Let's say you're driving across a massive stretch of desert. In the passenger seat is your pregnant wife, and there's nothing for 50 miles in any direction. And then your car breaks down. You chance upon a deserted little shanty town and take shelter in a flimsy cabin, only to realize that, hey, you could both actually DIE out here. From a simple road trip to a life-threatening situation -- in less than a few hours. But then you see a figure marching down the road. Your first reaction would be "Oh, wow. Thank god. Maybe this guy can help us." Your first reaction would be wrong.
A tight-knuckled and disconcertingly handsome thriller, Blood River comes from British filmmaker Adam Mason, whom astute horror fans will remember from Broken and The Devil's Chair. Mason's Blood River represents a familiar-but-welcome departure for the the director, as he seems freed from the harsh carnage of Broken and liberated from the Barker-esque goriness of The Devil's Chair. To its credit, Blood River feels a lot like a 1977 horror thriller that has just a bit more on its mind than blood, death and mayhem.
Anchored by an effortlessly nefarious performance by Andrew Howard, as a duplicitous drifter with his own agenda, and quite starkly lovely to look at, Blood River represents a "genre filmmaker" who is clearly trying to branch out and touch a variety of the horror bases. (Or, at the very least, he's trying a new horror sub-genre each time out, and that's always an admirable thing to notice.)
Much more of a slow-burn "survival" thriller than a "blood and body count" horror flick, Blood River feels like a cross between Lost Weekend, The Hitcher, and (especially!) Richard Stanley's Dust Devil -- but it's also packing a few ambiguous touches and some quiet surprises that should please the attentive viewer. (Conversely, if you're expecting something like the director's earlier works, you might walk away a bit disappointed -- but you shouldn't.) Working with frequent collaborators screenwriter Simon Boyes and lead actor Andrew Howard, Mason lays down a crafty and confident thriller, one that shows a lot more "artistic restraint" then one might expect from an established gore-slinger like Adam Mason. Yes, there are sequences both brutal and bloody, but (thankfully) Blood River is more focused on a few (simple but clever) subtextual themes, and it packs one hell of a punch right before the end credits arrive. That's not to say Blood River is reliant on some silly twist ending, but that it contorts a few characters and subverts a few expectations -- at the same time it's delivering an admirably concise and well-paced little horror tale.
As the mysterious "savior," Welsh actor Andrew Howard oozes deceit and malevolence from every pore, gesture, and syllable. It's a surprisingly excellent performance, and (along with great work from leads Ian Duncan and Tess Panzer) it's the three-character interplay that prevents Blood River from ever feeling too familiar or obvious. The "scary stuff" ranges from sexual tension and psychological torture to theological threats and simple fear of death by dehydration ... for a minimalistic film, Blood River touches on a wide variety of fears, but it never feels overstuffed or (dear lord) pretentious.
Stuffed with fantastic desert landscapes, ominous music, and a screenplay that ups the tension with a lot of smooth confidence, Blood River represents yet another step forward for the scare-mad Mason -- and while I suspect he'll travel outside the horror genre some time soon, here's hoping he finds his way back just as quickly. If his first three films have taught me anything, it's that the fourth one will be something ... I'm not expecting.
(Actually, Adam Mason directed two other features, both of which suck, before he rebounded big-time with Broken, The Devil's Chair, and Blood River. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll mention that I once met Adam in a hotel bar in Morocco. Nice guy.)