Dark in lighting and in premise, The Retreat (2020) is a drug-induced woodland horror that is beautifully shot, well-written, and creepy as f*ck. Beginning as a deceptively light-hearted buddy camping trip, it does not take long for this movie to turn into a psychological nightmare, one fueled by the ancient Native American legend of the wendigo/windigo — a cannibalistic and/or possessing spirit. Written and directed by Bruce Wemple, who seems to be a creature-feature, sci-fi loving filmmaker according to his other works (Monstrous, Lake Artifact), his latest feature film, The Retreat, is due for release on November 10th, 2020.
In The Retreat, two friends — Gus (Grant Schumacher) and Adam (Dylan Grunn) — venture into the deep woods of the Adirondack Mountains to celebrate Adam’s impending nuptials. After reaching one of its summits, Gus convinces Adam to drink peyote. Awaking in the night, Gus begins to see beings in the forest, seemingly fighting off one before falling asleep. Upon waking in the morning, he discovers Adam’s dead body and becomes disoriented while hiking out of the snow-white forest. A cabin offers shelter, but with no food, Gus must turn to the only meat he can think of — his friend’s body. Slipping into madness, Gus is eventually found by a local resident, however, his bad peyote trip continues to alter his reality, and he must fight to hold onto himself, his sanity, and his beloved friendship.
There were a great many ‘blink and you might miss it’ shots in The Retreat, many of which were jump scares that mainly consisted of creatures appearing in the darkness, adding to the mystique and menace of the wooded hell. I had to turn up my brightness settings for this movie in order to ensure I did not miss a single frame, as the lighting was unforgiving with Wemple hardly even making use of moonlight. The darkness of the woods was made scarier by the frequent use of high-pitched string instruments to set my nerves on edge and build anticipation, and even when their introduction in a scene did not lead to scary occurrences, the unnerving soundtrack still helped to create an uneasy and surreal atmosphere for the film.
Though the pacing severely dipped in the middle third of the film due to the repetition of having the creature just lurking around without incident, thankfully, the film had drop-dead gorgeous establishing shots of the Adirondack Mountains that initially drew me in, and the final third of the film ramped the anticipation back up by introducing more mind trickery into the narrative with ambiguous flashbacks, a seriously sinister painting that seems to haunt Gus, and upping the quantity of the monsters. Some doesn’t quite make sense but I was still very pleased with this movie — it’s aesthetic, the intense acting performances, the skillfully written inter-relationships, and its unorthodox story structure that portrayed the psychological descent were all excellently executed.
Writer/director Bruce Wemple applied this cryptid character to a modern scenario in a way that pays honor to its origins and also breathes new life into the monster’s legend. Most every aspect of the wendigo legend, including cannibalism, isolation, and the cold forest setting were all present. Making the irresponsible consumption of peyote the catalyst for events brought forth a possibly unintended moral to the story — that it is dangerous to appropriate things from other cultures that one does not understand. Though there seemed to be some budget constraints that might have caused Wemple to just miss the mark on the creature design of the wendigo, hiding it within sometimes laughably far away shots, overall, the movie is definitely worth a watch, especially for any cryptozoology enthusiasts.
7 out of 10