Written by: Matt Patti | November 10th, 2020
The Retreat (Bruce Wemple, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Director Bruce Wemple is at it again with another creature feature. Following closely on the heels of August’s Monstrous (Wemple’s thriller set in the forest of the Adirondacks centered around the mythical Bigfoot), The Retreat features Wemple’s take on the mysterious Wendigo. The Wendigo is a legendary creature that traces its roots back to Native American folktales. The being is rumored to have been seen in northern parts of the U.S. and Canada, typically in snowy areas. There are several different iterations of the Wendigo legend. Some think it is a creature, others say it is a spirit that can possess humans. Many believe that the Wendigo appears when humans resort to cannibalism, others hold that it is as a result of human greed and gluttony. Some versions of the Wendigo are said to have antlers and look like a deer-human hybrid, while others describe the creature as a tall, skinny humanoid figure with impenetrable skin. The Retreat takes many of these different aspects and combines them into its own version of the Wendigo. However, in doing so, instead of creating a terrifying, compelling being, The Retreat’s version of the Wendigo comes off as confusing and sloppy, much like the film itself.
The Retreat stars Grant Schumacher and Dylan Grunn, both of whom starred in Wemple’s Monstrous, as best friends Gus and Adam, respectively. The two embark on a backpacking trip in the snowy Adirondack High Peaks for Adam’s bachelor party. Their first stop is at a cabin in the woods where they meet an old man who tells them the legend of the Wendigo. The two brush off the story and venture off on their hike after Gus drinks some psychedelic tea. The tea begins to have side effects on Gus as he struggles to function normally. When they set up camp for the night, Gus walks out into the woods to answer nature’s call. Afterwards, Gus is attacked by a Wendigo and fights for his life. However, the Wendigo disappears and leaves no trace. Gus soon finds himself contemplating whether he is suffering from hallucinations or if the Native American legend of the evil Wendigo is actually true.
The Retreat is well-filmed, for the most part, with satisfactory cinematography and great shots of the Adirondacks. There are some shots that don’t quite match, though: for example, a Wendigo chase scene that takes place during the day, and while Gus runs through the daylight, the shots of the Wendigo running look very dark as if they were filmed at night. The film features some creepy imagery and a few tense scenes that are sometimes exhilarating. The design of the Wendigo is mostly fine and frightening. It is very disturbing, at first, when it is shown in the shadows, but like many low-budget films, the design gets a bit worse as more of the creature is revealed, and at times it looks kind of cheesy and a bit like a human in a hoodie. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of The Retreat end there.
While the look of the Wendigo is decent, the character of the Wendigo is poorly used in the film. The filmmakers decide to combine almost every different attribute of a Wendigo into one creature and the result is immensely confusing. Some films, games and other media have been successful with their portrayal of the Wendigo by choosing one type and rolling with that, but since the filmmakers of The Retreat combine so many into one, the being’s abilities and features are unclear and seem endless. Also, for such a powerful force, the Wendigo’s screen time is very limited, which is also disappointing.
Beyond my complaints about the use of the Wendigo, the film otherwise also fails to impress. The performances of leads Schumacher and Grunn are mediocre and there is some strange line delivery that can be found throughout. Their characters, Gus and Adam, are not very compelling and their relationship is bland and void of emotion, even though the film attempts, unsuccessfully, to establish an emotional bond between the two. The chemistry is just not there. The script is also very predictable while also frustratingly baffling at the same time; a strange feat. Some of the Wendigo’s revealed powers foreshadow a few very obvious results, but the way these results play out and the ambiguity of the consequences, especially near the end of the film, leaves the viewer scratching their head.
The sour icing on the proverbial stale cake of The Retreat is the film’s poorly constructed sound design. Throughout the film, a loud, intrusive and uninspired score is placed over far too many scenes. The score is supposed to function as a tension-builder, but with its extreme volume and egregious overuse it quickly becomes a nuisance. The film also features sloppy score transitions from scene to scene and phony-sounding Foley and sound effects.
Overall, The Retreat is a disappointing follow-up to Wemple’s Monstrous, which I actually quite enjoyed. The Retreat features a few impressive suspenseful sequences, some unsettling images and an intriguing, legendary creature at its center. So, fans of the Wendigo may enjoy the film for those aspects, alone. However, with its puzzling use of the Wendigo, the bland and dull presentation of its two main characters, the predictable-yet-perplexing script and its obnoxious sound design, the film ultimately falters and is an unsatisfying presentation of one of the most obscure and terrifying entities in North American folklore.