The uncanny atmosphere of Utah with its dusty landscape of sandstone-etched planes and vast, otherworldly buttes, makes it the perfect setting for a dark and twisted psychological thriller; but unfortunately in the case of “Red Canyon” (the debut directorial feature by Giovanni Rodriquez) nature, in offering up the grandeur of its age-old geology for the film’s brooding backdrop, seems to be doing all the hard work when it comes to building the required sinister aura of dread: the expectation that something unpredictable and fearful could be emerging from behind the next misshapen rock formation at any moment is entirely a product of the awesome scenery. In actuality, Rodriquez takes the lens on what is ultimately little more than a bog-standard 1980s retro-slasher, with the usual van-full of annoying teens ready to be picked off one by one by a somewhat less-than-compelling masked maniac. At least the director makes the most of his chosen setting though. It’s this flawed movie’s main strength. the last-reel attempt to subvert the set clichés that generally attend the motif of ‘the final girl’ -- apart from being the only element that really distinguishes this effort in any way from a zillion other straight-to-DVD items -- feels more like an admission that this otherwise tensionless, mostly uneventful and awkwardly constructed body count flick is in dire need of drastic measures if it is to stand any chance of sparking even a flicker of interest.
The film’s chances of achieving this don’t auger well at the start, beginning as it does with a rather choppy and confusing opening prologue in which siblings Regina (Christine Lakin) and Devon (Tim Draxi) are involved in a traumatic event of some kind that takes place in an abandoned, disused mineshaft – a local bolthole in their hometown – involving them being attacked by an assailant wearing a gasmask (shades of “My Bloody Valentine” of course) after discovering a bloodied dead body trussed up in chains in a tunnel opening. Regina has blanked the details of the violent incident that followed from her mind, yet is still prone to destabilising, confused flashbacks, and has remained a nervous and compliant young woman as a result of the paralysis it has inflicted on her life. That’s the main reason that she and her brother are returning to their now-derelict former family home after the death of both their parents, in order to confront the demons of the past and hopefully lay them to rest. It emerges that Devon witnessed a sexual assault upon his sister, but was unable to do anything to help her, and was actually forced to watch her being brutally raped. This is a great source of guilt for him and has clearly marred their relationship ever since, even though the details of what actually happened have been blanked from Regina’s mind.
Accompanying the two in their attempt to come to terms with the past are Devon’s needy girlfriend Terra (Katie Maguire), a love-struck trainee doctor called Samir (Ankur Bhatt) who has a crush on Regina, and beer-drinking jock and all-round annoying idiot Harley (Noah Fleiss). The gang indulge in the usual time-filling activities (dirt bike riding along the sandstone ridges and being chased by a vicious dog from a neighbouring residence) before getting into an altercation with Mac, the local redneck head-case (played by Norman Reedus, who is now firmly typecast in such roles, it seems) and catching up with the local bar owner Walter (Walter Rodriguez) who apparently once had something going with the siblings’ mother back in the day. They also meet the local Deputy Sheriff (Justin Hartley) – a stuttering former flame of Regina’s who soon tries to take up again where he left off by clumsily pawing her and attempting to lick her face off when the friends try to relax at Walter’s bar in the evening. When Regina goes back to the original scene of her assault to try and overcome her fears, it proves a very bad idea indeed, for she almost immediately encounters Mac, dressed in de rigueur maniac’s boiler suit and sporting the same gasmask as the assailant from her past. She is only saved from being raped again by the arrival of Samir and the others. Mac is carted off to the local jail, but an impromptu power cut enables him to escape, kill the sheriff and set out for the derelict family house where the group have been camping out. A night of tense horror ensues as the friends are ruthlessly hunted down by a rampaging Mac and dispatched one by one as the drooling madman sets out to re-acquaint himself with the terrified Regina … the one who got away.
There are some interesting themes to be found lurking behind the scenes here, offering potentially fruitful ground for a dark and complex thriller, but, alas, this film is not the one to deliver that complexity. The issue of sexual violence provoking a damaged masculinity, as illustrated in the brother’s crippling over-protectiveness towards his sister; and in her turn, the sister’s reluctance to assume responsibility for her life and the dark secret she has hidden from herself as a result, are both powerful ideas underpinning an unusual story, yet so much time is wasted on lame seen-it-all-before filler: hackneyed chase scenes and poorly orchestrated kills that fail to deliver even the standard suspense of a middling slasher. The murderous antagonist is unusual for being, first of all, completely human and possessing no special powers per say (although he does prove unnaturally adept at eviscerating a human being with his bare hands at one point, leaving the victim’s entrails scattered over an impressively large area in a bewilderingly short space of time), and secondly, for the fact that his identity is never really a great mystery after he openly attempts to rape Regina halfway through the film. Unfortunately, the middle section, in which the four friends attempt to deal with being stalked by the local redneck rapist scumbag but fail miserably, is where the previously slow paced build-up descends into a muddled and maladroitly handled series of night-time episodes in which the quartet prove so inept and stupid that one can’t really sympathise with any of them that much even when they see their friends beheaded or disembowelled or speared with an iron pole.
If this were indeed a business-as-usual slasher, we might well expect Regina to come into her own when the chips are down as she finally has to face up to her greatest fear; but although the film deftly avoids this kind of standard, rousing final girl nonsense, does that mean that the putative ‘heroine’ of the piece has to behave like such a copper-bottomed klutz? By the time the screenplay has her presented with an easy getaway through a tunnel that just happens to run underneath the old family home (I mean, who hasn’t built a makeshift tunnel underneath their house, we’ve all done it, right?) but she chooses instead to fart around trying to retrieve a bracelet (oh yeah, it belonged to her dead mother, blah de blah de blah!) through a floor grating WHILE THE KILLER IS STOOD RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER, all previous thoughts of sympathy for her plight have been put well and truly to rest. This middle section is so blatantly and clumsily dishonest in its contorting attempts to conceal certain information from the audience, that the big twist of a revelation in the final act is actually completely expected and falls rather flat as a result. The film does have to be commended, though, for completely abandoning the usual slasher formula at this point, attempting to enter some deeply uncomfortable territory after laying aside the usual big confrontation and disposing of the main antagonist as almost an aside, then making a series of plot reveals that lead to an unexpectedly downbeat and squirm-inducing conclusion.
One has to conclude that “Red Canyon” is something of a missed opportunity. The slasher template was ultimately the wrong one for the potentially engrossing material, which deserves much more attention paid to the twisted psychological aspects of its core themes and less scurrying about in the dark as a prelude to what turn out to be a series of so-so stalk and slash sequences. The young cast are average, but in truth aren’t given an awful lot to get their teeth into. Katie Maguire is the only one of them to stand out, but her feisty girlfriend character is short-changed with the unsympathetic-moaning-bitch role of the group. Former scenery artist Giovanni Rodriquez starts out well in his directorial debut, capturing some arresting images of the imposing red dusted landscape of Utah; but when it comes to the central action/gore sequences -- which almost all take place in grainy darkness -- the film becomes a little more problematic, with lots of jiggling camera, haphazard editing and confused storytelling.
“Red Canyon” comes to UK DVD via Chelsea Films, with a fairly unremarkable-looking transfer and the choice of 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 stereo. Both do their jobs adequately. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.