A Wounded Fawn - Fright Fest International Premiere Review
Director: Travis Stevens
Starring: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr, Katie Kuang, Tanya Everett
Written by: Nathan Faudree, Travis Stevens
Produced by: Joe Barbagallo, Lawrence Gendron, Travis Stevens
Cinematography by: Ksusha Generfeld
Original Score by: Vaaal
A serial killer brings an unsuspecting new victim on a weekend getaway to add another body to his ever-growing count. She's buying into his faux charms, and he's eagerly lusting for blood. What could possibly go wrong?
The first romantic getaway for a couple can be a real make or break situation for the early stages of their relationship. It's a great opportunity to really get to know each other better but when one person in the relationship is a serial killer and the other is just out of a lengthy traumatic relationship it really puts a damper on the chance for fireworks. This is the premise to Travis Stevens latest venture into the horror genre but there is more to it than meets the eye.
His third feature film after the memorable debut ‘Girl on the Third Floor’ and last year's well received ‘Jakob's Wife’ starring Barbara Crampton and Lary Fessenden, ‘A Wounded Fawn’ is a radical shift in tone and style for the director. Whilst the setup itself seems like standard fare we've seen a million times before (bearing a lot of similarities to the opening of this year's romantic horror Fresh) Stevens injects a surrealist element which adds an air of unpredictability to the film. It should be noted that this element is going to prove to be a make or break moment for audiences. Some may view it as nonsensical and pretentious but if you go along with it there is a lot to admire about the ambition in Stevens' film, who handles it like a director making both their first and last film at the same time, just thriving in the chaos.
The prologue of the film establishes the male lead Bruce (played by Josh Ruben) as a charming affable man who has a sinister streak. Beneath his affable demeanor lurks a cold blooded killer guided by a nightmarish vision of a creature known as The Red Owl. His first kill marks the first of many homages to the genre Stevens makes throughout the film. The tension before the kill is very much in the style of Hitchcock, with the audience anticipating that something bad will happen, as he frames his shots in such a way that the audience's eye is drawn to the dark empty spaces of the room. From here it goes full Giallo with Bruce donning a spiked glove strangling and tearing at his victim's throat in a brutal fashion that is made all the worse through the fantastic sound design which will have you squirming in your seat.
This leads to the first of two acts which focuses on the perspective of Meredith (played by Sarah Lind) who is ready to find love again after being in a lengthy, abusive relationship. She tells her friends she is spending the weekend with her new boyfriend at his cabin. In the role of Meredith, Lind does a great job at conveying a woman trying to repress her trauma and vulnerability, deflecting it through a façade of normalcy. Through the manner in which she speaks and her physicality she is very much trying to heal the emotional scars from her past. In a film like this it could be very easy to dismiss her character as a cliché or stereotype but her performance makes it rise above common tropes.
Opposite her, Josh Ruben is just as good, as the second act focuses on events from his perspective. The way in which he carries himself gives an aura that there is something a bit off about him with Meredith going back and forth in her head wondering if she made the right decision. On the one hand they share small passive aggressive arguments but on the other hand she is bowled over by the art deco of his cabin. Ruben makes her indecision all the more believable by dialing back and forth the different aspects of his personality to a tee. He exudes his harmless side throughout to disguise his dark half but it boils to the surface in small bursts before being fully unleashed. With this kind of character many an actor would go for broke with a larger than life performance when Bruce's dark side emerges but Ruben deserves a great deal of credit by grounding it for the most part, making it all the more scarier. Especially when the second act veers off into extremely surreal territory.
The film appears to have been shot on 16mm (or it uses a highly impressive digital substitute) which gives it a stylistic approach akin to the early work of Wes Craven or other low budget horror films of the 70's and 80's. Even the electronic infused score from Vaaal harkens back to this era building and maintaining an uneasy atmosphere throughout the film. In terms of the effects, Dan Martin continues his exceptional work in the genre as one of the greatest special makeup effect artists working today as the gore is wincing in the best way possible and the surrealist costumes of the second act are perfect for the mood of the piece.
Throughout the film Stevens touches on several sub genres outside of the central slasher premise venturing into areas like folk horror and even psychedelic horror akin to elements of the revenge horror masterpiece ‘Mandy’. Most of these occur in the second act which draws heavily from ‘The Evil Dead’. From the Raimi-esque shots to the cabin in the woods setting there is no escaping the comparisons. On top of this the vibrant red of the blood used in the film harkens back to the blood used by Tom Savini in ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
One of the main problems with this overkill of nods is that it could potentially lead the film to becoming nothing more than a checklist of moments that fans recognise from other films. In spite of this the film maintains it's focus through it's feminist lens which is locked on the idea of women overcoming their fear of hostile men through self empowerment. It never feels too bogged down or heavy with this approach as the script ensures this framework is strong enough to allow bursts of dark humour which lighten the mood when necessary.
On the face of things ‘A Wounded Fawn’ would appear to be nothing more than your standard slasher/revenge movie with maybe a twist or two thrown in for good measure but this couldn't be further from the truth. Travis Stevens takes big swings which might not land for everyone but there is no denying his ambition in making a unique and highly stylised horror film made by and for fans of the genre. The top drawer performances alongside the nightmarish and surreal imagery also ensure that the film will stay with audiences days after watching it.
- Joseph McElroy
'A Wounded Fawn' received its International Premiere at FrightFest 2022 on August 26th and will be available to stream on Shudder December 1st