After missing my own self-imposed deadlines in January and February, where I was to present a movie review for the month, I am determined not to miss March! Thus, I decided to triple down and do three movie reviews in celebration of our legendary creatures theme.
The truth is, earlier this March, I watched Dawn of the Beast, but it was only when I started writing the review did I realize the movie was actually the third cryptid monster film, following Monstrous and The Retreat, all directed by Bruce Wemple. Naturally, I had to watch the other two films.
Armed with a great love for campy horror films and his trusty cast of relative unknowns, New York director Bruce Wemple creates fresh horror that makes the socially conscious Gen Z crowd proud. All boxes checked. Wemple knows all the horror tropes, and these films felt like proper indie horror movies. There was decent acting, strong female characters, and lots of action. The camerawork makes good use of those shadows, close-up shots, and practical effects to perpetuate the scares and despite the low budget, the production quality was pretty good. I was even forgiving of the few man-in-a-monster-suit shots, which were super cheesy, but hey look, considering the third film was entirely developed during the pandemic, all of us should be impressed by that. I’ll be honest, I never gave much thought to Adirondack mountains before watching these films, and whatever location Wemple chose to shoot on location is some damn beautiful country. If I wasn’t so scared of the real Wendigo, I’d run out and buy a Winnebago.
There’s a lot of good psychological horror here too, especially in the second film, The Retreat. The biggest flaw of this cryptid trilogy was the films suffered from having too much story. I guess having too much story is better than having no story, right? It’s just these long drawn out or overly heavy exposition scenes take away our monster time, and when you make a feature film starring these two legendary creatures, you have got to have more monster!!
I should also mention upfront, each of these movies is stand-alone. You’ll understand each of them on their own just fine, but movie marathons are so much more fun.
Directed by Bruce Wemple
In the first movie, audiences are introduced to the mythical Bigfoot, juxtaposed with an even rarer creature, which I don’t want to give away.
The scary opening scene hooks viewers immediately, when two girls, taking a nice drive through the Adirondack mountains at night, accidentally run over the Sasquatch. I don’t normally encourage fleeing the scene of the crime, but when your victim stands up and is over ten feet tall, you should probably get the hell outta there. Fast forward to meeting who we hope will be our final girl in a slow albeit amusing exposition scene. Our heroine Sylvia catches up with her dimwitted friend Jamie, who also happens to be the boyfriend of victim #1. Both are missing their BFF, enough to engage in “blind ridesharing” to go off in search of her. Btw, blind ridesharing is basically this generation’s version of hitchhiking. Both ideas are stupid, but horror movie characters do it because we’d otherwise have no movie. Real people should not do these very dumb things.
Anywho, Jamie gets sick from eating bad Mexican food, another overly played bad movie trope (and btw, Mexican food gets better the further Southwest you travel, just saying), leaving Sylvia to make the sketchy trek with a total stranger all alone. Luckily, her carmate turns out to be female, and after some mutual distrust, passions fly. At this point, you might forget you’re watching a scary movie, don’t do that. I told you, riding with strangers is a bad idea.
Now, I don’t want to explain the whole movie, but I must mention this is where the story starts to get a bit convoluted. It’s a bit of a letdown since the characters were fully fleshed out and well-acted. The twist is predictable, but since it’s so rare, it still felt fresh. Overall, of the three films I watched, Monstrous had the most coherent story. That said, I still think I would’ve preferred if the director had separated these plots into two different movies instead of the monster mashup we received, they might have been stellar! Despite the flaws, I found Monstrous quite enjoyable.
The Retreat, 2020
Directed by Bruce Wemple
The second film, The Retreat tackles the mystery of the Wendigo. When two friends Gus and Adam decide to celebrate Adam’s bachelor party by hiking in the Adirondack mountains, they encounter a sinister force in the wilderness that slowly drives one of the men insane.
Unlike Monstrous, which was somewhat more visceral, The Retreat is a deep dive into psychological horror. It helps to know a little something about the Wendigo myth. The Wendigo has been both described as a malevolent shapeshifting spirit with a shadowy figure with a deerlike skull and this weird, creepy humanoid dude that crawls around in the dirt looking for food. It possesses human beings, driving them insane with greed, insatiable hunger, and bad thoughts, forcing them to kill, and even cannibalize their own fellow humans. It’s one of the few monsters that you can’t really flip into a good guy like you can with a vampire or werewolf. No matter what he looks like, the Wendigo is just a really bad dude.
The night before their big hike, Gus and Adam meets with other hikers in a lodge and exchange stories, discuss the Wendigo, and trip out with hallucinogenic refreshments. Wait, what? Yeah, exactly. Like Gen Z hitchhiking in Monstrous, the shroom tea in The Retreat is basically another cringy lesson of what not to do in a horror film. From this point on, you just don’t know what’s real, what’s not, who’s dead, who’s not, and what the hell is going on. It’s very frustrating, but just keep your eye out for the Wendigo cuz he’s the real bad guy here.
Anyways, like Monstrous, the actors do a really nice job here. Grant Schumacher who plays Gus, sells confusion and paranoia so well, you’re constantly questioning what’s happening as he does. Normally, these slow deep psychological horror films are not my jam, but I think this is worth the watch. If nothing more than to ask yourself, what the hell did I just watch?
Dawn of the Beast, 2021
Directed by Bruce Wemple
A group of college grad students spend the weekend in the Adirondack Mountains, in search of the legendary Bigfoot, but instead wind up being terrorized by the evil Wendigo.
Like its predecessors, the production quality is strong, but Dawn of the Beast has a lot going on for one movie. It’s Bigfoot meets The Wendigo, with a healthy homage to The Evil Dead and possibly St. Elmo’s Fire, I dunno, there are subplots involving messy relationships, a mythical necklace, a crazed Bigfoot hunter, and a forest full of screeching wendigos, but screw all that, we came for the mythical monsters with bad attitudes!
The good news is you do get the Wendigo taking possession of grad students in love, for like, 70 percent of the movie. These scenes go for the cheesy scares, no doubt influenced by the Evil Dead movies, and like those fan favorites, these scenes are equally funny and scary, “I’m so hungry” whines a ghoulish victim.
It’s too bad the movie didn’t stick to its biggest selling point which was Bigfoot vs. the Wendigo. In fact, Sasquatch doesn’t appear ringside until the last twenty minutes or so. When he does show up, he’s one ugly Bigfoot, who doesn’t look like his DVD cover, nor his predecessor in Monstrous. Don’t get me wrong, three and half minutes of ugly Bigfoot kicking ass is still thrilling, but some of us were hoping for some hourlong Godzilla vs Kong-style smackdown.
Despite the letdown, Dawn of the Beast still packs a decent punch and expertly delivers monster schlock, a banging techno soundtrack, and a final guy, which if you do pay attention to the messy relationship plotline, is a good ending. It even has a cringy horror lesson, don’t be a doormat.
These films may not be for everyone, but I think hardcore horror fans (who are down to watch anything) and indie film lovers (who enjoy those slow burn thrillers) might really enjoy a good campy cryptid monster marathon. I actually hope someone gives Bruce Wemple some more money, BIG MONEY, so maybe he can make another Bigfoot vs Wendigo blockbuster movie, and next time, give us the fight we really want!