. It doesn't help that the violent sequences are staged in less than convincing fashion or that the villain doesn't look particularly menacing but rather like an actor auditioning to play the Unabomber.

Desolation strains mightily for a scrappy, '70s-era, B-movie vibe and occasionally achieves it. But while the film certainly earns points for its lack of pretension and overall restraint, the somnolescent pacing all too effectively replicates the feeling of slogging through a long hike in the woods.

Production company: Desolated Productions
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Toby Nichols, Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Claude Duhamel
Director: Sam Patton'
Screenwriters: Matt Anderson, Michael Larson-Kangas
Producers: Mara Barr, Lauren Bates, Kim Patton, Sam Patton
Director of photography: Andi Obarski
Production designer: Rebecca Hersey
Editor: Alexander Frasse
Composer: Marcus Bagala

78 min.