In “Off the Beaten Path”, three amateur filmmakers set out to make a documentary about a local legend involving some creepy goings-on in the woods. Rather than the mainstream breakthrough they were banking on, their footage becomes a shocking testament of fear, anxiety, and ultimately, death at the hands of a most evil presence. This film is that footage, with the exception of some convenient third-person breaks, that is.
Wow, what a concept! You know, with some savvy marketing, perhaps a pseudo-journalistic website and ad campaign, the impressionable masses (those would be the red state masses, of course) might even be fooled into believing that this “footage” is real, that these poor folks actually found something truly terrifying in the woods and never returned to tell the tale, that the legends are in fact TRUE! Yes, I see it all now, the team at Not For the Squeamish Productions are sitting on a veritable goldmine here: a pop-cultural phenomenon that’ll break box-office records and even spawn a crappy sequel (or two), as well as legions of imitators. Then, fat, rich, and happy, they’ll drift back into the oblivion from which they so quickly and triumphantly emerged after only a few years. The whole thing would be genius, a cinematic ruse to rival that of Welles’ legendary “War of the Worlds” broadcast. And don’t worry Not For the Squeamish team, your secret’s safe with me, wink wink. Here’s how I would spread the legend, free of charge:
Some legends, it turns out, are true. But never has proving such a theory come at a higher price than it does in “Off the Beaten Path”, a morally reprehensible and mondo-worthy piece of snuff from Not For the Squeamish Productions, Minnesota’s No-Budget Horror Film Group. (Remember, controversy means press and press means ticket sales, sometimes at least. Also, be sure to shamelessly self-promote at will.) The legend that turns out to be true: Jasper Hagen, long-dead, crazed Satan-worshipping madman from the town of Gateway, MN whose unholy presence still haunts site of his home in creepy woods and quickly turns all present-day visitors into crazed Satan-worshipping madmen (or women) with a propensity for Satanic arts and crafts. The high price: the lives of wannabe filmmaker Chuck Stevens, his girlfriend Dina, and their trusty camera-wielding sidekick Randy. Though its commercial release is truly appalling, “Off the Beaten Path” is a simultaneously terrifying and fascinating account of the lengths a young director will go to “get the shot” even in the face of downed trees blocking the path (oh the horror!) and suddenly whiny females (is their no respite from this unearthly dread?!?!) Like a real-life Aguirre or Alexander, Mr. Stevens passionately leads his fearful troops, along with an unfortunate local woman named Brenda, deeper into the infamous woods despite the ominous signs they immediately encounter. When the foursome reach an impasse (i.e. that damn fallen tree!), the two men continue on foot while the women hold the fort back at the truck. But not long after the men’s promises of “being right back”, the sun sets and the real-life horror-show begins. To document here the extent of said horrors is a most unpleasant business of which this reviewer would rather not partake. Suffice it to say, the legend of Jasper Hagen is real! Stay away from Gateway or DIE!
Complimentary marketing advice aside, the more I write, the more I get this nagging feeling that this has all been done before. Assuming that it has, in fact, all been done before, “Off the Beaten Path” is hardly the most egregious of imitators. To its credit, the film is mercifully short at 64 minutes, endearing in a way only a no-budget indie can be, gamely undertaken by cast and crew, and most important of all for a scary movie, actually scary at times. If you’re going to shamelessly pillage from a previous movie (hey, it’s not like Hollywood doesn’t do it all the time), you might as well have fun doing it. What they may lack in originality, writer/director Jason Stephenson and his cast (Todd Hanson, Jessie Welsch, Tommy Thompson, and Carrie Sizemore) make up for in sheer commitment to this otherwise lame undertaking. (Again, if only most Hollywood productions were so lucky.) And who knows, if they follow my advice they might even have another Blair…, I mean, a big hit on their hands.