Megan Borns says Peppergrass is a cinematic foray into changing one’s circumstances.
The outset of the pandemic has proven to be a relatively polarizing inspiration in film. Many writers and directors cite it as much. Peppergrass, directed by Steven Garbas and Chantelle Han and co-written by Philip Irwin, finds its characters directly in the middle of the Coronavirus crisis. Struggling to survive financially is the impetus of the central conflict, and the subsequent crumbling of their livelihoods launches friends and lovers Morris Weiss (Charles Boyland) and Eula Baek (Chantelle Han) into a hair-brained robbery attempt.
Eula’s grandfather has just passed, leaving his restaurant, Peppergrass, in her capable but monetarily unstable hands. Vitally important to the story, he leaves a note she must deliver to one of his veteran buddies. Eula uses this opportunity to visit the old, reclusive, and disfigured Captain Rueben Lom (Michael Copeman), who has a priceless truffle. With her friend Morris there for moral and physical strength, they hatch a plan to drive cross-country, steal the captain’s truffle, and sell them to keep her business afloat. Unfortunately, the plan fails spectacularly, demonstrating that desperation isn’t a good foundation for theft. A shockingly abrupt altercation between Morris and the Captain is the catalyst for Eula’s increasingly desperate struggle to survive.
Some of the most potent aspects of the film are not the survival horror elements. Instead, the winter setting speaks volumes about Eula’s mental and physical state, which evokes some fascinating implications about death. The middle of winter brings a terrifying bleakness to Eula and Morris’ survival. She worries about living through the frigid nights while lacking food, shelter, and warmth while trying to navigate aiding Morris as he lies dying. Battling the elements and terror, she must also contend with the fact that someone is hunting her. Not just the Captain, out for blood for their mistake, but someone (or something) else lurks just out of reach.
Finally, the mysterious creature hunting her reveals itself as a dentist-turned-woodsman, Dr. Arthur Fulmine (Philip Williams), offering Eula a brief respite from the horrors she faces. Still desperate to get help for Morris, Eula asks that he take her to her car. Unfortunately, they must cross a river to reach it and during the night, no less. Dr. Fulmine is nothing if not gracious, and in a short but fascinating scene, they cross as if the ferryman assisting a damned soul cross over the river Styx into the underworld. This moment is the story's highlight and the true point of no return. While each character fights against their untimely demise, every one of them is still beholden to death.
Tagging along on the idea that every character fights viciously to stay alive, this film does an adequate job of straying from others in the survival horror genre by not killing off its female protagonist. The final girl is a quintessential trope, but the fact that Eula is a Korean-Canadian woman and is not even the first to be injured is a nice divergence. The fact that the film is co-directed by a woman (Han), along with these details, leaves the audience wanting more. While Morris is the first character introduced, sympathizing with him is decidedly uneasy. Instead, he exists to move the plot along despite his sharp banter and good chemistry with Eula. Predictably, he plays the quick-to-anger idiot that sets the horror into motion.
Though all of those elements weave a coherent and scary narrative, the film's entirety appears to lack purpose. Perhaps futility is the central theme of Peppergrass, but that feels somewhat like a cop-out. The characters suffer irrevocably and gain nothing in the end, which ends up feeling as if we’re simply watching horror for the sake of it. Writers Garbas and Irwin created a great story, but ultimately, the survival horror aspect falls a bit flat. Perhaps that is the intended takeaway: nothing gained, but everything lost, making it all the more horrifying.
Peppergrass was screened at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 11-21, 2022.