The Lost Tribe (2007)

The premise of The Lost Tribe is that a group of anthropologists have found the “missing link” of human evolution, and that the Vatican has sent a group of hit men after them to cover it up. Meanwhile, a group of businessmen and their wives find themselves stranded on a seemingly deserted island, but which they soon discover is full of dangers both from the Vatican hit men and something else lurking in the shadows.

It’s a Predator rip-off. Let’s be honest. It’s not even subtle about it. You could play a drinking game matching the iconic scenes between the two and get completely smashed before the third act. There’s a difference between homage and….whatever this is. Because while Predator wasn’t the most nuanced movie of its time, it wasn’t trying to be blatantly racist. The Lost Tribe might not be trying to either, but it hits that mark pretty early on. Racist as hell and misogynistic to boot. I’m not in the mood to go into specifics, but when it comes to making racial caricatures and referring to a woman as a “thing” you get to screw…yeah.

You make me mad, movie.

The science and ideology behind The Lost Tribe is also spotty at best, but I’m not going to get into the specifics. Even if you accept the movie’s premise that a tribe of “missing link” people could still exist today, The Lost Tribe completely disregards logic when it comes to their behavior. Sure, animals sometimes kill for fun – despite the iconic quote – but not when it compromises their safety. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense for the tribe to keep a whole bunch of bodies around that they aren’t eating. The film established their behavior earlier on as hunters, not scavengers, and in the wild, hunters avoid wasting meat.

Strange logic aside, the film looks decent. It copies Predator’s trick of shooting certain scenes from the “hunter’s” point of view, though also seems to imply that the missing link people have thermal vision without actually explaining how that’s possible. The repeated scenes of shaking leaves and whispering voices in an unknown language are the film’s crowning achievements. They’re creepy as hell and they work. Sadly, not much else does in The Lost Tribe. The characters are boring and the moments of supposed drama and/or tragedy are laughable. What should have been a touching scene towards the end with a dying character and his girlfriend had me snickering the whole time. Maybe these people can act, but they did a horrible job in The Lost Tribe.

In conclusion: go watch Predator. Pretend this never existed.

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The Woman In Black 2: Angel of Death (2015)

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of The Woman In Black remake, but it must be said that the 2012 version did it better. That film had its problems, but it was cohesive and creepy in a way that the sequel just isn’t. Angel of Death tried to twist a ghost story into a morality tale about the crippling power of fear and depression, but couldn’t quite make the themes stick in the end.

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The sequel takes place forty years after the original, and Eel Marsh House is still standing. Still haunted, too. Unfortunately, it’s the only place for a group of English schoolchildren to take refuge from the German bombers. In the beginning there was a lot of tension between the feeling that various characters have that something is really wrong with the house, and their inability to go anywhere else – they literally have no other options.

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Except then it turns out they do? Invalidating the whole reason for being there in the first place.

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The main characters are Eve, a young teacher, her older and more cynical coworker, Harry, a pilot stationed at the nearby Air Base, and Edward, a mute and traumatized boy whose parents were killed in the bombing. Then, of course, we have the Woman In Black, lingering behind the scenes in her mourning garb and luring children to their deaths in the eerie marshes surrounding the house.

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But for a film that’s trying to say something about the experiences of women, Angel of Death really doesn’t seem to understand them. Furthermore, I really couldn’t accept that a woman with Eve’s experiences, who had gone through the medical system and knew exactly how she would be treated, would try so hard to convince everyone that the house was haunted. This happens a lot in horror films, and I feel that this ought to be said: women are not stupid. Women have never been stupid. Women of that era especially knew very well what would happen if you were labeled “crazy” or hysterical. Even if Eve always believed the house was haunted – as is the case – I can’t accept that she wouldn’t find another excuse to get everyone out. Especially in that era, there were real and dangerous consequences for doing anything that could get you labeled “crazy.”

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Which is really indicative of the larger problem with this movie. Angel of Death wants to talk about women and versions of motherhood, but doesn’t have anything interesting or even helpful to add to the discussion. From the moment she’s introduced, Eve is presented as dutiful and mothering. More than once, she’s mistaken for the mother of the children she is looking after. We later learn that the great tragedy of her life is that she had a child out of wedlock, and that child was taken away from her. This defines her life. She is obsessed with that tragedy, and with being a mother to her students.

