Dear Samantha Kates,
You’re usually the first person on set, aren’t you? You have to be there before the sun is up, ready to provide coffee, juice and sad Costco Danish for the bleary-eyed cast and crew when they arrive. Sometimes, though, being alone on set must be kind of peaceful. You get to have the location to yourself before the other trucks arrive, and you can take your time setting up before the mad rush of shooting begins. Other times it must be a little bit creepy. Especially when your location is in the middle of nowhere. I mean, anything could be out there in the woods. Anything.
That is the premise of Man Vs, a horror/psychological thriller set on a remote island on the Canadian Shield. The titular man is Doug Woods, a survivalist and star of Woods vs, a television show in the vein of Survivorman, that sees Doug left in the woods with little more than a camera and his wits with which to survive for five days. When his small crew drops him off, they remind him that this new season is their chance to get a network deal – a not-so-subtle suggestion to amp up the stakes of the show. Once on the island, Doug begins to fear that he is not alone, but who, or what exactly is out there with him?
One of the benefits of working on a relatively small production must be that most days you serve the same people. No crowd scenes means no background to have to prepare food for, which makes your life easier. But to satisfy the same group over and over means you have to be, um crafty. Man Vs, faces the same obstacle. Fans of the horror/thriller genre are a tough bunch to please. But at the same time, they are among some of the most forgiving. If the story is strong they are willing to overlook a boom mike in shot or a clumsy overdub. Not that they have to worry about that here. Man Vs is a low-budget film, but it isn’t cheap.
In the same way you can probably feed a hundred people when you’re only budgeted for seventy-five, Man Vs is creative. It uses tropes we are familiar with – survivalist reality TV, horror, action – and delivers a lean and pretty compelling story. We never doubt that Doug, played with equal amounts TV host-smarm and genuine terror by Chris Diamantopoulos, is at home in the wilderness. When strange things start to happen on the second day – dead fish in the river, a huge chunk of the tree line demolished – he rationalizes it away. But when things get seriously weird we begin to wonder – is it Duncan, the creepy scout the production team hired to bring Doug to the island? Is it the team screwing with Doug to boost the show’s ratings? Is Doug losing his mind? Or is it something else entirely?
The film clips along at a steadily intensifying pace, and Diamantopoulos revs up his fear accordingly. He is the only person on screen for the majority of the film (much of which is him filming himself for the show with a Go-Pro), and manages that responsibility deftly. Man Vs has a few “as if” moments, like there are in most films of this ilk, but nothing serious enough to derail the premise. In the last third of the film, when we finally see what is versus man, it’s genuinely chilling. Like the organic chocolate chip cookies you hoard for the crew members that help you wash dishes, it’s important not to give too much away.
Feeding people is easy, but actually satisfying them is harder than it looks. Too many horror/psychological thriller films go for the “more is more” approach, leaving audiences starved for narrative. Man Vs has a simple premise, but that it has a smart and tight script, shot economically with a compelling lead and blessedly sparing use of visual effects and still manages to be an ultimately disturbing movie is crafty indeed.