Early on Wilderness Survival for Girls seems to open with a conventional enough setting and scenario for slasher movies. Three teenage girls are headed into the mountains to a lonely and isolated cabin. The wilderness is framed in distant shots that capture a beautifully colorful but inhuman landscape. Before long the girls are sunbathing topless, at least some of them, talking about sex and then out of the darkness, comes the stranger.
But Wilderness Survival for Girls is not at all a conventional horror movie and husband and wife, writers and directors, Eli Despres and Kim Roberts, have something else in mind and Wilderness Survival for Girls is much closer to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock than it is to Scream or the Michael Meyers movies. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wilderness Survival for Girls is the story of girls on the tip of adulthood and their relationships with each other as much as it is the story of the peril that confronts them.
Many horror movies feature girls in primary roles but those girls are there as meat rather than people to be slashed and cut up. Hostel II may begin similarly with three teenage girls on a trip but those girls are there to be stripped and tortured for the entertainment and gratification of the on screen characters and the off screen audience. While Hostel II is an extreme example it essentially makes overt what so very many horror movies are really about. Attractive girls being cut to pieces.
The three main characters of Wilderness Survival for Girls look nothing like the usual actresses who play teenage girls in horror movies. They aren’t models or polished ideals. They are just plausibly a bunch of teenage girls hanging between high school and college, still more children than women and unsure of who they really are. Kate played by Ali Humiston is the Alpha Girl of the bunch, overtly sexual and troubled and exerting an unhealthy influence over Ruth and Deb as they alternately express hostility toward her and compete for her attention and affection. Ruth played by Jeanette Brox, reminds you of a young Bridget Fonda, shy and bookish, innocent both emotionally and sexually and easily manipulated by those around her. Deb played by Megan Henning is outwardly worldly and cynical but inwardly far more uncertain than she lets on.
Up in the cabin with its trappings of the 70’s and a dead animal who had been shot in the freezer, the girls begin to collide with one another, friendship, budding sexuality and rivalries and jealousies causing them to bounce against each other like pinballs. Into the mix comes Ed Collins, played by James Morrison, a seasoned television and film actor audiences may remember from shows such as 24 or Space Above and Beyond. A stranger and a loner, Ed bursts into the cabin and is tied up at gunpoint by the girls.
Is Ed merely an innocent stranger or a dangerous one? Was he involved in murders that had taken place in the area and what are his real intentions toward the girls? Wilderness Survival for Girls gives no definite answers. James Morrison’s portrayal of Ed gives us a lonely and bitter man but also a potentially dangerous loner capable of manipulating the girls all too well, particularly Ruth and tapping into her budding sexual feelings. When Ed takes Kate alone into the bedroom and begins what appears to be an attempt to sexually assault her, he loses what sympathy he has from the audience but Kate’s own complicity in sexually taunting him sets the theme for the bloody conclusion of the movie.
James Morrison and Jeanette Brox are easily the standouts in Wilderness Survival for Girls, both delivering memorable performances, together and apart. By contrast Ali Humiston’s performance is the weakest of the bunch but considering that her character Kate is essentially a collection of cliches and is tasked with all the thankless wild girl stuff from showing her breasts to smoking and handing out pot to the other girls and coming on to them sexually. Only in her scene with James Morrison where she is bound and on the verge of being assaulted, does Ali Humiston invest Kate with any real life and energy. Megan Henning’s Deb is a more complicated character but the Jewish girl with a sarcastic attitude and lesbian tendencies is more than a little bit of a cliche and she spends more time attempting to manipulate Ruth and trying to resist Kate’s manipulation than really showing us who she is.
In the end Wilderness Survival for Girls may be a story about girls growing up into women but it is a long way from Little Women. It is a story about three girls who go up to a mountain cabin where a stranger is lurking but it has little in common with slasher movies beyond turning the premise of the slasher movie on its head. None of the girls are punished for their sexuality or promiscuity as is commonplace in slasher and horror movies. Instead the locus of the evil they face remains uncertain. It might be in Ed Collins, the stranger who invades their cabin and their physical, personal and mental space or it might be in the girls themselves, who realize that what they are capable of. Or possibly both because in what happens in that cabin and around those woods, Ed, Kate, Deb and maybe even Ruth are all complicit in. That makes Wilderness Survival for Girls a story ultimately about the loss of innocence that comes with growing up and realizing what we are capable of and that the people we may be on the road to becoming as adults are not at all whom we might have imagined we would be.
What Wilderness Survival for Girls does have in common with many horror movies and slasher films is that it is the story of girls who went on a vacation trip that was meant to be casual but became a life changing experience. Unlike those horror movies though, the changes come from self-realization rather than a hatchet in the dark and a bloody hook in the night. Where movies like Hostel II only pretend to give us real female characters and their reactions, Wilderness Survival for Girls really does and in a way it is far more unnerving than a bloody gorefest like Hostel II could ever be. Real horror after all comes from exploring what is inside us and our fears, rather than slicing up bodies with special effects. The horror of Eli Roth’s Hostel II is not in the upside down scene or the bloody dismemberments or the castrations but that there are audiences lining up by the millions to watch it. It is not Hostel II that is scary but its audience that is. By contrast the real terror in Wilderness Survival for Girls is on screen and in the characters themselves. Not from gore or blood but from the darkness inside us all.