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And…that’s all we learn about her character. Nothing in the film happens to her that is not somehow related to being a mother. That is literally her entire character arc. This isn’t limited to Eve, either. All of the other female characters are defined by their relationship to children, and their perceived skill at motherhood. I would have been okay with a horror film that wants to look at motherhood (The Babadook did an excellent job of that), but only if it also takes care to present the women as whole characters, with lives and traits unconnected to children. Angel of Death does not.

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The movie has its moments of quiet character development, and acknowledges that people have vastly different – but equally sound – ways of dealing with trauma. Depression and PTSD are strong themes throughout the story, and interpreted in different ways. I think the movie was trying to present Eve and the Woman In Black as foils, both consumed by the tragic loss of a child to the point where they have lost every other part of their identity; they have become that tragic thing. There is nothing left inside them except that sadness and resentment. That being said, Angel of Death hit a wall with that metaphor with its unwillingness to portray Eve as anything but saintly. If she was supposed to be compared to the Woman In Black, then some of her darker moments should have been explored. And she did have a few, let’s be clear. Her clinginess and emotional manipulation of an eight-year-old, for one thing, rang more alarm bells for me than they apparently did for the movie. Furthermore, none of these characters evolve past their traumas: Eve becomes a “good” mother and thus loses her depression, but that’s all she is. A mother. An uncomplicated stock trope with no other path except to care for her child, and no other interests to boot.

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And as for the Woman In Black?

Well. Let’s just say the sequel ended just like the first one. The bad guy wins. And nothing changes. The entire journey was for naught. We end exactly where we began.

Visually, the film simply isn’t up to par with the 2012 remake. There are some interesting shots of the marsh and graveyard, plus the ending scene at the airfield, but the director hasn’t figured out how to make interesting shots in nearly complete darkness – which the majority of the film takes place in – and the house just isn’t compelling enough to use as a set piece more than once. I enjoyed the opening of the film, which took place in a bomb shelter and used the darkness to trick the audience into confusing the sound of an air raid with the rhythmic thumping of a heartbeat. It was subtle and creepy and set up the mood nicely. It also displayed a subtlety absent from the majority of the film.

Angel of Death tries, but it just isn’t a good movie. Watching it try and fail to talk about women in a realistic way was groan-inducing. It tries, sure, but it fails pretty damn hard. Skip it

Desecrated (2015)

Desecrated opened with the sort of black humor that people will either see as hilarious, or crossing about ten lines in two sentences. Humor and horror have always been tricky to combine – after all, there is a small difference between making a joke and making light of something horrible. Still, I enjoyed the first part of Desecrated. It’s a low budget B-film and the film quality isn’t the best, but the actors are clearly having a blast with their roles. The dialog is smart and funny, and the film appears to be aware of its own ridiculousness enough to play around with it. Desecrated is a smart little horror film with a nasty sense of humor. It flows well, it’s genuinely funny, and isn’t afraid to get mean. All qualities that make up the best sort of B-films.

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At least, for the first half.

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Then Desecrated takes an unfortunate turn for the melodramatic, and tries hard to play everything straight. Sadly, the film just hasn’t set up a world that can be taken seriously in that way. The villain ends up feeling more comical than tragic, the humor becomes entirely unintentional, and the dialog I previously praised becomes flat and boring. It honestly feels like the film switched directors halfway through, and that they had very different ideas about how the story should be told. The end result is a confusing disappointment. The first half of the film had a mean sense of humor that could have carried it through the mediocre scenery and special effects if the director had taken it to the logical extreme.

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For a film that supposedly wants the villain to be motivated by PTSD and what seems to be a psychotic break from reality, Desecrated doesn’t appear to understand how either actually work, or how to portray them effectively on screen. Desecrated had some interesting ideas about debt, graves, and the complicated nature of trespassing, but doesn’t come to any conclusions about them. I’d say the first thirty minutes are the best, but the rest of it can be skipped.

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This could have been a good film. It didn’t quite get that far.

The Prowler (1981)

Considering how much I read about horror films, especially American, I was surprised at how few mentions I found of Joseph Zito’s The Prowler. In all of the slasher literature I’ve collected over the years, I think this film is the one that’s mentioned the least. So, I figured I ought to give it a watch.

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The Prowler has your standard slasher plot. A group of teenagers are hunted down by a masked killer. However, The Prowler deviates somewhat from the norm – understandable, given it was one of the earlier entries into the subgenre. It begins after the end of WWII, where a returning soldier discovers that his girlfriend has left him. Once home, the soldier – who is not identified – then kills the woman and her new boyfriend at a home coming dance, leaving behind a red rose at the crime scene. We then skip to the present day, where the local high school is once again planning a graduation dance, and the killer starts up a whole new rampage.

