DVD Review: Sam's Lake (2005)

The Producers of Twilight,
Madonna's Maverick Films,
Lionsgate & Barnholtz Entertainment
Offer You a Trip to Sam's Lake
On DVD 4/21/09

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Based on Canadian writer/director Andrew C. Erin’s 2002 released 25 minute live-action short film that shares the same name--this feature-length work completed in 2005 that screened in 2006’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival initially offers viewers a sense of déjà vu in its homage to horror franchise classics Halloween and Friday the 13th for the post-Blair Witch Project generation.

However, just when we've written off Sam’s Lake, it takes an alarmingly suspenseful and clever twist that makes the last act the film's best, thereby leaving me wishing I could take a look at that original 25 minute version. This is especially the case since for roughly the first 40 minutes of Erin’s 2005’s old-fashioned supernatural campfire creep-fest will test the patience of typical genre viewers as we encounter a group of outsider city-folk who journey out into the eerily wooded country or more precisely a cabin situated on Sam's Lake.

Although, much like the opening of the original Friday the 13th (following the obligatory slice and dice) our characters are warned by stereotypical backwoods hicks at a gas station (instead of Friday’s diner) that "these parts ain't safe"—true to genre form, they continue on to offer moral support for their good friend Sam (Fay Masterson) as she deals with the anniversary of her father’s death.

Why the character of Sam (named after the lake) would want to go to the lake to spend a weekend in the same type of atmosphere that killed her father in a hunting accident doesn't seem quite clear from the start but Masterson's eccentric and new age character gleefully shares with them the old legends of the locale including the story that opened the film forty years earlier as a young man escapes a mental institution (can you say Halloween’s Michael Meyers?) and murders his entire family.

In fact, it was this horrific incident—itself based on fact-- that inspired Erin to make the film in the first place. Shot in just 18 days in British Columbia as reported by Jay Weissberg of Variety online—the uninvolving motley crew of characters—all with TV-Movie-of-the-Week ready back stories including drug addiction, homosexuality, and domestic abuse don't generate a whole lot of interest from viewers who only vaguely get to learn their names and one or two character traits before the screams begin which is the film’s major structural error. Simply, when lives will eventually be jeopardized, you want to care a little more or have a stronger interest than, "oh, that's the boyfriend of that girl."

Since we’re stuck tagging along with the overly politically correct (but very welcome for the predominantly white/straight genre) group consisting of Sam, her pretty but troubled friend Kate (Sandrine Holt), their obligatory gay sidekick Dominik (Salvatore Antonio, used mostly for laughs), and the recovering addict interracial couple Franklin and Melanie (Stephen Bishop and Megan Fahlenbock) and thrown right into the mix from the start, it's a bit hard to become involved given the screenplay's over-reliance on horror movie building blocks.

To this end, writer/or actor Erin throws a wild card into the mix in the form of Sam’s childhood pal Jesse (William Gregory Lee) who conveniently has grown up James Dean like handsome with a serious twinkle in his eye and penchant for mischief that we’re never sure we can trust.

Of course and a bit unbelievably, the likable Kate—having just broken up with a man in an abusive relationship she extricated herself from by way of a baseball bat-- becomes quickly intrigued by his beauty, having mistaken him for a local creep at the gas station earlier in the day.

While logically this makes no sense except for perhaps chalking the attraction up to Twlight’s Bella and Edward—the film and its sequel New Moon which was produced by those bringing you Sam’s Lake in its DVD release—we buy their chemistry at least temporarily until it’s overtaken along with all other subplots by the old familiar horror standby of running away from deranged killers in the woods at night.

Following a visit to—you guessed it—the home where the 40-year-old slayings occurred, a journal belonging to the killer is uncovered and although Melanie has the good sense to beg that they all ignore it, the film’s version of Pandora’s Box is quickly opened and out spills a few major plot twist that sends both you and several of the characters’ minds reeling.

Granted, the twist itself comes on a bit too hurriedly to fully revel in its dynamite impact but once the journal's truths are revealed, it sets into action the movie’s compelling, genuinely frightening, yet still confusing final act that makes all of the ho-hum events that occurred before it seem well-worth the ride.

Again, I'm wondering if the effect of the twist and its execution worked to a more visceral, solid, and immediate overall product in the film’s short and despite the fact that I’m unable to judge the original as my screener (generously sent my way via Lionsgate) only contained the feature film itself.

While there's one last gasp that leaves the possibility of a sequel open in Erin’s supernatural thriller that runs wild with the ghost story premise in a genuinely surprising way (although I’m still not quite sure I follow all of it)-- I must confess that I would rather watch Sam’s Lake again than Twilight.

But u
ltimately, I still couldn’t help wishing that the director had been given the opportunity to fine-tune the script down to its essence, perhaps drop a few characters (however to horror fans that translates to less carnage), and rewrite acts one and two to completely endear us to his ensemble characters.

Still, there’s a genuine talent in the filmmaking and storytelling skills of the movie’s Canadian craftsman and one that was also identified by countless others in high places as Sam's Lake was given the support of Lionsgate, Barnholtz Entertainment, and Madonna’s Maverick Films that are delivering the work to viewers on DVD this week following its NY and LA limited run from BEI in January.

Needless to say, given his potential, I’m anxious to see what’s next for Andrew C. Erin and know that word-of-mouth will help get fright fans to test the waters of Sam’s Lake even if at first the water takes a little to get used to before waves can be made.