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Nearly as generic as its title, Brett Simmons’ Animal (2014) is the kind of film that you can practically see play in your head after just hearing a basic description: a group of people are chased through the woods by some sort of creature and take refuge in an isolated cabin, where they must make a last, desperate stand. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with mining trusted tropes…that’s part of what makes genre films so popular, I would imagine. In the right hands, even the mustiest old cliché can achieve some sort of new life, be reborn into something that’s truly unique and wonderful. After all, any “creature-in-the-woods” film has the potential to be THE “creature-in-the-woods” flick, the Citizen Kane (1941) of creature flicks, if you will. Sadly, Animal is not that film.

Five friends head out into the woods to spend a final weekend at a beloved camping area before encroaching development forever spoils their fond memories: brother and sister Jeff (Parker Young) and Alissa (Keke Palmer) lead the group, which also consists of their significant others, Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies) and Matt (Jeremy Sumpter), along with fifth-wheel Sean (Paul Iacono). After coming across some bloody human remains in the woods, the group runs smack into some sort of vaguely humanoidish creature: the creature proceeds to chase them straight to an isolated cabin, where they run into another group. This group consists of a couple, Vicky (Joey Lauren Adams) and Carl (Thorsten Kaye), along with an impossibly belligerent asshole named Douglas (Amaury Nolasco).

Once at the cabin, the newcomers find themselves as trapped as the group who currently resides there: turns out the creature chased them there, too, and it seems to be taking them out, on at a time. Unwilling to just sit in the equivalent of the creature’s larder, the two groups must attempt to work together, even though no one really trusts each other and Douglas is a dangerously paranoid, violent individual. The monster is constantly testing the security of their little “fortress,” however, and the danger of it finding a weak point and bursting in becomes all-encompassing. As long-buried secrets start to tear the groups apart, however, it becomes apparent that not all danger will come from outside: people can be just as dangerous as “animals,” it would appear.

In pretty much every way possible, Animal is as middle-of-the-road as these types of things get. The cast is decent enough, although their interactions always seem a little stilted and the dialogue is never anything to write home about. The “twist” revelation of Alissa’s group ends up being a tempest in a teapot, relatively speaking, and the character of Douglas is just such a complete shit that he never functions as anything less than a villain, even when he’s actually serving as the voice of reason. The creature design looks good enough from far away but reveals some pretty severe limitations from up close, along with the overriding question “Why a humanoidish design?” I would imagine it’s because the creature is actually someone in a costume but it doesn’t fit and seems to raise questions that the film has no interest in answering (or even addressing, for that matter).

On the plus side, Animal is well-made and reasonably tense, even if the whole thing is overly familiar and rather obvious. Simmons and dual screenwriters Thommy Hutson and Catherine Trillo (really? two writers?) are also rather fearless when it comes to killing off characters, which lends the film more of a genuine surprise factor than many films of its ilk. There’s also a pretty great scene lit only by a red emergency flare but I’m a big sucker for flare-lit scenes in horror films, so that was kind of a “Free Space” on my bingo card.

Ultimately, there wasn’t much about Animal that stood out (sort of like that title…yeesh…) but it’s definitely the kind of film that I could see doing decent business at the multiplex: fairly glossy, filled with attractive young folks and reasonably tense, Animal definitely reminded me of films like the Platinum Dune remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and Friday the 13th (2009). Never as gritty, mean-spirited or intense as it needed to be, Animal is decent enough but never much more than that: for my money, the intense French film Prey (2010) got to this same place much more effectively and with an actual emotional punch that’s sadly missing here. Animal might appeal to horror neophytes but if you’ve seen any of its myriad peers, you’ve definitely seen it, too.

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