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Joseph Zito said once that The Prowler was his best work and in some senses, it’s hard to argue. Visually, The Prowler is a powerhouse on par with the original Halloween. The editing and sound are both spot-on, and the scenes are beautifully composed. It’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into the shooting of this film. I don’t think I could find a single scene in this film that doesn’t work visually. Everything is carefully constructed and the sleekness of this film defies its small budget. For an 80s slasher, The Prowler looks amazing. It would give a lot of modern day horror films a run for their money on looks alone. Honestly, if I were still in college, I’d use this film as an example of how to do composition right.

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For its brief period moments, The Prowler does its job. The costumes are, for the most part, accurate for the time they’re depicting, and dynamic on screen. The titular villain himself looks great, imposing and dark like the very best of the slasher villains in the canon. My only quibble is that some of the military characters had the wrong hairstyle, but that’s a small complaint.

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All that being said, The Prowler isn’t without its issues. For a film whose villain is supposedly motivated by WWII and a Dear John Letter, The Prowler really doesn’t have anything to say about either. The story has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Several scenes meant to raise the tension end up nowhere, and only raise questions that the film never bothers to answer. There are too many red herrings, the acting feels choppy, and the plot tends to wander aimlessly before getting yanked back on track. Furthermore, the actions of the villain – and a few of the other characters – don’t make much sense when examined fully. Even the rose motif that pops up regularly isn’t explained until towards the end, and feels shoehorned in. As do some of the killer’s weapons, honestly. While the pitchfork looks amazing on screen (some of the best silhouette work I’ve ever seen), it doesn’t fit with the villain’s MO to use something that unwieldy, when the film has already established that he has a shotgun.

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After watching this film, I’m getting a better sense of why it hasn’t been analyzed as much as other slashers made around the same time. There’s no denying that The Prowler is an amazing technical achievement, but thematically, it doesn’t really have anything to say. Thus, there’s a limited amount of discussion and analysis that can be done with it.

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See The Prowler for its looks, but don’t expect to do much deep thinking.

Fear The Walking Dead Season 1 Episode 1 (2015)

I don’t know whether or not I’ll be reviewing the entire season of Fear The Walking Dead, but I figured I’d give my initial impressions after watching the pilot.

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Full disclosure, I was against watching this show ever since the title was announced. In general, I’m not a huge fan of spinoffs and have mixed feelings about The Walking Dead in general. Plus, the title had an amateurish feel about it, which didn’t bode well. Still, I figured I’d take a look at the pilot for Fear just to see what it was all about.

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Final verdict?

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I’m curious.

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Fear is not The Walking Dead. And you know what? That’s a good thing. It’s not trying to copy the original, which shoved its characters into the apocalypse full tilt and made drama out of their floundering attempts to adapt to a changed world. The world of The Walking Dead is fast and brutal. The danger is clear, and it’s the humans rather than the zombies that add the most clever and cruel instances of violence. There are advantages to throwing your characters into a setting without warning – the shock makes for excellent character development, which The Walking Dead certainly had.

Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia - Fear the Walking Dead _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/AMC
Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia – Fear the Walking Dead _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/AMC

Fear has more of a slow burning paranoia vibe. How that’s going to play out for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but I thought it was a good choice for the pilot. It’s a delicate balance between what the audience knows and what the characters do, but it worked much better than I expected it to. That being said, I haven’t been keeping up with The Walking Dead, so that might change my estimation somewhat. Still, I expected to find myself frustrated while waiting for the characters to play catch-up to the plot, but Fear paced itself in a sparing, thoughtful way. Again, it remains to be seen how this will work out for the rest of the season, but the pilot has me hopeful. I’d even say that Fear has a better pilot than The Walking Dead, which struggled a bit at the beginning to get its tone down.

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The plot starts a little before The Walking Dead, when the zombie apocalypse is just beginning. The story follows a family whose heroin-addicted son may or may not have encountered one of the first zombies – or he might have just had a really bad trip. That uncertainty, along with a rash of unexplained illnesses and weird happenings, fuels an underlying sense of paranoia throughout the episode. I especially liked how technology was used to spread information, but not necessary to provide definitive answers. The scene where two characters were trying to interpret a YouTube video of a zombie attack is one of my favorites. I’m hoping that Fear will continue to utilize social media and popular society to tell its stories, since this is something that The Walking Dead no longer has access to.

