“Richard Harrah has crafted a sly little thriller that comes at you like a donkey kick in the kidneys. The Canyon is an intense, cautionary travelogue that offers up the best kind of nightmare scenario for any married couple. “
The Canyon is a tricky little beast. At first glance, it looks like a cheap indie slasher flick on par with Turistas or the recent A Perfect Getaway. It sets its audience up for a grizzly, old fashion “killer in the Canyon” romp. But it’s not that at all. And I doubt, despite its much-covetedHalloween release date, that you could even call it a horror movie. It’s the exact opposite of Couples Retreat, and gives any recent bad vacation you might have had a run for its money. Swift, tight, and packed with horrifying real life thrills, The Canyon delivers on the promise Chris Kentis’ Open Water failed to see through more than six years ago.
Richard Harrah’s film is the latest to crack open this unique thriller sub-genre, which pits an average married couple (meaning they love each other, but they certainly have some issues) against the elements of the wild. Like Open Water, it has a 70s vibe flinting sparks against a 90s aesthetic. Kentis’ film gave us newlyweds who drifted far away from their boat while scuba diving in the Caribbean. It was positioned as the adrenaline thrill-ride of 2003. While it was unnerving and well made, it never quite brought us to the edge of our seats as advertised. Those bickering newlyweds swam around in a shark-infested circle for eighty minutes before being eaten. End of story. The Canyon goes for the same exact same narrative loop, but has more to play with. Instead of sharks, we get wolves. And instead of drowning, we get our protagonists falling from great distances while trying to catch a cell phone signal.
Lori and Nick are a honeymooning couple who, against their better judgment, decide to spend their lovebird vacation at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. Usually, this would evoke memories of warm family outings and The Brady Bunch. Lori and Nick would have had fun riding those mules across this national landmark, too, had Nick not forgotten to register for his Canyon permit in advance. After the obligatory hotel scene, which finds Lori trying to convince her husband to stay indoors and enjoy the bed, the couple head out to a bar, where they meet a surely old coot named Henry (an absolutely fantastic Will Patton). This is where their adventure seemingly goes off the rails.
Henry is positioned as a dangerous element. He’s a man that’s encountered every horrible situation life in the wild has to offer. He’s been stung by scorpions, he’s fought a grizzly bear, he’s lost his eye, and he’s been struck by lightening more times than he can count on his remaining fingers. He’s fashioned after the old timer in Friday the 13th, the one that rides his bike screaming, “You’re all going to die!” He has the needed permits to take Lori and Nick on a donkey ride through the Canyon. Most horror tropes would have you believe this is the bad guy. That he is setting our couple up for misery and pain. Does he have some crazy cannibal brother waiting behind a rock to eat their brains? Is he going to kill and eat them himself? What, exactly, is this crusty pick-ax swinging faux-tour guide up to?
Not much, it seems. He’s a little bit drunk, but he’s actually a pretty decent fellow. And, yes, all of those above-mentioned things have happened to him. In spades. Which should tell you a little something about his luck. As the first day in the Canyon drags on, we come to like Henry Theodore Roosevelt Pritchard quite a bit. He’s a harmless mule hoarder straight out of some old Lucille Ball road trip comedy from the 30s. He knows his history, and he wants to show his new friends some extraordinary sights. Lori thinks this is a bad idea. Thus, we, as an audience, are forced to think right along side her thought lines. We know this can’t end up good. And it doesn’t. Harrah uses the beauty of his location, and a succession of calming theme music, to lull us into a false sense of security. Maybe everything will be all right. Wrong!
After an intense make out session in an enormous, breathtaking cave that can’t quite be contained on film, Henry decides to take his lusting couple off the trail. And that’s when all Hell breaks loose. The first shock comes at us like a bat-swing to the face, simply because we don’t see it coming. It’s not an over the top zombie raid, or some loose hillbilly with revenge on his mind. Its just nature doing what it does best, and it’s quite an awesome site. To give away much more would be to ruin the surprise of this well-timed thriller. Let’s just say some horrible things happen in an exciting fashion, and our heroes are suddenly lost without a clue on how to get back home.
Mules run away, rattlesnakes are eaten, cell phones die, and our heroes desperately need some Chapstick. What at first looks like another lame slasher flick quickly turns into a heart-pounding race for survival. Lori and Nick are figuratively swimming in dirt circles here, but there is a lot more trouble for them to get into than what is found in the ocean. All they have to eat is gum. They find an old Coke can full of sand, which doesn’t bode well for their directional sense, and Henry’s not feeling as good as he should be. Not to mention wolves are hunting them. As the sun burns into their exposed scalps, they become quite disoriented, and some excellent camera work by Nelson Cragg brings us directly into their mindset. Of course Lori and Nick are eventually going to get into a heated lovers’ quarrel. Which means one of them is going to do something stupid. Maybe not as dumb as getting eaten by a shark, but you get the idea.
The entire last twenty minutes of this film will have you biting your lower lip in a grimace. Its gruesome stuff that will send shockwaves through your nervous system. Because it’s all based in realistic shades of pain and agony. This could actually happen to you. It’s a cautionary tale at heart, and you’ll probably never want to hire a guide out of a bar late at night ever again. At the very least, you’ll wince and gnash your teeth together, while uttering a hurt-felt, “Oh, fuck!” Its not as scary as the other “doomed-couple” Halloween outing intheaters now (which would be Paranormal Activity), but this is quiet the fantastic little thriller. It comes as a huge surprise, and I can’t recommend it enough. Whoop-doo!