There is something pure and reverently archetypal about scary campfire tales...
...Even when they’re generic, it takes me back to an innocent time of sleepovers, when my buddies and I would tell ghost stories and watch horror movies. 2014’s Redwood Massacre touched upon that kind of childish excitement for me, and while it wasn’t perfect, it had me moderately interested in the sequel, Redwood Massacre: Annihilation. While the first film was a fairly simple slasher, the sequel goes in a very different direction, focusing more on the obsession of massacres. Back at the director’s helm is writer/director, David Ryan Keith. With two completed films since Redwood and another in pre-production, Keith has had ample time to hone his craft. It would be appropriate to think that the sequel to his passion project has the potential to be a worthy follow up, but expectations are a tricky thing that should be tempered, especially with sequels.
Instead of centering on a group of twenty-somethings going on a camping trip, Redwood Massacre: Annihilation, follows a dedicated but delusional fanatic of the entire mystery and urban legend of the Redwood Farm Massacre. The legend states that the owner of the farm went mad one day after hearing voices and massacred his family, then himself. Max, the fanatic (Damien Puckler), goes to a book signing of Tom Dempsey (John Campling), a bestselling author of a book chronicling the real-life case of his daughter being lost at the Redwood Farm. After the book signing, Max convinces Tom that he wants to help find the slayer responsible for all of the disappearances. Tom initially questions his motives, but the insatiable need and will to find answers trumps his suspicions, so he agrees to go on an expedition. Before they embark on their investigation, Tom pleads with his other daughter, Laura (Danielle Harris) to come with them, as she is an excellent hiker and has a team that used to help Tom with his investigation. Laura agrees, but has an even stronger wariness toward Max. The team make their way to the Redwood area with Max as their advisor, but the longer they travel, the more suspicious they become. By the time they approach the breaking point it may be too late.
Sequels are often at a disadvantage by nature. If the film is too far removed from the tone of the original, it receives a heavy bout of criticism, and if it doesn’t do enough different, it’s criticized for being a recycled clone of the first outing. There’s a cruelly difficult tight rope balancing act that sequels rarely achieve. Redwood Massacre: Annihilation struggles with this very plight, and in a big, bad way. What made the original film charming was the simplicity of its legend and the endearing, conventional group of characters. It gave you an interesting backstory, creative kills, and characters that you liked just enough. Annihilation overcomplicates things with a completely unsympathetic main character and ignores the seeds planted in the first film. Max isn’t always shown as the protagonist, but we do see a lot of the film through his point of view, and it’s a bit unnerving, and not in a tension-filled horror movie kind of way. However, I will say that Puckler’s performance is pretty alluring to watch. He comes across like an even mix of Henry Rollins and Bruce Campbell, and I mean that in a wholeheartedly flattering way. When he’s not flexing his jaw through clenched teeth, he’s trying to pass as a “normal guy” but his obvious failure makes for some solid dramatic tension between the group.
I was particularly pleased to see Danielle Harris and I’m very confident in saying that she carries most of the film. I’ve always been a fan of hers, going back to Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), and Halloween (2007). She has a very naturalistic way of delivering her dialogue and plays a strong female lead with expert precision in this film. Her character could have used a bit more backstory, or maybe more interactions with her dad, but as it stands, she is definitely the highlight of the film in terms of performances. Harris is a darling of horror cinema and has the raw talent that can elevate a film to new heights.
The most interesting thing about the first film was the backstory of the farm. After the tale was told near the crackling embers of the campfire in the original, it felt like the legend’s presence was constantly looming over the campers, even when the big baddie himself wasn’t around. In Annihilation, aside from a few nods at the beginning, it’s quickly brushed over. The film instead focuses on a plot that actually ends up contradicting the backstory set up in the first one. If the alterations in this were more interesting than what was already set up, I would be more forgiving, but they’re simply not. Another problem is that Annihilation gives away most of its secrets early on, so there isn’t a dangling question mark to reach for throughout the film. There are some pretty gnarly kills, and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t make me crack a devious smile, but again, this is something the first film does vastly better.
Aesthetically, it’s a pretty slick looking film. This was also the case with the original and it’s nice to see some consistency transfer over. Keith knows how to frame a good shot, and as a budget and location scouting nerd, I really appreciate the creative use of their locations. The latter half of the film takes place in an abandoned bunker. This is a good example of a sequel making a departure in the best sense. The first film was mostly shot outside, featuring greens, browns, and other warmer colors, while Annihilation descends into the cold, industrial depths of the bunker, which features a steely blue hue. This separation gives the audience something new and unfamiliar while still retaining some of the original’s trademarks, like our masked monster. I only wish Keith pulled more from what made the original so much fun.
For everything that Redwood Massacre: Annihilation gets right, it also gets a few things wrong. Because of that, it made for a pretty unbalanced experience. It also doesn’t supersede the original in any way, but it does offer a few fresh ideas and while most of them are purely visual, I do appreciate the proper distancing they achieved to keep the film different enough. Annihilation ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, leaving me just intrigued enough to hope for another sequel. It’s not going to blow your socks off, but if you liked the original, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give this one a go.
Redwood Massacre: Annihilation comes to VOD and DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment October 20th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth