A day in the woods should colloquially equate to a walk in the park, but Wendy (Karina Fontes), a summer employee of the Brighton Rock State Park, winds up living out the worst-case scenario of even a seasoned woodsman. With breathtaking speed, as she gambols about the forest posting informative fliers for hikers, grooving to music on her phone, generally being carefree, she finds herself lost with only a random corpse for company. Nighttime fast approaches. She has to make do with what meager resources and tools she has, sitting tight until morning for emergency services and park rangers to track her down.
Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock fits nicely alongside other horror films that turn nature into a paranoiac house of mirrors: Backcountry, The Blair Witch Project, Willow Creek, Evil Dead, Killing Ground, Grizzly Park. Her movie also shares common ancestry with straight-up survival movies, where characters find themselves at odds with the elements, doing whatever it takes or else be taken by them. In Wendy’s case, she’s got bupkis, but that’s a big part of what makes Body at Brighton Rock work: Most of us got bupkis. Relating to Wendy, and to her terror, is easy, and immediate, and lets the movie hook its claws into the viewer with jolting urgency.
Facilitating that urgency is Benjamin’s no-frills setup. Working with limited resources breeds creative ingenuity; this is as true for Benjamin as it is for Wendy. All that Benjamin needs to get her audience going is a scenic overlook of a beautiful park, a person willing to play a stiff for less than the total of the film’s 80-minute duration and an actress capable of carrying the full total of that duration with little dialogue to help her shoulder the burden. (Also, she needs a big damn bear.) Likewise, Wendy’s got next to zero tools at hand to shelter her from the elements, sustain her through the night and protect her from whatever dangers weave between the trees, whether they’re real or just conjured by human imagination. (Also, she needs a big damn can of bear repellent.)
There’s a boring genre of horror where beasts, bugbears and bogeymen stalking the lead character turn out not to exist—The horror is all in the lead’s head! There wasn’t actually a monster in the closet or under the bed! —and Body at Brighton Rock toes that line, but Benjamin’s thesis is simple: Nature’s a petrifying place to be precisely because of its inborn powers of suggestion. Even experienced outdoorsy types can’t take ten steps into a forest without some critter or another rustling leaves, snapping twigs or snorting at them from off the beaten path. In the daytime, ambient noise is just that: noise. When day turns to night and said forest becomes host to darkness, noise takes on new meaning that varies from person to person based on their fearful predilections.
Unsurprisingly, Wendy’s biases mean choice encounters with the rotting carcass she’s forced to safeguard, whether in her dreams or not. Benjamin’s a responsible ranger, so she dutifully maintains the line between reality and hallucination. There’s a clear answer as to what’s actually stalking Wendy, but in maintaining that line, Benjamin gets to call back to her work in films like Southbound and particularly XX, to which she contributed a segment about young people in peril from malicious forces in the wild.
What makes Body at Brighton Rock such good fun is understanding where Wendy is coming from, and connecting to the very specific engine that’s fueling her fear. The movie’s truth doesn’t disappoint, because the truth is that nature plays tricks on the mind. Everybody who’s ever indulged in a spontaneous L.L. Bean shopping spree and taken a camping trip to prove that they, too, can brave the wilds will connect instantly to Wendy’s primal wariness of the great outdoors, and the idea that the great outdoors can, in a flash, become less than great. All it takes is one wrong turn.
Director: Roxanne Benjamin
Writer: Roxanne Benjamin
Starring: Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus, Miranda Bailey, Martin Spanjers
Release Date: April 26, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.