You know the story. No, not about the film (more on that later). About the Steven Spielberg kid (played by Virginia born-and-raised Christopher Schrack) who picked up the old, bulky video camera as a five-year-old back in the early 1990s and never put it down (well, until he bought new ones after wearing out a then-current model). Eventually he went off to college for a degree in cinema studies and creative writing at James Madison University. A couple of years later, he makes “Elysium,” his debut feature (available thru Amazon). It’s not THAT big-budget, Matt Damon “Elysium,” obviously, but a chase thriller that did show off Schrack’s budding talents as new-born hyphenate. It’s got a 7.3 rating on IMDB, too.
In 2011, he and some of his dedicated Virginia buddies complete principal photography on “Backwater,” and two years later it plays the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival. The crowd loves the film. Sure, friends and family were there (including a very supportive set of parents who also “catered” the film), but, honestly, it’s a well-crafted production considering the overlapping crew responsibilities, including some who also appear in front of the camera.
Med student Cass and boy friend Mark (Perth, Australia-born Liana Werner-Gray and Justin Tully), two nice looking, happy-to-be-together twenty-somethings, head off to a remote river-side wilderness for a weekend camp out. Before long they realize they’re not alone. Glenn (played by Andrew Roth, the film’s co-executive producer), a fisherman with an empty catch cooler is one mysterious character. Another is a lanky, slick-haired, off-putting deputy (“True Crime’s” Thomas Daniel).
As you’d expect in this alone-in-the-woods genre entry, there are an adequate number of thrills, but there’s also more than a few twists that most people won’t see coming. In one way, it reminded me of “The Sixth Sense,” with the clues well-hidden in the dialogue and in the film’s many other dark places. Without giving away the various surprises, a repeat viewing reveals the things you missed the first go-round that might have helped you figure out some of the pieces in Schrack’s story.
The $50,000 budget and two-and-a-half week shoot, entirely on location in the Washington, DC, suburbs (Sterling, Manassas, & Fairfax, Virginia, and Indian Head, Maryland) don’t look like a rush job. The film’s first act is a laconic walk in the forest, as the two leads try to figure out if they have neighbors nearby. The camera is merely a just-below-eye-level, hand-held observer, generally within a few steps of the action. The dialogue is well-delivered. The editing is crisp. The mood becomes increasingly ominous and then hysterical, especially when the darkness descends and the throbbing drum/heartbeat on the soundtrack intensifies. Gore spurts forth in the low-lit evening air. Soon, despite the state tourism slogan, you’ll realize Virginia is not for these lovers.
The outdoors helped keep production design costs low, of course, but the direction, story, and acting drive the film. A horror fan by choice, Schrack takes a simple premise and imaginatively plays with it in unexpected ways, including a final wink.
It’s nice to see a script that dares to elevate beyond the usual platitudes. “Backwater” turns a nice stroll in the woods into a journey into a dark, terror-filled dimension. This is not your daddy’s Twilight Zone.