I have a real soft spot for any filmmaker who has the ambition to make microbudget genre films. There are so many horror, sci-fi and fantasy films out there with multi-million-dollar budgets that still fail to help their audiences suspend disbelief long enough to engage with their story. Monster design, special effects, sound editing, color timing – all these things are difficult to pull off and all of them can take an audience out of the experience if done poorly. Most successful films in this budget range address these concerns by taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. Mixing enough comedy and surrealism into the proceedings to make it seem like they’re in on the joke. It’s much rarer – and far more bold – to see a microbudget horror film approach its story with sincerity.
NO MAN’S LAND is just such a film. Filmmaker Robyn Watkins relies on a claustrophobic setting, clever dialogue, and performers with incredible chemistry to sell the audience on a grim supernatural folk tale on a $20,000 budget. And I was truly surprised at just how well it works.
This film follows Ree Cutter (Karyn Guenther), a female bounty hunter living alone in the titular No Man’s Land of the Cimarron Territory in 1886. She catches up with notorious outlaw Butcher Kilburn (James Lewellyn Evans) and plans on taking him in for the bounty on his head. But the two of them end up becoming unlikely allies against a supernatural force that besieges them in Cutter’s small isolated cabin.
I’m a big fan of the relatively small sub-genre of horror westerns. I count Ravenous and Bone Tomahawk among my favorite films. So, I was very willing to give NO MAN’S LANDa chance of surprising me. Boy, did it ever! I was not expecting this to be a slow-burn character drama set within the context of a monster movie, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be. The characters are written incredibly well. And watching the relationship between the main characters turn from open hostility to reluctant partnership to true comradery was very moving. The dialogue hits the right balance of witty banter and heartfelt confession. The leads really gave their performances everything they had, and they developed a truly believable chemistry that made the ending very poignant.
Of course, there are issues that any microbudget film has to deal with that threatened to take me out of the experience. Shooting an exterior night scene on a DSLR leaves you with the choice of using unrealistically bright lighting, or basically shooting black shapes. And you’re not going to get realistic looking or sounding gunshots without expense and danger. But I was pleasantly surprised at how incredibly unique and creepy the creature design was. That, along with the outstanding performances was more than enough to make up for any of the perceived flaws that you can chalk up to budget.
I’m very excited to see what Robyn Watkins and Fruit Cellar Media can do if given even a slightly higher budget to work with. Obviously, all the tools are there for them to make a really great film.