While living in Chicago, Ben and Annie take a trip to Annie's hometown in North Carolina. Upon their arrival, Ben is met with some hostility by Annie's friends and families due to him having grown up and lived in the city his entire life, while Annie has been more of a wilderness kind of gal. When they run into Annie's oldest friend, Paul, down at the local bar, and Ben finds out that Annie has kept a secret from him: she believes in Bigfoot. These leads to an impromptu camping trip with Paul, Annie, Ben and Jed as they search for Sasquatch. However, after becoming lost, the group begins to suspect that there might something in the woods with them. Watching. Waiting.
Maybe it's my age showing but these days I enjoy it when a horror movie can give me something a bit more than just horror. Possibly because it's harder to be genuinely scared when you're older or you have simply seen too many horror movies. Or perhaps it's because it's rare to find a straight horror movie that's actually good enough that it sticks with you. So when I got in touch with writer and director Dan Riesser about his film, "Stomping Ground", I was actually relieved when he had mentioned that the movie was less horror and more comedy and drama (there's even a bit of romance too).
While living in Chicago, Annie decides to visit her home town in North Carolina and brings her boyfriend, Ben, along with her. Having grown up in the city all his life, Ben's interactions with Annie's family and friends ends up a bit rough as they believe more in the rugged and outdoors kind of life. Things become more abrasive when Paul -- Annie's childhood friend and former boyfriend -- shows up and reveals to Ben that Annie has a deep, dark secret: she believes in Bigfoot. With ulterior motives by Paul, and Ben wanting to deepen his relationship with Annie, the three of them -- along with Annie and Paul's other friend, Jed -- head out into the woods to track Bigfoot.
Now when I say I enjoy horror movies that offer something more, that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy basic movies about creeps, ghouls and killers. On the contrary; I still watch and love those movies because they satisfy that soft, simple, gurgling part of my brain that goes, "Yay!" when ever there's blood splashing across the screen. Usually though, watching those movies one time (especially newer ones) is all that's warranted. Because there are so many movies being released, both big and small, it has become more important to find ones that leave a lasting impression and have a bit more value, which is what I was able to find in "Stomping Ground".
Ultimately, "Stomping Ground" is about relationships and the unavoidable insecurities that come from relationships, whether you are a man or a woman. I believe most of us have experienced those moments where we become insecure with who we are and what we have to offer our partner when we begin to explore their history. In the case of our protagonist, Ben, he realizes that he and Annie come from two very different worlds and those who are part of Annie's former life create a feeling of inferiority. And when Paul takes Annie and Ben out into the woods to search for Bigfoot -- where Annie is more adept than Ben is -- the insecurities begin to stem from a masculinity perspective for Ben as well.
Dan taps into something real and relatable with "Stomping Ground" and, surprisingly, that's where the tension is derived from. The movie develops a John Carpenter-esque atmosphere of paranoia to it. Is there something out in the woods? Something waiting and watching? Or is it something more human? There's a great cat-and-mouse game that's played with audience of trying to decide what's out in the woods. With each confrontation between the characters -- minus the lovable Jed -- the tension mounts. Is there something out in the woods that's going to get these characters or will Ben lose the one thing that he cherishes due to his feelings of inferiority and jealousy?
Had this been a simple creature-feature with Bigfoot eating the faces off of insipid young-adults, it easily would have been forgettable. Again though, "Stomping Ground" finds ways to ground itself by basing more of the horror aspects of its story and atmosphere from something a lot of people can relate to. In a lot of ways, the horror element works because the movie isn't focused on that aspect but more on the dramatic side of the story and characters. There is quite a bit of comedy to "Stomping Ground" as well to help it maintain an even balance and to keep the movie from becoming too heavy handed. However, it's the comedic and dramatic parts the work in the movie's favor the most because there is a genuine sense of reality to the story, the characters and their motivations.
Thanks to some great writing on Dan's part and outstanding performances by the cast, the characters feel real and genuine. Oddly, so much so that you don't even hate Paul -- clearly the antagonist of the piece, but you can understand his motivations to point that you don't out right hate him (he's still kind of a dick though). I guess you could say the atmosphere of paranoia engages the viewer but it's the characters that keep you invested. While you are reminded that there could be something out in the woods but what keeps you and the tension going, are the characters while you wait, and anticipate, for everything to boil over.
I was impressed with "Stomping Ground" as a debut feature since, not only was it a good movie, but because the writing and performances gave me something that felt real. The different parts of the movie all come from an emotional element that I think anyone could relate to, in terms of intiment relationships. It's not easy to find a creature-feature where the characters are as relatable and believable as they are in "Stomping Ground". Even if you don't necessarily find yourself invested in that aspect of the movie, there's still that slow-boiling tension and atmosphere about something lurking in the woods that should appease the rest of the audience.