There seems to be something mysterious about cryptids, creatures like Bigfoot and the Yeti, that simultaneously makes them tantalizing subjects for low budget (and occasionally big budget) filmmakers of all stripes and extremely difficult challenges for a successful, rip-roaring good adventure. There are a few shining lights here and there in the genre, produced over the decades, but far more of these films are unwatchable, serving as fodder for a “so bad they’re good” movie night. Writer/director John Portanova’s Hunting Grounds falls somewhere in the middle of those two points.
The film starts off on solid footing with a lone hiker (Bauman, played by Bill Oberst Jr.) making his way through the woods at sunset. As night falls, the woods become filled with the sounds of the usual nocturnal woodland creatures – and one not so usual one. Bauman hears the roar of the Bigfoot, and this causes a moment of curiosity in him that introduces Bauman and us to our first victim of the film’s monster.
After the prologue, Hunting Grounds moves onto introducing the main characters, Roger and Michael Crew (Jason Vail and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte) as the drive into a small town in the mountains. The father and son are moving to a small, family-owned cabin in the mountains after experiencing a string of bad luck that includes Roger losing his job and the death of his wife, Michael’s mother. Because of this, Michael is in an emotionally bad place, Roger drinks too much, and neither are particularly enjoyable characters at the time of their introduction.
When they arrive at their cabin, they find the inside has been trashed. This is followed by a sequence of scenes where they have to repair the cabin as way of showing us that our father and son characters aren’t getting along very well right now. This does nothing for the likability of our characters. Things continue this way until the arrival of Roger’s friend Sergio (David Saucedo) and Roger’s brother Will (D’Angelo Midili) which introduces even more family drama. Will comes across as the first genuine character introduced thus far, and his arrival also provides the first signs of Michael being a character to root for. This may be in part due to Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and D’Angelo Midili turning in the best performances of the core group of four actors.
Hunting Grounds continues with more drama, some more references to the dysfunctional state of affairs with the family relationships, and multiple scenes with Sergio that makes one wonder why anyone would want him around, let alone want him for a friend. He only gets worse – much, much worse – as the story progresses. This culminates in a bonding experience hunting trip in the surrounding woods that involves shooting at a Bigfoot and setting off a chain of events that leads to the deadly conflict with the clan of creatures living in the local caves.
Writer/director John Portanova shows a strong sense of film-making skill when it comes to directing the outdoor scenes. He frames many shots in such a way as to emphasize the depth and breadth of the wilderness, making the characters seem small, isolated, and out of their element. He also keeps the outdoor shots visually interesting throughout most of the film. Indoor scenes are a different matter entirely. These scenes look almost claustrophobic, but not in a way that enhances the storytelling.
Bill Oberst Jr. does the typically solid job with his character that anyone familiar with his work would expect. Jason Vail and David Saucedo do well enough with the materials they’re given. The standout performances in the film are by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and D’Angelo Midili. I fully expect to see more and bigger things from each of these two actors in the future.
The big question many going into a Bigfoot film will likely have is wondering how well they pull off the monster and gore. The Hunting Grounds creature effects and blood effects are handled by Doug Hudson, Cameron Hudson, Carson Hudson, and Julie Hudson, and they do a good job for a lower budget, practical FX shoot. The costume work is greatly helped by John Portanova not making the mistake many before him have made by following the motto “less is more.” The creatures are shown in darkness, and often not fully shown at all. This goes a long way towards hiding any shortcomings a lower budget job may have. The gore FX scenes are also nicely done. The required scene for this type of film – the monster ripping a man’s arm off – is pulled off quite well. The minor gore FX moments are effective as well.
Jon Bash also handles the score nicely. The music works to enhance the scenes, and rarely feels out of place.
The biggest shortcoming the movie has is its characters. Hunting Grounds follows in a long line of horror films where the filmmakers attempt to create watchable drama to carry the film over until the monsters appear by creating character conflict via populating their film with largely unlikable and dysfunctional characters. The problem that arises with this is that unlikable characters are what they are – unlikable. Dysfunction isn’t characterization, and it’s harder to invest in characters as a viewer when you don’t care about or particularly like the them.
On the whole, Hunting Grounds is a mixed bag. If you enjoy the majority of the films out there in the Bigfoot/Yeti sub-genre of horror, you will enjoy Hunting Grounds. If you’re looking for something with a stronger horror element or characters you can invest in, you may want to wait for Hunting Grounds to make its way to the subscription streaming service of your choice.
Hunting Grounds is from Votiv Films and an October People Production. It has a run-time of 92 minutes. Look for it February 7, 2017 from Uncork’d Entertainment.
Again, if the Bigfoot/Yeti sub-genre of horror is your thing, you may enjoy this film more than I did, but for me it ranks only two eyeballs out of a possible five
Hunting Grounds (2 / 5)