Producers: Juliette Hagopian, Shawn Linden and Neil Elman   Director: Shawn Linden   Screenplay: Shawn Linden   Cast: Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Summer H. Howell, Nick Stahl, Gabriel Daniels, Lauren Cochrane, Jade Michael-Windsor, Erik Athavale, Karl Thodarson, Blake Taylor and Sarah Constible   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B

The spirit of exploitation films from the seventies and eighties hovers over Shawn Linden’s unsettling backwoods thriller, which turns into a revenge melodrama grislier than “The Last House on the Left.”  But if you have a stomach strong enough to take a gruesome finale, you’ll find it an extraordinarily effective genre piece. 

The first half-hour or so is essentially a mood-setter, establishing the life deep in the woods being led by Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their twelve-year old daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell).  The grimness of their existence is well established by Chad Giesbrecht’s dank production design and Greg Nicod’s brooding cinematography (the film was shot mostly in Manitoba, on national park land).

The family’s hope for self-sufficiency (apart from an occasional visit to the general store to sell pelts and pick up a few essentials) is, however, threatened when a wolf that has attacked the animals they need for food in the past returns to the area. The animal’s depredations add to the strain the family is already feeling.  Concerned that they’re not going to be able to survive, Annie has begun pressing her husband to consider moving into town and getting a real job—something he gruffly refuses to consider.  She’s also concerned that Renee really needs to be enrolled in school. 

Joseph, however, is determined to track the wolf down himself and preserve their way of life.  He takes Renee, whom he’s trained in hunting and who idolizes him, along.  But he soon sends her back home to stay with Annie after discovering not the remnant of an animal the wolf has devoured, but a human arm, and he continues the pursuit alone.  That provides the opportunity for a viscerally exciting sequence in which Annie and Renee find themselves running separately from what each thinks is the wolf before reuniting in their cabin.  But it also proves not to be quite the best decision, since the two will, in fact, be confronted by the animal even as they have to learn to survive on their own (Renee, for example, will teach her mother the rudiments of skinning an animal).  Meanwhile Joseph goes off the grid as he follows what he thinks is the wolf’s track.  The hunt takes him to a place dark with the aftermath of violence and death.

While most of the action centers on the family, the script also introduces two local forest patrol officers, Barthes (Gabriel Daniels) and Lucy (Lauren Cochrane), whose major duty is to look into episodes involving animal control.  (Barthes, for instance, is repeatedly called by a city couple whose vacation home seems to be a magnet for bears.)  But when Annie complains to them about the wolf, they respond that there’s nothing they can do, since the animal is indigenous to the area and the family might be residing there illegally anyway, even if the land once belonged to the Mersault family.  Nonetheless they too become involved when one of them stumbles onto the site where Joseph’s search has taken him.

The final ingredient in this increasingly unnerving scenario comes with the arrival of Lou (Nick Stahl), a severely injured man whom Annie finds near death in the woods.  He explains that he’s a photographer whose car broke down on the road, and that he was attacked when he foolishly tried to walk back to town.  Annie nurses him back to a semblance of health, but he remains too frail to travel, even as Joseph remains out of contact and the threat of the wolf looms ever more immediate, until all hell breaks loose.

Linden, along with his editors Chad Tremblay and John Gurdebeke, ratchet up the tension skillfully as the plot proceeds, and Kevon Cronin’s score adds to the building sense of foreboding.  The performances are all first-rate, with Sullivan in particular taking charge as more and more responsibility falls on Annie.  But Sawa is convincing as a gruff outdoorsman (certainly more so than as the movie star he played in “The Fanatic”) and despite her youth Howell captures the varied emotional notes Rebecca hits during her journey toward womanhood.  Stahl, meanwhile, makes a solid return to the screen after a few years’ hiatus.

“Hunter Hunter” is a pretty grueling experience, and the conclusion is shockingly brutal, but it’s a nastily efficient thriller—not, however, for the faint-hearted.