Grab some gear, a camera and a six pack…
We’re going camping!
Hunting Grounds (aka Valley of the Sasquatch) 2015
Directed and Written by John Portanova
Runtime 92 minutes
High Octane/The October People
The legend of hairy bipeds living outside of what many may deem civilized society is spread far and wide across this vast spinning green orb we all inhabit. Sightings of such creatures, be they (known as) Sasquatch, Bigfoot, Loupgarou or The Yeti, vary dramatically in description and location. Many skeptics are of the understanding that alcohol plays a great factor in most if not all the sightings, whereas others pass captured images off as merely playful bantering on the part of bored artistic types wanting a slice of the fifteen minutes of fame many think they are deserved, a slice of history that perhaps might lead to lucrative media sponsorships.
One such image and perhaps the most well-known is the 1967 Patterson/Gimlin film. Even fifty years young it remains one of the most controversial examples on celluloid, pitting followers of the mythos against cynics who want only to find the holy grail, the costume store receipt, to quash the films supposed validity.
If you look closely you can clearly see the creature updating his social media profile It should come as no great surprise then, that in recent year’s media activity has capitalized upon the popularity of this area of interest. The introducing of several shows themed around the same topic has ranged from such redundant titles as Finding Bigfoot, Killing Bigfoot (why?) through to slightly less conspicuous monikers like Mountain Monsters, MonsterQuest and the long running Destination Truth. SpikeTV even went so far as enlist the help of host Dean Cain, offering a bounty of ten million dollars for irrefutable proof that the species (with as many monikers as a handful of controversial European cult films) exists.
With no real proof in hand, of course this is somewhat debatable, let us turn to fictitious celluloid output to momentarily quench our collective hirsute thirst.
Hunting Grounds is by no means the first film to tackle Sasquatch lore, obviously, many have come before and, I would hasten to guess, there will be many to follow. Harry and the Hendersons (1987) tackled the subject with tongue firmly in cheek whilst Abominable (2006), starring Jeffrey Combs, is a fantastic example of what the horror genre offers complete with sarcasm, creepy moments, fantastic creature FX and hilarious dialogue.
John Portanova’s cinematic take on the ‘oversized-footed-species’ genre opens with Bauman, portrayed by Bill Oberst Jr., stumbling through the woods. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. He’s broke, down on his luck, and has decided to seek out the origins of a hidden stash of gold to make his fortune. He finds a damn sight more than he bargained for after happening upon a ravaged campsite, blood on the ground and hearing an unidentifiable howl in his nocturnal explorations. The scene ends leaving the viewer in limbo regarding Bauman’s well-being until much later in the movie. In the following scene, a father and son pair are introduced. Both are also in dire need of a vertically challenged Irish fellow’s luck (sorry, wrong movie?). Thus far in, which is only about a minute or so, I’m left pondering upon vast wooded landscapes. Do they appear as like a flame to a moth to the down and out? (Perhaps this film will be so kind as to clue me in on the intricacies of this later.)
Roger and Mike are recovering from the death of their wife and mother, respectively. There’s a smidgen of tension in the air, Dad is a recovering alcoholic who somehow still deems beer an ‘essential’ item, a vibe which is only added to when Rogers friends join them at their recluse (for the time being, at least) in the woods. The location isn’t specified, I originally thought Oregon, Wyoming or Idaho although the legend on Roger’s cap, North Kitsap, suggests an area near Seattle, Washington.
Following a round table discussion on why the cabin appears ransacked, (Mike found a clump of hairs on a nail, by the look on his face he didn’t think too much upon any possible correlation. Someone comments …” Maybe it was a Sasquatch…” Or perhaps (everyone’s low budget genre) friend Ron Jeremy suffered a mishap following an excitable instance at an ‘exotic locale’ gonzo event. Stranger things have happened, right? The small collective then decide upon a hunting foray, deeper into the woods. As if killing something innocent will help alleviate the tension. It is there that Sergio, a short-tempered fellow with a penchant for firearms and belittling those smaller in stature than himself, determines they may well have traipsed into a locale far surpassing anyone’s splendiferous Google Maps write-up.
