Horror is typically a successful genre, because fear is an emotion that everyone can relate to. Furthermore, horror films are relatively inexpensive to produce when compared to tent pole action movies. A man with a knife is much more affordable than an alien invasion any day. As such, the horror genre seems to draw all sorts of terrible filmmakers looking to make a quick profit and their films reflect their intentions. Occasionally, however, a film like Sam’s Lake pleasantly surprises audiences with a developed plot, good acting and a general eeriness that’s missing from recent horror flicks.
Sam (Fay Masterson) and her friends from the city decide to spend a relaxing vacation in her old rural hometown and at the lake where she spent her childhood. Unfortunately, Sam’s hometown is one of those places that distrust city folk and is steeped in rustic legends, like that of the deranged boy who slaughtered his family decades ago, but was never caught. Since the boy’s home still stands and is rumored to be haunted, Sam and friends decide to test their mettle and visit the scene, only to discover the murderer’s journal. The group discovers that the deranged boy eventually had offspring that still uses the woods and Sam’s Lake as personal hunting grounds where they stalk humans.
From a technical perspective, Sam’s Lake is a thoroughly watchable film. It’s almost as if Director Andrew C. Erin set out to make a good film first and a horror film second. The high-caliber filmmaking is evident early as Erin takes the time for shots of the bucolic landscape or to track a leaf in the stream just as the group drives by. This deliberate style instills the journey from the known to the unknown into viewers and carries through to the dense atmosphere of the film.
Eeriness is abundant in Sam’s Lake, ranging from the creepy townsfolk who stare silently and unflinchingly to the odd cornhusk dolls tied to trees and fences as a way to ward off the deranged boy – now an aged man – who supposedly still roams the countryside. The fear of the woods made popular to this generation by films like The Blair Witch Project is coupled with more recent Japanese horror techniques to great effect. Also, while there is the occasional stinger – the loud sounds that accompany fast, sudden movements – the film doesn’t rely on them for scares.
What really elevates the film beyond its genre is the pacing. The first half of the film is spent building up the legend of the deranged boy, which gives viewers time to really get invested in the characters’ survival. So when characters start dying in the second half of the film, their deaths have a little more impact than in most horror films. Regrettably, the fact that making a horror movie was second priority definitely shows.
For all the positive points about Sam’s Lake, when the horror begins, it doesn’t quite deliver what one might expect. For starters, the killers use sharp sticks as their weapons of choice. A man with a knife is scary because people can relate to being cut. Not as many people have been poked by sharp sticks. Also, there is a surprising lack of gore. Not every horror movie has to aspire to human butchery, but when people are being impaled by sticks, there’s a certain expectation of blood. When characters die in Sam’s Lake it typically happens off-screen, relying on ghastly sound effects and audiences’ imaginations to fill in the gaps. Lastly, there are some believability issues that may take viewers out of the film. For instance, once of the attackers is a 90-lb. woman who effortlessly takes on men twice her size that are built like linebackers. There are cinematic ways to set up that scenario and make it believable. That wasn’t done here. Fortunately, all of these trespasses are forgivable and will only ruin the film for the pickiest of viewers. Overall, Sam’s Lake is an engrossing film and a good example of fine filmmaking irrespective of genre.