Director: Travis Stevens
Stars: Sarah Lind, Josh Ruben, Malin Barr
Travis Stevens has done well enough so far crafting amiable mid-tier low-budget horror flicks for the Shudder crowd. The likes of Girl on the Third Floor and Jakob’s Wife (Barbara Crampton hive rise up!) found their modest audiences and Stevens seemed set to continue in this vein. However his latest – a gaudier, throwback pastiche piece – suggests greater ambitions to join the ranks of the genre maestros, fitfully imitating a number of Italian icons of days passed, with lashings of tomato-red fake blood on standby.
Meredith (Sarah Lind) works at a high-end gallery and has been out of the dating pool for some time. Much to the pleasure of her small group of co-worker friends, that drought seems finally over as she has met Bruce (Josh Ruben), who has invited her away to his secluded cabin (red flag) for a romantic weekend. We in the audience don’t particularly need to be looking for red flags, however, as we’re already privy to Bruce’s murderous ways. In the cold open, Bruce vies for the winning bid on a coveted ceramic statue and loses, only to show up unannounced at the successful bidder’s home with an offer she can’t survive. What’s more, our Bruce seems to be under the control of… a seven-foot owl?
To wit, tension. The film’s first Act sides squarely with Meredith as she is driven out into the boonies with her rugged new beau. He has an itinerary, he’s going to cook for her (he keeps his red wine in the fridge next to the white though, so that’s Meredith’s cue to leave right there), all seemingly benign. Except that we know we’re watching a horror film, and we were there for the first five minutes.
And, in addition, Stevens codes us to a particular register throughout. A Wounded Fawn has that post-Grindhouse feel that we all thought had finally died a death. From the aura of old film stock and scratches to the urge to go full Panos Cosmatos with his colour bleeds and sonic cues, Stevens tips toward Argento and Bava with his aesthetics, while the production design, writing and performances seem deliberated calibrated to any number of low-rent VHS video nasties of the mid-’80s. A Wounded Fawn looks syrupy and, for the most part, that’s a compliment.
In spite of some of the intentionally arch exchanges (which feel reminiscent of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch in how they doff to another era), Lind makes Meredith an amply likable deer-in-headlights. She registers those silent alarm bells when they start ringing. She’s inquisitive. Has her own agency. So it’s something of a shame when Act Two arrives and Stevens’ focus switches almost completely to Bruce, even as he fires up all manner of enjoyable pyrotechnics.
The last half hour of A Wounded Fawn is a merry descent into madness, utilising crazy costumes, practical effects and puppets to pivot Bruce into his own Evil Dead-esque nightmare reality. There’s red and green mist in the woods, masked demons and spirits, the whole nine yards. Very fun. But also, especially after his well-paced build-up, something of a maddening empty gesture. Given that the protagonist we’ve been investing in is abruptly absent, your mileage with this carnival finale will depend on your sympathy for Stevens’ devil.
So while we’re invited into a particularly rapturous and genre-codifying depiction of the destablising of a serial killer’s mind (replete with a direct hat-tip to, of all things, the Polish poster for Ridley Scott’s Alien), their correlation to the first half of the film is sometimes questionable. There’s something Satanic about Bruce’s coveted ceramic centrepiece, blurring the lines between Bruce’s own mental illness and a demonic third party influence… but so what? A Wounded Fawn tends to feel more and more like a thin parody piece, no more so than when the end credits crawl over a prolonged take of… well you’ll see.
Still, in spite of this evident – even self-aware – thinness, Stevens has made his most adept work yet. The craft imitates his forbearers exceedingly successfully, creating palpable suspense and a lot of pleasingly hands-on gooeyness. Whether it’s playing downbeat or outright absurd, there’s a consistent glint in the eye. This abutment of the serious and the silly means A Wounded Fawn carries internal tensions, but no matter the tone there’s a confidence here that steers us thoughout.