[CFF 2019 Review] Body at Brighton Rock

When I was younger, I used to love campfire ghost stories. You know the ones. The escaped criminal with a hook that gets ripped off as unsuspecting lovers drive away. The hitchhiker that turned out to be dead for years when the driver tries to return a sweater. Feet thudding on the top of a lover’s car...you know the drill. The thing about these stories is that if you started with a captivating hook and ended with a creepy twist, the audience would completely forgive or forget any clunky middle sections. Body at Brighton Rock reminds me of those stories in the best and worst ways.

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It begins solidly enough with fantastic, retro title lettering and colors that reminded me both of old school sitcoms and those nature documentaries teachers would unspool and show. Very bright and yellow. Wendy (Karina Fontes) is late to her morning briefing at Brighton Rock Recreation. She’s floppy and obviously out of her element in the wilderness, much to her boss’s chagrin.

When the assignments are handed out, Wendy’s friend Maya (Emily Althaus) is disappointed because she wanted to flirt with a guy and instead she’s on trail duty. Wendy offers to switch with her and Maya gives her a dubious look because the terrain is rough and Wendy is...well, Wendy. But she has something to prove and Maya relents...mostly because her flirtatious boy is cute. And, besides, as Wendy says:

“It’s just a walk in the woods. How hard can it be?”

So she walks the trails, changing out park safety notices about bears and fire prevention tips, jamming out to some 80s Exposé and if she were listening to a Walkman instead of a smartphone, we could be in the 80s. As she happily dances the trails, it’s obvious she’s a little lost. The crunching sounds of leaves keeps worrying her, but she still texts her friends that she’s totally fine. Except she’s not. There’s claw marks on a tree and she loses her map.

When she tries to orient herself and send a selfie to her friend, she discovers two things: 1) she’s not where she’s supposed to be and 2) there is a dead body on the ground below her. Being the only ranger around, she is told on her walkie-talkie to secure the area, not let anyone near the body and wait until the coroner and police can show up...the next morning. So poor, inept Wendy is left alone in the wilderness...except she might be totally alone.

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Body at Brighton Rock is a mixed bag. Writer/director Roxanne Benjamin (who made my favorite segment of the anthology XX) is assured behind the camera and sets a completely fun and interesting setup. Karina’s Wendy is infectiously inept and charming, even though I’m pretty sure I could have roughed the wilderness better than her...and my idea of camping is getting a cheap hotel.

From a technical standpoint, the film is stunning, from Hannah Getz’s lush cinematography and the retro saturation that makes it look like an 80s nature documentary mixed with, weirdly enough, a spaghetti western? The way the color choices and the color tone change as the narrative starts to get darker is very subtle and adds to the tension. Some camera shots are equally stunning, like a cool 360 panoramic tilt to show just how alone Wendy’s little campfire is in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the retro score by The Gifted (who also worked on Southbound and XX) flirts with the 70s and 80s scores by composers like Ennio Morricone.

The problem is that once the central mystery of what happened to the dead person is established, the movie grinds to a halt and loses all tension. There’s so many neat little additions, like a mysterious man named Red (Casey Adams) and a kind of skeevy fellow ranger that seemed to be following Wendy before. But the story is stretched thin and these potential suspects don’t fully escalate the tension. Red is the most interesting character and potential threat because of his constant interest in the body, but he comes across as more an annoyance than anything truly malicious. A couple nightmare sequences are effective, but clash against the more naturalistic horror of the rest of the film.

It does get more interesting as the story moves into the third act and I really appreciate the almost thrown-away last minute twist. It gives the movie that campfire scary story aesthetic. And while it didn’t completely work for me, I think Roxanne Benjamin continues to be a fantastic new voice in horror and I’m excited to see what she does next.