Low-budget chiller from IFC Midnight and Blumhouse-graduate Sam Patton, Desolation made the rounds at a few film festivals. Now it’s found its way to Netflix without much fanfare. Despite it’s utterly fantastic retro-film poster, some viewers may be tempted to skip Desolation over due to its admittedly familiar premise. Fans of 1970’s horror, however, may find much to enjoy with this low-budget ‘don’t go in the woods’ offering.
Desolation offers a simple, threadbare story that kicks off with no prologue or backstory. Abby, who recently lost her husband, has taken her son (Sam) and best friend, Jess, on a deep hike into the wilderness. After they spread her husband’s ashes from his favourite lookout point, they discover that they are being followed by an odd-looking, silent stranger. As they continue their hike out of the woods, Abby slowly realizes that ‘The Hiker” has sinister intention for them. With safety and help miles away, Abby, Jess, and Sam must do their best to stay ahead of the stalking “Hiker”.
A Slow Burn With a Distinct 70’s Vibe
Potential viewers should know that Desolation is a low-budget horror film that takes the slow-burn approach. There is no sharp editing or jump scares anywhere to be found. Director Sam Patton opts to invest in his main characters, allowing their relationships to develop through organic conversations and dialogue. Even as the looming danger escalates, Patton never wavers too far from the emotional core of the film. The strength of this approach is audience empathy for Abby, Jess, and Sam. I found myself genuinely distressed for the characters when things took a turn for the worse. A downside to this approach is that the film does drag in a few a spots, particularly in its second act, allowing some of the tension to dissipate.
In the absence of a body count or standard jump scares, Desolation relies heavily on its setting and style to evoke a 70’s horror film vibe. From the opening camera shot, you’re immersed in the depths of the forest along with the main characters. This instantly establishes the isolation felt by Abby, Sam and Jess, particularly as “The Hiker” begins following them. Patton is able to generate a growing sense of discomfort that lingers with you even as Desolation slows and alternately picks up. Like the best of low-budget 70’s horror, Desolation is probably most accurately described as evoking a ‘feeling’ as you watch it rather than necessarily scaring you. I was most reminded of little-seen Canadian horror film, Rituals.
In the absence of a body count or standard jump scares, Desolation relies heavily on its setting and style to evoke a 70’s horror film vibe.
Strong Performance and a Miss-or-Hit ‘Hiker’
With only four actors in the film, Desolation leans heavily on its performances. Fortunately, all three primary actors deliver strong, natural performances. As the widowed Abby, Jaimi Paige is excellent, balancing out grief, hope, and desperate love for her son. Her relationships with her son, Sam, and friend, Jess, are crucial to the low-budget chiller. Alyshia Ochse turns in similarly strong performance as Jess, capably convincing the audience that her and Paige are long-time close friends. Toby Nichols is also good as teen son Sam. He has the difficult task of portraying an angry, confused son without be grating for the audience.
Where Desolation may turn off some viewers is with its central antagonist – “The Hiker”. Played by Claude Duhamel, “The Hiker” is a rather unconventional villain. Dressed in a baggy coat and hoodie with strange red-tinted sunglasses and a walking stick, “The Hiker” is kept silent and motiveless throughout Desolation. Some viewers may not find the character’s appearance to be overly intimidating. Fortunately, Patton knows how to use the character to generate maximum unease. “The Hiker” is largely kept in the background or shadows, used sparingly, and when set against the backdrop of the isolating forest, he becomes an effective omnipresent threat.
Fortunately, Patton knows how to use the character to generate maximum unease.
Low-Budget Thrills That Largely Deliver
Without a significant budget, Patton is obviously limited in the horrors he can deliver. As mentioned above, Desolation is not a body count film. Most of the violence occurs offscreen with viewers given quickly shadowy glimpses. It’s an approach that complements the film’s overall atmosphere and vibe. In the few cases where Patton does stage violent interactions onscreen, they’re awkwardly choreographed and clearly reflect budgetary restraints. The lack of clear motivation or exposition about “The Hiker” will either enhance the film’s vibe or frustrate viewers. Personally, Patton’s approach left lingering questions that kept me up after watching Desolation and had me seeing shadows in the night.
A Pleasant Low-Budget Surprise
Each week new films are hitting streaming platforms. Most of these horror films are independent, low-budget features. It’s often hard to tell what films are worth your time and which ones should be avoided at all costs. Desolation definitely falls into the category of a ‘hidden gem’. It’s a well-made horror film that builds from its simple premise with strong performances and characterizations, genuine atmosphere, and an effective ratcheting of suspense. Some viewers may not appreciate its slow pace, but Desolation stands out from the other low-budget films haunting our streaming platforms.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-