Friday, October 28, 2016

Film Review: Backcountry

It was 1994 and a young medical student named Matthias Ruppert was pulled from his tent in the Bowron Lakes Provincial Park by an angry black bear. His girlfriend, Claudia Garschhammer, fought off the bear with a hatchet. The pair retreated to a ranger cabin, and that's when the bear attacked again...

The bear climbed up through the window. Garschhammer chopped at the angry animal with her hatchet until it retreated. It was then that she was able to close the shutters.

Ruppert survived. The bear did not.

It is very rare for a black bear to attack a person, and there are really no other stories out there about a bear that attacked people inside a tent. So after game wardens hunted down the animal and killed it, they performed an autopsy. Scientists could only come up with one conclusion about the aggressive nature of the animal. They believed that it was mating season and that the animal was...frustrated.

Throughout the 90s I spent a lot of time around bears, working in Alaska doing fish habitat surveys. I encountered literally hundreds of bears and luckily none of them were aggressive. They mostly ran away as soon as you yelled at them. That's not to say that I wasn't scared of them. Every bear I ever encountered seemed like a potential threat...

The Bowron Lakes story is horrific because -- while bear attacks occasionally happen -- this attack was vicious, ongoing and out-of-character. It seemed like something out of a horror movie. The Bowron Lakes incident is exactly the type of bear encounter that every backcountry traveler everywhere fears the most...


In 2014, writer/director Adam MacDonald loosely based his film Backcountry on the 1994 attack. The film, while not really a horror movie, provides the viewer with an intense and often terrifying roller-coaster of an experience.

A young urban couple travel deeply in the Canadian wilderness. Alex (Jeff Roop) is supposedly a seasoned backcountry traveler, while his girlfriend, Jenn (Missy Peregrym) is on her first camping trip. It turns out that Alex is not as seasoned as he thinks. He elects not to bring a map, which is a problem because the pair becomes seriously lost. Their problems are compounded by the loss of food, and then by an incredibly aggressive bear.

And yes, just like in real life. The bear attacks the couple in the tent, and it is both terrifying and incredibly gruesome. The scene makes it feel like a blood and guts slasher film instead of a backcountry thriller. It is a very hard scene to watch.

Throughout the film, there are several close-ups of the hatchet. But ultimately the woman doesn't fight the bear with it. I have a feeling that they shot some kind of final battle between Jenn and the bear, but cut it. Maybe the filmmakers felt that it would be too hokey, that it would be too unrealistic. And maybe they're right. Truth can be stranger than fiction. And it's likely that it's a better film for the fact that she didn't kill the bear...



Both Roop and Peregrym are completely believable as a young inexperienced backcountry duo. They are also completely believable as people. They make a lot of mistakes (no map, didn't try to scare the bear away, no communication device, poor food storage plan, etc.), but they're mistakes a lot of inexperienced backcountry travelers might make. You in no way feel that they deserve what happens to them. Instead, you are terrified by it and are rooting for them throughout the film.

This is an intense story that builds slowly. The stakes are constantly raised throughout the film; and indeed, the bear doesn't even make an appearance until about half-way through. This is a little bit odd because the film is packaged as a piece about a bear stalking a couple. But ultimately, that's not what it's about. Instead, it's about a couple on the verge of a major life decision seeing one another at both their worst and their best...

One thing that always drives me nuts about outdoor films are the packs. You can tell that there's nothing in them. Actors throw them around like they weigh nothing. One way to increase believability in all of these types of films is to put some actual weight inside the packs. Then the actors will actually look like they're carrying something.

Packs aside, this is a pretty good outdoors film. The bear attack is gratuitous, but I suppose that's reality. Bears don't attack people very often at all, but when they do it's a big deal. And when they are so aggressive that they actively pull someone from their tent, that's a really big deal.

Most outdoors, climbing and backcountry films designed for mainstream audiences tend to be fantastical. There are monsters or there are killers. They often don't deal with the real threats of the wilderness. Backcountry brings us those real threats and it does it in a way that is both engaging and intense. You can't ask for much more...

--Jason D. Martin

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