In a Violent Nature comes to us from writer/director Chris Nash, who made a respectable name for himself as a special effects artist before making a few short horror films. Nash here presents his feature debut, made and marketed as a “prestige horror” deconstruction of the slasher horror genre. Sounds interesting. What have we got?

Well, the premise is pretty straightforward. We lay our scene in what’s left of an old abandoned fire tower out in the middle of the Ontario wilderness. The tower has been reclaimed by nature, several years after a series of mysterious deaths happened there. A crew of hapless unsympathetic college-age shitheads happen upon the fire tower and steal a gold necklace they find there. This awakens Johnny (Ry Barrett), a lumbering undead brute who sets out to retrieve the necklace and kill anyone who gets in his way.

In short, what we’ve got here is a boilerplate no-frills slasher horror premise, but there are a few gimmicks here to give the film its own identity. For starters, our Jason Voorhees pastiche has a retro firefighter motif that looks suitably imposing and lends itself to some inspired kills. That said, while the film makes extensive use of threadbare slasher tropes, they’re all presented in the “prestige horror” style, with more of an emphasis on mood and theme instead of gory spectacle. As a direct result, the film is loaded with dazzling forest photography to set the mood, and the total lack of any musical score makes the proceedings even more unsettling.

But by far the most important factor here is that the film is presented almost exclusively from the slasher’s point of view. The results are exceedingly mixed.

First of all, it’s a cardinal rule of storytelling that the protagonist can never be more powerful than the antagonist. And there is never the least illusion that our hapless victim pool poses any serious threat to our viewpoint character, so the conflict is effectively null. Instead, the film puts its focus on the inherent mystery of the lead character and the process of learning more about what’s going on in his head. The unfortunate downside is that we rarely see his face, which in turn leads to many long extended sequences of the protagonist walking through the forest with his back to the camera. Even with all the dazzling forest scenery around Johnny, the view of his back gets boring quickly.

Luckily, there does come a scene at the halfway point when we do finally see Johnny’s face. It’s a damn shame we couldn’t get more of that (presumably due to budget constraints), because it did so much to humanize the character like few other slasher horrors do. If only the film had included more such moments, it would’ve done so much more to really develop the themes and ideas that make this particular take so unique.

The basic premise of “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil if Tucker and Dale really were unstoppable killing machines” has promise, but it’s undercut by the opacity of our viewpoint character. Then again, I suppose if Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers had any kind of humanity or psychological layers, they wouldn’t be the monsters they are. I might add that the filmmakers’ methods show Johnny as our viewpoint character without asking us to sympathize with him, and I respect that.

But what about the kills? Well, we’ve got a victim pool of seven co-eds, plus another two supporting characters. Which is impressive, considering how conservative cast sizes are for prestige horror films, and the standard size for a “cabin in the woods” cast is about four or five. That said, the kills themselves are decidedly hit or miss. Half of them take place pretty much entirely offscreen, but the other half… whoo boy. I know comparisons to Mortal Kombat are lazy and cliche, but the best of these kills are done with such sadistic creativity and over-the-top gore that no other comparison is warranted. I might add that the film’s lack of score and deliberate pace serve to make all the scares more creepy across the board, most especially the gorier ones.

That said, you might think that following the slasher around means we always know exactly where and when he’ll strike, which takes away so much of the horror and suspense. And it does, but that’s only half the equation. Because we don’t necessarily know where the victim pool is going or what they’re planning, which makes for a few neat surprises when they turn up.

All the same, I had a rough time making heads or tails of this movie. Then the third act came and tied it all together beautifully. Because that’s when the film suddenly switched viewpoint characters and started following our Final Girl (Kris, played by Andrea Pavlovic).

My interest piqued right away with the observation that the camera was following Kris through so many shots of her wandering the forest. It looked exactly like all the times we had been following Johnny. I know it’s nothing new to consider the Final Girl and the Slasher as two sides of the same coin, but this was an inspired way of going about it. Hell, watching Kris slowly turn into another mute force of nature detached from everyone around her, it brought up so many questions about the effects of trauma and taking violent action, even in self-defense.

Moreover, now that we’re following a character capable of intelligent speech, we can go into greater detail about humans as animals, humanity’s part in nature, and the place of violence in all three. All of these are well-trod themes in slasher horror, but the ending brilliantly dovetails them all with the title of the picture and all the dazzling nature photography of the entire movie. It’s really quite thoughtful and heartfelt and ingenious how the filmmakers tied it all together like that.

Overall, In a Violent Nature is a fascinating experiment. At its best, the film is a neat subversion of the slasher horror genre, delivering gruesome kills while exploring themes that most others in the genre would only leave to the faintest of subtext. At its worst, the film is dreadfully boring and slow, with too many offscreen kills and not enough characters worth following, openly proving that some genre tropes are there for a reason.

I’m sure this will be a controversial film and not all horror fans will respond to it well, but that’s standard for this genre. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised. Regardless of how you feel about the film afterwards, I’d strongly suggest giving it a try.

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