Uncork’d Entertainment (The Snare, The Hollow) serves up another cerebral horror dish in Eric Blue’s 2016 directorial debut, Beacon Point. In it, Zoe (Rae Olivier), a woman mourning her father’s death, joins software engineer Dan (Eric Goins) and brothers Brian and Cheese (Jason Burkey and RJ Shearer) on a ten-day hiking tour along the Appalachian Trail. Despite the wilderness wherewithal of their seasoned, hypermasculine guide Drake (Jon Briddell), the group becomes lost and power struggles soon arise. When the hikers come across an ancient site, strange things start to happen and the group’s survival is put into peril.

Kevin Riepl’s haunting ambient music sets the stage immediately, as does an opening series of wide shots establishing an expansive wilderness. The film then starts with a brief but tense frenzy of predator and prey in the woods; something deadly lurks within The Smoky Mountains. The first of the main players to show up onscreen is the headstrong young Zoe, who recently lost her workaholic father and heads to the wilderness for his sake and her own. She meets the other hikers at the start of the trail and comes face-to-face with Drake, the tour guide. The characters are distinct and whole, both in their interactions with each other and in the first jarring test of their group dynamic, when they come across an apparent victim of a savage attack. Some members of the group want to avoid the situation entirely, while others want to stay and render aid. Olivier, Goins, Burkey and Shearer are equally compelling in their performances, humanizing their characters with ease and providing comic relief when needed.

Jon Briddell simmers as convicted felon Drake, effectively ratcheting up the aggression and keeping the viewer guessing as to what he knows and what he intends to do. After convincing the group to ditch the tourist-laden trail in favor of a “real hike”, Drake makes it clear that he’s not here for any namby-pamby glamping. He chides the group for failing to take the trip seriously and goes into a technology-eschewing rant about the ease with which people can be watched and their liberties eroded through their dependency on high-tech devices. The eyes serve as a powerful motif throughout Beacon Point, and themes of surveillance and the watchful gaze are constantly woven throughout the hiker’s actions and reactions. During the course of the trip, they begin to suffer from more than in-fighting: headaches and strange visions bring tensions to a peak, and then the bodies start dropping. It all maintains a cohesive narrative that builds toward a wild climax and a satisfying conclusion.

The film is not without its tired horror tropes: there’s a campfire story revolving around a local legend, a mystery POV stalking the hikers, and a clueless white man from the city disturbing the sacred ancient ground. However, these cliches are mere tourist spots along a much more unorthodox journey. Eric Blue’s screenplay takes what seems at first like a routine stroll into don’t-go-in-the-woods territory and gradually meanders into a wild off-road venture into sci-fi darkness.

Beacon Point’s modest budget and debut directorial effort allows for grading on a slight curve, one that can forgive the occasional direct-to-video CGI in favor of the visceral practical effects that dominate the majority of bloody scenes. Jim McKinney’s cinematography goes a long way towards establishing the unrelenting woods as its own antagonist and setting a consistent tone, one of the most crucial elements of any dont-go-in-the-woods tale. Blue competently shifts back and forth between the beauty and the menace of nature with ease, letting the viewer interpret for themselves whether the hikers are lost in an abyss or trapped in a snare. For every scene in which the group takes in the natural beauty surrounding them, there are foreboding shots of the trees as an omniscient entity, always watching.

A calibrated approach towards low-budget indie horror doesn’t forgive everything, however, and in this case, Beacon Point’s first-draft dialogue is detrimental to the story. Blue also co-wrote the screenplay with Traci Carroll, so there is little excuse for tangential conversations or generic small talk that should have never made it past the revision stage of scriptwriting. While the actors are perfectly cast, there’s only so much they can do with such vanilla dialogue. The movie also serves as a reminder that while goofy nicknames are fun ways to make a character memorable, they run the risk of de-fanging the tensest moments in a horror film; what should have been a terrifying scene was rendered unintentionally hilarious as Zoe stumbles through the woods screaming, “Cheese! CHEEEEEESE!” Another climactic scene in a cave was unnecessarily drawn out with cliched monologuing befitting of a Bond villain and was only saved by the grace of gore.

Beacon Point stumbles in the execution of its novel ideas, but the film remains an entertaining entry in the horror/sci-fi realm. While a few strokes of the red pen during the screenwriting phases would have given the film the polish and edge that the compelling story deserves, the final product is a challenging romp in the woods.