Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Patrick Rea
Writer: Michelle Davidson, Patrick Rea
Producer: Marcel Sarmiento, Warren Ostergard
Stars: Fiona Dourif, Kevin Ryan, Bruce Williamson, Robert Bouton, Jake Busey
Personal conflicts come to light when a couple camping in the woods encounters a mysterious creature and an injured man.
Dana is supportive, though not necessarily thrilled about her husband Charles leaving to tour with his band. She is even less enthusiastic about revealing the fact that she is pregnant, because while Dana has a white-hot desire to raise a family, Charles has no desire at all.
Unaddressed conflicts remain tabled for now. Making the most of their remaining time together, and commemorating their anniversary too, the couple sets out for a “just the two of us” weekend in the woods of hiking, camping, and reconnecting.
Two turns into too many on only their second night when a nearby posse of beer-swilling hunters fires guns in the air with a hearty “yeehaw!” Charles packs his own pistol in not-so-polite preparation for telling their campfire neighbors to pipe down. He doesn’t get that far, for an unseen creature unexpectedly attacks the rowdy rednecks, mauling half of them to shreds while the other half flees in fright.
Charles rescues a hunter named Sean and pulls the injured man to safety. The creature seems reluctant to ravage the newly-formed trio, though it isn’t quite clear why. Dana thinks their tent somehow protects them. Sean has a different suspicion, but he leaves this side of his lips zipped when he recounts local legends concerning what lurks in the trees. Sean’s secret seems as important as Dana’s, and outing them both might be the only way for anyone to escape alive.
“Arbor Demon,” formerly titled “Enclosure,” is predominantly a three-person play in a single setting. Its strong suit is its intimate acting, boasting capable and then some performances from Fiona Dourif as Dana and Kevin Ryan as Charles. Jake Busey holds his own as sneering Sean too, though that’s to be expected for a role that was either written with Busey in mind, or fits him to a T anyway.
What stands out are the subtleties in dialogue delivery that establish a rhythmic chemistry between Dourif and Ryan. They aren’t simply reciting a script. There are ticks, glances, and nuances in their movements that make real people out of fiction.
The screenplay doesn’t put complete confidence in their performances to get exposition across, however. One moment sees Dana staring longingly at a photograph of kids. Another has Dana smiling at a young girl holding hands with her mother. Still another finds the woman snickering curiously upon discovering a baby book discarded in the woods. It’s a simple concept to grasp that Dana desperately wants a child, yet the film is hell-bent on repeatedly punching its audience in the face about it.
Charles and Dana’s relationship reads as organic and authentic. The hiccup is that it is bland as entertainment, particularly in the frame of a horror film.
Once Sean enters the picture, drama development ceases almost entirely between the main duo. The altered dynamic doesn’t spark the suspense it is supposed to either, and the monster mania everything builds toward doesn’t have heat for a fire of its own.
Good glimpses of the titular beast don’t arrive until the runtime passes its midpoint, which is a long time to stall. Restraint is a tried and true tactic for creature features building anticipation and letting imaginations fill in the blanks. But “Arbor Demon” can’t quite create enough intrigue to carry its people-powered plot all the way through to the reveal.
The strong cast comes close to picking up the material and pushing it as far as they are able. The final 15 minutes has some bang, but by then, attention spans are likely to have checked out of any emotional investment or significant care about how the story might conclude. “Arbor Demon” is simply too sparse in both setup and staging to widen eyes, perk up ears, or make a mark in the memory as a thriller whose teeth have bite.
Review Score: 45