Sunday, May 26, 2019

Up The Highlands, Down With A Maniac: Dark Highlands (2018)

Dark Highlands (United Kingdom, 2018)
Rating: ***
Starring: Junichi Kajioka, Steve Campbell, Mike Mitchell

A suicidal man (Steve Campbell) hikes up the Scottish highlands where he, after setting up camp, proceeds to snort up and beer down copious amount of drugs before taping a bag over his head, waiting for death to take him. One vomit-covered violent suffocation later, he apparently survives this and wakes up with a homicidal streak, attacking some students and their guide, killing most. This is iteration one.

Ten years later, a Japanese man (Junichi Kajioka) travels to the same wilderness to paint in peace, not knowing he is stalked by a heavy-breathing prowler who soon proceeds to shoot him with a tranquilizer. Waking up hours later to find his camping gear trashed, the painter learns that this figure, masked in gauze and decked in hunting gear, has strung him into a deadly cat-and-mouse chase, whether he wants to or not. This is iteration two.

Beautiful in a scenic sense and overly simple plot-wise, Dark Highlands (2018) is a survivalist thriller that, much as the case of films like P2 (2007), The Strangers (2008) and Hush (2016), took some cues from slasher movies and worked it around a plot that is essentially one overly long stalk-and-chase scene. What does set this film apart from most survivalist horror thrillers is that it's nearly devoid of speech, which meant Dark Highlands is the kind of film that demands full attention to be enjoyed as it heavily relies on visuals and a good set of scores to build tone and tells its story.

The the casts' physical acting, from gestures to expressions, is what drives the movie around its steady yet creeping pace. On that note, Kajioka does a remarkable job playing his character with realistic tire and desperation as their predicament increasingly becomes inescapable. The lack of name and backstory given to this character definitely made it easy for us to empathize with his plight, though I will admit the choice of making the antagonistic figure practically a slasher villain drops this movie a few points down into cheesier territories.

The masked killer, credited as either "Vomit-Head" or "The Gamekeeper" depending on which iteration, is pretty much a grungy variant of a backwoods slasher baddie, albeit with a thing for mentally and physically torturing his targets through means of exhaustion rather than direct contact. He forces his targets to run continuously and voids them of essentials like water via sniper shots, all the while leaving disturbing camera footages of themselves for their victims to watch, making sure as shit to make them understand he is watching. This, however, doesn't mean he shies away from ending bystanders with a swift kill, though I can tell his means of executing random bodycount fodders may not sit well for many slasher purists who prefer their killcount to be "bullet free". (Not me, though. So long as the slasher structure of stalk and kill is followed, they can shoot them down a hundred times for all I care!)

There's also a last minute twist in iteration three involving the killer's dog that place this movie further from being a realistic thriller and much closer to your shlocky horror movie. In fact, the point that this film labels its acts "iterations" onscreen felt more gimmicky than, perhaps, artistic. The story could have easily ran with the flow without them, only succeeding instead in hamming up this film.

Looking at it as a production, Dark Highlands (2018) has at least a modest budget and crew, not surprising seeing the focus of the film centers heavily on two characters either stalking or being stalked. Its edited nicely and many of its shots showcased beautiful scenery, but camerawork has its shortcomings, often looking stiff and dull only to be remedied by its flashier scenes of mayhem and grue.

All in all, withstanding its cheesier elements, Dark Highlands (2018) is a fair watch that did its best to make most of a simple yet dire situation and the effort is commendable. Thrilling and intense, with scenic route that leads to a balanced amount of horrifying visuals, this is a movie that, despite its flaws, brought something a bit more from what could have been a cliched slasher or a mundane survival thriller.

1 male caught on killer's chokehold, strangled to death
1 male killed offcamera, blood splash seen
1 male found dead from an injected drug
1 male shot on the head with a sniper
1 female shot dead with a sniper
1 male shot dead with a Luger pistol
1 male gets a portrait stand leg hammered through his back, pinned to the ground
1 boy injected with drug, brained with a wooden board
1 female implied dead, method or cause unknown
Total: 9

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