The Violent Horror Movie That Had Made Audiences Sick to Their Stomachs

Pierce Derks / IFC Films / Shudder
Pierce Derks / IFC Films / Shudder

In a Violent Nature is a story horror fans know well, albeit told in a radically novel way. In the remote woods, a collection of locals and partying kids are terrorized by a hulking supernatural killer who, having risen from the dead, stalks them in silent, methodical fashion. Trudging through the forest with single-minded purpose, his face covered by an archaic firefighter mask and his hands wielding drag hooks, this marauder appears compelled by a mysterious force to carry out his mission to its grisly end.

That he does, with extreme violence, and those familiar with the exploits of Jason, Michael Myers, and their faceless homicidal compatriots will immediately recognize him as a kindred sort of fiend. Nonetheless, while the subject and premise of writer/director Chris Nash’s film is conventional, the method to its madness is unique, since this genre affair distinguishes itself from its gory brethren by assuming the perspective of its villain—a formal gambit that upends every one of its traditional elements.

The debut feature of Canadian-born Nash, In a Violent Nature is an invigorated reimagining of a classic slasher template, following its killer Johnny (Ry Barrett) as he slowly hunts his prey, all in an attempt to retrieve an object that’s been stolen from him. When he sets upon his targets, his actions are almost maniacally over-the-top, and the film’s lingering power comes from its marriage of patient plotting and outrageous brutality, highlighted by a stunning murder that claims its place in the horror cinema hall of fame.

Playing with audience sympathies and expectations, it’s an indie that feels like the natural, trancelike flip side to Friday the 13th, and for Nash, it’s a memorable calling card that suggests a talent for ingenious suspense and crafty reinvention.

On the eve of the movie’s May 31 theatrical release (following its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), we spoke with the filmmaker about the inspirations behind the project’s POV and pace, and the origins of its showstopping slaying, and teasing sympathy for the devil.

A photo including a still from the film In a Violent Nature
Pierce Derks / IFC Films / Shudder

Slasher film history is littered with inventive kills, but In a Violent Nature features a new over-the-top form of drag hook-related homicide. How did you come up with it?

I started with the actual weapons themselves. I was just thinking, we have these weapons, and I wanted to tie the weaponry that he had to the landscape and the industry. There’s a lot of logging there, so here are some logging tools, and they’re pretty nasty anyways. But I wanted the deaths in the film to be dependent on the environment and the weaponry itself. I didn’t want to have him just stab somebody with a hook over and over again. You have these hooks, what are they used for? They’re used for pulling! [laughs] What can we do that’s inventive that I haven’t seen before where a lot of pulling and heaving is involved?

With that in mind, I was like, what if he’s dragging her by the head or something. OK, where does he drag her to? Then I worked it out in terms of where everything starts, how it ends, and when I think it’s ended, can I take it further? Can we drag out this death a little more, and make it a little nastier? That’s how it winds up. I definitely go in with the attitude of trying to create things that I haven’t seen before in horror movies.

Slasher movies often try to one-up their genre-mates (or prior franchise installments). Was that also one of the inspirations for pushing boundaries?

I do like to push it. I also work in prosthetics, so I’m used to making dead bodies and doing all kinds of things like that. The prosthetics lead that I had on set, Steve Kostanski, is also a director, and we’ve done a lot of designs for kills. It gets pretty boring for us, so we’re always trying to think, what’s something that’s challenging to build and execute? It’s not so much a competitive one-upmanship with any other film, but more just with ourselves—let’s try to pull something off that we haven’t seen before.

Were you pleased that people freaked out over it at Sundance?

It still catches me by surprise, actually—the buzz that this kill is getting, When you’re in it, it just feels like work [laugh]. It’s like mowing your lawn and then having cars line up around the block going, “Did you see that lawn? It’s so nice!”

Were slashers always your favorite genre, and did a particular film/series influence In a Violent Nature?

I definitely grew up watching them and as a fan of the genre. Just horror in general; I was the weirdo with Fangoria posters in my locker [laughs]. I feel like I just have a breadth of inspiration inside me that I can lean on. For this one, of course, Friday the 13th is a big influence on it. The Burning as well. Another Canadian movie, not so much of a slasher but more a Deliverance rip-off, called Rituals that I liked as a kid. They all have all the tropes already established, so it just makes it so much easier for me to do something new, because I don’t have to go into any backstory or spend that real estate explaining characters and dynamics and why we should care or not care about them.

