[Review] 'Body at Brighton Rock' is a fun survival horror film lacking the tension to make it a winner
Whew. Let me tell you, those that are aching to watch a thrilling horror film starring a female character who is both fun and empowering may have had their wish granted with Body at Brighton Rock. But that does not mean this tale of survival and perseverance is without its flaws…
…I’m a nut for man (check that, WOMAN) vs nature stories, and I can say that first time feature director, Roxanne Benjamin nails most of the elements that make those films such a pleasure to watch. Known for her anthology segments in horror fare such as Southbound and XX, Body at Brighton Rock is an impressive debut which tells the story of Wendy (Karina Fontes), an inexperienced park ranger looking to prove herself, who happens upon a dead body deep in the wilderness and must guard the crime scene with the threat of wildlife and potential supernatural elements threatening her existence. This film is like the adult version of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, complete with bears, and the declining mind of a heroine rapt with fear.
And like King, or even prolific director, Quentin Tarantino, Benjamin’s film smoothly mixes genre to create a satisfying, entertaining flick which captured my attention immediately with a credit sequence clearly inspired by 70s spaghetti westerns. The score by The Gifted captures the essence of Ennio Morricone’s triumphant western soundtracks such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a stylistic choice which gives off the impression that whatever Wendy is in for, it’s going to be a fight that will take grit and courage to survive. But the composers aren’t one trick ponies, and Benjamin uses their talents to her advantage, packing in a variety of music as we often see with Tarantino, ranging from upbeat to dread-filled tones perfect for hiking through the woods alone and carrying the audience along with Wendy on her doomed journey.
At its heart, Body at Brighton Rock is a western through and through, with Wendy as our looked down upon gunslinger with something to prove, armed with moxie, a map and a flashlight as opposed to a gun, which, in retrospect, she probably could’ve used. Benjamin’s film never leaves Wendy’s side, and so Body at Brighton Rock rests heavily on Fontes’ shoulders. She doesn’t disappoint. As a woman surrounded by men and women who don’t think she can do her job, Fontes plays her character with a combination of vulnerability and feistiness that endears us to her. We never doubt that she believes she has the toughness for the work, but the way Fontes portrays Wendy’s fear undercuts that confidence. Part of the brilliance of the character is how Benjamin presents her as someone we can relate to. Like Ash Williams from the Evil Dead series, Wendy has the inspiring courage of a hero, yet she can never seem to get out of her own way, constantly fucking up by dropping important supplies, wasting phone battery, you name it. You’ll want to be friends with and root for Wendy, because she is all of us struggling to make it through this damn wilderness we call life.
Pulling us closer to Wendy are the subtle hints Benjamin lays perfectly throughout the film like ominous breadcrumbs. Wendy starts the film off by deciding to switch tasks with her more experienced friend, embarking on a dangerous trail to put up signs. For an inexperienced hiker like Wendy, the signs ooze irony, depicting messages like “Never Hike Alone”. Lead by example, Wendy! Body at Brighton Rock also sets up plenty of red herrings for the terror to come, such as the claw marks of a bear etched into the occasional tree, or the over-the-top creepiness of fellow ranger, Davey (Martin Spanjers), who overplays the part so much he might as well be twirling his mustache with a knife behind his back. Benjamin’s film is a slow burn, gradually leading us into the horror like a path through the forest getting darker and darker. The audience has time to get to love Wendy, but also worry for her because you’ll practically be screaming at her with each mistake she makes.
Considering the current (and wrong) trend in horror, some will probably say that Body at Brighton Rock is not horror. But I think Wendy and more importantly, Benjamin, would have something to say about that. See, this is not your typical survival film. Finding herself holding up with a dead body over night as she waits for her fellow rangers to arrive, Wendy finds herself tormented by the worst monster there is, fear itself. Ghostly visions, malevolent tree branches, and yes, a monstrous bear, all work to attack Wendy’s senses, to a point where we’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. What matters is Benjamin directs the hell out of this film, and it’s easy for Wendy’s terror to become ours. Benjamin finds a way to make that dead body seem as unnatural as possible, at times even appearing as something completely inhuman, and I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t get under my skin a bit. This is why you couldn’t pay me to sleep alone in the woods at night.
Unfortunately, there is a major issue with Body at Brighton Rock, and it’s this: By the end of it all, Wendy doesn’t feel as if she has survived enough to match the epic triumph of the score. Aside from a grisly attack lasting a few minutes towards the end, Wendy isn’t having to do much. She doesn’t need to make shelter or find food. She has no injuries. Nothing is attacking her outside of a few sequences that end up coming across as dreams. She’s simply waiting through the night, and though the film is creepy, it rarely reaches the sort of pulse-pounding terror you’d normally associate with a woman vs nature survival horror film. The score and what’s taking place on screen don’t always match, because while the score inspires a strong sense of victory, we hardly ever see Wendy being all that victorious. The emotions which the score want us to feel simply aren’t always there, which is too bad, because Benjamin is an outstanding director. The film is just missing those few pieces that would make it all work. And an unnecessarily eerie twist at the end takes away from the empowerment which most viewers will likely be craving.
All that being said, Benjamin shows a ton of promise and a unique style with Body at Brighton Rock, complimented by an outstanding score and fist pumping performance by Fontes. The film may not be quite the fight for survival that you’re hoping for, but this is still a fun walk through the woods and a glimpse at a promising director who has yet to show us her best.
Body at Brighton Rock is out now from Magnolia Pictures.
By Matt Konopka