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'The Canyonlands' Review: Umphrey's McGee scores a forgettable slasher

Brendan Devane's 'The Canyonlands' pits a rafting trip against an undead spirit of past American sins.

The canyon man comes in 'The Canyonlands.'
(Image: © Freestyle Digital Media)

Our Verdict

'The Canyonlands' sells an idyllic slasher setting but fails to execute on the most basic slasher elements, from dimwitted characters to abysmal kill sequences.

For

  • ⛏️ Location scouts do their job.
  • ⛏️ National Geographic cinematography quality.

Against

  • ⛏️ Noticeably lackluster animated gore.
  • ⛏️ Characters with barely a single dimension.
  • ⛏️ The slowest speed of horror.
  • ⛏️ A villain without presence.

In The Canyonlands, writer and director Brendan Devane understands how to spotlight the film’s shining star. Unfortunately, said stealer of Devane’s show is the Moab-set Utah canyon range that backdrops another lost-in-wilderness slasher. Cinematographer Alex Cantatore earns every cent of his paycheck by guiding viewers on a sunlit-scorched excursion down scummy rafting rivers, across weathered rocky plateaus, and under starlit skyscapes—yet, this is no tourism propaganda. The Canyonlands is a slasher that attempts to remember Native American massacres at the bloodsoaked hands of white miners; it’s just not a very effective one on the basest subgenre merits.

Utah’s outdoors are a thing of natural beauty, but for adventurer Linda (Stephanie Barkley), one stretch of terrain is haunted by tragedy—where she’ll return for her latest rafting tour. Professional obligations force Linda into a captain position for five lucky contest winners who earn a free overnight experience. The problem is, something else calls Linda to the same location where one of her riders was once injured. Even worse, the dangers present become deadly when an “influencer” passenger dies by the campfire with a gaping neck wound. Another case of bad luck gone worse? Or is Linda tethered to a greater power that won’t stop until retribution, for whatever, is achieved?

Devane’s screenplay doesn’t hide supernatural influences, starting with early flashbacks of a wounded indigenous woman and a scowling chieftain, both of which suggest tragic historical roots. Then, we glimpse the film’s threatening big-bad (Marqus Bobesich). Behind stringy, greasy strands of hair exists a matted white face, pale with ghostly attributes, attached to this miner figure like Harry Warden of the 49’ers era minus imposition or ferocity. I often note that horror’s never better than when cultural representation and historical context intersect, but The Canyonlands never finds its empowered voice as commentary against white invaders snatching settled land thanks to gold-rush greed. Messages aren’t muddled, but the screenplay’s reliance on tropes and caricatures is laborious atop story designs that knot themselves in a finale monologue.

For a majority of this overlong stalk-and-chase, exhausting character stereotypes flee from a prospector who’s about as menacing as a Wild West drunk. There’s the MMA trainee-slash-womanizer (Jesse Buck-Brennan), whose persistent sexual objectification of a lesbian rock climber (Ari Anderson) becomes a numbingly one-note rail against unchecked machismo. Resident “nerd” Kyle (Dennis Connors) is bullied like the glasses-and-inhaler prototype he’s meant to exploit, and social media model Sarah (Lauren Capkanis) continually reminds us she makes her money posting indulgent selfies online. Then there’s Dave (Sheldon D. Brown), the Colorado weed enthusiast who spends the entire film either smoking weed, talking about weed, or bringing weed into the conversation. Performances are about as unfortunate as the trace-by-numbers personalities that define too many forgotten slashers, as development never rises above surface value.

Oddly enough, The Canyonlands is most palatable before slasher dangers present themselves. A beautiful portrait of cliffsides layered with sunburnt hues falls under the monochromatic dullness of night while characters meander, tumble, or sprint their way in circles. Death preys upon Linda’s followers, but Devane’s choice to opt almost exclusively for animated gore is a grave miscalculation. Pickaxe stabs, bashed heads, you name the violence on-screen that’s cheapened as inexcusably cut-rate digital blood squirts or actors laughably sell what should be gnarly deaths on levels barely removed from Birdemic: Shock And Terror. As horror films have become iconic based on practical effects that exude genre adoration no matter how schlocky, CGI’ed gnarliness this unpolished adversely misunderstands what horror audiences will and won’t forgive.

The Canyonlands earns its intrigue as “that indie slaughter flick scored by Umphrey’s McGee,” and that’s how it’ll be memorialized. Indiana’s celebrated jam-band brings twang, (unsalvagable) tension, and plucky pioneer rhythms to a film that’s otherwise indifferent, predictable, and noteworthy only by regional location inheritances. Simplistic slasher redundancies without standards lead to an overcomplicated culmination that crams mystical exposition and “blood debt” explanations between soul-swapping that confuses the characters present and witnessing audiences alike. Brendan Devane earns points for engaging with American themes that unearth a regrettable past, but any miner-gone-mad intrigue escapes quicker than nightmare hopes once some dollar store excuse for a pioneer villain resets our expectations.

The Canyonlands will be available on VOD on March 5, 2021.