Horror movies are full of reminders to stay out of the woods. And even if the ancient curses and masked psychos don’t get you, there are plenty of more mundane terrors waiting out there in the wilderness. Body At Brighton Rock, the taut new survival thriller from up-and-coming genre director Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, XX), takes the latter path, eschewing supernatural menace in favor of more realistic but equally primal fears: Wild animals. Dead bodies. Rustling noises in the dark. With these minimalist elements, Benjamin casts a nerve-fraying spell, playing tricks on the audience by putting us into the head of a young woman who, like most of us, has no business being out there in the first place.
Except that it is her business, technically. The young woman is Wendy (Karina Fontes), a part-time summer employee at the fictional Brighton Rock State Park (actually Idyllwild, California) who we meet rushing to the park’s daily safety briefing to the cheerfully deranged sounds of Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party.” That same sunny YA tone persists throughout the first third of the film, as Wendy agrees to trade duties with her best friend, Maya (Emily Althaus), offering to let her work the information desk in her place so she can flirt with a cute coworker. Wendy then takes off to hang up safety flyers on a trail she’s really not qualified to hike, dancing obliviously off into the woods for what she thinks will be an enjoyable afternoon of listening to her headphones and walking around. Then, with a snap of the director’s fingers, the chipperness dissipates, as Wendy realizes that she’s lost without a map and with barely any battery in her cellphone. And that’s before she finds the dead body.
Most of Body At Brighton Rock follows Wendy over one terrifying night as she’s ordered to secure the perimeter of what could very well be a crime scene and wait for park officials to arrive. The film straightforwardly asks us to accept that no one will be able to reach Wendy until the next morning, a circumstance that may be confusing to the uninitiated: If the inexperienced Wendy was able to climb up this ridge easily enough that she didn’t realize she was lost, why can’t trained wilderness first responders get there in the few hours before it gets dark? (For what it’s worth, hikers being stranded overnight in state parks seems to be pretty common.) More importantly, if she’s an “indoor kid” who doesn’t know the first thing about the outdoors, how did she get this job in the first place?
Body At Brighton Rock doesn’t pause long enough to truly ponder its rather neat setups, flying through the 87-minute runtime with a funhouse energy that’s the devilish inverse of its initial teen-movie tone. As a director, Benjamin is at her best when her characters are in motion, and the momentum and kinetic energy of Body At Brighton Rock remain vital and engrossing throughout—no small achievement for a film that spends the majority of its running time in one location with one character. The suspense is enhanced by excellent sound design and ruthless horror montage—quick, heart-stopping cuts to frothing jaws and gruesome decay. Overall, the film is technically impeccable, from Hannah Getz’s invigorating nature cinematography to The Gifted’s decade-hopping, Ennio Morricone-influenced score.
As the night gets deeper and darker, we’re effectively deposited into Wendy’s paranoid state of mind, jumping and trembling at horrors that aren’t really there. (Or are they?) As a horror heroine, she’s an atypical but refreshing choice: The tough-minded “final girl” has at this point become cliché, and seeing the timid, absent-minded Wendy let her fear of not being good enough drive her to hallucinatory panic is more relatable and realistic than if she transformed into a shotgun-toting badass the moment danger appeared. That being said, while Benjamin’s choice to give Wendy little to no backstory makes sense given the film’s overall efficiency, Body At Brighton Rock would be more memorable if she was fleshed out a little further. It’s more fun to cheer for a character that you really feel like you know—even if you just met them.