Wit played by actress Wrenn Schmidt . Photo Credit: Katrina Marcinowski.

Wit played by actress Wrenn Schmidt . Photo Credit: Katrina Marcinowski.

There are certain signposts that any self-respecting moviegoer should recognize in a fright night film. From the opening frames, our little trio of actors are a little too happy-go-lucky as they leave their familiar suburban surroundings in the bright of day for the hunt, heading up the winding roads until the trees grow higher and denser and the theme music rises insistently in tempo as they near their destination. The only problem is the signpost into the woods reads “Closed.” But they step across the threshold anyway and we’re on our way.

The good news for the audience, if not for all of the characters, is that Christopher Denham, the young director of Preservation — the new suspense Midnight entry at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival — knows his way into and out of the dark preserve of horror. Whether it’s the sudden crunch of a twig or the close-up of a face frozen in disbelief, our pulse quickens and we’re in for the duration.

The added surprise is that Denham knows his way around a screenplay. In spite of a few heavy-handed allusions to nursery rhymes and mythical heroines, as a playwright he understands character exposition and foreshadowing. Before we’re in too deep to care about what our characters think about one another, he’s given us a pretty good idea. And that says a lot.

That’s particularly important with this genre, because we’re generally only given a few precious minutes, if that, before the built-in terror in the plot takes hold. Our three campers don’t know how bad their situation is until they discover unseen perpetrators have made away with all their camping gear during the night.

Disorientation leads to disagreement and worse. Once separated in their new environment, the two brothers will deal with their sadistic attackers in their own fashion. Sean (Pablo Schreiber), as the eldest, and an old hand at war games, puts up a brave fight. As if he didn’t need an incentive to enter the fray, when he discovers his favorite German shepherd hanging lifeless from a nearby tree, his fury knows no bounds. As for Mike (Aaron Staton), the harried stockbroker unfamiliar with this kind of weekend junket, we might not expect him to face his own violent end as valiantly as he does. Denham even adds a little romantic touch before finishing off someone so out of his element. (With such horror hijinks at play, I don’t think I’ve ruined the plot line by saying that one can hardly expect everyone involved to survive.)

The largest slice of the pie, and the most demanding, is in Wrenn Schmidt’s hands. Her delicate beauty — as younger brother Mike’s pregnant wife Wit — hardly prepares us for the gutsy survival instincts and the sheer physicality of her challenges to come, which she handles well. At the beginning of their excursion, when she has a deer in her sights, it is Sean who does the killing. “I’m not exactly the hunting type,” she admits. Her pre-med training has made the preservation of life and not the taking of it her choice.

But the choice may not be Wit’s. Over the campfire their first night, Sean tells her the myth of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. After one of her encounters, the goddess will emerge from the forest, no longer a girl but a woman. This was perhaps the only part of Denham’s script that rang a little false to the ears, all the more so because of his practiced way with dialogue. The naturalism of the setting and his characters are on a par with John Boorman’s Deliverance from 1972, another film that lays open the dangers of the back country, but the introduction of mythological storytelling only deters rather than advances the story.

Our trio in trouble is made up of three very competent players —Schreiber (The Wire, Orange is the New Black), Staton (Mad Men) and Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire). Schreiber has distinguished himself admirably on the Broadway stage (Desire under the Elms with Brian Dennehy) along with his impressive TV credits. He’s an actor who suggests complexity and depth under the surface in every gesture and glance and regrettably, in a tightly-knotted horror genre like Preservation, his time on screen is a little shorter-lived than that of his co-actors. Fortunately, he makes the most out of every minute he has been given.

As for the relationship between the two brothers, Denham gives us clues to their uneasy dynamic from the film’s outset. Sean scoffs at Mike’s cell phone. He tells him “it affects your brain waves and your testosterone.” A brief flirtation ensues with Wit and in a truth or dare game, Sean asks her when was the last time that she and Mike made love. But any confessions to be had or incipient desires are suspended in the thick of night.

After the fateful theft of all their equipment, we know nothing good is in store, least of all togetherness. Mike knows his brother was discharged from military duty and is not about to follow his lead. Denham has given us just enough of a back story to fuel our own doubts about Sean’s trustworthiness. How bad it will turn out for the three is up to our imaginations and the perpetrators themselves.

And what about our villains, you ask? Denham never provides us with a glimpse of the enemy’s faces until a final resolution scene, and then presents one of them in a surprising, almost innocent fashion. What he does give us when not in one-by-one horrific encounters, is a band of masked assailants bicycling merrily along through the sunlit trees. By choosing to mask his evil merrymakers, he has dehumanized them. It’s an old trick but it works as a play on one of our most primal childhood fears. (In an earlier interview, the director mentioned Halloween as one of the films that created a lasting impression on him.)

In conception, story and the prevailing mood throughout, the film is all Denham’s. Another of his writing and directing efforts, Home Movie, earned him the Citizen Kane award for Best New Director. His ensemble skill as an actor in the award-winning film Argo shows here in his directorial treatment of the three performers. Nicola B. Marsh deserves mention for the challenging cinematography and a dramatically resonating score at the film’s opening is attributed to the Gentleman Losers.

This is obviously the work of a director who is not about giving us a simple walk in the woods and tickling the hair on our spine. What he has given us is a low-budget, suspense/horror genre film of excellent quality. We can only anticipate the fine work he is obviously capable of in other more serious genres as well.

Rating:  3.5 out of 4 stars

“Preservation” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Check out a movie clip from the film below.

Video Courtesy of Prodigy PR.

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