Written and Directed by: Christopher Denham
Starring: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber, and Aaron Staton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Man is the only animal that kills for fun."
Preservation can perhaps best be considered as a slick update of standard slash-and-stalk conventions. Filmmaker Christopher Denham takes a premise—unsuspecting city folk head to the woods and encounter masked maniac—that’s been mined for maximum splatter potential for over 30 years, but shakes up the formula just so, effectively turning the usual tone and approach on its head ever so slightly. The result is something familiar, yet clever and energetic enough to feel fresh, as those splatter whims are mostly muted in favor of suspense and thrilling revenge beats.
In an effort to reconnect, brothers Mike and Sean Neary (Aaron Staton & Pablo Schreiber) have returned to their old stomping grounds in a rural California nature preserve. Despite her reservations, Mike’s wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) tags along in the hopes she’ll finally get to spend some time with her workaholic husband, whose cell phone seems to be permanently attached to his ear. Sean is the polar opposite: recently returned from a military stint, he’s committed to living off the grid, and is itching to tough it out for a weekend, so much so that he doesn’t think twice when he discovers the preserve has been shut down. What’s the worst that can happen, especially since they’re more than well-equipped? Obviously, the worst does happen, as they wake up to discover all of their gear has been stolen by a mysterious, masked trio that begins to stalk them with their own hunting rifles.
Not that Denham is in a particular hurry to start offing these unfortunate souls. Almost immediately, it’s clear that this isn’t that type of backwoods slasher junk, where viewers are meant to delight in the splatter. Instead, Denham cozies up to these characters, allowing an intimate peek into their frustrations and fears. We learn that Sean has had trouble readjusting to civilian life after leaving the military, as he’s developed a drinking habit to cope with the stress. Mike is never really present in his marriage, with work being such a priority that he’s hesitant to even talk to Wit about the possibility of kids. This is especially troubling for Wit since she is, in fact, pregnant and hasn’t worked up the nerve to break the news to Mike. Obviously, this isn’t your typical set of vapid, slasher movie clichés since Denham invests time shaping them into something other than future mincemeat.
His approach is mostly effective, as these three are obviously decent folks who don’t deserve to have such horrors visited upon them. An ominous mood settles in, though Denham perhaps does lay on the foreshadowing a bit too thickly. Perhaps in an attempt to add some gravity to the situation, the first 40 minutes or so are littered with ponderous little asides. Calling them “obvious” is an understatement, especially a scene where Wit can’t bring herself to kill a deer and Mike insists she’d have the stomach for killing if she ever had to. Other clumsy attempts include Mike’s offhand observation that man is the only animal that kills for the fun of it, and his bizarre choice for a campfire tale that recounts the myth of Artemis and the bear (for the uninitiated: it’s a story about a young, underestimated girl slaying a bear). Gee, do you think any of this might be pertinent soon?
Admittedly, a lot of this seems to be in the service of setting up Sean as a shady character, and a possible suspect. As Mike points out, he could be experiencing a PTSD episode, and there’s a brief stretch where you’re unsettled by the possibility. Denham doesn’t dwell on it or let it linger, though—if anything, it’s misdirection for just how emphatically he’s going to answer that question. Once these mysterious stalkers begin hunting in earnest, Preservation escalates swiftly, almost to a disorienting degree. Denham practically pulls the rug from beneath the audience with how he proceeds through the cast: here are these resourceful characters who are actually well-prepared for this sort of scenario, yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest because their foes are relentless, unfeeling savages.
Given all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, some of the developments shouldn’t be all that surprising; however, there’s a definite “oh shit” quality to how Denham hacks through the proceedings. Preservation is harrowing as hell, stuffed with nail-biting sequences as it shifts to a survival-thriller that finds the cast scurrying about this filthy, graffiti-scrawled preserve, suddenly armed with nothing but their wits against these killers. For much of the film, the masked assailants remain mysterious, hidden behind masks, stalking in complete silence. When Denham does reveal their identity, they only become more inexplicably creepy, even if he is just lifting from the Ils/The Strangers/Eden Lake playbook (one could do worse than lift from such influences, for sure).
However, Preservation really springs to life and becomes something of its own thing during an irresistibly final act headlined by Wit’s refusal to just become a victim. With her survival instincts fully kicked-in, she finds herself caked in mud and blood, her eyes full of a rage that says all you need to know: she’s going to hunt down and kill these motherfuckers herself. It’s one of the most indelible images I’ve seen in a horror movie recently, and it signals that Preservation is about to become a different sort of ordeal, one where the predators suddenly become the prey. The tonal shift cleverly converts all of that pent-up, nervous energy into raucous revenge vibes: for much of the film Denham resists schlock impulses before indulging them in the most satisfying way imaginable. Watching Wit suddenly turn the tables is immensely satisfying, and you can’t wait to see how she goes about it.
What’s more, Denham isn’t here to judge—he knows exactly what he’s up to, as Preservation develops wry little mean streak during this final stretch. In doing so, it leaves quite an impression for a film with such a familiar premise. Denham is an actor by trade, but Preservation proves he has chops behind the camera as well (his other directorial credit, Home Movie, is rather well-regarded too and certainly on my radar now). His camera ominously glides through this carnage at one point, capturing the killers with an almost hypnotic gaze that belies the savagery unfolding. There’s something oddly disturbing about the way it distances us from the violence, and, given some of the revelations about the killers, I have to imagine that’s exactly the point.
Rather than reveal further, I’ll simply encourage you to seek this one out. A few cloying moments aside (there’s a recurring lullaby that’s sort of irritating), this is a lean, brutal slasher, one that doesn’t seek to evoke 80s splatter glory but rather their more grounded, tense predecessors. It’s more Rituals than it is Madman, that’s for sure.
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