Rehab patient Cliff (Josh Davidson) convinces fellow patient Sean (Nicholas Wilder) to borrow his Dad’s truck so they can head to Cliff’s uncle’s cabin in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Reluctant at first, Sean eventually agrees and the duo are joined by other rehab patients Christine (Jen Kurtz), Steve (Pat Joyce), Pete (Jon Mendte), Stella (Claire Bromwell) and Vicky (Molly Heckard) for a short, questionable vacation in the woods. On the way there, Cliff stops off to get high and collect some drugs for the trip, thus cementing that, even for the most reformed addict, this weekend will be a temptation.
Things start off simple enough; beers are consumed and everyone bullshits about this, that or the other thing, but later in the evening Christine convinces everyone but the passed-out drunk Sean to follow her into the woods, where they indulge in some meth. In their drug-addled wanderings, they come across an abandoned building and, come the morning, Christine is missing and no one knows what happened to her.
As things get more and more stressful and searches for Christine turn up nothing, the addicts cope as only they know how. For Sean, it’s more booze. For the others, it’s a case of indulging in whatever is handy at the time; when an acid trip ends badly, it’s time for some heroin. Sean deduces that the only thing that can really save them all is to leave the cabin, and the downward drug spiral they’re all caught up in, before things can get any worse. Of course, it’s never that simple.
The Despair is a horror film, though not a traditional one. Sure, a group of people go to a cabin in the woods and horrible things happen, but it’s not a case of some supernatural force or killer stalking and murdering them. Instead, the monster waiting in the woods is their own addictions, and how they handle their problems ultimately decides their fates. Everyone gets a close-up with their personal demons and, unfortunately for most of them, it doesn’t end well.
The film is obviously on the lower scale of low budget, though it does try to make up for its visual and equipment-based shortcomings by being more creative with the edit, particularly in the drug-addled sequences. The rub there is that sometimes the edit can be a bit too off-putting. For example, while we not only see what’s going on at the cabin, we also get the recap from Sean as he talks with the doctor at rehab and then, in other instances, we start getting flashbacks to other characters’ stories and their own moments in group therapy. It makes sense if you’re paying attention, but if you’re not then it could suddenly seem like “waitaminute, that guy had a beard and now he doesn’t… OH, back story.”
Other low budget issues creep in, such as suspect sound from time to time, but the lo-fi nature winds up working in the film’s favor as it starts to take on an almost documentary feel. Usually it’s the music, throat-singing heavy and often menacing, coupled with the tricks of the edit, that tends to interrupt the naturalistic feel. It is in the quieter, more natural moments, however, that the actors are most effective.
And of the cast, Josh Davidson steals the show. It may be unfair, though, because as the main instigator and moral villain of much of the film, his character is set up to be the most interesting. Still, Davidson’s sleazy charisma is what really elevates the character, one which somehow still inspires a modicum of sympathy despite the fact that, for the most part, he doesn’t do a damn thing that could be considered positive.
If you look at this film as just the simple narrative at its core, a group of drug addicts go to a cabin in the woods, do drugs and s**t happens, then it’s not really all that exciting. And maybe I’m just seeing something that isn’t there, because I want to see something more into the film than the basics, but I like the idea of this being an attempt at a psychological cabin-in-the-woods horror film about addiction. It’s a nice spin on a familiar convention, and allows for more of an opportunity to relate to the plight onscreen than, say, a guy with a hockey mask chasing someone.
Overall, I’d be hard-pressed to call The Despair a pleasant watch (does the title sound particularly cheerful to you?), and while the lo-fi nature works in some instances, the technical shortcomings can sometimes be too distracting. The film isn’t the most obvious of narrative endeavors, and it utilizes some cliché “we’re all on drugs” moments, but it feels like it is trying to do something more than just be another dark and depressing low budget movie about drug addictions. I think it succeeds to a certain degree, and makes the best of what it can out of the resources involved.
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