Prior to the screening of her debut feature, director Roxanne Benjamin described BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK as a loving tribute to the literature of her middle school days, most notably Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet as well as the work of Christopher Pike. It’s a rare horror film that’s designed for young adults, yet succeeds as a suspenseful treat for the older crowd.
Wendy (Karina Fontes) is a park ranger who decides to prove to her friends that she has the courage to patrol the park’s more advanced trails, as she usually takes on the more “kid-friendly” paths. Geared up with a backpack full of the necessary supplies, she sets out on the trail, posting signs on trees for park visitors (there’s something wonderfully ironic and foreboding about her warning visitors to never hike alone).
After making a wrong turn, she discovers that she is hours away from home base. To make matters worse, she stumbles upon a dead body in the woods. After contacting park officials using her radio, she is given a grueling task: Wendy must stay with the body until help arrives. Given that she is considerably off course and the sun is setting, this means that she has to wait until morning and make sure that nobody contaminates what may be a crime scene.
BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK succeeds at wringing out a simple premise to create maximum tension. The nature of Wendy’s circumstance turns the film into a chamber drama and the second half of the film is nearly completely silent, applying clever sound design and music as a conduit for Wendy’s inner monologue. From the rustling of the trees to the static from her radio, everything poses a potential threat and forces Wendy to remain on edge.
As a survival film, BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK relies almost entirely on its star. Wendy is a normal, flawed teenager caught in a situation in which she is tasked with a responsibility that she is clearly not prepared for. Any of the survival skills she possesses comes from her occupation. Considering that she is often late to the mandatory safety meetings before her shift, these survival skills don’t add up to much. As such, she is prone to making mistakes, especially as day turns to night and her paranoia starts to get the better of her. While some of these choices are undeniably silly, they make sense within the context of her character and situation. Sometimes, we don’t make smart choices when we’re scared. As such, the heart of the film’s psychological drama is Wendy grappling with her nerves and preconditioned fear of the unknown.
The dead body is a nice addition to what could’ve been just been another “lost in the woods” story. Because Wendy is assigned the task of guarding the scene until morning, the audience waits alongside her in real time, asking the same questions. Is it true that he simply fell to his death as theorized by the park officials? Or is it something else? A bear attack? A murder victim?
As a piece of filmmaking, BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK wears its 80’s influences on its sleeve, from its direction to music. The Gifted channel the work of Morricone to create a lush, moody score. The young park rangers all exhibit spunky personalities, remindful of classic teen films from the era. Sharp zooms are used sparingly, but effectively, alerting Wendy and the audience of danger.
For a film that demands patience from the viewer and Wendy, BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK’s waiting game might not add up for certain audiences. It simultaneously embraces and dismisses the notion that an explosive climax is inherently necessary for a movie with this structure. There is some merit to its choices, as it consistently rejects the desire to conform to horror movie expectations, but it’s undeniably jarring to witness the tension to drop off as much as it does.
BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK is an economically made film. Roxanne Benjamin stated that they even managed to finish principal photography in nine and a half days – a remarkable feat considering the final product. In such a short period of time, she and her team have crafted a refreshing, unnerving take on a familiar story.
Getting lost in the woods hasn’t felt this fun in quite a long time.