The Shenandoah backcountry is a gorgeous place frequented by hikers. Unfortunately, it is also the hunting ground for a dangerous serial killer. With several bodies already discovered, now the killer is stalking their latest victim.
Making his premiere as a writer and director, Johnny K brings horror fans his short film, The Killer of Grassy Ridge. This short film is less than 10 minutes long and utilizes minimal dialogue, but still manages to pack a punch. Johnny K does this by playing with the viewers’ expectations of the short. It opens on a dirty, somewhat frightening looking man burying something in the woods. As if that isn’t creepy enough, he soon encounters an injured young female hiker who is all alone in the wilderness. The man has no lines while the woman sparse dialogue. The only context we get in the short film is from a radio the man is listening to. It is turned to a news station that talks about another body being found. This is the source of the danger, as having a scary man in the woods is only enough to cause alarm rather than inducing fear. The lack of dialogue and setting up of certain horror expectations, or even tropes, allows K to have fun with the short and include a few great “aha!” moments in the climax.
The lack of dialogue makes it a bit more difficult to give a complete analysis of the performances. One thing I can say about the two leads of The Killer of Grassy Ridge is that they have great presence on screen. Michael Stumbo makes his film debut as the grimy looking sinister figure, Wetzel Reid. Wetzel doesn’t speak during the short, but Stumbo still manages to be an imposing figure. Many horror fans may watch Stumbo on screen and immediately think Wetzel sure looks a hell of a lot like Otis Firefly from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, played by Bill Moseley. I can only assume this was a deliberate choice to make sure viewers look at Wetzel as the villain without it needing to be explicitly explained. Opposite Stumbo is Heather Stone, also making her film debut, as the hiker. Stone’s performance in The Killer of Grassy Ridge stands out because she shows quite a bit of range in the short amount of time she’s on screen. She starts out as a happy hiker enjoying nature, to being injured and alone in the woods asking for help, to something quite different during the climax.
The Killer of Grassy Ridge skillfully presents stereotypical characters and horror cliches, then proceeds to roll them in their grave. Johnny K takes care to make sure all signs point to a single logical conclusion. Everything from the lack of dialogue, to the casting, to the radio news context lends to one possible outcome. Then he flips the script and delivers something a bit more unexpected. The one thing I’m not sure The Killer of Grassy Ridge fully achieves is telling a complete story while also leaving the audience wanting more. There is definitely a complete story told here, and it could easily be expanded upon. Yet there isn’t anything making me crave more information from the plot. Either way, this is a strong debut from K, Stumbo, and Stone. The Killer of Grassy Ridge is a fascinating short thriller that feels fresh by using classic horror tropes to subvert your expectations.
OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5
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