Michael Bartlett proves he’s a horror film director to keep an eye on with the entertaining Treehouse, a film about two injured teenagers pursued by unknown evil in rural woodland…
Treehouse marks the emergence of a new talent in the horror genre. Director Michael Bartlett displays a visual elegance in his 2014 film that confidently displays a kinship with the work of b-movie horror maestro John Carpenter. Indeed, the aforementioned auteur would be more than happy with Bartlett’s taut, claustrophobic vision of two injured teenagers trapped in woodland by multiple, largely unseen blood-hungry aggressors. While the impressive credentials of the film’s aesthetic may outweigh inadequacies in the script and some ungainly performances, Treehouse overcomes its flaws by delivering on its promise to scare the pants off you!
From the outset, the film motors along at breakneck speed beginning with Elizabeth (Dana Melanie) discovering her younger brother has been snatched from her rural home. She finds her father’s gun and nervously pursues whoever or whatever has kidnapped her sibling. However, she’s overcome and we are left to contemplate her fate. We’re then introduced to the reserved, somewhat shy Killian (J. Michael Trautmann), a fellow teenager who can’t escape the school bullies, relying instead on his older brother Crawford (Daniel Fredrick) to stand up for him.
When the pair decide to meet some friends in the local woods they discover a treehouse where, upon investigation, they find Elizabeth cowering in a corner. They recognise her from the local news media and their reports of two missing children. Frightened to death, she tells them of her ordeal; that some unknown force had taken her brother. She escaped this murderous gang of fiends by hiding in the treehouse where she has been, bloodied and battered, for a number of days, daring not to leave. Crawford tells them he will go for help as Elizabeth is in no fit state to move, leaving her and Killian hiding for their lives as an unknown evil closes in.
There’s a formula to Treehouse that, conventionally, stays on the straight and narrow. Bartlett’s love of the genre is clear and he celebrates this by playing with audience expectation. There’s some terrific uses of the camera – the lingering point of view shot to create tension, for example – but Treehouse has more tricks up its sleeve. Most notable is Bartlett’s use of off-screen space and sound. There’s a terrific sequence in which Killian receives a radio communication on his walkie-talkie from one of his friends who is lost in the woods. It becomes clear this person is being pursued by the same antagonist Killian and Elizabeth are hiding from. This thrilling scene plays out with just the sounds of a frightened girl on a radio, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.
That’s where Treehouse gets most things right. There’s a beautiful sense of enticing the imagination to draw the horror. The genre has become overrun with explicitly violent pieces of work that believe the gorier the better. It actually has a distancing effect, particularly if, as is so often the case, the gratuitous violence overcomes shaky plot development and thinly constructed characters. Treehouse keeps its violence to a minimum, suggesting rather than depicting the horrible acts that do indeed take place.
The two leads deliver commendable performances, particularly Dana Melanie who takes her cues from the slasher film’s “final girl”, bringing an underlying emotional strength to her character that helps overcome her slight frame and feminine fragility. J. Michael Trautmann feels less assured in the role of Killian, a kid who has to ditch his erstwhile weaknesses in favour of channelling the alpha male. It might have more to do with some clunky character development and dialogue emerging from the page rather than any inability on Traumann’s part but perhaps his lack of experience in a leading role is telling.
Yet, where Treehouse may take a few steps backwards with the utterance of a corny line or its formulaic plotting, it takes a giant leap forward in its sense of fun. The finale is every bit as bonkers as you’d expect which makes for an energetic, pedal to the metal conclusion to proceedings that is made even more entertaining by the wit that underlines it. On this evidence, Michael Bartlett is a director to keep an eye on.