You didn’t have to explain why teenagers were out in the woods.

Yeah. Go watch another movie, you’ll figure it out!

In a Violent Nature exists in a specific tradition and yet does something new by sticking to the perspective of its undead fiend and, as a result, moving at his deliberate, lumbering pace. Where did the idea first come from to see a traditional slasher film from this flip-side POV?

I was really influenced as a fresh young film student in the early 2000s by Gus Van Sant’s series of films Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. They have a very similar aesthetic, although I feel like they’re much more successful than what we were aping with this. I love the vibe, I love the tone of those films, and when I was watching them while growing up with a horror background, I felt like, how can this apply?

I like the idea of mixing genres, but not necessarily like horror-comedy. More like, what would you do to make an actual romantic horror film that delivers in horror and romance equally? That’s a really hard building to construct. This seemed like a fairly easy version of that. Taking more subdued art-house-y elements to a horror film, especially a slasher where we don’t even have to have dialogue per se. But the hardest part was sticking with it. Just realizing that this is going to present some challenges to some audience members who are expecting, I guess, a little more backstory and depth to it, and having the confidence to realize that you can’t tamper with the experiment you’re trying to do.

‘In a Violent Nature’ Is Sundance’s Bloodiest Horror Movie

You actually reshot the entire film. What was the reason behind doing everything over again?

The short answer is, I felt that I was unprepared for it. I had done a lot of short films—this is my first feature—but it had been a long time since I had done any short fiction. We had a pretty short preproduction window, and we just jumped into it, me and my producers. I feel like I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know how to talk to the crew well, I didn’t know how to talk to my actors well. The muscle that I thought was always there…I always equate it to when you get really healthy in your twenties. If you’re a guy and you get super-healthy and ripped and jacked, and then you let yourself go, you feel like I can get it back in two weeks! Two weeks and I’ll be fine again, I can get back in shape! I just need the focus and the discipline.

I just assumed the same thing could happen if I was jumping behind the camera, and it clearly didn’t. So more than anything, I feel like it was me being rusty. But also, there were some pretty wild things beyond our control. We had unprecedented weather issues, and the movie takes place almost entirely outdoors, so that was a huge thing. The lead that we originally cast as Johnny got sick halfway through and had to leave production, so we had to recast. There were other things that popped up, and we were constantly putting out 40 fires a day, and it really had an impact on the look of the film and just my headspace.

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What was the biggest thing you learned from that initial try, and changed during the second shoot?

One of the big things was locations, period. You think that it’s just a guy walking through the woods, and some people get killed in the woods, and it’s just woods, woods, woods! All we need are trees, we’re fine! But watching the assembly edit of what we had, I realized that it needs to be more than just woods. For instance, at the start of the film, there’s an old, grizzled trapper, and in the version that we ended up reshooting, he gets killed beside an old broken-down car in the woods. Just that broken-down car gives you so much geography and creates a place, whereas the first time we shot that, he’s just leaning up against a tree and dies. Little things like that showed us that every location has to be special in some way; it can’t just be in the woods.

How did you settle on Johnny’s mask and weapons?

I knew I wanted to set it in Northern Ontario, where I’m from, and there’s a history of logging industry in the area. I knew that would be a pretty good place to set it, and there’s a lot of nasty logging tools that he can bring into his arsenal. That also ties into the logging industry and forest-fire fighting, with the mask, which is something that I originally saw, I’m pretty sure, in a Cracked article years and years and years ago that was just disturbing things from the past that are supposed to be comforting. I saw it and thought, that’s an amazing slasher mask and someone needs to use it. Over 15 years later, nobody had done it so I grabbed it as quickly as I could.

What was the thinking behind showing Johnny’s face, which goes against slasher-movie conventions?

It just felt like the right moment to do it. I needed to have this expositional dialogue playing in the background, so how do I get him to stop so we can have that exposition play? I came up with the gimmick of finding the car keys with the little toy car on it. That just seemed like a great moment for us to clearly see him, and to maybe get some inkling to who the person under the mask is. But also, to quickly realize that whoever you think is under that mask, that person does not exist. This is not an empathic creature.

Do you have more plans for horror in the future?

The main thing is, and I feel like it’s the same with all my filmmaking friends in Toronto, that I’m just trying to find different ways of looking at familiar things. I’ll probably be working, maybe not explicitly in horror, but in subversive and transgressive cinema—that’s what I like.

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