Sunday, March 25, 2007

Hatchet Jack (2007)

Hatchet Jack is a low-budget film written by Justin Sago and directed by Eddie Mahalick. It follows the popular horror template of a group of young people being stalked in the woods by a killer, but it still manages to feel fresh! The myth of Hatchet Jack coupled with the beautiful location of rural West Virginia and great editing make for one enjoyable flick! It's been a while since I've been so completely sucked into a low-budget film, but Hatchet Jack managed to hold my attention in its entirety.

The film begins with a special news bulletin stating that the remains of four young people who had been missing for several years had been found scattered about the woods of West Virginia. It then focuses on a group of deer hunters who are having a few beers at a bar before heading out into the woods. The bartender (played by director Eddie Mahalick) warns them to beware of Hatchet Jack and tells them the story of the four friends whose bodies have just been found. From there, the movie goes back in time to the fateful day where those four friends headed out to the West Virginian woods. Brian (Aaron Bernard), Nicky (Rebecca Hartley), Mike (Mike Valley) and Lori (Shayna Hickman) leave Pittsburgh and are ready to party in the woods. Lori has just broken up with her stalker-like boyfriend and is feeling a little down and the rest of the gang are intent on her having a good time. Once they get into the countryside, they stop off to stock up on beer and have quite the funny encounter with the hick working the store. Soon, they are hiking through the woods, giving "No Trespassing" signs nary a second thought. Brian is obsessed with showing them spots where Hatchet Jack supposedly killed his victims and he tells them Jack's traumatic and gory history. The kids come upon many foreboding signs but continue on their merry way. Night soon falls and they find out that Hatchet Jack is real...

Hatchet Jack is a highly enjoyable film even though it does follow a very familiar plot. I would say that this low-budget endeavor is much better than most big-budget Hollywood horror films that feature a group of kids in danger in the middle of nowhere. The way it sets up the story with the hunters in the bar and then going back in time helps to build dread and raises the tension. We already know what happens the the four friends, but we somehow hope they'll still get out of there alive. Plus, we actually DO care for the characters as they are just a regular bunch of young guys and gals we can relate to. They aren't overly stupid or obnoxious, but real and believable.

This is a low-budget film, so sometimes the acting is a little shaky, but overall it is very believable and realistic. The hunters in the bar all act like actual hunters in a bar would act (this being a low-budget film, some of them probably are actual hunters!) and the four friends act appropriately too. There is an air of realism that surrounds each performance, like the actors weren't acting but just being themselves. All the performances felt very natural, with only a few instances of lines feeling forced.

I loved how the film featured flashes of each character's death superimposed over the beginning of their trip into the woods. These flashes are so quick that it's blink and you'll miss 'em, but they help to build an ever imposing dread as the film progressive. These flashes are not overused (thank goodness!) but used just enough to give you a jolt in an otherwise serene scene. I also enjoyed how we were given flashes of Hatchet Jack's life, from his dysfunctional childhood into his blood-soaked adulthood.

The location of backwoods West Virginia was stunning and frightening at the same time. The kids have a couple of run-ins with local color, and none of them are pretty. The beautiful location combined with the knowledge that a killer is hiding somewhere in the woods created a very tense atmosphere, even though not very much action happens until the very end of the film.

The only thing that disappointed me in the film was the lack of action in the last few scenes. Everything happened so abruptly that I don't feel that I got the full impact of the killings. As for gore, though, it was great! We get to see stomachs slashed, intestines pulled out, rail spikes through hands and lots of hatchet axings. It was great stuff, I just wish we had seen more of the terror each individual character goes through.

Hatchet Jack is a great low-budget film that I cannot recommend enough! A creepy atmosphere, an imposing killer and a group of kids ripe for the killing all make for a great flick! It doesn't rely on cheap or exploitative tricks to get your attention, but instead takes likable characters and places them in peril, which creates for some great gut-wrenching tension!

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