The film continues. In no time the viewer is informed of a local legend, in which a group of local miners were pelted with rocks, all but one disappeared never to be heard of again. This doesn’t help Sergio’s worsening condition. He insists he’s seen something and it wasn’t a bear! Understandably this makes him want to leave and his companions only want to tease him relentlessly.
Roger tries to calm his drinking buddy …” Bigfoot is supposed to be friendly (pregnant pause) like ET…” but to no avail and eventually he chooses to step up to the plate by running blindly into an abandoned logging site proclaiming to be introduced to any potential troublemakers still hanging around. As one could well imagine this propels the film into nitrous oxide mode and events start to transpire very quickly, or I could say things ‘get a little hairy’ (ha-ha – don’t quit your day job punk!).
Fear not. I’ll refrain from supplying a scene by scene narrative from this point on suffice it to say that there are contributing factors an excitable viewer can check off as the movie draws to its finale. For instance, I wouldn’t be amiss in mentioning that… there is a creature. Huge spoiler, huh? There are instances that test the collective’s friendship, there isn’t running water (yuck!), Sergio gets to shoot at ‘something’, a home-owners claim policy may be decimated because of rock damage and someone loses the use of a limb.
With all that in mind the movie plays out well as the group realize they have an issue and start to huddle together, far surpassing merely drunken shenanigans (what happens in the woods, stays in the woods. Wait, wha-!). The tension builds nicely with the aid of a soundtrack sans the utilization of rock and popular music interludes. However, the action on screen misses something, in my opinion, that which would help to take the feature to another level. At times the interaction between creature and those with a seemingly higher intellect heads toward a comical arena.
Creature effects are sadly lacking (I thought I might have glimpsed a costume store tag at one point) with little or no emotion highlighted on the mysterious critter’s visage. In all honesty, commendable for the budget though, I would have much preferred to see ‘Harry’ (from the Hendersons film) as an antagonist to see a smirk, a smile or something other than a cardboard emotion. Or perhaps it’s just that I don’t know the species well enough to understand any emotions, or lack of, that they might exhibit. The actors on screen do a decent enough job of portraying their frustrations in situations they have no control over further mired by their conflicting personalities. If anything, this suggests to any weekend warrior explorers, who might be thinking of taking an excursion into unfamiliar wilderness, only go with those you know you can trust.
David Saucedo, who plays Sergio, stands out as a character embroiled in emotion, entrenched in an overinflated ego. His is a character one shouldn’t rely on in a pinch for any reason, one whose true colors come to the surface very quickly in a situation that demands constraint, determination and concentration. His descent into a state of loony tunes brings with it several nice touches, an excellent standout scene recalls Lady Macbeth type antics resulting in an unfortunate recently deceased chap suffering his verbal wrath.
Bauman is an intriguing fellow, portrayed excellently by Bill Oberst Jr., driven by ambition and greed, he’s cunning and intelligent and boasts constructive use of chewing tobacco in a desperate situation. Troublingly he exhibits not a single ounce of empathy and understanding, attributes that could have well have worked to his advantage and steered the cast’s plight from whence it eventually plummeted.
All in all, Hunting Grounds is a great example of the low budget arena. The conclusion, though a tad predictable, leaves the audience contemplative on how one should approach the unknown. The (David) Banner–esque music certainly adds to this aura (yanked from the original Hulk series (1977 – 82) for all those too young to have experienced it). I’m happy to report what’s sparingly shown in the way of physical effects is captured in decent light (unlike numerous other low budget features guilty of blowing their SPFX budget for naught) witnessed in lingering detail and doesn’t disappoint in its realistic qualities.
Unfortunately, the film still falls short of my expectations, a touch of silliness in a few areas brought it down a few pegs. Parts that, if reworked, could possibly have resulted in its being heralded as a top-notch example of the genre. But as the movie sports a serious nature these areas result in a slight blemish of the final product. It’s my opinion that a touch of humor, placed with care, can go a long way to alleviate the high expectations associated with straight thriller/horror affairs.
Nevertheless, this remains an applaudable effort worthy of searching out.
In its alternative title glory (for the UK audience)
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