You’re out in the middle of the woods with three of your friends. After a night of playing poker for what is somehow the first time in your thirty-plus years, you and your buddies discover the footprint of what can only be the mythical sasquatch. If you’re a normal person, you get your life, get the hell out of there and call the cops. But in the case of the gang in Between the Trees, you decide to hunt it, because of course…
…Too bad for these guys, what they end up hunting is actually far more dangerous than any old sasquatch. In Between the Trees, written by newcomer Sam Klarreich and directed by Brad Douglas (Besetment), we get a different take on the creature, in which four friends head out to a mountain cabin, where they find themselves being hunted by a sasquatch-esque being equipped with all sorts of weapons we don’t normally (or ever) associate with the big-footed creature. A hunter hunting hunters, where have I see this before? These guys might want to give Arnold a ring.
Between the Trees starts off rather strong, with an ominous tone as Steve (Greg James) heads out on his trip, questioned by his wife Maggie (Hannah Barefoot) if he is coming back, to which Steve doesn’t respond. The scene elicits an uncomfortable vibe that something is not right with this hunting weekend, highlighted by composer Evan Evans perfectly eerie music, which is truly the star of the film. We then follow Steve and his friends on a road trip through the woods, in which cinematographer Chuck Greenwood and Brad Douglas make a strong impression with experimental angles and shots clearly inspired by the Evil Dead franchise. Douglas establishes himself as a competent director with a good vision for what he wants this film to be. Unfortunately, Douglas’ eyes are bigger than the script’s stomach, or whatever. You get it. Between the Trees is a well-made little film with sasquatch sized problems that mostly have to do with the script.
It all starts to do with the cast of so-called “best friends”, comprised of Steve, Josh (Michael Draper), Mack (Jonny Lee) and Dave (Dan Kyle). For a film which relies heavily on the themes of friendship and trust, these characters hardly ever come close to convincing us that they are, in fact, friends. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that these guys don’t treat each other well, and have a lot of pretty serious, pretty dickish secrets they’re keeping from one another. They also don’t seem to share much of a bond, though that could be because Steve, Mack, and Dave might as well be the same gun-toting redneck. And this is no disrespect to the actors, as each actually does a fine job, they just don’t have much to work with. Josh is the only one that stands out with an actual personality, albeit an obnoxious one, since he is afraid of literally everything, constantly complains, and has a stick so far up his ass you can see the branch poking out of his mouth. Despite that, Draper brings a lot of physical comedy to the role, making Josh fun to watch, even if you’d hate to be around him. On such a short run time, it’s a wonder that Between the Trees doesn’t spend more time developing these characters. These guys should be more focused on hunting for a personality than a flesh-ripping monster.
What’s interesting is what Klarreich’s script seems to imply with these guys. At its roots, Between the Trees is a commentary on the whole idea of “manly men”, otherwise known as toxic masculinity. Steve, Mack and Dave can pick up girls, shotgun a beer, and shoot a gun, but they’re also a bunch of middle-aged losers with failing marriages and an inability to outwit a backwoods hillbilly man-beast. I mean seriously, these guys are beyond dumb, splitting up whenever unnecessary to search for the creature while two stay behind to, I don’t know, keep an eye on the beer? And then there’s Josh, the constant worrier who the guys are always taking advantage of-including conning him out of five hundred bucks-yet he’s the only one with a good relationship. A good head on his shoulders. And a scoop of brains that actually make him a worthwhile opponent for our sasquatch. Between the Trees reminds fans that we’re past the age of the “macho hero”. If this were Predator, Shane Black would’ve survived, not Arnold.
Speaking of, Between the Trees is a lot like Predator, but with a sasquatch, a bunch of assholes, and a way smaller budget. This sasquatch isn’t your average, big ole-fur baby with a nasty habit of grinding up hikers. This thing is a true hunter, armed with hatchets, arrows, and even a gun at one point (which sounds a lot more fun than it is). Based on the premise, this film feels like it should have a lot more gore, though there is so little bloodshed, even grandma can give this one a go without having to cover her eyes. Klarreich does a great job of surprising the audience with each kill, but the script is severely lacking in anything inventive in this department.
As for the creature itself, have you ever seen images of the original design for the Predator? The big, red, goofy looking lizard played by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme? Picture that, but with hairless, grayish skin and a farmer’s overalls, and you’ve got your sasquatch. I have to be honest here, this thing has absolutely zero presence in the film. While I do believe Douglas is a skilled director, the beast isn’t framed very well, and the design is comical in the daylight, which is the period when most of the film takes place. And this is why so many 80s monster movies are shot with a shadowy composition. Klarreich’s script doesn’t help the beast stand out either, since Between the Trees also manages to pack a human killer into the story as well, a plot point which feels more disruptive than anything, especially in a film with a runtime of less than 80 minutes. You’ll leave this film more afraid of your friends than farmer sasquatch up in the mountains.
Douglas does the best he can with what he’s given, and I’m confident that he has the ability to deliver something truly unique eventually. Between the Trees isn’t that film. With problems in this film stacked as tall as the sasquatch himself, there aren’t enough bad jokes from Josh that could save Between the Trees. At least the final showdown, which is another hardcore Predator reference, is spectacularly over-the-top, though all too quick. Between the Trees really could’ve used an extra helping of bigfoot cheese, scraped right off the bottom of his hairy toes.
Between the Trees goes hunting on VOD from Uncork'd Entertainment on March 5th.
By Matt Konopka