Primal Rage is a frustrating film.
Primal Rage, directed by Patrick Magee from a script co-written with Jay Lee, has a white people problem. The plot concerns Ashley and Max Carr (Casey Gagliardi and Andrew Joseph Montgomery) on the day Max is released after a year in prison. The prison is located deep in Twilight country of the Pacific Northwest where men have encroached on the forested beauty as old as the continent. Home is hours away and the Carrs spend their time in argument. Animosity leads to bad roadside sex and a frail détente. At a stop for gas, Max weathers some insults from a group of upper middle class hunters that recognize him as a convict, which rekindles something protective in Ashley. They drive off. Another argument commences, but ends when a distracted Ashley hits a naked man who stumbles into the road. Her car did damage, but something with fangs and claws did the killing.
Ashley and Max are standing over the body when rocks are hurled at them from the woods. Max takes one to the head and, unconscious, tumbles into the forest and falls into a nearby river. Ashley gives chase, dives into the water and rescues him. But they’ve been swept deep into the forest without a compass or means to survive. Wandering in the woods provides a unique opportunity for airing their grievances and forgiving each other, but it is cut short by the man-beast that stalks them. Covered in fur and wearing a mask carved of ancient bark, the monster uses its surroundings like mystic camouflage and wants Ashley for a mate. The monster looks like the missing link between man and gorilla. The locals call it Oh-Mah, but it is more popularly known as Bigfoot.
The white people problem begins with the introduction of the alternative, the Native American sheriff (Eloy Casados) who’s up to his holster with reports of missing people. Grizzled and pragmatic, the sheriff has grown tired of the reservation and the suggestion of his people that Bigfoot is responsible for all his open cases. His deputy (Justin Rain) is the most relentless of these voices, but the sheriff will not relinquish his rationality until a peyote ritual gives him visions of monsters. Convinced, he visits the local witch (Shannon Malone), a stooped and weathered woman who has been keeping Bigfoot at bay since the early days of her tribe, and asks for help. This part of the story sounds bonkers, and it is, wonderfully so.
The sheriff and the tribe present two great creative achievements for the filmmakers. By steeping the story in Native American mysticism, whether invented or researched, Magee and his team distinguish what would otherwise be another rehash of Predator. Instead, it becomes more of a folk tale set in magic forest about a never-ending struggle between two indigenous people. Bigfoot and the tribe have set their borders, but the monster is always testing.
As the sheriff, Casados is one of those actors who draws your attention when he’s onscreen. Aged and handsome, he exudes the same kind of athletic grace and magnetism as Brando in Last Tango in Paris. That may seem like a hyperbolic claim for a horror movie, but the material is significantly elevated every time Casados comes onscreen. The fact that he plays a supporting character is at the heart of the movie’s white people problem. With all due respect to Gagliardi and Montgomery, Ashley and Max represent marks in the protagonist checklist: white, good-looking and formulaic. The plot involving the domestic problems of Max and Ashley overwhelms the story of the tribe and Bigfoot. We are asked to care about the Carrs, but they are underdeveloped characters and their devotion to each other is unearned. They are a distraction from something much more interesting and consume most of the screen time.
In terms of technique, Magee and Lee, who is also the credited cinematographer, make great use of lush, green forest. The best tension is created during the extended scenes of Ashley and Max wandering the forest. Not only is there the unease of two people lost without any supplies in an untamed landscape, but a thick forest has the ability of making the great outdoors feel claustrophobic. Bigfoot is an adroitly designed monster, especially when stalking in its mask of bark. The best scares come in the early scenes as Bigfoot pops in and out of frame while following the Carrs. Sometimes it’s faraway and revealed at the last second, then it’s close enough to steal a strand of hair without detection. Either way the effect is chilling. There is so much potential, but ultimately Primal Rage is a frustrating film. There is great design and moments of invention begging to be full exploited, but the filmmakers opted to focus on the dull and familiar.