While couples or groups of friends taking seemingly innocent trips into the woods, only to be terrorised at night by unseen entities – be they human or inhuman – is a pretty well-worn trope in the horror genre at this point, the last few years have not been without evidence that there’s still life in this particular old dog. For instance, Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2013 found-footage Bigfoot tale Willow Creek revisited Blair Witch Project-esque claustrophobia to devastating effect, and Tucker and Dale vs Evil hysterically riffed on “cabin in the woods” clichés. Patrick Rea’s Arbor Demon offers another effective variation on the theme: one that pushes its monsters to the periphery in the name of some impressive second-act character drama.
Charles (Kevin Ryan) and Dana (Curse of Chucky and SHE‘s Fiona Dourif) aren’t short of relationship stress : Charles is set to embark on a three-month tour with his band, and unbeknownst to him, Dana is carrying his child (most definitely not a planned event, given his slightly awkwardly expositional disdain for the subject in an early car journey). In an attempt to “disconnect to reconnect”, they abandon technology for a couple of nights, and head into the woods on a camping trip. As they make their way there, Rea establishes their intimacy smartly and with unusual understatement: amidst their disagreements and bickering, the depth of their affection for each other instead comes across in shots dwelling on lingering glances, and subtle but well-developed physical comfort with each other.
Once they’ve picked their spot and set up for the night, things take a turn for the worse. A group of hunters set up nearby, and what begins as an irritant soon escalates when they’re all wiped out in a brutal attack from a seemingly feral beast (wisely kept largely offscreen until the last fifteen minutes or so). All, that is, except one. Abrasive, brash hunter Sean (Jake Busey) soon takes cover in Charles and Dana’s tent, and as they take shelter from the beast, Arbor Demon comes into its own as it uses the “siege” situation to zero in on superbly executed and well-rounded character development.
The film’s commitment to its dramatic conflict never really threatens to derail its momentum: while seldom really the focus, the threat from the monster is constant, and as all three characters are forced to confront dark truths about themselves, Arbor Demon starts to feel impressively fresh. All of the film’s main players bring their A-game, and as the film places its emphasis more on its horror leanings as it reaches its end, the overt spectacle and emotional weight of its finale feel earned. When it eventually arrives, the monster “reveal” isn’t especially scary, though it’s arguable if it was ever intended to be. Handling its metaphorical monsters as deftly as its physical ones, those who aren’t put off by the film’s dramatic heavy lifting will be richly rewarded with a film abundant in believable, relatable characterisation and rich metaphorical subtext.