The following contains potential spoilers for In a Violent Nature.

Chris Nash says his new film, In a Violent Nature, is “reciting a definition” of a slasher. The claim that it turns the subgenre on its head by showing us everything from the killer’s perspective might lead you to expect a film length point-of-view (POV) gimmick, or a masked assailant live streaming his sadistic hobby. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t constitute the next step in the “evolution of the slasher.”

Being “trapped” in the head of a killer is hardly groundbreaking cinema these days. Pioneering slashers like Psycho, Peeping Tom, Black Christmas, and Halloween all put the technique to good use, and later films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games moved beyond interrogating viewers to a full-fledged indictment of their bloodlust.  

Contrary to word on the street, In a Violent Nature is also not a “deconstruction” of the slasher, nor is it a “meta” slasher. From Scream to Cabin In the Woods, the subgenre has already been turned into a graduate seminar many times over. The phrase “final girl” made the leap from academia to the pop culture lexicon long ago. The latest result is something like Ti West’s X, a film that subverts the trope by giving us a final girl who doesn’t fit the virginal standards formerly demanded by the type. West’s film might make a good footnote for the odd aficionado who translates her enthusiasm into a scholarly monograph, but scary it is not.

Contrary to word on the street, In a Violent Nature is not a “deconstruction” of the slasher, nor is it a “meta” slasher.

In a Violent Nature begins with a group of teenagers stumbling upon a shack in the woods. We overhear their chatter but don’t see any of them. The focus of the scene is a golden locket that hangs in the ruins. Predictably, one of the obnoxious twerps snags it, unleashing future mayhem. The camera doesn’t follow the young intruders as they make their exit. Instead, it lingers on the scene as a decaying humanoid shape erupts from the soil. There is no music and there are no dramatic flashes of lightning to signal that this event is any more significant than the gradual emergence of an earthworm. This resurrection scene has more in common with the frank realism of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet than it does with the opening of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

There is a perfunctory plot involving a disabled boy plummeting to his death from a water tower after an ill-conceived prank. The results? The “white pine massacre” by the boy’s vengeful spirit. The two key takeaways from this story are (1) the monster’s name is Johnny and (2) the stolen locket from the film’s opening belonged to Johnny’s mom and keeps his soul at rest.   

Once this decaying creature shambles fourth in search of the stolen locket, he proceeds to do a lot of walking. He walks through dense forest. He walks through people’s homes. He walks through campsites. From the Friday the 13th series all the way to cult entries like Sleepaway Camp and The Burning, the pastoral setting usually functions as little more than a convenient backdrop for an elaborately staged massacre. In a Violent Nature makes it into a full-fledged character as our killer makes his languorous trek through meadows shrouded in fine mist, wades into shimmering lakes, and intercepts one victim during a cliffside yoga session. We’re not exactly locked in the killer’s head, but we are watching him much like we would any other wild beast loping around in this wilderness. After all, even lions, tigers, and bears do a lot of wandering in between maulings. The absence of a score is used to haunting effect, especially when we enter the susurrous chamber of the woods. 

The glacial pacing also works to turn our minds against us. Is this some kind of demented nature documentary? Why is nothing happening? Do something already! Aren’t slashers supposed to, you know, slash? In other words, break the monotony by shedding innocent blood. To be fair, slashers mutated into threadbare excuses for increasingly exotic “kills” long ago, and In a Violent Nature is hardly the first film to interrogate this trope. But its pacing does allow for more introspection than most of its kind.

When the kills do arrive, however, they may well push some viewers to ask, Is this really what I wanted? Before we nod in the direction of this particular movie’s abundant carnage, it’s worth putting a word like “kills” into context. Horror films in general and slashers in particular understandably have a reputation for gratuitous violence. Though plenty of thrillers and action flicks also traffic in abundant bloodshed, there’s a marked difference between the mayhem that transpires in a John Wick movie and what we find in, say, Scott Spiegel’s grocery store splatterfest, Intruder. In most action flicks, the violence is in service of the plot. In most slashers, the plot is in service of the kills. Slashers put the bloodletting front and center, confronting us with elaborately staged murders that, along with being unsavory and gruesome, are also virtuoso displays of practical effects. While a scene of graphic dismemberment is far from noble, it’s also true to say that plenty of viewers study the gory spectacle with the eyes of an engineer, rather than a gawking voyeur.

Along with being a director, Chris Nash is a practical effects guy with a particular interest in prosthetics. No CGI in these kills. Can you stomach In a Violent Nature? A partial list of tools put to alternative use in the film may help you answer that question: steel hooks, ax, hacksaw, log splitter. One kill in particular involving an ill-fated yoga enthusiast has gone viral. Without going into too much detail, Johnny gives new meaning to the expression of tying oneself in knots. Needless to say, the kills most certainly recite the definition of a gruesome slasher. Nash also sprinkles in other familiar elements, including campy dialogue. There are jokes about both toxic masculinity and cancel culture as the unfortunate group of campers gathers around a bonfire with their beer and cellphones.

Nash took particular inspiration from Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Elephant—not the usual source texts for this kind of film. In fact, the true distinguishing feature of In a Violent Nature might be its mood. While many supernatural horror films are celebrated as great cinematic achievements, the slasher subgenre has yet to garner this kind of respect. Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, for instance, is widely considered one of the greatest films to come out of England. Are we going to get a slasher that achieves that kind of stature? 

To my mind, In a Violent Nature would have worked better if it had fully committed to its tone. If Nash wanted to carry this experiment all the way, we’d need a slasher replete with sophisticated characters, complex psychology, and realistic murders. For all its technical execution (pun definitely intended), the film’s violence has an undeniably cartoonish quality, which can’t help but detract from the film’s otherwise somber atmosphere. Consequently, In a Violent Nature keeps oscillating between plodding arthouse flick and garden variety slasher.

The film’s most polarizing feature is also its most formally inventive. In keeping with the traditional slasher formula, we do get a final girl. Once she breaks away from Johnny, our link to the killer is severed. For the first time in the film, we’re with a fleeing character rather than a stalking monster. The sounds of the woods swell to a massive din as the girl runs in wide-eyed panic, like a frightened animal. The Good Samaritan who rescues our final girl once she escapes Johnny’s clutches is played by Lauren-Marie Taylor, whom seasoned horror fans will recognize as Vickie from Friday the 13th Part 2.

This scene is In a Violent Nature at its most scary. Everything in the slasher’s filmic history predisposes us to expect some hideous twist at this point. The casting nod to Friday the 13th might make us wonder whether this seemingly nice older lady is Johnny’s long suffering mother, hellbent on vengeance herself. Is Johnny going to emerge from the thicket at the last minute and make mincemeat of both women? When the lady stops the vehicle to examine the girl’s wounded leg, we’re practically jumping out of our skin. But the twist is that there is no final twist—no murderous, ax-wielding mother; no Freddy Kruegger pulling Miss Thompson through the top of her front door; no Carrie White hands erupting from the soil of a freshly dug grave.

What we get, instead, is a long, quasi-philosophical monologue on the ruthless habits of bears in the woods. It’s clear we’re meant to equate Johnny with a wild animal, a natural disaster, or some other lethal force of nature. In this sense, perhaps the most disturbing feature of In a Violent Nature is that it seems to view evil not as an aberration, but as something perfectly natural.


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