Stars: Bill Oberst Jr., Jason Vail, David Saucedo, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, D’Angelo Midili, Connor Conrad, Jordan Neslund | Written and Directed by John Portanova
Horror movie monsters don’t get much goofier than the Sasquatch. Sure, Bigfoot is a legitimate part of American folk legend/mythology, but The Missing Link doesn’t exactly inspire fear or terror, no matter how good the ape suit is. Some brave directors have tried, mind – most notably Eduardo Sanchez, with his found footage feature Exists – but we’re a long way off from a definitive, and good Bigfoot feature.
Latest – of a very small queue – to step up to the bat is John Portanova, with his mostly serious Hunting Grounds (or Valley of the Sasquatch to go by its sillier but better title, by which is is known on UK DVD too). In it, we follow a grieving father and son duo (plus cannon-fodder brother-in-law and a friend) as they set out on a hunting trip intended to help them bond and straighten out young Michael. Complications of course ensue when their cabin is trashed and they are then attacked by a family of territorial Sasquatch in the woods.
The film’s strongest suit also turns out to be its weakest. Wisely, Portanova keeps his Sasquatch hidden for over half of the film, resisting the temptation to show off what are some undeniably impressive creature designs. Less is often more when it comes to monster movies, and Hunting Grounds does a great job of resisting the urge to splurge. What this means for the rest of the time, however, is that we’ll be spending much of it in the company of the humans. If only Portanova (who also wrote the script) had been so deft with his people as he is his monsters.
While the actors try, the characters are a flat, unlikeable bunch, riddled with cliché and dreadfully wooden line readings. Particularly painful is the film’s human bad guy Sergio (David Saucedo) who never really convinces as ‘the real monster’ he is so obviously meant to be. Thank heavens for cult name Bill Oberst Jr., who appears briefly as woodlands survivalist (because of course Bill Oberst Jr. would play the survivalist guy) and is just the shot in the arm the film’s human element needs. If only he were in it more.
But we’re all here for the Bigfoot, and this Hunting Grounds delivers admirably. They’re never actually scary, but they’re big, bad and effective – reminiscent of the creature designs in Dog Soldiers, in that they get the job done without ever looking stupid or laughable. With a story which is sympathetic towards their woodland plight – often to the detriment of the humans – it’s Sasquatch done with a straight face. Too straight, sometimes, if the agonisingly serious acting of its leads is anything to go by.
Against all of the odds, first-time director Portanova has pulled it off. Even amongst such sparse competition, his Hunting Grounds won’t be remembered as a classic (nor even more than competent), but it’s no laughing stock either.
Hunting Grounds is available on demand in the US on February 7th. The film is out now on DVD in the UK under the alternative title of Valley of the Sasquatch.