Perhaps the only film more influential to low-budget horror filmmakers than 1999's The Blair Witch Project, which sadly convinced many aspiring directors that all it takes to make a 100 million dollar blockbuster is to run around in the woods with a camcorder, was Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead. What these two films have in common is that they took the tools of movie-making out of the hands of the studios with their limitless resources and extravagant budgets and showed how - with enough raw talent and an original concept - a simple group of individals with modest resources can create something raw and terrifying. Unfortunately, too many directors misinterpted these successes, instead attempting to mine their own fame and fortune by imitating, spoofing or just plain ripping off these projects. Director Jason Stephenson has at least decided to pay tribute to his obvious influences in a fairly original way, mashing elements of the two together in his abbreviated shot-on-dv horror film Off the Beaten Path.
As with Blair Witch, Off the Beaten Path begins with a group of filmmakers attempting to make a documentary about a town's local legend - in this case a murderer/satanist named Jasper Hagan in the township of Gateway, Minnesota. The three friends meet up with a local journalist, Brenda (Jessie Welsch), who has suggested that the killer might be an interesting topic to explore, though seems a little hesitant once the crew actually start heading to the property where the murders took place. Chuck, the director, along with videographer Randy find some odd satanic markings on the trees around the area, as well as an upside down crucifix, but both Chuck's girlfriend Dina and Brenda suggest turning back. Finding a tree blocking the way of the narrow road, Chuck and Randy decide to explore the three cabins on the property while Dina and Brenda remain in the truck. Soon we get hints of a malevolent force in the woods (shown in a first person Evil Dead style), and Chuck and Randy find signs of satanic ceremonies and writings. Will the force possess several members of the cast forcing Chuck to run for his life? Good guess!
I must say that Jason Stephenson starts off this film quite impressively, using the (rather tired) camcorder perspective to get some necessary exposition out of the way during the group's long drive, and then having the group encounter a jogger (Chris Prew, who is by far the strongest and most natural actor in the film) who explains a bit more about the local legend. However, once the group arrives at the restaurant (where they are to meet Brenda), much of the documentary conceit starts to get rather confusing, as they seem to want to shoot an entire documentary in a couple of hours despite setting up no interviews and having no real plan of attack. Even Chuck's attempts at "hosting" the proceedings comes off as bumbling and awkward, and the camera perspective is soon dropped for a more traditional combination of handheld documentary and traditionally shot scenes.
The tension in these scenes is also undercut by the fact that the female characters seem to get hysterical almost immediately - well before anything aside from some weird carvings in the woods have been found. Combine this with some extremely sloppy editing - and an egregious overuse of fading to black - and the film never really develops a proper rhythm. There are still some creepy images - natural when you're talking about the natural eeriness of an abandoned cabin in the woods - but a slower build to the eventual possessions would have done the film a lot of good.
After watching and reviewing 32 of the films in this collection I've become rather numbed to the amateur acting that inevitably comes with these productions, though I'm happy to say that the leads here - who appear to be improvising at least certain parts of their dialogue - really do seem to be trying awfully hard. In fact, with some more coherent editing and a willingness to retry a few rough takes some of the performances might actually be impressive, though as is there's simply too much stumbling over lines and mishandled dialogue to rise much above mediocre. Todd Hansen as Chuck might make for a lousy documentarian, but until the final scenes - where he has to emote by himself to the camera - he does a good job playing a slightly pompous and curious filmmaker. Jessie Welsch as Brenda is the biggest victim of the general sloppiness, as her big scene explaining the legend of what occurred in the woods is undone by her tripping over her lines repeatedly. It's meant to come off as natural, but just comes off as clumsy.
It is nice to see a film in this collection that attempts to develop tension and mood rather than just throwing buckets of gore at the screen, and Stephenson does do a good job of keeping the many outdoor scenes well lit, and the sound is thankfully consistent throughout. The choice to use ambient sounds instead of a traditionally composed soundtrack is also a smart one, as cheaply produced music almost inevitably betrays a film's budget and would be inappropriate in this style.
Off the Beaten Path is presented in a fullscreen 4:3 image of mixed quality. While it was obviously shot on digital video, the transfer on the Bloody Nightmares disc - which we must remember is packed with three other films - allows for a lot of pixilation. Combine this was some noticeable glitching (some of which is intentional, but some obviously not) and you get a fine, though occasionally frustrating viewing experience.
There's actually a feature packed DVD version of Off the Beaten Path out there, but this being a Bloody Nightmares feature it's strictly bare bones. Expecting chapter stops? Too bad, sucker.
Runing only 64 minutes, Off the Beaten Path is well paced and does a good job establishing a mythology, but ends up being hurt by its inability to stay true to its own concept. While the mixing of Blair Witch and Evil Dead elements does end up creating a spooky atmosphere with some moments of genuine interest, poor acting and showy editing frustratingly undermines what good work is on display. There's some definite talent being shown here, and with a little more time and effort this could have been something interesting, despite its derivativeness. Not boring, but not worth your time.