Ben & Annie are a young couple on a weekend trip to Annie's small North Carolina hometown who, after meeting a charming old friend, embark on an impromptu 'Bigfoot hunt' that threatens both their relationship and their lives.
Well, with a stellar movie-going experience like the forthcoming Stomping Ground, fulfilling that request is all too easy.
To the filmmakers behind this very enjoyable effort – go ahead and designate me your official cheerleader, thus allowing your product to climb to the summit of the biggest and best Bigfoot-infested mountain-top cinema. I’ll even put on a mascot costume if need be.
Suffice to say, I was impressed with your film.
Ben (John Bobek) is a young Chicago hipster who travels to rural North Carolina with his girlfriend Annie (Tarah DeSpain) for Thanksgiving, where he meets not only her mother (Theresa Tilly – of 1981’s The Evil Dead – then credited as Sarah York), but also Annie’s long-time friend Jed (Justin Giddings) and her former high school boyfriend Paul (Jeremy Blackford). It’s revealed at a bar that Annie and Paul used to be quite the Bigfoot aficionados, and so later that night at a party, they hook up with Jed and plan a camping trip into the woods. They’re going on a Bigfoot hunt.
And you can all certainly guess how that will turn out.
It’s a story idea which is pretty by the numbers, but the performances and script immediately soar above and beyond its origins, thus setting this film apart from your average “group-of-folks-in-the woods” horror film. And we can all heave a great big sigh of relief that this is not another “found footage” exercise.
There is a home-made quality to Stomping Ground. This should not be taken as any form of insult, only as a call-out to the greatness that is the film’s authenticity. Shot in North Carolina, the film captures an essence that must be the South. In the people, the locations and especially the fantastic music by Ben Riesser and Ted Speaker – which is infused with mostly banjo (there are ass-rape/Deliverance jokes throughout the film) – sets the mood perfectly. The aforementioned party scene has a live band playing this “mountain music” and I immediately said, “I want to go to this party”. It was down-home and welcoming, and despite some of the character fights, that is the feeling which continues all throughout the film. And even with the Deliverance jokes (the film has a terrific sense of humor), Stomping Ground never feels threatening (not from the people anyway). It touches on, but never goes down that worm-hole of Southern stereotypes (perfectly illustrated by the character of Jed and the great performance from Justin Giddings).
I have a friend who once said something like (I’m not sure if it was directed at me) “discussing budget in a film review is tacky”. That’s not the exact quote, but you get the gist. Well, I will discuss it here, and this is the reason why: I’ve said it on so many other occasions – the magic and potential brilliance of any film has to begin on the page. No matter what resources you have (or will eventually have) at your disposal or how much money you have in your bank account – the characters and the story have to be solid – they have to come first. It’s clear that Stomping Ground was produced on a shoe-string budget, but who the heck cares? The script is intriguing, endearing and above all filled with believable and likeable characters. It works. It just works.
Performance-wise, this film is flawless. From the smallest supporting roles (the two hunting rednecks our group encounters in the deep woods are hysterically creepy) to the four leads, there’s not a misstep to be found. There’s also a palpable and bewitching chemistry between these four actors. I believed every moment (including the immediate friendship between Jed and Ben), and that’s a tough thing to achieve in any film.
As Ben and Annie — our couple from two different worlds — John Bobek and Tarah DeSpain are a marvel. There’s plenty going on with a possible love triangle (Paul makes it clear to Ben that he still has eyes for Annie) and all of those scenes are wonderful and true, but nothing can top the brief moments between Ben and Annie on the lakeshore. Annie reveals some tough history about her family and Ben lets down his guard — apparently for the first time in their relationship. It’s a beautifully shot scene with enough tenderness to seal the deal as far as loving the characters – especially when things are about to get a lot worse. I say this rarely, as it truly happens far too infrequently, but this scene was a perfect marriage of realistic, moving performances and undeniably great writing – resulting in what I will describe as “hypnotic”.
There are two films which flashed by in my movie-going memory as the film progressed. One is The Blair Witch Project. Not just for its wooded and remote story/filming locations, but for the fact that during the majority of the film, you never really see anything. When the film does finally reveal Boojum (the Native American nickname for Bigfoot in this region) it’s a fine payoff. The makeup is really quite good and thankfully never given too much time on-screen – keeping things nice and mysterious. This creepy creature — along with several impressive and jump-worthy “boo” moments — offers plenty of delicious danger. The film also delivers a seat-clenching build of tension throughout. The film truly hooks you in every single way.
As for the second film to download from my memory, the stellar The Descent. There is plenty of time in Stomping Ground, just as there was in Neil Marshall’s sophomore feature, to get to know the characters and to appreciate their situation, eventually liking them – before things become violent and bloody. This is certainly a review of repeats, ‘cause here’s another word of wisdom from the Klug-catalog, “We have to love these people if we’re going to care about their well-being”. Mark it off the “to-do list” Stomping Ground, ’cause “mission accomplished!”
Stomping Ground just happens to be a legitimately frightening horror film centering on the legend of Bigfoot. Who knew? I was too busy loving the genuine dialogue, applauding the talented actors and happily following along with the scripts’ three-dimensional characters to notice!
Stomping Ground (such a brilliant multi-tasking title) did very well on the festival circuit, and soon will arrive on DVD/VOD – March 8th to be precise.
Do yourself a favor – grab your camping equipment, read up on your Bigfoot lore and take a hike into the North Carolina woods for this one. It’s a memorable journey and you’ll find yourself repeating over and over – as you trek through the underbrush looking for footprints and hair samples, “Celebrate and support independent cinema”.