Judge Joel Pearce says a dash of Bruce Campbell is better than no Bruce Campbell at all.
Private School. Deadly Lessons.
On the surface, The Woods looks like yet another cheesy girls' school indie horror flick. If it wasn't for the presence of Patricia Clarkson and Bruce Campbell on the cover, there would be no indication of the quality that lies within.
Facts of the Case
After she burns down her parents' tree, Heather (Agnes Bruckner, Peaceful Warrior) is sent to Falburn Academy, a small but well respected boarding school. Heather is fortunate enough to get a scholarship from the school, but quickly finds that some very creepy things are going on at the Academy. While the headmistress, Ms. Travers (Patricia Clarkson, Good Night, and Good Luck seems nice on the surface, there is something unsettling about the whole teaching staff.
Perhaps it has something to do with the legend of witches that took over the school a century earlier. Either way, Heather is going to need to get to the bottom of the mystery soon because her classmates have begun disappearing, she is starting to hear voices from the woods, and the woods won't let her escape.
There is a lot to like in The Woods, but I want to lay down a few disclaimers first. Horror veterans will find few real twists in this film. By the end of the first twenty minutes, you will have everything worked out, and you will be right about all of it. There are also some plot holes scattered throughout, and it seems many of the young actresses weren't told that the film indeed takes place in 1965. The special effects are of the quality normally associated with indie horror, so don't expect to be blown away by them.
The shocking thing is how well the film works despite these weaknesses. The Woods plays like an old fashioned chiller that borrows elements from recent Asian schoolgirl horror films while leaning on mythology from old Dario Argento films. The result is a movie that doesn't live up to either Memento Mori's or Suspiria's standards, but successfully places itself within the cinematic traditions of both. It's better than most of the big budget studio horror films I've seen in the past few years, perhaps because it doesn't pander to a dumb teenage audience. Director Lucky McKee (May) doesn't simply rip off horror conventions, he clearly understands how they work.
The performances are also impressive for the most part. While Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead) doesn't put much enthusiasm into his limited screen time, he also doesn't upstage the main players. Patricia Clarkson deliciously underplays her role, realizing that often the creepiest thing to do is just sit there. Agnes Bruckner gives a fantastic performance here, one that carries the film and lowers the impact of some of the plot holes. We care about Heather enough that it doesn't matter why she's in danger and how it came about, we just want to see her make it through. In the end, I think that's all we can really ask of a horror movie.
Many of the reviews I've read of The Woods were from a pre-release screening before the special effects were finished. That cut had a lot of people complaining about the ending, which is driven by the special effects. Well, by the time this film hit DVD, the special effects were complete and don't look that bad. They are obviously fake, but once again we care about the characters enough that it doesn't matter. The special effects are also combined with very skillful editing, and McKee understands that what we don't see has sometimes has more impact.
I'm a little sad that The Woods got passed up for a theatrical release. While it isn't the next big thing in horror entertainment, it is a fine little movie, and far superior to most of the big budget teen horror I've seen over the past few years. It was orphaned by MGM a couple years ago, and Sony has been sitting on it since. They've finally decided to release it to DVD, albeit with a generic looking cover. Fortunately, the DVD has been well produced. Both widescreen and full frame transfers are crammed onto one disc, but there are few compression artifacts to be seen (at least in the widescreen version that I watched). Some of the sepia sequences show some digital blocking in the soft backgrounds, but it's hard to tell whether that's the print or the transfer. While the image is not quite perfect, the sound transfer is phenomenal. The Woods makes great use of every channel in a 5.1 setup, building up a truly impressive atmosphere. The dream sequences and the voices in Heather's head are particularly well done, but every scene is completely immersive. A good sound transfer is critical for horror films, and the quality here really adds to the impact of the film. Unfortunately, there are no special features.
The quality of The Woods is emphasized by the presence of the trailer for I'll Always Know What you Did Last Summer included on the disc. This film is not a typical direct-to-video horror film, and deserves at least a rental from horror fans. If only the horror movies in theaters were consistently this good. While this film should have had a theatrical showing, Sony has at least delivered it with a good transfer.
The Woods is only guilty of transcending its direct-to-video status.
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