Every October for the last 14 years I’ve been doing what I call “Slasher Search,” where I try to scrounge up some obscure slasher movies you probly never heard of, preferably from the ‘80s, and usually still only available on VHS. Originally the hope was to discover some little-known gems from this particular subgenre and era I enjoy, or at least get to dissect some strange ones, and I achieved those things for a long time. But between the finite number of stomachable films of this type, my deep scraping of the barrel, and the fine work of Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome and other blu-ray companies to shine their bigger spotlights on movies like this, I’m having a hard time finding fresh material these days. There will always be new horror out there to discover, but not ones that I considered eligible for the name Slasher Search.
I started to think I was reaching the end of the line last year, but some of you kindly encouraged me to keep going even if it meant adjusting the rules to a different type of movie. So I’m taking your advice. This year I’ll try exploring a different era of also-ran low budget exploitation by treating Tubi (and possibly other ad-supported streaming services) as my video store, searching for titles I’ve never heard of, to see if I can find some watchable ones. I went through a page of 1,000 horror titles and jotted down a long list of not-well-known vaguely slasher-ish ones, and I’ll pick some out to sample. We’ll see how it goes. No guarantees are being made. (Except that I started late due to all that EXORCIST business so most of the posts will come after Halloween.)
Today I’ll kick things off with a double feature of THE RETREAT (2020) and THE RETREAT (2021). I thought they would make a good pairing because they share many qualities, such as being on Tubi, being about some people staying at a B&B before a wedding, and being called THE RETREAT.
THE RETREAT (2020) is from writer/director Bruce Wemple (MONSTROUS, DAWN OF THE BEAST) and it’s about a wendigo and/or hallucinations terrorizing two long time friends as they hike the Adirondack High Peaks of upstate New York. Adam (Dylan Grunn) has grown up, gotten very into his job and plans to move closer to his wife’s family after the wedding. Gus (Grant Schumacher) is his shitty friend disappointed that his buddy has grown away from him and isn’t interested in getting drunk or high anymore. They’re barely getting along, but Gus is Adam’s best man and insists on a bachelor party. Adam doesn’t want a party, but he wants to do this hike, so Gus goes with him to prove he’s a good friend.
They spend the night before at a B&B where Gus makes fun of the host, Marty (Rick Montgomery Jr., PUPPET MASTER: DOKTOR DEATH) for having a bunch of creepy pictures of wendigos framed on his walls. Marty tells the legend of the wendigo and they all laugh about it.
At first the hike goes well and is a good bonding experience, but awkwardness begins when they get to the top of a peak and Gus reveals the “surprise” that he brought some shroom/peyote/or-something tea given to him by a douchey other hiker they met (Chris Cimperman). Adam declines at first, but later at a shelter decides oh, what the hell. He drinks a little and Gus chugs the rest.
So you can see where this is going. Gus starts seeing a creature, but neither he or we know if it’s real or not. Complicating things, we’re told of wendigos having powers to mess with your mind, and also about a syndrome of people imagining wendigos. What surprised me, because I didn’t realize this was where it was going, is that the night after fighting off a wendigo Gus wakes up with a bloody knife, finds Adam dead, buries him and tries to go home and pretend to have lost him. Until then I really thought Adam was the lead and Gus was the obnoxious friend character.
As Gus journeys home, his sense of reality keeps changing. Sometimes he’s in the future telling a therapist (Peter Stray, DEADLY HONEYMOON) what happened. Sometimes he wakes up and realizes Adam never died. Sometimes Adam is dead and he’s having to lie to his fiancee Amy (Ariella Mastroianni) about what happened. He may or may not get back to the B&B where Marty explains that his wife was killed by a wendigo and warns him not to let it take over his mind. It’s a whole mind trip thing.
I didn’t like this THE RETREAT very much, but it achieves that thing of seeming to be low budget and home made and then impressing me by how close it can get to seeming like something more legit. I was very aware of how much of it was just wandering through snowy woods, at first with awkwardly ADR’d dialogue, and how much it gets away with just being able to be psychedelic and unstructured. But some nice establishing drone shots go a long way to creating more production value, the warping effects they do to represent hallucination are pretty subtle and effective, the leads are surprisingly good (especially considering they’ve mostly just acted in bigfoot movies and shit from this same director), and most of all the creature, when you see him, looks great. Creepy muscle guy with glowing eyes, tromping around on all fours like an ape. Okay, it’s weird later on when you see some wendigos wearing pants. But they sorta explain it.
There’s a morality play side to it that Gus is getting scared straight, which I found kinda corny. But it’s worth it for the scene where he seems to be coming down, Adam is alive and doesn’t know what he’s been going through, then they run into the guy who gave them the tea and he wants to do more drugs and now Gus is the one who seems like a party pooper.
