Strides are being made — slowly — in the horror/thriller realm of movies that break away from the standard plot device in which only the “nice” women, who eschew partying and messing around, are worthy of surviving and conquering evil.
“The Descent” in 2005, a breakout film in which its mostly female cast of characters did not consist of camp counselors, sorority house members or smug cheerleaders but women of different lifestyles sharing an adventurous spirit, also showed signs of deviation by offering up characters who were flawed, making it difficult to guess which ones might survive.
Katie Aselton, director and co-writer of the indie film “Black Rock,” said in an interview she liked the emotional tension between the characters in “The Descent” and used that subtext in her script. It’s a useful plot device in horror and thriller movies in that the characters, who are having difficulties with one another, are thrown into a perilous situation that forces them to set aside animosity and distrust for the sake of mutual survival.
Unfortunately, by employing that character set-up, Aselton, who collaborated on the script with her husband, writer-director Mark Duplass (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”), gives “Black Rock” a derivative feel. This is too bad because other aspects of “Black Rock” showed promise that it might stand out as a small but effective chiller.
As it is, “Black Rock” borrows from the well-worn blueprint of scary movies with it taking place in a secluded, undeveloped area, in this case an island off the coast of Maine, accessible only by boat.
Aselton also stars with Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell, portraying three young women who get together for a little camping trip on this island, where they had spent many happy times earlier as children. Sarah (Bosworth) arranged for the trip but tricked Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Bell) by telling each of them it was only going to be a twosome with her. Abby and Lou had a falling out over a man, and now Sarah, by bringing them together in a place of pleasant shared memories, is hoping for a reconciliation.
Of course, just as Abby and Lou are warming up for a confrontation, the interruption occurs. They encounter three young men — Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anselm Richardson) — who are on a hunting trip on the island.
Unlike other wilderness-based chillers in which these armed guys represent an immediate intimidating and sinister presence, the initial encounter between these characters is cordial, as Lou knows the older brother of one of the men.
Soon the six people are sitting around the campfire, drinking beer — which will change the tone of this gathering. The men say they met while serving in Iraq and insist they were unfairly dishonorable discharged from the service.
Naturally, the effects of the alcohol take over and intentions are tragically misinterpreted and the party explodes into a men-versus-women match to the death — with the men having an overwhelming advantage of being armed. The only weapon the women has is that they know the island, and each has a little map showing where some old buried items are located — which now may come in handy.
The Aselton-Duplass script does display a fresh concept in that each woman does not fall into a set pattern of behavior — i.e. a whiner, a useless panicked one, or the always resourceful one. Sarah, Abby and Lou each have their moments of clarity, then at times become temporarily unhinged. In this way the viewers do not know which one will emerge with the clearheaded thinking or courage to ward off the stalking men. Abby and Lou soon find themselves having to boost each other’s sagging hopes or be the one to calm the other down.
“Black Rock,” which was presented at the Sundance film festival and can be seen on pay-per-view, shows some promise for Aselton, whose previous directorial effort was a dramatic comedy “The Freebie,” given the small budget. A little more originality in its subplots and its conclusion might have lifted it to a more respected status in the horror-thriller genre.