Slasher movies often droop between grisly highlights due to the weak plotting and cardboard characters meant to lend structural integrity to their shock content. “In a Violent Mind” avoids those pitfalls by pretty much sidestepping entirely the standard niceties of narrative and psychological detail. There is explanatory backstory — however piecemeal and possibly-inaccurate — but otherwise writer-director Chris Nash’s first feature approaches the usual bloody business with a sort of minimalist purity, enabled by focusing almost wholly on the POV of one Unstoppable Killing Machine.
It’s a gambit that might easily turn monotonous. Yet this Canadian indie manages to keep us engaged, stirring queasy viewer dread if not much outright terror. Premiering in Sundance’s Midnight section, the Shudder Original is slated to begin streaming on that genre platform sometime this spring.
We seem to be back in “Blair Witch” territory at the beginning (and again during a panicked stretch at the end), as off-camera hikers poke around the ruins of a forest fire tower. One of them spies a necklace draped on a pipe, which he pockets before they leave. Our suspicion that removing this talisman might be a bad idea soon bears fruit, as immediately afterward the ground stirs, and a man’s figure covered with soil emerges from its grave. It lumbers to a decrepit house on the border of these parklands — in which the entity once lived, we glean — where a local poacher has the misfortune to be malingering.
This first kill is not graphic, but such restraint won’t last long. That evening, the ghoul is attracted to a campfire outside a cabin, introducing us to seven young adults staying there. One of them (Sam Roulston as Ehren) tells the local legend of the “White Pine Massacre,” which involved lumberjacks several years prior picking on the “mentally hindered” son of a store owner. Their pranks inadvertently led to the boy’s death — falling from that aforementioned fire tower — followed by the men’s own mysterious slaughter. (Later, in the present time, a game warden played by Reece Presley fleshes out this history a bit further.)
Needless to say, our mute, relentless perp (Ry Barrett) is that wronged Johnny come back to vengeful half-life, wreaking grievous bodily harm on anyone he finds. Breaking into a ranger station, he acquires rusty tools of historical-turned-homicidal value from display cases. Subsequent mayhem is vivid, to say the least. While not all the gory prosthetic FX entirely convince, Nash’s penchant for long sustained shots encompass some coups of seamless transition between visibly intact actor and gruesome aftermath.
Naturally, there is a Final Girl (Andrea Pavlovic as Kris). But as we’re almost entirely locked into the undead killer’s perspective — primarily from a traveling camera position behind him as he creeps through the woods — these frequently petulant, argumentative victims never require much dimensionality. Their eventual realization that something is very wrong happens mostly off-screen, with dialogue overheard just briefly in moments before they face lethal peril.
Aside from the aforementioned stretches of spoken backstory, the only prolonged verbal interlude comes from Lauren Taylor in a late appearance as a passing Good Samaritan. Her monologue pushes the envelope in terms of risking dissipation of the creepy atmospherics. Still, ultimately the mood of menace is sustained enough for an unsettled, eerie fadeout.
Using an almost square aspect ratio, DP Pierce Derks makes the northern Ontario wilderness locations both lovely and sinister, with enough variety to the visual tactics that the film never gets stuck in found footage horror’s first-person-camera stylistic rut. A complete lack of any original scoring (some incidental music is heard from radios and such) mostly accentuates the tension.
“Violent Nature” isn’t exactly the scariest of screen horrors; it doesn’t have much in the way of humor or complexity. Yet its stripped-down approach to a familiar gist has a distinctiveness that is impressive, and is sure to please fans who are always up for a new slasher film — but wish most of them weren’t so interchangeable.