While not a straight-forward horror title, Rogue River is an exercise in psychological terror. There are plenty of scenes to cause a dose of frisson in viewers from time-to-time, but the reality is that it manages to miss the mark of a decent release by a basic flaw; the antagonist pair fails to provide a plausible motivation for their actions. I’ll accept nefarious actions if either they come from a valid source, or they impact the main characters in a reasonable fashion. Evil, for the sake of evil, however just feels gratuitous.
For fear of sounding like a pedantic script-writing professor, let me say that simple malevolence is permisable much of the time. When you have a garden variety homicidal maniac, for example, that becomes an acceptable enterprise because the narrative will be carried by the cast, and their character development. However, halfway through Rogue River our protagonist is essentially rendered mute, so the audience is in a position to watch her endure a series of trials at the hands of her aggressors, and the prevailing question which comes to mind for the balance of the film is “Why?” That question largely goes unanswered.
Director Jourdan McClure first gives us a cold opening with Mara (played by Michelle Page) wrapped in a sheet, standing by a river, crying and bringing a gun up to her head. We then get a flashback to her leaving her home, bidding her brother goodbye as she is to embark on a trip where she will spread her father’s ashes into a river where he used to enjoy the outdoors.
Once on the bank, however, she is stopped when a stranger named Jon happens by. Played by horror veteran Bill Mosely, Jon carries implied doom. This is a positive, however, the narrative soon squanders the potential. Jon tells Mara she shouldn’t dump the ashes since she is in need of a permit. This, despite the fact she is standing in the midst of a forest. Doubtful any governmental desk jockey would know about the actions taking place deep in the taiga, yet she yields to Jon’s admonition, anyway.
Next they discover her car has been towed by the sheriff—though not Jon’s car, which was parked in the same spot. Still, this serves as no warning flag for Mara. She takes a ride to Jon’s home to phone someone, where she meets his meek wife Lea (Lucinda Jenny), then accepts a dinner invite and lodging. Things begin to unravel from there.
After dinner a broken plate causes a deep cut in Mara’s hand, but rather than a hospital trip Lea forcibly mends the gash with a large fish hook. Most people would be compelled to scoot on down the road after such an incident, but Mara would rather bed down for the night.
Immediately Mara, and the audience, endures a lengthy bout of suffering; Jon spends a stretch of the film wearing nothing but his underwear. We now witness as Mara endures a series of physical and mental atrocities which, while not graphically displayed, are graphic in nature. But as gripping as some of the scenes can be, the film is undermined by a series of implausibilities and cliché’s. Mara cannot call for help because of a lack of cell phone reception (of course) and other coincidences keep tripping her up, as well.
There’s one character that meets his demise through ironic action, even though more conventional and effective tools are shown visibly to be within reach. Ultimately, we get a climax that is both convenient and unsatisfying. The largest problem is we never learn why, and since Mara remains mostly a cipher she serves as little more than a target for the abuse, so the lack of motivation for the actions taken against her undermines any gripping feeling delivered by the ending.
The DVD features a commentary track with cast and crew along with a pair of behind the scenes features. “Rogue River: the Extra Bits” involves interviews with the producers, the surprise being we learn the primary producer is Zachary Ty Brian – Brad Taylor from Home Improvement fame. With “Rogue River: A Look Into the Madness” we are served extended interviews with everyone affiliated with the production, from the cast, writers, and even makeup technicians. This feature actually exposes the flaw of the film itself; they discuss at length the madness displayed on screen and some of the reasons these characters engage in such depraved behavior. This ends up becoming more revealing than what is actually displayed in the film.