The opening film at this year’s Blood in the Snow festival was Audrey Cummings’ debut feature Berkshire County, a suspense-thriller which sold out its Canadian premiere and helped start the festival off with a bang. The film breathes a bit of life into the babysitter-in-peril genre by merging it with a home-invasion narrative, resulting in a film that delivers effective chills and a few unexpected twists despite lacking in truly original ideas. Indeed, there’s nothing new here that you haven’t seen before, however Berkshire is undeniably well-made for its modest ambitions, held together above all else by a strong lead performance from Alysa King, who does a fine job of transitioning from victim to victor over the course of the film (and ended up taking home the “Bloodies” award for Best Female Performance of the festival).
Kylie Winters (King) is a bullied teen who experiences a devastating betrayal after hooking up with her crush at a costume party the night before Halloween, resulting in an unsavoury video appearing online for all of her classmates and family to see. Feeling down on herself and facing the scrutiny of her mother and everyone else in her life, Kylie takes a babysitting gig in an isolated mansion in the countryside to get away from her life for a night. But everything changes when a child wearing a pig mask shows up on the doorstep of the house, putting into motion a cat-and-mouse plot as she struggles to survive and save the children from a group of vicious intruders.
The film opens with a rather shocking sequence designed to break our heroine down right from the get-go, and to highlight the modern context where cyber-bullying is a very real part of teenage existence. While I respect the intention, I would have liked to see this theme explored in more depth throughout the rest of the film to justify the earlier scene, but things quickly shift gears into more standard horror territory once Kylie arrives at the secluded mansion – an absolutely gorgeous shooting location that is rich in texture and is put to excellent use over the course of the film. King does a great job of maintaining interest and carrying the film on her own, demonstrating a complete character transformation over the course of the film which feels believable in the context of the story, while her silent assailants provide an expected level of creepiness thanks to some very gruesome and well-designed masks. The lack of a discernible motive for their actions for much of the film serves to maintain a sense of mystery, while a revealing and violent final act helps to put things into perspective a bit, paving the way for an unexpected twist ending that opens up the scope of the story and sets up a sequel (which Cummings confirmed she has already begun developing).
In the end, Berkshire hits pretty much all of the beats that horror fans should expect for a film of this nature, offering a generous portion of nail-biting suspense and psychologically disturbing content despite failing to make a truly powerful impact or leave a lasting impression for genre fans. As it stands, it’s a serviceable effort that shows a great deal of promise for first-time director Cummings, who is now challenged with finding a bigger story to tell next time around.