Keith’s attempts to shake things up begin early on. We quickly meet Max (Damien Puckler), a rugged, intrepid man searching through the wilderness. It’s a stirring introduction, setting up the expectation that this will be our hero and a showdown will occur between Max and the monstrous figure from the opening. However, we quickly learn that Max is something else entirely in another torture sequence aimed to make us squirm. From here, the rest of the cast are drawn into the narrative, from grieving father and author Tom Dempsey (Jon Campling, sporting the most peculiar haircut in the film) to Jen (Tevy Poe), who seems to have lost her character in the woods, and Gus (Gary Kaspar), the loveable lug with a heart as big as his bearlike body. And we have Tom’s daughter Laura, played by Danielle Harris whose horror filmography (especially in the Halloween franchise) brings a certain iconicity to the film. Sadly, none of these performers bring much in the way of charisma or dynamism, despite forced attempts to make them interesting.
The film’s better moments take place in the great outdoors (the film was shot in Scotland), as the central five search for answers about the fate of their loved ones. As cinematographer, Keith emphasises but does not sentimentalise the wilderness. Isolation is necessary and the visuals do communicate this, even if occasional character appearances from nowhere are less than convincing. As the film moves into its later acts, however, difficulties start to appear. The interiors are unconvincing and inconsistent: ostensibly we are underground yet there are windows; the location is supposed to be abandoned and yet it has power; the production design across different rooms feels inconsistent, and it is notable that the film has no credited production designer. Rooms with elaborate chain set-ups appear to exist for no reason other than plot, and while the characters legitimately keep asking “What the fuck is going on?!” it does get a little wearing.
As it progresses, Redwood Massacre: Annihilation slips into lazy suggestions of grand conspiracy as well as some uninspired stalking scenes. Keith’s direction is weak as is his editing, the juxtaposition of different shots and sequences breaking the tension while the pacing is laborious. The gore is ample and there are some wince-inducing kills, including a very nasty moment with a saw, a well-placed swing with an axe and some handmade decapitation. It is worth noting that as the Burlap Killer, Benjamin Selway provides an effectively menacing presence. His lumbering physical performance comes across as methodical rather than clumsy, and his quick head movements ensure that we remain aware this is a predator with keen senses. Indeed, he is quite scary in and of himself, until some explanation is offered and you start to wonder what the point is. The final moments are very strange, seemingly setting up for a further instalment with the cinematic equivalent of someone standing up to say ‘Durrrgh!’ As said, there could be a tough little slasher /folk horror film made around this topic. Maybe that’s the original film.