OCTOBER 23, 2016
On the rare occasions I have time to kill, I like to read up on old unsolved murder/disappearance cases, partially to freak myself out a bit (some of them chill me more than any horror movie can, especially re: having a kid now), but also to fill the Robert Stack-shaped void in my heart now that whoever owns Unsolved Mysteries had to be a ninny and take down all of the clips on Youtube. I don't get too interested in alien or ghost stories when it comes to the unknown, but show me a case about a girl who was acting strange and then disappeared off the face of the earth one night (preferably with a weird final clue - there was one where the last time she was proven to be alive was with a ticket stub to American Beauty? Did that movie's pretentious sappiness push her over the edge?) and I'm hooked. It was during one of these (usually Wikipedia-heavy) sessions that I first found out about the case that inspired Lake Bodom (formerly just Bodom), a modern-set slasher film that uses a real life murder as a jumping off point but is otherwise largely unrelated.
But you can't blame writer/director Taneli Mustonen for not sticking to the real case all that much, as one of the more memorable things about it is how vague it is. Four teens (two couples) were camping in the woods, and sometime between 4 and 6 am (a detail that always stuck out - it was close to "safe" daylight time) three of them were stabbed to death, one more viciously than the others. That one's boyfriend was the lone survivor, though he had several severe injuries, including being bludgeoned to the back of the head - a detail I bring up because he was later accused and tried (and acquitted) of the murders, which seems odd when he sustained trauma I don't think he could have caused himself, based on the way the injuries are described. Plus some boy scouts who saw the mangled campsite reported seeing a blond guy walking away from the scene, all but clearly establishing a 3rd party who was in all certainty the one who committed the murders. Alas, the killer has never been found - the case remains unsolved and open.
Given the "campers in the woods slaughtered by a maniac" narrative, it's obviously of much interest to slasher fans, so I'm surprised that it took over 50 years for someone to make a slasher movie out of it (in fact, three different ones all around the same time - this one, the 2014 found footage entry Bodom, and another one titled Lake Bodom that is coming next year). The film only briefly touches on the original murders (complete with a blond guy, not much older than the victims, watching them while sharpening a knife) before flashing forward to the present day, where four teens (not couples, it should be stressed) are trying to find the murder spot so that one of them can do a reconstruction. This element is very poorly explained (possibly the fault of the subtitles - it's a Finnish film), as I was never quite sure what he planned to do - take pictures, I think? - or why he was being all secretive about it, to the point where he described his intentions as "complicated" when pressed by one of the girls (who were rightfully starting to wonder if they were in danger).
Luckily, the slashing begins fairly quickly, and despite the minimal number of victims, the pacing is actually far from languid. Mustonen teases us a bit with a few obligatory moments where the friends try to scare each other, but they work well, and since it's relatively early on you can be forgiven for thinking you're watching another would-be prank when our first teen is killed (it's not until blood starts pouring out of their mouth that we are guaranteed it's legit). Then we get the usual panic and chasing for a while, followed by a lengthy flashback sequence where we discover just why these girls agreed to come out into the woods with these two weird dudes they seem to barely know. It's an unusual structure, I must admit - we spend a good 45 minutes or so hearing these vague references to some racy photos that one of the girls was shamed by, and our natural inclination as viewers is to piece it together in our heads, because why would you think there would be a 15 minute flashback scene at the end of the second act? There were a few scenes set in/around school at the beginning, so there was plenty of time to fill us in on this stuff beforehand - why wait?
Well, because it ties into a twist, one that doesn't take too long after the first death to be unveiled, but still one I wouldn't want to reveal either. It's a tough nut to crack - the key to a good twist is to not clue the audience in that there will be one (Sixth Sense is a good example, at least to people like me who saw it opening day and not after people said YOU GOTTA SEE THIS MOVIE'S TWIST!), so they won't be looking for anything. Here, Mustonen kind of split the difference - he left things clunky and vague so that we knew there had to be more to it than presented, but revealed things around the halfway point, so that it didn't drag down his whole narrative. Once that stuff's out of the way things pick up considerably, highlighted by a terrific scene where the killer has two of the friends trapped in their car, which is being dragged by his tow truck. It feels like the most exciting scene a Joy Ride sequel never offered us, and serves as one of the best standalone setpieces in a slasher movie in who knows how long.
So it's got some clunky storytelling decisions, and I had to laugh at the opening text reminding us that there are several theories about what happened and this is merely one of them, when it's not actually about what happened at all (the original murders are never mentioned again after the first act), but overall I think it works. It delivers some good scares and suspense, and hits the comforting slasher beats without taking the ironic approach that has ruined so many other modern body count films. They could have used the original story in a better capacity, but then again - could they come up with anything as scary or unsettling as the fact that the killer might still be out there? And turning the original tragedy into a slasher movie might feel exploitative, so perhaps it was for the best that they sort of just nodded in the general direction of the real murders before focusing on their own story.
What say you?