When reading the synopsis to The Retreat, it reads like almost any other horror film about a trip gone wrong. Protagonists go on a trip to escape their idyllic suburban or city life only for their getaway to be disrupted by some kind of sinister force. Only by putting openly queer protagonists at the center, The Retreat puts a different spin on that weary story line. It’s so commonplace for the horror genre to portray queerness at a subtextual level that whenever there’s a film that presents it as text rather than subtext, it’s instantly laudable. Plus, given the horror genre’s history of portraying queer women as villains with psychosexual motivations, The Retreat is even more applaudable as it breaks that trend by making them the heroes this time around.
That being said, The Retreat also is worthy of praise for simply being an effective thriller that runs with its simple, chilly premise. When the film first opens with a gay couple arriving at the cabin retreat that they’re hosting for our main protagonists, within the first few minutes, they’re invaded by the central masked antagonists. Once the film cuts away during that attack, leaving the couple’s fate ambiguous, the tone remains established. We’re then introduced to our main heroines, Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen), and observe their buoyant chemistry as they go on their trip to the titular retreat and as the film leads up to the inevitable terror that awaits them.
Once that terror does commence and Renee and Valerie end up fighting for their lives against the masked assailants who turn out to be murderous homophobes, the lead up to that doom ends up being more paralyzing due to the intricacies in Pat Mills’ direction. Tricks like a wide crane shot of the forest where the retreat is that’s used to hammer down Renee and Valerie’s physical isolation. Also, a deer head that Renee and Valerie find on their stroll through the forest hints that something is amiss. It’s like how the stick figures hanging on the trees in the Black Hills forest from The Blair Witch Project act as a sign of the lost filmmakers being watched.
The whole concept of not being alone even when you feel like you are when on the outskirts of society creates such an unnerving feeling. Similarly, the villains manage to elicit fear even if we know little about them other than the fact that they’re militant extremists who’re raging homophobes. Because they’re so underdeveloped, it’ll be an easy detriment to some. But because there are countless real-life people committing homophobic hate crimes all over the world, the proximity these antagonists have to those committing such heinous acts is enough to make them dangerously alarming. Obviously, the Freddy Kruegers and the Chuckys of the silver screen still give us nightmares. Yet, boogeymen like them only exist in our nightmares.
By depicting the true-life boogeyman known as homophobia, The Retreat is able to go beyond its simple trip-from-Hell premise. The trip-from-Hell story mechanics still remain the same: Protagonists go on a trip to get away from it all before bad things suddenly start to happen. The short run time of around 82 minutes also forces The Retreat to serve as a purely functioning thriller. Yet, in the hands of director Pat Mills and writer Alyson Richards, who present queer visibility even as the picture depicts the horrific hatred and violence that people in the LGBTQ+ community endure, The Retreat is able to distinguish itself from other films within the same realm.
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