[Review] Brad Douglas’ ‘Between the Trees’ Never Gains Its Footing

It’s hard to deny that we horror fans are suckers for a good cabin-in-the-woods movie. You have your Evil Dead types, Friday the 13th styles, even the Cabin Fever sort. And then, towards the bottom of the pack, you’ll find Between the Trees.

Director Brad DouglasBetween the Trees has a rather bare-bones plot. The film follows Steve (Greg James), a man troubled by recent marital woes, as he embarks on a weekend getaway with his three closest friends. The men think they’re in for a few relaxing days full of drinking, hunting, and playing poker, but someone quickly begins picking them off, one by one.

Are they in a strange, unfriendly town? Yes. Are they trapped in the depths of the forest without a car or cell phone reception? Of course. Is there a masked man killing them for seemingly no good reason? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. While the film tries to introduce a (much more interesting) cryptozoological aspect, it also goes down a slasher-esque route in some needlessly convoluted ways. Neither of the ideas are ever fully developed, or developed much at all, which leaves the final result coming across as muddled and bland. This is a symptom of one of this film’s major problems: it attempts to do too much without putting in the work to be successful.

This is obvious in other ways, as well, such as how the characters are flat as paper, devoid of personalities or depth, yet we are expected to care about their tenuous relationships and, ultimately, their deaths.

For example, Steve’s friend Mack (Jonny Lee) is portrayed as a drunken, ever-single ladies’ man, who doesn’t appear to like his friends very much. He spends most of his screen time scolding Josh (Michael Draper), the sniveling, uptight hipster of the group, for being such a wimp. Mack scarcely interacts with the other characters, leaving them at the bar for a woman, lagging behind when they all go camping, and later opting to stay at the cabin when Steve and Dave (Dan Kyle) go to investigate the person, or thing, antagonizing them.

So why, then, are we later expected to feel a gut-punch when Mack is in danger? Is it because Steve is yelling to Mack that he is his best friend, despite his (highly telegraphed) betrayals? This feels like lazy writing, the kind that expects the audience to fill in the narrative gaps and suppose an affectionate relationship exists between these two men without providing the proof. Had there been even just one heart-to-heart moment at any point before this particular scene, the relationship would have been more believable, and the stakes would have been much higher when Mack was in trouble. The film is full of moments like this, and it gets old fast.

On the technical side, while the creature makeup featured in Between the Trees leaves much to be desired, there’s another, more pressing visual issue at hand, and it isn’t Josh’s mustache. It’s that the film is simply too dark. It’s difficult to get a clear look at what’s happening onscreen at any given moment because there are too many shadows. There are a couple decently composed shots featured in Between the Trees, particularly an overhead shot of the cabin deep within the vast forest. Unfortunately, this and some of the other choice shots are easily forgettable because of the poor lighting that plagues the rest of the film.

There is also a hard tonal shift about three quarters of the way into this movie. Most of the movie is broody and serious, but towards the end Between the Trees tries to save face by going for a comedic angle. It’s quite possible that, had there been humor sprinkled throughout, the film would have been much more palatable. However, the random comedy shoe-horned in at the end, as well as the abandoning of a fairly menacing score in favor of a hard rock soundtrack during credits, feels like a desperate and truly baffling attempt to trick viewers into thinking they had a good time.

Ultimately, Between the Trees leaves its audience scratching their heads. The film never quite figures out what it wants to be. A creature feature? A slasher? Funny? Heartbreaking? Who knows? The good news is you’ll likely forget the experience sooner rather than later.

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