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So far the characters have been written well, with small, human problems and realistic friendships. The portrayal of addiction has been good so far, and I’m interested to see where Fear intends to take that character once the apocalypse really kicks off. Hopefully it will be handled well. We’ll see.

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One thing that worries me a bit is that of the four named characters that have died so far, two of them have been black. Given The Walking Dead’s shaky track record with its characters of color, this doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that Fear is going to do much better. Still, it has cast Cliff Curtis as one of the main POV characters. I suppose it remains to be seen. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a lot of economic diversity shown in the various characters – all of them have been clearly middle to upper-middle class, and no queer characters have been introduced. Obviously this could change in later episodes, but it’s important to note how the characters are presented in the setup.

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Normally, I like to give shows at least three episodes to hit their stride before deciding whether or not I’ll continue watching them. Perfect pilots don’t really exist – there are always kinks to work out. Still, Fear introduced some good characters, had a consistent vibe of paranoia throughout, and the change of scenery from the Deep South to California worked better than I expected it to. I was hesitant about creating a shared universe with the Walking Dead, but so far, Fear appears to be standing on its own – complimenting its sister show rather than competing with it. I’m curious about how this shared universe will play out in future seasons – will it have crossovers like Arrow and The Flash do? How will the online Walking Dead mini series play into this? The videogames?

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A lot remains to be seen. Still, I’m curious. This has been a good start, and has the potential to become really interesting as the story progresses. Let’s hope it continues on like that. I’ll be tuning in next week.

Isolation (2005)

This moody, Irish film does a whole lot with not very much. The characters were excellently cast, the small cow farm turns horrifying with a few lighting tricks, and I have absolutely no complaints about the eventual “look” of the monster. Isolation reminded me a lot of The Thing and Jaws in the best sort of way; the audience knows that something is very wrong, lurking just below the surface, way before the first body hits the ground.

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The story is simple enough. Desperation and outstanding bills have forced a broke farmer – Dan – to allow a scientist and reluctant veterinarian to experiment on his milking cows. Complicating the situation is the young Roma couple parked in Dan’s driveway, on the run from a bad situation. Something goes wrong with the experiment, releasing a parasitic monster onto the farm and leaving the five people stuck there to deal with the fallout.

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Isolation is, at its core, about lonely people struggling in a world that appears to have pushed them aside and the relationships that form under extreme pressure. All of the characters are alone in multiple ways, which makes their eventual connections all the more powerful and ultimately tragic. Isolation doesn’t go very far into the backstories of the various characters, but doesn’t need to. This isn’t a story about their lives, but rather who these people are right now, in this specific moment. Normally this is a screenwriting technique that I’m wary of, since it’s rare that you can find just the right mix of actors to pull it off and a director that knows how to film them.

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Isolation does that, and much more.

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The actors did excellent, subdued work with the story. The connection that Dan forms with the young couple he initially shunned forms the emotional backbone of the story – these characters come to genuinely care for each other. The film implies that their initial strife was less due to discrimination (as it appears in the beginning) and more to the fact that people under stress just tend to lash out at whoever happens to be in the way.

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I also appreciate that the film was sophisticated enough to explain that while the characters all got into the situation because of money, that doesn’t necessarily make them greedy. Instead, these characters are stuck in this increasingly horrible situation because they either need money to pay the bills (the phone doesn’t work), or because they don’t have enough money to really run away (somebody needs to pay for gas). With a lot of films, not just horror, it’s become something of a narrative shorthand to use “greed” as your go-to character fault that must be overcome. While this certainly works in horror, it overlooks the reality that a lot of people face in a capitalist society – life sucks when you don’t have enough money. Sometimes, that necessitates doing things that go against your conscious just to keep your head above water. Isolation doesn’t hit the audience over the head with the subtext, but it’s refreshingly clear on its take of capitalism and poverty. I also appreciate that the “agenda” of the story, insomuch as Isolation seems to be pushing one, doesn’t paint all science and genetic testing in the same broad stroke. Instead, Isolation argues that people desperate people will often find themselves in desperate situations, from which there are no easy escapes.

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Isolation is an incredibly bleak film, both visually and with the tone of the story, which makes the occasional bursts of color and character all the more powerful. It is also one of the most brutal horror films that I’ve seen recently, in terms of blood and gore. Isolation is, without doubt, a body horror film. It is also a film about the reality of dealing with bodies – human and animal – and the messiness that entails. However, Isolation doesn’t condemn the farm for its untidiness. The dirt and mud make it clear exactly how hard the work is, but also make the scenes of birth seem (temporarily) lightened by the new life in their presence.

