In A Violent Nature had its world première at the Sundance Film Festival 2024
“Hey check this out.” “What is that?” “A necklace or something.” “Looks like gold.” “Hey, maybe it’s here for a reason.” “Yeah, what reason Colt?” “I dunno.” “This whole place freaks me out.” “Well we are in the middle of a graveyard, after all.” “Stop, don’t start with your crap, Ehren.” “Have you guys never heard of the White Pines slaughter?… I thought it was the whole reason we were here.”
This conversation that opens In A Violent Nature takes place between Colt (Cameron Love), Troy (Liam Leone), Ehren (Sam Roulston) and Evan (Alexander Oliver) – not that we have yet actually seen any of them. For they remain entirely out of shot as the camera is locked on the interior of a ruined wooden structure – an old fire tower – with the woods visible beyond. Only at the very end of the scene, as the four leave to rejoin their female friends Kris (Andrea Pavlovic), Aurora (Charlotte Creaghan) and Brodie (Lea Rose Sebastianis) back at camp, does the camera pan slightly to reveal the hanging necklace, as Troy’s hand reaches into the frame to take it. Yet in these young men’s absence, something beneath the floor of the building stirs unnoticed, and a hulking figure emerges like a zombie from the grave, shaking off the chains that had been wrapped around him.
Here’s, as they say, Johnny (Ry Barrett) – a monstrous, unstoppable killing machine cut very much from the same cloth as Jason Voorhees, and working his way through locations (woods, lakeside cabins, tool sheds) and routines (a bogeyman in an iconic mask, constant cat-and-mouse, an implacable advance, and merciless kills) that are familiar not just from the slasher genre, but more particularly from its most reductive, by-numbers entries in the Friday the 13th franchise. Yet even as In A Violent Nature appears to be looking back and embracing its genre’s long legacy, it is also, like the dilapidated building in which it opened, a deconstruction, with its makings and materials exposed to view.
When Ehren eventually gets around to telling his Campfire Story™ about a massacre of local lumberjacks some 70 years earlier, possibly perpetrated by the revenant, vengeful Johnny, there is some contention amongst his audience about the appropriate language to describe ‘slow kid’ Johnny. “You know what the word is, asshole,” says Ehren, when pushed by Evan to use the (unmentioned) r-word, while Aurora calls him a ‘fucking ableist’ amid references to ‘cancel culture’. While this kind of political corrective might readily be applied to the Friday the 13th films today, here the critique is coming from inside the movie, in a decidedly postmodern gesture.
More importantly, that decentring of the young co-eds in the prologue to the margins where they are heard but largely not seen, will prove an accurate index to the unusual focalisation of In A Violent Nature. For while most slashers follow the rivalries and transgressions of the future prey, with the killer only occasionally popping up for the odd murder set-piece, with this film the focus is firmly on Johnny, with its favoured framing – an over-the-shoulder tracking shot – stalking him as he stalks these campers. It is not quite the POV shots of Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake (2012), and nor is it as rigorously imposed, with DP Pierce Derks sometimes shifting attention to the co-eds, and sometimes shooting everyone from an aloof distance – but for the most part, we are following Johnny on his renewed spree, and taking in his victims’ lives and backstories largely from half-heard snatches of conversation that he picks up while circling in. It feels as though the tropes of the slasher are being turned inside out, in much the way that Johnny viciously takes apart and eviscerates his victims, revealing their inner workings. At the same time, Tim Atkins and Michelle Hwu’s sound design here, mixing casual, often unsourced dialogue with the all-encompassing noises of the natural environment, is as exquisite as it it essential. For it immerses us exactly where the film’s title promises.
Once he has been awoken from his resting place in the earth, Johnny’s first murder is edited (by Alex Jacobs) in such a way that there is a match cut from his hand reaching towards his human prey, to the same hand, now blood-soaked, reaching for a necklace. These are before and after shots, with the act itself elided, suggesting a further deviation from the norms of a genre where the mechanics of murder are typically laid bare – although gorehounds can rest assured that Johnny’s subsequent kills are far more graphic, with one in particular as grotesquely unpleasant as anything this long-term horror critic has ever seen.
Still, this mute monster’s rampage of slaughter, presented without comment from him and with only minimal insight into his feelings or motives, brings an unexpected mood of melancholy, as he somewhat wearily follows the call of his nature – and more particularly of mother nature – like a wild animal with henhouse syndrome, barely himself seeming to understand what drives him. Meanwhile all the tools that he uses to kill – the drag hooks and axes and saws – are castoffs from the historic timber and logging industries that wrought so much violent devastation on the local ecology, making Johnny, among other things, an embodiment of nature’s revenge.
Despite his enormous size and strength, Johnny is at heart just a damaged child (note how distracted he becomes by a toy car), and he is also, as a moment of flashback before a mirror suggests, capable of reflection. He is lumbering yet calculating and cunning, physically imposing yet an immortal ghost – and perhaps, buried deep in his powerful frame, there is a little mama’s boy (or at least a Psycho) only able to be pacified by a love forever beyond his reach. Certainly Johnny’s motivations are the subject of this film, whether in the ‘mostly true’ tale that Ehren tells, or in the generational history added by a local ranger (Reece Presley), or in the account given by a woman (Lauren-Marie Taylor) about the tendency of bears and other large predators not to “get too hung up on reason”, or in recurring references to a hand-me-down necklace whose meaning and value were explicitly called into question in the film’s very opening words.
Writer/director Chris Nash has previously made several short films, culminating in Z is for Zygote in the anthology ABCs of Death 2 (2014), which has given its name to his production company, Zygote Pictures Inc.. Yet In a Violent Nature is his first feature, and shows an artist who is both savvy about horror’s history, while thoughtful about the new directions that it might take. What Brodie jokingly suggests that local backwoods women might make of the urban Ehren is equally true of how audiences are likely to regard this new filmmaker on the block: “They’ll think you’re from the future.” For this is a mannered, meditative take on a well-worn genre, transforming its slice-and-dice scenarios into a disquisition on the problem and persistence of incomprehensible evil. It also heralds the arrival of a fresh voice in horror.
strap: Chris Nash’s mannered, meditative feature debut eviscerates the inherited tropes of the slasher to expose the problem of evil
© Anton Bitel