I have no idea why The Woods, which screened at Fantastic Fest, is being released directly to DVD this week with no theatrical run, apart from a few festivals. The latest film from director Lucky McKee (May) is not a groundbreaking or innovative horror film, but it contains many of the elements that make horror movies appealing: screaming schoolgirls, spooky forces of nature, stylish camerawork, a good sense of humor throughout ... and the presence of Bruce Campbell. Some of you might suspect that Campbell was one of the main reasons why I chose to see this movie, and you'd probably be right.
The Woods is what I would call a good solid standard horror film. Wimps like me will appreciate a lack of extended torture sequences, which seem to be gaining popularity in contemporary horror films. There's a little gore, especially near the end, but it's nothing that we squeamish types can't block with one hand briefly shielding our eyes.
The storyline is simple and fairly predictable: Heather (Agnes Bruckner), who's in trouble for setting fires around the family home, is sent to an all-girls' boarding school by her overbearing mom (Emma Campbell) and almost silent dad (Bruce Campbell). The headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), gives Heather the oddest scholarship test ever. Heather ends up becoming one of the picked-on girls in the school; blonde bully Samantha (Rachel Nichols) nicknames her "Firecrotch" and her only friend is shy Marcy (Lauren Birkell). But apart from the usual schoolgirl dynamics, Heather has to deal with other problems. Ms. Traverse has been giving her some disturbing private lessons. A student who tried to kill herself mysteriously vanishes. And the one time Heather tries to escape through the woods that surround the school, she's completely terrified by what she experiences. The Woods was obviously influenced by other stylish horror films, most noticeably Suspiria. At times, it seems like a cross between The Stepford Wives, Heathers, and the Harry Potter series. The movie is supposed to be set in 1965, but doesn't always seem faithful to the time period: the slang is all wrong, and schoolgirls in the Sixties would never have been able to get away with uniform skirts that short. (So many filmmakers who depict Catholic/private-school girls obviously never attended such a school themselves -- the rule is that if you kneel and your skirt doesn't touch the ground, it's much too short. But I digress.)
The film benefits from a capable group of well-cast actors and actresses. Lucky McKee was at the screening I attended, and said he'd gotten a kick out of casting Campbell, whom he called "the Cary Grant of horror movies," as a dorky, unattractive (well, sort of) dad. Patricia Clarkson manages to add some nuance to the usual headmistress character. Agnes Bruckner, as Heather, and Lauren Birkell as her friend Marcy stood out among the younger cast members. In addition, the music and sound design in The Woods was stellar. I loved the scenes in which Lesley Gore songs were blended with the girls' choir performances. Angela Bettis, the star of May, voiced the ethereal noises in the woods.
The climactic scene of the film is too confusing. Not only is the resolution weak, with elements that are never clearly explained (the backstory of the witches), but the big scene appears to be clumsily choreographed and edited. It was difficult to understand what was going on in what should have been a straightforward action scene. Too many people were running around in the dark and it took me a minute to sort out all the details. McKee noted that he shot about six hours of footage and edited it down, which might explain why the story seemed weak and full of holes at certain points. However, for the most part, The Woods maintains suspense and tension so well that the minor gaps don't affect the momentum of the overall story.
Sony's refusal to release The Woods in theaters makes little sense to me -- I've seen much weaker horror films do well at the box office. The situation is just about as lame as Fox's limited, promotion-free release of Idiocracy. Fortunately, the DVD will be available this Tuesday, Oct. 3, and you can gauge the film's quality and entertainment value for yourself.