Another plus is the score by Nate VanDeusen, which is mostly eerie drones and violin sounds. Using the terminology of the youths I would call it “elevated horror coded.” My complaint is that in the scene where Marty first tells them about the wendigo the music leans hard on sounding scary, taking the topic way more seriously than the characters, and it’s comical.
I wanted to mention VanDeusen though because he’s more evidence of my theory that Christmas romcoms are the new b-horror exploitation, easy gigs for enterprising filmmakers trying to churn out a formula that there’s a big market for. His filmography is almost entirely movies by this director, except this year he did something called THE CHRISTMAS VENUE.
THE RETREAT (2021), directed by Pat Mills (THE CHRISTMAS SETUP, DESIGNING CHRISTMAS) and written by Alyson Richards (THE SUBLET), is a little more my speed, and comes closer to being accurately described as a slasher movie (sorry for cheating with the other one). It’s about a group of old friends, all gay, (and Canadian I believe), staying at a “gay B&B” rental cabin out in some woods for “a wedding planning retreat.” But when our lead pair of lesbians arrive they don’t realize something has already happened to their friends.
Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie, THE AMITYVILLE CURSE) is the outsider of the group, coming along as the girlfriend of Valerie (Sarah Allen, SECRET WINDOW) and worried her friends will hate her. She’s different from Valerie in that she doesn’t know how to use her espresso machine, does know how to change a tire, knows all about hunting.
While stopped at a gas station mini-mart up the road from the cabin a guy (Aaron Ashmore, THE SKULLS II) hits on Valerie and is cut off by Renee, though she doesn’t admit to being a girlfriend, saying “He doesn’t need to know our business.” There’s some relationship tension about that.
They get to the place and make themselves at home, go for a walk, have their talk about serious relationship issues interrupted by the discovery of a deer head hanging from ropes. Some weirdos around here. And then they notice someone watching them while they’re having a picnic, so they run back to the cabin, and discover that someone took their car and sunk it in the lake.
Hard for that to be a misunderstanding. And right away it’s bear traps, masked abductors, being tied up in barns. A rare disappointment from Renee is that despite all her know-how she doesn’t know how to break zip ties on her abdomen. Look into that if you want to be the capable character in a movie.
She realizes she’s locked across from a house, and through the window she sees a woman (Celina Sinden, THE OUTPOST) in the kitchen, and a masked man in camouflage comes up behind her. Renee tries to warn the woman, only to see the man unmask and kiss her. Yep, the guy’s wife knows he has people tied up in the barn. Her name is Layna, and since she brings Renee a glass of water, Renee thinks she might be able to appeal to her humanity. Nope. Layna calls her a “pervert” with a “disgusting life.”
What’s going on is that this group of homophobes – including the guy from the mini-mart – are kidnapping gay people and torturing them on a livefeed for the entertainment of other bigots. (And then presumably going to PTA meetings to decide what the sane people’s kids shouldn’t be allowed to read.)
Obviously with this premise there’s gonna be some unpleasantness. You gotta spend time with some dudes in camo saying things like, “This is gonna get the boys online pumped up for sure!” and encouraging each other to “Have fun with it” before ax-chopping their chained-up victims. But the pay-off is seeing commitment-shy Renee rescue her lady and tell her she loves her. And then they go Rambo on ‘em. They find an ax, a bat, a rifle, they mix cleaning products to create chemical weapons. A nice moment is when (SPOILER) Layna says Renee doesn’t have the guts to shoot her, so instead Renee crushes her head with the monitor from the computer running the psychotic homophobe chat room. (Their live feeds are on flat screens but thankfully they held on to that one really out-of-date monitor too.)
This THE RETREAT is not a transcendent work but it’s a pretty solid, humble indie horror movie. Last week I reviewed another LGBT slasher-in-the-woods movie, THEY/THEM, which I thought was more interesting than effective. This is the other way around. It doesn’t feel the responsibility to be a message movie. It’s honestly more like SISU or WRATH OF BECKY in the sense of just knowing that showing bigots get a violent comeuppance is a good way to add kick to a genre movie. And of course it’s still novel to have a lesbian couple as dual heroes of a horror movie. Crucially the leads have some screen presence and chemistry, they make each other laugh like a real couple, and they maintain their differences (the tougher one and the prissier one) even after they’re in violent conflict. Not in a jokey way, just in a way that’s consistent with their characters.
You know what, this is a pretty promising start to this Stream Warriors idea. If I’m able to find a reasonable amount that are as good as this or better then it will be worthwhile. For now, I will not retreat.
Programming note: I will be doing various other random horror reviews up through Halloween and get back to slasher searching in November