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‘In a Violent Nature’ Sundance Review – Arthouse Slasher Frames Gory Carnage From Killer’s Perspective

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Writer/Director Chris Nash’s feature debut, In a Violent Nature, upends a straightforward Friday the 13th-inspired slasher concept by reframing the events almost entirely from the perspective of the undead killer. That’s not the only massive shift that sets Nash’s slasher apart from conventional fare. In a Violent Nature may offer slasher thrills and a delightfully gory rampage across the wilderness, but Nash’s approach captures the carnage through ambient realism. It results in a fascinating arthouse horror experiment that plays more like a minimalist slice-of-life feature with a grim twist.

The opening frame signals a vastly different type of slasher as unseen voices recount the local legend of the White Pines slaughter as the camera fixates on the remnants of a dilapidated fire tower. Once those voices retreat back to their friend group for a weekend of fun in the woods, undead Johnny (Ry Barrett) awakens and rises from the damp soil. The camera then shifts to observe Johnny’s methodical quest to punish those who unwittingly summoned him, watching from a safe distance behind or over his shoulder. Johnny bides his time, demonstrating unaffable and unwavering patience like his Jason Voorhees counterpart, as he embarks on a new wave of slaughter.

Nash’s feature debut fills in the blanks of the killer’s whereabouts when not on the immediate attack. That leads to long stretches of Johnny lumbering through pristine woods, with cinematographer Pierce Derks capturing the inherent beauty of the forest through wide shots enhanced by diegetic, ambient sound. The matter-of-fact approach that favors realism and emphasis on nature draws easy comparisons to minimalist filmmakers like Gus Van Sant or Kelly Reichardt. This methodical tromping through the woods gets punctuated by bursts of slasher familiarity as Johnny occasionally comes across new weaponry and victims to rip apart.

In lesser hands, the disparate tone toggling between conventional slasher and arthouse experiment would clash to an off-putting degree. But Nash makes smart choices to ensure these warring tones somehow mesh into a cohesive effort. That’s largely thanks to the distance created not just between the silent supernatural killer and his victims, whose dialogue is often muted compared to the loud diegetic sounds, but also between the killer and the audience. Johnny’s backstory gets relayed piecemeal, signaling a far more energetic slasher happening offscreen, rendering the slasher villain a fascinating curiosity. It’s those distant, quiet stretches that often intrigue most, with Nash raising questions for his audience to sit with, like how much humanity possibly remains within this hulking undead mass.  

Nash further demonstrates a keen reverence for slashers, beyond its orderly deconstruction of the formula, by not withholding at all when it comes to the kills. The arthouse sensibilities get paused throughout by a firm commitment to a true slasher staple: inventive and gnarly as hell kills. Of course, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering Nash hails from a special effects background, having previously worked as the on-set creature effects supervisor on Psycho Goreman. Nash also enlisted Psycho Goreman writer/director and SFX wizard Steven Kostanski for the film’s prosthetic effects. All of this to say that, while Johnny may play it simple upon first emerging from his grave, the killer gets downright ruthless in finding the most imaginative and deranged ways to destroy a human body. In a Violent Nature features at least one extremely gory, wild death that’s sure to get horror fans talking for a while to come.

For all that In a Violent Nature does well, it eventually fizzles out with a focus Johnny’s final girl, Kris (Andrea Pavlovic). While the unhurried, minimalist approach works well for an undead killer who has no concept of urgency, it fails when applying that same philosophical meditation to Kris and her newfound brush with trauma. Instead of some definitive conclusion, In a Violent Nature just slowly drifts into subdued tedium.

Nash’s debut offers a stylized high-concept slasher whose arthouse leanings are sure to polarize. The stripped-down approach fascinates, and the commitment to practical gore is commendable, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel.

In a Violent Nature made its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The release date for the Shudder slasher is TBA.

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