By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.
Hunting Grounds (2015), the ninety-one-minute full-length debut feature from writer-director John Portanova, proves that there is still much cinematic life to be derived from the ever-audience alluring legend of Bigfoot. Originally titled Valley of the Sasquatch, Portanova has implemented a rugged, character-oriented thriller. It is one that seamlessly blends both modern and old-fashioned narrative ingredients. Such is crafted into a purely entertaining and largely credible blend. Best of all, it looks to its enigmatic antagonist with equal doses of awe and fear. The tribe of Northwest America based organisms at the core of Portanova’s labor do not merely function as the primal animals in which they are far too often portrayed. Instead they are demonstrated as noticably human. This is visible in both their general gestures and attitude. Such benefits the configuration spectacularly. To its continued credit, Portanova’s classically designed and meticulously paced screenplay is well-researched. It incorporates an obvious knowledge and affinity for its potentially truth based villain. This is slyly sprinkled into the dialogue. All of which is as cut from the everyday, unforced and operative as its rounded and smartly developed central figures.
Such distinctly separates Portanova’s installment from the hefty volume of thematically related tales. More specifically, the low-budget photoplays that have been curiously spiking in cinema over the last decade. Outside of the beasts which torment our protagonists, Portanova yearns to showcase the violent monster in mankind. This he brilliantly ties around the argumentative and money woe infused relationship between widower Roger Crew (in a highly effective performance from Jason Vail) and his introverted son, Michael (in a quietly poignant enactment from Miles Joris-Peyrafitte). Such adds an increasingly taunt level of emotional intensity to the enduring suspense already at hand. Moreover, the discussions of the relationship between Roger and his deceased wife that transpire early in the work form a wrenchingly sentimental angle. This splendidly showcases Portanova’s penchant for solidly delivered, engaging exposition. Simultaneously, it illuminates the damaged, father and child rapport between Roger and Michael.
Authentically administered arrangements such as these keep the heart of the undertaking much in check. Such makes the sum of the endeavor more well-rounded and harrowing. This is as it gets us to root for and understand our everyday heroes, which is pivotal. Especially before the tense life or death scenarios, which Portanova orchestrates just as masterfully as these establishing episodes, that befall them in the second and third acts. The best evidence of this rests in the last twenty-minutes. This section is especially well-made and unnerving. It oversees both the affectionate and more generally electrifying rudiments of the account simultaneously reaching a zenith. Such is made increasingly imposing as several truly unexpected twists take flight.
Among such evidently wise decisions, is that the beasts herein are only partially glimpsed or, as is frequently the case, left in the shadows for nearly an hour into the runtime. Such calls to mind the tactic brought forth in films such as Ridley Scott’s groundbreaker Alien (1979) and Steven Spielberg’s same said Jaws (1975). Despite how often a device such as this has been issued, its effectiveness is again confirmed by Portanova as timeless. A slow reveal such as we see here, as well as the earlier stated masterpieces, is a proven path to success. It also makes the initial sight of the fiend in full even more astounding. Such is also established as triumphant in Portanova’s motion picture. For when it inevitably occurs, in a section which sees Mike waking up to a Sasquatch that is practically face to face with him, bystanders are given one of the most unforgettable and pulse-pounding segments in the movie.
Portanova sets these events up just as smartly. Such is incorporated with a five-minute opening sequence that is as ominous as it is perfectly mood-setting. After this memorably striking instant, Portanova sets up an engaging, if familiarly rooted, plot. In the fiction, Roger and Mike go to a secluded, family owned cabin in the woods. This is after their prior home was tragically destroyed. Two pals, Sergio Guerrero (in a stalwart depiction from David Saucedo) and Will Marx (in a riveting and sincere portrayal by D’Angelo Midili), soon arrive. They carry on alongside the duo. Shooting local game is the shared focus. This is until the group inexplicably arouses the sights of a community of ape-like brutes. All of which eerily resemble the indigenous Yeti. Soon those who went into the woods expecting to showcase their proposed dominance over nature find themselves symbolically on the other side of the rifle. This is as the gathering of simian-like brutes demonstrate that they will gladly kill to protect their homeland.
Recorded in Snoqualmie Pass and Roslyn, Washington, this Uncork’d Entertainment distribution release boasts seamless and remarkable visual effects from David Phillips. This October People and Votiv Films production also benefits from John Bash’s haunting music. Furthermore, Jeremy Berg’s cinematography is as organic and darkly beautiful as the material demands. Phillips’ editing is skillful and deft. The make-up team, concocted of Doug Hudson and Sarah Prevo, offer terrific input. Correspondingly, the sound from Jens Larsen and the costumes and wardrobes from Audrey Frances Abeyta are sharp and impressive. The seven- person camera and electrical crew, as well as Jerry L. Buxbaum and Vail’s incredible stunts, enhance Portanova’s confident guidance of the project splendidly. Tim Keaty, Regan MacStravic, Madeline Sadowski and Montana Tippett form a powerhouse art department.
The secondary cast is just as strong. Connor Conrad exhibits that he is an undoubtedly imposing force. This is unveiled in his ruthless depiction of The Beast. Additionally, Jordan Neslund is phenomenal in her brief turn as Town Girl. Bill Oberst Jr. augments the plausible edge of all we encounter with his ever-watchable representation of Bauman.
The consequence of these wondrous technical aspects and smart storytelling moves is certainly deserving of acclaim. Having won the Best Feature Film Award at Boise’s 2015 Idaho Horror Film Festival, the narrative, which was also graced with myriad nominations in similar commemorations, is guaranteed to also be a knockout with general spectators. This is because Portanova is unafraid to present flawed, yet richly settled, on-screen personas. All of them will prove, in one way or another, to be relatable to onlookers. Even when triumphantly issued action bits are the focus of the piece, as is largely the case with the second half of the exertion, the effort never forgets the motivations and plight of the protagonists. Such makes for a bit of celluloid that soars as stalwartly as a drama as it does a survival yarn. Portanova has evoked a genre entry that is unflinching and gripping; a must-see. You can do so yourself when Hunting Grounds becomes available via video on demand February 7th, 2017.