Even though I live far enough below the Mason-Dixon line to be in what could be considered banjo and chainsaw country, I’m not particularly worried about mutant cannibal families. Just don’t pick them up when they’re hitch-hiking, stay off their property and politely refuse their secret recipe chili and you’re unlikely to have any problems. Angry, unstable individuals with military training and a personal arsenal that rivals that of some small island nations – now that’s a horror icon for the 21st century. The ghillie suits and IEDs used by the killer in “Wilderness” make the old school machete and mask combo seem almost quaint in comparison.
After an excessive case of bullying in a juvenile detention center results in one of the boys committing suicide, a group of the youthful offenders are sent off on to a military-style boot camp on a remote island. The island isn’t as deserted as it first seems as they find when they come across a group of female offenders who, due to a scheduling mix up, were also planning on training on the island. There’s also the matter of the random hobo running around, but neither of these are as much of a concern as the crossbow-wielding maniac with a bloodthirsty pack of trained German Shepherds and the clear intent to kill every one of them.
“Wilderness” is your classic cast attrition horror movie. We start out with a wide cast of characters and one by one they are picked off in a variety of splattery and unexpected ways. What distinguishes this movie from the thousands of other films that involve teenagers being massacred in the woods is the characters. These kids aren’t horny camp counselors or city slickers with a broken-down van. They’re thugs and criminals and unlikable little underaged assholes.
At first it seems odd to have such unsympathetic characters as the protagonists but as the film plays out, it becomes easier to root for these kids than it is for the virginal all-American types we’re usually expected to root for in these situations. It all comes down to one factor. These kids aren’t stupid. Instead of acting like typical slasher fodder and all but leaping on top of the killer’s knife, these kids taunt the killer, cover their tracks and fight back in a way that makes it easier to believe that any one of them might actually have a chance of getting out of this alive.
The killer also is a welcome change from your everyday kid-chopping forest stalker. At any moment, one of the kids might stumble into one of his traps, take a crossbow bolt through the eye or have an attack dog leap at them and rip out their throat. It makes the chase scenes more engaging when both sides show a bit of intelligence and behave in logical ways. Unstoppable evil might be fun to watch, but evil that could probably be stopped, or at least slowed down, with the right plan of attack is even more fun to watch.
The heightened realism works against the movie occasionally when it goes for the splatter or high drama of its peers. A few of the death scenes are so unbelievable that they were clearly included only to up the gore factor and these shots of human bodies doing squishy, unrealistic things only serve to weaken the survival horror at the core of the movie. Similarly, some of the attempts to build drama and conflict between the characters only end in clichés that the movie would be better off without.
“Wilderness” does the job as a new type of slasher film that loses the almost fantasy-style setting of traditional slashers in favor of a more gritty, real world feel. Stripped to its barest elements, it’s a story that has been told many times before, but it’s the atmosphere and details that fill in that story make it worth paying attention to again. If you’d like to see an old school slasher executed in a new school style, “Wilderness” is a trek worth taking.