Visually arresting yet undeniably flawed, is there light to be found at the end of “The Long Dark Trail” or is it best to simply steer clear?
The Long Dark Trail landed on digital late February (2/21/2023). Read on to find out if you should Rent it, Stream it, or Skip it.
I don’t know why I’m willing to die on this particular hill, but I maintain that there’s no victory quite like an underdog victory — that unexpected upset that drops jaws and blows minds. Perhaps it stems from being a shy introvert, but I find it hard not to root for the Davids instead of the Goliaths regarding everything in life, including cinema. Perhaps even especially with cinema.
From the bizarre time-traveling head trip that is Donnie Darko to the horror/comedy of Evil Dead 2, and from the indie darling It Follows to the woefully underappreciated Séance, I love to see a low-budget champion rise up against the odds.
And The Long Dark Trail is absolutely an underdog.
Grossing only $8,500 worldwide (according to the interwebs), the film appears to have been made on a budget of roughly the same amount. Not that movie needs a whole lot of money to succeed. But we’ll get to that.
The movie’s synopsis on IMDb goes like this:
After two impoverished teenage brothers manage to escape their abusive father, they embark on a treacherous and haunting journey in the hope of finding their estranged mother, who has joined a sadistic cult deep in the woods of Northwest Pennsylvania.
Unfolding like a curated mashup of Stand by Me and Midsommar (their comparison, not mine), The Long Dark Trail certainly comes out swinging, aiming high right from the jump.
It’s not hard to see what the directors were attempting to achieve. The overarching concept is solid. The stakes are grounded and real. The locations are perfect. The soundtrack is actually pretty good.
On paper, this film has everything it needs to be successful.
It even got a bunch of “official selection” nominations from various horror film fests.
I often find that when a new film gets compared to an existing juggernaut, it automatically establishes a false or unachievable expectation — an impossibly high bar. And, by proxy, it essentially sets the new film up to fail.
As such, my initial reaction when The Long Dark Trail was compared to Stand by Me was split between two schools of thought. On one hand, I thought that it was one hell of a ballsy statement. On the other, I immediately suspected a trap, not to mention a fair amount of false advertising.
As it turns out, both schools of thought proved to be accurate and inaccurate in equal measure.
Do we have young boys trekking through the backcountry and a splash of danger? Yes. But that’s as close to Stand by Me as this film gets. In fact, were I to make a comparison, I would say that The Long Dark Trail has more in common with Benson & Moorhead’s The Endless than anything, in tone and in execution.
First, the good.
There’s an art to cinematic filmmaking, a deftness of focus and scope that requires extra effort. It’s sort of like baking… anyone can make brownies, but not everyone can make them equally.
Directors Kevin Ignatius and Nick Psinakis (legitimately badass horror movie names, by the way) understand this.
The way in which much of The Long Dark Trail is filmed is, in a word, beautiful.
The northern expanse of Pennsylvania holds much majesty, and there are shots within the movie that capture the essence very well. For being their first feature-length film, they already have a firm grasp on how to establish mood simply by letting the camera drink in the various details and landscapes. Who needs a high budget when you’ve got acres and acres of amazing scenery to work with?
As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is actually enjoyable. Alternating between electronic synth wave (a la It Follows), backwoods banjo picking, and agonized & discordant choir arrangements, there’s a little something for everyone. And interestingly enough, it all fits within the context of what is transpiring on the screen.
It’s difficult to put into words, but one of the things I admire about The Long Dark Trail is the way in which the boys’ adventure unfolds.
It’s almost like a fantasy quest, in a way, broken up into chapters (replete with title cards), with each region of Pennsylvania that they are traveling through given a basic descriptor: the viaduct, the boulders, the pines, and so on.
As though they are trekking through some wild, untamed land instead of the backcountry of the US’s second state. The search for their mother harkens back to sword & sorcery films where desperate townsfolk search for a wizard to help them break free from a great evil.
I genuinely wish that the filmmakers had leaned more heavily into this aspect; the movie would have been better for it.
Oh, and did I mention the cinematography?
Sadly, I think that I love the things that surround the film more than I do the actual plot and characters.
This brings us to the bad.
When a movie centers almost entirely around a cast of two, the performances must be up to the task. This is essential for the film to succeed. A compelling narrative or beautiful locations don’t mean much if the performances fall flat.
Esme, My Love, another indie “duo in the woods” offering, had this in spades.
Unfortunately, the acting is where The Long Dark Trail falters.
To be fair, I love that they cast real-life brothers in the roles. Ideally, there should be an inherent comfort between the two leads that translates onto the screen. A familiarity that cannot be faked or manufactured. And, in a few select moments, this does happen.
By and large, however, the actors in The Long Dark Trail never quite sell the illusion that they are real characters.
Line delivery is stilted and awkward. Emotions are rarely genuine. The timing is off. Nothing quite gels like it should.
The script is part of the problem, to be sure, with a lot of exposition-heavy dialogue that no siblings would ever spout.
The rest of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors. They are trying to act like they’re not acting and end up acting even more like they’re acting as a byproduct.
As the head-honcho cultist (and only male in the camp), Nick Psinakis is rather one-note and amazingly unfrightening.
I understand the appeal of acting in your own films, especially to save on budget, but such a crucial (albeit small) role should have gone to someone a little more physically imposing and off-kilter. It’s a shame, as the showdown with the cult leader should have been the edgiest moment of the film. Alas, such was not the case.
Occasional flashbacks to abusive treatment from their father give the boys’ escape some much-needed context.
Regrettably, the film attempts to provide tension and action through random horror tropes that don’t really seem connected to the main narrative. I mean, modern-day cultists are freaky enough; we don’t need weird deviations into body horror and zombies.
Also, it must be noted that the pace is glacial, and the editing leaves much to be desired. Several jumps occur that rob the film of much-needed momentum.
For a movie that is supposed to have horror undertones, when the handful of horrific things actually does transpire, that’s when the editing should be flawless. In fact, the only tense part of the whole movie is right at the end.
The Long Dark Trail boasts potential in spades, and it looks incredible. But a flawed script, languid pace, and unconvincing performances sadly keep it from coming close to delivering on that promise.