Fantasia first look: Dead Shack

Three adolescent children take a walk on the woods’ wild side, with sweetly splattery results

“Adorable’s good, right?”

So asks timid, tight-arsed 14-year-old Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), desperate to find a positive after Summer (Lizzie Boys) – the older sister of his motormouth best friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) and the object of his own affections – has just called him “adorable but weird”. The three have arrived for their vacation in an isolated ‘cabin in the woods’ – “because it’s cheap” – along with Summer and Colin’s laid back, boozy dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his latest girlfriend/drinking buddy Lisa (Valerie Tian). Yet Jason and the (haha!) Slades are about to have a run-in with their very strange and even more dysfunctional neighbours, in a tale of three families (including Jason’s unseen, unhappy one) and their clashing values of suburb and backwoods, rich and poor..

We first see the neighbour (Lauren Holly) in a prologue, as she – dressed bizarrely in armoured clothing and a welding mask – leads a man on a leash and then sics him onto another man cowering in a car. The whole scene is very sexualised: there is the neighbour cast as dominatrix, complete with chains and fetish gear, and the car seen rocking and bouncing as some unspeakable act occurs within. So when Jason, Colin and Summer go ‘exploring’ in the woods and chance upon the house, there is the sense that they are taking a transgressive journey on the wild side towards a very adult type of experience. Indeed, what draws them to spy on the house is the curiosity about witnessing a threesome – and what then draws Roger to join them there is the promise of not just “crazy shit” but more particularly a “sexy cannibal”. What happens next, though spattered in the tropes of horror, is also very much a coming-of-age story for Jason, as his fears are overcome and his balls (expressly, if metaphorically) drop.

Dead Shack is very much set in 2017, and peppered with references to the present (selfies, smart phones, ‘LARP camp’), and yet once the Slades head off from suburbia into the wilderness, they are also going backwards. Accordingly all the models for Peter Ricq’s feature debut hark back to the Eighties – and more particularly to the rites of passage of The Goonies (1985) and Stand By Me (1986) in collision with the cabin terror of The Evil Dead (1981). Indeed, with its adolescent kids going on an adventure together and stumbling into a genre scenario, this is the film Among the Living (2014) might have been had it come with a warm fuzzy Spielbergian heart. All the characters here are so lovingly drawn, with their interactions as honest as they are hilarious, that even the most po-faced viewer will be left nodding – and laughing – in agreement that adorable (with a bit of added weird) is good.

Dead Shack was seen and reviewed at Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information, visit the website.