This indie thriller impressed Judge Joel Pearce, and did so without lingering closeups on cigarette butts or references to Salinger.
Two men. Two lives. One deadly secret.
Lately, people have been announcing the triumphant arrival of the age of independent film. They point at the success of The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite to suggest that anyone can pick up a camera and make a film. Yet Hunting Camp is a better example of true indie filmmaking. Writer/director/producer/editor/etc. John C. Lyons proves that one camera, a few friends, and $4000 is enough to make a decent little thriller.
The setup is simple. Jake (George Petrus) is a wealthy young executive who decides to take up a friend's offer to relax for the weekend at a cottage in the middle of the bush. Steve (Trevor Huster) is surprised to see him there, but something seems fishy. It could have something to do with Steve's wife Susan (Karen Jeffries) and friend Trevor (Rodney Simba Masarirambi), but that won't become clear for a while.
John C. Lyons did a lot of things right when made Hunting Camp. It runs a nice, tight 38 minutes long, never overstaying its welcome or feeling drawn out. Some indie filmmakers would have stretched this into a full length running time to make it feel like a major production, but Lyons clearly realized that a clean, short film would be best. He was right. For the first fifteen minutes, as the narrative jumps around to different times and places, it's impossible to tell what is happening. We get a sense of the characters and begin to understand how they are connected to one another. Then, those pieces start to fall into place, leading to a classic thriller confrontation. This running time is long enough to fill in the holes and make sense, but not long enough that attentive audience members can figure out what is happening before they are supposed to.
The production shows impressive restraint. Lyons and friends realize that they don't have the budget to pull off a Hollywood epic, so they don't try to make one. That makes Hunting Camp work far better than, say, Westender, where they producers tried to compete with the Hollywood machine. This is a different kind of film, and it needs to be made differently. Even so, Lyons has a keen eye for cinematography and pacing. He uses natural light, easy to find locations and inventive angles to his advantage, using plenty of style without getting too showy. Like the script, the production is tight and clean, accomplishing what needs to be done with almost nothing.
Acting is the Achilles heel of Hunting Camp. While George Petrus gives a steady, natural performance, most of the other characters are too aware of the camera. Some lack of polish is expected in a film that's shot on weekends in the gaps of busy schedules, but these performances lack the subtlety and restraint present in the script and filming. Trevor Huster reminds me of people I have met (in an almost creepy way), but his diatribes against women and the upper class seem stiff and scripted. Some of the extras are awkward in front of the camera, causing moments of synchronized action that break up the gritty, realistic tone of the overall film.
Minor complaints aside, I think we can expect great things from Lyons in the future. Hunting Camp is not the film that will let him burst into the public consciousness, but he shows the makings of a well-respected and successful independent filmmaker. That film is coming, and probably soon.
Considering Hunting Camp's humble origins, this is a surprisingly well produced DVD. The video is presented in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced. It was shot on miniDV using a Panasonic DVX100A, and it looks fantastic. Nobody is going to mistake it for 35mm, but it doesn't have that ugly look of early digital filming. The colors are sometimes too vibrant and the image looks flat (as expected), but the detail is crisp and there are no signs of compression or other transfer artifacts. Diagonal jaggies and grain are noticeable on a high quality display, but only on close inspection. The audio transfer is strong as well, although the music sometimes threatens to drown out the dialogue.
The stunning array of extras includes a collection of entertaining outtakes. The actors are more relaxed and natural during these moments, and I suspect with more experience they could come off that natural throughout the filming process. A segment entitled "behind the scenes" is mostly outtakes as well. The real behind the scenes footage is in the photo gallery. Although I am not a fan of galleries, this is the first one I've seen that's been really useful. The pictures walk us through the entire production process, explaining each shot with text on screen. Rounding out the extras on the first disc are the original trailer and the complete newscasts as seen in the film. I would have loved to hear a commentary track with Lyons and the cast, but this is already well above and beyond the call of duty. This set also includes Hunting Camp's soundtrack on CD, featuring a wide range of indie musicians.
Hunting Camp is a worthwhile purchase for aspiring filmmakers and fans of indie cinema. It avoids many of the pitfalls that plague true indie productions, and it shows that a little bit of money, a decent new digital camera, and the support of family and friends is now enough to make a decent film. Hopefully the success of Hunting Camp will allow Lyons to make even more polished and creative productions in the future.
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