The Woods (2006)
A Worthwhile Disaster
11 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"The Woods" is the long-awaited follow-up effort from director Lucky McKee, who caught critical attention with his modest but impressive 2002 teen shocker, "May". With an intermediate budget and slated for mainstream release for the past year or two, "The Woods" still hasn't shown up in theatres, and its Canadian premiere at Montreal's Fantasia 2006 leaves an unfortunate impression that it likely never will. It's an intriguing watch for the longtime horror fan, as a sincere American approximation of 70s style Italian giallos, but demands indulgence for just how bloody awful it truly is. Characterization is non-existent and the plot, which amazingly fails to explain any of its climactic events, appears to have lost its thread during scene-by-scene rewrites. The result isn't so much a tribute, but what looks like a frantic Plan B in the editing room, which imitates rather than captures the logic-be-damned nightmare flavour of vintage Bava and Argento.

The influence of Argento's "Suspiria" is evident to the point of plagiarism. The setting is an isolated boarding school for troubled girls, where young Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is sent, allegedly for pyromania, though the film never expands upon, nor utilizes this seemingly crucial character trait. Rebellious Heather is an instant magnet for all sorts of abuse, from both her snooty fellow pupils, and the creepy spinsters who staff the place. She attempts to run away, only to find that the surrounding woods are alive with supernatural menace, driving her right back to the school. This has something to do with a trio of 19th century witches, who got stoned to death or something, and are either haunting the place or hanging around as reincarnated teachers, though it's hard to tell. Meanwhile Heather befriends a couple other social rejects, who mysteriously vanish, and discovers that she has latent telekinetic powers (something else she puts to no future dramatic use.) These the faculty encourage her to develop, which she finds a tad suspicious. Is this why she's here, as a novice chosen for the teacher's blood coven? Or are they preparing her as a sacrifice to the forest demons? Don't even bother trying to figure it out, since she never gets around to it. The confusion merely intensifies when Heather's concerned father (Bruce Campbell) tries to spring her, and the FX budget kicks in, with animated ivy vines snaking all over the place and entangling cast members, for no apparent reason other than an in-jokey "Evil Dead" reference as Bruce dashes about in an axe-wielding frenzy. Never mind that everything up to this point has been dead serious and mostly low key Gothic, and Bruce with his gorestick comedy looks like he was parachuted in at the last minute. If the mess can't be tidied up, why not slop some cheap laughs on top of it?

One entertaining conceit is the film's 1965 setting, suggested with no great ear for retro dialog but little that's noticeably anachronistic. Period detail, meanwhile, is safely kept to a bare and economic minimum. This is made easy by its singular setting of an old converted mansion and its rustic surroundings, which necessitates the production rental of exactly three vintage automobiles. With all the younger cast members in a single change of outfit, between schoolgirl uniforms and prudish nightgowns (odd that there isn't a whiff of lesbianism in this), it's with the teachers that at least the hair and wardrobe departments get to have some fun, decking them out in ghastly exaggerations of 60s frump fashions and bouffant hairdos. The head mistress, in particular, has Joan Crawford's coiffed orangutan look from "Berserk", and as played by the usually brilliant Patricia Clarkson, she exudes poker-faced menace on a single mortified note, as if fulfilling her contract with a gun to her head. Real ingenuity is shown with the spare soundtrack, comprised of only three old hits by Lesley Gore, the perfect iconic choice for a film about mid-60s teenage girls. Rather than just playing in the background, the songs are blended with sound and visuals into the mood and action, especially "You Don't Own Me", which is emotionally merged, via intelligent montage, into an eerie operatic duet with the doomed soloist of the school choir.

This is one of several jarring stylistic flourishes -- another involves an inspired stereotype reversal of the school bully bitch -- that leads one to suspect that "The Woods" fell victim to militant studio tampering. If his compact and punchy earlier work, "May", is any indication, Lucky McKee knows how to construct a horror film, and he wouldn't have started with a script as sloppy incoherent as this one, accredited to his neophyte collaborator David Ross. As for Ross, unseasoned though he may have been, it's hard to believe he would've tossed in that pyromania and telekinesis, if he didn't have plans for his heroine to throw her weight around, rather than letting daddy-on-the-spot Bruce steal her thunder in that cult-pandering finale. Hotter heads prevailed on this one, probably penny pinching and running creative interference until precious little of the original vision remained. The film's a disaster, but a fascinating one, and let's hope the compromised talents blamed for it survive.
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