Well, it’s here! Lucky McKee’s “The Woods” has finally arrived to the screen after years of legal wrangling, corporate bullshit, and production delays. It is McKee’s second theatrical release after his debut “May” and the reason why M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t allowed to use a cool name like The Woods as a title for his terrible terrible movie The Village. Just for that last one, McKee should get an honorary award of some kind.
Set in 1965, Woods’ protagonist is troubled teenager Heather Fasulo, who is sent by her mother to an all-girls boarding school after having set a fire to a tree in her parent’s yard. Once there she immediately falls into the sights of bully Samantha who charmingly dubs her “Firecrotch” because of her red hair and then proceeds to make Heather’s life hell as often as she can. However, there’s more to be afraid of at this school than mere taunting. These woods surrounding the place are crawling with a malicious presence that seems to be hunting the students, and it’s not just the woods that are poisoned by this darkness either. Heather is given a special scholarship by the school and we can kind of guess that they don’t desperately want the new girl to stay for her math skills.
Agnes Bruckner plays Heather as young woman whose insecurity runs so deep that her tough girl act is barely credible even to herself. When she first meets Marcy, another misfit, she pretends like she could care less, but is so starved for companionship and kindness that a deep friendship quickly builds between the two despite her initial reluctance. Of course, this is a horror movie and the idyll can’t last, alas. For Marcy is also a recipient of a special scholarship.
The Woods is more interested in mounting dread than cheap jump scenes. McKee is going for a Retro-Nouveau Realism where characters are imperfect, scared, fragile, not self-aware, impulsive and very human; a technique which works in the context of a horror movie because it helps create tension. I do think that the film could have done with a few more scares, but wasn’t overly bothered by the low-key proceedings.
Woods was filmed around Montreal and it shows. The scenery is both gorgeous and oppressive, which is a distinctive quality of our local forests. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti captures every color, texture and nuance of the surroundings making them seem perpetually surreal whether it’s dark or light.
One couldn’t write a review of this movie without pointing out that it features Bruce Campbell in a rare serious role playing Heather’s father Joe. I like how he fought every one of his natural instincts to act cool and allowed himself to be an ordinary geeky dad. Any Ash-like qualities that you may see in the role are the result of our own expectations and through no fault of his acting. Campbell even manages some degree of subtlety, which I never thought possible from him. The look he gives his wife after she yells at Heather, for example, shows us the family dynamic without him having to utter a word. He should follow up on this and explore further dramatic roles in the future.
However, if the film belongs to anyone, it’s Patricia Clarkson, who plays Mrs. Traverse, the school headmistress. Clarkson is so quiet in her speech and deliberate in her demeanor that she haunts rather than walks the halls of the school. The movie may be about Heather, but whenever Clarkson is onscreen you immediately focus on her.
The Woods, is an older-fashioned horror movie along the lines of The Changeling, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria or The Sentinel. It’s smart, creepy and stays with you for a long time.