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It’s also a credit to the film that one of the most horrifying scenes involves Dan wading through a pool of mud and manure, and it isn’t funny at all.

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Isolation is an incredibly subdued monster movie, and an excellent character piece. I’m very sorry that I waited this long to watch it.

Into The Grizzly Maze (2015)

Originally titled Red Machine. Also called “Jaws but for bears” in a few reviews, but I feel that simplifies things a little too much. The plot is, quite literally, “Jaws but for bears”, but films – horror and otherwise – are always more than just their plot descriptions. Into The Grizzly Maze concerns two brothers, their respective love interests, and a grumpy and possibly psychotic hunter wandering around the Alaskan forest in search of a rogue, homicidal bear. The group is stuck – some of them willingly and others less so – in a section of the forest called the Grizzly Maze because “even grizzlies can get lost down there.” Though most of the characters are experienced hunters, the grizzly proves to be more cunning, ruthless, and perhaps a little smarter than the humans chasing it at every turn.

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To be clear, there is nothing supernatural in this film. The grizzly – listed as Red Machine in the credits but not named in the film – has adapted out of sheer necessity as a vanishing habitat means fewer and fewer meal opportunities – and boy, when you get hungry enough, those loggers look just like Happy Meals on legs…

Mhmm, tasty.
Mhmm, tasty.

The film doesn’t really explain why the grizzly doesn’t just terrorize the local dump, as most Alaskan bears will do, instead of going after food with the annoying habits of A) running away and B) packing guns. But then we wouldn’t have a story.

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This isn’t to belittle the impressive achievements of this film; rather the contrary. Grizzly Maze does something that very few animal-as-villain movies actually manage: it makes a trained animal look terrifying on screen.

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See, there’s a limit to how convincingly scary you can make an animal look on film, while at the same time keeping things safe enough to actually, you know, film a scene with human actors and a live grizzly in the same room. The amount to which these films succeed is dependent almost entirely on their editing team, and the discretion of the camera-person. No matter how much sound editing you apply, a happy animal isn’t going to look like anything but a happy animal on screen. This is a problem a lot of horror films have to deal with. Cujo in particular struggled with this – they tried nearly everything to make a St. Bernard look scary, and possibly invented some new swear words in the process.

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With that in mind, Grizzly Maze is excellent. It chooses careful shots of the bear and keeps the animal out of sight for the majority of the film, leaving the audience to listen to the grunting and growling. Like with Jaws, the audience fills in the blanks for what they can’t clearly see.

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Bart the Bear does excellent work as the villain, alongside his human costars. Piper Perabo stole more than a few scenes with her portrayal of the deaf Michelle, which makes me regret that the film chose not to make her a more central character. Billy Bob Thorton hammed it up as Douglass, a bear hunter with more than a few issues, and James Marsden and Thomas Jane gave a convincing portrayal of estranged brothers. However, the characters toss around grand speeches about the nature of evil, hunting, and preservationists without really coming to any conclusions about any of the above, and the only real character development could have happened at the beginning – if the two brothers weren’t such fans of avoiding meaningful conversation. As much as I liked Michelle’s character and applaud a decent portrayal of a disabled character on screen, her role is consistently the damsel in distress. We’re told repeatedly that she changed her husband for the better, but don’t see which parts of her character actually prompted this change, or even what she wants from life. The other love interest, Kaley, is there simply to be rescued and then reunited with her childhood sweetheart. She has no character arc whatsoever.

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The scenery is beautiful, though fails to give an accurate sense of the scale that the story is dealing with. If the Grizzly Maze is so dense and difficult that only the locals can safely navigate it, then why does the forest look like your average national park, or that thicket next to the train tracks by my house. There’s a beautiful scene towards the end where the characters are being stalked in a thick fog, surrounded by dark trees, that truly conveys the isolation and beauty of the place they are stuck in. The problem is, that’s one scene among hundreds, and the entire film should have looked like that.

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Though the characters talk a big game about the nature of evil and the ethics of poaching, a lot of the nuance is lost in process. None of the characters have those small, human issues that make them relateable, and the film doesn’t go into why so many of the characters might turn a blind eye to poaching and extreme logging. It’s clear in the subtext that all of the locals are dealing with the threat of poverty and are resorting to measures that go against their beliefs, but Grizzly Maze doesn’t do more than graze the surface of that.

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In short, Grizzly Maze is a decent monster movie about a giant bear that hasn’t quite managed to make its characters human-sized. Go see it.