The Alpines reels you in with a traditional horror setup: A group of old college friends gathers at a secluded lake house for a weekend reunion that grows grisly. Although it seems like a standard cabin-in-the-woods slasher flick from the outset, the film cleverly subverts expectations and explores terrors far more frightening than anything lurking in the forested setting.

The seven friends arrive at the house after receiving handwritten invitations. They soon discover that while each letter contains the exact same message, they’re all addressed from different members of the group — and no one claims to be the owner of the lakeside residence. Why none of this came up in phone calls or text messages prior to the trip requires some suspension of disbelief. However, it begins to make sense when we see that all of the characters are still caught up in the past.

Written by Mally Corrigan, who also stars as Logan, the film is irresistibly melodramatic — like a darker version of Dawson’s Creek. When the brooding twentysomethings stumble upon a sinister message written in blood on the cabin walls, they’re less worried about a potential killer among them than they are about the transgressions of their youth. The message says, “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Seven sinners, one is done.” This crew has plenty of seedy secrets — affairs, betrayals, drug habits, hidden resentments. A fireside game of Truth or Dare emerges as one of the film’s most intense and memorable scenes.

Like Unfriended, The Alpines uses horror trappings to force the characters into shedding light on their darkest shame. It’s the kind of horror movie whose most chilling scares come from the emotional stakes of everyday life — the fear of people who know your deepest flaws, the petty arguments that feel insurmountable, the secrets that slip through the cracks.

Aaron Latta-Morissette delivers a standout performance as Zach, the quiet third wheel of the group. Daniel Victor keeps you on your toes in the role of Roger, as he’s the loose cannon of the crew. Michael Taveira is equally unpredictable as Gil. Jessie Mac effectively inhabits Andy, the manic pixie dream girl, until her clearly dry-eyed crying jags in the third act. Niguel Quinn’s meltdowns as James are hard to buy as well, but his more understated moments work. Corrigan and Katrina Diehm share engaging mean girl energy as Logan and Rowan, respectively. They all truly seem like lifelong friends, and you can feel the weight of their history together.

Shot on a $10,000 budget largely in one location with seven actors and just three crew members over less than two weeks, The Alpines is quite an impressive feat of indie filmmaking — especially given the film’s sheen of professionalism. What’s more, it’s Corrigan’s first screenplay and Dante Aubain’s feature directorial debut.

Horror seems to be a popular starting point for filmmakers: Steven Spielberg made the big time with Jaws; John Carpenter broke through with 1978’s Halloween; David Fincher debuted with Alien 3 (yes, it’s horror); Nia DaCosta broke records this year with Candyman, which made her the first Black female director to debut atop the box-office chart. The Alpines stands as further proof that the horror genre moves audiences as much as any other, and it introduces us to innovative artists along the way.

The Alpines is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.

An in-person screening will be held at 5:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 15, at the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie.

Purchase tickets here