Sunday, October 10, 2010

THE WOODS (2006) Movie Review

THE WOODS (2006)

the woods movie poster
Heather is a rebellious teen who has been brought to an isolated all-girls school deep within an old forest in an attempt for her to learn some control over herself. Heather is none too keen on the idea, and attempts to worm her way out of it, but to no avail. She meets the headmistress Ms. Traverse, befriends shy Marcy, and likewise becomes the object of torment by the school’s alpha student, Samantha. On her first night sleeping there, Heather has a horrific nightmare, as she has visions of the surrounding woods and begins to hear voices. And though no one will come out and say it, Heather feels an aura of the supernatural lingering around the school as days turn to weeks. When a student goes missing, and Heather learns of the legend of the school, she begins to suspect that there might be some truth behind it. As her intuitive nature leads her on, Heather comes to realize that school may in fact be run by a sisterhood of witches.

Lucky McKee follows up his 2002 sleeper horror hit MAY with this supernatural ode to witchcraft, sisterhood, and rebellion. However, as McKee’s film is drenched in European-styled slow-building suspense and filled with three-dimensional fleshed out characters, rather than the long haired ghosts and torture chambers, fans had to wait almost three years for his film to be quietly ushered onto DVD. It is quite a shame, as McKee’s film seems an attempt to bring back into the horror spotlight a more lyrical and dreamlike tempo which has been widely absent from modern American screens, and has more than a passing resemblance and paid respect to SUSPIRIA.

Throughout cinema's history and in storytelling reaching back into Shakespeare’s MacBeth and beyond, the woods and forests have always been a source of the unknown, of horrors untold, of mysteries waiting to unfold, of spooks and specters, witches and warlocks. In modern days, forests have housed unstoppable killers and unseen evil forces. McKee taps into this subconscious fear of the woods quite aptly here, sending his characters into the underbrush both in day and night, and allowing his camera to idle through the shadows and silhouettes of the treetops. The effect is both hauntingly calming and frightening. McKee even goes so far as to bring in Bruce Campbell in a supporting role, an actor who will always be synonymous with haunted forests, to ratchet up the viewer’s embedded terror of what lurks beyond the tree line.

David Ross, who makes his writing debut here, makes a stylistic choice to set his tale in 1965. This decision gives the film a unique twist on the story as it plays out. Given the year and the isolation of the school, the setting has a very natural and earthy feel to it. Technology is given very little screen time, and much of that is during Heather’s car ride in. The classrooms, and especially the dormitory, doesn’t look like they have been updated in the one-hundred plus years of the school’s operation, and give the setting more of a haunted castle aura than that of a learning institution. Second, is the dawn of rebellion that was blossoming in the mid-60’s youth, and the distrust for all authority. This subtext plays a crucial part of Heather’s being, and adds texture to her anti-authoritarian stance against both the teachers and her parents.

Ross also takes his time to give depth to his supporting cast. He keeps the horror and suspense subdued through most of the first hour, limiting it to a few nightmares of Heather’s, and a fantastically paced goosebump covered ghost story that one of the students tells as a way to explain what lies in wait in the woods and its connection to the history of the school. But when he unleashes the woods in the final act, they are more terrifying and lifelike than ever before seen. Though most of the gripping, thrashing, and constricting plant life is CGI, it is wonderfully brought to the screen and meshes with the physical set and actors, serving to enhance rather than distract. And when Heather finally gets a hold of an axe, it brings forth a quick and satisfying bloodletting that plays not only for shock, but as a logical conclusion to the story that is multiple layers thick.

Just as the extreme and graphic horror of the mid-2000s was a backlash against the watered-down “near beer” horror of the late 1990s, so too does it seem that character driven horror seems to be clawing at the throats of the James Wans and Eli Roths at the time of this film's release. And though THE WOODS did not get the widespread initial recognition it should have, perhaps it be looked back upon fondly as a forebearer of what was soon to come. Or it may just have to sit and wait patiently on the rental rack, waiting for the next unsuspecting soul to get too close, so that THE WOODS may grab its next victim.


Midnight on Twitter and Facebook