Although Happy Hunting (USA, 2017) may be another entry in the subgenre of films that use Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” as their springboard, this debut from the writing/directing team of Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson brings new ideas to the table. This horror thriller also brandishes a dark humor throughout that only makes the proceedings more disturbing.

Protagonist Warren Novak (Martin Dingle Wall) is a heavily flawed soul who hearkens back to the 1970s trend of cinematic antiheroes. Although it may initially seem that viewers might not have much reason to get behind this alcoholic, drug-addicted criminal other than his motivation to unite with a newly-learned-about young daughter in Mexico after her mother passes away, the filmmakers find ways to do that, including stacking up the odds against Novak with some lunatic villains who have different motivations for killing him. Dingle Wall’s gritty performance certainly helps in finding sympathy for his character, as well; he is terrific in the role, equally strong in displaying Novak’s emotional and physical fragility and his will to survive, with many shaded nuances in between these two poles.

Happy Hunting blends several different cinematic genres and sub-genres, including survival horror, hillbilly horror, and classic western themes. After a disastrous attempt to pass off selling some inferior drugs in an effort to fund his drive to Mexico, Novak escapes some vengeful dealers and holes up in a secluded dust bowl area called Bedford Flats. This impoverished town was once a flourishing hunting ground for bison and other wildlife. Ostensibly to keep up traditions, the town holds an annual hunting festival in which unlucky drifters and town ne’er-do-wells find themselves on the wrong end of guns and other weapons.

Novak attends a meeting for recovering substance abusers merely to try to get free food, but group leader Steve Patterson (Ken Lally in a fantastic performance) reaches out to him, which leads to a dinner invitation at the latter’s home with his wife Cheryl (Sherry Leigh). This pleasant offer turns sour when Novak steals a bottle of prescription drugs and inhales the contents. To make matters worse, two of the associates of the bad drug deal have tracked Novak down.

Pegged as one of the human targets of the annual hunting festival, Novak suddenly finds himself fighting for his life while succumbing to cold turkey withdrawal symptoms. With few places to hide in the expansive desert area where the hunt takes place, he and the other targets must keep running to stay alive.

Dietsch and Gibson have created villainous characters having little backstory but plenty of reasons to detest them. They could feel like cliches or stock characters because they are not fully fleshed out, but the filmmakers wisely give most of them unique personalities. Sheriff Burnside (Gary Sturm) is Bedford Flats’ patriarch who, on the surface, claims to help keep the locale’s once-proud traditions alive by serving as both town cryer and emcee of the festival. He won’t allow his nephew Junior (Kenny Wormald) to be a hunter, although the younger man is itching to kill someone. One of the more adept hunters is sniper Don Lincoln (C.J. Baker), who takes his time setting up for kills rather than rushing headlong into them.

Dietsch also handled the cinematography masterfully. Happy Hunting is chock full of gorgeous shots and intriguing visuals, including some wild hallucination sequences on the part of Novak and some scarecrows that eventually become unsettlingly familiar. He and Gibson edited the film tightly. The pair obviously had a single vision, and they achieved their goal splendidly.

Dietsch and Gibson have crafted a lean and mean grindhouse-throwback thriller that looks sensational and maintains a suspenseful pace from start to finish. It works as an exciting, adrenaline-charged experience, and those looking for social commentary will find plenty to explore here, as well.

Happy Hunting screened at GenreBlast Film Festival, held September 7–10 in Winchester, Virginia.

Rating: 4 stars