In what has quickly become the go-to scenario for indie horror filmmakers, Peppergrass is set amid a pandemic. Characters wear masks, are wary of strangers, and lament the slow collapse of their societies. It’s hard to blame them; the last two years have provided ample inspiration. In this version, a restauranteur and a bar owner go on a road trip to the middle of nowhere on a mission to steal some priceless truffles, a plan that sounds simple enough but will, of course, go awry.
Eula (Chantelle Han) is the restauranteur, the current chef at a generational family business. She’s desperate to keep the business alive, as her only connection to the generation that came before her. Morris (Charles Boyland) is the bar owner and Eula’s friend, and it is together that they hatch this plan and set out to execute it.
There are a few problems with this set-up; the first is that it places the protagonists in the position of being unsympathetic or simply unlikable, in the case of Morris. While Eula has enough of a backstory going for her that their stated plan to go to the remote woodland cabin of a reclusive veteran and rob him of some precious truffles, Morris is just kind of a jerk along for the ride. At the moment when the film reaches an obvious fork in the road where things could go either less than ideal but not bad or catastrophically wrong, you have two guesses who is responsible for them ending on the second path (but you’ll only need one).
Han –also serving as a producer and co-director– gets the most time to shine and acquits herself well, so it’s hard not to come around to rooting for her, especially in the films last several minutes.
Still, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. Han is good, but the rest of the characters are either underbaked or over the top. There are several moments when the film could have become something a little more thrilling and doesn’t, but the result is something at least trying to be a little more contemplative. The biggest flaw might be that the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It has elements of the apocalyptic road trip, the stalker/slasher genre, and the solo survival horror genre, but instead of fully committing to one of those things, it tries to be all three.
The brightest spot is the cinematography, despite being shot almost entirely at night. Of course, there’s a particular skill for shooting at night and making it look good, but cinematographer Grant Cooper has a natural eye for it. Every source of light in the film is deliberate, and as is every shadow cast, the film’s visual atmosphere develops throughout.
Peppergrass ends up being not a great film, but not a bad one either. It is well-intentioned and made with care by the people in front of the camera and behind, but that’s not enough to tip the scales away from the choices they made regarding genre and character development. Fans of survival horror and gorgeous cinematography will find something to love here, despite me thinking it is only ok.
Peppergrass is playing in-person at Toronto’s Royal Cinema as part of the 2021 Blood in the Snow Film Festival. It has been acquired for distribution by Black Fawn with plans for an early 2022 release.
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