Going into any movie titled The Donner Pary probably means you know how it is going to end. The story of the Donner Party has been passed around for many moons and its sordid tale of cannibalism among otherwise civilized people is a shocking one. But in a post-Alive world, does it still hold that much shock?
Not really, and luckily the makers of The Donner Party have more up their sleeves than going after the more exploitative elements. This isn’t a slasher movie gussied up to look like a period piece. It is first and foremost a drama, which actually casts into great relief the inevitable murder and gore. A strong cast helps the whole thing along.
The story concerns William Eddy (Clayne Crawford), an outdoorsman who has brought his family along on a trek from Missouri to California. Unfortunately, they are part of a larger expedition that has chosen to take a short cut through the Sierra Nevada mountains that gets them trapped in a heavy snow. Cold and starving, the group turns to Eddy to make food out of the local wildlife.
But it isn’t long before the inventory of the woods dwindles to nothing. Tempers shorten. Waistbands tighten. Word comes from California that there aren’t enough soldiers left over from the Spanish/American war to form a rescue party. Eddy is convinced to go along with a group to Cali in order to organize a rescue, though he has his reservations. Those reservations are well-founded because… well… you know how this story goes. People are soon on the menu.
TJ Martin and crew make the most of their snowy atmosphere, shooting everything cold and gray, and using the woods to up their production value. Somehow this period piece never comes off as chintzy. The actors are invested without overplaying. The casting is spot on. The story is taken seriously, never pretentious or winky.
If anything brings the movie down, it’s the inevitable starkness of the story. Unlike Alive, there’s not much promise that things will get better after they get worse. These people are headed down a deep dark hole from which many of them will not return. It’s a straightforward downward spiral and, despite some betrayal, there’s not a lot to be done with the story, plot-wise. Though there’s more than a little conflict between Eddy and William Foster (Crispin Glover), you know the star of the show is the cannibalism.
In many ways, the ‘less is more’ approach to this element of the story leaves the overall film lacking. There’s something incomplete about these good people turning into out and out savages, but never really going to town on some human flesh. When they eat, it is with modesty and repulsion. The hunger never really takes over and so, in the end, the movie feels too restrained.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks very sharp. The audio is presented in English Stereo with English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Previews – Trailers for The Donner Party, Triangle, Lost City Radiers, Polar Storm, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
The Donner Party takes the right approach to a well-traveled story and comes up with something worth watching, though by the end it feels like it pulled some punches.
Anacapa Entertainment presents The Donner Party. Directed by: TJ Martin. Starring: Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Mark Boone Junior, Christian Kane. Written by: TJ Martin. Running time: 95min. Rating: R. Released on DVD: January 26, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.